Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Venice Biennale 2013: The Arsenale national pavilions

The Bahamas. Entering the Bahamas pavilion was puzzling. It took a while and a bit of label reading to understand that Tavares Strachan (b. 1979) is from the Bahamas, although he lives in New York. The relatively large pavilion, titled Polar Eclipse, is dedicated to the exploration of the North Pole, with particular reference to . or unacknowledged aspects of the 1909 expedition. He addresses the invisibility of Robert Peary's African-American colleague Matthew Alexander Henson, who is credited by many as the first to reach the pole. In videos of Strachan's polar exploration, he posits the difficulty of identifying exactly where the North Pole is, since the ice shelf that covers it is in motion.  

To connect the North Pole with his home country, Strachan brought 40 schoolchildren from the Bahamas and taught them an Inupiaq song that is untranslatable, which they performed at the opening and which is recorded in the gallery. There's also a  pair or blocks of arctic ice in freezer units (Me and You [North Pole Ice and Cloned North Pole Ice], 20,13).

It took a while to figure out what was going on with the objects in this gallery, which included a suspended figure in polar gear, a glass human figure barely distinguishable in a glass vitrine, huge drawings of an arctic bear, owl and walrus with number and figure annotations, and three scattered neon installations that read "I Belong Her, You Belong Here, and We Belong Here." After looking for a while, I became immersed in the subject and the irony of this as the Bahamas first ever Biennale entry.

Indonesia. The Indonesia Pavilion, titled Sakti (which "refers to the primordial cosmic energy and the personification of diving, feminine creative energy, as well as indicating change and liberation) displayed the work of 6 artists, whose names were hard to locate. There was an elaborately carved wall and other installations combining personal narratives, historical events, myths, and religion by Entang Wiharso.

Titarubi's work is a room of tables with large stylized blank open books and dark charcoal drawings of trees. The tables are intended as desks and he refers to the juxtaposition of learning with the colonial past and environmental destruction. I was pretty sure it didn't mean anything good. 

Albert Yonathan's amassing of small clay stupas and Sri Astari's pendopo [traditional Javanese pavilion] occupied by nearly lifesize Javanese puppets evoked the experience of classic Indonesia. They seemed to belong together, but probably weren't intended as one work. 

The dark setting, large installations, and fine craftsmanship made this large gallery an exotic respite from the series of challenging installations.

Latvia. I liked Latvia, with Kriss Salmanis's huge dead tree swinging back and forth from the ceiling, obviously referring to deforestation in Latvia, whose population strongly identifies with its woodlands and rural landscape. I was intrigued by the videos and black and white photographs by Kaspars Podnicks, of rural people standing facing the viewer, apparently 15 feet above the ground. The label says they stood on a tiny platform, which inhibited their motion, but I still can't figure out how it's done. I was just fascinated by the portraits of rural people in unlikely relation to rural settings, who moved slightly, standing in the cold.  

The United Arab Emirates' artist Mohammed Kazem created an installation that simulated the effect of being at sea, standing on rolling water. It was like an amusement park ride that leaves you unsteady on your feet when you leave it. A surround video of the ocean.

The Lebanon installation was much more interesting as a subject than as an art work. The Letter to a Refusing Pilot refers to a 1982 incident in which an Israeli pilot dropped his bombs into the sea rather than on a school. As a plea for peace and understanding, this was worthwhile project, but we didn't have the patience to watch the video.

Very similarly to two years ago, a group of Latin American countries shared one large gallery. Most of the contributions here were videos - about 10 of them - and we watched only a few. I was taken by Martin Sastre's video of the creation and advertising of a perfume made from flowers in the garden of the president of Uruguay and intended to be auctioned at the Biennale to initiate a national arts fund. 

Another Uruguayan artist, Christian Jankowski, blindfolded participants and had them climb the hill that gives Montevideo (translated as "I see a hill") its name. The video show the participants gathering and then holding hands in a line, slowly walking up the hill.

Sonia Falcone from Bolivia's installation Campo di Colore is a field of spices and pigments, each a conical pile in a clay bowl, grouped in the center of this Latin American space and sending off the scents and heat of the various spices. 

The introduction to this Latin American pavilion refers to the history of colonialism, the interconnectedness of the geography of Latin America and Europe, the transfers of artists from one continent to the other, and the blending and exchanges of artistic and cultural awareness among countries. Each object has its own history and often far-readhing resonances, which are impossible to explore adequately in a brief review.

Argentina showed Nicola Costantino's odd multivideo installation of a woman playing multiple versions of Eva Peron walking, sitting, talking on the phone, dressing for a party, looking in a mirror, and other activities, juxtaposed with black-and-white documentary photographs of Eva, a contraption said to have been used to support her so she could make standing public appearances when she was fatally ill, and a table what represents unending tears. Titled Rapsodia Inconclusa, it left me humming "Don't cry for me Argentina," but still ignorant about Eva Peron's life, but here's the Wikipedia link.

Chile. I looked forward to seeing what Alfredo Jaar would do to represent Chile, but found it seriously disappointing. He made a detailed model of the Giardini and placed it in a big tank of greenish water. Every three minutes it would slowly rise out of the water and then submerge again. press release says this had to do with the archaic idea of national pavilions, "which have lost their meaning in the fluidity of today's world culture," but I thought it seemed a more likely reference to Venice sinking into the sea. Whatever the concept, it seemed a lot of work for little effect, from an artist I have respected enormously for decades. And the cross-nationalities of so many artists showing at on-and-off-site national pavilions seems a more useful way to address the "fluidity" of the contemporary art world.

South Africa. The work of most of the artists in the South Africa pavilion referred in some way to apartheid and the country's racial history. And many of them required a certain amount of decoding. For example,  Cameron Platter's huge black and white drawing, The good Shepard Presents Dr. Bombaka, has its sources in similar works created by artists associated with the Rorke's Drift Art and Craft Centre, especially John Maufangejo, whose black and white drawings are similar in style, but without the satire and irony.

Sue Williamson's For thirty years next to his heart, 1990, consists of multiple color copies of Ncithakato John Ngesi's apartheid dompas, or passbook (translation, dumb pass) documenting all his movements and tax payments, a hated relic of a time finally past. I remember learning about apartheid 50 years ago in high school and being horrified by it. 

Andrew Putter (b. 1965), interested by the ethnographic black-and-white photography initiated by Alfred Martin Duggan-Cronin in 1904, used Duggan-Cronin's style to photograph South Africans in supposed indigenous dress in black and white, then photographing them again in their clothing of choice. My images select two single images from the larger groupings. Looking into Duggan-Cronin and his mission, he seems very similar both in style and in goal to Edward S. Curtis, and his work seems to have been similarly controversial. The link from the artist's name should take you to the whole series.

David Koloane (b. 1938) showed a series of acrylic and pastel dark and sad drawings of the last hours of the anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko, who was tortured to death by police in 1977. While the images were not horrific, the concept was. 

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