ARLES, France — It first looked to be cold, gray, and rainy on the first April weekend in Arles, somewhat in stride with the general dour spirit of the French these days.
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. 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.
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.
The voluminousness of the Venice Biennale can be overwhelming, much like the city of Venice itself. Talking with Venetian friends, I heard the city described as a “creature,” a labyrinthine monster that will suffocate you if you don’t know how to find the campos, or other open-air spaces where you can stretch out and breathe. Inhabited by more tourists than actual residents, the city is shaped by the pre-conceived notions of its visitors; in short, Venice is a place that does not fully exist. The same feeling follows you into the exhibitions of the Biennale.
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?