Art, is the creative act of exposing the tender inner flesh of the unknown hidden behind expressionless reality, presenting itself at the threshold between reality and imagination
I enjoy art; in all its fluid forms and thought challenging seductive glory. I may not, however, understand all of it or pretend to. So, spending an entire week in Venice with the sole purpose of attending the Venice Art Biennale with my sister, to an amateur art enthusiast like me, was a mix of daunting and exciting.
My sister, the art expert and curator by profession, was in Grenoble finishing a 10 month curatorial course. She and a few of her peers decided to cover the biennale once their programme ended in June, thereby, creating a perfect start to a summer in Europe.
This wasn’t my first Biennale experience, having been in Venice on holiday with the family during the 2009 biennale. Although, we didn’t have the time to visit all the exhibits, literally breezing through the Central Pavilion without so much as registering any of it
The title of the 55th Venice Art Biennale was II Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace) running the theme exhibition-research, with Massimiliano Gioni as chief curator. There were over 150 artists from 37 countries, 88 national country participations, 10 of which were making their very first appearance [Angola, Bahamas, Bahrain, Holy See, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Kuwait, Maldives, Paraguay and Tuvalu] and 47 collateral events promoted by various organisations exhibited in different venues across the city.
Apart from exhibits located around the city, the main venues were – The Giardini, the historic base of the biennale where the Central Pavilion and longest standing National Pavilions were located and Arsenale, a formal shipyard.
The biennale can be extremely overwhelming and exhausting if done on a rushed schedule. You need time to assimilate and process what you have seen in order to do the art justice. We gave each venue a day to complete, starting with the Giardini’s Central & national pavilions. Followed by the island of San Giorgio Maggiore the next day, that included Marc Quinn, Anthony Caro and ‘Fragile?‘ an exhibition dedicated to the presence and use of glass in contemporary art featuring work by Ai Weiwei, Marcel Duchamp, Damien Hirst, Joseph Beuys, and many more. We spent the next 2-3 days visiting the various shows on display at different locations around the city finally finishing with Arsenale.
Highlights of what I found interesting:
Robert Crumb’s The Book of Genesis
From the famed cartoonist who gave us Fritz the Cat, comes the controversial satirical illustration, of the Book of Genesis from the Hebrew Bible. 207 framed black and white pages furnished the walls of one of Arsenale’s central exhibition spaces. The first thing I did was buy the Book of Genesis from the book shop at Giardini!
I did not know who Tino Sehgal was back then and blindly followed my sister into the open space where his troupe was performing as part of the biennale. The ‘dance’ consisted of a few people sitting or lying down on the floor, moving slowly to the beat of music generated by themselves. I don’t think I am qualified enough to have an opinion on the performance, however, judging by how revered Tino Sehgal is in the art world, I’m glad it was something I experienced. He was later presented by the biennale jury their top honour, the Golden Lion, for his work.
Not many people could have missed the Marc Quinn exhibit on San Giorgio Maggiore island. A 39 foot inflatable, lilac toned replica of ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’ called ‘Breath‘, stationed right outside the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore loomed over everything and could be seen from Piazza San Marco and various other locations along the Grand Canal.
The 15 ton marble statue entitled ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’ is one of Marc Quinn’s most famous works, and was displayed on the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square from September 2005 till October 2007. Based on Alison Lapper, a fellow artist born without arms and truncated legs, who posed nude for Quinn while she was heavily pregnant.
Ai Weiwei exhibited a number of works at the biennale, shown at different locations. ‘Bang‘, an installation of 886 3-legged wooden stools formed part of the German contribution at the biennale. Also featured as part of Germany’s national pavilion was Indian photographer Dayanita Singh.
His poignant and bold installation titled ‘S.A.C.R.E.D.‘ touched on the price of political activism and was displayed within the Church of Sant’Antonin. Replacing the church pews were 6 large grey boxes about 5 feet wide and 12 feet high. Each box had a tiny window leading you to the life-like dioramas of his detention for 81 days in a Chinese prison in 2011.
His third installation, titled ‘Straight‘, consisted of 150 tons of steel rebar recovered from a school that collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
Azerbaijan’s ‘Ornamentation‘ was represented by 6 artists invited to interpret and exhibit their countries great ornamental legacy by using different media and perspectives. Rashad Alakbarov’s work created unexpected shadows through complex installations and was strikingly interesting.
Belgium displayed an installation by home-grown artist Berlinde De Bruyckere called ‘Cripplewood‘, curated by Noble award winning author J.M.Coetzee [I have to say Disgrace is one of my favourite books]. Made up entirely of wax, it depicts an enormous, gnarled and knotted fallen elm tree. So true to form, that when you see the sculpture its hard to believe it isn’t a real tree made up of wood.
We watched ‘Letter to a Refusing Pilot‘, a film and video installation by Akram Zaataari as part of the Lebanese national pavilion.
In the summer of 1982, a rumour made the rounds of Saida, a small city in southern Lebanon, which was under Israeli occupation and filmmaker Akram Zaataari’s hometown. The rumour was about an Israeli airforce pilot who had orders to bomb a target on the outskirts of Saida, but knowing it was a school, disobeyed orders and dropped the bombs into the sea instead. It was believed that the pilot knew the school as he had been a student there, born into Saida’s Jewish community where his family had lived for generations. As the rumour goes, due to his actions, the pilot came to be regarded as somewhat of a legend. The school was eventually bombed by another pilot and severely damaged. Akram had heard different versions of the story growing up since his father headed the school.
Years later during a lecture he referred to the fable that was transcribed and published in a book, and came to discover that the pilot did indeed exist and it was no rumour. His name was Hagai Tamir and he had never lived in southern Lebanon but recognised the school structure since he had studied architecture. With the film, Akram wanted to put a human face to the story, the ‘legend’ and the man.
And, more from around the central and national pavilions..
Art overload, perhaps, but given the chance I would gladly do it again.