Gaetano Pesce’s piece outside the Arsenale at the 2011 Venice Biennale (all photos by the author)

Editor’s Note: Peter Dobey published a series of photo essays (123) 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. Part I was published last Saturday.

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The Arsenale and its Corderie (Rope Walk) compose the remainder of the curatorial effort of the Biennale’s director. It is the sprawling nasty sibling of the Padiglione Centrale, and is somewhat of a chore to tackle. You are rewarded for your endurance however, if you make it to the far end of its borders, where small grain houses are filled with secret installations, and serene lawns are interrupted with a phallic Franz West sculpture. This is one of the treats of the exhibition and unless you are too disturbed by the annoying performance-à-la-Hermann Nitsch rip-off by Austria’s performance troupe GELITIN, it can be most rewarding.

The entire layout of the Arsenale this year feels disjointed. On a whole, I felt like there was a dearth of strong work. I believe Curiger had aspirations to move beyond the trends of participatory art and ostentatious work seen everywhere else in Venice and other art fairs. She attempted to proffer pieces that were more experiential and, in an odd way, classical. I do believe she was putting forward the idea that it is once again acceptable to enjoy beauty for beauty’s sake. And there is a decisively art historical slant, both in the form of many works and the references they make. I applaud her for these attempts. Unfortunately, her retreat from the overly cerebral doesn’t offer a good alternative and aspirations of beauty are quite lackluster. Disjointed and clumsy, the composition of the show suffers from regular bouts of acute incongruity. Jerry Saltz, the American art critic and one of the more unassuming people I met at the Guggenheim party described above, told me, “There was such a build-up to Bice Curiger’s exhibit, and then it just fell flat.”

As I said before, there is a distinct circumstance to how artwork at the Biennale is perceived. There is the art itself, how it exists or should exist in an optimum context, and then there is the actual perceived reception of the work during this event. Below is a photo of the entrance to the Arsenale and Song Dong’s interpretation of a para-pavilion as art piece, followed by a photo of what the experience really was like:

Entrance of the Arsenale, Song Dong’s para-pavilion

The reality of the entrance of the Arsenale

The above photo depicts the reality of the Arsenale. It was completely obfuscated by the chattering crowds and relentless camera flashes. The artist may have wanted it, in the spirit of the para-pavilion, to be an all encompassing experience; especially given the nature of this specific project, in which he used parts of homes from rural China to make a contiguous environment. Instead, the way it is installed and its location at the entrance render this work a mere set of unlinked objects — again a lost opportunity for an intimate experience with the work.

However this piece suffers from other problems besides its location. Song Dong loves to say that poverty is the mother of creativity. This could of course, be taken in two ways, that the lack of material objects and not having much gives way to beauty and creativity, or he could be making a statement in the capitalistic sense “hard times induce invention.” Additionally, the title of Dong’s installation “L’intelligenza della gente povera/intelligence from poor people” is a problematic statement. I like the sentiment, and it is aesthetically pleasing, but as an object of art it is still a bit offensive. Should we really praise the design aesthetics of shantytowns?

One pleasant surprise that poked its head out in the Arsenale was Ryan Gander’s work. His pieces are a recurring and welcomed presence, characterized by playful, almost whimsical constructions, awash with allusion and poetics alike. Gander determinedly shatters and purposely glues back together the works of art past. I hate to use the following post-modernist term, but Gander delights in a kind of historical and formal pluralism.

Ryan Gander “Your Present Time Orientation (First Act) – Random Abstraction” (2011)

Typical of this years exhibit, the wall label for this work gives away too much information, almost explaining it away and not leaving much to discover:

The components of several Mondrian (and other various abstract modernist composition painters) separated into their solid colors and re-represented by painting a vast amount of differing shaped and sized, cheap, commercially available colored glass clip frames, exhibited casually, leaned against the wall as a random abstraction.

Ryan Gander “Out of Sight (All On My Own)” (2011)

Another formidable piece of his in the Arsenale is “Out of Sight (All On My Own),” in which he takes two modeled-after-Degas-ballerinas and places them looking at each other. They each slightly avert the gaze of the other, as if recognizing something alien in a mirror — a reflection, you might say, of their selves being twice removed from their original incarnations. Although a bit saccharine and kitschy in mechanism and medium, to take cognizance of art history in this fragmented manner is very alluring. What’s more, the dainty and shy placement of the pieces offers an open-ness to contemplation.

Regina José Galindo “Looting” 2010, and “Falso León” (2011) (click to enlarge)

Meanwhile, Regina José Galindo’s work, similarly unimposing, sat silently screaming. The beautiful, mutinous performances of this Guatemalan artist and dissident are politically explosive and unearth deeply ingrained societal atrocities. With “Looting,” she uses her own body as a metaphor of conquered civilizations past and present. She had eight (quite large) fillings of pure Guatemalan gold put in her mouth in Guatemala City only to be torn out by a Berlin dentist and displayed here in Venice.

In 2005, Galindo won one of Venice’s top prizes, the golden lion award for “best artist under 35.” Once an artist makes it “big” in the Biennale, it doesn’t mean she’s living large. With “Falso León,” one encounters what seems to be her golden lion statue, but it is in fact a copy. Due to financial problems, she had to hock her lion to a Spanish artist. Five years later, with a little money, she had a copy made of it in Guatemalan gold.

These pieces reflect upon not only the brutalities of colonial history and the devastating crimes of multi-national wage slavery, but also the precarious conventions of economic cycles. Markets both big and small, from the global stock trade to the art market, revolve around plundering and chance. Someone can be famous or rich and then loose everything in a second.

The installation room of Elisabetta Benassi’s “The Innocents Abroad” (2011)

A piece by the Roman artist Elisabetta Benassi also deals with loss. “The Innocents Abroad” is a stirring and profound installation. Placed around a pitch black room are a dozen microfilm viewers showing detainment files, deportation notices, medical records and other telling documents and photographs of unknown individuals. It is a collage of various personal histories and people violently ripped from their homes and lost forever in a black hole of red tape and outdated technology.

“Elastic Tango” by Elaine Sturtevant (2011)

Finally, in the very far reaches of the Arsenale’s overgrown back garden, lies a house on the water. Inside the house is the American-born, Paris-based Elaine Sturtevant’s three-act play of tango and commercialism, which takes an exuberant and playful look at the vulgarity of American advertising through the eyes of an expat.

The video has an OVERLY attractive aesthetic, one reminiscent of the tacky storefront type of corporate advertising ubiquitous in America, replete with overtly slick technological motifs and corny catch phrases.

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“Part III: The Unofficial Exhibitions” will be published next Saturday, October 8.

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...

2 replies on “Seeing Through the Crowds at the 2011 Venice Biennale Part II: The Arsenale”

  1. My favorite moment in your essay so far is when you say, “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.” This is one of the major problems for me with biennial and fair culture. It’s not the fact that the artworks have price tags that bothers me, or even evaluating works in terms of price. It’s the fusing of looking with the experience of shopping and mall culture that impoverishes the experience of looking at art. 

    The speed dating phenomenon may be a problem of the camera and the other tools we now have for recording our experiences. As Sontag suggests in her essay “On Photography,” we seek to collect experiences by documenting them. Along the way, we confuse the document for the experience itself. But it’s hard for me to deny that humans love novelty and may need it on a deep emotional level that we don’t understand. Why is it that drivers tend to slow to steal a glance when passing an accident?

    I also appreciate your analogy for the Biennale experience because it reminds me of something Chris Ofili said to a friend of mine when he visited his studio. The artist was making these quick watercolors and Ofili said, “What you’re doing here is like putting on the condom and coming right away. Spend longer with each piece.”

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