Strong South African Showing at the 51st Venice Biennale
by Andrew Lamprecht
The largest and most significant art event of the year, the 51st Venice Biennale will open this month with a strong and significant showing by South African artists. While South Africa still will not have an official (or unofficial for that matter) national representation, it is of significance that visitors to the major shows in the Arsenale and the Italian Pavilion in the Giardini will be greeted by a noteworthy quantity of South African art.
This year�s biennale, under the curatorial direction of Maria de Corral and Rosa Martinez, both of Spain, promises to foreground non-Western art. The two curators were in agreement over the awarding of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, arguably the most significant award of the show, to American artist Barbara Kruger, who is featured in the Italian Pavilion.
De Corral�s exhibition �The Experience of Art�, held in the Italian Pavilion (traditionally the centre of the exposition and given over to an international show showing established artists), deals, in the words of the curator, �with intensity, not categories�. She goes on to note that she would be pleased �if it were not historical or linear, but demonstrated the relationship that exists between artists of different generations who debate and work on specific ideas about art and the life of our times, creating a nexus between approaches that are similar in intensity and obsessive quality.�
De Corral has given considerable attention to South Africans in her curation; the participation of Candice Breitz, Marlene Dumas, William Kentridge, Zwelethu Mthethwa and Robin Rhode means that the country forms one of the single largest blocs in this international selection. In addition it is significant that Rhode is the youngest artist in the exhibition.
Rosa Martinez, who curated the wonderful Satiago Sierra exhibition at the last Biennale (he walled up the front entrance to the Spanish Pavilion, you will recall), takes a very fresh approach with her �Always a Little Further� in the Arsenale. Here Cape Town-based artist, Berni Searle, takes her place in the venue traditionally focussing on younger artists and more experimental approaches. Her video piece Vapour, will be on view in this historical area of Venice. This work was seen by local audiences in her 2004 exhibition of the same name at Michael Stevenson Contemporary.
Martinez�s title is inspired by a fictional character created by Hugo Pratt, a Venetian writer and comic producer. This use of the fictional is vital to Martinez. According to her, it is �a way of affirming that art is an imaginary construct and that fantasy helps us towards a better understanding of reality.�
Further, she wittily comments on from the controversial title of Francesco Bonami�s �Dreams and Conflicts: the Dictatorship of the Viewer� (the theme of the 50th Biennale) with this statement: �In this context, the exhibition �Always a Little Further� is an essay presenting artists and aesthetic trends relevant at the beginning of the third millennium. A visit to the Arsenale proposes a fragmentary trip, a subjective and passionate dramatisation to discover the zones of light and dark in our convulsed world. This journey intends to draw the most significant lines in contemporary artistic production and to show that art still holds a promise for those who want to embark on the sort of voyage that made Deleuze take Proust's motto: the real dreamer is the one who goes out to try to verify something.�
Outside of these major shows, the National Pavilions seem to offer very few established names, although the vast United States Pavilion will see the work of Ed Ruscha featured while the United Kingdom is represented by Gilbert & George.
Of course the �official� shows are only the beginning of the Biennale. Much excitement is being generated by the possibilities of the Lucian Freud show, given the media excitement of veteran artist�s recent work and his consistent output of several decades. In addition there will be a number of other collateral shows throughout the city, many featuring top-notch artists.
While it is of great significance of and a source of pleasure that so many South Africans are given high-profile attention in the 51st exposition this year, one should perhaps note that fully half of them are no longer based in South Africa, and despite what the artist herself has stated, few outside our borders consider Marlene Dumas to be a South African artist at all.
Also worthy of noting is the mysterious disappearance of any significant representation by the �Africa in Venice� project. After the successful �Authentic/Ex-centric� exhibition in 2001, and Gilane Tawadros�s disappointing �Fault Lines� in 2003, Africa is once again without any official representation this time round.
The exhibition opens to the general public on 12 June.