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Venice - Highlights and Lowlights

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Thomas Hirschhorn at the Swiss Pavillion. Image courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia Thomas Hirschhorn at the Swiss Pavillion. Image courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia Christian Botanski at the French Pavillion. Image courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia Christian Botanski at the French Pavillion. Image courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia Melanie Smith at the Mexican Pavillion. Image courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia Melanie Smith at the Mexican Pavillion. Image courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia Christoph Schlingensief at the German Pavillion.  Image courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia Christoph Schlingensief at the German Pavillion.  Image courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, Gloria, 2011, Installation View: Pavilion of the United States of America, 54th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia, Photo: IRondinella. Courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia

When a large part of Hirschhorn's show was closed off for maintenance purposes - for it looked like sections of his tinfoil covered ceiling were falling apart - it was amusing to see technicians busy fixing parts of sculptures with a variety of different packing tape. This effectively highlighted the potential fragility of capitalism by fracturing and reshaping our world of shoddy material goods in a messy, tenuous web of cello-tape.

The 54th Venice Biennale

Venice

 

ILLUMInations
Curated by Bice Curiger

 

4 June - 27 November 2011

With a record eighty nine pavilions bandying for attention at this year’s Venice Biennale, the odds are high for a series of spectacular exhibitions. While the island’s maze of narrow streets and canals offers more historical spectacle than most, the Biennale adds to the clamour with its array of national pavilions and masses of variously excited or fatigued art enthusiasts. Given the hype, it is understandable that many artists go for materially extravagant and conceptually ambitious installations that rely on the mantra that bigger is better.

This was no doubt the guiding force behind the American Pavilion’s spectacular offering: a full-scale military tank whose tracks were rotated by a single jogger on a running machine. Every few hours the entire Giardini was filled with the sound of screeching tank tracks while a tanned athlete padded high above the gathering crowds. Although the work certainly offered a weird and unusual site, this initial intrigue gave way to a nagging question: why? While clearly aiming for political commentary - the work was cited by many early reviews suggesting that the Biennale had taken a political turn - it seemed largely bereft of any meaningful conceptual content. The reason or reckoning behind this exorbitant piece certainly evaded me.

It was a relief then to see that Thomas Hirschhorn’s work in the Swiss Pavilion demonstrated that spectacle need not be big and dumb. His labyrinthine cave of precious stones, Warholesque silver foil and, of course, his signature brown packing tape was entirely captivating. Hirschhorn uses the ‘crystal’ as a means of negotiating the realms of politics and aesthetics, which he sees as separate entities. His cave of crystals is packed with a plethora of sundry objects and visual imagery onto which precious stones have been stuck or attached. Exercise machines, televisions, tabloid magazines, news media images of conflict, ubiquitous plastic chairs, mannequins, drink bottles and fluorescent lights all appear to be growing chunks of organic crystalline rock. While the American Pavilion attempted a single, grand and unfortunately overblown gesture, Hirschhorn engages with the more fragmentary detritus of consumerism.

The unification of politics and aesthetics has been an ongoing concern of Hirschhorn’s practice and, while this work may not effectively change our present political situation, it wholeheartedly emphasises art’s capacity to imagine or provoke new alternatives. At the time of my visit, a large part of Hirschhorn’s show was closed off for maintenance purposes where it looked like sections of his tinfoil covered ceiling were falling apart. Far from detracting from the work, it was amusing to see technicians busy fixing parts of sculptures with a variety of different packing tape. For me, Hirschhorn’s exhibition effectively highlighted the potential fragility of capitalism by fracturing and reshaping our world of shoddy material goods in a messy, tenuous web of cello-tape.

Aside from Hirschhorn, the other big name artist and large scale project I was interested to see was Christian Boltanski in the French Pavilion. Themes of life, death and memory continue to be poignantly explored by Boltanski in an ambitious work which centres around the concept of chance. In the French Pavilion’s main gallery a series of black and white photographs of babies’ faces circulated on a huge mechanised conveyor belt. Every now and then this run of blurred images would come to stop so that the details of an infant face could be clearly recognised. In the far room, a similar cycle of photographic projections of various adult facial features could be freeze-framed to form a single hybrid face. The unceasing movement between life and death was beautifully expressed in these works, but I thought Boltanski’s emphasis on chance and randomness was somewhat overplayed. Apparently the wooden chairs placed around the periphery of the show whispered the phrase ‘Is this the last time?’ whenever someone sat down. I was almost glad that I missed this somewhat corny whisper over the intriguing mechanical whirring of Boltanski’s conveyor belt. It was his deft mix of grungy analog and slick digital photographic technologies used to represent the breadth of human existence that ultimately left the greatest impression.

Interestingly, themes of life and death were also present in the posthumous exhibition of artists in the German and Egyptian Pavilions. The Golden Lion went to Christoph Schlingensief of the German Pavilion who died last year before his Venice exhibition could be realised. Schlingensief may be best known to New Zealand audiences for his deeply disturbing project involving a reality TV game show where asylum seekers competed for the chance to become Austrian citizens at a time where that county’s government had taken a notorious swing to the xenophobic far-right. Organised by curator Susanne Gaensheimer, the German Pavilion offered a broad-ranging homage to Schlingensief’s work and included, amongst other things, a full-scale replica of a church altar, video projections and an extensive film programme. Although I thoroughly enjoyed watching snatches of Schlingensief’s hilarious B-grade films - with director John Waters on this year’s judging panel it is not hard to see how this appealed-this overwhelming exhibition lacked the very incisive and crude abrasiveness of the artist’s troubling immigration project.

Alongside the German Pavilion, Egypt also decided to posthumously exhibit the work of Ahmed Basiony, an artist killed in the demonstrations in Tahir Square earlier this year. This exhibition consisted of documentation of his 2010 performance piece Thirty Days of Running which showed the artist running on the spot for extended periods while dressed in a strange plastic bubble suit replete with a tangle of electronic cords. Basiony’s heartbeat and the movement of his body were represented by colourful flashes on a digital screen connected to the bubble outfit. This performance piece was in turn inter-cut with footage Basiony had shot of the pro-democracy demonstrations in the nights leading up to his death. This video amalgam managed to convey a very real sense of physicality and mortality where the heartbeat of an individual was sensitively juxtaposed with the grainy footage of chaotic, pulsating and exhilarating masses of people. The political magnitude of the protests in Tahir Square could threaten to overshadow any Egyptian exhibition at Venice, but this show of Basiony’s work did well to pay homage to the artist as well as addressing the scale and impact of the demonstrations.

While the Giardini and Arsenale were full of monumental shows such as this, pavilions located outside the traditional home of the Biennale offered some quieter moments. Francisco Tropa in the Portuguese Pavilion presented a series of magnified projections of small and seemingly ordinary objects or phenomena: a dead fly, drips of water and an hourglass perfunctorily turned upside down every few minutes. The golden light of these large tungsten-lit projections and the simple mechanics of their lanterns tapped the potential fascination and wonderment of scientific observations. Similarly, in the Mexican Pavilion Melanie Smith showed a beautifully edited video work that I could not tear myself away from. Smith’s work was filmed at an overgrown Surrealist garden found just outside Mexico City. Projected in an unusual vertical portrait format, this film brought together images of strange concrete structures, fireworks and mirrors reflecting a jungle of greenery, many of which were filmed in the soft glow of twilight hours. Smith’s work reminded me of the delicate pleasures gained from subtle visual observations and detailed investigations. Away from the cacophonous screeching of the military tank in the Giardini, it was this peculiar and mysteriously exotic garden that I wanted to see more of.

Kate BrettKelly-Chalmers

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This Discussion has 3 comments.

Comment

John Hurrell, 2:08 p.m. 19 September, 2011

What do readers think of David Cross's dismissal of Allora and Calzadilla's work as 'mindnumbingly stupid', or Kate BrettKelly-Chalmer's statement that it is 'largely berefit of any meaningful conceptual content'?

They are both very confident here. But lots of good art (I would have thought) comes close to stupidity, or defies meaning in an accessible, logical or decodifiable sense. Art is like rock and roll, esp dada, in that it has an anti-rational component. Stupid art - like the work of rock's Iggy, The Ramones or Little Richard - is often great art.

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Simon Esling, 3:23 p.m. 19 September, 2011

Even stupid rock (I'll put forward AC/DC as a personal favourite) has some guts behind it, some eternal force ('primal' or 'sexual' as they say) and is comfortable in it's own skin. This work by Allora and Calzadilla is perhaps a little over-reaching and has pre-determined it's potency by over-thinking itself in the first instance. There is certainly stuff to mull over in terms of concepts (post cold-war U.S. athletes are forced to compete with their own venerable might in the form of a tank, airline seats (?)... desert colours = Middle East theatre of war). But that's if you can be bothered following any of these potential paths of enquiry. Jerry Saltz discusses it in terms of eliciting a sense of embarrasment at being American. He doesn't slam it, per se, but suggests it is what it is... a big artwork, a big statement, noisy, bombastic! And there you go, you can brush your hands together and walk away. Big, loud American tourists. I think that would be my response to this particular work (from the images I've seen) whereas I do like the look of one of their previous works which involves a brass band inside an amalgamation of bunkers. Now that seems to work somehow. It seems a simple idea, equally as weird as the Venice installation, but has a sense of confidence and singularity about it. I'm curious about these kinds of hit and miss situations as (quote/unquote) famous artists tour the world with bold installations. Sometimes they just don't work. In short, I think Kate and David may have it right.

More interesting is Michael Parekowhai's showing. I have to agree that the red carved piano on its own would have been sublime and would have displayed an unshakeable confidence and audacity. The other sculptures do seem to muddle things a bit and possibly detract from the overall effect. But opinion is an easy thing to throw around afterward. I think artists are always faced with issues of what and how much to put in or leave out. It's always a difficult process and when involved in such a monumental task it would be hard to stand back and see the whole thing with fresh eyes.

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John Hurrell, 3:53 p.m. 19 September, 2011

Simon, you make a good point about such work having 'guts' or a physicality. But that quality is often a nono in today's contemporary art scene where so-called 'conceptual rigour' is elevated above sensuality, where the more 'dematerialised' the work is the better it is seen to be.

My impression was that the Allora and Calzadilla work is pretty funny. Using an inverted tank's tracks as an exercise machine seems to be saying that 'necessity is the mother of invention'. Esp with the technology of war. For example Alfred Nobel's dynamite was intially invented for munitions but then became an invaluable tool for peacetime use - so some good things do materialise out of war. I wonder if that is its point?

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Directed by Bice Curiger

 

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