Where to start in trying to report back from the first week of a spectacle that represents the art world equivalent of the Super Bowl, Cannes Film Festival, and Mardi Gras rolled up all into one?
First, by admitting that this huge city-wide production does undeniably include a fair portion of the narcissistic self-congratulation by pretentious bores and snobs that you imagine that it would.
Then, by trying to explain that despite all the silly pomp and circumstance, the Venice Biennale is worth it, because of two crucial additional ingredients.
One is a heart-breakingly beautiful city that deserves every one of it’s endless accolades, and remains deeply intoxicating despite hoards of tourists.
This is city that is built on art and festival, and is easily up to the challenge of hosting planet earth’s biggest art circus.
The second is an intense focus on art and what art means that is not matched anywhere in the world. The closest experience I’d had to this prior to this trip was several years ago when I spent some time with actor friends at a Shakespeare festival. After a week of nonstop watching/thinking/talking all things Shakespearean, a friend leaned over and whispered mischievously that “the problem is, now we’ll think that Shakespeare matters”.
The Venice Biennale is this level of intensity raised a few orders of magnitude, and leaves you feeling that art might possibly still be relevant to the role of being human. For an artist, there is nothing like this. We few, we lucky few.
So that’s what me and the band of artist siblings I traveled with are feeling now – the euphoria not yet dispelled by returning to stacks of unpaid bills and dirty laundry. That’s one good drug, and I’ll take it again the next chance I get.
Until then, here are a few general impressions of the art at this year’s Biennale from one admittedly still tipsy attendee.
My most sustained sensation all week was of how almost sinfully satisfying it felt to be freed from the dogma that maintains that art must hold still and hang quietly on a wall.
This Biennale convinced me once and for all that art can indeed be anything.
While this can make viewing, evaluating, and deciding where one stands on any given body of work challenging, it is precisely what is magnificent about art – it is the one human realm where freedom truly reigns.
This Biennale leaned heavily toward conceptual, installation, and video art – all currently fashionable media that in the wrong hands have produced some work bad enough to provoke a shudder of doubt amongst even the most fervent believer in the church of art. But the best of this work here was transcendent, and much of the rest of it was very good indeed.
One of my favorites was the main Egyptian exhibition (called a Pavilion in the parlance of the Biennale), where giant video screens juxtaposed videos of artist Ahmed Basiony’s installation piece Thirty Days of Running in Place with scenes of the recent massive street protests in which he was killed by the police. Yes, killed by the police. Not a stunt, actually killed, no getting up and walking away afterward. Egypt has in the past shown only traditional Egyptian art, and the decision to show Basiony’s work was made after the government was toppled by these protests. The text outside the pavilion includes his last facebook post –
“I have a lot of hope if we stay like this. Riot police beat me a lot. Nevertheless I will go down again tomorrow. If they want war, we want peace. I am just trying to regain some of my nations’ dignity”. Here’s to an installation that lets us hope that his death was not in vain.
Another strong and provocative body of work was presented by Poland, which for the first time chose a non-Polish artist to represent the country. And what a brave choice it was to pick Israeli-born artist Yael Bartana and her work …and Europe Will Be Stunned. These three large videos present the positions of the fictional Jewish Renaissance Movement’s campaign for the return of 3,300,000 Jews to their historical home in Poland. Looking straight into the heart of European darkness and mocking nation-building and ethnic purification movements everywhere, this is a body of work that dares us to ask ourselves what we can ever hope to become when we exclude “the other” amongst us. I’m guessing right-wingers and nationalists beyond Eastern Europe will have trouble with this work.
And then there was the German Pavilion. I dread writing about it, because nothing I say could hope to give you any real understanding of it’s magnificence. Titled A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within, it is the work of German artist Christoph Schlingensief, who died of lung cancer last year at age 49. This installation won the first prize for a national Pavilion, proving that sometimes the judges do get it right. In it he recreates in it’s entirety the church where he served as an alter boy during his youth, and uses it as a stage on which to present an absolutely memorizing multi-channel video installation that (quoting the catalogue) “uses his own painful experience to examine the existential circle of life, suffering, and death”. Actually, that’s putting it rather mildly. This work grabs you by the collar and yanks you viscerally into the depths of one man’s soul. Everything stupid and small melts away and you confront with him humanity’s deepest mysteries. The experience was transfixing and terrifying in equal parts. I left trembling, gulping the air, thrilled to be alive. This is art, this is transcendence, this is why we do this. Thank you Christoph, thank you post-war German art -- we’ll always have Venice.
Well, that’s probably a good stopping place for now. There’s much more to tell, but my current high notwithstanding, I remain aware that in matters of art and foreign travel, it is generally wise to err on the side of brevity. After all, what’s most important about Venice is that it reminds us that what artists do matters. Halleluiah.
BY ANNA SALMERON, for The Biennial Project, Atlantic Works Gallery, Boston Dig