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THE NEXT 7 DAYS:     EVENTS (8)     +     OPENINGS (10)     +     DEADLINES (4)     +     CLOSINGS (14)
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Milena Placentile
MILENA PLACENTILE in Venice 06/14/11
June 14, 2011

Featuring a record number of national pavilions plus many more “collateral events”, three full days dedicated to visiting the 54th Venice Biennale was not enough time to catch everything, but allowed for a strong overview. Hardcore art news fans have probably already encountered the generally shared opinion that this year's extravaganza hovered around “meh” and “hmmm”. Here's my take:

Cindy Sherman, installation view

Divided between the Giardini and Arsenale, Biennale curator Bice Curiger's ILLUMInazioni offered work by eighty-three international artists but confirmed that more is not more. The individual selections of work by past Biennale favourites (such as Cindy Sherman), a number of artists under thirty-five, and local art star for the ages Tintoretto, were underwhelming at best and, assembled under a tremendously vague curatorial premise, failed to generate a current of dialogue. That said, Omer Fast's video concerning militarism and occupation, Five Thousand Feet is Best, offers time well spent. Find it on the lowest level of the padiglione centrale under Monika Sosnowska's installation.

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, Bodies in Flight (American), 2011, stained wood, gymnasts

Resonating with Fast's video, the US Pavilion promises a critical perspective on the military industrial complex that ultimately frames all US American activity within the world. Gloria is the title given to Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla's six new works of sculpture, video, sound, and performance including professional gymnasts animating carved wooden replicas of executive class airline seats, and track and field champions running on a treadmill connected to the tracks of an overturned tank. Upon exiting the pavilion, visitors are welcome to make use of the fully operational ATM organ that disperses chords to the heavens while dispensing cash. I, like others, have debated the efficacy of this project. On one hand, I feel it is a depressingly good example of contained resistance in the sense that we all know military equals strength, executives are fast and flexible, and money is religion, thereby making the project perfectly acceptable to the “but aren't we better than Bush?” Obama administration. On the other hand, the work is undeniably multifaceted and well conceived, so a hopeful silver lining is that a few visitors might be challenged. The outdoor performances are hard to miss, but if you're going to go inside, it is worth queuing up to catch at least one of the hybrid gymnastic/contemporary dance performances. 

Mike Nelson, I, Impostor, 2011, interior detail

Also worth the wait – if you are with friends and can hold the line in shifts – is the highly acclaimed British Pavilion featuring a total installation by Mike Nelson. Although I wouldn't go as far as some by calling it a life-changing experience, it is certainly impressive in form. Entering the pavilion and turning a few dingy corners to find a dusty concrete room dimly lit with three oddly placed chandeliers revealing a fourth crushed chandelier on a rickety wooden table, there begins a sense that something mysterious is at play. Walking up and down staircases to discover a warren of small rooms featuring broken pieces of weaving equipment, sub-modest sleeping quarters, and a workshop before happening upon an elaborate darkroom with numerous photos clipped to lines running across the ceiling, it seems  as if the construction aims to recall a significant place or time, real or imagined. Was this, perhaps, a secret centre for intelligence activities related to a resistance movement?

The last area of the installation is utterly transporting in that – minus the attendant wearing a British Council lanyard and badge – it is entirely possible to forget you are standing in the centre of the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. I asked him about the motivation for the work and he explained the artist devised it in response to the fact that he'd previously participated in both the Venice and Istanbul Biennales, so he thought it would be interesting to bring a piece of Istanbul back to Venice, metaphorically and literally. The spaces were modelled after the studio area he used while in Istanbul. Oh, is that it? Yes, that's it. Deflation sets in.

I hate thinking about projects in term of cost versus value, but suddenly I found this overshadowed everything. This installation involved a complete transformation of the pavilion, including covering the elaborate floors and removing the roof. Large quantities of material were transported from Istanbul. The project was built over the course of three-months and, for all the time and labour, it's only conceptual underpinning was that it re-conceived a space the artist had visited. Given the opportunity to accomplish something massive, it seems a shame to offer little more than structural wow-factor making the project seem a little self-indulgent. And, given how viciously the British government has slashed support for arts and culture over the past few months (while this project seemed to have endless supply) it seemed a little sad, as well.

Christoph Schlingensief, A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within, 2011, installation view

Equally sprung from personal history, then making a substantial move into more widely meaningful terrain by addressing notions of religion, mortality, and fear, the German Pavilion offered work by Christoph Schlingensief who died last August at fifty-one while developing another project for the Biennale. As explained in the press release, following Schlingensief's death, the curator and the artist's wife and collaborator Aino Laberenz, decided that instead of realizing his work in progress (which existed only as sketches), they would consult others close him to assemble past projects in a manner representative of his practice. The main space of the pavilion re-created A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within, an immersive installation based on the church Schlingensief attended as a child, coupled with sculptural elements, film, and video to produce a dark and unnerving theatrical environment involving work through which Schlingensief openly confronted his struggle with cancer, as well as the big questions of life, illness and death. Other past projects were presented in the side wings. This pavilion was awarded the Golden Lion, and it was well deserved.

Steven Shearer, 2011, installation view

Squeezed between the British and German pavilions is Canada. Oh Canada, what happened? Steven Shearer is a darling of the international scene, so I accept that I'm an odd one out in finding his billboard poetry an adolescent giggle at the supposedly subversive vocabulary of the black/death metal scene, and think his paintings are many shades less interesting that Shary Boyle's (who, IMHO is long overdue to represent Canada in Venice). More lacklustre than the work, however, is the installation. Without a doubt, the Canadian pavilion presents a unique challenge, but as past projects have shown, working with or against the space in a notable way is always better than pretending it’s just a regular ol' room. Looking around, I recalled countless high-end shrink offices as portrayed on HBO. Condemning the installation to this reading is the presence of yet another cubic sculpture which, interestingly, I saw better realized at Konstfack University's student exhibition in Stockholm a few weeks prior. With so many international colleagues asking me to explain the pavilion, I tried hard to find positive aspects, yet all I could muster was the idea that a once-in-a-lifetime site-specific project, instead of a conservatively-presented gathering of commercially viable creations, could have been far more compelling.

In the interest of keeping this coverage brief while still hitting important features, I'll break down the remaining highlights as follows:


The Polish Pavilion offers challenging work by Netherlands-based Israeli artist, Yael Bartana, that questions mainstream Israeli nationalism by suggesting Europe as the rightful place for Ashkenazi Jews through a different kind of call home.

Taryn Simon, Zahra/Farah, 2007, chromogenic print

The Danish Pavilion's international exhibition addressing freedom of speech presented many interesting works. It was too crowded to see everything carefully, but Taryn Simon's photography stood out, particularly Zahra/Farah depicting Iraqi actress Zahra Zubaidi in the role of Farah in Brian DePalma's film Redacted based on the true account of a fourteen year old Iraqi girl raped and murdered by US soldiers in 2006. Zubaidi received death threats from family members for her involvement in what they consider pornography, and she now lives in asylum in the United States. No kidding. As a side note, the theme of the exhibition is made more complicated in light of Denmark's current right wing championing  of free speech while simultaneously curtailing freedom of movement through a recent declaration to withdraw from the Schengen Agreement. You do the math.

Markus Schinwald, Orient, 2011, video

Austria's presentation of work by Markus Schinwald gave me the fix I've been longing to have for years. Although I'm less titillated by his sculptural assemblage, I love his painting and video, and even though the two videos were less provocative than past efforts, there was plenty of awesome weirdo eye candy to go around.

Dora Garcia, Just because everything is different it does not mean that anything has changed: the essential Lenny Bruce, 2011, performance still

Dora Garcia's work at the Spanish Pavilion offered so much that I admit to glossing over the collection of archival material and interview-format videos, but only because the performative reading of Just because everything is different it does not mean that anything has changed: the essential Lenny Bruce was so absorbing. If anyone caught Real Artists Don't Have Teeth, I'd love to hear about it!

Azerbijan's Pavilion featured a wide ranging selection of work, the most poignant of which was Zeigam Azizov's video installation, Symposium, which considered the power relations at play when non-European artists living in the West return to their homelands and capture images of otherness, thus perpetuating ideas of difference supporting hegemony while saving dominant figures the guilty task of collecting such images personally.

Elodie Barthélemy, Terre nourricière, 2011, clay, sand, teeth

République d'Haïti was represented with two pavilions, and I saw the larger of the two hosted at Sede Fondazione Querini. The artists involved have diverse cultural backgrounds, but are all closely connected with Haïti through birth and/or residence. The work is thus varied in style and method, in some cases presenting an interesting conflation of traditional and contemporary influence. Elodie Barthélemy's Terre nourricière reads as a sombre, unsentimental memorial to those who died in the earthquake last year. 

The Central Asian Pavilion successfully draws together a number of artists addressing the colonizing force of common language including, most obviously, English.


UNESCO's Roma Pavilion featured many big names, none of whom appear to be Romany themselves (i.e. Aernout Mik and Salman Rushdie). I managed to attend only one parallel event, but spent considerable time viewing documentation from previous sessions. I was troubled to find so much material emphasizing the quality of Romany art on the basis that, when fully considered, it shared much in common with dominant forms in Western European art. Huh? Between an absence of self-representation and discourse focused on acceptance through dismissal of difference, I wonder about the motives of this project. More investigation is required.


Thomas Hirshhorn, Crystal of Resistance, 2011, installation view

Swiss Pavilion: Thomas Hirshhorn's Crystal of Resistance is simply not as provocative as claimed. I disagree that art, merely because it is art, is resistance, and I particularly disagree when such a proclamation is issued from within the very nexus of art and capitalism. 


French Pavilion: Christian Boltanski's Chance is an underwhelming one liner.

Australian Pavilion: Harny Armanious' The Golden Thread goes in one eye and out the other as it is incapable of demanding contemplation.

The Italian Pavilion offers a veritable garage sale of amateur-looking work by over two-hundred artists quasi-curated by an art historian/politician/television personality famous for his hatred of contemporary art. Appointed to the position in a nepotistic move that shamefully reinforces the polarized nature of Italian society these days, the curator apparently quit shortly before the opening. Charming.

Word on the street is that the Andorran, Georgian, and Slovenian Pavilions are vanity projects, and they do indeed look that way.

I regret missing Anish Kapoor's Ascension in the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, as well as the pavilions of Iran, the Republic of Zimbabwe, and Bangladesh, and I wish I'd spent more time in the Iraqi and Saudi Arabian Pavilions, but there was just too much to see!

Milena Placentile is a curator and writer living in Winnipeg. She is Akimblog’s Winnipeg correspondent.

54th Venice Biennale:
The Biennale continues until November 27.



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Posted by , on 2011-08-05 08:55:46
You sure did missed on the Zimbabwean Pavilion. cliford @ the Zim pavilion Venice

Posted by LaxFesseTen, on 2011-07-21 08:11:46
very interesting, thanks

Posted by Milena, on 2011-06-16 11:31:15
Hello person below,
Thanks for your feedback. I became Akimblog's Wpg correspondent on April 12 with this post : My next post is due on June 24, so you won't have to wait too much longer for more Wpg coverage.
All bests,

Posted by , on 2011-06-15 22:42:21
Though I appreciate Milena's globe trotting correspondence, is it too much to ask that she write about / review what is taking place in Winnipeg ... as "Akimblog's Winnipeg correspondent"?

[ps: Shary Boyle in Venice? Sure, why not!?]

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