Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers – 2 October, 2011
While a concept of illumination may encompass the scientific and humanist developments of the Western enlightenment, what Curiger chooses to focus on is the semantic structure of the word illuminations: illumination and ‘nation'. In an effort to address and counteract the inherent nationalism of the Biennale, she commissioned four artists to develop ‘parapavilion' structures which were used to exhibit other artists' work.
Directed by Bice Curiger
4 June - 27 November 2011
The title of the international curated exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennale, ILLUMInations, will undoubtedly induce a semantic cringe or two in many readers. Curator Bice Curiger has chosen this moniker as a means of exploring both the philosophical and phenomenal concerns of light and the political concept of nationhood, something that is particularly pertinent to the biennale itself. I was curious to see how her selection of artworks might overcome the apparent disconnection of these two themes by teasing out potential relationships, juxtapositions or conflicts between the seemingly divergent notions of luminosity and nationalism. While there were many great works on show, I’m not sure that the exhibition ultimately delivered on the promise of its title.
Curiger’s most successful and beautifully executed curatorial moment lies with her exhibition of paintings by the Venetian Old Master Tintoretto in a biennale that is expressly focused on contemporary art. Three large paintings borrowed from across the water at their home in the San Giorgio Maggiore Basilica were given pride of place in the central gallery of the Giardini. Rendered in Tintoretto’s signature hasty brush-stroke, their biblical scenes are described by a fragmented light wrought with wonderful movement and rhythm. Nonetheless, it was the juxtaposition of this painterly representation of light with contemporary explorations of luminosity that I found most captivating. Over the entrance to Tintoretto’s gallery hung one of Philippe Parreno’s constellation of tungsten light bulbs. Having been liberally exhibited in the last few years, Parreno’s Marquee works may seem like nothing new, but his entrance set up an effective meeting of a religious divine light and the exuberant electric light of the 20th century. It looked like we could be walking into a movie theatre.
Appropriately, seminal works by filmmaker Jack Goldstein and kinetic artist Gianni Colombo could be found flanking the Tintoretto gallery. The LED illuminated high-board diver of Goldstein’s 1978 work The Jump speaks to the important technological development of light and cinema in the last century. Similarly, Colombo’s Spazio Elastico - a work made up of a grid of illuminated wires delineating a pitch-black space - recognises the role of light in immerse environments and installations (a rather underwhelming minimalist light work by James Turrell’s can also be found in the Arsenale). This art historical role-call maybe too dictatorial for some, but it is the most coherent curatorial grouping of artists in Curiger’s show. Outside of Tintoretto’s constellation of art works, the conceptual connections underpinning ILLUMInations become tenuous and confusing.
The show seems to come undone where Curiger attempts to link the concerns of light to directly political issues. While a concept of illumination may encompass the scientific and humanist developments of the Western enlightenment, what Curiger chooses to focus on is the semantic structure of the word illuminations: illumination and ‘nation’. In an effort to address and counteract the inherent nationalism of the Biennale, she commissioned four artists to develop ‘parapavilion’ structures which were used to exhibit other artists’ work. Although I enjoyed the overt bizarreness and irreverence of Franz West’s ‘extroverted kitchen’ - a structure covered in paintings, video and various objects that was reportedly a reconstruction of the artist’s own kitchen - very few of the works exhibited within these mini-pavilions did well from their surrounds.
The exception to this was a work by British artist Haroon Mizra who is gathering some well-deserved buzz. In a wall-papered maze of dividing walls created by Monika Sosnowska Mizra installed an interesting work that was comprised of a piece of gold in a cup attached to a vibrating stereo speaker, a series of images projected onto mirrors and coloured strings stretched across an MDF construction. While it doesn’t sound like much, an intriguing ad-hoc rhythm was generated between the electric noise of a jiggling gold nugget and the brief flashes of miscellaneous imagery appearing as small reflections on mirrored surfaces. Mizra completely eschewed the spectacular impression that many other works in the Biennale sought to achieve and was rewarded with viewers who spent a great deal of time attempting to decipher the rhythmic relationship between these elements.
Nonetheless, Mizra’s work and its installation within Sosnowska’s ‘para-pavilion’ did not seem to relate or gain anything from the thematic discourses of ILLUMInations. While Curiger’s contrast between lofty, phenomenal forms of illumination and the gritty political realities of nationhood is interesting, this juxtaposition did not play out effectively in the works on show. But before completely dismissing this curatorial framework, it is worth noting that the current expectations and conventions of an international biennale do not work in its favour. Uniting the diversity of current art practices with a universal theme or line of inquiry is tricky precisely because of contemporary art’s celebrated diversity. Curiger thoughtfully addressed the art world’s thirst for newness by including works by a very Old Master, but beyond this ILLUMInations played it safe. Aside from a few sound spill issues, Curiger’s show offered a well-paced and elegantly structured gathering of current art practices. Nothing more and nothing less.
I am tempted to consider Maurizio Cattelan’s reshowing of his 1997 pigeon work The Tourists as a response to both the pitfalls and wonders of the biennale. This time round Cattelan added more of his stuffed pigeons to the rafters of nearly every space in the Giardini’s central gallery. While Cattelan’s birds offer a reflection of the increasing commercialisation of Venice, where tourists and pigeons seem to go hand in hand, could they not also suggest an irreverent comment on the form and function of international art exhibitions? With his pigeon redux Cattelan has denied the impetus to produce something new while humorously acquiescing to the need to produce something bigger and ‘better’. Starring down at both artworks and visitors from their lofty perches, Cattelan’s Hitchcockian pigeons seem to be having the last laugh.
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