Maja and Reuben Fowkes:

Contemporary Uncontemporary @ Venice 2013


Clearly, there are as many paths through the biennial as there are canals in Venice, with each individual experience of the art world’s favourite mega event influenced by the number of pavilions visited, the order in which they were seen, the length of time spent in particular exhibitions, as well as personal and geographical preferences. And while opinions always differ as to the highs and lows of the biennial, with art professionals at the opening solemnly exchanging their personal top 10s, critical assessments of Venice in 2013 are particularly divided, and even divisive.

To ‘like’ the main exhibitions in the Arsenale and in the Italian Pavilion in the Giardini, the work of New York-based curator Massimiliano Gioni, is to take sides against the genre of contemporary art that has dominated the international scene in the era of globalisation. The curatorial strategy of side-stepping the expectation that Venice represent the latest trends in contemporary art - which on the one hand makes sense given that the multiplication of biennials and acceleration of global culture makes it virtually impossible to present something new and original - has in effect disenfranchised a generation of artists working with the contemporary.

Gioni’s selection highlights an eclectic bunch of neatly framed artworks, many by artists who are no longer among us or never really entered our consciousness before, along with an obligatory smattering of blue-chip Americans. As the curator emphasised, anyone coming to his show hoping to ‘add new names to their list’ of up and coming artists will be disappointed. Furthermore, the fact that the show’s focus was on quirky ahistorical themes, such as spiritualism and Jungian archetypes, means that the Encyclopedic Palace has for better or worse turned its back on the burning issues of the contemporary world.

Our path through Venice started on the far side of the bridge at the back of the Giardini where Stefanos Tsivopoulos, representing Greece, is showing a trio of highly-crafted films that evoke the economic, financial and social crisis afflicting Southern Europe. History Zero delightfully interlinks the tales of an African migrant trawling the streets of Athens for scrap metal, a contemporary artist overwhelmed by the spectacle of urban decay, and a senile collector making bunches of origami flowers from 500 euro notes. Generally speaking, visitors who like the mixture of humour, social relevance and classicism in the Greek pavilion, tend to be critical of the main show in the Arsenale.

Falling into line with the apolitical, implicitly spiritual and lesser-known artist approach of Gioni’s Venice, the Polish pavilion features a sound piece with two specially-cast church bells with looped amplification, the work of Poznan-based sound artist and musician, Konrad Smoleński. Although the bells look and sound okay, there doesn’t seem to be much to discuss beyond the formal qualities or audible effects of the work itself. It certainly chimes a much less political tone than the Polish pavilion of 2011, when Israeli artist Yael Bartana’s …and Europe will be stunned went straight to the heart of issues around anti-Semitism, the threat of nationalism, and the reverberations of historical trauma.

Giving rise to widely differing critical judgements, the centrepiece of the Russian pavilion is a gimmicky installation where female visitors are invited to pick up an umbrella and walk under a shower of golden coins, a work with mildly sexist allusions to the Greek myth of the impregnation of Danaë.

From the point of view of the exploitative post-Fordist work ethic, it hard to defend the installation as its functioning depends on women’s unpaid work in collecting the coins. Although the salon-like unpredictability of the national pavilions is part of the charm of Venice, there is a sense this time round that the arbitrary taste of bureaucrats and collectors has won over the more refined professional criteria of the international curatorial community.

Managing to spark interest among professional trendsetters for its intriguing exploration of contemporary curatorial practice, the joint Lithuanian and Cyprus pavilion is located in the (for Venice) unlikely venue of an indoor sports centre and skilfully sets out to break all the conventions of the pavilion format. ‘Curated from the middle and starting as a dream’, Raimundas Malašauskas’s extended group show ‘spreads through the pavilions’, ‘floating like life and plankton’, to inhabit the main sports hall, seven flights of stairs and the giddy heights of poetic freedom. With twenty artists taking part, it is the curator here who takes centre stage.

Another strong East European entry, the Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale at the Romanian pavilion, revisits works from all 54 previous biennial editions as a continuous flow of live performances. The dematerialised intervention of Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmuş does not disguise the background of what curator Raluca Voinea described to us as a ‘catastrophic situation’ in the Romanian cultural field, ‘with funding being cut from most progressive institutions and much of the remaining budget going for nationalistic and traditionalist projects.’ On the other hand, the work astutely references the Venice Biennial’s tendency to self-absorption, ‘buried in its own history and archives’. Although only five actors perform the restaged art works in an empty pavilion, it is a pleasurable experience to observe how the atmosphere in the pavilion changes with every new piece.

Uniquely sharing their building since the country split after the fall of communism, the Czech and Slovak pavilion presents a new film by the Prague-based Žbynek Baladran and a multi-faceted installation by Petra Feriancova from Bratislava, artists who both share an interest in archiving the visual relics of the past. The huge barrier separating the two artist’s contributions brings back memories of the time in the early 1990s when the problem of dual representation was solved with a dividing wall.

Although our trail through the 2013 biennial for various reasons missed out the American, German and French, Croatian and Hungarian pavilions among others, the highlights of our zigzag tour also included Jeremy Deller at the British pavilion. His show, in the overall context of Gioni’s biennial, was seriously off-message for daring to deal with real political and social issues. Deller palette of references range from the shooting of a rare bird by Prince Harry and his friend on a royal estate, to the sources of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich’s wealth in dodgy privatisation deals in the early 90s, and the mysterious suicide of UN weapons’ whistleblower David Kelly in 2003. Even the film Ooh-oo-hoo ah-ha ha yeah includes the unlikely elements of a steel drum band, the vindictive crushing of a pair of Chelsea tractors, and children playing on an inflatable Stonehenge. Although he treads close to the line of parodying socially-concerned art, nevertheless he does give us a comment on current trends in the art world through the picture of a giant William Morris, representing real values, throwing Abramovich’s yacht, symbolic of the domination of capitalist profiteering, into the sea.

Represented for the first time at the Venice Biennial the Maldives pavilion deals directly with the danger that if the world fails to tackle global warming, these Pacific islands will disappear beneath the ocean by 2080. Highlights include Ursula Biemann’s film Deep Weather that traces the interconnections between human actions in one part of the globe and devastating climatic effects in another, as well as Oliver Ressler’s revealing film For a Completely Different Climate.

Also playing with the idea of sinking under water and offering a contemporary counterpoint to the wilful obscurantism of the main Venice show, Alfredo Jaar’s installation in the Chilean pavilion is a stunning meditation on the nature of globalisation. As a scale model of the Giardini dramatically sinks under the olive green sea, we are made aware of the distortions and inequalities of the existing system of national representation at the Venice Biennial. Faced with the overarching reality of a levelled global plane of artistic possibility within the ecological limits of the earth, why should we put up with the territorialism and colonialist impulses that determine the pecking order of national pavilions in Venice?


26. June 2013.