The 54th Venice Biennale

JUNE 4 – NOVEMBER 27, 2011

Venice’s canals impose an odd sort of leveling on one’s sense of history here: time moves only upwards (new spires, new façades, higher doorways to beat the acqua alta), never down. If, as in many ancient cities, Venice’s palimpsestic structures evoke the layers of previous eras, the water just below your feet suggests something quite different—fluid, unstratified, resolutely illegible. Even in its most prosaic forms (lapping at the fondamente, bobbing tourist trash in its wake), it has the whiff of oblivion about it.

Tabaimo, “Telecosoup,” 2011. Video installation, Japanese Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale.

With the Biennale’s continued expansion beyond the historic Arsenale and Giardini sites, opportunities for mirroring the watery pull of the city proliferate. Some of the best works this year dip into the tension between stone and transience, groundedness and evanescence, that hangs around the city’s heart. Tim Davies’s film Drift, installed at the Welsh Pavilion in a former convent, shows the slow trawl of the artist’s hand skimming the surface of the Grand Canal, a lyrical if mundane image that occasions a faint chill in the viewer. Like his Frari, a paced sequence of shots that culminates in the blinding white of daylight atop the Frari campanile across town, Drift brings the vertiginous tilt of vastness into smaller, surfacial particulars.

The 54th Venice Biennale, entitled ILLUMInazioniILLUMInations, is the largest yet, with 83 artists, 89 participating nations, and a host of related events throughout the city. Distinctions between the Biennale’s different elements—the historic national pavilions, at Giardini; the international exhibition, installed at Giardini and Arsenale; and the collateral events, installed everywhere and anywhere—are increasingly moot, especially as national pavilions pop up in new places (off-site churches, like the Welsh Pavilion, or squeezed in among the international exhibition structures at Arsenale), and as the central exhibition itself spills out into Arsenale’s Vergini garden. In effect, a giant art network lays itself across the city over the summer, a development by turns heartening and dispiriting (it’s impossible to see everything).

Bice Curiger, this year’s Biennale director and curator of the international portion of the show, cites as her touchpoints illumi- (lights and epiphanies, of all sorts), nazioni, and the enlightenment that the former might bring to the latter: new kinds of community predicated on bonds other than national ones. Whatever the vagueness of this theme (and indeed, the international exhibition itself ultimately fails to advance anywhere coherently with it), it has spurred a rash of meditations on light, color, projection, reflections, and the like. There are immersive, color-flooded environments, like James Turrell’s disorienting Ganzfield APANI (in which the viewer loses all sense of perspectival surround), or the animated houses and watery depths of Tabaimo’s archiluminous “teleco-soup” at the Japanese Pavilion. Mirrors and reflective surfaces are mined for metaphors of identity and spectatorship in Rashid Johnson’s installation, and for a particularly Venetian gloss in Monica Bonvicini’s “15 Steps to the Virgin,” where rounded stairwell fragments take their inspiration from the ascending steps in Titian’s “Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple,”at the Accademia Galleries. (Bonvicini’s gray and pink curtain, hanging at the far end of the installation, recalls the pattern of the Ducal Palace façade that Titian, too, quotes as a backdrop in his painting.) In a more directly sensory mode, Haroon Mirza’s excellent “Sick” uses electric lights and a nugget of gold, jumping and popping atop a static-y loudspeaker, to create a feedback loop of buzzy, synesthetic energy.

Tim Davies, “Drift,” 2011. HD video. Runtime 10:49.

But the “illumination” most in evidence here is not clarity or the Enlightenment rationality that Curiger cites in one of her introductory statements. In fact, it’s the opposite. If there is any takeaway from the exceedingly diverse works on display, it is their investment in light as a tingeing, coloring, altering factor: something that, far from “making clear,” casts its own subjective glow. Nick Relph’s simultaneous projection of three films into one bright, color-mixed image, is a case in point: rather than disintegrating into senseless babble, the mix becomes a beguiling screen of randomly meaningful relations. Luigi Ghirri’s beautiful, small-scale color photographs (with their play on real and fictive spaces—maps, windows, television sets, advertising posters) shift such considerations as framing and viewpoint into more quotidian terrain. And several artists open up the political dimensions of viewpoint by using and re-posing documentary material such as interviews, letters, and archives—among them, Dani Gal’s “Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog),” a treatment of the 1961 Eichmann trial, and Marinella Senatore’s radio play on factory conditions in Venice and Marghera.

Vesa Peka Rannikko, “...and all structures are unstable.” Installation view, Finnish Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale.

Many more pieces deserve mention than there is room for here. There are several strong time-based works, among them Christian Marclay’s “The Clock,” a 24-hour montage of film clips featuring clocks, watches, and preoccupations with the hour (it progresses more or less in real-time, spooling out alongside the viewer’s own time). Shahryar Nashat’s clever “Factor Green,” a video on the fate of objects in the museum, features the artist in balletic interaction with a green foam block (a green-screen prop? an errant sculpture pedestal?) and a Tintoretto painting. The video makes a nod to another one of the Biennale’s major innovations this year: along with the contemporary work, Curiger has included three grand-scale Tintorettos at the center of the international show. In their dusky-but-febrile play of light and shadow, they are certainly in keeping with Curiger’s stated theme; a particularly inspired stroke is the installation of Jack Goldstein’s acrylic paintings (jet-black landscapes with blinding color explosions) in the room next door. But overall, Tintoretto’s sweeping canvases make an awkward touchstone for a show that is peppered with far more precariously voiced propositions. Indeed, almost all of the central exhibition’s strongest moments occur on the micro level—among a few works, or in the resonances between them and their setting—as in Bruno Jakob’s suspended white squares dotting the canalscape outdoors, or in the relaxed, spirited vibe of the Vergini garden, with its music performances, interactive gondola rides, and a chewing-gum-pink Franz West that protrudes like a bent sock from the dip of a grassy basin. But too often the macroscopic structure fails to keep pace with these more local successes. Those larger, connecting flashes of insight never happen.

James Turrell, “Ganzfeld APANI,” 2011. Approx. 2000 × 1120 × 660 cm. Courtesy Häusler Contemporary Munich / Zurich and La Biennale di Venezia. Photo: Francesco Galli.

The main draw for many visitors, however, remains the national pavilions. Allora and Calzadilla’s installation Gloria at the American pavilion is an ironic paean to the outlandish athleticism of both American foreign policy and corporate capitalism. Outside the entrance, a member of the U.S. track and field team jogs on a treadmill attached to the bottom of an overturned Army tank, while inside Olympic gymnasts perform routines on replicas of business-class Delta and United airline seats. The show, though trenchant in its critique, veers dangerously close to gimmick. The inclusion of the video “Half Mast / Full Mast,” shot with the duo’s characteristic poetic understatement, helps avoid that fate. In it, we watch an athlete approach flagpoles placed at various sites around Vieques, Puerto Rico, an island that the U.S. Navy had used for decades as a bombing range, and hoist his body off the ground until he’s perpendicular to them, his hands gripping the pole. Projected in two screens, one directly above the other—and framed so that the two flagpoles become a continuous vertical running through the disparate scenes—the gymnast’s quiet activity creates full- and half-mast human flags.

The Danish Pavilion’s Speech Matters takes an opposite tack to the flashiness of “Gloria” or to the immersive installations favored by the UK (Mike Nelson’s “I, Imposter”), Swiss (Thomas Hirschhorn’s bombastic “Crystal of Resistance”), and other pavilions. Bringing together a number of works that engage the question of free speech, the Danish pavilion manages an excellent balance of visual pacing and conceptual flair. With pieces like FOS’s “Storage and stand for Osloo: a public space” (a satellite of art group Osloo’s floating raft-pavilion in the lagoon) and Agency’s “Assembly (Speech Matter)” (acollection of “things,” commercial, cultural, and other, that bear on intellectual property rights), it suggests a different model for what the national pavilion can be: not just a space for spectacle or a mini-museum, but a platform for conversation.

Asier Mendizabal, “Soft Focus,” 2011. Slide projector, timer, 80 slides. Installation view, 54th Venice Biennale.

But the image scaled large—in its encompassing plenitude or incessant proliferation—still rules the day. Streaming images, scrolling iPhone shots, and multiple flatscreen TVs make frequent appearances. As the conditions of today’s mediascape, this is perhaps not surprising. But the most subtle and interesting investigations into the image are those few that, rather than scaling up its presence, interrogate the interfaces of viewership directly. The slick scratch of wet-on-wet paint in Vesa Pekka Rannikko’s double-projection video at the Finnish Pavilion is a seductive lead-in to considerations of filmic and architectural spaces, as we watch various surfaces—a small landscape painting, an entire wall—being methodically coated in white paint. The overlap of the projections creates its own, opaquer “interspace” on the wall, hovering between and over the depicted spaces of the film. Meanwhile, at the collateral event Future of a Promise: Contemporary Art from the Arab World, Jananne Al-Ani invokes the imagery of military missions and archaeological surveys in the video “Shadow Sites II,” a slow, eerie pan across an uninhabited landscape of industrial encampments and telluric tracings. If some hint of history is alchemically inscribed in the rocky plain here, it is not an accessible one.

Similarly invested in the overlap of the perceptual and the political is Asier Mendizabal’s “Soft Focus,” one of the more penetrating works of the exhibition. Installed as part of the international show in one of the alcoves that ring the Arsenale’s Vergini garden, an old-fashioned projector whirs and clicks as images of objects (a wheel, a series of wooden forks, ethnographic costumes) appear on the far wall. The projected images document the holdings of the San Telmo Museum in San Sebastián, Spain, and were originally taken by members of the Koch family, Basque photographers who chronicled the people of the region. Mendizabal is interested not just in the presentation of identity that the photos effect, but also in how particular visual styles—here, the “soft focus” of the Koch family’s misty aesthetic—might inflect them. In a short essay (printed on lightly-grained paper for visitors to take), Mendizabal notes a series of episodes in the history of modernism’s interaction with the popular: its attempt to veil, soften, or distance it, to pursue both the hard-edged lines of ethnographic objectivity and the blurrier haze of a nostalgic utopia. Though Mendizabel’s subject (Basque identity) is far afield from Venice, its themes are not. Venice’s own complex history with modernism (and with other people’s modernisms—as backdrop, provocation, image) is profoundly marked by the visual metaphors the city provides, its shifting vistas, knotted calli, and the persistent lap of water in the canals. Like the work of Tim Davies and Vesa Pekka Rannikko at their own pavilions, or Al-Ani’s almost invisible fades from one landscape to the next in “Shadow Sites,” “Soft Focus” emphasizes not just seeing but also the veils and lenses, the blind spots and myopias, that condition it—and that illuminate (or obscure) its objects (and subjects).


Emily Warner