Make-shift signage establishing the Transnistria pavilions’ location at the 2011 Venice Biennale (all photos by 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 and Part II are here and here.

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During the Biennale, innumerable numbers of events take place outside of the official Biennale grounds of the Giardini and Arsenale. Here are some oddities of note.

New York-based curator Neville Wakefield‘s “Commercial Break” is a giant TV screen mounted on a barge that floats around Venice, programmed with short advertisements by 140 of the world’s biggest artists. It is a commentary on how Venetians deny advertising in their city, even though it could bring potential revenue. To me, it is so great that the Venetians deny advertising. I can’t help but see this project as an American style capitalist infringement on the desires of others who choose to remain outside of the constant American in-your-face advertising. This surprises me considering Wakefield’s supposed advertising free upbringing. Coincidentally, the biggest party of the week was for “Commercial Break.” The party, put on by the socialite (and girlfriend of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich) Dasha Zhukova at the Hotel Bauer, was only accessible by a 100+ Euro water taxi ride. I snuck in by scaling the side of the barge upon which another giant TV screen was mounted.

A local taken aback at the sight of the overly crammed Hotel Bauer party, put on by the people at “Commercial Break”

“Flags for Venice” is a project put on by the Istituto Svizzero di Roma and Swiss Institute New York. The project invited a wide assortment of artists to make flags that were hung alongside dripping laundry by Venetian nonnas (grandmothers) on the many clothing lines in the alleyways surrounding the Giardini. The project implicates a yearning to break free from the categorizing and dividing borders inherent to both the nation state and the institutionalization of art, in concept and diasporic form.

A half-Palestinian, half-Israeli flag flies in front of the local P.C.I. (Italian Communist) headquarters, where the inauguration party for “Flags for Venice” was held (click to enlarge)

Of interesting note are the countries that couldn’t afford pavilions inside the Arsenale. They either rented out abandoned spaces near it, like the Iraqi pavilion did, or, if they couldn’t afford that, asked friends who own a little art gallery in between gift shops if they could use their space.

One of these improvised pavilions that I experienced was the pavilion of Moldova, Europe’s poorest country and one of its most peculiar. Its pavilion however, expresses none of the pleasing, quirky aspects of this country. Instead, it aims for the odd spectacle of unfulfilled glamor. While the existence of this quagmire may be a good reflection on the state of post-Soviet countries’ contemporary culture and the struggle of what it means to become Westernized, the art is dreadfully juvenile. The offerings are by two painters, the pseudo-celebrity Nicoleta Stati and the 15-year-old Valeria Duca.

Nicoleta Stati

Countries that can’t even afford pavilions inside little galleries do it the best way — with scotch tape and some paper, as did the representatives of one of the most interesting countries I have ever visited, the territory known as Transnistria. To date, the biggest impression any single place in the world has had on me is this unrecognized, breakaway pseudo-country locked between Moldova and the Ukraine. As proof of actual political friction, when I asked those involved with the Moldova exhibition for information regarding the Transnistrian pavilion, they had no idea what I was talking about, even though they were listed together in all the press catalogues under the Moldova heading. The artist collective Moë, whose members are all originally from Transnistria, created the piece that touched me the most of all at the Biennale.

In order to find it, you had to sneak through a small two-man gondola production house, but even then, the only thing to experience was broken wooden shelves housing tools. Only later, while leaving, could I see the hidden, crude and capricious effigy made of old shoes and colorful scraps. Standing inside that hazardous shed, coyly watching the two men sanding and shellacking small boats, the scene was beautiful. There, blanketed by the fuzzy signal of the radio playing a soccer game, I spent my last hour in Venice. It was the most intimate and beautiful experience to be seen that week, and for the first time on the trip, my heart was broken in a good way.

Men working in the Gondola factory that both housed and was the Transnistrian pavilion

A piece by the artist collective moë, for the first-ever pavilion of Transnistria.

The Biennale is a beast, impossible to capture or completely absorb. It can only be understood piece by piece.

The parties and pomp that surround it can be vulgar and absurd. They are microcosms of capitalistic contradictions, where everyone is trying to get in on the action, even when they say otherwise. It is one of the many paradoxes of the Biennale as a whole.

The distinctive ideological foundation that the Biennale floats on, the advancement of global understanding, is both a beautiful idea and a troubling reality. It is a huge undertaking with an important past, and for this, it deserves the praise and attention showered on it. For an art exhibition that has had the same format for so many years, it has an incredible penchant for reinvention.

Its location in Venice is fitting and might be the most compelling way to understand the essence of the Biennale itself. It exists in a city that has been discovered and re-discovered and yet is ironically, the one city where even the locals consistently get lost. For such a small, claustrophobic place, Venice is monumentally overbearing, and tends to maneuver you more than you can maneuver it. BUT, if you let it, it will steer you in new directions, and show you that there are still unimaginable, fantastical sights to be seen — just like the Biennale.

For all of it’s failings, this exhibition is still one of the more powerful, more serious spectacles the art world has to offer, and I do recommend everyone make the pilgrimage to visit it at least once. If anything, it holds a mirror up to the current state of institutionalized art and provides a catalogue to the prevalent currents of art world thought and opinions, no matter how ridiculous they may be at the time. And, even if it feels like one, it is not just another art fair, or another of the many Biennale copies. It has a motivation beyond commerce. In fact, it provides a good amount of beauty and experiences that are at least partially out of reach of commercialization. After all, it is THE original Biennale.

Oh, and it’s in Italy.

The 54th Venice Biennale runs until November 27, 2011.

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...