Diversity at 50th Venice Biennale

Venice – The 50th Venice Biennale, which opened around a week ago in hot and humid weather, was perhaps the largest biennale held in Venice so far. Spread across the Castello Gardens, the Arsenale, the Correr Museum and numerous venues throughout the city, it showed thousands of works by more than 500 artists. The biennale’s vast scale, at least during the unusually hot opening days, made more for a more exhausting than enjoyable tour. Francesco Bonami, artistic director of this year’s biennale, opted for «multiplicity, diversity and contradiction» rather than a unified point of view. Indeed, the biennale had a little bit of everything and it was this broad-ranging inclusion which was criticized by some as lacking in edge. Encouraging different viewpoints, this year’s biennale was divided among 11 curators: Carlos Basualdo, Daniel Birnbaum, Catherine David, Massimiliano Gioni, Hou Hanru, Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Gabriel Orozco, Gilane Tawadros, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Igor Zabel. Each offered their own perspective on art and fitted in with Bonami’s idea of a more «individualized» biennale in which – as its title «Dreams and Conflicts, the Dictatorship of the Viewer» suggests – each viewer is in charge of the visual experience and the appreciation of art. This, Bonami feels, is necessary in our current global societies, where individuality is highly threatened. The winning prize of this year’s biennale went to the Luxembourg pavilion (located outside the Giardini), featuring a combination of digital films and objects by the Luxembourg-based artist of Chinese descent, Su-Mei Tse. Favorable remarks were heard about the Danish pavilion, an installation that blended optical devices with ecological concerns. Santiago Sierra’s installation at the Spanish pavilion was both sophisticated and artful at the same time. The artist had covered the name of Spain on the front of the pavilion and blocked the entrance with a cement-built wall. Only Spanish citizens were allowed access through a back entrance, but an empty room was all that was offered to them upon entry. Sierra’s work was an interesting comment on internationality and national identity, a duality which is really what the Venice Biennale is about. In contrast to the last Venice Biennale, where video works were largely dominant, this year’s biennale included many paintings. This was evident both in the national pavilions and the rest of the exhibitions. A «re-evaluation of painting» so to speak, it was best captured in «Painting: From Rauschenberg to Murakami, 1965-2002,» an exhibition at the Correr Museum curated by Bonami. A couple of the exhibitions parallel to the biennale offered some of the most rewarding experiences. Ilya Kabakov’s «Where is our place?» at the Querini Stampalia Foundation showed Kabakov’s skill and intellectual depth. On the ground floor of the same building, an installation by Cypriot artist Nikos Charalambidis was significant for giving international exposure to his work even though the constricted room did not give enough breathing space to his conceptually dense installation. Another highlight of this year’s event was an installation by Kounellis at the 18th century Armenian monastery on the islet of St Lazzaro (the project was formulated by ART for the World). Atypical of the ruggedness that defines much of Kounellis’s work, this site-specific installation was about light, lucidity and transparency but also made reference to the centuries-old tradition of Venetian glassmaking. In the central installation, hundreds of glass items placed perimetrically along the monastery’s courtyard and on shelves were also quietly suggestive of human presence. A dreamlike environment, Kounellis’s installation echoed in some odd way the concept of this year’s biennale, a concept which emphasizes the role of the viewer in choosing what he sees and how he sees it.

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