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The quintessential Biennale presents an edition not noted for the emotion. Some gestures: the addition of three Tintorettos as if it were a conceptual revolution, pavilions built for the occasion by trying to be a modification to the idea of curating, but above all, a maintenance of the status quo flies in Venice.
Under the strange heading, ILLUMInations, Bice Curiger, curator of the international selection of the 54th edition of the Venice Biennale, seems to endeavour to heed the discomfort surrounding the concept of “nation” expressed for years by artists participating in the international event. The dynamics, upon which a large part of La Biennale is based, in effect reproduce the geopolitics from the beginning of the 20th century, fossilised into a structure of pavilions in the space of the Giardini: where, as is widely known, every two years, a group of countries continues to select artists that supposedly “represent them”, even though, in the last decades, this modus operandi has been systematically called into question, be it for political discrepancies between the administrations and the corresponding architect or simply because of the debate in post-colonial terms that is currently developing around concepts such as representation, community or the social function of art.
In the Spanish pavilion, Dora García insists upon the obsolescence of the Venetian formula when she titles it Lo inadecuado (The inadequate). Kayta García-Antón, the curator of the pavilion, explains that the artist “felt uncomfortable with the idea of having to represent a country at the Venice Biennale. She feels inadequate as an artist and wants to use this as her working material, as material for reflection”. This consideration, however, one could think of as a pose more than anything else, in that the work developed here dispenses to all extents and purposes with the setting and is actually quite “adequate”, in line with her personal projects as an artist – though in this case perhaps slightly more obtuse and lacking the conceptual ingenuity that Dora has displayed on other occasions -, who, in turn, one can see has a way of doing things that is perfectly “adequate” for certain international circuits of contemporary art, if not in Spain.
At the other end of the scale of cynicism exuded by this proposal, one finds one of the most interesting pavilions in La Biennale, the Danish pavilion. In this case, the development of a more productive debate about art and society is probably facilitated by the fact that, in the Danish Arts Council call for submissions, the first objective was: “the exhibition in the Danish Pavilion (…) had to challenge the traditional concept of national representation in an intelligent way” as well as manifesting the desire “to attract international attention and generate debate in arts media not only in Denmark but also abroad”. So, having set this formula in motion in 2009, when the tandem formed by Emelgreen & Dragset surpassed these objectives, this year, they have once again hit it on the nail, with artists of different nationalities being brought together by the curator Katerina Gregos, with the aim on this occasion of debating the question of freedom of speech. A controversial topic and one that directly implicates the practice of art, placed here in relation to a considerable number of currently relevant social issues. Alongside projects that document and denounce situations or generate frameworks for dialogue, in the same pavilion it is interesting that some of them simultaneously appear as symptoms, being the result of instances of negotiation or tactical ways of doing things according to processes of censorship, in different historic moments and geographical contexts. In this pavilion one also finds the archive of Zhang Dali, A Second History (2003-10), that looks at the construction of images and visual memory during the Maoist regime, and which as far as I’m concerned is one of the most interesting projects in this edition of La Biennale – along with the German pavilion, with a surprising work by a totally unknown and recently deceased, Christoph Schlingensief, a worthy winner of the Golden Lion prize of La Biennale.
But the audacity of Bice Curiger to incorporate the taboo word in the title ILLUMInations, ends up becoming a hotchpotch of strained meanings, if we consider the second part of the moniker, the “illumination”. The curator seems to extend the semantic scope, opened up by the progressive joining of words, through the texts of the exhibition but also in the interviews that she has given, however, what stands out of the web of meanings that are interwoven into this title is the consideration that “the role of their art should be to produce illumination beyond their immediate circle”. While this is the layer of meaning that is developed most poetically, accompanied by many literary quotations, it is at the same time the one that remains the least clear in the pieces that are being exhibited, as much the ones that she has selected as those presented in the pavilions, where in any case I believe another definition prevails, one that she herself also develops: ILLUMInation as an allusion to the intersection between what is local – seeing light as a genuine contribution of Venice to the history of art – and what is global – the multinational forum that is La Biennale.
The representation of the local Venetian context is, in effect, edition after edition a constant theme in many projects and in the present pavilions the one where it is most successfully carried out is the Icelandic one. In the work by Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson, within the series Your Country Doesn’t Exist, a soprano moves through the canals of Venice in a gondola singing a song that, in referring to the crisis of the nation-state and the neo-liberal democracies, warns of the ills affecting social communities around the world. In contrast, the participation of Catalonia and the Balearic Islands in the framework of Eventi Colateralli, presenting Mabel Palacín’s treatment of the spaces of Venice, is I believe, excessively timid. Instead of proposing an effective strategy for deconstructing its representation, on this occasion, the picturesque potential of the city ends up absorbing the artist’s endeavours.
But the definitive faux pas in this intersection between the local and international sphere of La Biennale, is at the hands of Bice Curiger, in the curating of the official section, when she places three canvases by Tintoretto at the opening to the International Pavilion. Once more she dedicates a lengthy theoretical elucidation to justifying this crossover between art from before modernism with the contemporary, which, while it may be unprecedented within the framework of the main exhibition of La Biennale, at this stage seems trivial, above all because the convergence between the works is established on a purely thematic level, continuing to refer to strategies that would be more appropriate in the worst annals of post-modern cultural production, that even Hal Foster baptised at the beginning of the eighties, of the last century, as “neoconservative”.
I would make a similar appraisal of the para-pavilions: the ephemeral architectural structures that the curator has commissioned from artists such as Franz West and Monika Sosnowoska – these are the two that I would save – to head the projects of the international exhibition, with the aim of offering a “more dynamic means of shaping the Exhibition”. The para-pavilions are justified at length as an innovation, though they are suggestive in this case of the foray into collective curating that Francesco Bonami articulated in the same framework in 2003, though in a more formal and conceptually resolved manner and with a considerably more up to date political message. In that instance Bonami proposed the collaboration with a large team of curators, as he required “a polyphony of voices” to represent “a fragmented global world”.
What contributes to the sensation of crisis is that the most famous names that Bice Curiger presents either make contributions of a somewhat disputable quality –Cindy Shermann, Pipilotti Rist- or recycle formulas they have used before or ones that are already widely known –Maurizio Cattelan, Philippe Parreno, James Turrell-, with the exception, that is, of The Clock, by Christian Marclay, one of the most monumental and even opportune pieces in relation to the articulation of an event of the scale of La Biennale. It is also true, on the other hand, that some interesting artists have been selected from the youngest generations, amongst whom stand out, Omer Fast, the collective/group GELTIN, Nathaniel Mellors and Marinella Senatore.
To conclude, one final intention that Bice Curiger attributes to ILLUMInations is “to shed light on the institution itself, drawing attention to the fertile opportunities and dormant, unrecognized strengths, as well as conditions that need to be challenged”. Bice Curiger must be one of the few curators that La Biennale has had who defends the presence of the national pavilions, for their interest from a historical perspective, “as a reminder”. In this sense maybe one could venture that where her proposal for the section of the biennial “without frontiers” has fallen short, could in part have something to do with this re-evaluation, and points, at the same time, towards the culmination of what post-modernity has contributed to the international exhibition. In this sense, the intuition of Brice could suggest that the new step to take doesn’t correspond with the concept of a new addition but with the need to revise aspects of the ancient substrates of La Biennale.
Beat Wyss and Jörg Scheller make an excellent contribution towards this in the catalogue, with an article that tells the history of La Biennale in the form of a chronotype –the rhetorical form that Bakhtin upheld -, as a construction that develops in different temporal layers, each with their own respective ways of doing things. Although in the catalogue Bice Curiger also tries to develop this revisionist perspective, approaching all the artists with a questionnaire that calls into play some of the meanings that would be specific to the modernist layer of La Biennale: “1) Is the art community a nation?; 2) How many nations are inside you?; 3) Where do you feel at home?; 4) What language will the future speak?; 5) If art were a state, what would its constitution say?”.
Is it a joke? The fact that the majority of the replies from the artists are “no”, “none” or even “I don’t know” I think should be seen as yet another indicator of how her proposal has failed. Even if it has also served to proffer such jewels as the reply of Peter Fischli and David Weiss to number two: “How much is 42 x 87?”.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)