Venice: la Biennale Di Venizia 2011 – My Top Five

La Biennale di Venizia 2011

Over at Rough Version, Francesca Gavin gave a great top 10 which we used as a map to the sprawling Biennale in Venice last week. If you have never been, it is definitely worth the trip. It lasts from June to November every two years and is perhaps the best fusion of a beautiful city with bleeding edge innovation in art that you can find anywhere. I know I won’t be able to match the excellence of Francesca’s review here but I’ll give you my top five from the quick 2 1/2 days that we had to enjoy it. [Hey Francesca, if you read this, can you accept my comment on your blog? I notice it still isn’t published there…]

  1. The Biennale itself. Is it cheating to do this? In any case, I found the whole thing so extraordinary that I feel it is such an experience just to be in Venice for the Biennale. This year’s theme is Illuminations which conjures up images of light and spirituality in my mind. Well, not every single work played on that theme but certainly the city itself is so extraordinary in different kinds of light and since the arts – other than music anyhow – all require sight to appreciate, light is pretty much essential. The exposition has two primary spaces: the Giardini Garibaldi and the Arsenale both of which are on the extreme eastern end of San Marco. However, that is not even close to all there is. Almost every museum (we went to the Palazzo Fortuny (I’ll blog of this one next) and Palazzo Grassi) has related exhibitions but also splattered all over the city are venues for either country pavilions (there must have been over 100 countries represented) or artist pavilions. The festival is more or less ubiquitous from the minute you get off the vaporetto. Well, almost. Of course, the tourists getting of the cruise ships and those on Venice weekends are all concentrated like flies on Piazza San Marco and around the Rialto bridge completely oblivious (or at least it seemed so) to the event. But for art lovers, it is an orgy and there is clearly something here for everyone.
  2. David Claerbout's Happy Moments

    At the Palazzo Grassi, David Claerbout’s Happy Moment. This video is a beautiful extract of a longer film where we see 30 minutes of still black and white photos with a sort of blue hue all representing exactly the same moment on an Algerian rooftop as a group of men and boys are feeding pigeons. There is a feeling of peace and quiet that is enhanced by the wonderful music played behind it. How he managed to simultaneously shoot all these angles at exactly the same moment with so many zooms and yet without exposing the equipment anywhere is a mystery to me. Even though this one isn’t part of the Biennale itself, as the Grassi exhibition the World Belongs To You coincides with the Biennale and this work speaks to the Illumination theme perfectly, I figured I could give it its due here.

  3. At the Singapore Pavillion, Ho Tzu Nyen’s The Cloud of Unknowing. I would not have seen this piece had it not been for Francesca’s blog because it was a little off the beaten track (although immediately behind the Piazza San Marco). The film was astounding and worthy of the detour. The screening room was a huge attic where you sit on one of four enormous beanbags and watch the film off a large screen. [It is apparently coming off a laptop in HD because I was a little annoyed by the mouse pointer on the lower left of the screen – I pointed that out to the girls monitoring the pavilion and I hope they fixed it]. The film itself is a crossing of everyday life and dreams in a Singaporean apartment building. The cloud is a spiritual symbol for the Chinese so there is also a sort of spiritual message here as well. A definite must for this Biennale. I left my address with the girls there hoping I could get a catalog because it seemed really interesting but they weren’t selling it…
  4. Limpundulu Zonke Ziyandilandela

    In the Arsenale, Nicholas Hlobo’s Limpundulu Zonke Ziyandilendela. This extraordinary sculpture made of hair, blood, tires, and a skull representing a limpundulu vampire bird from legends of the Xhoza tribe in South Africa. Another similar work is over at the Palazzo Grassi. The various materials are meant to remind of the violence visited on black africans during apartheid and slavery (burning tires around folks necks was a common practice in SA) as well as the current struggle against AIDS and so there is naturally a sordid, violent undertone here. It is a powerful work whose image has not left me. The work cannot be adequately described in fact, it needs to be experienced.

  5. At the Arsenale, Christian Marclay’s The Clock. This film that lasts 24 hours is probably one of the most amazing collages I have ever experienced. Somehow, Marclay managed to pull footage from film archives for every minute over a 24h period. I couldn’t help looking at my watch and freaking out that it was EXACTLY correct – every time a clock was shown, it was exactly that time “for real”. The other odd sensation was that the passage of time didn’t feel linear. We were there from about 15h35 to 16h05. The first 20 minutes or so, we were getting used to the film and it went by really quickly as we were just amazed by the concept. As time got closer to 4pm, most of the film sequences became more tense as some expected but sometimes dreaded event was to take place. At this point, time seemed to slow down as we tried to decipher each film reference and see what the intrigue around 4pm was. It was really an interesting experience. I suppose that biologically, it would be impossible to experience this entire film in one sitting, but it sure as hell would be fun to try.

Honorable mentions: We also liked (in no particular order):

  • Palazzo Fortuny’s Tra exhibit – but I’ll try to review this next (or soon at least)
  • Loris Gréaud’s Gepetto Pavilion at the Arsenale. Once you read the panel next to it and realize that she actually lived inside the sculpture for 24h, the beached whale is even more impressive and the allegories to Job and Pinocchio are even more poignant. Her installation of black trees and a full moon overlooking the canal at Palazzo Grassi is also a moving and sobering experience.
  • Dayanita Singh’s Film Room photos at the Arsenale was also fascinating. It was a series of photos of abandoned file rooms. The geometries left by the filing cabinets, boxes and piles of paper were striking as was the feeling of emptiness and futility invoked by the images.
  • The Switzerland Pavilion’s Crystal of Resistence was an overwhelming and thought provoking installation by Thomas Hirschhorn. TV’s with crystals, sculptures made of q-tips, photos of torture and victims of torture on iPads projected on old TVs…everything about this piece was over the top and in-your-face. It would be nearly impossible to remain neutral after this one.
  • The British Pavilion’s Magazin: Büyük Valide Han by Mike Nelson was amazing in its realism. The stories left behind in this re-created building based on Nelson’s 2003 site at the Istanbul Biennial were thought-provoking. Incredible too, it took them three months to build this particular exhibit using materials coming from Turkey just for the Biennale in Venice.

And that is still just scratching the surface. We missed the Haiti Pavilions (mostly because we couldn’t find one of them) and the Anish Kapoor installation Ascension over at San Giorgio Maggiore (because we just didn’t have the time to get a boat over there) as well as probably close to 100 events and off-events. We will definitely try to make it back in 2013!

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