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A promational video for the pavilion of Lithuania and Cyprus

The 55th Venice Biennale Promises to Shake Up The Nationality Principle Even More than Before 0

Every year, the carnival city of Venice changes hats several times – including those of a citadel of architecture or film. In the same vein, every year ending in a numerically odd number is dedicated to a world-wide celebration of contemporary art; and this year's affair is just about to start – on 1 June – and will last all the way to 24 November. The sheet will come off a bit earlier, though, since on 29 May the press will already be kicking up a dust storm as they charge through the gates of the Giardini della Biennale, on their way to the national pavilions.

Who will make the biggest splash? Will it be Ai Weiwei – the thorn in the eye of China's Communist Party leaders – who will take part in the exhibit in Germany's national pavilion? Will the “Il Palazzo Enciclopedico” exhibition in the Arsenale – organized by the biennale's head curator, Massimiliano Gioni – be lauded, or will it be chastised? And what will “we” look like compared to everyone else? These questions are probably in the minds of many right now.

88 countries are taking part in the biennale this year. Ten are first-timers, including the Bahamas, Kuwait, Kosovo, and Nigeria. Also making its debut will be the Vatican – the new Pope, Francis, has revealed in the press that contemporary art interests him, and that the Vatican doesn't necessarily want to present in a location with a religious nature, but rather in a “white cube”.

The map of national expositions and satellite events is dense with the numerous points of interest. An inevitable side-effect is cognizance of the fact that it is virtually impossible to see everything at an event of this scale. But this time, this feature has become the thematic core of the curator's central exhibition. As everyone knows, the exhibition at the Arsenale serves as the catalytic “tuning fork” of the art world at that moment in time – at least in theory, i.e, in the event of curatorial success. Which is why it's actually quite interesting that Gioni has turned to the “impossibility” of the idea of a biennale, as such. The polar extremes of the “Encyclopedic Palace” – “the urge to know everything,” and, “it is impossible to know everything” – are fitting descriptors for the spirit of this time in history. Only time will tell whether or not Gioni will be able to embody this idea in the form of an exhibition. Be that as it may, a guide to the main attractions of the biennale is the best aid to have at your side before heading to Venice. 

Highlights of the 55th Venice Biennale

In principle, it is possible to view all of the expositions in the historically national pavilions (of which there are 32), because they are all incorporated in one location – the gardens, or Giardini, created by Napoleon Bonaparte at one end of Venice's Old Town. The deciding factor here is whether or not visitors will be able to find the Giardini – the knots of little streets in Venice can even confuse the locals. 

Germany and France switch places

Germany and France have switched pavilions this year. Taking into account that foreign artists have been organizing national pavilions for several years now, this isn't exactly radical. However, the question of whether dividing pavilions along national lines is antiquated, still stands. But it doesn't seem likely to disappear from the Venice Biennale in the near future. First of all, many of the pavilions are historical structures, thereby a treasure in themselves. And second, it is precisely this representative function of the pavilions that leads to their respective governments funding many of them. Still, playful moves similar to this one, by Germany and France, could become more frequent.

Germany will be represented by the above-mentioned Ai Weiwei, as well as by Indian photographer Dayanita Singh, South African photographer Santu Mofokeng, and the German-born French film director, Romuald Karmakar. Video artist Anri Sala will do the honors for France. Ai Weiwei will also be showing works at two satellite events. At the Zitelle Complex, Weiwei will reconstruct his legendary installation “Straight”, which was first shown at Washington DC's Hirshhorn Museum. The piece is composed of several tons of steel rebar recovered from the Sichuan Province earthquake that buried more than 5000 children under their collapsed school buildings. In the Church of Sant'Antonin, however, a completely new work will be on display; Weiwei has described it as a dialog with the historical architecture – like a greeting to Venice, from modern-day China.

Russia's first foreign curator in a hundred years

In speaking about international mingling, we should mention that this year, Russia will have its first-ever foreign curator – Udo Kittelmann, director of Berlin's National Gallery. (On a side note, Kettelman told The Art Newspaper that he denounces Germany's decision to host Ai Weiwei because, most likely, Weiei will be the one who garners the most attention from the press, leaving the other three artists lost in his shadow.) Russia will continue in the same vein as they did in the last biennale – by showing representatives of conceptualism. This year's exhibition will be by Vadim Zakharov; this is his second appearance at the Venice Biennale – the first time was in 2001. On an ending note, this year marks the 100th anniversary since construction began on the Russian pavilion; it was finished in 1914, and designed by Aleksey Scusev.

Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and... Cyprus!

Latvia and Estonia have also hired foreign curators for the first time this year. New York's Art in General is working on the exhibition in Latvia's pavilion, while the Polish-born,  American-based curator Adam Budak is heading the multidisciplinary team at Estonia's pavilion (featuring Estonian artist Dénes Farkas). Much like Germany and France, Lithuania has decided to play around with the idea of national pavilions this year. Lithuania's curator, Raimundas Malašauskas, has created the group show “Oo”, which has both Lithuanian and Cypriot artists. Basically, it's a unified exhibition that represents two national pavilions at once, namely, Lithuania and Cyprus. 

A promational video for the pavilion of Lithuania and Cyprus

Edvard Munch will represent Norway

When it comes to state financing, Norway has pulled an interesting trick. What happened is, the Norwegian government did not grant any funding for Norway's trip to the biennale. In spite of the impossible, the Norwegian contemporary art center OCA decided to make an exhibition anyway. 150 years after his birth, Edvard Munch, he of the legendary “The Scream” painting, will represent Norway at the 55th Venice Biennale. The exhibition is being organized in cooperation with Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa,Galleria di Piazza San Marco, which is also where it will be held. It's vengeful cleverness, or rather, a good example for organizers from other countries who may, one day, end up in a similar situation – when push comes to shove, pull out the old masters. The Norwegian exhibition will feature rarely-seen works by Munch, as well as a completely new film, “Dirty Young Loose” (directed by Lene Berg, 2013, 32 min.). 

The United Arab Emirates acquire a permanent pavilion

Last week it was announced that the United Arab Emirates have been allotted a permanent pavilion in the Arsenale, and a 20-year lease has been signed. It should be pointed out that a 20-million-euro reconstruction project on the center portion of the Arsenale was begun in 2011, which has resulted in space opening up for several national pavilions. (The Vatican, a first-timer this year, also has its pavilion in the Arsenale). 

Take note!

We'll point out a few more spots worth noting. If you're a fan of the New York-based artist, architect and film director Alfredo Jaar, then head to the national pavilion of Chile, because Jaar is the one heading it this year. Attention, all followers of American photographer and image-chameleon Cindy Sherman – take a good look at the Massimiliano Gioni-curated exhibition in the Arsenale, since that is where she was given the job of creating “an exhibit within an exhibit”. For those who plan on staying up late in Venice, we recommend the new work by performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson from Iceland – “S.S. Hangover”. This master of looping and repeats has created a four-hour performance which is made up of several musicians playing the works of Richard Wagner on the deck of a wooden boat. The boat will sail back and forth between two points on the Arsenale's canal. One by one, the musicians will disembark from the ship, and then, one by one, will be taken aboard again. Only those remaining on board play the music.

An encyclopedia of contemporary art

Along with Massimiliano's exhibition “The Encyclopedic Palace”, a new book will be coming out – “The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Art”, authored by Gioni, Italian curator Achille Bonito Oliva, and president of the Venice Biennale, Paolo Baratta, among others.

P.S. Although the official closing of the biennale is 24 November, many pavilions shut down before then. If you've decided to avoid the sweltering heat of the Italian summer by going to the art festival in the autumn, then keep this fact in mind. Norway's exhibition, for instance, will only be on view through 22 September, and so on.