After a week of racing through both the official and collateral events in Venice, it is hard not to notice the proliferation ofÂ events organized by galleries, corporations or other commercial entities. There are palaces, storefronts and warehouses all over town devoted to one artist or groupÂ shows, some of which are pretty good, others are simply designed as commercial ventures and could easily be skipped. The main pavilions and the Arsenale are their usual mixture of memorable and not so memorable installations. The overall title of the Biennale this time is IllumiNATIONS, which the organizers say has to do with artists searching for light. However, to me the Pavilions and collateral exhibitions have more to do with degradation, desperation, dissolution and despair. We are everywhere confronted with uncomfortable truths we donâ€™t really want to see, and sometimes that makes for pretty good art.Â It is impossible to write about everything that I saw and liked, so here are a few highlights.
When they are activated by the gymnasts, who wear US Olympic team uniforms, Â theÂ sculptures make sense, but without themÂ theÂ spaceÂ feels rather dead. For this reason I am glad that the IMA raised enough money to continue regular performances through the run of the Biennale.
Another worthy effort is the Japanese pavilion. The young artist Tabaimo has created an entire animated world with a beautifully crafted video installation. It starts out with a cityscape that is gradually invaded by enormous mushrooms, flowers, fingertips and other organic materials that move in and out of the drawings. The entire effect is dramatized by mirrored walls and an opening in the center that shows us the sky, providing us with the realization that we are trapped in an upside down well. The experience is hallucinogenic and hypnotic. I donâ€™t really understand what she is trying to say, but her mixture of anime, video, drawing and architectureÂ is quite compelling.
Mike Nelsonâ€™s British Pavilion takes us into another dystopia. This one is full of dusty, abandoned spaces, warrens of cast-off machinery, darkrooms hung with fading photographs, staircases leading to tiny rooms with ceilings so low one has to bend to walk through them into another similar space. It is no surprise that the lines to get in are blocks longâ€”but what does one come away with? I am not sure.
And in this same vein,Â Thomas Hirschhorn has transformed Switzerlandâ€™s pavilion into a terrifying maze of tin foil, PVC pipes, plastic-wrapped objects and low walls topped with broken bottles. Not my favorite of the offerings, but my discomfort with the installation must have been something the artist intended. He certainly lets us know that our commercialism is doomed and dangerous.
Christoph Schlingensief died before he could organize an exhibition for the German pavilion, but the curators decided to go ahead and make something using documentation and parts of earlier installations. The result won the Goldon Lion, and is a retrospective of his fluxus-inspired work within a church environment that Schlingensief created for another piece. The audience sits on pews surrounded by films of a rabbit being consumed by maggots, several clips showing the advance of a patientâ€™s (the artistâ€™s) lung cancer, and various other objects and projects from different stages of his life. The result is a moving pastiche of sound, film and setting that requires one to consider life, death, and decay. It is too bad we will never know what he would have done himself.
And then there is the puzzle of Poland. Â Called â€œâ€¦and Europe will be stunnedâ€ Israeli artist Yael Bartana has created three interrelated videos about a movement calling for the return of Jews to Poland. On the surface, all seems reasonable. We see a political organizer addressing a stadium of supporters giving an impassioned speech. His purpose is to repatriate the 3 million Jews lost from the country during and after WWII. He tells us Poland needs them to have a vibrant, diverse, living culture. Â The speaker has all the trappings of a charismatic leader, he pleads for sanity, he tells us that Poland misses the Jews, and that forty million Poles need Jews to enrich their culture. The video is straight propaganda and right out of the 700 Club or even Nazi Germany. One is moved by the idea of a newly diverse Poland, the idea of Poland perhaps welcoming Jews back in order to heal wounds from the past, even if the whole idea seems rather preposterous and creepy. And, one wonders, what is the message about Israeli culture embedded in this little film? How diverse is Israel these days? And, as expected, the second video unveils sinister underpinnings of the plan. In this video, Polish youth are building a settlement for the newly repatriated Jews. The settlement is tiny, its walls are high with no windows. The tops of the walls are ringed with barbed wire, and a watchtower is erected to guard the occupants, who wear armbands with the movement logo. A sign on the gate says Kibbutz. One is not certain whether theÂ JewsÂ are being protected or threatened.Â Another snippet shows settlers being re-educated to Polish language and culture. What has happened, we wonder, to the idea of diversity? Â We also wonder whether this is a comment on Israeli settlements in the occupied lands and its re-education of those who make â€œaliaâ€ as much as it is about Polandâ€™s anti-Semitism.Â
In the third video the movementâ€™s leader has been assassinated and we are at his funeral. An enormous (and horribly ugly, glasses and all) statue has been erected in his honor. Important speakers are invited to talk about his vision and life.Â Several are Israelis who dismiss the movement out of hand, and movement youth praise him and vow to carry on the mission without him.Â As we leave, visitors to the pavilion are invited to join the movement and are given numbered cards that carry its logo.Â What are we joining? What does it mean? All in all it is one of the most powerful works of art in the Biennale. It is complicated, layered, international, political and well-crafted. And in addition to that, I am still thinking about it, puzzling it out, mulling it over, and I find that the more I learn about it the better I like it.
There is a lot of water in this Biennale. In the Greek pavilion, we walk over a pond across a wooden platform. In the Venice pavilion Fabrizio Plessi has created a line of upright boats in a dark semi circular room, each with a waterfall video. The Israeli pavilion is a water purification plant by artist Sigalit Landou. The machinery winds through the space with pipes vibrating and groaning from the pressure. In addition to the
pipes, there is a video of three naked women moving in and out of the ocean, scratching lines in the sand before they jump back into the waves. This is playful but also a bit ominous, reminding us that the economy of the entire country rests on its ability to de-salinate water and control whatever fresh water it can for the use of its population.Â Â
The International pavilion, curated by Bice Curiger, includes 83 artists and groups. There is a lot to see but it doesn’t all work together.Â Highlights for me were the Cindy Sherman room, the Nathaniel Mellors videos and sculptures, the David Goldblatt photography, the Omar Fast video and of course, the Tintorettos at the entrance.
Off site, pavilions that were particularly striking to me were the Bangladesh pavilion, theÂ Luxembourg pavilion and the Zimbabwe pavilion. The Iraqi pavilionÂ is called Wounded Water and features 6 artist’s interpretations of water, with haunting images of families and villages destroyed by war along with a hilarious, yet strangely moving video by Adel Abdin called “Consumption of War” that shows two men dressed in business suits battling with florescent lights, making jeddi warrior sounds as they swing their weapons.
Venice in Venice was a lot of fun, especially the light works of Laddie John Dill installed in the rough brick basement spaces. Artist Chiharu Shiota, represented byÂ Haunch of Venison has an installation called “Memory of Books”on Via Garabaldi which is beautifully installed and the Tim Davies exhibition is too large but worth a quick visit if you are in the neighborhood to see Iraq and Bangladesh.
by Jan Rothschild
Next installment will cover the Arsenale and other off site exhibitions of note.