A Visit to La Biennale Di Venezia 2011

ILLUMInazioni – ILLUMInations, la Biennale di Venezia

54th International Art Exhibition

Writer Lea Schleiffenbaum was recently in Venice for the Biennial and she kept an eye out for Street Art for us, but quickly discovered the streets were under water.  With art from 89 countries, however, she found the city to be rich with spectacle and possibility.

by Lea Schleiffenbaum for BSA.

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Installing The Golden Lion (photo © Lea Schleiffenbaum)

Everything takes a bit longer in Venice. The small, north-Italian city is car-free, the only modes of transportation are so-called Vaporettos—boat-buses—or water taxis, both hard to find and slow. Walking is usually the fastest solution, as long as one does not get lost in the city’s maze of canals and narrow alleyways. I arrive at three in the afternoon—I am here to attend the opening of ILLUMInazioni – ILLUMInations, the 54th Venice Biennial—by the time I get to the apartment I am staying in, it is five. Getting lost or helping others trying to find their way is almost part of the Biennial experience. The best thing to do is to let go, adjust to Venice time, wander, and allow one self to be surprised. In the end getting lost might not be the worst; from the months of June to November every corner, every piazza, and every palace in Venice might hide another national contribution, a Pavilion, or a small exhibition.

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US Pavilion. Allora and Calzadilla performance outside (photo © Lea Schleiffenbaum)

This year’s Biennale is curated by Bice Curinger, director of the Kunsthaus in Zurich and founder of the contemporary art publication Parkett. With ILLUMInazioni – ILLUMInations the Swiss curator set out to explore contemporary art for its inner essence. “Popularization,” she warns, “should not be at the expense of complexity.” Following such rather elitist ambitions in search of value, self-reflectivity, and depth, Curinger turned the 54th Venice Biennial into a serious, well-organized, but rather sober exhibition.  Aiming to connect contemporary art with its pre-modern routs, she decided to include three paintings by old master Tintoretto, the painter of light. The masterpieces are hung in the first room of the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, following Philippe Parreno’s light installation Marque. The exhibition continues with big names, including works by Seth Price, Christopher Wool, Sigmar Polke, and Cindy Sherman. On display are high quality works by high quality artists. Everything fits; nothing is too crazy, nothing very surprising.


A steady stream of attendees at the Central Pavilion in the Giardini (photo © Lea Schleiffenbaum)

My slight disappointment with the Central Pavilion is softened by a visit to the Arsenale, the second venue curated by Curinger. The pace here is good. Curinger takes her viewers from large-scale installations, to smaller more intimate sculptures, paintings, and photographs. Monica Bonvicini is followed by Klara Liden, Rosmarin Trockel, and Urs Fischer whose candle wax replica of Giambologna’s famous sculpture The Rape of the Sabine Women will slowly burn down as the exhibition continues. Video work interrupts the general flow of the show in regular intervals, giving the viewer a chance to stand still for a moment and watch. Christian Marclay’s wonderful film The Clock stands out especially. Three days later I hear he won the Golden Lion for best artwork—which he fully deserves.


Promotional still from “The Clock” by Christian Marclay

By far the most interesting concept Curinger introduced to this year’s Biennale is the so-called Para-Pavilion: Pavilions created by artists for artists. It is great to see artists set their work into a dialogue with other artists and cultures. Young Chinese artist Song Dong for example, collected one hundred old doors in Beijing and reconfigured them in Venice inviting African-French artist Yto Barrada, and British artist Ryan Gander to show their work within them. Eccentric as always, Austrian artist Franz West asked a total of 40 artists to fill his Para-Pavilion – a reproduction of his kitchen in Vienna – among them Mike Kelley, Sarah Lucas, Josh Smith, and Anselm Reyle.

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US Pavilion. Allora and Calzadilla performance inside (photo © Lea Schleiffenbaum)

This year’s Golden Lion for best national Pavilion was awarded Germany, for its reconstruction of a stage set by artist and director Christoph Schlingensief. Last year, Christoph succumbed to a long fight against cancer. A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within was the second part of a trilogy written by Schlingensief following his first round of chemotherapy. Sitting on church benches in a dark candle lit room, visitors become witnesses to an artist trying to deal with life, death, and illness. Video projections of decaying animals, war, and fight sceneries are occasionally accompanied by a Wagner symphony; sometimes the voice of a woman reads aloud from the transcript of the play. It is hard to settle back into Biennial mode after such an intense and engaging installation.

The US is represented by Allora and Calzadilla. Working with former Olympic Athletes that execute choreographed performances on old US airway seats and upside down tanks, the Cuban-American artist duo questions heroic gestures and national self-presentation. Just like the Olympic games, international biennials swing somewhere in between competitive performance and peaceful encounter. Thomas Hirschhorn transformed the Swiss Pavilion into a vibrating Gesamtkunstwerk made of aluminum foil, old magazines, cardboard, and ear sticks. The Crystal of Resistance is a very physical, almost organic installation. Asking what art can do, how it can change the status quo, Hirschhorn engages his viewers in questions of politics, aesthetics, and transience. Hany Armanious’ subtle yet beautiful sculptural installations in the Australian Pavilion present a nice contrast to the many large-scale installations and performance pieces. Armanious casts everyday objects to reconfigure them in poetic assemblages. The French Pavilion stands right in front of the Australian Pavilion, and this year it stars Christian Boltanski, who deals with birthrates, death, and arbitrariness. This year’s choice for the Polish Pavilion has caused quite a bit of turmoil. Rather than choose a local Polish artist, the commissioners invited Israeli artist Yael Bartana to represent the country. Under the title …and Europe will be stunned, the young artist shows a film trilogy that asks Polish-Jews from all over the world to return to their country of origin, which needs them.

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Arsenale. Klara Liden Trashcans (photo © Lea Schleiffenbaum)

A total of 89 countries are represented in this year’s Biennial, the most of any Biennial so far. Those who don’t have a pavilion in the Giardini or the Arsenale are scattered across the city in one of Venice’s grand houses or palaces. Political statements are followed by aesthetic expressions, rebellious actions by poetic gestures. Of course, Venice is ridiculous, over the top, an incorporation of art-world glam and spectacle. But in between getting lost, queuing, and meeting old friends and acquaintances, one inevitably ends up discovering some previously unknown artists, and sees new work of already loved ones. In the end the visit is always worth it.

~ Lea Schleiffenbaum

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Venice (photo © Lea Schleiffenbaum)

ILLUMInazioni – ILLUMInations, la Biennale di Venezia, 54th International Art Exhibition,

June 4th – November 27th 2011