/ by John McGurk

Venice Biennale, 3rd Installment

Ok, so it's been a little while since I have posted, the summer has gotten hot and hectic. With this in mind, I return to my days in Venice surrounded by canals and art from all around the world. I have said it before and would like to reiterate the point: even with all the critical observations you may hear or read from the arterati, the Biennale is truly a unique experience, one that I highly recommend.

So I left off in the basement room of the main pavilion watching Omer Fast's amazing video work. As I leave here, I am injected into a strange time warp. In the main hall of the pavilion there are three huge paintings from the Renaissance painter Tintoretto. These massive paintings are an interesting intervention into an exhibition that is primarily concerned with contemporary art. Of course the irony was not lost on the curator who placed a tiny conceptual piece in the corner of the large room that essentially amounted to a dangling piece of cardboard(?) hanging from the ceiling with a translucent line. ILLUMInations indeed.

The above photo will remain anonymous as I didn’t catch the name of the artist, but I could have spent quite a bit of time in this room. In the middle of the room there are stacks of play-doh like putty in three different colors: red, black, and white. A room full of play-doh, whats not to like? The photo below is a piece by Gabriel Kuri. I thought it was really fun in a non-art kind of way. Does that even make sense?

There was a lot more work in the main pavilion, but not much that struck me in any particular way. Of course, I was moving pretty fast and ready to check out some of the individual country pavilions. A lot had been said about the US pavilion, so I headed straight over to check out Allora & Calzadilla’s installation and was immediately confronted with the following sculpture:

Guillermo Calzadilla was a professor of mine at RISD, so I had a particular interest in the US pavilion. To be confronted with a huge tank with a treadmill on top is a move right out of the Surrealist playbook. To see the impossible manifest itself in front of you is a strange experience. As part of the pieces in their exhibit, both artists had been working with professional gymnasts to create various routines that would take place in and around the sculptures in the pavilion. I have to say that the performative part of the works was less interesting than some of the strange imagery that I took away from the experience. Lady Liberty in a tanning bed, can you beat that?

I quickly made my way over to the Israeli pavilion where I was treated to the wonderful experience of the artwork of Sigalot Landau. Her work is mostly made up of videos, with a large round desk occupying one space. Around the desk are computers with screens showing the feet of the people in the fictional or real meeting taking place, who the viewer can hear over the speakers. As the meeting progresses, a little girl can be seen tying all of the shoelaces together; one can imagine the chaos that would ensue when this table of bureaucrats all gets up to leave. In the end, the meeting is discussing a proposal by the artist for a “crystal” bridge, a poetic gesture in itself.

Another poignant video piece was of a naked woman on the beach dragging her hands across the sand as the waves come in and out. It is a simple and beautiful piece investigating the passage of time and our movement through it:

As you leave the building, the artist has carved a quote onto the outside of the building that reads “One mans floor is another mans feelings”, a quote I thought quite a lot about.

In complete juxtaposition and/or solidarity with the above statement, I headed over to the Egyptian pavilion which I had also heard a lot about as the artist Ahmed Basiony had been killed in the recent revolution in his country. A sad, couragous and uplifting story, the work in the pavilion is made of four large projections. Each section changes between video of the revolution and video of the performance piece that Basiony had performed almost exactly a year before. Whatever one may say about this artwork and its critical merit, Basiony deserved to represent his county in this Biennale. 

Next installment: Greece, Spain and Swedish Pavilions + the Arsenale...