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Stuffing Your Face with Cake – a Summary of the 55th Venice Biennale 0

Anna Iltnere

Some cakes are so big that after eating just one layer of your piece, you're already full. But there are just so many layers of jam, whipped cream, sponge and frosting, and when taken all together in Venice, you end up with what is called “culture shock”. The city is like a postcard come to life, precisely just as beautiful as in pictures, and without any airbrushing. The canal waters ripple in thick waves, a different shade of green every day; the ancient brick walls make you crane your neck every which way to make sure you see everything; and a smile never leaves your face the whole day through, especially every time you spot a sliver-thin black gondola, with a striped-shirt gondolier balancing on one end. As if all of this isn't enough, every two years there is so much art in Venice that you want to divide yourself into molecules, just so you can manage to see everything. In these terms, the 55th Venice Art Biennale didn't differ from any other year. A map of the Biennale in one hand, the catalog in the other, a camera in your third hand, your notebook in your fourth, the fifth holds.... the fact that you only have two hands has become moot. But even that is not enough. You stare at everybody, trying to spot amongst the crowds not only the faces of editors of leading art magazines, but of art critics, world-famous artists, movie stars, curators, collectors, and more. And the only way to take in this rich dessert is not by eating a small slice with a dainty silver fork, but by simply stuffing your face with the whole cake. Established in 1895, the Venice Art Biennale isn't even thinking of slowing down – and is, in fact, accelerating – having amassed 88 national pavilions this year, which is ten more than two years ago. This is not the limit, however, if one takes into account that there are almost 200 independent nations in the world; in theory, the Biennale still has room to grow... Utopia, and the impossibility of achieving it, is at the basis of the Biennale's central exhibition, which was put together by the New York-based Italian curator, Massimiliano Gioni. “Il Palazzo Enciclopedico”, or “The Encyclopedic Palace”, aptly embodies not only the Biennale's illusion of gathering together the globe's “best” contemporary art of the moment, but it also illustrates the zeitgeist of the times, which is like a wound-up nerve, about to break in two at any moment. “Pop!”... and what are we left with?

A view of the Biennale's Central Pavilion, in the territory of the Giardini. It contains one part of the “Il Palazzo Enciclopedico” exhibition

Trees, birds, earth, clay, stone

If you had to label everything seen in the 55th Venice Biennale, in a nutshell, I'd say it would be the overarching “post-internet” mood. Nature and materiality rule. Wood is used as a raw material, or even in its natural state – as a trunk with branches – like in Krišs Salmanis' upside-down rowan-tree in Latvia's exposition, “North by Northeast”. In the Alvar Aalto Pavilion, Finish artist Antti Laitinen has chopped up birch trees and then stuck them back together; and in the Nordic Pavilion, the exposition created by Terike Haapoja is a surreal landscape that contains trees. Both exhibitions by these Finish artists fall under the unifying concept of “Falling Trees”, which is based on a true event – during the 2011 Biennale, a tree actually fell down on Finland's pavilion. And in Denmark's pavilion, created by Jesper Just, one can see a fawn. Alongside the displayed video works, green bushes grow under infrared lights in a concrete room. Several exhibitions feature stone and clay (or at least imitations of them). Archives and warehouses have appeared, in which reams of “data” have been returned to tangible shelves (USA, Denmark, Czech Republic). In the central exhibition, curated by head commissar Massimiliano Gioni and titled “Il Palazzo Enciclopedico”, archeological artifacts can be found; but ceramics and tapestries seem to still be rising to the top, which was already evident in the large-scale Documenta(13) event.

The legendary Eva and Adele, who always honor notable art events with their colorful presence

Is the Venice Biennale a place to look for what is new?

On the evening of 29 May, a colleague and I head to the opening of the Summer Issue for the magazine Art Review. Jeremy Deller, the British artist who created this year's exposition at the UK Pavilion, “English Magic”, was the issue's guest editor. The event is being held in a small courtyard behind a Venetian residential building, and a small stage has been set up for a live concert. We meet Patrick Kelly, the publisher of the magazine, who tells us how difficult it was to put together the issue because Deller didn't want to reveal anything concrete about his exhibition before the Venice Biennale – in order to keep the intrigue alive. Tall, with long ashy hair and dressed in a gray blazer, Kelley can't stop gushing about the British pavilion, but I manage to ask him what he thinks about the Biennale as a whole – is the Biennale able to present an overall general impression of contemporary art at the moment, or is this only an illusion? “It used to,” he replies. “And theoretically, the Venice Biennale really is a snapshot of the art world at a certain moment in time. However, in reality, there are so many things going on behind-the-scenes, where it is decided which artist is chosen and which is not; in addition, there a bunch of other art events going on in the world, so it' impossible to generalize and say that the Biennale can objectively reflect it all. By the way,” adds Kelley,”there's a great article in Art Review by Chris Sharp. He says that if you want to find out about the latest happenings on the contemporary art scene, then the Biennale definitely isn't the place to go looking. The Venice Biennale reflects that which has already established its position. To look for something new, best go to the São Paolo or Istanbul Biennales.” Kelley picks up a copy of the newest issue and tries to find the article he just mentioned, but can't; he laughs it off and says he must be going crazy, because he just finished up work on the next issue, which is devoted to Asia. He finally finds the article, and later on, in my hotel room, I read it. Chris Sharp writes that the main difference between centuries-old biennales in the North, and the quite new ones in the South, is that the former, including the Venice Biennale, work according to the ratification principle, while the newer biennales are much more flexible and without any inherited baggage, which is why they are able to offer more new experiments.

View of the Russian Pavilion, in the territory of the Giardini

Is art national, or international?

Later, in the Russian Pavilion, we meet Vadim Zakharov, the artist who created Russia's exposition; almost as if in reply to what Kelley said to us earlier, Zakharov says: “The Venice Biennale is a great concept. Of course, you can board a plane and spend 15 hours flying to the Philippines or China, but few can afford such an extravagance just for the sake of art. Here, you can come to a great city like Venice, enjoy the spring and summer, and get an idea of what is going on in the world of contemporary art. The biennale format is the most appropriate for today. I even regard it as being better than Documenta. In addition, the Venice Biennale allows one to look at art through the prism of national identity.” As stated in a previous article, this is the first time that Russia has invited a foreign curator – Udo Kittelmann from Germany – to put together its national exhibition. On a side note, Kittelmann and Zakharov have worked together before, and Zakharov himself chose him for the Biennale.

Over the years, the issue of national identification at the Biennale has been increasingly kicked about and played around with several times – for example, the switching around of the German and French pavilions. Similarly, Alfredo Jaar's exposition “Venezia, Venezia”, in the Chilean pavilion, brings to the forefront a possible crisis facing the Biennale – the piece is a scale model of the Giardini sinking into the water, and then rising up again. Nevertheless, it seems as if the Biennale will not refrain from having national pavilions all that soon. Over the last few days, I asked many people why the pavilion principle is still so strong; I received one of the most thorough answers from the Dutch pavilion. On the Friday of 31 May, as I was exiting the pavilion's exhibition (“Room with Broken Sentence”, which consists of sculptures by Dutch artist Mark Manders set up in a brightly-lit white room), I met its curator, Lorenzo Benedetti. Jacket-less, and wearing a pink shirt with the two top buttons unbuttoned, Benedetti's answer is so exhaustive that I don't even have to ask any follow-up questions – he voices them himself and continues the discussion almost as a monologue. “What is my position? I'm convinced that nationality is not decisively important because art has always been international. At the same time, a certain aspect of nationality is an essential part of the Biennale. Namely, what is going on in the cultural politics of a specific country. How large are the subsidies given to artists, art institutions and organizations? How much responsibility does a country take for investing in art? You see, these are very state-specific issues. And that is one of the reasons why dividing the Biennale into national pavilions is important. Not emphasizing the nationality of the art, mind you, but rather showing how each country supports its cultural program.” Benedetti waves to a group of passersby and continues: “It's interesting that the artists for the pavilions of both Spain and Greece live in the Netherlands. Many of the artists represented in “The Encyclopedic Palace” also live in the Netherlands. I think that's one of the most demonstrative examples of how a nation's support of culture brings obvious results.”

The curator for the Dutch pavilion also touched upon why the Venice Art Biennale is so special and unique: “The Venice Biennale is important for a variety of reasons. First of all, it is the first and oldest art biennale, having been established in 1895. Secondly, it now features contemporary art from around the globe. Over the centuries, the number of participating countries has grown. Up until the 1990s, the Giardini territory took up the new pavilions, but this year, a bunch of new countries – like Moldavia, the Vatican, several African countries, etc. – are taking part in the Biennale for the first time, and they have been placed in the Arsenale. This proves that the Venice Biennale is still growing and is bursting with life. Even more importantly, the number of visitors on the opening days, as well as during the whole Biennale, is also growing. Therefore, one can safely say that the Venice Biennale is one of the most important art events. But why is that? Venice is a unique city. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. There are no cars here; you have to travel by boat to get somewhere. That is not a paradox, but rather a causal basis for the development of such a meaningful biennale here. The city's history also plays a role. In the last centuries, Venice has always been an important cultural center. And now, the present political correctness is confronting the Biennale's past. That's why there's all this polemic about the issue of nationality.”

A view of the USA's national pavilion in the territory of the Giardini

Does a pavilion at the Biennale have to make a statement?

As I continue on my walk through the Giardiani to look at the expositions that I haven't yet had a chance to see, I take a place in line at the USA's pavilion. Compared to the the line at the French pavilion to see Anri Sala's “Ravel Ravel Unravel”, which is unanimously agreed to be the most beautiful exhibition in the Biennale, the line at the American pavilion is short. “Triple Point”, by American artist Sarah Sze, consists of several installations, each one made up of numerous daily objects, and set up like small world-models. Having viewed the exposition, I get a chance to meet with one of the co-commissars – Carey Lovelace. She's standing outside of the pavilion and has just finished speaking to a Japanese journalist, when she agrees to a quick interview with We take a short walk to an outdoor cafe. I decide to start by asking about the concept of the exposition, because it feels very universal, without any socio-political aspects attached to it. “The neo-classic pavilion building is a political statement in itself; it stands tall and proud: 'I am here, I have power, I rule the world!'”, says Lovelace. “Our idea was to find an artist that could deal with such an environmental context, and who could create a piece of art that forms a successful dialog with the space, but is also able to powerfully present a meaningful experience of art, rather than a political experience. Politics can be observed almost everywhere, but in my opinion, these sort of semantics come off as reductive. In truth, every time an artist begins a sentence with: “My art is about....”, the art is reduced to just one thing.”

Video of Sarah Sze's exposition, “Triple Point”, in the USA's national pavilion

I ask if she thinks that the Venice Biennale is able to reflect the current situation in the world. I notice that the curator is dressed  very officially – in a black suit and white shirt. “Although I haven't seen everything yet, I did notice that several exhibitions are about confusion and fusions. But I always try to distance myself from this sort of psychoanalysis, and I allow for the fact that what may seem like a trend, could actually just be random similarity. Of course, compared to the previous Biennale, which was hyper-political, this one is different.”

“Undeniably, the world is currently ruled by ambiguity, insecurity and uncertainty. There is nothing concrete to turn to. A gaze towards the inner world also dominates Massimiliano Gioni's exhibition. Possibly, this could just be the taking of a break from the political craziness. If two years ago I thought I only wanted to deal with slogans, then now I think differently. Art can be a wonderful experience in itself. Like a theatrical play that takes you somewhere, and when you come out of the theater, you're a changed person. At the end, political slogans have an expiration date; they can get old, go out of use. Just like a daily newspaper, which tomorrow will just be the past.”

Possibly, this just could be the reason why the scheme with having Ai Weiwei in the German pavilion's exhibition, in my opinion, failed. The British newspaper The Guardian made a mistake by declaring, even before the start of the Biennale, that Weiwei will be the one who will make art into something meaningful. That may be true in another context, but in terms of Germany's exhibition, Weiwei just became a billboard for the pavilion.

A part of Cindy Sherman's collection of photo albums, as displayed in the “Il Palazzo Enciclopedico” exhibition in the Arsenale 

A return to art as form of expression that comes from the inner world

At the official opening of the Venice Art Biennale, which fell on 1 June this year, there is a traditional presentation of “The Golden Lions” – for best artist, best national exposition, and best lifetime achievement. The first two categories are evaluated by an international panel of judges who look at all of the pavilions, as well as the Central Exhibition by the head curator, during the press preview days. Tino Seghal, who participated in the Biennale with a performance art piece, was selected as the best artist of the 55th Venice Art Biennale. In his acceptance speech, he described his art as only being experienced by those who live through it. Seghal never documents his performances; consequently, the only way that they can continue to live on is through the forms of retelling and rumor. Seghal also stated that the 21st century person, including the artist, is no longer a lonely and self-assured master – a much more open art process must take its place. Seghal also ascribed this to Gioni's curated “Il Palazzo Enciclopedico” exhibition, in which he captured the contemporary realization that, in principle, mankind is not all-powerful, and that quite possibly, its inner world is not much different than that of a rock.

Video of Tino Seghal's Golden Lion acceptance speech

The idea to make a Central Exhibition that would be the responsibility of just one curator, alongside the already-established national pavilions, was first tried out in the 1993 Biennale. And then again, in 1998 – which is now seen as the start of the tradition. Already having returned home from Venice, I remembered that I had somewhere read about Massimiliano Gioni's memories of the first Biennale that he had attended. I find the book in question on my shelf, and it turns out that his first Biennale was the same 1993 Biennale. The young Gioni was not quite 20 years old at the time, and he probably had no idea that, after 20 years' time, he himself would be the commissar of the Biennale's Central Exhibition. On an interesting side note, in the summer of 1993 Gioni also traveled through Eastern Europe, including the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which had just begun to recover from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Gioni-curated “Il Palazzo Enciclopedico” exhibition has a lot of strange-seeming pieces. Well-known names such as Cindy Sherman, Bruce Nauman and Tino Seghal are mingled in with autistic or hearing-impared autodidacts, for whom art is the only way to express their inner worlds. Even “anonymous tantric paintings” have been put on display. Another noticeable trait – in walking through the Arsenale and the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, it seems that irony is no longer in fashion. This last winter, during the awarding of the Purvītis Prize in Riga, I was told this exact observation by Moscow art theoretician and curator Viktor Misiano. Namely, truthfulness and authenticity in art is increasingly gaining dominance, and that those who fiddle around with clever subtexts and two-faced irony are being pushed into the background. That was also one of the reasons why Misiano liked the works of the winner of the Purvītis Prize – “Zemes darbi / Earth Works”, by Andris Eglītis. And truth be told, it is very easy to imagine these works by Eglītis in the context of “The Encyclopedic Palace”.

A video of the exposition of Portugal's national pavilion; created by the artist Joana Vasconcelos, it is actually a reconstructed ferry boat brought from Lisbon

To create and to present, or – getting noticed

It was not for aught that I mentioned “Earth Works”. Latvia's art is doing well; we just have to work on the next step – getting noticed. The location of Latvia's pavilion in the Arsenale has proved to be a success. The argument heard before the Biennale – that visitors' senses will be dulled-down by the overflowing richness of everything just seen in the Arsenale – was shot down. Being in Venice, it becomes clear that being in the center of everything is practically the only way to ensure being noticed. Only a rare few diligently walk through the temporary pavilions scattered throughout the city. However “pop-art” it may sound, Damien Hirst's summary of the Venice Biennale in his short interview with – that “anything that guarantees the attention of large crowds is already valuable in itself,” – is true, in a sense. I'm also quite sure that, in the context of Latvia's pavilion, the opportunity to get noticed is being welcomed not only by Krišs Salmanis and Kaspars Podnieks, but also by their curator from New York's Art in General – compared to a small country like Latvia, in the USA there's much more competition to face in securing a place in the Biennale. To be noticed and receive recognition – that's something that Lithuania can be happy about for the second Biennale in a row now; just like Lithuania did on their own last year, this year the combined pavilion of Lithuania and Cyprus received a special mention by the jury for their collaboration.

Besides the opportunity to be noticed on an international scale, there's another bonus to be had from participating in the Biennale – the opportunity for an artist to create a new and substantial work of art, which sometimes isn't all that easy to do. “It is, of course, a big event, because a lot of people see your work,” I'm told by the artist Ali Kazma shortly after the press conference in Turkey's pavilion. “Although I'm not sure if that's the most appropriate way to see this exhibition. It would be much better if there weren't that many people at one time, and if each person could take the time to view the work at their own pace. But it is what it is. In my case, participating in the Biennale was a chance to create a new piece. Usually, there are many exhibitions going on and I'm asked to give lectures – I can't say no to one person because he's a friend, then I can't refuse another one, and so on. But while getting ready for Venice, I could decline everything else because I had a good excuse. Consequently, I've spent the last nine months working almost like I did in my student days – giving myself completely over to the piece. The Biennale gave me the freedom to concentrate on just one work. And I must say, in terms of art, this has been my most productive year.”

The speech given by Massimiliano Gioni, curator of the Central Exhibition “Il Palazzo Enciclopedico”, before the Golden Lion Award Ceremony

Time was the biggest challenge that Massimiliano Gioni had to face in working on “Il Palazzo Enciclopedico”, as he says when I catch up with him dashing from one Biennale event to another. “Time was definitely the biggest challenge. Because it's very limited – from the moment that I was invited to do this, to the moment when it all had to be ready. That was a year and a few months.” It was not for naught that during his opening speech on 1 June, Gioni stressed that a utopia is sure to fail if you try to go about creating it by yourself. Without his huge team, the “Encyclopedic Palace” would have remained just a sketched-out model. Which makes one think – how long until, if ever, the ambition disappears to have just one person's signature under such a wide-scale exhibition. Because with, for example, the Documenta exhibition, which is held every five years, it is more than obvious that it can't be done without a battalion of curators...

As I head back to my hotel, I take off my shoes and wade through the ankle-deep puddle that has formed on St. Mark's Square, and I think to myself – only massive, city-wide flooding could drown the phenomenon that is the Venice Art Biennale. Because the churning that happens on the sidelines is just a rippling of the surface waters, while the core status of the Biennale remains the accepted establishment. I am reminded by the tautological phrase uttered by Art Review publisher Patrick Kelley at the end of our meeting: “It is established, because it is established...


The “North by Northwest” exhibition at the Latvian national pavilion, with photographs by Kaspars Podnieks. Out of shot, and hanging upside-down above the heads of the visitors, is the installation (or tree) by Krišs Salmanis


A scene from the exhibition at the Dutch national pavilion, “Room with a Broken Sentence”, by Mark Manders

The exhibition “Still the Same Place”, by Petra Feriancova and Zbynek Baladran, in the Czech and Slovak national pavilion

A cafe in the Giardini

Changes in the names of countries, as seen on the wall of the Nordic Pavilion

A scene of the group exhibition at the United Arab Emirates' pavilion

“Intercourses”, by Jesper Just


The last room of the “Il Palazzo Enciclopedico” exhibition in the Arsenale. The 1990 installation “Apollo's Ecstacy”, by Walter de Maria. Head curator Masimiliano Gioni (in the white shirt and dark blazer) enters the room