The 53rd Venice Biennale which started on 7th June following a four-day VIP preview will last till 22nd November. Taking Making Worlds as the title, this year’s curator, Daniel Birnbaum, said that “a work of art represents a vision of the world and if taken seriously it can be seen as a way of making a world.” As an exhibition, it expresses the curator’s wish to emphasize the process of creation. “Fare Mondi // Making Worlds is an exhibition driven by the aspiration to explore worlds around us as well as worlds ahead. It is about possible new beginnings.” Presented in different languages, the title of the exhibition pointed to issues such as globalization and cultural identity. If the disappearance of one language will take away part of the world’s imagination, then the differences and gaps left over in the process of translation will also increase the world’s imagination. Perhaps that’s how the world was born at the intersections of different cultures. But, what kind of new world does art offer us? How a world imagined by artists differed from the world we encounter everyday? Where lay the possible news beginnings for making an alternative world?
Making lost worlds
The beautiful Venice gives me headache.
With a 5-day agenda fully packed of openings and exhibitions and a map dotted with different colours and shapes, I glided through the matrix of canals and Bernini. Whoever experienced Venice would know that getting lost is part of the program; resorting to body language requests a new kind of theatre training; walking through the evening flood of San Marco is a test of your agility. Desire it or not, everything is guaranteed, not to mention the Sun that’s constantly baking your ice-cream. How to complete the task of visiting 90 artists’ work in the thematic show, 77 national pavilions and 40 collateral events within 120 hours becomes a real challenge. Before I tried to understand how art makes world, I am already lost in the world of art. I followed closely the footsteps of my tour guide.
After sneaking into the cocktail reception of the prestigious Guggenheim Collection where I joined my tour guide, we headed to Arsenale for the thematic show. Like a prelude, Lygia Pape’s (1927 – 2004) poetic installation of gold threads Tteia I, C (2002) announced to us that we are entering into an illusionary world orchestrated by artists’ big ego at our own cost. In the second room, we tried to catch up the performance of the Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto (b. 1933). 22 gigantic mirrors arranged alongside the walls, with an eyeshade and a wooden hammer in hand, he broke half of them each in one or two strokes. A big hole with cracks appeared on the surface and thousand pieces of broken glasses on the floor. In what way does such a dramatic act relate to “Making Worlds”? Pistoletto explains, “The stroke is like the Big Bang, the broken glasses are the particles in constant self-multiplication. The reflections of the space from thousands of angles expand the limited space into infinite.”
Art provides us different perspectives to see the world; at the same time, it also forces us into naked confrontation with what we do not want to see. Born in Hong Kong in 1973 now lives in New York, Paul Chan’s video Sade for Sade’s Sake (2009) is one of these works. The 5hrs45mins video presents shadow plays of sexual violence and sadism, a critique of the real situation in Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. So, how did he understand “Making Worlds” as a theme? Paul Chan said, “An individual is a world, a world more than the world itself. A shift of mind means more than a change in gravity itself.” A walk along the long hall took us four hours. I was lucky again to meet another artist Pascale Marthine Tayou (b.1967) from Cameroon. Tayou shows his Mankind (2008), a huge installation featuring an African ghetto with wooden houses whose walls are projecting videos of daily life in modern cities such as Tokyo, Taipei, London, etc. Artist said that he intends to create a world in construction, full of spontaneity, movements and circulation, a communication in the making.
Paul Chan, Sade for Sade's Sake, 2009, Video, loop, 5.45hrs. With Courtesy of the artist.
In Giardini, the newly transformed Palazzo delle Esposizioni stages the other part of the “Making Worlds” show. The first work that caught my eyes, and most of the others, is a huge but airy installation resembles a spider web that fills up a room. The Argentina artist Tomas Saraceno (b. 1973), who also won this year’s Calder Prize, employs lightness and delicateness of the spider web to depict the fragility and vulnerability of the world. A trap waiting for its prey, Saraceno invites audience to walk at the middle of. “I hope they would be tangled up. This is our reality!” Beautiful and tender on the look, dangerous and cruel at the heart. Such equation can justifiably apply to the Swedish artist Nathalie Djurberg’s (b. 1978) morbid work. A garden of over-grown gigantic flowers, colorful but poisonous. Two claymation video installations show deformed men and women searching for love and life. However, the world is too distorted, too morbid, too dark to offer any dream. Tomas Saraceno, Galaxies forming along filaments, like droplets along the strands of a spider's web, 2009, elastic ropes, photo courtesy of the artist
While I was still excited to see the biennale for the first time, my experienced tour guide dropped here and there the same comment, “Done already!” Hard to please? Maybe. Demanding? Surely yes! But isn’t it our rights (finally) to be demanding in Venice? We do expect this prestigious biennale to offer us a new vision, something experimental and innovative as it’s always been. While his disappointment might be with the young and the new, my disappointment is with “the great of the greats”. This year’s Life Achievement Award winner John Baldessari (b. 1931) designed an ocean for the entrance of Palazzo della Esposizioni which is simply too big to be noticed. While the Gold Lion winner Tobias Rehberger (b. 1966) designed a café, Rirkrit Tiravanija (b. 1961) opened a bookshop and the Italian artist Massimo Bartolini (b. 1962) created a permanent education centre. Wait... are their egos tamed by the financial crisis? Why do they all become designers making practical world? Other than blurring the already thin line between contemporary art and architectural design, I cannot see their genius in function. Despite the repeating emphasis on “a possible new start” in the press release, I am afraid that only the truly adult can see the Emperor’s new clothes. Unfortunately, we are in the era of kidult. The conservative taste of the curator failed to give us hints of a possible new vision. The title “Making Worlds” itself is cleverly generous, over-idealistic to be visionary. After visiting the show, one finds it cleverly strategic, over-comprehensive to be responsible. Is there a line of thought in curatorial direction? Does he believe in what he is presenting? Did the curator trap himself with his own strategy of leaping over curatorial traps?
Nevertheless, I am impressed by the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles (b. 1948)’s colour combination rooms, Chinese artist Chu Yun’s (n. 1977) Constellation consisted of indicative LED lights from domestic appliances and Italian artist Lara Favaretto’s (b. 1973) Swamp, a momentary Pantheon for the “lost” figures of Art’s saints.
National Pavilions and Collateral Events
Among the 77 countries participating in the national pavilions, we see a geographical shift in the art world. With Western Europe obviously suffering from creativity-obesity, the French, the German, the Italian and the Japanese and the Chinese in Asia are out in the qualification match, the ball passed to the traditionally off-centre countries. This year, we have Zilvinas Kempinas’ (b. 1969) VHS tape-constructed Tube in Lithuanian Pavilion to exemplify the beauty of simple interplay between solid and airy, light and shadow, inside and outside. Krzysztof Wodiczko's (b. 1943) projection transforms the internal space of the Polish Pavilion to an illusionary outside, a parallel to the sentiment of his Guests, the immigrants, who are in an eternal state of being the outsiders, the intruders even they are at “home”. In the Egyptian Pavilion, the two artists with 27 years apart crafted the “lightly monumental” to remind us what true art once was. Ahmed El Askalany’s (b. 1979) deity-like monumental figures greet us while we walk into this sacred temple with frescos by Adel El Siwi (b. 1952) of paper, cloth and paint.
Zilvinas Kempinas, "Tube", Wood, nails, magnetic tape, 28 x 3 x 3 meters, site specific installation, 2008.
Andrei Molodkin (b. 1966) is showing alongside 6 compatriots in Russian Pavilion, entitled “The Victory Over the Future”. Molodkin’s installation Red and Black (2009) is as political as usual. Red stands for blood (coming from a Russian solider who has fought at the Iraq war), Black stands for oil. An electrical pump pumps blood and oil into a hollow sculpture of Wings of Thrace, the image of the statue is projected on the wall. What’s the difference between a world imagined by artist and a world imagined by politicians? Molodkin replied that “artists make what’s negative to positive and politician makes positive negative. My statue is hollow, like a film negative, but the projection makes it a firm image. The politicians bring destruction to the world in the name of development.”
Andrei Molodkin, Le rouge et le noir, 2009, Russia Pavillon
Among the Asian pavilions, the real surprise comes from Singapore’s A Life of Imitation in Palazzo Michiel del Brusa. A series of poster paintings in the style of the 1960s, a photo collection of disappeared cinemas, re-interpretation of famous scenes form classical movies, the artist Ming Wong (b. 1971) uses cinema as a collective memory to articulate the fluidity and conflicts of different gender, cultural and identity roles in a multiracial society such as Singapore.
This year’s Best National Pavilion prize goes to the US for its presentation of Bruce Nauman’s Topological Gardens which is shown in three locations: Giardini, Università Iuav di Venezia and Università Ca' Foscari. However, if there is a so call The Most “Mediatique” prize, it would surely go to the Danish and Nordic Pavilions’ The Collectors, curated by Elmgreen & Dragset. Two collectors lived next to each other, a broken family with broken dining tables and dishes, another a homosexual erotic novel writer whose corpse is floating in his swimming pool. Inside the houses are the works created by 22 artists and designers and they are now put on sale. Want to buy them and be a collector yourself?
Fortunately, most of the collectors would not end up selling their houses and collections like in Elmgreen & Dragset’s show. One of the events that marked with three stars in my schedule is the opening of French No. 1 collector François Pinault’s new art centre in Punta della Dogana. Entitled Mapping the Studio, the exhibition showcases over 300 works from 60 artists traverse a creative period of four decades. They are all from Pinault’s collection and are open for public. A 2.4 meter tall boy holding a frog by its legs stands at the tip of the island, right outside the building. This marble-white statue of Charles Ray adds one more landmark to Venice. Though it may not be able to give you orientation, the show would surely give new directions to the art market trends.
It takes only 10 mins walk from Dogana to Peggy Guggenheim Collection, the supreme site for contemporary art before Pinault set up his palazzos there. Other than the Gothic towers installed by the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, there is a good reason to return to Peggy’s ─ to see Robert Rauschenberg’s Glut (1986 – 1989 & 1991 – 1995). As a critique of America’s over-consumption and its resulted modern ruin, Rauschenberg collected hundreds of pieces of metal scrap from junkyards to create a series of poetic assemblages where “the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts”. This unexpected show is later voted by some friends to be the best in this year’s biennale. A truth suddenly revealed to me. When hundreds of biennales are being created all over the world, this single one that born in Venice in 1893 stands out to be the unbeatable Big Daddy not only for its visionary thematic show but also for the fact that a series of high quality collateral events is not possible elsewhere. Sometimes, their quality can even surpass that of the major show.
It is with all the exhibitions, cocktails, openings, parties, etc, that raised a biennale to the status of an unprecedented “contemporary art event”. The four-day-preview has summoned all the VIPs of the art world ─ collectors, museum directors, curators, artists, gallerists, dealers, auctioneers ─ to the little city. The fifth day is the official Opening of the Biennale. However, Madam and Monsieur VIPs already fled the show for the next event in Basel, bringing them champagne and spotlight. This moment, the little city is quiet again and the sunbeam has never been so gleaming. Suddenly, I realized that other than economic return, the Biennale has no much to do with the Venetians.
On this last day, I managed to get a seat to see Steve McQueen’s video Giardini (2009) in the British Pavilion. McQueen showed in two panels the Giradini during off-season when the abandoned space returns to the nature. With static camera lingers on the empty tracks and closed pavilions illuminated by moonlight, we see dogs rambling around, worms and beetles searching for fallen leaves and morning dew. At the middle of a rainy night, at the end of a bare tree branch, a drop of water lingers on. Each shot is a sensitive still photography that restores the dignity and beauty to the nature. At this moment of serenity, we are reminded that art aims to touch upon our soul. When the world agitates for art, art stops to be art.
Steve McQueen, British Pavilion, 2009 Photo: © The British Council, Photography by Prudence Cuming Associates