26 September 2011

Illuminations and observations (part three)

Who's Afraid of Free Expression, Norma Jeane
Venice Bienalle 2011
Continuing on at the Biennale...

Taking its title from a placard apparently held by a female protestor in Tahrir Square earlier this year, Who's Afraid of Free Expression is an installation from Norma Jeane, a pseudonym used by an anonymous artist or collective who focuses on works of a political or socially active nature. Part of a series of works by 83 individual artists curated by Bice Curiger in the Padiglione Centrale in the Giardini, Who's Afraid of Free Expression is exhibited in its own right and not as part of any national pavilion.

The piece began life as a three-dimensional representation of the Egyptian flag made out of three layers of coloured plasticine (red, white and black), sitting on the floor in the center of a white room. Visitors were invited to take lumps of the plasticine and create their own sculptures on the walls of the room. By the time I visited in September, three months after the public opening, the flag had been reduced to a heap of mangled clumps reclaimed from the walls by time and gravity, and every inch of the walls accessible without artificial assistance were covered in words, names and figurines.

The notion behind this all is that what began as a centralised authority disintegrated as the masses asserted their individual claims, and restructured it collaboratively and anarchistically to their own designs. No central planning, no order, no structure and yet what emerged organically is greater than what came before.

I wonder why it appealed to me so much?

Who's Afraid of Free Expression, Norma Jeane
Venice Bienalle 2011
Sadly I did not make it to see the Egyptian pavilion, which adressed similar theme but in a far more direct and painful way.

In 2010 Ahmed Basiony had filmed himself running in place with an array of sensors attached to himself and his shoes, with the idea of transforming the captured data into a visual installation at a later date. One year later he was swept up into the chaos, joy and terror in Tahrir Square, unable to resist documenting such a pivotal moment in his nation's history, and paid for this dedication to his art with his life, shot by police snipers and dying from his wounds on January 28th, 2011. 30 Days of Running in the Place juxtaposes the footage from his earlier piece with film and images he shot in Tahrir square and its environs in the four days leading up to his death, and it is one of the few regrets I have about my visit to the Biennale, that time prevented me from making it as far as this pavilion.

More photos from Who's Afraid of Free Expression can be found here.

More information on the life and works of Ahmed Basiony can be found on his site here.

Metro, Alessandro Gallo
Italian Pavilion, Venice Bienalle 2011
Not everything I was drawn to had to be a deeply political statement, in fact quite the opposite. The Italian pavilion in the Arsenale brought together a wide range of artists and much of the space was given over either to works reflecting on the impact of organised crime on Italian life, history and society in an exhibit entitled Art is Not the Cosa Nostra, or the theme of Italian unification, this being its 150th anniversary. Tucked away in a corner almost hiding from the gravitas emanating from everything else around it was a small piece by Alessandro Gallo entitled Metro.

A ceramic sculpture less than a meter high depicting a series of anthropomorphic animals riding the Northern Line of the London Underground, the detailing is incredibly intricate and manages to say so much about the banality of daily life through the body language of commuting critters. The scene is instantly familiar to any who have travelled on the Underground, a cavalcade of vacant expressions as everyone desperately tries to exist only within themselves, excluding the Other as much as possible, the animal visages allowing us in to stare in a way that their human counterparts could never do.

The whimsy of the mundane contained within this sculpture came as a very welcome break from a succesion of victim impact statements, crime scene photos and a massive waxen Italy melting on a giant crucifix, the Italian Pavilion can be accused of many things but subtlety is not one of them.

More photos of Metro can be found here.

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