It is with abated breath that the art world awaits the two-yearly event that is The Venice Biennale; by far the most important gathering of artworks in the world, it grows bigger and more encompassing, as further countries are added to the ever-evolving list of participating nations. This year it comprises of more than seventy exhibiting countries and thirty collateral events.

For the 51st Venice Biennale, the task of curating such an enormous affair has been entrusted onto Maria de Corral and Rosa Martinez, each took upon herself to oversee its organization with a special focus on the Italian Pavilion and of the Arsenale respectively. Even if the both spaces resembles acutely aware curatorial shows that might be seen in any large museum or organization, they have successfully created a more coherent and organised exhibition than their predecessors; held together by an invisible thread of in-depth knowledge about contemporary art and modern concerns.

Disintangling oneself in the labyrinth of the pavilions which inhabit every disused palazzo in Venice, as well as giving justice to the works in the Giardini and the gigantic Arsenale, requires a certain stamina and concentration. A month to view the Biennale might just be enough to give all the artworks their due justice; however for the visitor whose time is at a premium, an overview to highlight which pavilions to see, might prove be a necessary tool to navigate the chimera that is Venice, in a more succinct way.

Found amongst the Giardini of the Biennale is the Italian Pavilion, this usually resembles a dizzily jumbled collection of haphazardly chosen artworks, however this year Maria de Corral put together a formidably articulate exhibition with a surprising selection of artists, in a space that astonishes and delights at every turn.

Entitled The Experience of Art, videos, sculptures, paintings, drawings and installations are all placed side by side in a healthy disregard for linear history or material groupings. ‘I have intended showing that which is shared within diversity, so that the observer may recognise the quality of the unexpected and the unusual, and abandon resistance to the idea of pleasure in contemporary art’1, states Maria de Corral in her introduction to the 51st Venice Biennale catalogue. As the rooms of the Italian pavilion unfold, her credo is made visually concrete, so that at any turn a triptych by Francis Bacon can be encountered after having viewed a staircase by Rachel Whiteread, an Antoni Tapies canvas can be seen after a Mark Wallinger video, or a Marlene Dumas painting is juxtaposed against an Eija-Liisa Ahtila film.

Amongst the most impressive works is the superb video piece by Candice Breitz entitled Mother 2005 and Father 2005. This juxtaposes a series of clips of dialogue, taken from famous films, by six male and six female actors. Shown on a black background, the actors are seen on a full frontal portrait and appear to be in conversation with each other. The footage transcends the original film and becomes a highly controlled dialogue between the actors of the same sex, regarding the struggles, trauma and difficulties of parenthood. The work underlines the differences between men and women's concerns about raising a child, but also the stereotypes inherent in the Hollywood ideas of gender differences. These cleverly edited extracts, shown in a crescendo of sharp, concise sentences on a set of flat screen monitors in a darkened room, create a mesmerising, hypnotic and challenging work.

Durante o Cammino Vertical is also encountered during our walk through the Italian Pavilion rooms; somehow more fragile and precarious than its surrounding works, this installation of paper and iron resembles stalagmites and stalactites. The residues of thousands of years of artistic expressions on the ceiling and floor of the Italian Pavilion, have solidified into Jose Damasceno’s work. The humbleness and simplicity of the materials is the basis of its beauty and, as the piece gently twists and curls in its vertical journey, it slightly moves and responds with minute vibrations as each step is taken towards it. It seems as fragile as its nature’s counterpart; a step taken in the wrong direction by a hurried visitor could throw the work into destruction. It occupies space in a minimally obtrusive manner, jet it is subtly effective in changing the physical journey across the Pavilion room as the viewer, surprised by its presence, has to reconsider the way to navigate the space in order not to damage it.

Another surprising presence in the Italian Pavilion is the refreshing number of painters that punctuate its rooms, not only the previously mentioned seminal artists but also some from younger generations; amongst these the works by German painter Matthias Weischer can be encountered. Somewhat melancholic and surreal depiction of interiors, these barely habitable rooms are filled with worn and dejected objects, and abandoned spaces where the human form has left only its traces and a faint memory. Nostalgic of the near past, these spaces seem to stem from sets of a 'Goodbye Lenin', where the film plot as gone slightly askew and its meaning is just out of our grasp. The numerous layers of paint applied over time are left exposed creating subtle games of hide and seek of imagery; background tracings and squaring up expose thought processes, leaving the end result as open ended as their intended meaning.

In stark contrast with the artistic refinement of the Italian Pavilion, the nations exhibiting in the Giardini display a vast difference in the quality in their showcased artists. Amongst the most surprising and refreshing approaches is the work of Tino Sehgal in the German Pavilion. Here, the invigilators of the gallery space have been instructed by the artist to shout at regular intervals ‘this is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary’ in a rhythmical fashion, whilst engaging in rapid, almost dance-like movements. The surprise of the sacrosanct silence and seriousness of the gallery environment, broken by such an absurd and ironic statement, is both startling and hilarious. The evident joy and exhilaration of the invigilators is a contagious force, as all viewers cannot resist a smile and a sigh of relief as the whole event self-importance is momentarily disrupted.
This apparently light-hearted, anarchic action is made even more poignant by the strong contrast with the other work present in the Pavilion: the sculptures by Thomas Scheibitz.

These are completely undermined by the supervisors’ lack of reverence, and even their bold and bright colouring and imposing structure cannot save them from appearing rather dull and dreary. Tino Sehgal manages, with one seemingly simple and effortless sentence to destroy and recreate the meaning of what constitutes an artwork; an action comparable to Duchamp’s 'Urinal', and of the same pathos and historical significance. The importance of the ‘object-ness’ of art becomes defunct, the artwork is transformed into living form, as it becomes the inhabitants of the gallery space themselves and the relationship between each other.

After visiting the German Pavilion, every other nation intervention pales by comparison; however from the antipodes of geographic positioning as well as artistic standing comes the work of Ricky Swallow in the Australian Pavilion. The still life or more appropriately ‘dead nature’ (‘natura morta’, if one is to use the Italian translation of these two words) is his point of departure. A full-scale dining table is covered with the detritus of a fisherman’s return voyage from the sea, items of a meal that is about to be cooked; a cloth is carelessly thrown on this furniture, a bucket has fallen and the crustaceans are scattered across its surface, a lemon peel is precariously balanced on its edge, ready to precipitously fall towards the floor at any moment. This work, entitled Killing Time would not be out of place within a collection of 16th Dutch still-life painting were it not for a small detail: this is a meticulously crafted sculpture made out of laminated wood.

The solidity of the chosen material, in contrast with the subject matter, successfully creates a rather disturbing and surreal work. Ricky Swallow presents a series of these painstakingly created objects, realistically copied down to minute details, immortalised for eternity; fish are frozen in time before decay will decompose them, a snake is caught whilst wriggling around a biker’s helmet and a beanbag slowly folds under the weight of a skull. If only the sculptures would have been painted, the suspension of disbelief would succeed, however the natural colour of the wood is left showing, highlighting further that these are replicated objects, the originals dead. An immense sadness pervades these sculptures, as Ricky Swallow cleverly chooses imagery not only loaded with historical reference but also personal relevance. All viewers will be able to relate to skeletons and amphibians in an instinctual manner, and to relate to the quotidian objects these are placed against, fully conscious of the knowledge that these, as the visitors, are transient and part of the inexorable passage of time.

An artist equally preoccupied with creating work that closely references the real world in minute details is Ham Jin. However his approach could not be further from Ricky Swallow’s methodology: Ham Jin’s work could easily be missed in the midst of the chaotic Korean Pavilion, as his creations are of a miniscule scale. Tiny clay homunculi, barely over a couple of centimetres of height, engage in futile actions of escapism. Trapped in a microcosm, they will never be able to overcome the physical barrier of their inhabited world. The artist plays a cruel game with them, for not only they are victims of their debilitating minute dimensions but are also spatially trapped inside glass jails, made by tumblers turned upside down. Furthermore, should they succeed in escaping, they would find themselves precariously perched on the ledge of the Pavilion balcony with the only option of plummeting towards the ground or being squashed by the visiting masses. It is with a (literally) light touch, humour and irony that Ham Jin turns a magnifying glass onto the everyday, mirroring the absurdity of real life with the environments he creates for his tiny creatures. Victims of a malicious puppet master, unable to take control of their circumstances, their ordeals reflect the everyday struggles of their viewers.

Recommended Pavilions worthy of a visit are not only the German, Australian and Korean ones, but also include the Serbia and Montenegro Pavilion, the Israel Pavilion with the work of Guy Ben-Ner, the Greek Pavilion showing the artist George Hadjimichalis, the Hungary Pavilion with An Experiment in Navigation by Balazs Kicsiny and of course the France Pavilion where Annette Messager is the recipient of the ‘Best National Pavilion’ award.

Whereby in the previous Biennale of 2003, the then curator Francesco Bonami gave the task of organising the Arsenale vast exhibiting space to a group of curators, this year Rosa Martinez has bravely taken the challenge single-handed with a project entitled Always a Little Further. Obviously this results in a magnificent exhibition of exemplary quality and high standard of work throughout. The only criticism towards Rosa Martinez is the number of time-based works shown, which given the sheer scale of the building is impossible to view appropriately.

Unfortunately giving ample time and deserved attention to each artist is unfeasible, however some highlights of the artwork exhibited include the sculpture by Joana Vascocelos A Novia/The Bride (2001). An immense chandelier, seben meters in height and three meters in width, hangs in a darkened room; puzzled by its glittering presence, a closer inspection reveals the mysterious glistening to be the 14000 tampons that construct it. The shock of the encounter, shows that the simplest concepts are the most successful: adjoining of two incongruous objects, a chandelier and tampons, creates the premise for a discourse on the attractive and the repugnant, on the imagined sexual object and its real-life form and on beauty being a qualitative marker rather then intellect.

Following this welcomed and refreshing feministic approach is also work of the Guerrilla Girls, a gorilla-suits clad group of artists who, in a humorous and ironical fashion, set out to underline the imbalance between the female and male representation of artists in the art world. Raising questions, rather then giving formulaic answers and by provocative slogans, they entice the participation of the viewers into this ever-present debate. The work presented in the Arsenale examines the Venice Biennale itself, delving into its 110 years history to reveal the inherent injustice between the sexes. A question also addressed by Rosa Martinez who is showing artists equally divided between genders in her exhibition.

As well as the Guerrilla Girls, there are a number artist collectives exhibiting in the Arsenale. One such group is The Centre of Attention, formed in 1999 and London based, they present the work Swansong. Here the viewer can rehearse his/her own funeral, complete with the accompanying music for the ceremony and a plinth upon which to lie on. A rather bizarre and poignant addition to the Arsenale exhibits, as in the midst of all the crowding and chaos and art-view cramming, the hurried visitor is literally stopped dead in his tracks by this sombre work. To reflect such contemplative work, other understated pieces surround it; also showing within Swansong are the artists Benedict Carpenter, House of O’Dwyer, Wolfgang Tillmans and Danien Roach. The latter presents a particularly poetic piece, which appears to be a video of a snowstorm but is in fact, a projection of nearby dust blown in front of a video camera. Presenting the paradox of dirt particles describing climatic cataclysms, it perhaps references its neighbouring work: lying on the cold plinth, one draws the inevitable conclusion that we will all end up in such form.

Further existentialist work is also presented by Olaf Nicolai with his Welcome to the Tears of St. Lawrence. An Appointment to Watch Falling Stars. The artist uses the yearly event of a shower of falling stars that occurs every August, when the constellation of the Perseids comes into view, as his artwork. Inviting all willing participants to watch the night sky at preset times, highlighted in a worldwide timetable; his work transcends the walls of the Arsenale and becomes a truly global event. A work which both nullifies the importance of the Arsenale, as the piece can be experienced outside the exhibition context, while at the same time relaying on the power of the Venice Biennale to attract all the potential viewers. Using the exhibition space just as a vessel for dissipating information, rather then for showing the work itself, he uses the romantic notion of stargazing and the sublime to transcend all national limitations, finding a common ground by which all viewers can be united regardless of their geographical location and cultural provenance.

A map for gazing at the stars in not the only useful tool for navigating the artwork in Venice, a street plan is also of paramount importance, as outside the Giardini and the Arsenal are scattered all the remaining participating countries and collateral events. The most salient being the Turkey Pavilion with the artist Hussein Chalayan, the Istituto Italo-Latino Americano and especially the video of Oscar Munoz, the Swiss showcasing the work of Pipilotti Rist, Argentina Jorge Macchi with Edgardo Rudnitzky intervention in the Antico Oratorio San Filippo Neri, Olafur Eliasson’s installation in the island of San Lazzaro and of course the Wales Pavilion in the ex-birreria in Giudecca.

All the above-mentioned artist and their representing nations participate in the most extraordinary art event; it is with relief that the Venice Biennale is a two yearly occasion, for the sheer scale of magnificent art to experience leaves the viewer both exhilarated and exhausted. Assimilating and divulging all the works on view takes time and careful consideration, and the importance of the Venice biennale will still resonate long after the end of the exhibition.

Gaia Persico

 

1 Maria de Corral, The Experience of Art, 51st International Exhibition of Art, La Biennale di Venezia catalogue, June 2005, Marsilio Editori.

 

 

Images from top: Fabrizio Plessi Mare Verticale, self supporting steel structure, screens with LED displays, computer programme and sound, courtesy of the artist. Candice Breitz, Mother 2005, six channel installation, courtesy galeria francesca kaufmann. Jose Damasceno Durante o Cammino Vertical 2001, installation of columns made of paper and metal boards, courtesy Galeria Fortes Villaca. Matthias Weischer, Akrobat, 2005 oil on canvas, 40x30x14 cm, courtesy EIGEN+ART. German Pavilion installation of Thomas Scheibitz, 16 Scultptures, 2004/05, wood, MDF, paint, metal 285x450cm and 80x80x80 cm, courtesy Monika Spruth Galerie and www.artnet.de and Tino Sehgal, This is so Contemporary, 2004. Ricky Swallow Killing Time 2003-04, laminated jelutong and maple, 184x118x108 cm, coutesy of Art Gallery of New South Wales. Ham Jin, Aewan Love, 2004, Polymer clay and mixed media, coutesy of the artist. Joana Vasconcelos A Novia/The Bride, 2001, stanless steel and OB tampons, 680x300x300cm, coutesy of the artist. Guerrila Girls, Benvenuti alla Biennale Femminista 2004, digital print, 5.18x4 m, coutesy of the artists. The Centre of Attention with Damien Roach Swansong, coutesy of the artists. Olaf Nicolai Welcome to the Tears of St. Lawrence. An Appointment to Watch Falling Stars, 2005, poster, courtesy of the artist and Galerie EIGEN+ART.