Venice Biennale 54….Highlights

John and I went for three days to the opening week of the Biennale. There’s something for everyone but here are my top favourites of what we had time to see. But first, the Axis team were compiling a Venice top tips piece here’s our vox pop contribution 


Great Britain: Mike Nelson

OK what is it with the British Pavilion and queues…sat up on the top of the hill like that,  insisting we wait in line to know our place. It must surely be a curatorial strategy, as how difficult is it to implement a timed entry system….
Here are reasons to queue:

  • P’raps it IS the art, or if not, it really should be.
  • We didn’t queue to see Steve McQueen’s film at the 2009 Biennale…and of course everyone who did promises us it is the best piece of his they have ever seen etc etc who needs regrets.
  • If you only see the art with no queues around it (USA, France, Germany, Japan also had competitive queues this time) There is the chance you leave with an unbalanced impression of the overall biennale.
  • Instant moral superiority gained, through proven commitment. 
  • It may be worth it (for me it was).

So we waited. A helper informed us we should expect a two and a half hour wait in our position. Rumours abounded….only 2 people were allowed in at any one time (actually it’s 40), it’s worth it…Then we observed the extraordinarily creative queue scams. I will keep some to myself, to pull out next time, but here’s one… A couple pushed in behind us and earnestly exclaimed, (when we gave them queue police eyes), “We’re waiting for friends to come out!” They were still behind us as we walked around the installation (an hour later).

The upside was chatting to people. We had a great conversation with Bernard Liebov from the Judd Foundation who also runs Box Office Projects from his apartment in New York. He also writes a fantastically thorough boxoblog with great photos. Here’s a good one of me from behind, leaving the Pavilion, showing the queue from the front!

The queue from the front. Photo: Bernard Liebov

We then luckily spotted our “brother”, Simon Faithfull, near the front and brazenly pushed in. Simon was busy drawing for his fantastic newly launched App Limbofor iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella. The link is HERE from the iTunes store…it is brilliant!!…He drew the queue and later drew John over coffee, so look out for those ones. What next? Oh yes, the art.

Mike Nelson’s sculptural installation
I have only ever seen Nelson’s work in pictures and was bowled over by experiencing it for real. He creates spaces within a space, so for three months he has been reconfiguring this pavilion. It is a reworking of an earlier piece conceived and constructed for the 2003 Istanbul Biennial. Everything is fabricated and there is extraordinary attention to detail. So, it is a multitude of rooms and corridors, in a semi derelict state. As you walk through the space you become increasingly more disorientated. In one room, John and I weren’t sure whether we’d been in that part. We realised it was the same, but different in a couple of minor details. In that sense, it captured the disorientation and experience of a dream where you are in a house which is your house but isn’t.  I also have a recurring dream where I discover derelict rooms in my house that I suddenly come upon…that’s what this was like.
I have heard a criticism that his works are all the same. Actually they are developing. They are becoming slicker and better made. The question may be what is the difference between a slick Mike Nelson piece and the reconstructed scenes or tableaux commonly used in museums…or er…theme parks….which of course the Biennale could be argued to have become…Discuss (with your queue buddies)
[Total queue time: 1 1/2 hours with push-in.]

Switzerland: Thomas Hirschhorn, Crystal of Resistance

This was great, an overwhelming chaos of stuff. Crystals; lots of cardboard and tape – his trademark materials; plane seats; broken glass; Barbie dolls; stuff wrapped in silver foil and cling film; crash photos….the ones we don’t get to see because they’re considered too disturbing. I loved it. And wasn’t sure why. It seemed to echo the way we live with all this stuff and nonsense around us. And the way we feel empowered to control it all, to cure all ills and prevent the awful things happening in the world by placing more stuff, such as crystals around the place with conviction. Reading the catalogue later, Hirshhorn says he wanted to create, “the conditions for thinking something new, a form that enables “thinking”.”

France: Christian Boltanski, Chance

This work is about fate and destiny so it includes life, when Boltanski’s work usually focuses on death. The conveyor belt of life from birth to death. One room with the changing number of births in the world, another with the number of deaths, both numbers being updated and changing as we stood before them. What distinguishes one person from the next? A bell ringing intermittently….for whom the bell tolls? I liked the structure of the conveyor belt and the experience of walking through it. Then I continued on my own little conveyor belt through the Biennale wondering what distinguished one art piece from another…

Germany: Christoph Schlingensief 
This artist died of cancer shortly after being invited to create a project for this pavilion, so the pavilion is a sort of shrine to him, his illness and his work, including film, theatre, opera, installation, political happenings. His final project was going to be the founding of an “opera village” in a village in Africa. Here we get an insight into that. The pavilion is a mocked up church with pews. There are references to Joseph Beuys and Fluxus (a hare on the altar, a coffin with Fluxus written on it). It is also reminiscent of an old cinema with screens around the walls and above the altar showing excerpts from his film work. It is loud and there is a lot going on. It was an absorbing place to be.

USA: Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla, Gloria

Outside the pavilion is Track and Field, an upside down tank. The treads are intermittently powered by an Olympic athlete jogging on it as a treadmill.  It is loud, very loud….reminding us that this must be a constant background noise in Iraq and Afghanistan. Loud and big and dominant, like the USA in the world I guess. Combined with Olympic level athleticism it conveyed the competitiveness of the individual and the focus on training for the purpose of winning…in war and sport. There was an accompanying queue to go into the pavilion to see timed acrobatic performances which we missed. However we did see the cash dispenser fitted within a huge organ. Members of the public could withdraw cash and were rewarded with a blast from the organ of a specially composed musical overture. 

The Arsenale

Song Dong’s Para-Pavilion
Song Dong’s Para-Pavilion
Rebecca Warren
Ryan Gander, We never had a lot of € round here
Haroon Mirza An installation for a traingular room in Monika Sosnowska’s Para-Pavilion and a second version in the Arsenale, The National Apavilion of Then & Now.
Christian Marclay, The Clock This is definitely going to become one of those cult artworks. It is so good! It was exciting that it was shown in The British Art Show first, at The New Art Exchange in Nottingham.
Emily Wardill, Sick, Serena and Dregs

Collateral Events:
Montenegro Pavilion: A compelling film by Marina Abramovic, The Fridge Factory and Clear Waters, in which she is talking to camera about her project to build the Marina Abramovic Community Centre Obod Cetinje, a future international multimedia centre in a former refrigerator factory. She visits Cetinje to begin plans, reflecting on how it would have been, how it will be whilst remembering moments from her childhood in Montenegro.

Estonian Pavilion: Liina Siib, A Woman Takes Little Space in which through video, photography and installation she examines notions of femininity.

Artsway: Sophy Rickett, To The River stood out for me. A 3-screen HD video installation with 12-track sound, referencing a mini tidal wave, the “Severn Bore,” that occurs only twice yearly in South West England. She captures snippets of conversation from the waiting crowd. As they wait and anticipate, so do we…to see something amazing, to experience something unusual…

We didn’t have time to see and wished we had…
Scotland Pavilion: Karla Black


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