“ILLUMInations” La Biennale Di Venezia, Italy 2011

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This June, on my first trip to Italy I visited Venice for the 54th International Art Exhibition known simply as the “The Biennale” which runs until November 27, 2011. Bice Curiger, this year’s nominated curator, worked with the President of La Biennale di Venezia, Paolo Baratta to shape the theme “ILLUMInations” obviously a play on the words “illumination” and “nation”. Baratta says “Art here is intended as an activity in constant evolution… La Biennale is a grand pilgrimage giving artistic voice to the world”. Known as “the city of water” Venice is unreachable by car and therefore relies on a minimum 45 minute boat ride from the mainland for the transport of all people, goods and services. Throughout my Venice experience, I constantly imagined the extreme efforts it must have taken to transport large-scale art works to the ancient city and finally to their locations for this event. For 2012, I am very excited to reveal that plans are in the works to co-teach a photography workshop in Venice to share the very special and hidden parts of an amazing, vibrant yet decaying city. Add yourself to my mailing list or join another network (right) to learn more details unfold.

Founded 116 years ago as a way to celebrate international art and draw people to the city of Venice, the word “Biennale” refers to a celebration every two years which takes place in permanent and various locations around Venice. In the Giardini area of Venice, 28 permanent countries exhibit in pavilions while the remaining spread out to the Aresenale area as well as various Palazzos throughout Venice. Each country chooses a curator to work with and artists to showcase works which are often designed for and inspired by the them of the Biennale itself. This year, 83 artists are featured from all over the world, including 32 artists born after 1975 as well as 32 female artists. See a full list of artists here.

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During my visit to the Biennale, my two favorite pavilions in the Giardini were France and the United States. Perhaps this is because I speak both languages and am more culturally in touch with the two countries but also perhaps because they were simply some of the strongest presentations in the permanent pavilion area. In the French pavilion – famed French artist Christian Boltanski explored the not so new subject of “Chance”. As the sole artist in the space , the contraption designed to showcase the video art and installations was heavy handed for the images themselves, but perhaps intended as such to represent industrial manufacturing. In the entrance and largest room, an installation called The Wheel of Fortune showcases a long strip of photographs of newborns running through the space at high speed. Sometimes a doorbell rings and the strip, moved by the random will of a computer, stops at one of the babies. (Figure 2) Then, the baby’s face appears on a monitor and one child is chosen by chance. Boltanski says, “he is chosen by chance – and his life is still just a blank page”. In another room the installation Be New depicts faces of 60 newborns Polish and 52 deceased Swiss cut into three parts. (Figure 2) They parade over the screen at high speed and are then recomposed to form almost a million and a half hybrid beings. Again, by using the concept of chance faces broken into three parts, eyes, nose and mouth are chosen from the various living and deceased subjects and then combined randomly to form new beings. If by chance a face is formed from all three parts of the same person, music plays and the visitor wins the work itself. The project, to be honest, conjured up for me Nancy Burson’s series of early composites even though Boltanski’s are not digital composites themselves. See for yourself: more videos of the Boltanski installation may be viewed here.

Upon entering the US pavilion entitled Gloria, visitors are greeted by the sculpture outside Track and Field – essentially an overturned life-sized 60-ton overturned military tank overturned with functional treadmill above its right track. Throughout scheduled times during the day – an athlete affiliated with the United States runs on the treadmill conjuring up themes of competition, nationalism and militarism in relation to the body, health and fitness. During the opening week – Olympic gold medalist Dan O’Brien (1996) was one of the first runners to perform. The artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla of Puerto Rico created six new works for the pavilion curated by Lisa D. Freiman, Senior Curator Indianapolis Museum of Art.

The reference to war, peace and liberation continue with the piece Armed Freedom Lying on a Sunbed a scaled down replica of the 19 1/2 foot high bronze neoclassical sculpture which has crowned the US capitol since 1863. The 7 ½ statue which lies on a 442 tanning bed, as though in a coffin, is intended to reference the tradition of presidents lying in state – but in my opinion it’s just too funny to reference that and instead for me references the intense preoccupation Americans have with the “bronzing/tanning” practice. Continuing through the pavilion one encounters Body In Flight (American & Delta) where the artists appropriates elite business class seats and reproduces them in 1:1 scale in wood stained like polychromatic religious icons. This work invites Olympic gymnasts to perform on the work using it as a balance beam leaving behind bodily traces of sweat and chalky residue. Moving on, the final gallery of work is a grandiose installation incorporating church sized and grade pipe organs with an ATM machine. Entitled Algorithm, visitors can with-drawl money through the ATM and in exchange be serenaded by unique compositions coming from the organ. On my visit, the organ chimed a very ominous sound that did not stop – and an attendant rushed in to ask what I had done. I jokingly suggested that perhaps a negative balance threw off the tune of the machine. The artists collaborated with composer Jonathan Bailey to create sounds ranging from atonal to more classical melodies, harmonies and phrases in an effort to depict the theme of manipulation of the global economy. (Figure 1)

The third section of the US Pavilion houses the fascinating video installation Half Mast/Full Mast which is a third installment of Allora & Calzadilla’s series of short films about the Puerto Rican islands of Vieques – which was controlled primarily by the US Navy until 2003 when military exercises ceased and the controversial environmental remediation began. Two videos, one on top of each other depicts different landscapes, but both share in common a framing of a flag pole in the center of the image. The two images are aligned so that the flag pole is continuous thus illustrating one in continuum despite the otherwise differing backgrounds. Suddenly, in one image a gymnast appears and takes the position of a flag – suspending via his arms so as to wave in the wind using extreme strength. Depending on where he appears, he seems to be flying at full or half mast and the work chooses to highlight locations that mark places of victory or setback on the island’s struggle for peace and de-contamination. The videos are strong and mesmerizing – and the gymnasts’ natural gestures surprisingly do allow the viewer to imagine a flag – a symbol of patriotism and propriety.

Throughout the both the Arsenale areas and the International Exhibition other artists I enjoyed included Pipilotti Rist, David Goldblatt and the undeniably seductive 24 hour film The Clock by Christian Marclay which won the Biennale’s prestigious Gold Lion Award. This film, shown in synchronicity with real time – features film clips of clocks and wrist watches painstakingly edited to keep up in real time. The result is an amazing look into film history and culture as well as the fascination with simply “how did he do that”? The film is on display 24hrs a day for you to go see for yourself if it indeed keeps time accurately. I will look forward to hearing your thoughts. (Figure 1)

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