by Roderick Conway Morris

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Sotiris Felios Collection
Unfolded Light by Christos Bokoros


By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE, Italy 7 June 2011


While the arts may be struggling in many parts of the world in the face of reduced resources, the Venice Biennale seems immune to the economic downturn.

At the 54th edition, scheduled to continue through Nov. 27, there are a record number of national pavilions - 89 in all, including new participants from nations rich and poor, including Saudi Arabia, Andorra, Bangladesh and Haiti - nearly a third more than the total in 1999. There are 37 official collateral shows and dozens of parallel events. There also seem to be a record number of outsized yachts lining Venice quays and moored off the Customs Point, and end-to-end parties and receptions during the press and private view days.

The curator of this year's Biennale show 'ILLUMInations,' at the Central Pavilion in the Castello Gardens and at the Corderie (Rope Walk) in the Arsenale, is the Swiss art historian and critic Bice Curiger. She has chosen 83 artists for her spaces, a third of whom are under the age of 35, although she has by no means overlooked older artists, including Luigi Ghirri and Jack Goldstein, who are no longer alive.

The oldest artist on display is Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594). Ms. Curiger has borrowed three large canvases by the Venetian painter, whom she sees as 'a painter of light' and a bit of rebel in his times, as relevant to her theme. Hanging in the Central Pavilion in the Gardens, they share a cavernous room with several dozen verminous-looking stuffed pigeons that were provided by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan and have been glued to the air-conditioning pipes overhead.

One of the Tintoretto's works, 'The Last Supper,' has been temporarily removed from the island church of San Giorgio Maggiore. This painting is closely related to the church's architecture, designed by Andrea Palladio, and is a 'site-specific installation' in today's art lingo, making its translation to the Gardens seems somewhat perverse. (The other two Tintorettto canvases normally hang at the Accademia, which is undergoing restoration.)

Meanwhile, Anish Kapoor has visited upon the San Giorgio church his own 'site-specific installation' called 'Ascension.' This consists of a tenuous shaft of vapor rising from the floor of the basilica into the dome. The massive stainless steel tubing that runs up the side of the building and then half fills the interior of the dome is frankly hideous to behold and does violence to this timelessly magnificent building.

Among the photographers Ms. Curiger has chosen for her show, Luigi Ghirri and David Goldblatt are particularly striking. Ghirri, who died in 1992, had an exquisite sense of light and composition and his studies of everyday scenes in provincial Italy are miniature masterpieces.

The veteran David Goldblatt, now in his eighties, is represented by two sequences of photographs of Johannesburg, which he has been chronicling for decades: one of housing seen from the air and the other of 'ex-offenders,' criminals he has brought back to the scenes of their often violent crimes to take their portraits. But it is difficult to appreciate fully these absorbing images because of the head-bangingly loud electronic noises emitted by the London-born Haroon Mirza's installation, insensitively placed next to them. Called 'Sick,' this installation contributed to Mirza's Silver Lion for a promising young artist.

Among the most memorable pieces at the Corderie in Ms. Curiger's Arsenale show - and they will be just memories by the end of it - are Urs Fischer's life-sized wax statues. For this occasion he has created a full-scale copy of the 16th-century sculptor Giambologna's 'Rape of the Sabine Women,' placing before it a portrait statue of his friend the artist Rudolf Stingel. They have wicks in strategic places and will gradually burn down in the coming weeks.

The last work in the Corderie was an inspired choice: 'The Clock' (2010) by the Swiss-American Christian Marclay, which won him the Golden Lion for best artist. Composed of clips from 2,000 to 3,000 films (by the artist's own estimate) linked by his amazingly adept editing and a skillful musical score, it is a 24-hour experience. All the sequences have verbal, visual or aural references to the time, with shots of watches and clocks, and chiming bells for instance, corresponding exactly to the viewer's real time. Hugely enjoyable, 'The Clock' also provokes thought about time in our own lives and about the suspension of time that we seek in cinema.

The installation at the British Pavilion by Mike Nelson is a reprise of the recreation of a squalid interior of workshops in a neglected old Istanbul caravanserai, first done for the Istanbul Biennale in 2003. The cost of this latest stunt, which involved removing part of the roof of the historic pavilion, must have accounted for the best part of the British Council's Venice budget of £300,000, or about $490,000, at a time when many arts organizations in Britain have lost public funding. For safety reasons, only a very small number of visitors are allowed into this cramped and dusty warren at any one time.

The Venezuela pavilion was enlivened by actual performances by Clemencia Labin and two films about her exuberantly colorful, creative and inclusive arts festival, founded in 2000. A huge success, it has since been held annually in the poor central neighborhood of Santa Lucía in her home city of Maracaibo, with 44 of the local houses opening their doors as temporary galleries, and dozens of young artists and the community at large taking part.

With future global conflicts as likely to revolve around water as oil and gas, several works took the subject as a theme.

Sigalit Landau's multifaceted show at the Israel pavilion includes an installation of water pipes, pumps and meters, and an intriguing project for a symbolic bridge built of salt, linking the Israeli and Jordanian sides of the ecologically and politically threatened Dead Sea.

Watery images play a key role in the artist Tabaimo's latest work at the Japan pavilion. She brings together the worlds of old woodblock prints and contemporary Japanese society in lyrical animations composed of thousands of hand-drawn images scanned into her computer and used to construct mysterious, vibrant narratives.

Lee Yongbaek's exhibition at the Korea pavilion packs several surprises. His larger-than-life sculptures, like 'Pietà: Self-death,' use both the mold itself and the figure made from it to create two related figures. And his 'Broken Mirror' installation, employing a high-speed camera and complex electronics, presents a series of looking glasses shattered by flying bullets at regular intervals and miraculously recomposing themselves over and over again.

The artist Diohandi has boxed up the neo-Byzantine Greek Pavilion like a giant packing case, as if the entire building were ready for shipment to some foreign shore to help pay off the country's crippling debts. The water-flooded interior has been reduced to an austere décor of black and white, lit by a single floor-to-ceiling strip of sunlight - an eery refuge from the turbulence of the times.

The Hellenic Institute, by the San Giorgio dei Greci church, in 'Illuminated Shadows' is hosting two artists through July 15 from the Sotiris Felios Collection: Christos Bokoros and Chronis Botsoglou. Both painters make remarkable use of light, and visitors will find this atmospheric exhibition as illuminating as anything currently in Venice.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024