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ArtREVIEW: The 2011 Venice Biennale

Lynda Woodroffe

The Venice Biennale, one of the oldest of the art exhibitions that are held every two years, is set in the Venice Giardini and the old, now vacant Arsenale, and in other pavilions in the main parts of the city. This year the curator, Bice Curiger from Zurich, named her biennale choices ILLUMInations. This title, ironically, was not congruent with the works as I did not find many of them illuminating. Click here !

Whilst some of the exhibits at the Biennale were eye-catching and had impact, most of them invoked, ‘so what?’ experiences for me; they aroused no interest at all, produced little or no impact and meant little more to me than an advertisement from the back of a cornflakes packet.

I’ll start with the Italian exhibit – a collection of trashy art, hung very close together, on partitions, up steps and looking very tired. There was no space to allow one to catch one’s breath and, indeed, the effect on the psyche was one of overkill – the killing of any chance to take in one single creation let alone 50! Did this presentation epitomise the current state of Italy I wondered. Along with this contribution from Italy were three paintings by the 16th century Venetian painter, Tintoretto. These were lent by a Venice gallery and placed in a darkened room on their own, a hanging that created something special in terms of their isolation, their meanings and how out of their own time they were compared to other works of art at the Biennale.

In the Venice pavilion were some beautifully crafted, semi-oval constructions with pointed apexes reminiscent of Venice gondolas tilted up towards the sky as if half capsized. The precision of their manufacture and the perfect alignment of their presentation went somewhat in the face of the reality of gondolas, which often appear amusing, out of control, washed by the waves and about to collide. Here they were dominant, regal and proud.

The British exhibit created by Mike Nelson used the entire pavilion building to recreate his experiences of producing work for biennales in both Venice and Istanbul. It was about as much fun looking around the sparse areas of dust and low ceilings as it would be looking around any house, and again there was the question ‘So what?’ This was personal to the artist and creator, but it did little for me. What was considerably more fascinating was the avid interest shown in this exhibit; the queue for entry was a mile long all day long and even arriving early morning at the entrance to the Giardini, there was an unprecedented number of people waiting, Press IDs in hand, to see this creation. As soon as the gates were opened, all fit and toned persons queuing took to their heels and sprinted the distance from the Giardini entrance to the pavilion, knocking walkers to the wayside as they forged their way uphill. For me, that was the best part of this exhibit.

The USA pavilion held only one installation of interest and impact – that of an inverted tank with a treadmill placed on top and a runner working the treadmill to provide the tank with the dynamics for its working.

France, whose 2009 shipdeck installation was both atmospheric and impressive, failed to retain my attention for very long this year. The large room contained a scaffolding with oversized film strips of babies’ faces being rotated through it like a print run. Audience participation was invited in another room: the challenge was to try to create one face from the images that emerged; the prize was the artwork they had created.

Chile, which occupies an unusual space spanning beach and mountain range along most of the length of South America, produced a piece of work reflecting this shape. Artist Fernando Prats photographed a long strip of glaciated land in the southern region of Chile and decorated it with Spanish writing in neon lights; these long fluorescent tubes of gas and electric charge again accentuated length and produced an effect of contrast and congruence between light and form.

Chile – Grand Sur (Great South)

Israel, on the other hand, displayed one of its major difficulties, a lack of available drinking water (despite its apparent abundance when compared with Palestinian areas). The writing on the wall – One man’s floor is another man’s feelings – said a lot about the conflict in this area of the world. For me, it conjured up images of the theft of space and the pain of loss that is an everyday event in the small area that is Israel and the smaller regions of the same stretch of land that is Palestine. Also in this pavilion a short time-lapse video showed a pair of heavy boots which had been dipped into the Dead Sea and left to dry out, coated with salt, on an ice floe; the effect of the boots as they gradually melted the ice and sank though it into water, was fascinating bringing together ideas about wet and dry, water and drought.

The Swiss contribution was very popular and Thomas Hirschhorn, who originates from the country that has achieved wealth through its quartz watches, succeeded in creating a rumpus by his use of sellotape and quartz crystals. The exhibit was about as subtle as something my children might make after watching an art show on TV. I presume the intention was to raise our consciousness to our dependence upon digital technology, the overuse of Earth’s resources and the cheap labour that goes along with that but his approach, from an artistic point of view, was far too in-your-face to have the impact that he was perhaps looking for.

China was represented by artists Yuan Gong, Pan Gongkai, Liang Yuanwei, Yang Maoyuan, and Cai Zhisong. An indoor exhibit comprising the manufacture of hundreds of small oval clay bottles that were laid out to dry while the machinery gave off white fumes was complemented on a lawn outside the pavilion by small balls of what looked like chalk which also emitted white clouds. For me this represented modern-day China, industrialised and polluted.

CHINA – Yuan Gong, Empty Incense

The three exhibits that impressed me most were Christian Marclay’s Clock, Urs Fischer’s wax statues and the work by Lee Yong-baek of Korea. Marclay made a 24-hour-long film where time was represented by pieces taken from classics including Titanic, High Noon and Key Largo. The times shown in the filmstrips were synchronised with real time. Remarkable! Without any surprise, this won the Golden Lion Award.

Marclay – Clock

Urs Fischer’s three wax statues – of a man, a seat and a replica of the Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women – produced a lot of excitement. Each was like a giant candle melting from top down. For me, they showed the temporary nature of life; whether we expire through old age or erosion, there is little we can do to stop this.

URS FISCHER – Melting Man

Lee Yong-baek made collages showing an obvious contradiction and contrast in cultures – that of floral decoration as camouflage and military uniform. Carefully hidden in the floral display can be seen hands holding a rifle. (See below). Uniforms and army boots were also adorned with floral textiles and hung up in line like a row of soldiers.

The four days that I spent at the Biennale were not all at the Giardini or the Arsenale; there were other pavilions at locations outside of these areas. Memorable was the Roma exhibition set in a backstreet, in an ancient, palatial building. The exhibition included a long video-tape of the existential stress of Roma peoples and a panel of speakers for Roma populations who, in their everyday lives, suffer discrimination, poverty and violence. It was pleasing, if distressing, to bear witness to experiences which had more meaning than the prevailing so-what?.

Lynda Woodroffe is a psychotherapist who lives and works privately in N W London. She is also on the editorial board of Contemporary Psychotherapy