As many of you already know, the Venice Biennale is one of the most prestigious events in the international visual art community. This exhibition runs from May to November every two years, and attracts around 370,000 visitors. It’s organized in two main locations- Giardini and Arsenale, which house national pavilions showcasing art from individual countries as well as curated exhibitions of world-class artists. As the event continues to grow, some countries exhibit throughout the city at alternate locations. For instance, this year, Jonas Mekas, the 93 year old Lithuanian born film director often touted as the “godfather of avant-garde cinema,” exhibited his work at the Burger King across the street from the central train station. At this year’s Biennale there were nearly 80 exhibitions operating as a part of the Biennale, as well as other art exhibitions set up throughout the city by artists unable to be a formal part of the show, but with enough money or ingenuity to participate on their own accord.
Established in 1895 by the mayor of Venice, the exhibition was originally inaugurated as a way to showcase Italian art. A permanent building was constructed in the Giardini for this original purpose, and it continues to house a curated exhibition showcasing a selection of artists from around the world. In the early 1900’s, the Biennale began its evolution into its current state. Various nations began building pavilions within the Giardini, and the aforementioned Pro Arte Pavilion served as an exhibition for work from a selection of international artists. In 1910 Klimt, Renoir and Courbet were all featured within the building.
The permanence of these structures provides a living testament to the history of this event. At times the pavilions are as (or more) interesting as the work they showcase. The Hungarian pavilion is a beautiful example of Secessionist art and architecture. One of the first foreign pavilions, it was built in 1909, designed by architect and sculptor Géza Maróti, to embody Hungarian history and tradition. It is covered in mosaics by Miksa Roth which are based on drawings by A.Korosfoi. A creative masterpiece itself, the historical building provides viewers with inspiring point of departure which silently juxtaposes the past and present of a nation’s creative output.
Within the Hungarian pavilion this year, Szilard Cseke’s show, “Sustainable Identities,” explores various aspects of identity within a series of installations. Viewers are invited to express themselves on a blackboard or interact with a series of pieces allowing them to choose from different pre-determined notions of identity. In one piece, the viewer is invited to speak into a microphone to create a computer generated model based on the sound of their voice. Similar to the promises made by advertisers touting the cathartic effect delivered by their product, despite the claim, each image generated is identical regardless of the voice input. In “Multiple Identities” large white balls are propelled by fans through clear tubes overlapping above viewers heads. In this piece, a kind of “rat-race” conceptual metaphor of individuality is easy to construct. In “Sustainable Identities,” a large transparent foil cushion inflates and deflates continuously. The reduction of some of our culture’s most romanticized ideas on human identity encourages us to contemplate marketing and consumption on an existential or spiritual plane.
The testament to national identity is a priceless undercurrent when viewing the works within the Giardini. Another notable building is the Austrian pavilion, designed by the legendary architect Josef Hoffman. As someone who dedicated a large portion of my first trip to Vienna to insuring that I visited every example of Hoffman’s oeuvre within that city, it is hard for me to describe the specific emotional blend I experienced in response to Heimo Zobernig’s structural intervention of Hoffman’s pavilion. By constructing a black “monolith,” essentially a dropped ceiling, paired with a blackened floor, Zobernig transforms Hoffman’s minimally classic interior arches into a series of square white columns perched in darkness. By removing the historical distinguishers of the building, this black visual interference apparently allows one to “linger and reflect on human presence in space.” Until reading the distributed romance however, to a first-visitor of the pavilion, the show has that distinctively transformative property in which the newly born philistine art-viewer says to oneself, “Where’s the art?” As I continue to reflect, I can appreciate the transformative property of this intervention. Rather than pondering on my own presence in space though, I am tempted to think about censorship under communist rule; the periodically frustrating absurdity of conceptual art; or the metamorphic possibilities offered by home-renovation. At the time however, I’ll admit that I was simply angered that I was unable to see Hoffman’s structure in its unadulterated form.
Last week, inspired by my friend, artist, educator and curator, Pamila Matharu, who visited the Biennale two years ago to celebrate a land-mark birthday, I decided to take the same trip- in celebration of the same landmark. Along with my friend, artist and crafter, Nell Casson, I took a few (sometimes heart-wrenching) days away from my three-year-old daughter to blitz the Biennale. Stay tuned for the next few days so that I can share with you my experience of this unforgettable show.
Header Image: Detail of the Finnish Pavilion, Designed by architect Alvar Aalto in 1956.