The national pavilions of the 55th Venice Biennale are spread between the Giardini and the Arsenale, flanking the international exhibition, this year called the “Encyclopedic Palace,” curated by Massimiliano Gioni.
Thorny questions return as regularly as the glitzy biennial itself. The Venice model—harking back to the 19th century’s world expos where envoys of various countries gathered to flaunt their latest achievements—has been passed down like an heirloom. How relevant is this format to a globalized art world characterized by ceaseless traveling, relocation, and displacement? How can artists be representative of their countries when so many nations are now defined by their cultural diversity? Should the pavilions be abandoned altogether for a more progressive and international approach? If so, what would that be?
Still, the old format dies hard. More countries than ever are keen to secure a place in the Venetian sun. From 2003 to 2013, 32 nations have been added to the Biennale, with this year bringing the inclusion for the first time of Angola, the Bahamas, Bahrain, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Kuwait, the Maldives, Paraguay, Tuvalu, and the Holy See. Venice Biennale president Paolo Baratta suggests that countries want to join “to show that they exist, not as political entities, but as entities capable of being participants in the world of culture.” Contemporary art’s new status as mass entertainment—or marketing strategy—has also no doubt played a role, particularly for countries with dubious human rights records. Since 1998, the Biennale’s appointed curator focuses solely on a large-scale group show, the international exhibition. With more than 150 artists—almost twice as many as in the two previous editions—Gioni’s proposition is ambitious. The show borrows its title from the Palazzo Enciclopedico, a museum that Italian-American eccentric Marino Auriti imagined and, in 1955, designed (and patented) to host all human knowledge. Auriti intended the building to be 136 stories high and to occupy 16 blocks in Washington, D.C. Although it was never built, a detailed maquette, on loan from the American Folk Art Museum in New York, features prominently in the exhibition, alongside several other equally intriguing objects such as Carl Jung’s Red Book, Haitian voodoo flags, and tantric paintings.
So-called outsider art, by the likes of Yüksel Arslan, Morton Bartlett, James Castle, and Walter Pichler, also forms a key component of Gioni’s palace. “The premise of this show is not to treat the insider and the outsider work as pure art but actually to treat both as artifacts,” Gioni says.
The show, he explains, explores several questions: “How do we give forms to the images in our heads? And even before that, how come humans carry images in their heads? What is the space left for these images in a world more and more colonized by artificial and external images?” Many contemporary art heavy hitters are contributing to Gioni’s sweeping investigations. Cindy Sherman is curating a show within a show dedicated to the body. Paul McCarthy, Sarah Lucas, Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman, and Albert Oehlen—together with young artists now garnering attention, like Ryan Trecartin, Ed Atkins, and Helen Marten—are among those who will fill this “palace of all knowledge.”
Says Gioni: “It’s a modest proposal to look at artists less as these superheroes who make beautiful things that are worth a lot of money, but more as people who are revealing different ways of dealing with a fundamental question—as banal and as cheesy as it sounds—the need to construct images, either as a way to fight against time or as a way to structure knowledge through them.”
To help you navigate the extravaganza that is Venice, we here preview 11 pavilions. —Coline Milliard
Singapore-born Simryn Gill worked with curator Catherine de Zegher to develop her site-specific exhibition “Here art grows on trees.” Consisting of large-scale drawings, photographs, and Gill’s signature collections of found objects, the exhibition explores subjectivity while referring to the in-between zone inhabited by the artist; this is a place of negotiation described by de Zegher as “intertidal.” Gill, who lives in Malaysia and Australia, brings together fragments of text formed into a swarm of insectlike creatures, a cast-steel maquette of a half moon, photographs of leaves, and precisely curated collections of found objects. It all promotes what de Zegher calls “a space of negotiation between the small and the global, between nature and industry, as it reveals an understanding of the interconnectedness of all in a world in flux.” Although the relationship between nature and industry is of special importance to Gill, she also explores the associations between the beach and the street, inside and outside, the house and the neighborhood, the ephemeral and the corporeal, East and West. “While modernity has promoted a linear view of the world, Gill promotes a more cyclical view,” de Zegher says. “She reveals that we are just a section in the chain, interdependent among each other as well as the environment—a position we have to take on in the 21st century.”
Artistically and culturally, Gill occupies a place of compromise and transition that heavily relies on the consistent and generic minutiae of everyday life to create a sense of belonging. Using what is fragmented and segmented to express the importance of the ordinary and the quotidian, Gill initiates a modest but precise negotiation of this transitional territory. —Nicholas Forrest
Its first national pavilion in Venice celebrates not the country but the idea of leaving it. “A huge part of what I struggled with growing up on an island was wanting to get off the island,” says New York–based artist Tavares Strachan, who is representing the commonwealth. His desire to travel translated into a fascination with exploration, which informed one of the works on view: a 14-channel video installation that chronicles explorer Matthew Henson’s 1909 voyage to the North Pole. An African-American who joined Robert Peary’s famous expedition, Henson may have been the first man to reach the Pole.
Henson was mainly forgotten, which seems to be what interests Strachan most. He presents a sculpture of the explorer’s internal organs fabricated from glass and displayed in mineral oil. Light travels at the same speed through mineral oil and glass, which means that the sculpture is, for the most part, invisible. “I was looking for a way to talk about some of these social ideas in a very aesthetic manner,” Strachan says. “So I was working with a physical chemist, and we started talking one night about ideas of invisibility and refractive indexes. And before you know it, I was making people invisible by putting them in mineral oil.” Strachan’s interest in disappearance also came into play as he considered the notion of a national pavilion. For another work in the exhibition about the disappearance of languages, he taught 40 children from the Bahamas to sing an Inuit song—one he learned while researching the Henson piece—as a way to preserve a native dialect.
These kids then traveled to Venice to sing the song in the empty pavilion space, where a recording of their singing now plays. “I’m tweaking ideas of what nationalism and representation mean,” the artist says, “but also expectations. I’m the dude from the island who is fucking around with ice.” — Orit Gat
“What does it mean to work with a curator?” asks Berlinde De Bruyckere. “It has to be someone who feeds you something you can work with and think about.” For the Ghent-based artist representing Belgium, this has meant picking Nobel prize–winning novelist J.M. Coetzee rather than a visual art professional as her collaborator. The pair first teamed up last year for the publication Allen Vlees (“All Flesh”), which juxtaposes extracts of Coetzee’s writings with photographic details of De Bruyckere’s disquieting, meatlike sculptures. For this second collaboration, Coetzee gave De Bruyckere an unpublished short story, “The Old Woman and the Cats.” Its tale of filial love and unspoken existential angst has now informed her pavilion, although she insists that the text-artwork relationship remains tangential. More than serving as a curator, Coetzee has acted as an accomplice. The author sought “to guide and be guided by her in her explorations,” Coetzee has said, and their epistolary exchanges spurred De Bruyckere along as she refined her thoughts. The result is a monumental wax and epoxy tree trunk, resting on a couch of soiled blankets and cushions. Its pimpled, fleshy hues conjure the wounded corpse of Saint Sebastian, who represents for her an alluring image of triumphant beauty. “I was always working around suffering, pain, loss, anger, and fear made very visible in figures,” she says. “Saint Sebastian allowed me to work on the same topic, but on a more psychological level.”
Transformed to frame this Ovidian creature, flesh encased in bark, the pavilion’s dark partitions are marked and blistered, like so many Venetian walls swollen with water. “When you walk around Venice, you can feel that the city will be destroyed by the water,” says De Bruyckere. “This gives you a very uncomfortable feeling. All this beauty will go because it’s rotten from the inside.” —CM
Alfredo Jaar is showing at the Biennale this year for the fourth time. In 1986 curator Achille Bonito Oliva included the Chilean artist in the international exhibition—marking the first time that an artist from Latin America had been invited to present works in Venice. “At the time, an international exhibition meant a few Americans and a few Germans,” Jaar recalls. “That was international. I mean African artists—forget it, zero. Latin Americans, zero. Even some European countries were not represented on the world stage,” he says. “India, China—unthinkable.” This year Jaar is marking another first, as he serves as Chile’s artist representative.
In a sense, his installation represents a meditation on the history of the Biennale. It begins with a large light-box version of the photograph, above, of the artist Lucio Fontana in the ruins of his Milan studio in 1946, after returning from his native Argentina.
Before he participated in the 1986 Biennale, Jaar, having fled Pinochet’s Chile, had been living in New York, studying the scene there. “New York was perhaps the center of the art world, but it was extremely provincial,” he recalls. “There were very few artists from other countries; they didn’t have any visibility. Those that were active and were known were showing a very self-referential type of work. They were talking about themselves; the world did not exist.” To counter this provincialism, Jaar produced his first public art project—a series of photographs of people toiling in an enormous Brazilian gold mine, juxtaposed with the price of gold at that moment, mounted inside the Spring Street subway station.
It was this project that he showed at the Venice Biennale in 1986. “I was like an exotic animal, this guy from Chile who didn’t have a gallery and whose work dealt with a gold mine in Brazil,” he says. “And I realized that Venice had 28 international pavilions. I thought, This is strange: Where are the other 160 countries? But I had such a good time. I kept going back for every Biennale. I’ve been visiting Venice every other year for 30 years. But it’s still mostly the same 28 national pavilions, and the rest of the world is excluded. So now that I’m invited, I thought, This is my chance to say that the system is completely obsolete; we have to change this; the world has changed. Hey, wake up!” —Daniel Kunitz
Chosen in the first open call for the Venice Biennale ever held for his country, Belgium-based artist Mark Manders, along with De Vleeshal museum director Lorenzo Benedetti, will present “Room with a Broken Sentence” at the Dutch Pavilion. Named after a 1993–98 installation, the exhibition does more than rehash his past projects: Manders created about three-quarters of the works specifically for Venice, although the show represents 23 years of his production. “ ‘Room with a Broken Sentence’ shows a certain continuity throughout his practice,” Benedetti explains. “The title itself stresses what are probably the two most important elements of his work: language and architecture or space.”
Architectural interventions abound, but rendered with subtlety. “We wanted them to be light but present, not overbearing,” Benedetti says. “The idea was to quote Gerrit Rietveld by changing certain elements.” (Dutch architect Rietveld designed the pavilion in the 1950s.) A toilet within the space (reminiscent of Rietveld’s famous Red Blue Chair, 1917) is meant to confuse visitors as to whether it’s part of Rietveld’s original design or Manders’s addition. This play on authorship harks back to the pavilion’s other central theme: atemporality. For one, it’s nearly impossible to tell where along the 23-year span each work falls due to the artifice of surface—bronze appears as porcelain, epoxy as clay. “Time is really a material in his works,” says Benedetti. Specially created newspapers with fabricated stories and without dates paper the windows, letting in light, depriving visitors of context, and lending a temporary, construction site feel. This all suggests that no matter how polished things look, all works are still in progress. —Alexander Forbes
In a first for the Biennale, Germany and France are swapping their Giardini pavilions. The idea had long been considered by the two foreign ministries, according to Susanne Gaensheimer, curator of the German pavilion for the second time, and a winner of a Golden Lion in 2011 for staging an exhibition of the late Christoph Schlingensief’s work. This year being the 50th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty, the two nations are particularly keen to make the switch. The curators, Gaensheimer and France’s Christine Macel, along with the five artists involved, want the project to serve “as a way to demonstrate that we identify with the ideas of a broader European culture that exists within the global art network,” Gaensheimer says. To this end, the two pavilion shows can offer a counternarrative to the Biennale’s nationcentric approach and the self-professed cultural proclivities of most French and Germans for that matter, she says. In another first, only one artist among the four exhibiting in the German pavilion is German-born: Romuald Karmakar. The others—Ai Weiwei, Santu Mofokeng, and Dayanita Singh—were born elsewhere and live mostly outside the country. Still, “all of the artists somehow have one foot in Germany,” Gaensheimer explains. She notes, however, that they are delivering what might be a more accurate, if at times symbolic, conceptualization of German citizenship, “whether that’s having been born here like Romuald, having a professorship and perhaps a studio like Ai Weiwei, participating in important exhibitions, or having their primary publishers here.” Adds Gaensheimer: “The aspect of traveling is an important part of all their practices.” More than just investigating citizen-denizen relations, the German pavilion’s sculptures, photographs, and films try to present a better understanding of how travel, or an outsider’s gaze, can open up the perception of a homeland. Schlingensief’s “Operndorf Afrika was the starting point both for his pavilion and in thinking about what I wanted to create this time, not Operndorf itself but the experiences he had in Africa creating it,” Gaensheimer says. “He would have brought all those elements into the project in 2011 had he still been alive. So I wanted to explore a similar method: t raveling to learn about home.”
She recoils, however, at the notion that what the pavilion presents is somehow documentary. “What we will show could be better described as social narratives, stories. They’re fictions, not snapshots,” she says, suggesting that how a place is chronicled is just as important as the realities that are presented. —AF
For the inaugural Ivorian pavilion, curator Yacouba Konaté favors a plurality of voices. “We are lucky enough to have in Ivory Coast several artists who could represent the country in a solo exhibition, among them Ouattara Watts,” he says. “But the fact is, the country has gone through a dramatic period of crisis and conflict. To get out from this critical period is not an individual task but a collective commitment.”
Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, Tamsir Dia, Franck Fanny, and Jems Robert Koko Bi thus share the honor in an exhibition titled “Traces and Signs.” Purposefully open-ended, the show includes 100 Bouabré drawings on the theme of peace, graphic vignettes that are by turns sardonic, humorous, and absurd. “The deformity which imposes peace to the human race: sexless green man,” one of them reads—perhaps a dig at the concept of Ivoirité, an ideology that purported to describe the ideal Ivorian as an ethnic group common during the Ivorian civil war. In Darfour, 2007, a sculpted group of pieces in burnt wood by Robert Koko Bi stages two mourners around a corpse. “Traces and Signs” encompasses life’s whole spectrum, from the tragedy of conflicts and genocides to the mundane reality of shopping. The latter is vividly represented in Fanny’s photograph of a makeshift food stall, Boutique, 2012. Dia’s semi-abstract painting Chants cruels, 2006–13, seems to suggest the leprous walls of Abidjan’s backstreets, encrusted with a palimpsest of rotten posters and peeling paint. “The idea behind the show is to give evidence that Ivory Coast—which is well known as a sanctuary for traditional African art—is also a vibrant scene of invention for contemporary art,” Konaté says.
And he should know. An art critic and professor of philosophy at the Université Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Abidjan, Konaté has for decades been a staunch supporter of contemporary African art and culture. This year’s pavilion also represents a political statement, Konaté suggests: “Our presence in Venice illustrates the necessary diversity that so-called globalization is still missing.” —CM
Most artists representing South Korea tackle their national pavilion at the Venice Biennale by attempting to transform the 1995 structure from the inside out with their paintings, sculptures, and hangings. This year’s artist, Kimsooja, is taking a minimal approach, however, focusing her efforts on transforming the pavilion windows with diffraction film (recalling her 2006 piece at Madrid’s Palacio de Cristal, above) that will let nature provide an interior that changes minute by minute. “The intensity of the light in the pavilion will correspond to the daily movement of the sun rising and setting across the Korean Pavilion—which is located right next to the Laguna di Venezia,” the artist says. “And this will transform the space into a transcendental experience, folding and unfolding daylight around the clock.”
Alive with audio of Kimsooja’s humming, the pavilion is otherwise empty, save for a separate anechoic chamber at its heart. “Inside, audiences will hear only their own breathing in total darkness, experiencing the disorientation of fear—the unknown that originates from ignorance,” she adds.
Kimsooja created To Breathe: Bottari after conceiving of “a space that gives maximum presence by doing the minimum, leaving the structure as it is,” she says. Wanting to capture nature, she wrapped the framework with a transparent material as she would prep a characteristic bottari (Korean for “bundle”). An unexpected force of nature also served as an influence on the self-exiled, New York–based artist: Hurricane Sandy. “Right at the time when curator Seungduk Kim and I were discussing the Korean Pavilion project in a more concrete manner, Hurricane Sandy hit New York,” the artist recalls. “That was a humbling and contemplative moment for me. I spent a week with no light or heat and without any conveniences.
This short but long time made me focus in deeper on questions dealing with light and darkness and on the environmental conditions of humanity in this era.” Her experience is reflected in the pavilion, where visitors serve as part of the live performance as they interact with the space, or what Kimsooja calls “a physical and psychological sanctuary.” —Ines Min
“Resistance,” a project that Ali Kazma and curator Emre Baykal developed out of the artist’s “Obstructions” video series, tests human limits. As all 15 videos play simultaneously, the viewer is taken from scenes of extreme body modification to ones showing the creation of artificial intelligence. The “Obstructions” project began as an outgrowth of two Kazma works, one about a clock undergoing repair and another about brain surgery. “It’s a bit of a cliché,” he concedes, though he stresses the importance of the project’s binary dialogue: “I’m looking into different ways that we as humans transform to fit our work and our surroundings and how they transform us in return as well,” Kazma says.
As the title suggests, “Resistance” examines ways that humans push back against such transformations or social norms. “The body finds ways to escape when something is forced upon it,” Kazma says. “But to see where it resists, you have to see where it’s pushed. In Venice we’re trying to cover the iconic stuff, to draw the limits on the phenomenon.”
These concerns led Kazma, who always works one-on-one with his subjects, to film the London studios of Alexander Reinke, a master in Japanese tattooing, as well as the craft of Iestyn Flye, who is skilled in scarification and other body alterations ranging from bisecting genitalia to adding silicone horns. In one video, Flye is shown carving Sanskrit into a client’s head. Less gory is Kazma’s portrait of Luc Steels working in Berlin with robots that he has programmed to create their own language. “They make up these words, like tabati, but as long as it is understood by the other robot, the word is thrown into the network and becomes meaningful,” says Kazma. For him, the intent of the project as a whole is much more than wielding a mirror to project his preconceptions; it is instead to create a portrait. “It becomes what it becomes through the eyes of the audience,” he says. —AF
United States In March, Sarah Sze shipped numerous crates full of stuff to Venice. But even though she’s been working on Triple Point for over a year and has built a life-size model of the American pavilion in her studio, only about 60 percent of the work was completed in New York. The title, Triple Point, refers to an expression in thermodynamics describing the precise conditions when a substance can exist in equilibrium as a solid, liquid, or gas.
This might give a hint about the final project even to those unfamiliar with Sze’s work. “Sarah is a perfect choice for Venice because she has really considered the space,” explains the pavilion’s co-commissioner Holly Block, director of the Bronx Museum of Art, in New York. Sze created five environments in the pavilion’s interior and exterior, all specific to the site and tailored to its 1930s architecture. Famous for meticulous installations that bring together many small elements, the artist finished the piece in Venice, allowing for “quite a bit of evolution of the work while she was there,” Block explains. The work focuses on the viewer’s physical experience of the space and orientation within and outside the pavilion. “Remember, you’re in Venice so you travel between land and water on a regular basis,” Block hints. “Even that perception is considered in the work.”
One thing won’t be a surprise: The American pavilion will present talks, workshops, and an outreach program that offers free Biennale passes to members of various population groups who may not otherwise be able to visit. —OG
This article appears in the May 2013 issue of Modern Painters.