Alighiero Boetti “Mappa” (1971-1973) at the Venice Biennale (all photos by the author except when indicated otherwise)

Editor’s Note: Peter Dobey published a series of photo essays (1, 2, 3) about this year’s Venice Biennale at the beginning of June. This is a long-form essay (to be published in three parts) that explores the work at the Biennale.

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PARIS — It is difficult to write about Venice, just like it is difficult to really SEE Venice. Individual experiences of art fade away into the oversaturation that is the Venice Biennale in the same way the city of Venice is sinking into the Adriatic. There is the ontological experience of Venice and the problem of one’s ability to encounter it. Then there is the physical impossibility to see everything the Biennale offers you and all the things it doesn’t, especially when in Italy.

I think the cafe server at the Autogrill in the Milano train station summed it up when, forgetting my caffè e biscotti, he finally shouted at me “Distratto!” Well, that’s just it, in Venice you are distracted by many things; the city, the food, the long lines, the hobnobbing, the decadent yachts and, finally, the art. Among the art itself, there is another hierarchy of experience: the competing of artworks within the exhibition’s massive belly and the feuding forms jumping to displace each other that naturally comes with the territory of an exhibit of this nature.

Believe it or not, there is an Art Biennale behind this. A yacht obstructs the entire view of the Giardini

It took me one week to recover from Venice (and two weeks to write an article about it). The exhaustion that follows such an event is inevitable. It leaves one dizzy. So, in order to see the Venice Biennale during the preview and first week there are some things that just need to be accepted; it is huge and you cannot see the entire exhibition. It might not even be possible to see what you want considering the lines and crowds of people, and you will never experience the tranquil beauty of the Giardini until the beautiful fall season. (This year however it may never be tranquil, thanks to the loud roar of the U.S. pavilion’s tank-mill.)

The Biennale’s exhibits are different every year, but its framework has been relatively consistent throughout its history: to highlight important contributions to the visual arts from the various regions it is produced. One disconcerting change over the years is a shift in the purpose of that intention. Originally, its intent was to bring international works to the public and to play an instrumental role in the democratization of art. Along with the other great international exhibitions of the nineteenth-century, the Biennale was a seminal development in introducing art to those other than elite patrons. Unfortunately, what has become the most relevant experience of the exhibition, the preview, is closed to the public and available only to art world insiders. The exhibition is closed off to the public for the first three days and only open to a select group of curators, artists, press and many jet-setting art groupies (who have nothing to do with the exhibit). It is a disguised attempt to present an opportunity for the press to see the work in relative peace, but in reality seems to be an insider networking and socialite photo opportunity. If the press wants to actually see the exhibition in peace, they should come AFTER the preview when the only people left there are a couple of students and some nuns. The most tragic and unfair part of this is that it robs the public of a chance to get to know more about the art from the direct sources; the artists and curators, who leave the day before the public is allowed to visit. It makes the art even less obtainable and accessible for the public and is a missed opportunity for the average visitor to receive informed exposure to art in general.

In describing the enormity of this event, artist Christian Boltanski told me, from behind the French pavilion, “You must accept that this is a carnival, and nothing else … maybe the last Carnival.” It is indeed a giant morass of sights in the Giardini, the Arsenale and the satellite shows, however there are some rare pieces that afford you intimacy and distract you from the OTHER distractions and larger installations. It is these tiny details that grab your attention rather than the extravaganzas.

Dominik Lang’s installation composed of his father Jiri’s forgotten sculptures. Czech Pavilion (Photo by Ruth Fremson)

The gigantic flashy works may catch your eye at first, but it is the more discreet pieces that you remember after the hangover passes. Similar to stumbling upon a great Titian or Veronese in any small Italian village, the discovery of the smaller pavilions on the outskirts of the main event have the staying power, as do some tactful pieces in the curated shows. For me, it was these pieces that evaporated into the overcrowded parade of art and throngs of attendees only to rematerialize as hidden gems in the fog of Venice and the memory of the exhibition. If a work can provide you with intimacy — as did both Trisha Donnely’s piece placed in a barn on the outskirts of the Arsenale, and the Czech Pavilion’s work of Dominik Lang — then you really feel you have experienced something.

Trisha Donnely’s precariously outré object in the deep end of the Arsenale

The oversaturation of art is a real problem. There is simply too much art. The Biennale is kind of like speed dating, where everyone’s goal is to fall in love but no one cares to take the time out of busy schedules to do so. There is little chance to have a one-on-one experience with art in Venice. Everything is a whirlwind of sights and sounds. The one payoff to this orgy is that afterwards certain fragments float up into the conscious with a flicker of recognition, “Ah now I can see it!” Only after escaping the orgy do you have time to consider the creations that assaulted the senses while taking in the show and the city.

It certainly begs the question, “Can the orgy survive?” Or what does one do after the orgy? After having 89 countries represented this year, 12 more than in 2009, and 20 more than in 1999, how does the Biennale continue at this rate of expansion? The Biennale is at the point where it is choked by more people than ever, and presents serous logistical problems, like the fiasco with local hotels (for example, my room, which was booked four months in advance, was given away). Inadequate hotel space has pushed half of the fair-goers into the industrial, working-class suburb of Mestre (which some call the dark, beating heart of Venice) inducing constant laments over the lack of hotel rooms. One wonders, has the Biennale reached a critical mass or is it just a reflection of the world reaching critical mass as well?

This is obviously a dilemma bigger than the Biennale itself. The Biennale is concerned with international relations, but the outreach to so many countries comes at a price. It is not only the disproportionate number of attendees but also the excessive number of installations and countless pavilions. This saturation turns the exhibit into a swamp of undifferentiated items in the same way globalization has crushed distinctive cultural characteristics and customs.

And for all the talk about internationalism, and though many countries continually try to break down national boundaries and cultural meanings, the irony of the international exhibitions is that they cant really break any boundaries since the format of the show essentially pits individual nations against each other.  As Kyle Chayka noted last November in his article for this same publication, “How do you go post-national with a nationally and politically charged event?” The exhibit never really makes attempts past superficial reflections on substantial international conflicts and never admits an incontrovertible condition for which the exhibition is constructed; only a small minority are privileged enough to have an international viewpoint or to make claims of living in a post nation-state world. Additionally, the press coverage is riddled with favoritism and old-fashioned prideful posturing. The British press reports what the show is from a British perspective, the French self-adulate, and the other countries follow suit, never truly transcending their classical national boundaries.

At the same time, there are the unmistakable cultural differences of the attendees and organizers. At the party for the American Pavilion at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, my European friends said they felt completely inhuman and alienated by the “pushy vulgarity of the Americans.” Similarly, my American friends thought the Europeans at the Luxembourg party were “stuck up, dour.” Still, there is something to be said for this mingling. The fact is that the Biennale is an international exhibition at its core, in the spirit of the great world expositions of the last century. And, although this may seem like an antiquated way of looking at contemporary art, it also forces the art world out of its solipsism.

Bice Curiger’s Curating

The inherent chaos of the Biennale’s nature is exemplified, or more concisely ordered, each year by the director of the main curatorial events, the central pavilion and the Arsenale. This year the two locales are as disjointed and messy as the bigger affair in which it resides. I am talking about the curation of this year’s director, the Swiss Art historian Bice Curiger, especially the work done in the Arsenale.

The disgrace that is the Italian Pavilion (Lo Stato dell’Arte net 150˚ dell’Unitá d’Italia)

Everyone has rightfully been making the biggest fuss over the unsightly messiness of the Italian pavilion, without first taking note of the much bigger mess surrounding it. I guess people loose sight of the larger ocean they are swimming in and miss the proverbial forest for the (ugly) trees. Ironically, this disorder parallels how people often experience nationhood (an important aspect of the show) — wishing not to change the monstrosity that is too big to understand, i.e. their country, and choosing instead to bicker over the trivial. This phenomenon is reflected in Curiger’s choice of title for the exhibition: “ILLUMinazioni”, or “ILLUMinations,” in lazy English art parlance. This is Curiger’s tribute to and perception of nationhood and how it is reflected in art and the making of art.

The use of the title “Iluminations” conjures up ideas of the artist as holder of wisdom, citizen of the world, (or at least citizen of the art world) and as a global ambassador without the stoicism and dandyish aspects that 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire praised. Curiger tries to call for the abolishment of what she labels “the anachronistic nation-state” ideal, intimating that technology and globalization have made these 19th century attitudes obsolete. The utopian, neoliberal idea that we can escape such boundaries is what Curiger attempts to support with a hint of neo-romanticism. She alludes to the glorification of far off places and the notion that we can bring them closer through philanthropic efforts, that artists are sources of enlightenment for their nations and vice versa. Hence the title “Illuminations.”

Unfortunately, the way it materializes, it comes across as a superficial internationalist-looking hodge-podge, as if all these nations live happily together. Once again, the spirit of patient, disinterested, “illumination” that so encapsulated Baudelaire’s version of the citizen of the world is sorely missed. Meditative elements and spaces for introspection are lacking and completely overshadowed by what might best be termed the underwhelming-ness of gigantism.

There are two main incarnations of the curator’s work at Venice. The first is the former pavilion of Italy, now called the central pavilion; or the Padiglione Centrale in Italian. The other is the Arsenale. I felt like at times Curiger’s curatorial choices were excessive, and yet the exhibition as a whole was curiously devoid of the remarkable inspiration prevalent in the national pavilions. Her presentation choices were closer to the cluttered display of personally cherished objects at an estate sale; one never is quite sure why something is so special to its owner and it is usually a huge, slightly ordered array of a mess.

As for the central pavilion specifically, I will say the Tintorettos at the start of the central pavilion are a nice surprise, but putting Maurizio Cattelan‘s hokey pigeons next to them is a reminder of how corny Tintoretto can be. After all, I imagine it is Tintoretto from whom Thomas Kinkade presumably “borrowed’ his trademarked “the painter of light.”

Following are photos of some of the better selections from the central pavilion:

Amalia Picas’ performance “Strangers” in front of Jack Goldstein paintings

A visitor examines Mexican artist Gabriel Kuri’s smart sculpture, “Retention Chart”

A new element this year is the introduction of so called “Para-Pavilions.” Curiger asked a couple of artists to create a completely enclosed space in order to activate a new environment. Although an intriguing idea, I felt it was a bit gimmicky and a spurious gesture of consolation to the artist to have a voice. One memorable example of this execution is Oscar Tuazon’s “Venice Project Models” which are lovely fragile rooms divorced from their homes.

“Model of a Project,” at Oscar Tuazon’s Para-Pavilion (2011) (Photo courtesy artist/

Giardini and Pavilions

Directly outside Bice Curiger’s curatorial explorations in the central pavilion, is where the majority of the countries showcase their own pavilions. The garden on the southeast finger of Venice, colloquially dubbed “the Giardini,” was first recognized as a place of grandeur at the celebration of the marriage of Queen Margherita of Savoy to King Umberto in 1893. The municipality of Venice honored the event by building an orphanage for children of dead soldiers and a national “Biennial Exhibition of Art”.  This quickly grew into an international exhibition of art that was postponed until its official opening in 1895.

Thomas Hirschhorn’s “Crystal of Resistance” at the Swiss Pavilion (click to enlarge)

The geography of the Giardini took its form from the pavilions built atop it. The early pavilions such as those of Italy, Germany, Russia, and Hungary were constructed in the period between 1907 through 1914. The 1930s brought participation from more countries such as Austria and the United States, and a decade later the layout of the Giardini closely resembled its present day form.

The positioning of the pavilions in relation to each other and the real estate of the Giardini are arranged with portentous intention. The political and historical overtones are evidenced with groupings such as the German and French pavilions facing each other, in a stand off with Great Britain, or the Israeli pavilion, cowering beside the American pavilion.

The heavyweight pavilions such as the Swiss, German, British, American and French pavilions are all strong this year, but, in ole’ colonial fashion seemed as if they were trying to outdo one another in a race for spectacular grandness. This theme of opulent installations is strong but the overarching theme of  “theater“ is stronger. Many of the pavilions have over-the-top theatrics, perfect for the big top of the Biennale carnival. And yet, many were very sobering upon reflection. Pavilions where dramatic device is most evident include Germany’s re-creation of the late filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief’s “A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within” set, replete with its all encompassing Catholic theater, to the transient minimalism of Spain’s “The Inadequate” where Dora Garcia has individuals “perform” personal accounts, and the Dutch “Opera Aperta /Loose Work” which transforms the front area of the Giardini into a performance fair.

Christian Boltanski’s “Chance” at the French Pavilion

The French pavilion contains Christian Boltanski’s monstrous machine exhibit that communicates the message of chance, and how it inevitably controls our existence from birth to death. I spoke with Boltanski about the Biennale and what it is like to create a piece of work for it.

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Christian Boltanski being interviewed for French television in front of his exhibition at the French Pavilion

Christian Boltanski: The only thing good at [the] Biennale, at many pavilions [were that] a lot of them were impossible to sell, I mean, the British was impossible to sell. German was impossible to sell, the Swiss pavilion was impossible to sell, mine was impossible to sell. I think it’s a kind of reaction against the market. Most of the time it’s not very difficult to sell.

Peter Dobey: How did you approach such a project as the French Pavilion?

CB: The Venice Biennale is very difficult. It’s impossible for me, at the Venice Biennale, to move people. And the reason I made this piece was not to move at all! It’s dry. Clever, but dry. It is not the place to go to move people. You must, the only thing you can do, I mean the reason I made this piece, it’s NOT THE PLACE to move people. I mean, I mean people are SO SO, [makes a frantic zigzagging gesture with his hands] going from one pavilion to [the] next! In and then out, next one.

PD: Yes, there is no chance for any intimacy.

CB: Yes, no intimacy. The only thing you can do — I mean when I made this piece I really thought of the situation … I wanted something rather not sensitive.

PD: Yes, yours was certainly cold.

CB: The visitors. They are soo, ah, ahhh, click click, click [gestures holding a remote control] of the TV — they are not alone. No possibility to be alone with something. Ya— and each place you must think — each place is different. If you are working here, or say working in a basement somewhere, it’s completely different … In any case you know Venice is the WORST place to make art!!

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In agreement with Boltanski’s view, the immensity of some of these pavilions can seem like appealing objects perfect for market consumption, but upon further examination one realizes that the size can actually be a reaction against the market, an anti-market sentiment. The one upshot about having massive works that comprise entire pavilions is that they refuse to be sold; they scream, “We are not a commodity or a product, you can’t sell us! We may be shiny and attractive but YOU STILL CANT sell us!”

Amid this showmanship, it was refreshing to see the modest and indeed moving Czech pavilion squished between these goliaths. Artist Dominik Lang composed a pavilion that pays homage to his father, the un-recognized sculptor Jiri Lang, who made all his pieces in Soviet-era Yugoslavia before his son’s birth. It is a reminder of the futile nature of the current obsession with young, vanity-laden work. Most artists who are recognized in this moment will be forgotten in years to come, while some artists who get no attention now may be rediscovered and made more relevant than ever in the future.

Spain’s pavilion, like most relational aesthetics, lacked pleasure and beauty of any sort, unless you read the personal letters written by the performers, whom the artist had record various personal experiences and stories for the audience both vocally and on paper. The ingenuity of which, can’t be credited to the artist himself.

Pavilions thematically dealing with politics of national identity and history or the environment of the Giardini itself are largely absent this year. Examples of these themes from last year were the British Liam Gillick’s intervention into the German pavilion, Steve McQueen’s film for the British Pavilion and Roman Ondák’s “Loop” in the former Czechoslovakian pavilion. A brilliant, perfectly invisible simulationist garden within a garden, a much smarter take than Mike Nelson’s piece this year, in the same vain.

A view of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s “Gloria” outside the American Pavilion

The political spectacle of the American pavilion felt intentionally obnoxious, political, loud, boisterous and yet very good. With the exception of the quiet and elegant video in the back room, all of Allora and Calzadilla’s pieces play with this form of spectacular showing-off. From the gymnasts dancing around the icon of power of the business class seat, to the showy ATM pipe organ and the brashest part, the jogger on the tank, hyperbolical but decidedly critical metaphors are the pavilion’s raison d’être.

I never know what to think, when the method of critiquing any given system uses the same ploys of the topic being criticized. Does it show a vital reflection on the United States obnoxious, unsavory crimes? Its adamant insistence on being in the world’s face? Or, is it merely annoying and does it hurt our image even more in the process? Here I am conflicted.

A closer view of one of the gymnast works in the American Pavilion by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla (click to enlarge)

A little about the mediums (if you can call them such) from which Allora & Calzadilla constructed their pieces — gymnastics is one of these strange pseudo sports, as it is obviously closer in nature to dance than a sport, and is essentially concerned with the exact same thing as dance, choreography. The business class seats and tank outside connote power and war, two more things that, when carried out in their standard brutal manner is another quasi-sport. The double-edged meaning that is attached to the objects employed as sculpture is of crucial importance. In a Duchampian way, the entirety of the pavilion relies on the context of its individual parts more than anything. That aside, I think we can talk about the form of the main piece, “Body in flight” (American and Delta).

The Olympic-class gymnasts jump with reckless abandon inside the first class cabin of an art gallery, and structure their movement in a way that both aligns itself rigidly with the architecture of the seats and fluidly exerts itself forward, freely towards oblivion. They are flying high. They are boisterous and yet subtly confined by the relatively cramped space of the pavilion, the viewers packed-in close to watch, and the weight of the burden of injustice as they take part in fun-and-games in the middle of a warzone. They leap and fling themselves about, defying both gravity and solicitude, just as America defies international law and responsibility.

Installation by Iraqi artist Ali Assaf, “Bassorah, The Venice of The East,” inside the Pavilion of Iraq

Speaking of Americans exerting their power, the Iraq pavilion is back after 35 years, in a building outside of the Giardini. Crucially, it is partially funded by the American National Endowment for the Arts. The last time Iraq had a pavilion presence was 1976, under the rule of Saddam Hussein. In “Aqua Ferita,” American curator Mary Angela Schroth asked Iraqi born artists to respond to the theme of water. What came across was a kind of fluidity.

Fia Backström’s “Borderless Bastards” at the Swedish Pavilion

The pavilion that most overtly attempts to subvert the political structure of the Biennale comes from Fia Backström, a New York-based Swedish artist who represented Sweden in the Nordic pavilion. Her project, “Borderless Bastards,” is a series of cutouts depicting sculptures of well-known persons from the time of inception into their respective nation states. For every one of these works there was an audio portion that challenged our notions of nationhood and globalization that visitors could listen to by using a wireless listening device provided by the pavilion. The cutout sculptures were then distributed across the entire Giardini, usually adjacent to the country’s pavilion to which they related. An artist or other individual from the particular country provided the choice of sculpture and voice dialogue for each sculpture. The sculptures serve as monuments of impermanence that are slipped in between the cracks of the borders imposed by the heavy nation state pavilions.

One of my favorite pavilions in the Giardini is the Russian pavilion, curated by the philosopher Boris Groys. The show is called Empty Zones and is concerned with Andrei Monastyrski’s Collective Actions Group. The pavilion is cold, grey and austere, making its uncertain beauty even more apparent. It is not a beautiful show to say the least, and considering one of its largest rooms is mere projections of YouTube videos, one could say even pointless. Yet in this absurdity one arrives at Monastyrski’s point. He organized happenings of ephemeral actions in order to create zones of uselessness that act as a critique of both the omnipresence of the strict ideology of Soviet Russia at the time, and the celebration of art as an escape from pragmatism.

The Hungarian Pavilion employs an austere cement room and a car freshly totaled from a collision. Undeniably present was the explosive feeling of destruction. The lingering force of the accident’s impact is heightened by the stillness in the air until interrupted by piercing sounds of opera singing. Music stands dot the room in addition to the car, complementing the dramatic singing of factory workers from a Leipzig BMW factory.

The life of the car is narrated chronologically through the medium of opera. The pavilion uses the operatic penchant for tragedy as a way to convey the conflicting notion that the crash was both unavoidable and part of a larger string of consequences. The only relief from the thought of “things are meant to happen” is the discovery of possible preventions. The opera format also serves to reinforce the dark comedic aspect; the beautiful singing in an ugly factory juxtaposed with joyous and comedic songs about a horrific tragedy.

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“Part II: The Arsenale” will be published next Saturday, October 1.

Peter Dobey is an artist who travels widely, and is originally from some mountains near San Francisco. He has special interests in the study of aesthetics, dance and psychoanalysis. He has written for...