THE VENICE BIENNALE: Thinking and Feeling Should Be in Unity

Evgeniya Kikodze

Article: 
INTERNATIONAL PANORAMA
Magazine issue: 
#4 2007 (17)

This year’s project for Venice was prepared against the backdrop of the apparent failure of the 2005 Biennale. In fact, at first, the well-known American art critic and artist Robert Storr, this year’s curator, had been offered the curatorship of the previous exhibition. However, there was not enough time left for preparations, and Storr declined the offer, passing it on to Rosa Martinez. This year, Storr had more time which he used effectively to express his views most fully and comprehensively.

Indeed, the ethical standpoint reflected in the Biennale's title - "Think with the Senses - Feel with the Mind” - accurately reflects the ideology of a "leftist” American intellectual in the early 21st century, along with his or her non-acceptance of President Bush's policy and emphasized pro-European preferences. Another matter is the fact that contemporary art is hardly compatible with any specific political ideas. In a world of evergrowing globalism, the traditional political division between left and right is changing, something that is evident, for instance, when comparing the student riots in Paris in 1968 and the protests of Muslim youth in 2005. In the 1960s, it was sufficient to display several heads of putrid cheese for art to express its protests against the police, as did Daniel Spoerri, while the establishment was outraged by four geometric abstract paintings displayed without any further explanation, as was done by the Paris-based group of artists BMPT at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris.

But today aesthetic margins have expanded so widely that it hardly makes any sense even talking about them. And curators also adjust their aesthetic focus towards politics, or rather political correctness - taking into consideration all national quotas when putting together international art exhibitions. This is done against the backdrop of the fact that contemporary art cannot be evaluated based on the category of its national origin. Such extensive coverage helps in choosing universal topics which are removed from the truly artistic range of problems, while frequently the manifestation of antimilitarist or anti-globalist views is accompanied by weakness and the secondary nature of artistic contents of the work.

The 2007 Venice Biennale is a good example of just that situation: its historical section presented in the ITALIA pavilion (not to be confused with the national pavilion of Italy) was noted in general for its integrity and wholeness, maintaining the traditional air of the best museum exhibitions. Masterpieces of non-figurative painting by Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Ryman, and Gerhard Richter were accompanied by elegant post-minimalist works of Iran do Espirito Santo, Waltercio Caldas and Odili Donald Odita, while neo-expressionism was represented by both monumental large-scale paintings from Sigmar Polke and by fun works from Elizabeth Murray, reminiscent of collages. The art of Bruce Nauman and Jenny Holzer was presented in the form of separate "islands” - a few works placed within the enclosed space. However, the curator didn't find it possible to limit the presentation to European and American (including Latin American) works alone; therefore, next to Kelly's geometric pieces, there are paintings of Cheri Samba from Congo, with multiple figure compositions in the new wave style, and with the principal figure having a missile launch pad instead of a head. In the words of a teenager I know, "Wicked!” And one couldn't be more precise in one's response to it.

As for the traditional curatorial domain in the walls of the enormous semi-dark Arsenale, the diversity of scale and presence of obviously weak - even though politically charged - works was felt even stronger here. One cannot tell the difference between photographs of ruins in Beirut by Gabriele Basilico, prisons by Rosemary Laing, or "Bouncing Skull” by Paolo Canevari, and primetime news on CNN or Euronews broadcasts or photo essays by reporters of Der Spiegel. Of course, among them, there are wonderful works by renowned artists - Philippe Parreno, Martin Kippenberger, Nedko Solakov, Valie Export; the Russian visitor could feel especially proud of the artistic achievements of his or her compatriots (even if sometimes, former ones), among them Ilya Kabakov, Andrei Monastyrsky and Dmitry Gutov. However, all this didn't seem to be sufficient to achieve the goals set by the curators - a unity of mind and feelings, ethics and aesthetics.

On second thought, the statement "Think with the Senses - Feel with the Mind” should be related to the world of poetry. It is there that such a fragile emotional sphere is expressed through the form of a poem, it is there that a fragile bridge is built connecting the mobility of emotions and the statics of the rhyme: a tragic mix of the world created on a piece of paper, and the world beyond this paper: the mixture of the strong feelings of a dinosaur and the Cyrillic alphabet. For his project, Robert Storr picked up the title from the tradition of semiotic culturology, yet practically he is more likely governed by a rather populist and folk-driven enthusiasm a la Nekrasov who stated that a citizen is something greater than a poet. Greater or smaller, this dispute lies beyond the framework of our interests. Most importantly, the poet is no longer with us...

Among the undoubted advantages of the general management of the Biennale (a subject which should be reviewed separately) is the carefully designed alliance of the main and national projects. Indeed, the Turkish and Italian national pavilions were displayed in the Arsenale building while the already mentioned historical part of "Think with the Senses - Feel with the Mind” was in the ITALIA pavilion in the Giardini.

The Giardini Park serves as the location for the second section of the exhibition, a traditional component of any Venice Biennale - the national pavilions. Even though Russia's participation under the slogan "ClickI Hope” was accompanied by a heavy PR campaign, and received positive reaction from some specialists, it is hardly possible to share wholeheartedly the enthusiasm of curator Olga Sviblova who spoke of the "colossal triumph of Russia”. And that is not solely due to the fact that one of the five participants, Yulia Milner, an artist not known to the public, whose artistic background until 2007 had included two exhibitions only, and whose work at the Biennale is in fact a rather mediocre networking project, of a kind available in abundance all over the World Wide Web.

Another factor contributing to such a perception is the emphasis on new technologies, manifested in the project, which is horrendously provincial. Today, to speak of electronic installations as a form of cultural achievement is equal to a sense of pride at knowing how to manage knives and forks at table. Of course, there is nothing wrong with technologies as such; but they are simply secondary to the meaning. If they are there, they are there; and if they are not, then they shouldn't be. There was a pleasant deviation from the Russian exhibition tradition in the fact that installations in the Russian pavilion actually worked; in this regard the pavilion earned its well-deserved "B" grade (since "Shower” by Alexander Ponomaryov and Arseni Meshcheryakov would be more appreciated if it were interactive). But a "B” grade is acceptable in school; while in art it is not the rules learned that prevail, but rather the degree of deviation from such rules, in other words, the degree of originality and uniqueness of the artist's work. Only one participant in the Russian project, AES+F, could stake a claim for such originality; therefore, the entire pavilion should have been given to this group, adding other works - sculpture, video and photos - to its "Last Riot”.

On that note, this is the way that most curators of national pavilions acted: Sophie Calle represented France, and as one could judge, she enjoyed huge success both with specialists and with the general public. Her project was titled by the final line from a letter, received by the author from a dear friend: Take care of yourself. This letter became a unifying platform for a myriad of individual interpretations presented by women of different age groups and various social backgrounds with whom the artist interacted.

Next door, in the British pavilion, Tracey Emin also presented the project which dealt with intimate emotions of the artist, yet turned out to be less impressive from the standpoint of the staged composition. Nonetheless, definite plastic discoveries of the artist - and above all, quotes from a diary placed in the form of neon inscriptions on the walls (from the "Borrowed Light” series) left the biggest impact of all. Emin raises the issue of the legitimate nature of art as such, of its ability to be adequate to the artist's intention, on the visualization paradox - to read the neon inscription representing a crossed out phrase, or not to read it?

The US pavilion was dedicated to Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who passed away suddenly and at an early age. The symbol of a bird flying away, black candies in transparent wrappers forming a rectangle on the floor, photos of marble tombs - apparently the artist had an anticipation or a premonition of his coming death, and this elegant message of grief received as if "from the other side” was even more poignant against the backdrop of the luscious Italian summer.

Many critics and curators noted the Dutch pavilion where three big screens demonstrated the project by Aernout Mik, "Citizens and Subjects”. Mik presented the problem of refugees, their lack of rights and the discretionary abuse from the authorities. A particular strength of the project was the low placement of screen - right at floor level, where Mik's characters would primarily sit or lie; it minimizes the distance between the individuals on the video, and the viewers, making the latter experience the atmosphere of fear, of social danger.

The Venice Biennale is a traditional event which attracts many curators and institutions in their desire to present their independent projects to the world community. "Artempo” in the Palazzo Fortuni was one of the most spectacular: it was put together by a few well-known curators, including the star of the 1980s, Jean-Huber Martin. Specifically, it is his innovative method of multicultural mix, bringing together contemporary art pieces and rare objects of antiquities, articles of worship and other esoteric artefacts which once was stated in the Pompidou Center by Les Magiciens de la Terre, which was displayed in the Palazzo Fortuni. However, there is an important adjustment: the present-day cover version includes a clear message of absence of time. There is no difference between the contemporary and archaic, the new and the old, or bygones and current issues. The apologetics of the times with no time apparently serve the purposes of opposing both modernism and the political ambitions of art: everything was and is, everything is as always, and if we are able today to read and understand Homer, or to interpret and enjoy Chinese sculpture of the Sun dynasty, then what kind of progress can we possibly talk about? Such, at first glance, a universal and infinite statement has a peculiar aspect - it is only if voiced by a very educated and sophisticated individual that such statements sound convincing. If voiced by individuals with poorer tastes, the statement loses all of its charm, and turns into apologetics of an eclectic approach - the way it happened to the theory of post-modernism, which on the Russian stage, for instance, was implemented by Valentin Pikul rather than Umberto Eco.

Today, art can hardly be relevant with "leftist” ideas. Yet it still makes sense to be aspiring and achieving it, adopting the "left” as a certain modality rather than a subject matter, in other words, guided by vital and educational ideals of modernism, which in today's world are in no way dated or obsolete. And this, too, has been mentioned more than once, even without any referral to modernism:

"Now, I will tell you something, and you will see it confirmed in life, many times. All reactionary periods of time, subject to disintegration, are biased and subjective, and unlike them, all progressive ones are objective. We live in reactionary times, since they are subjective. And we see proof of it not only in poetry but also in art, and in many other aspects. The healthy fledgling originating from the inner works is always aspiring to the world which exists objectively, which could be followed by examples of great eras, progressing towards their renovation, with their nature infallibly gravitating towards the objective side of it.” (Goethe)

 

Nicolas Iljine,
the Representative for Corporate Development
of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in Europe and the Middle East

Was the “Russian boom” in Venice the result of exaggeration in reports by Russian journalists, or a true fact?

This year the Russian presence in Venice was indeed notable. Russian was spoken in the streets of Venice, and 80 Russian yachts moored in its harbor: All this was unprecedented. Even Mr. Abramovich paid a visit.

There were several Russian exhibitions; first among them, of course, Russia's pavilion in the Giardini which finally, after so many years, had been properly refurbished on the eve of the Biennale. The much-needed renovation was financed by the Russian Avant-Garde Foundation, with the renovations planned in two stages; the first before the exhibition, and the second stage, following the exhibition, with a complete overhaul, including a new roof.

Russia's pavilion demonstrated Russia's entrance into the media-art era. The curator attempted to show that Russia lives in the same world as Western countries.

Which works from Russia's pavilion did you like?

I liked "Wave” by Alexander Ponomaryov and "Last Riot” by ASE+F. Critical comments were voiced with regard to the meaning of the latter work, referring to the cruelty of its imagery. Yet it is essential to move beyond such a naive interpretation to a symbolic comprehension of imagery as presented by ASE+F: apocalypse played out by children leaves no hope. By the way, the theme of apocalypse was popular in many other projects of the Biennale.

Half a year ago, the XL Gallery was the first to present the "tech" face of contemporary Russian art at Art Basel Miami Beach, wasn’t it?

Yes, and it was a very timely presentation, because video art and electronic art forms continue to dominate over larger segments of the modern art market. Today, some 180 million people are signed up and use such networks as My Space, YouTube and others, which means that their way of thinking has dramatically changed compared to how it was, say, some five years ago. Now, they are open in expressing their personal opinion, private emotions, and not only in regard to art, relations, people, or anything at all, but it has also transpired into this present-day form of exhibitionism. It is a 200 million-strong audience, with the majority of them being relatively young, well-off, and with good education. Basically speaking, the way of thinking of a modern human is, regardless of any factors, shifting towards virtual reality, which cannot but leave its footprint on art.

What other memorable events happened during the Biennale?

Ilya Kabakov created a separate project with a steamboat; the exhibition organized by the Pinchuk Foundation turned out to be rather memorable, the latter with an American curator of Ukrainian origin. This exhibition included works of artists with regard to whom Ukraine stakes as much claim as does Russia — Boris Mikhailov and Sergei Bratkov. Stella Art Foundation presented a project dealing with the demolition of the Rossiya Hotel, and I got very interested in documents - or rather their copies— which were scattered on the floor in the project display area — even more so than in photos included in the project. Grandiose parties were also a part of the itinerary — among them, above all, the birthday party for Olga Sviblova which lasted till 3 a.m., full of fun and dancing. The famous Italian performer Paolo Conte was a guest at Stella's reception, along with other A-list guests such as Naomi Campbell, and all that glamour.

Were reviews of Russian art presented by the Western media? Did they finally stop referring to us as savages?

Yes, for example, Der Spiegel printed a large article, as did the Swiss Neue Zuercher Zeitung. Of course, you no longer look like savages, but simply like rich people. They don't quite trust you yet, but they already envy you. 80 Russian yachts make an impact, even though the sea is vast, and there is enough room for everyone. The market is expanding, and it is good. Contemporary art is not only the privilege of intellectuals or those not involved commercially in it. And the more people in Russia and in the West become interested in contemporary Russian art, the better. There is, however the problem of information void. Little is known about Russian art - basically, there is not a single magazine published in Russia that would deal with contemporary Russia art and present this information in English. As far as I know, you personally support the webzine Newsletter: Contemporary Russian Art.

Well, it exists on the web only, and is sent to a couple of thousand subscribers, who perhaps forward it on. But I was told that ArtKhronika (Art Chronicle) plans to prepare special editions in English four times a year This year's Art Basel will again present the Russian non-commercial exhibition in the Design District in Miami, the second year in a row, which is another indirect indication of the interest towards Russia being on the rise. And in Cassel, four Russian artists are included in the Dokumenta. There were no Russian artists there in the past at all, or one at the best.

I recall the known French art critic Catherine David, a curator at a past Dokumenta, justifying her refusal to invite Russian artists to participate, declared that she wouldn’t be likely to cooperate with artists who didn’t protest against the war in Chechnya.

It is a flat argument. It is a certain political filter which should not be applicable to art because art is the zone which operates censorship-free. Modern-day China is a good example. Numerous interesting, and sometimes incredibly crazy projects are being realized there, with funds made available, and Western galleries also make their contribution to this process. It is all done against the background of a political situation which is as complex as the one in Russia.

Back to comparing Russian and Chinese art: the words “Chinese art” immediately invoke the image of brightly colored and highly politicized large format painting. Once, Russian art also had an easily recognizable brand — socialist art. Does it remain true today?

No longer, and this is good. Saying the term "brand”, we above all imply some stereotypes and cliches. The time of playing with the socialist symbols of the past is gone. For instance, I have recently watched the latest film by the Siny Soup group - "Lake”. It brings on many thoughts and fantasies but this type of work could have been created anywhere — in America, in Europe, anywhere in modern civilization.

Could you please describe your vision of the contemporary art process in Russia?

There has been major progress, such as for instance, a new art award in Russia, which Deutsche Bank plans to finance together with Art Chronicle, and its senior partner - the Kandinsky Award. The award amounts to 40,000 Euro — a figure on a quite European scale. There will also be a young artist award: three months' art fellowship in Florence. And most importantly, all finalists will have individual art exhibitions arranged at some Western location - New York, London, Berlin or Frankfurt. Indeed, it is a very good development: an annual display of works by Russian artists, accompanied by a catalogue in English. Another important development: the Russian-born Janna Bullock was elected to the Board of Trustees of the Guggenheim Museum. It is a very important institution, since it is up to the Board of Trustees to appoint the director of the Guggenheim Museum.

Of course such institutions are still in short supply in Russia, with the Hermitage being the only exception. But I hope that soon it all will happen, with museums and other art institutions developing, and corporate meetings held in a few years' time.

What other issues do you see as critical for the present-day Russian situation?

Culture columns of major newspapers here have no critical commentaries. Primarily they cover events and guest lists of exhibitions. Yet art review and criticism is the most interesting aspect of it all. You can find it here in exclusive art journals which are not available to the general public. Self-censorship prevails in the Russian mass media: for instance, television schedules are filled with low level entertainment shows. There are no extensive discussions of architecture, design, while in the West, these subjects are very popular.

At the same time, now it is much easier to obtain funds to finance art projects. I think that Russia has entered a process that cannot be accelerated: Everything is progressing gradually, with people traveling, learning, returning home, and then making changes. It is a matter of generations; we simply have to wait a decade or so. The world progresses, and as long as prices for oil remain high, everything is going to be all right.

Interviewed by Evgeniya Kikodze

Illustrations

Ellsworth KELLY (USA). Red Relief with White. 2007
Ellsworth KELLY (USA). Red Relief with White. 2007
Oil on canvas, two joined panels. Think with the senses, feel with the mind. Pavilion “ITALIA”
Sigmar POLKE (Germany). To be titled. 2007
Sigmar POLKE (Germany). To be titled. 2007
Violet pigments, mixed media. Think with the senses, feel with the mind. Pavilion “ITALIA”
Bruce NAUMAN (USA). Venice Fountains. 2007
Bruce NAUMAN (USA). Venice Fountains. 2007
(detail). Wax, plaster wire, water, sinks, faucets, clear hoses, pumps. Think with the senses, feel with the mind. Pavilion “ITALIA”
El ANATSUI (Nigeria). Versatility. 2006
El ANATSUI (Nigeria). Versatility. 2006
Aluminium and copper wire, stitching. Think with the senses, feel with the mind, Arsenale.
Kendell GEERS (South Africa). Post Pop Fuck 21. 2006
Kendell GEERS (South Africa). Post Pop Fuck 21. 2006
Think with the senses, feel with the mind, Arsenale
Iran do ESPIRITO SANTO (Brazil). Untitled (Fence). 2007
Iran do ESPIRITO SANTO (Brazil). Untitled (Fence). 2007
Iran do ESPIRITO SANTO (Brazil). Untitled (Fence). 2007
Soft-tip pen on wall
Single art #15.
Single art #14.
Single art #4.
Single art #8.
2006–2007. Granite. Think with the senses, feel with the mind. Pavilion “ITALIA”
Charles GAINES (USA). Airplanecrashclock. 1997
Charles GAINES (USA). Airplanecrashclock. 1997
Mixed media, electronics. Think with the senses, feel with the mind, Arsenale
Elisabeth MURRAY (USA). The New World. 2006
Elisabeth MURRAY (USA). The New World. 2006
Oil on canvas on wood. Think with the senses, feel with the mind. Pavilion “ITALIA”
Christine HILL (USA). Accounting Portable Office. As shown at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, NY City, 2003
Christine HILL (USA). Accounting Portable Office. As shown at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, NY City, 2003
Think with the senses, feel with the mind, Arsenale
Odili Donald ODITA (USA). Give me Shelter. 2007
Odili Donald ODITA (USA). Give me Shelter. 2007
Wall painting installation, acrylic latex wall paint. Think with the senses, feel with the mind. Pavilion “ITALIA”
Dmitry GUTOV. David RIFF. The Karl Marks school of the English Language. 2007
Dmitry GUTOV. David RIFF. The Karl Marks school of the English Language. 2007
Installation: series of 20 paintings, 15 audio tracks. Think with the senses, feel with the mind, Arsenale
Ilya & Emilia KABAKOV. Manas (Utopian City). 2007
Ilya & Emilia KABAKOV. Manas (Utopian City). 2007
Installation, mixed media. Think with the senses, feel with the mind, Arsenale
Manas (Utopian City). 2007. Detail
Manas (Utopian City). 2007
Detail
Giovanni ANSELMO (Italy). Where the Stars Get a Little Closer and the Earth Finds Its Way. 2004–2007
Giovanni ANSELMO (Italy). Where the Stars Get a Little Closer and the Earth Finds Its Way. 2004–2007
Stones, soil, magnetic needle; dimensions variable. Think with the senses, feel with the mind. Pavilion “ITALIA”
On the foreground: Gerhard RICHTER (Germany). Cage (2). 2006. On the background: Ellsworth KELLY. White Relief. 2006
On the foreground:
Gerhard RICHTER (Germany). Cage (2). 2006
Oil on canvas
On the background:
Ellsworth KELLY. White Relief. 2006
Oil on canvas, two joined panels. Think with the senses, feel with the mind. Pavilion “ITALIA”
Waltércio CALDAS (Brazil). Half Mirror Sharp. 2007
Waltércio CALDAS (Brazil). Half Mirror Sharp. 2007
Installation. Think with the senses, feel with the mind. Arsenale
Valie EXPORT (Austria). Glottis. 2007
Valie EXPORT (Austria). Glottis. 2007
Video installation, 4 parts. Think with the senses, feel with the mind, Arsenale
Philippe PARRENO (France). Speech bubbles. 2007
Philippe PARRENO (France). Speech bubbles. 2007
Black mylar balloons, gas and black ribbon; dimensions variable. Think with the senses, feel with the mind, Arsenale

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