Friday, August 7, 2009
53rd Annual La Biennale di Venezia 2009
As I planned and plotted my must see stops at the 2009 Venice Biennale, generously accumulated by recommendations and maps from friends and colleagues, I became my own worst itinerary. However, as I stepped off of the vaporetto onto the crunchy white gravel that links one pavilion to the next, all of my fastidious preparations, which is just the process I apparently like to put myself through, melted away and there I was looking and thinking once again in a way I enjoy most. The following are a few of my personal highlights at the Biennale as well as some additional thoughts.
Beginning on a high note, Fiona Tan's (b. 1966) audio-visual exhibition representing the Netherlands at the Dutch Pavilion brings together one new and two recent video works that not only embrace the theme of the Biennale, "Making Worlds," but also exemplify an acute curatorial eye. Curator of the Dutch Pavilion and Dean of the School of Art at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York, Saskia Bos, demonstrates a subtle and effective use of the exhibition space to give a sense of both prominence and unity to Tan's works. Tan's newest work Disorient (2009), produced specifically for the Dutch pavilion, sits central to the space. The position of the projection is set quite nicely so as to incorporate the wall of windows shaded by trees, allowing subtle shadow and light to filter into the exhibition space, enhancing the sense of lived environment. Upon entering, a man's voice reads excerpts from the account of Venetian merchant Marco Polo's journey through Asia in the latter half of the 13th Century. His voice is juxtaposed by sections of video exposing isolated views of the east. This friction is what gives Tan's work an entry point and produces continued and new dialogue surrounding the ever-present slippage between the "inability of the west to truly come to grips with the essence of the east." (http://www.designboom.com/weblog/cat/10/view/6800/dutch-pavilion-fiona-tan-at-the-venice-art-biennale-09.html).
Fiona Tan, Rise and Fall, 2009
An adjoining space is more intimately staged with an addition of a half-wall to create a sense of enclosure. Here Tan explores contemporary portraiture inspired by 17th Century portrait paintings at the Rjiksmuseum, Amsterdam. Provenance (2008) is six small LCD screens showing portraits of local people in Tan's neighborhood engaged in subtle movements. The intimacy of the screen's size and the figure's movement within the frame create this very surreal sense of connection between the subject and the viewer. It's as if the portraits from The Golden Age, that we always seem to think look so real that they move, have actually come to life in our own time and show us the effect of intimacy and relation that owners of these paintings may have had in the 17th Century. Rise and Fall (2009) is a diptych video presentation on two vertical screens, which cycle between violent images of rushing waters and whipping winds, and subdued portraits and vignettes revealing intimacy through sensual touch. Tan gives the viewer just enough information to play upon our fantasies or to recall memories through expression of human touch and interaction. The rushing waters seem to act as a palette cleanser, whereby the artist gives the viewer a taste, and then washes it away in preparation for a new memories that continually build upon one another. One interesting aspect of this piece is the way in which Tan maintains a soft cool blue tone throughout the transition between images of figures and images of nature, producing an even more intense connection.
Into the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, nestled in a dark space in the very back of the building, is an installation called Experiment by Swedish artist Nathalie Djurberg, who won the Silver Lion prize at the Biennale. Stepping down into this lush and thriving over-sized garden one realizes that this is not your typical botanical experience. Upon closer inspection these claymation inspired flowers are coated in a resin-like material that creates a glistening wet and mucus-like sheen over the tops of them, making the installation look more like an alien breeding ground of some sort straight from a sci-fi horror film. Nestled is separate areas within the "garden" are three flat screen monitors, each showing a short raunchy claymation video. Complete with sexually repressed clergymen, sex and death in a black oil death pit, and writhing worse-for-wear nude claymation threesomes, Djurberg has truly created a new experience and a new world from which a myriad of responses, criticisms, and reflection both culturally and socially can be deduced. Lily Simonson's Art: 21 blog Nathalie Djurberg and Paul Chan: Making Weird Worlds at Birnbaum's Biennale makes a very interesting and poignant connection between Djurberg's "video reference to the process of psychoanalysis, like Chan’s invocation of mathematics and vague shadows" and how they "subtly instruct the viewer to interpret these bizarre violent orgies as symbolic of broader struggles." She goes on to conclude that while horrifying and quite peculiar both artists are addressing ideas that are profoundly universal in varying worlds. These are the young artists who draw visitors to the Biennale pilgrimage and make the trip a new experience.
I conclude with Bruce Nauman's installation of Topological Gardens - the official U.S. entry at the Biennale - which extended to three locations, only two of which I visited. The Universita Ca' Foscari stop had one of Nauman's newest works and a work that had been originally done in 1970 and recreated in the very space it was shown in this exhibition. The first piece, Giorni, 2009, is a 14 minute, 28 second, 14 channel loop of local individuals repeating the days of the week in Italian. Two rows of seven suspended white squares that rest at ear-level emit the woven and overlapping voices that echo within this long corridor. Aesthetically, the installation is simple and quite beautiful, the plain white squares allow the viewer to focus intently on the sound alone and how this may evoke ones own personal images associated with it. As I reflect now on the work I try to image how different it would have been had each of those blank squares been a video of the same person whose voice is heard. It would have certainly altered the perception of Nauman's investigation of topological space and not been as successful. It is that continuous moment of tension that Nauman is aware of and sets forth to create in his works that shines through in these exhibitions. He leaves just enough space for the viewer to slip into and experience a continuous sense of flux.
Another work in the exhibition, Untitled, 1970/2009, dances "almost quite literally" within the trajectory of the thematic concepts of Head and Hands and Sounds and Space which flow throughout Topological Gardens. A video is projected onto the floor of two women dressed in white, lying opposite one another, only touching by their hands, and spin atop a circular platform. As the platform rotates the women rotate their own bodies while maintaining straight limbs and keeping connected at their hands. The video plays within the very same space that this performance took place in one month earlier. This work truly emphasizes the topological relation to space and non-space.
My overall conclusion of the Biennale would have to be that if the title suggests "Making Worlds," which Daniel Birnbaum notes "is an exhibition driven by the aspiration to explore worlds around us as well as worlds ahead," then a more careful consideration of the space for artists as well as a broader selection of young/emerging artists and further collaboration would have tied the "theme" or "non-theme" of the fair much more perceptively. It was also quite awkward that Birnbaum was more insistent with pitching processed-based works against a more refined examples of "visual richness-abstract imagery and painting" in his statement about "Making Worlds" than he actually was about the world that is the Biennale and how this message could effectively be delivered sans the differentiation between media as that is to be expected at a world art fair. I am not convinced that the message of "new worlds emerging where worlds meet" came across so clearly in the curatorial presentation of the Biennale. Instead, it was instilled on a more individual artist basis than is was about a unification of worlds. I am especially responding to the idea that the "theme" could have been taken further.
For instance, if we are talking about making worlds and understanding the makeup of our own at the same time I would have loved to see a young artist, like Steve Locke present, whose work reflects on Modernism in a forward thinking fashion while smartly weaving in a very intimate humanist vein into his work. Or even an artist like, Victoria Fu who uses video, installation and drawing to explore the self-portrait in a way that also sustains our level of nostalgia and in many ways, like Fiona Tan, evokes memory through a cycle of moving images. Though Fu and Tan would not be exhibited in the same physical location it would have been quite interesting to establish and make note of links like this between artists in the fair, which would spark the connection of making new worlds and give meat to the critical edge of this Biennale.
It would have also been refreshing to see recently successful young artists like Nicholas Hlobo, whose work deals with issues of homosexuality in South Africa, and has recently had solo exhibitions at the ICA Boston and Tate Modern, London. Hlobo's media consists of using found materials like tire rubber, chairs, ribbon and fabric to develop sculptural works that question the notions of stereotyping object to sexuality. Hlobo's work also functions as a way to tie Xhosa traditions and language to modern South African culture.
There were an exuberant amount of talented artists at the fair, however, if the consideration was for moving away from a "monotonous sameness" as Birnbaum states, is cultivated from a "homogenizing tendency that involves a leveling of cultural differences," this did not come across as effectively as was hoped. I would have loved to see more artist collaboration like Brooklyn artist Swoon's fleet of three boats made entirely from "garbage" who took to the seas with a crew of 30 artists, musicians and interested parties. Docking in Venice for the fair, this project took on the mode of "Making Worlds" to its fullest. Or, even collaboration between participating artists who were interested in a collaborative project. Also, more group exhibitions within the overall context, like Venezuela's pavilion showing Mundos en Proceso (Worlds in Process) exploring the reality of the continued development of artistic production, could have really acted as a counter for this leveling of differences that the Biennale seeks to invest.