Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers – 15 September, 2011
When a large part of Hirschhorn's show was closed off for maintenance purposes - for it looked like sections of his tinfoil covered ceiling were falling apart - it was amusing to see technicians busy fixing parts of sculptures with a variety of different packing tape. This effectively highlighted the potential fragility of capitalism by fracturing and reshaping our world of shoddy material goods in a messy, tenuous web of cello-tape.
Curated by Bice Curiger
4 June - 27 November 2011
With a record eighty nine pavilions bandying for attention at this year’s Venice Biennale, the odds are high for a series of spectacular exhibitions. While the island’s maze of narrow streets and canals offers more historical spectacle than most, the Biennale adds to the clamour with its array of national pavilions and masses of variously excited or fatigued art enthusiasts. Given the hype, it is understandable that many artists go for materially extravagant and conceptually ambitious installations that rely on the mantra that bigger is better.
This was no doubt the guiding force behind the American Pavilion’s spectacular offering: a full-scale military tank whose tracks were rotated by a single jogger on a running machine. Every few hours the entire Giardini was filled with the sound of screeching tank tracks while a tanned athlete padded high above the gathering crowds. Although the work certainly offered a weird and unusual site, this initial intrigue gave way to a nagging question: why? While clearly aiming for political commentary - the work was cited by many early reviews suggesting that the Biennale had taken a political turn - it seemed largely bereft of any meaningful conceptual content. The reason or reckoning behind this exorbitant piece certainly evaded me.
It was a relief then to see that Thomas Hirschhorn’s work in the Swiss Pavilion demonstrated that spectacle need not be big and dumb. His labyrinthine cave of precious stones, Warholesque silver foil and, of course, his signature brown packing tape was entirely captivating. Hirschhorn uses the ‘crystal’ as a means of negotiating the realms of politics and aesthetics, which he sees as separate entities. His cave of crystals is packed with a plethora of sundry objects and visual imagery onto which precious stones have been stuck or attached. Exercise machines, televisions, tabloid magazines, news media images of conflict, ubiquitous plastic chairs, mannequins, drink bottles and fluorescent lights all appear to be growing chunks of organic crystalline rock. While the American Pavilion attempted a single, grand and unfortunately overblown gesture, Hirschhorn engages with the more fragmentary detritus of consumerism.
The unification of politics and aesthetics has been an ongoing concern of Hirschhorn’s practice and, while this work may not effectively change our present political situation, it wholeheartedly emphasises art’s capacity to imagine or provoke new alternatives. At the time of my visit, a large part of Hirschhorn’s show was closed off for maintenance purposes where it looked like sections of his tinfoil covered ceiling were falling apart. Far from detracting from the work, it was amusing to see technicians busy fixing parts of sculptures with a variety of different packing tape. For me, Hirschhorn’s exhibition effectively highlighted the potential fragility of capitalism by fracturing and reshaping our world of shoddy material goods in a messy, tenuous web of cello-tape.
Aside from Hirschhorn, the other big name artist and large scale project I was interested to see was Christian Boltanski in the French Pavilion. Themes of life, death and memory continue to be poignantly explored by Boltanski in an ambitious work which centres around the concept of chance. In the French Pavilion’s main gallery a series of black and white photographs of babies’ faces circulated on a huge mechanised conveyor belt. Every now and then this run of blurred images would come to stop so that the details of an infant face could be clearly recognised. In the far room, a similar cycle of photographic projections of various adult facial features could be freeze-framed to form a single hybrid face. The unceasing movement between life and death was beautifully expressed in these works, but I thought Boltanski’s emphasis on chance and randomness was somewhat overplayed. Apparently the wooden chairs placed around the periphery of the show whispered the phrase ‘Is this the last time?’ whenever someone sat down. I was almost glad that I missed this somewhat corny whisper over the intriguing mechanical whirring of Boltanski’s conveyor belt. It was his deft mix of grungy analog and slick digital photographic technologies used to represent the breadth of human existence that ultimately left the greatest impression.
Interestingly, themes of life and death were also present in the posthumous exhibition of artists in the German and Egyptian Pavilions. The Golden Lion went to Christoph Schlingensief of the German Pavilion who died last year before his Venice exhibition could be realised. Schlingensief may be best known to New Zealand audiences for his deeply disturbing project involving a reality TV game show where asylum seekers competed for the chance to become Austrian citizens at a time where that county’s government had taken a notorious swing to the xenophobic far-right. Organised by curator Susanne Gaensheimer, the German Pavilion offered a broad-ranging homage to Schlingensief’s work and included, amongst other things, a full-scale replica of a church altar, video projections and an extensive film programme. Although I thoroughly enjoyed watching snatches of Schlingensief’s hilarious B-grade films - with director John Waters on this year’s judging panel it is not hard to see how this appealed-this overwhelming exhibition lacked the very incisive and crude abrasiveness of the artist’s troubling immigration project.
Alongside the German Pavilion, Egypt also decided to posthumously exhibit the work of Ahmed Basiony, an artist killed in the demonstrations in Tahir Square earlier this year. This exhibition consisted of documentation of his 2010 performance piece Thirty Days of Running which showed the artist running on the spot for extended periods while dressed in a strange plastic bubble suit replete with a tangle of electronic cords. Basiony’s heartbeat and the movement of his body were represented by colourful flashes on a digital screen connected to the bubble outfit. This performance piece was in turn inter-cut with footage Basiony had shot of the pro-democracy demonstrations in the nights leading up to his death. This video amalgam managed to convey a very real sense of physicality and mortality where the heartbeat of an individual was sensitively juxtaposed with the grainy footage of chaotic, pulsating and exhilarating masses of people. The political magnitude of the protests in Tahir Square could threaten to overshadow any Egyptian exhibition at Venice, but this show of Basiony’s work did well to pay homage to the artist as well as addressing the scale and impact of the demonstrations.
While the Giardini and Arsenale were full of monumental shows such as this, pavilions located outside the traditional home of the Biennale offered some quieter moments. Francisco Tropa in the Portuguese Pavilion presented a series of magnified projections of small and seemingly ordinary objects or phenomena: a dead fly, drips of water and an hourglass perfunctorily turned upside down every few minutes. The golden light of these large tungsten-lit projections and the simple mechanics of their lanterns tapped the potential fascination and wonderment of scientific observations. Similarly, in the Mexican Pavilion Melanie Smith showed a beautifully edited video work that I could not tear myself away from. Smith’s work was filmed at an overgrown Surrealist garden found just outside Mexico City. Projected in an unusual vertical portrait format, this film brought together images of strange concrete structures, fireworks and mirrors reflecting a jungle of greenery, many of which were filmed in the soft glow of twilight hours. Smith’s work reminded me of the delicate pleasures gained from subtle visual observations and detailed investigations. Away from the cacophonous screeching of the military tank in the Giardini, it was this peculiar and mysteriously exotic garden that I wanted to see more of.