Issue #43, 2013

WHERE’S THE ATTITUDE? Notes from the 55th Venice Biennale
Corina Oprea

55th International Art Exhibition, Il Palazzo Enciclopedico, Venice Biennale, 1 June – 24 November 2013

How to write from the World Cup in art a.k.a. the competition of national pavilions on a biannual event, which – despite the fact that everyone represses the idea of national representation of art – grows with every year that passes? The number of pavilions this year amounts to 88. Of these, more than half are located outside the traditional Giardini area and spread around the Venice city. I can already reveal that I did not see them all, including Angola, first time represented in Venice and first African country to win the Golden Lion.

Though the idea of national representation is rather problematic, it also offers a challenging framework to twist and reflect upon. How does one relate to a certain locality, political representation, social and economical aspects? Even the whole event resembles to a circus with strange species coming down to the little Italian town in search for expensive art, cocktails and cheap smart talks. You can’t avoid the simple questions of the economics, mobility and politics of representation. The biennale offered this year in exchange to a regular professional pass, expensive cards which will give you, among other things, a room with a view on Grand Canal and a 20% discount on a work of art. Agents and gallerists wearing Prada were all around, travelling from far away for 3 days of preview in Venice. This commercialized engine enables and catalyzes the production and circulation of arts at the global level and Venice is right at its center.

Before going into the overview of some of the national pavilions, I would like to look at the other part of the biennale – the international exhibition, curated by Massimiliano Gioni. His Encyclopedic Palace, as the great model of the museum of humanity imagined in 1955 by Marino Auriti exposed at the entrance of the Arsenal, brings 158 artists from 37 countries.

From Auriti’s vision to build a huge museum supposed to host the universal culture, Gioni tried to make a biennale whose ambition is to summarize his own vision of the world through the work of artists who followed the same route. This resembles somehow Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s approach in curating Documenta, a vision of new-materialism transcending the art world, an imaginary museum that contains all the knowledge and the great discoveries of the human race, gathering works by artists, scientists and prophets.

Gioni professes in other words, to the romantic view of the artist as a medium and mediator of visions and passions, a possessed subject. The art asserts itself by being something different, a different world – and yet right in the world. Thus we find imaginary cosmologies, representations of the body and its organs, tantric paintings, drawings of Melanesian communities (collected by an anthropologist), voodoo banners, votive offerings from the sanctuary Romituzzo in Italy and the works by Ivorian Frédéric Bruly Bouabré on Bete culture.

In the prologue, The Red Book of Carl Gustav Jung, in which the founder of analytical psychology drew his dreams and mystical visions, sets the tone for the exhibition alongside with Rudolf Steiner’s educational chalkboards in the spirit of scientific diagrams, which inspired Joseph Beuys.

Historical figures inspired by the Theosophical occultists like Augustin Lesage, Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz rub shoulders here with young artists such as Japanese Shinichi Sawada, carving pikes figures in clay.

After the occult overture follows the Encyclopaedia’s more profane maze of autodidacts from the Russian Kozlovs pornographic fantasies in 1970s Leningrad to Z.mijewski’s film about blind people painting.

But who are these selected experts in the human experience? Looking at the list of artists is not hard to notice that the majority are male, born in the United States or Europe, from the generation of the 70’s. More than half were born in the USA, Italy, UK, Germany, France and Switzerland. The Encyclopedic Palace succeeds in mapping of what white, male, middle-aged artists are up to nowadays in the frame of the “universal culture“.

Two exceptions are worth mentioning: Tino Sehgal’s performance in which individuals of all ages hum, sing or beat box corresponding to strange and fascinating movements on the floor – it got biennial finest prize, the Golden Lion. Very strong was also the work by Sharon Hayes Ricerche: Three, a group interview with 36 young women at an all-women’s college in New England on democracy, equality and human rights.

All in all, the main exhibition The Encyclopedic Palace by Massimiliano Gioni remains a traditional and introverted mausoleum of past truths, and an outdated worldview, looking at art as a megalomaniac idea of the ability of the visual to explain everything.

As for the second part of the biennale, it is overwhelming the number of countries on display, 88 this year, with 12 making their first appearance: Angola, Bahamas, Bahrain, Coˆte d’Ivoire, United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Kuwait, Lebanon, Maldives, Paraguay, Tuvalu and the Holy See. It is a tricky situation of using national representation for an artistic cause, it is a marriage obviously interest based with foreign affairs gaining touristic recognition and artists getting a platform of show casing their works on a world stage. Sometimes national pavilions can become a project, which is unsure of its future, as the project by Chamber of Public Secrets – former co-curators of Manifesta, trying to bring up an ecological question taking the case of Maldives under their flag. The biennale becomes as such a media platform for social issues, or at least tries to.

France, Germany and the UK, always with long queues in front, cover the front of the large axis of the Giardini. In trying to challenge perhaps the national representation France and Germany exchanged pavilion on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty. They’ve exchanged house, not an artist.

Anri Sala, France’s representative showed the video installation Ravel Ravel Unravel exhibited in the German Pavilion and it was the pavilion, which was most queued for, making it as precious as probably the budget that was used to bring two orchestras inside the pavilion in preparation for the installation.

The staging is extraordinary. Sala created a scenography in which images and sounds mingled, a terrific and poetic work from this artist with a violinist training, for whom music is inseparable from his work.

Anri Sala has chosen to base his installation on the work of Maurice Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, composed in 1930 at the request of Paul Wittgenstein, an Austrian pianist who lost his right hand during the First World War. Then he invited two musicians to interpret same piece with slightly different tempos, and filmed their hands touching the keyboard. These videos are shown on two giant screens placed one above the other. The sounds follow the images, sometimes overlaid, sometimes echoed in a subtle shift, to fold again, similar and dissimilar at the same time, “as identical twins“, says Christine Macel, curator of the exhibition. In an adjacent room, there is another video of a DJ mixing the two interpretations of the famous concerto. Ravel/Unravel, in English words means “mix“, “tease“. The echo-proof architecture creates a time-less space, an infinite instant, overwhelmed with emotion.

Germany, with works by Ai Weiwei, Santu Mofokeng, Romuald Karmakar and Dayanita Singh in the French pavilion, was a sad experience, with a somewhat romantic and predictable forefinger lifting to the idea of the nation-state and ethnocentrism. To put in the pavilion curator’s words – “a beautiful exhibition not about what we are and where we are from“. It is wrong to deny origin and context, this is the failure of multiculturalism and here we are again doing it through a collage of artworks and personal identities.

Between the two pavilions is Great Britain, who made headlines even before it opened, as Jeremy Deller was planning to display a banner reading “Prince Harry Kills Me“, which was taken down. Deller’s contribution is an example that you do not need to swap pavilions or write “Deutscher Pavillon“ with inverted letters to take hold of the nation-state concept in a critical way. You can also just call it “English Magic“ and do it from the top down in a cool expression of “the UK“, displaying Stone Age hand axes (dated 250,000– 400,000 years before our era), original works of William Morris, photographs from David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust Tour in 1972 and a complete tea room. It was a fine criticism – Bowie’s tour took place simultaneously with the riots in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, where British soldiers shot 26 civilians and Stardust Tour became a symbol and an alternative for a young generation growing up in the midst of an oil crisis with many social and political problems. English Jeremy Deller succeeds with his nation skeptical grasp. He unites with integrity playfulness and conservative ideological attitude. He lets the Arts and Crafts icon and national hero William Morris resurrected as an angry giant to fight against corrupt capitalists lifting and throwing Abramovich’s sun blocking yacht which was parked in Venice for the previous biennale and he puts David Bowie’s queer alter ego Ziggy Stardust in shiny jumpsuit beside Northern Irish soldiers, The Beatles, Prince Harry, his Range Rover and five o’clock tea in one large English amusement park on fast forward.

The political is noticeably present at this year’s biennial. E.g. in the Greek pavilion, where Stefanos Tsivopoulos confronts the country’s acute economic situation in a movie where desperate poverty meets absurd appropriations and abundant luxury, alongside a showcase of how alternative currencies historically have been used successfully worldwide. We see three videos in three different rooms, three pieces of the same story. People who dig through garbage, a very rich man and a woman on the phone that makes origami with 500 euro notes. This woman gets tired pretty quickly and throws the origami in the trash, which made ​​the fortune of others. There is a naivety in the approach but also a certain refinement of the ingenuous political revolt no longer in fashion.

Petrit Halilaj presents in the pavilion of Kosovo – at its first official participation at the biennale (after the virtual e-flux supported project by Albert Heta). Halilaj creates a fantasy world inside a tree, where through small holes we get a glimpse of objects arranged in a theatrical manner – a yellow dress and two living canaries. Between absence and presence, a state of estrangement, imaginary or lost memory, a shelter from reality.

Photographer and video artist Akram Zaatari portrays the poetry of human resistance with a research and documentary work on an Israeli pilot who refused to bomb the small city of Saida, in South Lebanon. The tenderness of failure strikes in the archive of unexploded bombs in the Hungarian pavilion by Zsolt Asztalos, making the political becoming personal. In the Danish pavilion one enters through a window, wonders through torn down walls, watching large screenings of black and white videos following the story of a black man in a deserted Europe. The video is beautifully transposed in the architecture of the space and leaves the viewer with a sense of emptiness getting out through the workshop/back door.

At a human, intimate level, Japan strikes with a poignant response to a specific social condition. Referring to the earthquake of 2011, Koki Tanaka filmed collective actions such as playing the piano in five or shape together a clay pot. The response comes from a genuine position of having to deal from afar (Tokyo being at a distance for example from Fukushima) but still taking the responsibility of a nation internalizing and sending a message to the world. What is the lesson from surviving catastrophes? For Tanaka it is the collective exercise, it is the attempt towards solidarity, under the name of “precarious tasks“. Merituously, they received a mention from this year’s jury.

There was a lot to meditate about in front of the work created by Chilean Alfredo Jaar as a tribute to the obsolete geo-political order of the biennale where the architecture of Giardini leaves out all African countries, for example – an unfortunate match even for the Encyclopedic Palace of this year, where only 4 artists out of nearly 200 are of African origin. Venezia, Venezia is a call for shifting the perspective, for breaking the norm, for washing off a patriarchal and colonial view on culture. The installation consisted in a large pool from which emerged at regular intervals, a model representing all historical pavilions in the Giardini.

If Jaar invites to rethink the Venice Biennial model, Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmuș in the Romanian pavilion take a leap into the history of the biennale and the artworks that marked it. An Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale is a pursuit in reclaiming some pieces of the biennale’s 118 years of history with a completely empty pavilion in which five performers – no props and only using their bodies – “reenact“ works exhibited at the biennale throughout its history. From 1928 Marc Chagall’s painting Rabi to more abstract and non-figurative works such as Ernesto Neto’s installation The Animal from 2001, Warhol, Munch, Mona Hatoum up to 107 works in one day. The format is the one of an exhibition, a display of bodies activated by memory, in a repetition, which grants to this intimate gesture a bold, public magnificence. Five bodies recreate and claim art history by adding to our existing memory a new level of imaginary. It is intriguing to see that such a low key and subtle gesture with a surprising humorous potential is drawing on a wealth of camouflaged positions towards the economical, social and political aspects of such a grand event as Venice Biennale is. Evoking the absence of the art object itself, we are left to reconcile with the substitute, the trace of the works are materialized (challenging here the very notion of “immateriality“ from the title) simultaneously with the removal from the historic encounter.

An exhibition remake or a reconstruction? Drawing on the “re-enactment“ act, the Prada Foundation in Venice, apart from the biennale itself, tried to reconstruct one of the most important exhibitions in the history of art, Live in Your Head, designed in 1969 at the Kunsthalle in Bern, Switzerland, by the curator Harald Szeemann, better known through its subtitle manifesto, When Attitudes Become Form. The exhibition marked the decisive beginning of contemporary art in a complete break with traditional conceptions of art. Bringing together unfinished works where the process overshadows the finish, sculptures without pedestals, conceptual procedures, performance practices, Italian Arte Povera, the exhibition brought in the Kunsthalle new artistic avant-garde of the late 60s, while in the city of Berne having Daniel Buren performing a series of wild postings. When Attitudes Become Form has also become the point of emergence of the curator, as a kind of visionary leader who offers his concept of art.

Architect Rem Koolhaas worked with critic Germano Celant on a transposition of the floor plan of the Kunsthalle Bern from 1969 to the Venitian Palazzo. The visitor is confronted with works originally exhibited, now scattered in many museums. Their location on the ground or on walls is as close as possible to the initial exposure. Some parts were, inevitably, redone for the exhibition, as the square wall cut in situ by Lawrence Weiner. When the original works have disappeared, there was a marked space on the ground tracking their absence. In passing, we note how the hanging was dense and the space tight, almost inaccessible.

This exhibition was setting an end to the trilogy studio-gallery-museum. Here the attitude of the artist was at the forefront, doing his work on site. A film screened in Venice shows Joseph Beuys filling the corners of a room with margarine while singing, “Ja-Nee“. Placing the emphasis on the idea or the attitude of the artist rather than the object, this exhibition challenged at its time, the very idea of ​​a museum and gallery.

The pitfall of this “faithful“ adaptation is to highlight the fetishism lurking around this already cult exhibition. The format of the exhibition and its display are treated as a “ready-made“, the curatorial and architectural statement tending to fall into the line of the replica, of the reconstruction, rather than imposing a perspective over the parallel context 1969–2013 and to question certain curatorial and artistic decisions and consequences.

However, the act of reminding us of Szeemann’s point of view and intention in cutting through an aesthetic landscape at the time does break in this 55th Biennale, which, ideologically, is built on the idea of showing masterpieces with aesthetic and cognitive values inscribed in an anthropological context, missing the boldness, the intention, the subtle and same time radicalism of the now.