Artists get political for Venice Biennale 2011
While several heads of state are on the invitation list to the preview
By Gareth Harris and Jane Morris. Web only
Published online: 03 June 2011
Venice. This year's Venice Biennale, which previewed yesterday to invited critics, curators, gallerists, collectors and the press, is also expected to attract some of the world's leading political figures to the exhibitions in the Giardini, Arsenale and around the city. According to Il Gazzettino, Venice's local newspaper, Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, and Cristina Fernandez Kirchner, the president of Argentina, are due to visit this week, while the heads of state of Australia, Azerbaijan, Montenegro and Georgia are also expected.
They will be able to see, in the Giardini at least, some of the most politically-oriented national pavilions of recent years, with several countries, including Poland, Egypt, Israel, Denmark and the US, opting for hard-hitting takes on current affairs. One of the most overpowering pieces in the Giardini is an enormous, upturned tank, created by the Puerto Rican-based duo, Allora and Calzadilla. Periodically its engine is switched on, the tracks turn, and a member of the US Track and Field team runs on top, as if on a giant treadmill. Politics even put paid to one pavilion, Lebanon, although its cancellation was blamed on "organisational problems".
In other pavilions, including the UK, Greece, Switzerland, Belgium, Sweden and Spain, political intentions are also not far from the surface. The Greek pavilion, for example, consists of a large lagoon of water bridged by a narrow walkway. The work of the artist Diohandi, according to curator Maria Marangou, “is political. Greece is in a very bad position. This sculpture stands [for that]; it is a very simple statement, light gives hope." In the press statement, the curator goes further saying that the "installation in a way reflects the current political state of Europe and of the world at large. It is, at the same time, a comment on the contemporary Greek experience of economic recession and IMF tutelage."
The commissioner of the Belgian Pavilion, the artist Luc Tuymans, has organised a display of works by Brussels-based artist Angel Vergara entitled Feuilleton, inspired by the Seven Deadly Sins. But Tuymans said: "This installation is a symbolic statement about the splitting of the two communities in Belgium. We are currently without a government so this a symbolic gesture. For the first time in Venice, the commissioner is from the Flemish side while the artist is from French-speaking side." Both communities normally present alternating exhibitions in the pavilion.
For the first time Poland has selected an artist who is not a Polish national, the Israeli-born Yael Bartana. Her three films, Mary Koszmary, 2007, Mur i Wieza, 2009, and Zamach, 2011, focus on a fictional Jewish Renaissance Movement, an organisation devised by Bartana, which calls for and imagines the return of 3.3m Jews to Poland. "Jews today are not the same people who were expelled from Europe—Europeans today are not the same people responsible for that ethnic cleansing. This is a good time to unite again—to change Europe and Israel for the better," the artist said in her statement.
There is another first at the Egyptian Pavilion: until this year's uprisings across the Middle East, the artist had always been selected by the ministry of culture. This year, independent curator Shady El Noshokaty has put together a paean to his dead friend, the artist Ahmed Basiony, who was killed in Tahrir Square in January while demonstrating against Hosni Mubarak. The works include footage of the riots shot by Basiony. "The culture ministry, which has changed several times, was going to cancel, but basically we stepped in," El Noshokaty said.
For the Israeli pavilion, Sigalit Landau focuses on scarce natural materials, including a set of huge water pipes that cross the space, while projected on the floor, three young men play a "knife game" in a work called Azkelon, 2011 (Azkelon is a hybrid of the words Aza [Gaza] and Ashkelon: two towns which in Landau's words "share a beach but are separated by a border"). The boys draw lines, while kicking over the lines of their peers, a clear reference to the struggle for territory and identity in the region. Other works include an imagined salt bridge crossing the Dead Sea, connecting Israel and Jordan.
The Danish Pavilion's exhibition, “Speech Matters”, explores the meanings of free speech and freedom of the press. Eighteen artists, including Taryn Simon, Robert Crumb and Zhang Dali, have works on show, which demonstrate some of the complexities of the issue: Simon's work includes a reconstructed image of the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl by US soldiers. "Freedom of speech is one of the key issues in the current political debate, not just in Denmark—where we had the Mohammed/cartoons issue—but across the world, whether it's in China, to do with Google, Wikileaks, the Patriot Act in the UK, new media laws in Hungary…I consider it in some ways to be counter the Enlightenment," said Katerina Gregos, the pavilion's curator. "But I also wanted to add a political dimension to what is the often very commercial, very diplomatically-oriented context of the Venice Biennale. I wanted to encourage debate about a far from simple issue."
But any politicians who want to get away from their day jobs won't be disappointed: there's still plenty of glamour and glitz to be found. They will be rubbing shoulders with musicians and movie stars, including the likes of Elton John, Michael Stipe, Courtney Love and Sharon Stone, as well as with artists such as Maurizio Cattelan and Christian Boltanski, and museum directors including Glenn Lowry of New York's Museum of Modern Art, Richard Armstrong of the Guggenheim and Daniel Birnbaum, the director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Collectors on the first day included Miuccia Prada, Jean Pigozzi, Pauline Karpidas, Anita Zabludowicz and Roman Abramovich, whose huge yacht “Luna” is docked alongside the Giardini. The vaporetto strike (part of region-wide dispute over impending government cuts) might have hampered the less well-off visitors, but for those invited to the parties in the big yachts moored along the Giudecca Canal last night, the biennale was in full swing.
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