23 September 2011

Illuminations and observations

And so on to the Biennale.

The Biennale is actually a series of festivals that take place every two years in Venice, Architecture, Dance, Contemporary Music and Film all have their own Biennales (though they are not always called that, the Film Biennale is often just referred to as the Venice Film Festival), and not all happen in the same year (architecture tends to happen out of sync with the rest), so in effect the Biennale actually happens every year in Venice, making it more of an Annuale. But unless you are an architect, dancer or beard-stroking John Cage fan, the word Biennale almost always refers to the International Festival of Contemporary Art, and this year marks the 54th such event which first occurred back in 1895 at which many a fine mustache was surely twirled.

Running for six months the Biennale has two main components, a curated exhibition held in the Arsenale, the amazing 14th Century naval shipyards that were responsible for Venice's trading might, and a larger series of national showcases presented by individual countries in their pavilions. Most of these pavilions are permanently located in a massive public park, the Giardini, though are only in use during the Biennale itself. Those countries whom history and tradition have not afforded a permanent space in the Giardini set up temporary pavilions across Venice, as do the occasional individual artist or group, and this year a total of 89 countries were represented.

This is not an art dealers' fair where works are bought and sold, and agents try to thrust their clients onto the Contemporary Art museum circuit, the Biennale is primarily about exhibiting and display, and sales have actually been banned since the late Sixties, though I'm sure a fair amount do go on in the background. National pavilions are the primary focus, a showcase of what each nation feels portrays its contemporary art environment in the best light, a Eurovision of the art world if you will, and as with the song contest there are as many nul points awarded as douze, quality (and national tastes) very considerably.

I devoted two days to Biennale, and that certainly didn't do it justice. Six hours were spent in the Giardini and I only managed to see about 80% of the pavilions situated therein. The Arsenale was a lot easier to take in, both because it was much smaller and as the works were all curated there was a certain consistency to the choices, you didn't need to reset your mind every time you went into a new room as you did when leaving one national pavilion for another, and a healthy four hours was enough to take in everything I wanted to (although much more time could be spent there if you wanted, it just didn't float my boat really). Sadly the external national pavilions were a complete right-off, I made it to two or three that happened to be on may way to something else, and with this I feel I did miss out on something. I think the Biennale really deserves at least three full days, one in the Giardini, and two split between the Arsenale and off-site pavilions.

So what did I think?

The Giardini was the better of the two shows. The impact of wandering from pavilion to pavilion that themselves were often worth a visit just for the building itself cannot be underestimated. In a crass analogy it was almost an Art Theme Park, you plan your route to hit the more popular exhibits when you think the crowds will be at their smallest, stopping off for refreshments half-way along, some pavilions have age minimums, others have orderly queues and health and safety instructions (the British pavilion, obviously) and the pavilions are arranged like themed resorts according to when they were built - Great Powers-Land, Cold War-Land, We're-not-Communists-anymore-Land, The-Swedish-Pavilion-is-better-Land (though that last one might just be Finland on its own). Some countries have devoted their entire pavilion to a single artist or collective, others showcase the work of many, and the only constancy is inconstancy; quality, content and ambition varies greatly and that is the joy of the Giardini.

The Arsenale is a curated show, and thus the work on exhibit is all influenced strongly by the taste of a single person, and if your taste does not align with their's then your visit will be a fast one. Its also a much smaller show, so even if you are enthralled by the pieces it still won't take up too much of your. Luckily this allows you to take in the magnificence of the venue, Venice's principle shipyards for almost seven hundred years until the fall of the Venetian Republic to Napoleon in 1797. Much of the remaining buildings are 14th century or later, and it is difficult to imagine a grander setting for an exhibition. If only the exhibition itself matched its surroundings, sadly many of the pieces seemed overwhelmed by their surroundings, and many more fall into that large cup of tea that is clearly nether mine by ownership nor inclination. Notable exceptions included Christian Marclay's The Clock, a 24-hour long film montage of carefully edited movie scenes that include clocks and references to the time, all shown in real time (if its 3:34pm in the real world then the film is showing a scene from a film that has a clock showing 3:34pm, the sheer level of effort involved in its crafting is staggering), and the remains of Urs Fischer's full sized replica of Giambologna's sixteenth century sculpture The Rape of the Sabine Women that is actually a giant wax candle slowly melting away into nothingness, limbs collapsing down onto the ground around it in shattered disarray.

As for the rest, well, at times it seems almost impossible to view any Contemporary Art except through the lens of Exit Through the Gift Shop, that it is all a gargantuan staging of the Emperor's New Clothes with everyone afraid to actually say, "that's a bit poo really, isn't it?" for fear of bringing the whole world crashing down around them. Occasionally, however, I did find something that made me stop and say, "hmmm, that's quite good actually", or annoyed me enough that I feel compelled to write about it ("eewwww," I say, "doesn't this smell awful?", as I shove it under your nose).

The next few posts will try and give a sense of what excited and angered me, but I may try and slip an angsty post about the Presidential election or other political farce in between all the art stuff to keep the Philistines amongst you occupied.

Top: The approach to the Arsenale along Fondamenta di l'Arsenal
Middle: Angel Soldier, Lee Yongbaek, South Korean pavilion at the Giardini
Bottom: Shattered arm from Urs Fischer's wax The Rape of the Sabine Women, in the Arsenale

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