THE CHALLENGE FACING every curator in charge of the Venice Biennale before starting his selection process is to find a theme that will connect the various works of art. This year, the 2013 curator, Massimiliano Gioni, from the New Museum in New York, chose The Encyclopedic Palace as the main theme. Based on the idea of self-taught artist Marino Auriti (b. 1891 Italy and d. 1980 USA), who had left his native Italy in the 1920s for the United States, ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’, as he called it, was meant to be built in Washington DC as a museum housing all knowledge from around the world. Although Auriti filed a patent for his museum and tried to raise funds for it, The Encyclopedic Palace was never actually built. What survived was Auriti’s model that the artist finished during his lifetime, a replica of which stands at the beginning of Gioni’s exhibition.
National representations featuring Asian and Islamic countries includes Egypt, Japan, Korea, Turkey, Indonesia (first time), Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, China, Armenia, Syria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Central Asia and Macau that were among the returning participants, whereas Bahrain, Kuwait, and Palestine joined the Biennale for the very first time. Surprisingly absent from the event were such artistically prolific countries as India, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Iran, having decided not to return this year.
The national pavilions are of uneven quality, but Korea, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Palestine all stand out, as they offer an interesting approach to the subject. Kim Sooja (b. 1957) reorganises the Korean pavilion, extending the concept of bottari, with which she has been working over the last few decades. By entering the pavilion divided in two distinct rooms, the viewer can explore at first hand the extremes of sound/silence, light/darkness, known/unknown, conditions one is bound to experience in our unpredictable civilisation.
Magnificently conceived is the installation by Mohammed Kazem (b. 1969 in Dubai) for the pavilion of the United Arab Emirates. Frequently including the geographical position system (GPS) after falling off a boat and remaining lost at sea before being rescued, Kazem has reconfigured the front part of a boat on which the viewer can stand. You are surrounded by the sea through a 360-degree projection at twilight with nothing else but the sound of the waves. Therefore, the title of the installation Walking On Water could not be more apt. Lebanon and Palestine presents installations based on their current political situation: Akram Zaatari (b. 1966) showcases his video Letter to a Refusing Pilot, based on the rumours in 1982 of an Israeli pilot ordered to drop a bomb on a target in Lebanon. Realising that the target was a school, the pilot dropped the bomb in the sea instead, underlining that ‘it takes a lot longer to build a city than to strike a target’. On a larger scale, Zaatari echoes the French writer Albert Camus (1913-1960)’s statement: ‘I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice’. Also referring to its political situation is Palestine with Otherwise Occupied, which brought together two established artists from the area: Bashir Makhoul (b. 1963) and Aissa Deebi (b. 1969). With Garden Occupied, Bashir Makhoul invites the viewers to place a box in the garden of their palazzo with the result that the space quickly mirrores the occupation of the Palestinian territories: a space filled in a disorganised manner with poor housing conditions. Both artists, including Aissa Deebi with her video The Trial, which re-enacts the 1973 trial of Palestinian poet and revolutionary Daoud Turki (an Arab citizen of Israel), raise questions about Palestinian identity.
Other national representations that draw the visitors’ attention are the pavilions that can be seen either as a global entity, or are single selected pieces. Japan’s installation by Koki Tanaka (b. 1975) is firmly anchored in a post-earthquake timeline, presenting various videos through which the viewer experiences the importance of collaboration in order to leave such a traumatic experience and its consequences behind.
An unusual presentation is on show in the Iraq pavilion with its 11 artists: Abdul Raheem Yassir (b. 1951), Furat al Jamil (b. 1965), Jamal Penjweny (b. 1981), Akeel Khreef (b. 1979), Haret Alhomaam (b. 1987), Ali Samiaa (b. 1980), Cheeman Ismeel (b. 1966), Bassim Al-Shaker (b. 1986), Kadhim Nwir (b. 1967) and WAMI. The presentation is conceived as a salon where people can gather, sit, talk and read about Iraq. Abdul Raheem Yassir’s political cartoons are sharp and full of humour, while Jamal Penjweny chooses to address the lasting consequences of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship with his series Saddam Is Here, where people in everyday situations hold Saddam’s picture over their face.
Under the concept of Sakti, Indonesia’s pavilion features six artists (Albert Yonathan b. 1983, Entang Wiharso b. 1967, Sri Astari b. 1953, Titarubi b. 1968, Rahayu Supanggah b. 1949, and Eko Nugroho b. 1977) that work well together, not only revisiting the country’s rich heritage, but also looking at more problematic current issues such as corruption and injustices in the society.
Turkey’s Ali Kazma (b. 1971) presents a multi-channel video installation with the prophetic title Resistance that explores various strategies needed to lead to a full control of the human body. As for China, the pavilion brings together six artists – Zhang Xiaotao (b. 1970) and his computer animation, Wang Qingsong (b. 1966), Miao Xiaochun (b. 1964), Hu Yaolin (b. 1977), Tong Hongsheng (b. 1967), He Yunchang (b. 1967), Shu Yong (b. 1974) photographs of Wang Qingsong and a Hui-style temple by Hu Yaolin. All these artists’ works stand out.
Since its first participation, Azerbaijan has remained fairly even in the level of its presentation. This year, six artists were selected: Rashad Alakbarov (b. 1979), Sanan Aleskerov (b. 1956), Chingiz (b. 1964), Butunay Hagverdiyev (b. 1989), Fakhriyya Mammadova (b. 1974), and Farid Rasulov (b. 1985). Farid Rasulov’s Carpet Interior creates a hybrid space with an interior covered with a traditional Azeri carpet motive, while Rashad Alkbarov, who represented his country in Venice in 2007 during the 52nd Biennale, is showing very successful steel sculptures that look random, but seen in proper lighting their shadows create motifs, or depict figures. With Blank History, Chingiz creates, as the title indicates, a new reading of history, showing heavy moulds of universally known symbols (such as that of the former USSR, as well as the swastika, etc.) on a large section covered with sand.
Kuwait revisites its recent history through the work of Tarek Al-Ghoussein (b. 1962) and his photographs exploring the nature of human presence in grand national constructions as well as through the work of Sami Mohammad (b. 1943) who relates the fluctuating account of the building and completion of a statue of the Sheikh that changes according to the influences and political decisions made. And in the Bahrain pavilion the photographs of Waheeda Malullah (b.1978) from the series A Villager’s Day Out feature a veiled woman’s journey through the city. The artist’s work has been shown recently in the exhibition Light of the Middle East held at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London as well as in 25 Years of Arab Creativity at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. In addition to Waheeda Malullah, Bahrain selected Camille Zakharia to represent them with the installation c/o, which is a room filled with tile-like photo collages on paper taken from his portfolio the portray the decay of the coastal areas in Bahrain. With Treasuries of Knowledge in the Egyptian pavilion, Khaled Zaki (b. 1964) and Mohamed Banawy (b. 1977) creates a tomb-like installation relating to the cycle of life and under the theme Winter.
In the Bangladesh pavilion, the work of Molkesur Rahmer stands out with his installations of traditional sari. The Thai pavilion focuses on the work of Arin Runjang (b. 1975), together with that of Wasinburee Supanichvoraparch (b. 1971), whose contributions address the longstanding issues of culture and tradition versus modernity.
Angering many within their domestic art community, Germany decided on artists who had developed strong ties with Germany to represent the country in order to demonstrate that Germany was ‘an active participant in a complex, worldwide constellation of influences and dependencies – not as a hermetic national unit’. Germany displayes its selection within what is usually the French pavilion, which the countries traded for this year’s Biennale. This is how Ai Weiwei and Dayanita Singh came to be included in the German pavilion next to Romuald Karmakar (Germany) and Santu Mofokeng (South Africa). Ai Weiwei’s (b. 1957 in China) gigantic installation Bang with over 800 antique stools flying in space like a meteorite is a very solid work. The pieces by Dayanita Singh (b. 1961 in India), although excellent, were too reminiscent of the works included by Bice Curiger, the curator of the Biennale in 2011, in the section she curated in the Arsenale.
In the segments put together by Massimiliano Gioni, the works by Asian and Islamic artists are divided between the Giardini and the Arsenale and are of excellent quality. The Central Pavilion in the Giardini features Imran Qureshi, Guo Fengyi, Kohei Yoshiyuki, and Shinro Ohtake. Imran Qureshi (b. 1972 in Pakistan), whose work is currently on the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until 3 November, shows how to go beyond the tradition of miniature Mughal painting in order to revisit the technique towards a more contemporary medium. His series Moderate Enlightenment, completed between 2006 and 2009, brings together a modern lifestyle with traditional cultural and religious beliefs. Japanese artist Kohei Yoshiyuki’s (b. 1946) photographs were part of the series The Park, completed between 1971 and 1979. Black and white, grainy and blurred, the photographs were taken with infrared film and a modified flash in order to capture the furtive sexual encounters in Japan’s parks and the voyeurs these encounters attracted. As opposed to the Biennale, the photographs were originally exhibited in life size in a darkened gallery where the viewers could – with a simple flashlight – experience the pieces in the same conditions as the protagonists themselves. Before this Biennale, Shinro Ohtake was probably mainly known by insiders and is now introduced to a wider audience. Born in Japan in 1955, and since 1977, he has completed numerous scrapbooks, which do not serve as a diary, rather more as a collection of the artist’s concerns, fantasies and just simply reflect his moods.
In the Arsenale, Massimiliano Gioni selected the works of Yüksel Arslan, Lin Xue, Kan Xuan, Danh Vo and Prabhavati Meppayil. Yüksel Arslan (b. 1933 in Turkey) last year had several major museum solo exhibitions, and more than 30 pieces from 1955 to 2008 of his work are on show. After moving to Paris in 1962, where he met and was briefly associated with André Breton, Arslan pursued all throughout his career his investigation of Surrealism and Turkish history among others.
Another artist looking at her national heritage is Kan Xuan (b. 1972 in China) with a 171-channel video installation documenting every imperial tomb known in China. The fast flickering images are complemented by information located on the wall describing the geographical location and history of every tomb. Also from China is Lin Xue (b. 1968) whose black-ink drawings are inspired by his hikes through the Chinese mountains. Working with a bamboo pen, the artist draws his shapes and details rapidly as bamboo does not retain the ink. Continuing an investigation into history and culture is Danh Vo (b. 1975 in Vietnam), this year’s winner of the Hugo Boss Prize, and who presently features in two museum solo shows in Europe. His main installation consists of imported sections of a colonial-era Catholic church from Vietnam, underlining that colonisation was not just about the land, but also about the minds of the local population.
Unquestionably one of the most interesting shows within the Biennale is the collateral event Love Me, Love Me Not: Contemporary Art from Azerbaijan and its Neighbours, bringing together more than 15 artists from the Central Asian region (Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkey, Georgia, Eurasia) with some of the artists from Azerbaijan already seen in the Biennale in 2007, as part of this year’s national pavilion. These artists are now beginning to gain further international exposure, or have already become better established like on the international circuit, like Fahrad Moshiri (b. 1963 in Iran) and Ali Banisadr (b. 1976 in Iran). All the pieces work well together and provide a true insight in the Central Asian artistic world.
In addition, artists from Asian and Islamic regions are also part of some group shows within the collateral events, like within the new segment of the ongoing project Personal Structures. Glasstress, White Light / White Heat that invites various artists to respond to the theme of light and heat. The show features works by Cai Guo-Qiang, Rina Banerjee, Zhan Wang, amongst others. Other initiatives, although not related to the Biennale, are exquisite. The first coming to mind is the marvellous installation by Jacob Hashimoto at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, which unfortunately does not continue through to the end of the Biennale. Other Asian artists are also found at a larger venue with the show Prima Materia at the Punta della Dogana with Arakawa, Koji Enokura, Susumu Koshimuzu, Nebuo Sekine, Kishio Suga and Lee Ufan. Another wonderful initiative is by the Teatro La Fenice, which commissioned the artist Mariko Mori to produce the sets and costumes for Puccini’s Madame Butterfly with the next and last performances taking place 12 and 31 October (www.teatrolafenice.it).
Due to its encyclopedic theme, anything and everything could qualify for the 2013 edition of the Biennale. That leads to the still unanswered question of how large the definition of art should be. This year, numerous artists are showcased in the Biennale: outsiders, artists relying on art as therapy, artists who stumbled into art by default, or artists who so far have remained below the radar and are just being discovered at an international level. This edition, large in size, offers a thorough presentation of all artists selected, providing an overview of their practice with sometimes the quantity being the sole impressive part of the practice and not necessarily the quality. Judging by the uneven quality of the collateral events, a redefinition of these events is necessary. The 2013 Biennale is solid and one with many new names entering the art world. However, for a number of them, it remains to be seen whether this Biennale will serve as a lasting platform.
BY OLIVIA SAND
The 55th Venice Biennale remains on view until 24 November 2013