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On 50th Venice Biennale:
Artwork Makes The Everyday Life of the Viewer Easy

by Beral MADRA


Turkish Pavillion at 50th Venice Biennale


This opportunity of being on the same platform - even if it is an illusion- makes the Venice Biennale the most sought art place to be in. This year even Iran, which is one of the most introvert countries in the world, acquired a pavilion and realised its first participation in the 21st century.


As a hyper exhibition of artworks under the grandiose title of Dreams and Conflicts: The Viewers Dictatorship, the 50th Venice Biennale is fiercely decisive for the 70's and 80's protagonists and wide open to the expectations of young generation artists, designers and architects. By placing renown/unknown, rich/poor, optimist/pessimist, compassionate/cold-blooded artists from three generations and different socio-political and economical backgrounds, side by side, the curators of the Arsenale shows have broken the rules of hierarchy within the international art-world and arranged a confusing track for the viewer.

However, the remains of the old rules were still to be observed in the group exhibition in the Italian Pavilion, where there is that conservative, subtle and balanced transitions from one artist to the other.  The everlasting modernist order of pavilions in the Giardini seeks to restore the damaged sense of equilibrium of the viewer. The conflict between the new pursuit for modernist aesthetics and the post-modern, contaminating everyday simulations furnished the biennale with a chaotic structure, which could be exciting, if it was consciously made. Evidently,
it is an almost impossible task to orchestrate more than 60 curators (pavilions, arsenale, extra 50) to a more or less harmonious tune… The viewer on the other side, coming to Venice for the opening days, was not able to consume the event  (8 exhibitions in the Arsenale, 30 pavilions in the Giardini, 20 pavilions in the city and the 50 Extra) in its entity..


In Venice Biennale, due to its national representations, artists from countries with obscure political and economic infrastructures have to breathe side by side with artists from well-fare democratic countries with omnipotent culture industries.  A fact, which is a challenge, when articulated in an intelligent manner, but also requires a certain resistance from these artists. The flagrant manifestations of artists from the Asian territories profoundly reflected this urge for a better recognition, by elaborating the content and form of their works more than substantive.  Very annoying were the performances and images of some of these artists, playing the role of the colonized or saluting self-orientalization by articulating the traditional, folkloric and tourism elements, such as attractive traditional garments, Zen meditation and accentuation of Asian or African identity. The lack of critical thinking and anachronism of some of the artists from the post-periphery is also evident in the artworks that are only dealing with the material to
create mystical reflections on nature and life or exploiting it with decorative connotations. The numbers of the video-works were reduced in favor of paintings, evidently as a growing consensus between the curators and the art market. No doubt selected with care, but once more, the videos were the disputable in their form and content all over the biennale.  The border between the journalistic documentary, narration, caricaturist commentary and conceptual work was blurred in many video-works and installations.

On the other hand, this possibility of being on the same platform – even if it is an illusion- makes the Venice Biennale the most sought art place to be in. This year even Iran, which is one of the most introvert countries in the world, acquired a pavilion and realized its first participation in the 21st century.

Every year Venice is becoming more and more vulnerable; the heath, the
humidity, the excessive biennale crowds induced the working conditions
and the infrastructure of the city. Customs was blocked, transportations were slow, electricity broke and after all the Venetians were in agony. Yet, they had to yield to the difficulties, because of the enormous income the biennale provides for the city every two year.

The adventure of the participant country, which has no pavilion in the Giardini, starts with searching a space in the city, preferably on the main arteries of the labyrinth to catch the attention of the international art experts and the press. Available are palaces and churches with rents between 15000 to 60000euro for six months. The next step is to provide accommodation for the artists and the exhibition crew, a choice between fairly expensive hotel rooms and apartments. For example for our group of five we had to pay around 6000 euro for 10 days of accommodation. The transport of the works, the production and distribution of printed material, the production of works, the installation costs in the exhibition space, the maintenance of the exhibition etc. are exhausting the modest budgets of the countries with obvious economic deficiencies. Yet, for many Venetian individuals and groups, this burden has become a flourishing business.



12th of June, when the biennale was opened to the press and media, the exhibitions in the Arsenale were 40% unfinished. The crowd, some among them barefoot and nearly all with fans in the hands, was streaming from exhibition to exhibition in the Corderie, where the magnificent space was divided to claustrophobic sections with white walls. It is hard to understand; after all it has been discussed about the transmission between the space and the artwork, that curators and artists can sacrifice the grandeur of a historical space to the precarious existence of the artwork on white walls.   Being intrusive, I witnessed how hastily the experts and the journalists were looking at the artworks; practically three or four days are not enough to look at the 400 artists exhibiting in different venues in Venice. So, the experts and the journalists have no possibility to discover something by themselves but to follow the rules and look at
the artist already known and supported by well-established galleries, dealers, art critics and curators.

The ecstatic - not to say hysteric - environment of the opening days is obviously an outcome of the art system, born in the late modernism and became a self-consuming grotesque in post-modernism. The actors of modernism were the artists creating ideologies; today the actors, favoring the system linked to the global capitalism, are manipulating the position of the artists according to the requirements of the network. Within this network, the viewer is submissive, silent and confused.

Looking to the 8 exhibitions in the Arsenale, one can see the scheme of the network. The artists of the exhibitions who can never come side by side in the real life (most of them probably have never met each other) seek here equal recognition. Have they ever discussed with each other the concept, installation and relation of the works and the exhibition?

Prominent and protagonist artists of the recent past such as Art&Language, Gilbert&George, John Baldessari, Anselm Kiefer, Michelangelo Pistoletto,
Roman Opalka and renown architects such as Rem Koolhas, Araki Isozata,
Hasan Fathy have accepted to exhibit with completely unknown names and
newcomers in an environment where there is no inner dialogue and coherence. Their "noble" modernist works are put in collation with works that are articulating everyday life realities and trivialities that have got off the rails. Seems to be an interesting turn in the history of contemporary art!

Utopia Station, at the furthest end of the Arsenale, is a mega-neo-fluxes show and the tail of the Biennale, as the rigidity of the national pavilions dissolves here into free debate and gains some political vision.  It also immediately reminded me Progetto Oreste Uno, a creative initiative of a large group of artists of Italy coordinated by Cesare  Pietrouisti, Pino Boreste and many others during the 48th Venice Biennale in the center of the Italian Pavilion.  The fact that, interdisciplinary debate, process demonstration, employment of mass media technologies and strategies can reach larger and broader public, created a new generation of artists with one foot on the high art, the other on the mass media.

Here, I will not write in depth about the pavilions of USA (an overloaded and repeated imagery of black identity), Great Britain (I haven’t seen such a decorative pavilion before), France (sterile and distanced), Germany (would Kippenberger install this underground vent into the pavilion, when he had seen the last global war?) Japan and Korea (always in favor material and technology), as these will be reviewed extensively in newspapers and art journals extensively.

The most striking event in the biennale was the two "closed" pavilions. The pavilion of Spain was sealed to access by Santiago Sierra, with a crudely made wall behind the main entrance and by two policeman (!) in attendance at the back door, allowing only the viewers with the Spanish passport to enter. As Spain is a member of EU, even the access of EU citizens was restricted! This is an artwork with effective political protest on what is happening in EU and Spain concerning the emigration
politics. The closed Venezuela Pavilion is not an artwork, but an act of censor by the Ministry of Culture of Venezuela. One of the censored artists Pedro Morales insisted on coming to Venice to protest (please refer to (www.pedromorales.com; www.cityrooms.net; www.orinokia.com). In remarkable juxtaposition as artwork and reality, these metaphorically and factually sealed pavilions, do not only cast a doubt on the power of art, artwork and the artist within the state apparatus of the democracies and within the free forum of the biennale, but also on the role of the viewer, who is inactively watching the ambiguity.

It is difficult to take a distance and annotate the works, I have seen in three days. Bonami's intention to reflect a wide range and variety of contemporary art production became an accomplishment, so that one can neither track the statements of the curators of the international exhibitions nor find a consensus between the pavilions. Within the complexity of the biennale I could discriminate and categorize some facts:
- There is a significant contradiction between the artworks of the well-fare Europe and USA artists and the artists of the rest of the world:
The former are tranquil and latent and transformed art into a stratagem (for example Bruno Gironcoli in the Austrian Pavilion, Sylvie Eyberg and Valerie Mannaerts in the Belgian Pavilion, Jean-Marc Bustamante in French Pavilion, Candida Höfer in German Pavilion, Ruri in Iceland Pavilion, Little Warsaw in Hungarian Pavilion); the  are in emergency and crisis and use art as a force (for example  Sora Kim& Gimhongsok  in The Zone of Urgencey, Ratomi Fani-Kayode in The Faul Lines).

The memory of contemporary art plays its game too frequently... Since Jean Clairs Biennale genetic deformations or the post-human representation has been totally consumed and almost lost its excitement. Patricia Piccini's silicone creatures in the Australian Pavilion, Maurizio Cattelan's robot Charlie, Charles Ray's Female Figure and Berlinde de Bruyckere's "the black horse" in "Delays and Revolution" (Bonami& Birnbaum) are being chased by the phantoms of the works of the Chapman Brothers, Ron Mueck, Katherina Sieverding (Rat King) and Kiki Smith.   Or, David Hammons' bronze Buddha’s may pray for safety (with safety pin on a string in between them), but this has been done before many times by Nam June Paik (since 1974)…Haven't we seen enough cars/trucks before, for example  Wim Delvoye's Cement Truck, Soo-Ja Kim "Cities on the Move in the 48th Biennale ? Alfredo Juan's stainless steel jeep and Damien Ortega's decomposed VW, even with convincing concepts, look like surfeit examples.
There were two significant panel discussions during the biennale. The second version of Venice Agendas, organized by Audio Arts, London, Nuova Icona, Venice, Wimbledon School of Art, London, Cardiff School of Art &Design (UWIC), in association with the commissioners of Wales and Scotland, and supported by the British Council took place in Metropole Hotel. To three breakfast sessions, dealing with the issues and questions such as "Biennale in a new century", "The new and recent presences at the Biennale", and "Is the Biennale 'a charming anachronism' in danger of sinking?" prominent representatives of various institutions and free lance curators were invited to contribute.

In fact, aside from the main pavilion, with the three of the new presences, Scotland with the exhibition "Zenomap" in Palazzo Giustinian Lolin, Wale's exhibition in the ex-Birrerie in Giudecca and The Henry Moore Foundation exhibition "Stopover" in the newly restored Convento dei Santi Cosma and Damiano on the Giudecca, Great Britain was the most ambitious participant of the Biennale. This extensive presence reflects the apparent decentralization and independence of regional art production and management as well as a fruitful competition between the institutions. The two Giudecca venues were the most charming and suitable places among the places that can be acquired in Venice. These exhibitions were strategically highlighted with rich receptions and parties.  This is another sign that the sanctity of the pavilion politics are being critically exploited by the new generation curators and artists.

As to the question, whether the Biennale is a sinking ship, one could say that it is rather drifting than sinking. Drifting in the stormy global politics and economy waters. Looking back to the Biennale of 80's and early 90's, when the milieu was still naïve, idealistic and romantic, the last biennale tend to be shrewd, sarcastic, an market-oriented with the sophisticated opening days visitor profile.  However, the Arsenale shows, among them particularly the Utopia Station, with works of political content and statements may stir an argument among the protagonist
intellectuals of the world, the biennale in its entirety seems to be powerless to resist the severe political agenda of the world. After all, at a time when on the political and economical level, a new border are being drawn between the regions, religions and cultures the Biennale (and all other multicultural exhibitions) aim to break the borders, at least in their concepts and contents! This task requires an effective theoretical and practical reciprocation and exchange from its components.

Two grand scale exhibitions are being held in Praque and Klosterneuburg to accentuate this reality. Organized by Giancarlo Politi and Helena Kontova, editors of Flash Art magazine, together with Milan Knizak and Tomas Vlcek, directors of the National Gallery in Prague, the inaugural edition of the Prague Biennale aims to create a pluralistic vision of contemporary art. In this new biennale the concepts we are very familiar with "peripheries become the center,” and  "dissolution of the dichotomy between periphery and center " are going to be articulated by a large group of curators.

The other more accentuated event is Blood & Honey- Future's in the Balkans is
curated by Harald Szeemann in Klosterneuburg. Sponsored by The Essl Collection 73 artists from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Croatia, Greece, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Slovenia, Turkey and Serbia-Montenegro will exhibit their work on an area of 3,500 m2. The significant aim of this exhibition has been declared as  "to awaken western sensitivity to the existence of this cultural landscape".

What I can deduct from these actions is that the international contemporary art front is slowly approaching Middle East and Near Asia!

To the other forum, CEI (Central European Initiative) www.ceinet.org organized by Trieste Contemporanea Committee www.tscont.ts.it  under the auspices of Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in collaboration with the Academy of Fine Arts of Venice and supported by CEI, Regione Autonoma Friuli Venezia Giulia and Beba Foundation, directors, experts and curators from Yugoslavia, Poland, Lithuania, Moldova, Hungary, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Croatia, Latvia, Slovenia, Romania, Russia, Macedonia, Turkey and Italy were invited. The ongoing fragility in the infrastructure and networking of the contemporary art institutions because of the economic and political deficiencies and instabilities was the main topic of this forum. After plenary sessions and workshops a declaration was signed by
the participants, calling support from governments and international
organizations in the form of continuous structural and financial contributions, stressing the autonomy and freedom of creativity from any type of political pressure and instrumentalization and accentuating the necessity of exchange programs and partnership projects.  It should not be overlooked that the presence of CEI countries in the Biennale after the wall, has immensely contributed to the totality as well as to the regeneration of the picture of contemporary art production in Europe.

What should also not be overlooked in this years Biennale were the projects and products of various work-shop for the improvement of the urban and civil infrastructures of the city; a refreshing attempt to activate the engagement of the local and international viewer. The regeneration of the Archivio Storico delle Arti Contemporanee, The Cord, the spatial connection of the exhibitions with a 200m long steel cylinder created by a group of architects ( Archea Associati) and The Artificial Reserve, a project coordinated by Cesare Pietroiusti with the students of
the Academy of Fine Arts of Venice were some of these new presentations.

I would like to go back to my catalogue text and examine the viewer's position in this mega-show. The ideologies of art maintain their function as being a part of social life and the critical conscious of the society, and artists face the situation in which patterns for orientation and action of the past no longer work more than the society. They are the ones who find new options and actions to provide answers for everyday life conflicts and major emergencies.   With Paul Vanguiem 's words "Everyday life always produces the demand for a brighter light, if only because of the need which everyone feels to walk in step with the march of history. But there are more truths in twenty-four hours of a man's life than in all the philosophies."

Despite all the generalization, standardization and totalization in the world, these twenty-four hours still makes all the difference within the supremacy of the corporate economy and global politics.  The bloodstained pages of the last decade, 11th September and its savage outcome is the production of everyday activity of the human being, which paradoxically has imprisoned and poisoned his/her everyday life. It is a perfect vicious circle! The artists, evidently aware of the eminence of it, approaches these twenty-four hours in detail, itemize and particularize the facts with his/her inevitable sophistication and self-contempt; the magnitude of this task can be seen in the images of desperation, emergency, clamor and transgression. The viewer generously but cunningly gives the artist the right to intervene into the minute details of the common life, and the authority to cry out his message to the world from a headland, to make him an accomplice.

_ . _

E-mail to Beral Madra:

© Beral Madra / June 2003

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