Let There Be Light!
A Walk through the 54th Biennale di Venezia
It’s still the most important art show worldwide: a total of 89 nations are represented in the current Venice Biennale, with 31 national pavilions in the Giardini di Castello alone. The main exhibition "ILLUMInazioni," curated by Bice Curiger, presents 83 international artists. Brigitte Werneburg labored through this year’s art jungle.
||The best always comes last: this adage seems to apply to the 54th Venice Biennale, too. But first one has to make one’s way through the pavilions in the Giardini and the long line of rooms in the Arsenale, where the head of this year’s Biennale, Bice Curiger, has installed her ILLUMInazioni exhibition. And after one has reemerged from the deep black of the Saudi Arabian pavilion, the darkness continues to echo in the Indian, Argentinean, and Croatian pavilions. But then one enters Turkey’s light-filled room, in which aesthetics, politics, and artistic caprice come together in the finest manner. The hall seems spacious and empty, even with a room-sized sculpture blocking the way—at first glance, a grid structure typical for the art, design, architecture, and technological logistics of Modernism. It looks a little as though a Mondrian painting had emancipated itself from the wall and had finally conquered three-dimensional space.
This construction, however, painted in lavender, red, green, and turquoise, is a site-specific installation by Ayse Erkmen, who references Venice’s crucial water circulation system. For her Plan B, the artist, who lives in Berlin and Istanbul, brought a drinking water treatment plant to Venice and considerably expanded its dimensions to adapt it to the site. Now, the facility draws water from the canal running past the pavilion and purifies it of salt, particles of dirt, and chemical contamination until it is in a state fit for showering and washing dishes. When minerals are added, the result is drinking water that Erkmen then directs back into the canal. This exploration of the complex relationship between city and water connects the Biennale installation to Erkmen’s most ambitious work to date, Shipped Ships, which opened Deutsche Bank’s Moment series in 2001. For Shipped Ships, Erkmen had three passenger ferries shipped from Venice, Istanbul, and Japan on container ships to Frankfurt, where they resumed their service.
One could regard her latest installation Plan B as an Acte graduit of the kind André Gide loved—as a random, even destructive act. But the artist is only interested in the act’s tremendous meaninglessness on a secondary level; she’s not concerned with a radical intervention into the urban and ecological realm of the kind the city of Venice prominently advertises right next door with its highly controversial MOSE project to forestall flooding. Erkmen is primarily interested in the moment of grace as expressed in the Latin word gratia; particularly the grace that emerges in the futile deed.
A similar Acte graduit could also be detected in the wax sculptures of the Swiss artist Urs Fischer, installed in the Arsenale section of Curiger’s ILLUMInazioni. Fischer has created a life-sized portrait of his artist friend Rudolf Stingel and placed it in an office chair. Next to it is a lone chair and the still monumental, meter-high copy of Giambologna’s Mannerist sculpture The Rape of the Sabine Women: all of these sculptures will disappear over the course of the Biennale, because they contain burning wicks that will devour the wax they are made of.
Indeed, the title the Swiss critic and curator at Kunsthaus Zurich selected for her exhibition is all about light and alludes to many things: the lightning bolts of an experimental art form, true illumination, fireworks à la Cai Guo-Qiang, as well as conflagrations that don’t always have to be by Bill Viola. In the final analysis, however, it’s Urs Fischer’s warm candlelight that stands symptomatically for Bice Curiger’s show, which is so formally uniform that it ultimately drifts off into an oddly monotonous dead end.
Even Tintoretto’s threatening sky doesn’t help that, riddled with lightning bolts, rises up in a storm over the St. Mark's Body brought to Venice. It’s one of the three paintings of the Venetian old master that Curiger has brought into the International Pavilion and declared to be the core and point of departure for her show. With no further results. Her selection seems largely determined by the motto of the Manufactum store—yes, excellent art still exists. It’s carefully thought, skillfully made, and it gets by without all the fireworks of the art market’s precious jewels. Art that, even if it isn’t necessarily complex, always frames its arguments subtly, as Annette Kelm does with her didactic photographic works on comparative seeing—if one doesn’t mistake it for a "find the mistake" kind of quiz, that is.
There are, however, discoveries: Song Dong, for instance, has built a small village from old wardrobe doors in which Yto Barrada, Deutsche Bank’s 2011 "Artist of the Year," is fittingly installed with her autobiographical film narrative My Family and Other Animals. The installation is a so-called para-pavilion, designed by an artist and occupied by colleagues that he or she has invited. Thus, Dayanita Singh’s black and white photos are disturbingly shocking in their depiction of the grotesque chaos of allegedly ordered mountains of files in the archives of New Delhi. Viennese artist Franz West, who was awarded a Lion for his life work and is also represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, made an excellent choice for his para-pavilion with these works. Anyone who needs a document from these archives has to prepare for an ordeal of Kafkaesque dimensions.
Otherwise, it’s dismay, shock, and elucidation that can be experienced in the numerous national pavilions. The regional and national problems that provide the artists with their material do not vanish in the rooms of post-colonial and post-national art. Curiger’s attempt to counteract the Biennale ritual of declaring the national pavilions obsolete with her double title ILLUMInazioni seems pretty superfluous, particularly this year. One need only enter the Egyptian pavilion to understand how important this platform can be. On a five-part video screen, curator Aida Eltorie mixes images of a performance by Ahmed Basiony with his images of the protestors on Tahrir Square in Cairo. On January 25, the well-known media artist, clad in a special outfit, went to the square for the first time. Only three days later, on January 28, he was shot dead by snipers.
The artistic competition among the nations, however, which the Biennale called into being in 1894, is long since passé. This year’s Golden Lion went not to Germany, but to the Kirche der Angst vor dem Fremden in mir, the
Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within. If one understands the church’s founder, Christoph Schlingensief, properly, this alienation also contains a German aspect or, as he stated in an interview in 2008, "a little bit of Hitler." Like the Egyptian pavilion, the German pavilion is a posthumous one. Its curator, Susanne Gaensheimer, director of the MMK in Frankfurt, and Aino Laberenz, Schlingensief’s widow, have each added a nave aisle to the church, which originates from the last Ruhrtriennale. Here, on the right, are Schlingensief’s films, and on the left the plans for the opera village in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Schlingensief’s
A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within remains a stage set in which his films and props are collected and stored. But they need not be confused with relics. You’d need a bit more than the red church lights, which he himself already used, in order to lay this work solemnly to rest in its grandiose, unfounded confidence. A confidence that Christian Boltanski would also like to convey in the French Pavilion opposite, although he only manages to simulate it with the help of a huge machine for transporting pictures.
The organ sounds that can be heard in the Giardini do not come from Schlingensief’s church, but from the American Pavilion, where they chime as soon as the cash machine is used, which is the alien element here. A bitter joke by the Cuban-American artist pair Allora & Calzadilla, who reconstructed the luxury reclining armchairs of Delta and American Airlines’ business class in other rooms. Successful Olympic athletes once performed all kinds of exercises on them, including the sprint on the treadmill mounted atop the tank, which the artists placed on its back before the Pavilion, like a beetle. The tank’s chain can be set noisily in motion through running on the treadmill. In a place where the nation is invoked, Allora & Calzadilla seem to be warning us that we are merely expending ourselves for our business class—and not for our country.
With Crystal of Resistance, his installation in the Swiss Pavilion, Thomas Hirschhorn has gone to extremes in his accustomed manner. Like so many ulcers, he has adhered small cell phones onto large iPhone ads; cell phones in the hundreds also cover the ubiquitous plastic chairs. Fitness machines reign resplendent in a second skin of aluminum foil, while torture photos flutter like pennants at the ends of strings hung across the shining grotto. What sticks most in the memory with these "critical bodies," which are augmented by Hirschhorn’s wild installation, are the Oriental rugs rolled up and divided into shish kebabs with brown tape. The image persists in a confounded, cliché-ridden manner.
The Italian Pavilion, it must be admitted, also appears as a wild critical body—although it does this in a completely reactionary way. Certain he would dupe the so-called art mafia of critics and curators, the right-wing populist curator Vittorio Sgarbi asked 240 prominent Italian figures, including a number of intellectual stars of the left, to select their artists for the Pavilion—L’arte non è cosa nostra. No, this flea market of stuffed polar bears and pseudo-Dalís is for no one, even if it might seem illuminating to suddenly see Mario Botta, Sir Norman Foster, Claudio Magris, and Dario Fo standing there so nakedly.
At the very most, one would have expected a show this uneven among the so-called collateral events. But one errs in the case of most of the special exhibitions, including Future Pass which investigates art’s digital future in the 21st century with over 100 primarily Asian artists. For those that were just standing before the Tintoretto, these works look very alien, slick, and eclectic, of course. But at the same time, in this high-gloss universe of Manga and Anime, Yoshitomo Nara’s goggle-eyed girl with a small house atop her head is particularly moving. The colors in Nara’s painting Home are dull enough to make one think twice; this is a protagonist one looks at a second time. The defiant punk in the abandoned child could be roaming Cao Fei’s RMB City, the Peking-based artist’s famous Second Life Project in which she anticipates a city of the future that immediately awakens our desire for a true home. After regenerating energy, healthy nutrition, and clean water. We’ve put our minds to it, thanks to Ayse Erkmen—just as we have with the small house.