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Venice Biennale 2011

17 June 2011

I’ve been lucky to go to Venice many times, and every time it has involved boats. In 1993 the exhibition “Tresor de Voyages” was set in the Armenian Monastery of the island of San Lazzaro. For “Aperto 95,” the exhibition “on board” took place on an old wooden schooner. In 2005 and in 2007, I was piloting a boat for PS1 with a radio station and a lounge, tied up at quayside just by the entrance to the Giardini.

This year though, I landed in Venice with nothing to produce, to organize or to work on. . . a free man just going around and seeing. . . a kind of novice in a well-known busy hub, floating on the waters. I cruised through the city with the ghost of my PS1 experience.

In 2011, La Biennale has probably 300, maybe 400 things to see: exhibitions, pavilions, projects, performances. The biennale proper has 89 national pavilions -- 30 permanent national pavilions in the Giardini, 10 in the Arsenale, and others all over town. Then, you have what are called “collateral events” organized by independent nonprofits and made official by La Biennale curator Brice Curiger. In addition, again, are the many independent exhibitions and projects organized by artists, curators and dealers all over the lagoon city.

Still, among so many, the big deal is La Biennale’s main exhibition, Curiger’s own “ILLUMInations.” Located in the main pavilion in the Giardini and extending into the Corderie at the Arsenale, the show fills over 100,000 square feet with all variety of works by 83 artists of mixed nationality, gender and age.

The oldest participant is a much-anticipated surprise: Tintoretto, whose three works filled the first big gallery in the main pavilion, The Last Supper, The Stealing of the Body of St. Mark and The Creation of the Animals. The security is so tight that no back-and-forth in and out of the room is allowed. Once you’ve left, you’re done, unless you want to go back to the end of the line.

I moved on, so many things to see and, as I already knew, no way to see it all.

At morning coffee, a random chat on a terrace with Okwui Enwezor. “How can anyone see everything during these critical four days,” I asked him. ”You don’t see, you scan,” he said, laughing away.

Okwui was getting ready to make a speech in the garden of the Hotel Gabrielli. He has been appointed by the French Ministry of Culture to be chief curator of the 2012 Triennale of Paris, which inaugurates and inaugurates the 215,000-square-foot expanded and renovated Palais de Tokyo. Okwui has chosen four associate curators: Melanie Bouteloup, Abdellah Karroum, Emilie Renard and Claire Staebler. By the way, it’s a good thing that I’m French, I could not find an English press release.

For my first scan through Venice, I chose “The World Belongs to You,” an exhibition curated by Caroline Bourgeois for the Foundation Pinault at the Palazzo Grassi. The day before the preview, I was amazed to receive an email from the foundation alerting me to the one-day “vaporetto strike” during the biennale opening and providing info of the foundation’s alternate shuttle service! Quite efficient! This is the fifth anniversary of the foundation in Venice and it has already a mythical reputation.

The exhibition provides a good sense of Pinault’s diverse collection, with works by 40 artists from around the globe. Bourgeois did an excellent job with the installation. The building, the show, the works and the visitors, all have a nice breathing space. Seeing Alighiero Boetti and Frédéric Bruly Bouabré’s works next to each other always takes me to another place. Also, I enjoyed seeing there works by Boris Mikhailov (b. 1938), who retouches his photographs of the ordinary world, and Sergey Bratkov (b. 1960), a Ukrainian artist known for photos of kids.) What a treat seeing so many of the colored painted photos of Mikhailov. What a series to have!

No one goes to the biennale to get a good workout, but it provides one all the same. After three days, you have walked 15 or 20 miles, and you also have a tan if you stayed on the sunny side.

I arrived at the Palazzo Papadoli to see the Ukrainian Victor Pinchuk Foundation’s “Future Generation Art Prize Exhibition.” Pausing to cool off, seated in the lobby of the palazzo, I was gazing at the green water off the palazzo’s private dock when a water taxi arrived and two bodyguards emerged, followed by Elton John. Suddenly the pavilion organizers dashed in and a tour for Elton began.

I went the other way, holding my “scanning pace,” as Okwui would say. Then I sat on the lobby bench to think, before going to the next stop. I was chatting with a young artist next to me, the only American in the show, Ruben Ochoa, a Mexican-American born 1974. The concrete block sculptures in front of us were his.

Elton John looked at them on his way out and asked, “Who is the artist?” My new friend got up. “It’s me.” Elton said, “How much are the works?” Ochoa responded “$70,000.” Elton said, “Sold.” He needed an outdoor piece for his garden. They shook hands and a deal was done.

By the way, the Brazilian artist Cinthia Marcelle, born in 1974, received the Future Generation Art Prize. The award is $100,000, $60,000 in cash and $40,000 to produce new work.  

The Iraq Pavilion was very moving. The last time Iraq had a national pavilion at the Venice Biennale was in 1976. And like this phantom history, the building holding the Iraqi Pavilion -- the Gervasuti family’s artisan cabinet-making and joinery workshop in the Castello -- seems to have been abandoned long ago. But recently new wiring and safety fire exit signs were installed, and this raw structure strangely made me think of how many buildings like this must there be in the Iraq of today, abandoned, stripped down and ghostly.

The Iraq Pavilion has two generations of artists. One, born in the early 1950s, came of age in the 1970s during the birth of Arab socialism: Ali Assaf, Azad Nanakeli and Walid Siti. The second group includes Adel Abidin, Ahmed Alsoudani and Halim Al Karim. They exited the country before the 2003 invasion, having grown up during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88.

The six artists all made their pieces on-site, resulting in the artworks being placed throughout the building simply and organically. The theme of the show is “water,” a scarce resource in Iraq, and its own kind of problem in Venice. The calm and silence I experienced at this show was almost mystical.

I had lunch near the Arsenale and James Turrell joined me for coffee and lemonade. We talked about our times at PS1 (where Turrell has a “skyspace”). After this interlude, it was off to the Giardini for the openings of the various national pavilions. I walked along the Riva Ca’ Di Dio and Riva S. Biagio, where beautiful yachts are docked. Then, from the deck of a staggering 170-foot-long sailing yacht, the Red Dragon, I was summoned by my friend Jerome Sans, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, just in time for dessert and coffee. I met the owner of the Red Dragon, the celebrated art patron Guy Ullens.

It brings a Kafkaesque feeling to experience in the same hour the Iraq Pavilion and lunch on Mr. Guy Ullens’ yacht.

My best art experience was at the Polish pavilion. Yael Bartana is the first non-Polish national to represent Poland in the history of the Venice Biennale. Bartana’s films, Mary Koszmary (2007), Mur i wieza (2009) and Zamach (2011), focus on the activities of an imaginary Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMiP), which calls for the return of Jews to central Europe.

Bartana’s installation is brilliant, three projections and a sculpture, set in perfect harmony, four spaces that become one. I sat in the center space watching the projections. Bartana’s work unfolds subtly and beautifully. I could gently contemplate the left and right projections and their floating sounds, while my eyes stopped from time to time on the minimal sculpture made of four massive stacks of red posters. The delicate sense of the installation carries the solemnity of the work and its content. Bravo Yael.

Saturday I went around looking at shows and projects with my friend Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, who once was my upstairs neighbor. We went to see the South African Pavilion with the exhibition “Desire, Ideal Narratives in Contemporary South African Art.” The last appearance of South Africa at the biennale was 17 years ago. The pavilion is around the back of the Arsenale in the Torre di Porta Nuova, not easy to access unless you have a boat. But the space is beautiful, the show is well installed and has three artists: Siemon Allen, Lyndi Sales and Mary Sibande. (This despite being marred by a controversy, as two of the three artists are represented by a South African dealer who co-organized the show, which prompted a fourth, Zwelethu Mthethwa, to pull out.)   

I liked seeing Mary Sibande’s new mannequin sculptures, which address her autobiography through a character named “Sophie.” All figures are rendered from the same cast of Sophie, which bears the artist’s features. In it, Sibande mixes fashion, uniform, cultural history and ethnic identity together, and something beautiful happens.

Next, Princess Gloria and I stopped at the Prague-based artist Federico Díaz’ installation, Outside Itself, also at the Arsenale Nuovissimo. The installation consists of thousands of small balls, assembled by robotic devices completely free from the touch of human hands.

Onsite viewers influence the ambient light surrounding the installation, which is detected by optical sensors and later translated into tangible form by the mechanical robots. The end result is a sculpture reflective of the viewing public. Visitors to the biennale can observe the sculpture’s construction over the course of the show, June 1-Sept. 30, 2011. It began as nothing, and is a real work-in-progress, literally interacting itself into being.

ANTOINE "Tony" GUERRERO is an exhibition organizer who has worked at MoMA PS1, PS1, the American Center/Paris, and Agnes b. He lives in New York.

Author: Antoine “Tony” Guerrero