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Cutting the 2011 Venice Biennale Jargon

The German Pavilion in the Giardini, pre-renovation (image from mimoa.eu)

Curated by Bice Curiger, best known as the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the respected art magazine Parkett, the 2011 Venice Biennale will be titled ILLUMInations, in a play on words and typography that now comes standard for big deal exhibitions. The name is a combo of “illuminate” and “nations,” terms that Curiger uses to refer to the “dissemination” of the “current developments in international art.”

In other words, the Biennale will take as its theme the spread of ideas and artistic currents beyond the limitations of national boundaries and identities, taking on culture at the international level rather than on a country-to-country basis. Yet the Biennale is known for its use of national pavilions to stage exhibitions as something akin to national artistic showcases. How do you go post-national with a nationally and politically charged event?

A view of the national pavilions in the Giardini during the 2009 Venice Biennale (full map available at artupdate.com) (click to enlarge)

Some background explanation is needed to parse this. Hosted every two years in a collection of pavilions sprinkled around the city of Venice plus a massive renovated arsenal-turned-gallery, the Venice Biennale is one of the seminal events of the contemporary art world. The Biennale is composed of two main components: the “International Exhibiton,” marshaled by a single director-curator (Curiger), is mounted throughout a central pavilion and the Arsenale space, while the “National Participations” are shown in national pavilions, devoted spaces where participating countries can showcase their own choice of curators and artists. Many of these spaces are located in Venice’s Giardini (Google map), a meandering garden that collects the small buildings; a contemporary art amusement park.

Curiger writes on the Biennale’s website that the National Pavilions may seem anachronistic, but “can be a tool to reflect upon the issue of identity. I wish to reinforce the sense of unity between the International Exhibition and the National Participations.” “Para-Pavilions” staged in relation to the Arsenale exhibition will further break down the relationship between individual artists and their national identities. But wait! There’s more! Curiger throws in Tintoretto for good measure, a Venetian painter known for depicting the city’s stunning light. The painter will provide an emotional connection to the locality of Venice, but more conceptually, Curiger refers to Tintoretto’s “reckless approach to composition” that overturned “the well-defined, classical order of the Renaissance,” as well as the artist’s sense of light, “which is not rational but ecstatic.”

Jacopo Tintoretto, “Finding of the Body of St. Mark” (1562) (image from wikipedia.org)

I think Curiger is making a case for postmodernism and post-nationalism as solid intellectual foundations in opposition to the binding modernism of tradition. By subverting the art historical routes of the national pavilions and seeking to disrupt the black and white idea of identity that these purport, Curiger can create an environment for contemporary art outside of national discourse. Tintoretto comes in as a precedent for an intelligent subverting of the rational order. Just as the painter’s light is “ecstatic,” so too is postmodernism, a cacophony of voices and artists without boundaries or limits. The fluidity of an ecstatic rather than rational order might be just what the Biennale needs to shake it up. What might be in the cards for Curiger? Collaborative exhibitions between nations? The switching up of the national pavilions, like a contemporary art trading spaces?

Since more than a few countries have already announced the artists and exhibitions they’ll be staging at their pavilions, this guess seems unlikely, but wouldn’t it be fun? I’d like to see the US cope with something funky like China’s space, or a less well-known country be given the run of the German pavilion. For a full list of the artists nations have chosen for their pavilions, check out this list from Artinfo and Yahoo News. Notably, the US has chosen Puerto Rican duo Allora & Calzadilla as representatives, the first time we’ve showcased a collective rather than an individual artist.

The 2011 Venice Biennale will take place June 4 – November 27, 2011. We’ll keep you posted on updates to exhibition and artist plans for the event.

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