Venice Biennale 2011 Showcases Global Sampling of Contemporary Art

Wendy Steiner
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Urs Fischer, Statue of Rudolf Stingel (2011). Part of 3-sculpture, 'Untitled' series

The tone of the 2011 Venice Biennale seems different from Biennales past. The political bludgeoning of the viewer is milder this year, and the curatorial mystification less extreme. A lot of thinking out loud is in evidence instead, as if the Biennale were puzzling over the proposition of a world exposition of contemporary art in the year 2011 and forcing visitors to ponder their role in attending one.

The three sculptures in Urs Fischer’s Untitled (2011) are not reassuring on this score. Soaring dozens of meters into the air is a full-size wax replica of Giambologna’s, Rape of the Sabine Women (1583), (below). A male waxwork in sport jacket and glasses regards the statue from across the gallery, and to the side is an empty office chair—also in wax—in which the man (or perhaps Fischer) might work when he is not visiting art fairs. The artwork, viewer, and chair are not just uncannily convincing replicas; they are candles. Each has a wick that was lit during the opening of the Biennale, and ever since, the three have been dripping, oozing, sagging, and dropping appendages. By and by, artwork, viewer, and “workaday world” will end up ignominious puddles on the Arsenale floor, consumed by time, necessity, and the perversity of Biennales. fine arts magazine

Urs Fischer,detail, Rape of the Sabine Women (2011). Part of 3-sculpture, 'Untitled' series

Though it might be some comfort to think of us all in this together, artworks and audience alike, the Biennale is not about reassurance. Confusion and questioning are its imperatives and the maze is its unannounced symbol. As ever, the official sites of the Giardini and Arsenale are exhausting warrens of art, with off-site shows hidden away all over Venice. On San Giorgio Island, a full-blown labyrinth has opened in honor of Jorge Luis Borges, and adjacent is the exhibition, Penelope’s Labour: Weaving Words and Images, a truly memorable exploration of the mathematical intricacies of weaving. In Dorsoduro, the idea of the tapestry labyrinth becomes political in Flying Carpets, by the Tunisian artist, Nadia Kaabi-Linke. Its suspended wires and crossbeams evoke both a loom and the carpets woven on it, but suggest as well a web and the jointed legs of a spider, and ultimately, the bars of a jail cell. The hanging metal casts a maze of shadows over the viewer, making the flying carpets of art and the steel trap of state oppression impossible to distinguish.

Penelope Grayson: Weaving Words and Images

Viewers may seek relief from the incessant tangles and conundrums in a roomful of soft couches in the Arsenale, where they can sprawl out and watch a film. But do not be fooled: there is no such thing as a Biennale couch potato. It takes twenty-four hours to watch this movie, Christian Marclay’s video The Clock, and the viewer does so in a state of Trivial Pursuits alertness. The Clock, shown earlier this year in New York, is composed of thousands of clips from the history of film, each with a timepiece registering a successive minute of the day, sometimes several clips for a single minute. Since directors typically cut in clocks at times of high tension, each clip is a Lessing-esque “pregnant moment,” like Keats’s “still unravish’d bride of quietness”: an arrested instant which, for those in the know, brings the rest of the movie flooding back. Or it would do if the next clip were not already demanding attention, and then the next, and the next.

Marclay strings together twenty-four hours of these ticking time bombs, denying viewers rest or resolution, though providing a lot of movie-buff delight. The guessing and marveling never let up. Who knew there were so many clock shots in the movies, and where is that one from—and that one? The final wonderment is that the readings on the clocks are precisely the same as the ones on our watches. In this respect, The Clock is a model of neo-classical decorum: the time of the spectacle and the audience’s time are one. We are back at Fischer’s candles, our fate merged with that of the art we gaze on.

Nadia Kaabi Linke, Flying Carpet

Time and the viewer: it is a challenging relationship. All over the Biennale, dark screening rooms beckon. The video art this year is virtuosic: works on the order of Bill Viola’s or Pipilotti Rist’s are no longer exceptions. Indeed, one begins to wonder whether the days of painting, photography, and sculpture are numbered. I stick my head in at Anton Ginzburg’s At the Back of the North Wind in the Palazzo Bollani and emerge reluctantly forty-five minutes later. I would happily have gone on staring at these time-kissed panoramas of Russia indefinitely, except that the Biennale contains thousands of other works. It is a quandary: you can either slight the videos and see the Biennale, or slight the Biennale and see the videos. Unless you take up residence in Venice till November when the Biennale ends, you cannot do both, and so the matter of comprehensiveness joins the others on the docket: does a world exhibition of contemporary art on this scale make sense in an age of video?

Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010 (video)

Nick Relph’s Thre Stryppis Quhite Upon ane Blak Field is a case in point. Ostensibly, it is a bio-pic about the abstractionist Ellsworth Kelly, but this bewildering three-channel video, watched long enough, transforms art commentary into an art form. Exploring the “sources and analogues” of Kelly’s painting, Relph superimposes Kelly’s color planes over footage of tartan weaving mills, Comme des Garçons catwalks, avant-garde choreography, ethnographic spinning, and historical events of all sorts. He also cuts in interviews about Kelly with prominent curators, such as Rob Storr, Ann Tempkin, and the late Anne d’Harnoncourt. The color filters overlap the video material in ever-changing permutations, evoking more complex associations for Kelly’s work than discursive criticism could ever achieve. Taking it in requires a lot of viewing time.

Anton Ginzburg, At the Back of the North Wind

But equally perplexing are the questions about nationalism running through every aspect of the Biennale. This year’s title, ILLUMInation, projects a dim view of the subject in its slighting lower case. Here the Biennale interrogates its own past, for like other world fairs, it has always been organized according to countries. Since 1907, pavilions began dotting the grounds of the Giardini, permanent structures that are built, owned, and curated by foreign governments as proof of their nations’ cultural status on the world stage. Countries that do not own pavilions compete for space in the sprawling Arsenale or in palazzos, churches, galleries, and warehouses all over Venice. According to the 2011 Biennale curator, Bice Curiger, more countries than ever are entering exhibits and plans for new permanent pavilions are rising. She notes the Chinese people’s pride in their new pavilion (and hopes for “happy news” concerning Ai Weiwei); she regrets the absence of an Egyptian exhibit (and hails the developments that stood in the way). The cheering-on of nations is still official Biennale policy.

Nevertheless, ILLUMInation relegates nationalism to the shadows. Of the fifty-four Biennales to date, the last seven have included an autonomously curated international exhibition, and for Ms. Curiger, this is the future. She conceives of artists and viewers alike as “cultural tourists,” pursuing values exceeding political borders or national ideologies. To offset the official pavilions, she has commissioned “para-pavilions”: nonce structures designed by one artist to exhibit work by an artist from a different country. She has also encouraged collective shows that ignore citizenship, such as the Arab world’s The Future of a Promise (which includes Kaabi-Linke’s Flying Carpets). Norway has forgone a national exhibition altogether to sponsor an off-site lecture series with a slate of international theorists. And fittingly, 2011 is the first year the Roma are in the Biennale, their video installation documenting the injustices they have suffered at the hands of national governments.

Nick Relph, Thre Stryppis Quhite Upon ane Blak Field (video)

But the Polish pavilion delivers up the final coup de grace. The Poles are represented for the first time by a non-Polish artist: the Israeli, Yael Bartana. Her video trilogy, “…and Europe will be stunned,” documents the rise of the fictitious Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMiP). Its goal is to settle three million Jews in Poland in order to make Polish identity whole again. Visitors to the Polish pavilion receive JRMiP membership cards and tote bags, and place their names on invitation lists for an international congress to be held in the coming year. Then they sit down to watch Bartana’s hour of videos documenting the history of the JRMiP.

The first video presents the messianic founder of the movement, a non-Jewish Pole who stands in a ruined Nazi stadium before a handful of youth-brigade followers. Without the Jews, he thunders into a megaphone among the weeds and rubble, Poland has no identity. Poland must regain its Jews if it is ever to be healed. The rosy-cheeked pioneers cheer and wave, their red neckerchiefs quivering in the breeze, their knees dimpling under their khaki shorts.

Venice Giardini, site of many national Biennale pavilions

By the second video, the movement has made great strides. Heroic Jewish settlers are planting crops and taking their well-earned rest in sun-splashed Polish fields. Straining on stout cables, the muscular youths and eager maidens of the JRMiP raise roof beams that echo the Star of David that frames the Polish eagle on the JRMiP flag.

But tragedy strikes in the final video. The charismatic leader of the movement, suddenly deceased, is lying in state in a mausoleum. Outside, a memorial rally is in progress, with distinguished speakers addressing the multitudes. Jews being Jews, however, there are as many viewpoints as there are speakers, and each is more eloquent than the last. The leader’s widow reiterates her husband’s dream of a Jewish Renaissance in Poland, and youthful followers decry the nationalist chauvinism that led to Poland’s loss of a Jewish Other. A Holocaust survivor living in Israel supports the restitution of her family’s Polish property, but bristles at the thought of living on it. A Jewish art historian sporting an Islamic scarf discourses on Enlightenment internationalism, and an old-style Zionist insists that the only safe dwelling place for Jews is the nation state of Israel. The vast crowd cheers and waves regardless.

Yael Bartena,'...and Europe will be stunned.' Trilogy (video)

The rhetoric of the speakers is so moving and the crowd so responsive that it takes a while to register the differences in what is being said, and at times one can hardly believe one’s ears. Hearing Holocaust anti-Semitism passionately denounced, or universal human rights championed in this absurdist context, is almost unbearable. The parody is so dense and directed so even-handedly that we are left with nowhere to stand, all ideological ideals combusting. The coinage “Zirony” comes to mind; it is no accident that an Israeli artist has made these videos. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that Poland—or at least the Polish pavilion—has indeed repatriated its absent Jew in the person of Bartana (who lives, however, in Berlin).

Above, left: Though JRMiP does not exist, Bartana has designed its manifesto and logo: a blood-red Polish Eagle combined with a Magen David. Blurring the lines between fact and fiction further, membership cards and tote bags are available.

Yael Bartena,'...and Europe will be stunned.' Trilogy (video)

As one staggers out of the Polish pavilion, the International exhibition offers a perplexity that may be the undoing of the entire enterprise. Venice Biennales are programmatically devoted to contemporary art, but this year the headline artist is the sixteenth-century Tintoretto. Three of his immense canvases have been lifted from the church of San Giorgio and installed in the entrance gallery of the International Pavilion. Bice Curiger wanted them there, she says, because she was tired of Biennales that seem like spaceships landed in the middle of nowhere. Contemporary art springs from earlier art, she insists, and Tintoretto is an experimental, anti-classicist artist who speaks directly to the present.

Perhaps he does, but we must strain to hear him over the army of security guards blocking the view and shrieking threats when visitors so much as finger their cameras. Photography is not prohibited elsewhere in the Biennale, but then Tintorettos are not there either. Evidently the guards have not been informed of the conversation in progress between the past and present, or more likely, they see how lopsided an exchange it is. It takes only three Tintorettos to turn the whole Biennale into “everything else.” It is not that contemporary art cannot measure up to that of the Renaissance. (Even if you thought so, would Tintoretto be the standard to apply?) Rather, the Tintorettos remind us of the staggering context that surrounds the Biennale. Venice is tough competition for a contemporary art show.

The Grand Canal, Venice

If the Biennale is a contemplation of history, spectatorship and cosmopolitan complexity, Venice forces us to experience these imponderables head-on. Visitors divide their time between marveling and getting lost; after a while, the two seem much the same. This is life as bewildered, bemused, and thoroughly beguiled connoisseurship. Have I mentioned the color of the water in the lagoon—the purest aquamarine; or the holes in the cloud formations, clearly left there so baroque angels can peer down; or the sheer ecstasy of fig marscapone gelato? At the end of the day, who would not trade the wax puddles on the floor of the Arsenale for the delicious perplexities of Venice?

By Wendy Steiner, Contributing Writer

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