Anticipating a New Direction The 51st Venice Art Biennial
Author: Simone Wille
Originally published in NuktaArt, 2nd issue, January 2006
Cover Design: Sabiha Mohammad Imani
Source of inspiration: Installation by Amin Gulgee and Painting by A.P.Santhanaraj, Rural Scape (detail)
With its 110 year experience, the oldest and most prestigious art exhibition in the world is showing signs of a re-orientation. After years of permanent expansion and universalizing trends, the 51st Biennial appears to want to make peace with these ideas and contemplate a new direction.
Expectations and disappointments, discoveries and nerve-racking mediocrity are the key notions when travelling to Venice every two years to see the mother of all biennials. In 1999 Harald Szeemann surprised art goers with a flood of Chinese art hitherto unknown in Europe. In 2001 he curated the huge “Plateau of Humankind” intended to reflect on ethnic, religious and political conflicts. Francesco Bonami, the artistic director of the 2003 biennial, could not keep up with such gestures and hired a team of co-curators instead. These curators introduced the ‘rage’ of contemporary art all over the lagoon city; a tactic which, of course, made it rather difficult for the audience, as well as the critic, to grasp.
Along with the 73 participating countries, this year’s mega exposition appears more international than ever. Apart from the two main sites – Giardini della Biennale and Arsenale di Venezia – other country ‘pavilions’ are dispersed throughout the city and its islands. These include special exhibitions, installations, and project spaces. By inviting the Spaniards María de Corral and Rosa Martínez, both known as international and independent curators and critics, the 1895-Founded Biennial has for the first time been headed by two female curators.
Those who have been in Venice for the past two biennials will certainly appreciate the carefully trimmed exhibition curated by Rosa Martínez. Instead of the plethora in 2003 of over 400 artists, Martínez installed 49 artists within the huge halls of the Arsenale, where Venice once built its naval force. While the title “Always a Little Further” refers to a book on the adventures of Corto Maltese, a fictional character created by the Venetian writer and cartoonist Hugo Pratt, the curator also seems to circumscribe the limitations of any “Plateau of Humankind” even within a large event like the Venice Biennial.
The show is choreographed throughout and begins with a dynamic representation of a women’s room. Suspended from ceiling to floor, titled the ‘Bride’, a gigantic chandelier greets the audience. Upon closer inspection the ‘glass beads’ turn out to be 14,000 tiny tampons, wrapped in plastic and carefully arranged by Joana Vasconcelos from Portugal. The walls are decorated with Posters by the New Yorker Guerrilla Girls, attacking and analyzing gender role. Carefully acknowledging this female explosion, about half of the works are from women. A small retrospective is to be seen by the Turkish artist Semiha Berksoy who died in 2004, and was immortalized by the Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman in 1997, in a stirring seven and a half hour video portrait. There are works, of course, from the grand old lady of the arts, Louise Bourgeois. She elegantly suspends two twisted aluminium sculptures (2004) and impresses the art goer with a poetic sound-installation.
Amongst the younger artists, Regina José Galindo from Guatemala, whose medium is her own body, approaches her work with a seriousness suiting her passionate radicalism. By dipping her feet into blood and leaving marks on the sidewalks in front of the Guatemalan security forces or being operated on in order to re-fix her virginity in front of the running camera, Galindo constantly crosses the boundaries of a simple symbolism by ‘acting out’ loud. The artist documents how she feels: she bares the pain of her own people, of the oppressed, the violated, and the murdered, and re-lives these in order to heal them.
Less despair but more poetic intimacy is evident in Runa Islam’s video “Be the first to see what you see as you see it” (2004); a young woman dashes fine porcelain in dramatic slow motion with cinematographic perfection. Unforgettable, the life-size hippopotamus by Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla from Puerto Rico packs quite a punch. Perched on top of the animal a young woman sits reading “Corriere della Sera” (one of Italy’s most famous daily newspapers). Whenever she comes across injustice in the paper, she blows a whistle.
Pakistani born Shahzia Sikander’s striking DVD installation “SpiNN” (2003) is presented on a large wall against the backdrop of a circle, with a hand-painted decor onto which the images of a Moghul audience hall, gopis and their hairpieces, landscapes, and composite animals fade in and out of each other. The use of computer techniques has helped Sikander trim her previously formalistic language to dig further into the conceptual language of the miniature. The process of deconstruction and conceptual layering – one of Sikander’s artistic concerns previously most visibly emphasized in her wall installations with layers of tissue papers lined up and superimposed on one another – is now re-emphasized through a digital succession of images. “SpiNN” is about the misreading of the exotic as well as misperceptions of multiple meanings.
In Ghada Amer’s “Ying Yang” (2005) the art goer is lured onto two paths too narrow to share; finally the obvious realization that lovers cannot reach out to eachother either emotionally or physically. At the far end of the Arsenale, the Japanese artist Mariko Mori offers the chance to step into a glittering, futuristic space shuttle. Prepared to be beamed up by one of her white-clad assistants, like hygiene technicians responsible for industrially produced meals, we are invited to experience a space beyond cultural frontiers where we might contact ‘other’ people.
Amongst the male artists, Subodh Gupta’s installation “Curry” pulls the viewer in by its careful arrangement of hundreds of empty vessels and glittering cooking utensils. “Curry” is as equally subversive as his earlier works addressing money, class and authenticity. A witty interaction is presented by The Blue Noses Group from Moscow. Mocking “high” trends in twentieth century art, their “black humour” is a deconstruction of the cultural, sacred and moral standards in an attempt to achieve freedom of the spirit and liberation of the suppression of the individual. Despite some works recently exhibited in other biennials, and apart from dramatic gaps and tension shifts within the whole mise-en-scène, Martínez has choreographed a convincing sequence.
The exhibition “The Experience of Art” in the Padiglione d’Italia within the Giardini María de Corral attempts to build upon the existing. Unfortunately one is left wandering helplessly from room to room: no thesis, no dramatic theory. The exhibition comprises mostly of pairings such as in the central room with a cast of a stairwell by Rachel Whiteread (“Untitled” Domestic, 2002) placed against the strongly pixellated, large format photo works by the German Thomas Ruff, or where paintings by Agnes Martin and Juan Hernández Pijuan hang on one side facing those of Juan Uslé and Bernard Frize. Whiteread and Ruff stand unconnected side by side and as with the painters, connections are invited and even coerced a little too warily. Some of the exceptions appear last minute measures to enliven the show; classic works alongside short-lived ideas can all be discovered within the labyrinthine concept. Between works by Francis Bacon, Philip Guston, Bruce Nauman or Thomas Schuette (who received the Golden Lion for the best contribution for his room), one stumbles over the colorfully painted steps by Maider López or ends up in the video cabinet of Perejaume who captured grazing deer and copied the signature of the French realist painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1977) on to the work.
As usual, in the individual country pavilions, many artists and curators operate under an intolerable pressure to represent their country. Honoré d’O from Belgium like Antoni Muntadas for Spain or Gabríela Fridriksdóttir from Iceland got mixed up in absurd material battles. Their extravagance is in flagrant disproportion to the gain for any audience. Sovereign is the presentation of the British pavilion with the solo exhibition of the living legends Gilbert & George. With 25 new pictures they game with the dualism, Occident/Orient, with a healthy juvenile input. Annette Messager built an opulent play with three acts around the story of Pinocchio in the French pavilion. For the installation of light and flowing fabrics she received the Golden Lion.
Far from the temples of fame in the Giardini and Arsenale, on one of the less touristic islands Giudecca, in the refectory of the former 13th century convent of SS. Cosma & Damiano, an exhibition focusing on contemporary art from India is to be discovered. iCon: India Contemporary presents new works by Ranbir Kaleka, Nalini Malani, Raqs Media Collective, Atul Dodiya, Anita Dube and Nataraj Sharma. Most remarkable is Ranbir Kaleka’s video/painting installation creating a sense and desire for place on a four channel video projection (2005). Experienced in the silence of the convent, this allows one to escape into spatial comfort. And despite the work’s cultural and religious connotations, the viewer experiences the crossing of borders. Atul Dodiya presents a room full of paintings on crutches behind which other paintings are hidden. Referencing Enzo Cucchi, this can be interpreted as a site-specific intervention, just as he has recently quoted Mondrian’s paintings for an exhibition in New York.
Across the Grand Canal, within the Fondazione Levi, the biennial’s first time participant – Afghanistan – as well as Iran, participating for the second time after the Revolution, are located. Afghanistan has never been represented in international art festivals, but is, ironically, making headlines in the international media. In Venice, Lida Abdul, born in Kabul a few years before the Soviet invasion, presents a Video performance and Rahim Walizada shows a variety of woollen carpets, the result of collaboration with Afghan women. One of the two Iranian artists, Mandana Moghaddam’s installation comprises a block of cement hung from the ceiling by four braids of hair. While the block of cement can be read as a metaphor of masculinity, monotony and coldness, the braid of women’s hair with a red ribbon is an obvious feminine symbol; glimmer and sensitivity keeping the heavy block in balance and emphasizing the duality of the work. A pity this work could not be viewed in a larger room!
In general there was a tendency to present artists already recognised within the art market or the exhibition circus. Though this might be interpreted as the result of an accepted perplexity, the international exhibitions as well as the countries need to seek a new truism. What is needed now is change, so that in two year’s time we can say: Right, that was the beginning!
Images courtesy: Simone Wille
Simone Wille is an art historian, based in Vienna. From 2016 to 2021 she directed the research project Patterns of Trans-regional Trails. The materiality of Art Works and Their Place in the Modern Era. Bombay, Paris, Prague, Lahore, ca. 1920s to early 1950s (P29536-G26) and from 2021 to 2025 she directs the research project South Asia in Central Europe. The Mobility of Artists and Art Works between 1947 and 1989 (V 880-G), both fully funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF. Wille is affiliated with the University of Innsbruck where she regularly lectures on transnational developments of 19th and 20th century modernist art. Her publications include her book Modern Art in Pakistan. History, Tradition, Place. New Delhi: Routledge, 2015 and the edited volume André Lhote and His International Students, Zeynep Kuban, Simone Wille (eds.), Innsbruck: Innsbruck University Press, 2020