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venice biennale


the future now, minus nations

alexandra crosby: the 2009 venice biennale


 Claire Healy, Sean Cordeiro, Life Span Claire Healy, Sean Cordeiro, Life Span
photo Alex Davies
THE VENICE BIENNALE IS THE MOST PROMINENT INTERNATIONAL SURVEY OF NEW ART. UNLIKE OTHER BIENNALES, HOWEVER, THE RATHER OUT-DATED IDEA OF THE NATION IS THE FOUNDATION OF ITS ORGANISATIONAL STRUCTURE. PAVILIONS THAT STILL REPRESENT THE POLITICS OF NATIONALITY OF THE 20TH CENTURY ARE CLEARLY A BURDEN FOR MANY CONSCIENTIOUS ARTISTS RAISING QUESTIONS ABOUT DISPLACEMENT, BORDERS AND THE IMPACT OF HISTORY ON THE FUTURE OF THE WORLD. NOT SURPRISINGLY THEN, THE MOST INTERESTING WORK AT THIS YEAR’S BIENNALE IS FOUND WELL OUTSIDE THE NATIONAL PAVILIONS OF THE GIARDINI.

off-site projects

Except for Ken Yonetani’s Sweet Barrier Reef, a rather dull comment on the effects of consumerism on nature, the Australian off-site project Once Removed curated by Felicity Fenner offers a refreshing insight into the predicament of displacement. Undoubtedly part of the show’s appeal is the extraordinary location, the Ludoteca, formerly a convent in a prime position between the Giardini and the Arsenale. At the entrance is a chapel, where Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro present their impressive new work Life Span. 195,774 VHS tapes are stacked into a neatly arranged plinth, responding boldly to the religious architecture of the space. What is immediately striking is the weight and solidity of this monument, an exaggerated reminder of the obsolete material packaging of globally circulated screen fantasies. But the artists also reflect on the passing of time and its multiple scales; neither the crumbling walls of the old church nor the black plastic surfaces of the tapes can speak of eternity. The combined running time of these tapes is the average human’s life span when VHS was released, 66.1 years. Thinking of how many hours of pornography fill the monolith, the idea of this content flashing before one’s eyes at death is also staggering. The rumours around Venice before the opening were that the Australians had ‘video porn’ on show. Needless to say, Once Removed has been well attended.

Vernon Ah Kee Vernon Ah Kee
photo Alex Davies
Also at the Ludoteca, Vernon Ah Kee works with several dialogues between iconic Australian cultural references and their dark histories. In his video work, Cant Chant, he tells a fairytale of Aboriginal surfers reclaiming a break, juxtaposed with allusions to racial alienation and the violence of Australia’s Indigenous history. In the next room, the beautifully painted surfboards that appear in the video are hung from the ceiling as if lynched, conversing with provocative black and white wall texts such as “first person” and ‘“hang ten.”

Other standout off-site events include Unconditional Love at the Arsenale Novissimo, organised by the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. On display at this wharf venue is the extraordinary video panorama by AES+F, The Feast of Trimalchio, as well as a handful of other Russian up and comers all grappling with the future of affection in a hypersexual world.

Ming Wong, Life of Imitation Ming Wong, Life of Imitation
photo Alex Davies
Ming Wong’s solo show, Life of Imitation at the Singapore Pavilion, transforms an old Venetian palace, Palazzo Michiel Brusa, into the artist’s own quirky vision of the defining moments of Singaporean cinema with new work as well as archival materials. Often performing himself, Wong reconstructs the plural veneers of Asian language and identity in a series of re-invented multi-channel video installations, such as In Love for the Mood. Promotions painted by Singapore’s last surviving movie billboard painter, Neo Chon Teck, renegotiate the appropriated video content and the artist’s seemingly inexhaustible interpretations of the history of human melodrama.

These off-site pavilions and collateral exhibitions can be difficult to find in the labyrinthine alleyways of Venice, but away from the hype of the Arsenale and Giardini, they are truly highlights of the biennale.

giardini pavilions

For most exhibitors in the main pavilions, grappling with national identity is part of the brief. Shaun Gladwell’s slickly presented MADDESTMAXIMVS is no exception. Gladwell’s rapid ascent to international success has not been without criticism, but his solo exhibition at the Australian Pavilion does rise to the challenge of the biennale, transporting visitors to a particularly Australian time and space. Before they even get there, Biennale-goers are hooked, pausing at the promotional posters lining Venice’s canals of a leather-clad and helmeted Gladwell cradling roadkill in the searing Australian desert; “Is that a real kangaroo?”

Gosha Ostretsov, Art Life or the Torments of Creation Gosha Ostretsov, Art Life or the Torments of Creation
photo Alex Davies
For taking viewers on a journey to the unfamiliar and ridiculous, the best pavilion is the stylised Victory over the future. In reference to the Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun, Russian curator Olga Sviblova has chosen ironic artists who deal with the way representations of the past can reveal the future. The first room is filled with the utopian drawings and poetic texts of Pavel Pepperstein. Dated earnestly into the next few thousand years, the work appears like a set of souvenirs from somewhere we can never visit. In the basement is the biennale’s only haunted house, Gosha Ostretsov’s Art Life or the Torments of Creation. Hands emerge from otherwise empty coats and rhythmically rock creepy scenes of rural life. A phone rings, but the voice on the other end quickly hangs up in a panic. A mechanical mannequin (presumably representing the artist) sits at a wooden desk, inexhaustibly sketching in dim lamplight. No doubt about it: the Russians know how to make the future seem spooky, yet oddly hilarious.

Fiona Tan, Disorient Fiona Tan, Disorient
photo Alex Davies
The othr pavilion not to be missed is The Netherlands, dedicated entirely to the work of Indonesian-born Fiona Tan. All three of her video works are outstanding, but it is Disorient, a two-channel projection that draws the crowds. The work takes as its departure point the original texts from the 13th century voyages of Marco Polo. These point to video montages of contemporary daily life across Asia and the Middle East, covering the same territories as Venice’s most famous merchant, but representing a more complex reality with which the European empire, even with all its trade and adventure, has never come to terms. Marco Polo’s symbolic commodities still exist—indigo, spices, oil, silk—but Tan places them in the context of contemporary violence, poverty and exploitation, documenting ragpickers sorting through the waste piles of India and American soldiers intimidating Iraqi civilians. This is more than a nod to the colonial history of Europe. Tan’s work also shows that, if we really look, within the subject-artist relationship are all the ugly and intimate contradictions of continuity and change.

making worlds

Daniel Birnbaum, the Biennale’s 2009 director, defines his curatorial concept with the title Making Worlds, attempting to credit the methods and strategies of artists everywhere. The massive group exhibition includes the work of over 90 artists. The theme may be vague (how could an all-encompassing global artistic vision be anything else?), but the selection of work is extraordinary. While there is dialogue between artists, it is refreshing to see that there is no universal language here.

Outdoors, in the beautiful Giardino delle Vergini (Garden of the Virgins), is a maze of site-specific interventions by younger artists such as Miranda July, who gently teases her audience with colourful invitations of poetic self-portraiture. Chinese artist Chu Yun’s Constellation No. 3 is just as whimsical; a glorious universe of flickering stars in a darkened room, revealing itself on closer inspection to be created by the familiar flashing indicator lights of fridges, kettles, microwaves and fax machines.

The overall impression of the biennale is predictably sensational and generalised. Such a quantity of art arranged under the clumsy classification of nations may be impossible to be otherwise. But within its component parts, scattered throughout Venice, appears a scale of specificities showing that artists of the world may, in fact, not have so much in common after all.


The 53rd Venice Biennale, June 7-Nov 22

RealTime issue #92 Aug-Sept 2009 pg. 14

© Alexandra Crosby; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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