Experience par Excellence? The 51st Venice Biennale
by Laurie Ann Farrell, Curator, Museum for African Art, NY
Tourism and the Venice Biennale go hand in hand. Every two years hordes of artists, critics, curators, gallerists, and contemporary art devotees make a cultural pilgrimage to Venice. This year's excursion, chartered by Mar�a de Corral and Rosa Martinez (the first women Directors in the show's 110-year history), presents an intelligently curated (albeit scaled-back) pair of exhibitions. Mar�a de Corral curated 'The Experience of Art' in the Italian Pavilion and Rosa Martinez curated 'Always a Little Further' in the Arsenale.
Rosa Martinez's 'Always a Little Further' opens with a series of works by the Guerrilla Girls. Continuing their crusade against discrimination with 'facts, humor and fake fur,' they created a series of works addressing gender and racial imbalances at the Venice Biennale. It is unfortunate that an inaccurate proclamation in the Guerrilla Girls' Benvenuti all Biennale Femminista! has prompted art critics such as Michael Kimmelman of the NY Times to believe that 'aside from Egypt and Morocco, no African countries are represented this time around.' (NY Times, Art Section, June 16, 2005). Perhaps the absence of an African pavilion prompted this response? Even so, isn't it time to support more African countries in pavilions rather than grouping the entire continent into one exhibition? Salah Hassan (co-curator of 'Authenic/Ex-Centric: In and Out of Africa' at the 49th Venice Biennale) stated that sponsorship was raised this year to support several of the African artists' participation in the main Biennale exhibitions in lieu of hosting a separate African pavilion. Ghada Amer, Berni Searle, and Pascale Marthine Tayou are included in 'Always a Little Further' at the Arsenale; and Candice Breitz, Marlene Dumas, William Kentridge, Zwelethu Mthethwa, and Robin Rhode are part of 'The Experience of Art' in the Italian Pavilion. And these are just the main exhibitions. Artist and lecturer Johan Thom, from Tshwane University of Technology, brought a group of students to participate in the 'Real Presence � Floating Sites' collateral event.
Returning to the Arsenale, Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelo's chandelier The Bride made from 14,000 tampons provides a playful counterpoint to the sardonic humor of the Guerrilla Girl banners. Exhibition spaces in the Arsenale are large and open. Very few built walls separate works in the exhibition, which enhances Rosa Martinez's stated curatorial objective of conceiving 'new forms of neighborhoods between artists, disciplines and audiences.' This strategy seems most effective for two- and three-dimensional works and videos shown in contained spaces. However, numerous video works suffer from proximity and audio bleeds. For example, Berni Searle's poetic film Vapour screens in a recessed space directly across from Albanian artist Adrian Paci's film Turn On. When shown at the spacious Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York as part of 'Personal Affects' last fall, Vapour commanded a solemn, majestic presence. However visitors at the Arsenale who stopped to take in Vapourstood in between Searle and Paci's films in an effort to determine whether the works were related. Perhaps these neighbors would have a more harmonious existence if audio isolation devices had been employed. Nevertheless, Searle's film casts a romantic mood for the rest of the journey.
Highlights along the way include Mona Hatoum's hypnotic sand installation + and �, playful projections in boxes by Blue Noses, a cinematic voyage through Mongolia with Oleg Kulik, and Sergio Vega's politically charged works which are balanced by his chill out space Tropicalounge. Journeys into the mind and otherworldly spaces were provided by Mariko Mori's interactive Wave UFO (if you could stand queuing for an hour, or more), and a video installation of a very Zen Kimsooja amidst crowds.
'Always a Little Further' draws to a close with a series of outdoor installations and booths including Ghada Amer's Yin Yang Garden and Pascale Marthine Tayou's dreamy cloud of Plastic Bags. Employing scented flora (including lavender, rosemary, and roses), stones, and water, Amer's Ying Yang Garden presents the primal and complimentary forms embodied in ancient Chinese philosophy for visitors to traverse. Transporting visitors into his dreamy cloudscape, Tayou's abstract arrangement of blue, white, yellow, and red plastic bags continually take new shape with a mixture of wind and imagination. These works set the stage for projected dancing partners in the magical mirrored dance hall of Valeska Soares.
'Always A Little Further' succeeded in presenting a coherent experience. Transitions between works are natural and the quality of work impressive. While there weren't any new discoveries, or real surprises, the exhibition was organized in such a way that you could really look at and enjoy the works. How refreshing indeed.
Moving over to the Italian Pavilion, Mar�a de Corral's 'The Experience of Art' presents works in the context of an experimental research project rather than an exhibition bound to a directed narrative. A text-based work covering the facade by American artist Barbara Kruger invites viewers into the Italian Pavilion.
A sweet series of short digital animations by Robin Rhode screen independently in a room next to that showing a mediocre film by Stan Douglas. Rhode's short animations offer a refreshing break from the presence of overextended videos shown in the Italian pavilion. Rhode's series presents children performing in his trademark, interactive chalk drawings on pavement. The works simulate kids having the rides of their lives on a bike, a see saw, a horse, and even moving around a colour wheel. Rhode states that these projects afford him the opportunity to extract himself as a performer and enjoy the works as a voyeur of sorts. Additionally he stated that creating these virtual play spaces addresses the ruinous state of public parks in Cape Town and the toll the absence of such places has on the South African youth. The films are clever, playful and were definitely an enjoyable moment in the Italian Pavilion.
Continuing on through the exhibition, visitors passed through a labyrinth of closed spaces to move between the artworks. Zwelethu Mthethwa's Flex video screened in a generous sized space along this corridor. Presenting abstracts of beautiful male bodies in movement, Mthethwa's looping six minute video prompted onlookers to question what type of activity is taking place off screen.
An homage to the beginnings of filmmaking and to the French filmmaker Georges M�li�s is presented in an elevated space dedicated to the work of William Kentridge. A virtual cacophony of image and sound, the room presents Kentridge's video projection Journey to the Moon,along with eight projections entitled Day for Night and 7 fragments for Georges M�li�s. Some of the projections feature Kentridge at work. Scenes alternate on different screens - pages of paper magically flying into Kentridge's hands, the artist making drawings, and animations of the artist coming to life. Projections move forward and backward at various intervals as Kentridge reveals his artistic technique in the projections. For a moment I felt these images recalled a scene in 'The Wizard of Oz' where the curtain is pulled back and the mighty Oz is revealed as a mortal pulling levers on industrial-sized equipment. Kentridge's secrets were being given away. Nevertheless, I loved Journey to the Moon. I sat through numerous screenings of the work in an effort to take it all in. Would this space have been more effective with fewer works? Or is it through the synchronized viewing of these pieces that we understand Kentridge's statement? I leave this for others to decide.
A new pair of video installations by Candice Breitz also makes a strong impact. As the ultimate copyright bandit, Breitz has plucked recognizable Hollywood actors and actresses from known films and re-choreographed their movements and words into Motherand Father. As the titles suggest, Breitz has taken iconic mothers and fathers and rescripted their dialogue to comment on the emotional challenges and rewards that come with fulfilling these roles. Each space had six large plasma screens organized into semi-circular arrangements. The production value of Breitz's films is truly impressive and the commentary produced intelligently crafted.
Highlights outside of the Italian Pavilion included Pipilotti Rist's video installation Homo Sapiens Sapiens in the Baroque Church of San Stae further along on the Grand Canal. Visitors are invited to recline on luxurious cushions to take in the dreamy imagery of naked nymphs playfully moving through a tropical landscape which were projected onto the surface of the vaulted ceiling. Rist's video provided a standout experience. Additionally, I would highly recommend visiting the British, Brazilian, Egyptian, Japanese, Korean, and Turkish pavilions.
At the end of every journey, travelers pack their bags and reflect upon their trip. We often assess whether we would come back, did we miss anything, would we do things differently, have we bought too many souvenirs... The 51st Venice Biennale provided an equitable share of forgettable and memorable moments. While 'The Experience of Art' included standout contributions from several African artists, the curatorial vision for 'Always a Little Further' was translated more clearly through the choice of works and the exhibition walkthrough. So this brings us back to Africa. What will happen at future Venice Biennales? Will supporters and sponsors rise to the occasion to enable more African countries to host pavilions in Venice? This would open up new frontiers for many deserving artists. Indeed, this is a trip we ought to take.
Open to the public from 12 June to 6 November 2005
Laurie Ann Farrell is curator at the Museum for African Art, New York