55th Venice Biennale Part I: The Pavilions

By Carmen Ansaldo  |  Venice, 17 June 2013

The start of June (2013) marks the public opening of the world's largest art fair, the Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte, commonly known as the Venice Biennale.

The Biennale's 55th installment includes 88 national pavilions and 48 collateral exhibitions spread throughout the traditional venues of the Giardini and Arsenale, as well as the city of Venice itself. Of the 88 countries holding official pavilions this year, ten are debuting for the first time. and the inclusion of Angola, Bahamas, Bahrain, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Kuwait, Maldives, Paraguay, Tuvalu and the Vatican was highly anticipated by Biennale attendees.

Unsurprisingly, some of the established pavilions invested seriously in large-scale artworks of spectacle, with far more of these works being pulled off successfully compared to previous Biennales. Vadim Zakharov's interactive installation for the Russian pavilion,Danae, involves an actor dressed as a corporate businessman watching over a shower of gold coins that fall from the roof to the pavilion floor two stories below. Female participants are invited to scoop up the coins and pour them back into a machine which would start the process again.

Referencing the Greek myth of the same name, Danae considers the patriarchal nature of capitalism and its corresponding emotions of greed and corruption. In the Israeli pavilion, Gilad Ratman's The Workshop, also makes a monumental effort to create a non-linear narrative of travelling artists who make a pilgrimage from Israel to Venice. Arriving at the Israeli pavilion through a hole in the floor, they use the space to create self portraiture busts out of clay, a gesture that is concerned with youth resistance, nationalism, self and place.

A third and more surprising large scale entry was Latvia's_North By Northeast_, a joint installation by Kaspars Podnieks and Krišs Salmanis that features photographic portraits of rural Latvians posing in the thick of Winter. Their subjects' gaze toward the viewer is constantly broken by a massive, leafless tree suspended to the pavilion roof. The tree swings continuously like a pendulum down the length of the room.

This organic theme was exceptionally prominent within the pavilions; Berlinde de Bruyckere consuming Belgium's entire space with a sculpture of a dead trunk made entirely out of bruised, fleshy coloured wax; Finland's Aalto pavilion features work from Antti Laitinen who separated 100 m² of forest floor into distinct layers in order to document each layer and present them as a photographic collage; Spain's Laura Almarcegui had collected massive piles of glass, stone and dirt from defunct industrial sites and meticulously separated them into massive piles which elegantly spill from the gallery spaces of the pavilion.

Although the gesture of international collaboration is not lost on any attendee, smaller countries, especially those who have endured European (cultural) colonisation, would benefit far more from granting their national artists the exposure Venice provides before showcasing the work of established internationals.

The inclusion of the Vatican bore the brunt of expectation among the new inclusions. Predictably titled In the Beginning, the Holy See steered away from exhibiting its own art collection and invited contemporary artists to interpret the first book of Genesis and themes of creation and destruction. The interactive projection by Studio Azzurro that dominated the pavilion lacked the conceptual power to grapple with the allocated theme, despite a noticeable investment in the technology and resolution of the artwork (viewers could activate stories from subjects within the projection by touching them).

Criticisms of strong religious overtones, too much money and not enough substance could have also been applied to the Chinese pavilion's group exhibition Transfiguration. Curator Wang Chunchen's ambition to create a Chinese method for constructing a Chinese art history which stood outside the Western canon fell flat, perhaps due to the crude parallels he attempts to make between the transformation of Jesus and the changing cultural landscape of China.

Some of the other major pavilions have clearly made a conscious step away from larger scale works to showcase more modest and contemplative artists. It appears as though the USA has taken on board criticism from their last pavilion entry (which was considered to be tacky in its overt references to US militarism) and is exhibiting Sarah Sze's Triple Point. Sze's intricate, thoughtful, yet ambitious system of everyday materials are arranged into massive sculptural systems that function toward no determinable ends.

Likewise, Anri Sala's Ravel Ravel Unravel at the French Pavilion consists of three simple, inter-related projections that interpret through piano and DJ booth the 1930 composition of Concerto in D for the Left Hand by Maurice Ravel. Smaller pavilions who have similarly taken a more circumspect and focused approach include the New Zealand pavilion with Bill Culbert's sculptures of domestic furniture intersected with fluorescent lights, the ceramic and wood sculptures of the Netherlands' Mark Manders whose materials similarly collide with each other with exceptional results.

Most notably, the particularly well-curated Latin American pavilion. Titled IILA, the cluster of disparate artists and concerns from sixteen countries including Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Venezuela and Cuba form a vibrant and eclectic cohesion that engages with international contemporary art while revealing previously unknown particulars of their locales and cultural contexts.

Pavilions who have their finger firmly on the pulse of political events include Greece, who exhibit Stefanos Tsivopoulos's three narrative videos staging relationships between affluent individuals and money called History Zero; the Japanese pavilion who host the experimental collaborations of Koki Tanaka in the exhibition Abstractly Speaking—Sharing uncertainty and collective acts, and Turkey's three channel video collage by Ali Kazama Resistance which documents various sub-cultural forms of defiance that manifest themselves on the body.

Other pavilions reference national politics in less successful ways, and it was disappointing to find that Kuwait's debut appeared to be a photographic installation in service of the state, rather than an exhibition involving freely formed artistic motivation.

The cultural specificity of nationality was resisted by some other pavilions for gestures of internationalism. Germany offering the main room of their pavilion to one of Ai Wei Wei's older works Bang (2010); Kenya opened their pavilion to showcase the works of eight Chinese artists (whilst only including two of their own two nationals); the United Arab Emirates' Mohammed Kazem devoting their entire pavilion to an immersive installation of a vast and dark ocean-scape complete with GPS coordinates; and the Bahamas debuted with documentation of artist Tavares Strachan's expedition to the Arctic, mimicking the 1909 expedition of Americans Robert Peary and Matthew Alexander Henson.

Although the gesture of international collaboration is not lost on any attendee, smaller countries, especially those who have endured European (cultural) colonisation, would benefit far more from granting their national artists the exposure Venice provides before showcasing the work of established internationals.

The contemplative and concise curatorial direction many pavilions demonstrated at the 55th Venice Biennale offers many possibilities for the future. There is a decisive movement away from the 'bigger is better' attitude of past years. Instead of riding the rollercoaster of tremendous successes and flops, the standard of the pavilions this year is consistent in its high quality. The inclusion of younger and emerging artists, more contemporary works and so many new countries has breathed life into the usual roll-call of blockbusters to prove that the world's largest biennale still has the capacity to be brave, edgy and relevant. —[O]

Carmen Ansaldo is a freelance art writer from Brisbane, Australia; based in Berlin. Carmenansaldo.wordpress.com

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