Nine(teen) Days Left to see the Venice Biennale 2011

With a title like ILLUMinations, the 54th Venice biennale is resplendent with the inevitable interplay of opposites; darkness and light, art and politics, old and new – stagnancy and fluidity. At first glance, the tide of recession seems far away amidst the super yachts and Baroque spender of Venice, yet socio-economic malaise seeps into this year’s biennale with a deeply political anchor.

Alongside Spain’s contemplative performance piece The Inadequate – representing the globally unofficial and marginalized, a gently intellectual and fiercely international take on curation and freedom of speech is provided by the Danish pavilion. Foregoing the usual pavilion format of focusing on the work of a single artist, Greek born and Belgian based curator Katerina Gregos presents a thought provoking and witty group exhibition entitled Speech Matters. Taryn Simon’s culturally curious photographs from An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007) give the viewer access to otherwise inaccessible stories and histories integral to America’s cultural composition. An albino tiger glares at the viewer as if about to pounce, yet we discover that as a result of inbreeding which produces all living white tigers in the United States, it is mentally retarded and malformed. Other images present hymen reconstructive surgery and a Braille edition of Playboy magazine. The clarity of Taryn’s non-judgmental and unsentimental visions, allow the viewer to ponder the mythologies of cultural identity, a subject also explored in Jan Svankmajers 1968 film The Garden.  Czech born Svankmajers film presents a darkly humorous human fence – a personal take on freedom of speech, with a scathing critique on the communist regime under which he lived.

As with the brilliant curation of the Danish pavilion, several works at this years biennale possess a sense of looking to the past to shine a light to the future, or at least plant us in the present, if only momentarily. Perhaps this is most clearly evident in Christian Marclay’s excellent and wildly popular piece The Clock. A painstakingly edited together montage of thousands of disparate film clips referencing time, the piece runs at real time referencing the here and now through the big screen, inducing an awe inspired trance over its weary biennale-going audience. Likewise, Pipollitti Rist embraces a sense of historical fluidity with traditional paintings of Venetian squares and waterscapes layered over with kitschy moving projections of gas rings, floating bodies, operations and bubbles – modern and mesmerizing.

Curator Bice Curiger’s ILLUMinations exhibition opens surprisingly, with three sixteenth century masterpieces by Tintoretto, guarded over by several hundred stuffed pigeons. Here even the new is old, with Maurizio Cattelan’s pigeons making a second appearance at the biennale, gazing down over biennale goers with a gentle menace, and perhaps casting light humour on the weight of art history which can engulf Venice. Yet if repositioning the old calls for a re-evaluation and appreciation, some new commissions seem stuck in the darkness of the past, echoing the stinking stench of canals, where bogged down in its own history stagnates the marvel of Venice.

Mike Nelson’s British pavilion presents a Fritzl style bunker of winding chambers and low ceilings, creating a feeling of claustrophobia dwelling in the darkness. Meanwhile, the German Pavilion – which won the biennale’s Golden Lion award for best national participation – was a morbid fluxus funeral , with work from Christoph Schlingensief. Having died of lung cancer before his vision of the German pavilion could be realised, Susanne Gaensheimer created a church like space in which she curated a visual cacophony of existing films, projections and installations from the artist. If art is the new religion, and galleries new temples, this is a personal though apolitical nouveau-gothic cathedral, steeped in empty postmodern malaise.

This feeling of stagnancy is also evident in America’s loud upturned tank whose wheel has been converted into a noisy treadmill , and on which a national athletics body affiliated athlete runs no-where. Viewers meanwhile, meander into the American pavilion, to pay their respects to art and commerce in the guise of a giant, solid wooden pipe organ/cash dispenser, which crescendos  out loud when someone enters their pin number.

If such work seems to embrace a waft of post decadent death, then other pieces offer a gentler wave of reflection. The highlight of this year’s biennale, literally and metaphorically, is the voluptuous melting macabre mass of Swiss artist Urs Fischer. Fischer presents three life-sized candles, the most impressive of which is a a full-sized replica of Giovanni Bologna’s 16th Century sculpture, Rape of The Sabine Women. From a distance the wax appears as dense white marble, yet these sculptures are designed to burn and melt as the biennale commences – the label amusingly describes their dimensions as ‘variable.’

Amidst the clock ticking, candles melting and the water lapping by, if it is real illumination you are seeking, forego the queues for James Turrell’s dull meditative light chamber, and be transfixed by the stunning Turneresque skies of Venice. Amongst the exhibits meanwhile, light is cast in the most unlikely of places. Barely discernible in a dimly lit room is what could have been a haunting sarcophagus, but is in fact an exact replica of the casket that raised the Chilean miners from their underground burial earlier this year – a ray of hope and symbol of humanity amidst the darkness. Finally though, in the shadow of economic gloom, it is the Greek Pavilion that provides a channel of optimism; flowing as it is with a canal running gently through it into the light.


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