More than 100 years old, the Venice Biennale is the world’s best known and most prestigious fine arts fair. Filmmaker and University Art Museum Acting Curator Natalie Sanderson traveled to Venice this year with her mother for the biennale’s vernissage, a ritual installation/opening event originating in the grand salons of 19th-century Paris. The following are her selected impressions of this gargantuan collection of exhibitions.
The 52nd Venice Biennale is titled Think with the Senses-Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense and is the first to be artistically directed by an American: Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art. Storr’s serpentine title demands visitors engage actively with the work on display and examine the process by which they make value judgments. Even aside from Storr’s challenge, the Venice Biennale-a kind of international art-viewing endurance contest-is by its very nature demanding, requiring both enthusiasm for contemporary art and the self-discipline to move purposefully through its labyrinth of exhibitions while still immersing oneself in the aesthetic moment. Those who come to Venice with a big visual appetite and an attentive focus are rewarded with a truly transformative experience marked by images that leave a lasting impression.
Although “identity” has become a precarious term in a world in constant flux, the concept remains fundamental to the premise of the biennale, where every nation is represented by an architecturally distinct pavilion housing the work of one or more artists. The late Felix Gonz¡lez-Torres, whose work was chosen to represent America in the United States Pavilion, riffed off the building’s neoclassical architecture and commented on aspects of the American consciousness with understated minimalism. Inside the gallery, black-and-white photographs depicted the pedestals of monuments carved with words that connoted the identity of the structure above them. In these images, and, as the artist seemed to suggest, in American culture, identity is carved in stone. In the middle of the gallery were two stacks of posters labeled “veterans day sale” and “memorial day sale.” Many of the vernissage attendees collected these posters, rolling them up and tucking them under their arms before leaving the gallery. Intriguingly, visitors were much more reluctant to take pieces of wrapped black licorice arranged on the floor of gallery. In a direct comment on consumerist culture, the artist exposed the public’s hesitance to consume the one product that was truly consumable.
Branding techniques were an integral aspect of much of the work at this season’s biennale, and were often used to champion specific artists and works on display. For instance, a special edition of Germany’s Vogue magazine, published exclusively for the biennale, featured on its front cover the standout work from the German pavilion: Isa Genzken’s sculpture of a silver skull with a gold Venetian mask.
I was lured to the Estonia exhibition, an obscure space located outside the Giardini’s collection of national pavilions and the Arsenale’s vast galleries, by their promo bag. The bag stated, “I love my family” in red letters, and as soon as my mother saw it, she insisted we find the space. The Estonian exhibition, Loser’s Paradise, displays the work of Marko M¤etamm. In the first gallery was “Sandbox,” (pictured above)a curious sculpture constructed as a wheeled table in sleek consumerist fashion. A pink stork with a noose draped around its neck is attached to a pole on one edge of the table, and an open trapdoor in the middle allows for the addition of a pile of red sand and a black plastic rake on the floor. After a cursory look at this piece, I moved into the next gallery, which projected M¤etamm’s silent film essay about the struggle he experiences between being an artist, spending time with his family, and holding the position of dean at the Estonian Academy of Arts. When the sentence, “It could only be solved by killing my wife and children,” appeared on the screen, my mother gasped out loud. At that moment, M¤etamm’s exhibition began to make sense. From the creepy confessions, cute deathtrap sculptures, and bloody cartoon videos, to the irony of the promo bag’s family-friendly legend that had lured us there in the first place, M¤etamm’s work used the concept and the threat of violence to examine the modern human predicament, at the same time forcing viewers to evaluate their own values and priorities. Here in the perverse state of tension between passion and responsibility, he seemed to be saying, love is distilled.
Art dealing with struggle, lack of resolution, displacement, torture, and death was present in abundance at the biennale, perhaps reflecting the angst of our current cultural climate. Adel Abdessemed’s “exil” (“exile” in French) replaced the word “exit” in the doorways of the Italian Pavilion and the Arsenale, indicating that these everyday portals can also divide spaces of security from those of dislocation and alienation. These cleverly altered signs, with their cool formalism and strong connotations, challenged the separation of art and life, and left an indelible impression, which is ultimately the purpose of the Venice Biennale.