The 52nd Art Biennale Venice: Present Tense

A Show Case For Top International Contemporary Artists and a Kind of Pilgrimage for True Believers to Embrace New Ideas

On The Town | Victoria Oscarrson | September 2007

Skeletons dancing in Venice, part of the art exhibition of the Biennale (Photo: Victoria Oscarrson)

From June until early November, the 52nd Venice Art Biennale is again dominating the city. This is a much anticipated event in the art world, a showcase for a global selection of top contemporary artists.

It’s a kind of pilgrimage, the opportunity for true believers to explore, react, reject and embrace ideas through works by over three hundred artists, some well-established, others on the to-be-discovered curve.

The end of summer into fall is a particularly fine time to stroll the boulevards in and out of the over fifty pavilions and art venues throughout the city, when the crowds have lessened along with cooler weather.  Its original core is the Giardini, at the end of the main island, where countries have their own pavilions as at a world’s fair.

Venice is a city where not five but six senses are challenged through a whirlwind of emotional, intellectual and responsive demands.  This city, man-made out of scruffy, mud based islands in a rambling lagoon does not allow you to drift.   Its labyrinth of walkways and 1,200 years of layered history wants something of the voyeur back.  Casanova, Vivaldi, Oscar Wilde and Thomas Mann never managed to leave its clutches without an answer  to these demands. Perhaps that is why the title for this year’s Biennale seems so appropriate:

Think with the Senses – Feel With the Mind.  Art in the Present Tense.

Hard to explain – Venice is always both immediate and changing.

For each Biennale, a professional is chosen by an art committee of note to center the show by selecting a theme and curating two major exhibitions, one in the Italian Pavilion at the Giardini, and the other in the Arsenale, an adjunct created for the Biennale only fifteen years ago from kilometer-long warehouses that once housed maritime Venetian fleets.

This year US art critic Robert Storr, a professor at Yale University and curator at MOMA responded to the invitation with a view on ‘thinking and feeling’.  The Italian pavilion includes somewhat of a more conservative group of artists than in previous years, with more painting, something that has been largely out-vogued by the media arts.

Among the highpoints of Storr’s selections was the installation by French artist Sophie Calle (also representing the French Pavillion) in a documentary installation honoring the death of her mother.  The day she was called to participate in the Biennale was the day she found out her mother only had one month to live.

Her piece is poetry, a diary of this short passage of time.

In the main room are four large paintings by the internationally renowned Sigmar Polke, born in 1941 in Oels/Schlesien, East Germany, now Poland.  This artist has explored art in all its dimensions working around a theme called ‘allegorical history paintings’, site being as important as the works themselves, which might evolve from his background.  These paintings are hidden, thoughtful, and alter mood according to the by the 33-year-old video/animation artist Joshua Mosley from Philadelphia is also worth a look.  In top coat and tails, two wigged manikins of non-descript sexes said to be Pascal and J. J. Rousseau try to find their way through a forest encountering a larger than life dog and other personalities within a world of black and white.

Finally on this observer’s top four list is 32-year-old Japanese artist Tabaimo, from Kyoto with another strange, humanitarian-provoking animation where a giant hand carefully places tiny furnishings, from chandeliers to armchairs, into a four story dollhouse until a giant squid comes out of a cauldron on the mini stove ruining the arrangements.

One particularly interesting room honours American artist Sol Lewitt, a  pioneer of minimal art who died this year at seventy-nine, as well as other masters such as Gerhard Richter, Robert Ryman,  ninety six year old Louise Bourgeois (no Biennale is complete without her century of vision) , Ellsworth Kelly and Daniel Buren.

Continuing on to the Arsenale, one can move gently paced through everything from photographs, video to installations and comics.  It was worth stopping at the four segments of the story of a marriage by Chinese video artist, Yang Fudong now living in Shanghai. Then don’t miss the installation by among the most well established of Russian émigré artists, Ilya and Emilia Kabokov, who have created a model of eight Babel-like towers based on what they believe was an ancient city in North Africa.

Keep going to discover at the very end, the newest work by Arte Povera maestro Giuseppe Penone, whose pieces deal with the relationship between man and nature.  In this latest piece, large sections of trees have been covered in cowhides to preserve their bark, a transformation into what has the appearance of a large turd of sensual beauty accompanied by the strong smell of leather.

Part of the adventure of the Biennale is the chance to look at work exhibited in a series of private places, many of them churches and palaces, not normally open to the public.  In the Chiesa di San Gallo,  Bill Viola gently turns alter pieces into videos depicting humans crossing the fluid boundaries between life and death.  Lee Ufan, from Korea, calls his installation of painting, stones and iron Resonance, on view at the Palazzo Palumbo Fossari – a contemplative location.  Jan Fabre pushes his performance sculpture beyond the limit at Palazzo Benzon, almost impossible to find but worth the effort.

All these fringe shows are listed in the short guide and also Ospite de Venezia, the general monthly guide for Venice.

Finally, one of the finer shows in years of art world explorations and worthy of top mention is ARTEMPO: Where Time Becomes Art at the Fortuny Museum, an experience of Venetian culture all by itself .

Here Belgian art dealer/ designer and collector Axel Vervoordt has amassed an impressive collection of contemporary art, artifacts historic and present as well as  a cabinet des curiosites the 19th century name for a collectors box of the collections of natural science. One room is exemplary of this man’s vision.  Seated on the floor is a Buddha holding court in front of five paintings by French/Polish artist, Roman Opalka, who has made white to gray paintings for his forty plus career, his obsession being the sequence of numbers., his space giving way to eternity as if reversing time.

Then, Picasso, Jan Van Eyck, Yves Klein, a 16th century strong box with a video of how its mechanism works, life size painted, anatomical wooden bodies, reliquaries, stone icons, fallen pots by Japanese ceramist, Shiro Tsujimura are superbly placed against old Fortuny fabrics lining the walls. With the exhibition comes an elegant catalogue where on the back cover, are the words of Albert Einstein that perhaps come closest to capturing the character of the event:

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the Mysterious. It is the source of all true art and true science."

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