Thursday, 8 October 2009

Venice Biennale II The Giardini

Traditionally, the main site for the Venice Biennale is the Biennale Gardens, which are near the end of the Riva degli Schiavoni. Walking along the Riva one often passes huge yachts and we imagine they are moored there for the art exhibition.

Each of about 27 countries has its own designated pavilion in the gardens. The Italian Pavilion is by far the largest, but for years it has been one of the two sites for the curated exhibition, not for Italian art. This year the Italians finally got their own exhibition space again, in the Arsenale, the other large site for the curated show. It's a very large space, with very large art, but that's for a later discussion.

This year we began the Giardini national pavilions with Spain and I was surprised that I liked the paintings of Miguel Barcelo there so much. They are large, dramatically textured abstractions or images of gorillas, generally with limited color. Normally I would scoff at them as very traditional but they were fascinating.

Barcelo used his space to show the work of another painter, whose work he had discovered in Africa, Francois Augieres, from Perigueux, in one small gallery. I didn't think much of the rather primitive painting then, but the two I photographed look quite provocative now.
In the Belgium Pavilion, Jef Geys had a multilingual installation that took a while to understand. I have no pictures, probably because they didn't permit it. He showed maps of several cities and drawings and photographs of weeds that are found growing in those cities. Then he provided information about the medicinal or nutritional qualities of the weeds, suggesting that the weeds are actually very useful plants, that might make a difference, especially  in areas of poverty. The combination of botanical illustration, maps, long texts, and sociological/medicinal uses made this installation surpisingly touching. For an excellent detailed description, see

Usually we finish what I think of as the "major" pavilions, then cross a small canal to a second group of pavilions that always have seemed less interesting. But this could be because we're pretty hot and tired by the time we get there, so we started with those. And we found several very good displays. There's a Venice pavilion, which this year finally did a show of glass objects, including a Dale Chihuly garden that I found really not his best but Tom liked more than most. Other international glass artists who have worked at Murano were on view there as well.
Zoran Todorovic and Katarina Zdjelar at the Serbian Pavilian presented very different works. Todorovic collected two tons of hair from salons and army barbers and made it into felt pads/blankets that were available for sale, in an installation he titled "Warmth." They had an unpleasant distinct odor and we couldn't stay long in the pavilion, but I stayed long enough to be fascinated with Zdjelar's videos of people saying whatever words of Russian they could remember from their time of occupation.

The Egyptian Pavilian included Ahmad Askalany's woven straw figures, some of them romantically elongated and gracefully posed in iconic groupings and others making the space feel a bit like a comfortable bazaar. The combination of the two types and a kind of freedom to use traditional materials and styles made the experience refreshing.
Poland's Krzysztof Wodiczko made a very innovative and powerful video that gave me the sense that I was evesdropping on people who were expressing their feelings about being immigrants in an unfamiliar, or growing familiar, place. Creating arches that seemed to be covered with frosted glass, he presented people moving in everyday situations who could only dimly be seen, but they could be heard through earphones available on the wall.

Of three artists in the Romanian Pavilion, I remember Stefan Constantinescu, whose video of a man talking on his cell phone on a bus, repeatedly and increasingly violently threatening to kill his girl friend, while the other passengers ignore him. It was very upsetting.

Luis Braga offered photographs and Delson Uchoa showed paintings from Northeastern Brazil that were similarly intensely colored. The paintings are abstract, almost like weavings, but very heavily painted with wonderful viscous textures, which turns out to be the result of fusing acrylic sheets to the surface.  I couldn't figure out the photographs, but one of people's hanging clothing seen through the windows of a boat, was quite beautiful. I see now that his photographs all depict scenes on the Amazon.

Lucas Samaras represented Greece and the reprisal of some of his earlier self images redone with his present self was interesting if you remember Samaras. Tom was bored. Also, the substantial video section was out of order in July.

Back in the main gardens, I loved that Roman Ondak had landscaped the Czech and Slovak Pavilion, just walls and a facade and a skylight and a garden inside them. When you walk into the pavilion, you think you're still outside in the Giardini and it takes a minute to realize that the artist has continued the outside experience into and through the space.
Despite the previews we had read that this Biennale wasn't as exciting as usual - something I think they say every year about every biennial exhibition - we were very interested in seeing the Nordic and Denmark Pavilions, where Elmgreen & Dragset had supposedly created fictive collectors' homes, complete with "for sale" sign and body floating the the swimming pool outside. I was never sure from the press information if the art works on view in the "houses" were really by actual artists or constructions of the kind of stuff collectors buy. And I still couldn't tell in the pavilions themselves. For something I had anticipated to be a take off on collecting, it was neither pungent nor inspiring nor funny. I recalled with nostalgia the 2007 installation at the Nordic Pavilion, Adel Abidin's "Welcome to Baghdad," a painfully wicked parody of a travel agency promotion for a war zone. (One of the things that happens when you attend the Biennale many times is that you remember the best things or the worst things you've seen in most of the pavilions.) Anyway, the Elmgreen & Dragset congolmeration left me puzzled, except for a particularly painful installation in the dining room of the Danish Pavilion house. On the wall were expensively framed signs collected from homeless and hungry people asking for food or help, "found art" that seemed a complete indictment of contemporary collecting and conceptual art making.

The sign to the right says, "55 years / house, work and pension / I don't have any of these / Please help me to live/Thank you /Rome"
  At the Finland Pavilion Jussi Kivi apparently decided to exhibit his extensive collection of Fire and Rescue materials, perhaps of interest to those engaged in that field of work or collecting, but puzzling to us. The German Pavilion had the much-discussed work of Liam Gillick, a British artist who decided to replicate, in a non-functional way, the cabinet work in his kitchen, with an anamatronic cat sitting on one of the shelves. We didn't know about the kitchen part and found the blonde non-functional cabinets stretching through the pavilion doors completely boring. Later, when made our annual pilgrimage to St. Stae to see what the Swiss had done to it this year, we found metal shelving reminiscent of the German cabinets. After this the metal cells with glittering walls by Claude Leveque in the French Pavilion were far more engaging and, of course evoked Guantanamo, prisons, and torture, even with no statements about it. We weren't engaged by Japan, Korea, Austria, or Israel this year, all of which evoke memories of challenging, outrageous, or touching displays in the past. Nothing wrong with them, just not to write home about.

The Russians showed a number of artists, to  varying response. I was particularly taken by Pavel Pepperstein, who filled a gallery with watercolors of historic sites of the future, drawn in a style that calls to mind Saul Steinberg and perhaps some of the delicacy of Paul Klee. Fanciful, ironic, amusing,  and I hope not prescient, they have a light touch that contrasted to the darker and heavier works in most of the rest of the space, and evidenced an abundant imagination. They also fit most appropriately to the title of the whole pavilion, "Victory over the Future," a play on the title of the 1913 Futurist opera, "Victory over the Sun."

At the Canadian Pavilion we were vaguely interested in the videos by Mark Lewis, one of men getting into a fight and another that I remember primarily as a charming image of a pigeon keeping warm on a sidewalk subway grate.

We have grown to expect to be offended by the Australian Pavilion and didn't really stay to see much of Shaun Gladwell's videos of men, cars, and kangaroos in the outback or somewhere. I read later and should have realized from the title "Maddestmaximus," that it's all derived from "Mad Max," but I couldn't watch that whole movie, so I would have been lost in it anyway. The sculpture of a motorcycle bursting into the pavilion walls was amusing,especially since the Venezuela Pavilion had one bursting out of the wall.

It has taken a long time to recreate the Giardini national pavilions, so I'll save the first half of the thematic, curated exhibition, titled "Making Worlds," for another post.

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