Making worlds / Domhain á gCruthú, the 53rd Venice Biennale
I’m aware that I’m writing this report following many reviews in both local and international art publications. As a rule I generally try to avoid reading others reviews until I’ve drawn my own conclusions, so what can I say here that doesn’t reiterate what you may have already read else where? In the case of this report on the Venice Biennale my ideas are now coloured by proposed cuts in arts funding that may affect the future international mobility of artists’ based in Ireland. But let’s hope that my sepia tinted sun glasses don’t extend to a more general nostalgic view of Ireland at these events.
This Summer I was once again working with Visual Artists Ireland who was given the opportunity to launch the 11th edition of Printed Project ‘Farewell to Post-colonialism’, at the Irish Pavilion. The launch was accompanied by a panel discussion led by the issue’s guest editor Sharat Maharj and a stellar cast of contributing speakers including Homi K. Bhabha, Daniel Birnbaum, Charles Esche, Chris Dercon and Gao Shiming.
At this 53rd Venice Biennale Daniel Birnbaum proposes ‘La Biennale’ as a space in which to ‘emphasise differences’ and assert creative agency as a counterpoint to nationalistic or homogenised views of the world. Following his appointment as curator he identified three central concerns for his proposed exhibition ‘Making Worlds’: to present work in a way that highlighted process, ‘… an exhibition that remains closer to the sites of creation and education (the studio, the workshop) than the traditional museum show’; to emphasis the continuing influences of a generation of artists such as Gordon Matta Clarke, Yoko Ono, André Cadere; and given the dominance of moving image work in the last number of years, to explore painting and drawing in an expanded sense of these media.
Getting the hard facts, art-tourist stuff out of the way ‘Making Worlds’ included: over 90 artists from all continents; 77 Participating Countries (the largest number so far), in the Giardini and throughout the islands of Venice and 44 Collateral Events (presented by art institutions and groups), also dispersed throughout Venice. If you intend travelling these are a few guidelines that will help you get quickly orientated. The trick to finding your way around Venice if you’re not already aware of it, is simply to reference the area of the city e.g. Castello and follow the four figure numbers on the buildings. The official Biennale map (grey cover) lists all the collateral venues with area and street numbers and also opening times for venues, this is available free at the entrance to the Giardini and Arsenale it also lists opening times and days. The British Council Map available at the Northern Ireland venue is also really good as it lists all venue addresses. The Short Guide to the Biennale is worth it as it provides maps of the main venues, images of artists’ works and short statements about the artists concerned.
As is customary the Biennale centred on the curated exhibition in the Arsenale and what was previously the Italian Pavilion in the Giardini now the Palazzo delle Esposizioni della Biennale. This later venue included a Café, Book Shop and Education areas designed by Tobias Rehberger, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Massimo Bartolini respectively. This venues refurbishment also incorporated the newly reopened library, the Historic Archive of Contemporary Arts; open to researchers and exhibition visitors. Birnbaum’s Arsenale exhibition has less of the cavern and more of the grotto about it than its predecessor and the rhythm of wall, discrete sculptural works and installation was well paced. Other highlights from the Arsenale included: Ceal Floyer, Giant Bonsai; Falke Pisano with a sculptural installation and text; Anawana Haloba, The greater G8 advertising market; Aleksandra Mir’s Venezia, all places contain all others; Ulla von Brandenburg’s film shot in Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and Atta Poomtangon’s, Keep something for a rainy day. In contrast to Robert Storr who seemed to favour documentary lens based works Birnbaum included many moving image works with a narrative approach and photography with an eclectic array of approaches to presentation and an expanded sense of the medium.
UAE video interviews with individuals within the Dubai and Abu Dabai art world discussed art scenes, the art market and speculation on art even at a local level.
It would be a bit misleading to describe exhibitions as national representations as nationalism was troubled by a number of curators and pavilions, Germany’s Nicolaus Schafhausen chose to present Liam Gillick (U.K.) for the German pavilion and the Danish and Nordic (Finland, Norway and Sweden) Pavilions jointly presented a narrative driven installation titled ‘The Collectors’. This exhibition, curated by Elmgreen and Dragset, showed the work of 24 artists. The curators wittily and pragmatically employed the modernist structures of the Danish and Nordic pavilions to present stories of dysfunctional excess, sex, death and bankruptcy. On a more serious note the Danish Pavilion’s ‘For Sale’ sign was a reminder of the art market’s entanglement with other markets and the ills of an economy driven by speculation.
Gillick’s enigmatic Cat in the Modernist Kitchen literally addressed the space of the German Pavilion and its history as a fascist structure, with Gillick also engaging the audience through other channels including the pavilions chirpy invigilators and a Deutsche Welle documentary.
As well as the exhibitions above the other highlights of the Giardini were: Péter Forgás’ Col Tempo – The W Project at the Hungarian Pavilion. Forgás mined Nazi archival material in an installation that examined: the congruence of photography, film and the scientific gaze during the Nazi era, drawing attention to the history of both media and their dubious links with science and documentary forms. Roman Ondak afforded us a subtle passage through the Czech and Slovak Rebublics pavilion, a break from the heavily underscored space of art, in his gentle garden path titled Loop. Bruce Nauman’s work was spread over three locations in Venice and a visit to see his work at the Università Ca’ Foscari was particularly rewarding as it was a chance to experiece his early text pieces and more recent work, while exploring the exciting environs of the market and University area.
Participating Countries outside the Giardini that remained with me were: Palastine; Ireland; Lithuania; Latvia; Australia; Mexico; Iceland; Singapore; Union of the Comoros and the Central Asian Pavilion.
Susan MacWilliam represented Northern Ireland; Martin Boyce, Scotland at Venice and a particularly interesting gathering works East West Divan, presented by Turqouise Mountain, provided an opportunity to see the work of emerging artists from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. In MacWilliam’s work the intimacy she has with her subject and subjects is immediately evident and her blending of documentary and creative narratives draws us in to a world that merges, science, celebrity and the ongoing facination within popular culture with the uncanny.
Public space often comes into focus wherever the biennial. Themes explored at the Printed Project talk and within the work of Sarah Browne and Gareth Kennedy brought issues of globalisation, migrancy and labour to the fore. While the historicity of Venice and the events that it hosts give it its’ vibrancy there is an underlying idiosyncrasy in the sterile regulation what happens within its’ public spaces. Gareth Kennedy’s buskers amongst other street events were waiting for their official civic authorisation in order to busk, reminding me of Homi Bhabha’s discussion on authority and who has the right to narrate. On the ground migrant African bag sellers were shifting at a moments notice to avoid the Caribinari and temporary information stands, spreading their wares in the same way, warned tourists of fines and that these brand rip-offs were made by child labour in China. The city itself seemed to reiterate Aleksandra Mir‘s title ‘all places contain all others’.
Monica Flynn, July 2009.
 Tobias Rehberger received a 2009 Golden Lion award for the best art work