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Norway

(part 1)

'The State of Things': Series of lectures at various institutes across Venice, programme available here:  http://www.oca.no/programme/norway-in-venice/venice-biennale-2011/the-state-of-things 

Lecturers: Judith Butler, Vandana Shiva, Franco Berardi, T.J. Clark, Jacques Ranciere, Eyal Weizman 

(part 2)

'Beyond Death: Viral Discontents and Contemporary Notions about AIDS' with artist Bjarne Melgaard 

Curator: Pablo Lafuente, Marta Kuzma and Peter Osborne 

Location: Various

Laura Stocks interviews curator Pablo Lafuente 

Laura Stocks: This year Norway is independent of the Nordic Pavilion. In what way does the absence of the pavilion affect Norway’s representation?

Pablo Lafuente: The temporary interruption of the collaboration with Finland and Sweden in the Nordic Pavilion in the Giardini, which is going to last for three editions of the Biennale, was for us an opportunity to try new models of national representation and new relationships to audiences in a context that does not often enough lend itself to it. By liberating us from having to organise an exhibition in the actual pavilion, it allowed us to explore what kind of relationships art could establish with other fields within the Biennale, with the urgencies affecting the world today, and with the local – institutional and individual – scene in the city. After a lot of discussion, we decided to organise two programmes – The State of Things and Beyond Death: Viral Discontents and Contemporary Notions about AIDS, the latter led by artist Bjarne Melgaard – that explored what we thought were key issues and did so in collaboration with local institutions such as Università Iuav di Venezia, the Fondazione Querini Stampalia or Università Ca’ Foscari di Venezia, and through discursive and pedagogical programmes.

LS: ‘The State of Things’ is initially based on the concept of the Nansen passport, how does this reference or relate to contemporary nationalities?

PL: We thought that the figure of Nansen and his passport were extremely suggestive and we thought a productive image for our times – he professed a genuine internationalism that was put at the service of those minorities that were oppressed or not recognised by the established political and administrative structures.  In the current situation, when it is not easy to find such attitude, we thought invoking Nansen’s figure would serve as a wake up call and perhaps as a model for action.

LS: Current political, social and economic issues are global in scope; to what extent does this transcend the representation of individual national identity?

PL: Norway has traditionally adopted a role of international mediation, already from Nansen’s time. And this is something we wanted to reflect. But, as you say, urgent issues are very often, if not always, of international significance. The tensions and conflicts affecting one society are never exactly the same as another’s, but it is possible to find close parallels between different contexts, as exemplified by the recent public revolts and citizens’ movements in Tunisia, Chile, Egypt, Spain, Yemen, Israel or Greece, or the racist political discourse that certain parties and sectors of society of considerable size promote in France, the US, the Netherlands or Norway.

LS: What was the criterion for the chosen intellectual speakers? 

PL: We approached thinkers, activists, philosophers, writers… whom we respected, and whom we thought had a track record and a contemporary history of engagement with the situation of the world, be it as thinkers or agents/activists. We aimed to ask a diverse set, in geographical and professional terms. The specific issues were to be selected by them, and we wanted to make sure that there was, if not a comprehensive list of key issues, at least one that was diverse enough to offer a complex picture of the problems affecting the world today.

LS: How can art and large multinational events, such as the biennale, be used to take on a social responsibility?

PL: Discussion is always important, on every scale and context. Key issues and voices are often ignored in the world at large, or not given enough time and space. The contemporary art context has proved to be able to function as a good platform for discussion, although this hasn’t been always explored in full. This activity has been mostly absent from the Venice Biennale, and we thought there was no reason to continue that way. In fact, we thought that a platform with the visibility and profile of the Venice Biennale could not ignore this possibility (or, if you want, responsibility) to think about the world that surrounds it.

Once that is decided, each context will allow for and demand specific approaches. A look at the pedagogical activities of, for example, documenta 12 or the 1998 Bienal de São Paulo can show how social responsibility can be tackled.

LS: The series of lectures for ‘The State of Things’ are disseminated orally. What is the effect of this type of discourse and how does this differ from visual forms? 

PL: The lectures are given in different Venues in Venice throughout the duration of the Biennale. They are also broadcast live through OCA’s website, and the recordings archived there. Sections from the lectures have been posted on YouTube. A book will appear, upon the conclusion of the programme, with revised transcriptions of the lectures. All these formats aim to reach as wide an audience as possible – those who were in Venice during the opening, those who live or visit Venice subsequently, those who come to OCA’s website because they are already interested, and those who come across them by chance on the Internet. All these formats offer different types of access, experiences and agencies, but in general they allow for a displaced experience (in time and in space) that a conventional exhibition hardly ever achieves.

LS: Whom is the intended audience, considering the intellectual and complex content of the lectures?

 PL: The audiences are many: art audiences (those visiting Venice and those who become aware of the project through our marketing initiatives), academic audiences in Venice (university students, researchers and teachers, who we have targeted throughout), and individuals, worldwide, who might be interested in the work of Vandana Shiva, Judith Butler, Saskia Sassen, Eyal Weizman, T.J. Clark or any of the other speakers, and who, as I pointed out above, may come across the lectures by chance.

The content, as you say, is complex, but not targeted to academics. The lecturers have until now articulated those ideas with clarity, and there is no reason why anyone who speaks English could not engage with them.

LS: The programme ‘Beyond Death: viral discontents and contemporary notions about aids’ simultaneously forms part of Norway’s representation at the biennale. The four-month course involves participating students, how will a larger audience effectively receive the information?

PL: We have informed about the nature of this programme and its different levels of audiences through emails, through the catalogue, press releases… The immediate audience is the students, who have worked with Melgaard for four months. They have also worked on an exhibition, ‘Baton Sinister’, that was open to the public, and that offered a hint on the work done throughout the four months. So this audience is a second-level audience whom the project is not directed to, but who can engage with its ideas and formalisations regardless. Then there are discussions, such as this one, in which hopefully the format and the ideas of the project are reflected upon.

LS: The course relies on the engagement of its students. How heavily does involvement from the public make for a successful understanding to Norway’s representation this year?

PL: We had very clear in our heads that we were not interested in conventional relations to audiences, as is normally the case in Venice: very simply, perhaps too simply, these consist on putting together an exhibition among many, and hoping visitors to the city decide to visit it. We wanted to work with more specific audiences (students, Venice-based people) without forgetting about the usual Venice visitors and others who don’t go there. Discourse has a different set of channels of distribution from ‘physical’ art, and some shared problems as well as others, different ones. For us it is very important the discussions are accessed, at the time the lecture is given, but also subsequently. 

LS: Bjarne Melgaard, who leads ‘Beyond Death’, is a Norwegian artist - in what way (if at all) does the programme explicitly reference Norwegian society?

PL: Melgaard was invited to develop a programme for the students in relation to AIDS and its representations today. He devised the detail of the programme, and he taught it, together with guests he invited. The programme doesn’t make explicit reference to Norwegian society, although it reflects on an issue that seems to have been forgotten, although it is still important for those affected, directly or indirectly, within Norway and outside of Norway.

LS: What is Norway’s main aim by including such social and cultural issues? 

PL: As curators, Marta Kuzma, Peter Osborne and myself wanted to highlight the importance of placing art within the world at large. AIDS was a key issue for art and the artists in the 1980s and 90s, but it has now almost disappeared as a topic – while remaining a key emergency in the world, especially in parts of it. We thought it was important to address it.

LS: Would you say art has a responsibility to engage in politics?

PL: It’s difficult to talk in general. ‘Art’ is too abstract to have agency, and therefore responsibility. My colleagues and I, as curators of the Norwegian representation, felt a responsibility to use this opportunity to engage in social and political issues.

Interviews with:

Liang Yuanwei, and Yang Maoyuan

Leah Gordon

BADco. Collective

Diohandi

Michael Parekowhai

Ho Tzu Nyen or June Yap (curator)

Hajnal Nemeth

Ayse Erkmen

Hany Armonious

Oksana Mas

Andrea Thal

Mabel Palacin

Fia Backström and Andreas Eriksson

Mike Nelson

Gerard Byrne

Karla Black and curator

Shadia and Raja Alem

Francisco Tropa

Sigalit Landau

Polly Morgan

Mary Angela Schroth (curator)

Markus Schinwald

Mary Angela Schroth (curator)

Katerina Gregos (Curator)

Emil Aleksiev (curator)

Marianna Christofides and Elizabeth Hoak-Doering

Gavin Rain

Sarah Gold and Karlyn de Jongh

Georgy Mamedov

Reem Al Ghaith, Abdullah Al Saadi and Lateefa Bint Maktoum

Sanja Kojic Mladenov (curator)

Guus Peumer (curator)

Yael Bartana

Alessandro Librio & Margherita Berloni (EB&Flux)

Federico Diaz

Tamara Kvesitadze

Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania

Kristaps Ģelzis

Abdellah Karroum

Darius Miksys

Driant Zeneli

Beral Madra (curator)

Dr Susanne Gaensheimer (curator)

Tabaimo

Martine Feipel and Jean Bechameil. Kevin Muhlen (curator)

The State of Things’

Lyndi Sales

Dora Garcia and Katya Garcia-Anton (curator)

Hsieh Chun-te

Albania Pavilion: Geopathies

Artists: Anila Rubiku, Orion Shima, Gentian Shkurti, Eltjon Valle, Driant Zeneli

Curator: Riccardo Caldura

Venue: Spazio Rolak, Giudecca 211/b

Images of Driant Zeneli’s work, courtesy of Driant Zeneli and Prometeogallery di Ida Pisani:

Some say the moon is easy to touch…- video - 05’00” 2011

This is a Castle! 2010

The Dream of Icarus was to make a Cloud - video - 4’05” 2009

Kamila Kocialkowska interviews Driant Zeneli

  "I am interested in the road that leads to utopia, when it is still imbued with dreams" says Driant Zeneli, the Albanian representative of this year’s Venice Biennale. "Someone once said that utopia is like the horizon, you take one step towards it and it moves ten steps away, you take twenty steps and it moves twenty steps away. As you walk, you never reach it."

It’s a bold statement for the artist, considering that, by and large, utopia is a woefully outdated concept within the contemporary art world. Its generally perceived to be suggestive of a naïve idealism, a quixotic hopefulness, it’s seen as misplaced notion, an irregular piece in the jig saw of the twenty-first century world view.

But for Zeneli, it is precisely the Romantic inflection and replete historical significance of Utopia which offers us an engaging and unique new lens through which to view the changing nature of national identity.

The diversity of Albania’s historical and political past is continually evoked in his performance-based work. As for many Eastern European artists, one of his key focuses is dealing with the aftermath of communism in the country. Much of his work stems from the foundational paradox that the bleak reality of the Soviet state was built upon a fairytale of Utopia.

“About a year ago, my dream was to touch the moon” says the artist, “a dream that had haunted me. Over the past eighteen years, the moon had never been so close to the earth, so my desire became a necessity. On 20 March 2011, finally, I used a bungee jump, in the middle of the night to touch the reflection of the moon in a lake. This is the work I am exhibiting for the 54th Biennale”.

Kamila Kocialkowska: Your work This is a Castle (2010) documents some of the post-communist architecture of Albania. How far do you feel architecture can represent the identity of a nation?

Driant Zeneli: I don’t believe that architecture only belongs to those who realized it, but also to the people who actually live in it, as well as people who perceive it from the outside.

The history of Albanian architecture is pretty interesting. During the Communist regime between 1950-1990, the dictator Enver Hoxha built approximately five hundred thousand bunkers throughout the country, and in recent times, some free-thinkers like Ludwig II of Bavaria have been building castles instead.

Albania has gone through some fairly extreme economic developments in recent decades, both covering the Communist era of fast food and low costs, and then seemingly embarking upon a paradoxical “return” to the middle Ages. The castles built in the last decade in Albania are mostly restaurants or public places intended for fun and for consumption. 

I was deeply intrigued by this peculiar and unusual take on the built environment, so I proposed a trip across Albania as tourists and archaeologist along with gallery owner Ida Pisani and curator Denis Isaia. Ida Pisani photographed me in front of various castles, whilst Denis Isaia wrote down everything that happened on the trip. One of his diary entries reads; This is a Castle tells the story of the social, commercial, and architectural changes that are sweeping through the country after the fall of the Communism, and of the imbalances that are moving from the west towards the south and east, only to return in a sinister new form”.

KK: There is a palpable element of ‘heroism’ in your work. This particularly comes across in work such as your 2007 Mur-Art installation and the references to Icarus in your recent work. What’s your stance on the modern artist as hero?

DR: I certainly think that contemporary heroes could be compared to Icarus – after all, he was someone who tried to challenge the impossible. He relates to Samuel Beckett’s concept of an artist; someone who means to look for a failure which no one else dares.

Still, in common perception, the stereotype of the hero has been handed down by contemporary American culture. I explored this in my work Born in U.S. and A in 2007. President George W. Bush was then making a trip to Europe and would be visiting Albania, and you could sense a real enthusiasm in the people. The work I made in response to this was a photomontage made ​​by taking a photo of Diane Arbus, American Boy. I installed this image  on the wall of a building in Tirana during Bush’s visit.

KK: There is a poetic lyricism to your works such as The Dream of Icarus (2009), in which you succeed in creating a cloud. Is imbuing your work this is sort of neo-Romanticism important to you?  

DR: From my point of view, being Romantic means having a pinch of folly, being able to move’ a view, not only through the artist’s gesture and through image, but also through  imagination. Without these elements in art and life, we would not have even been able to realize this interview. For me Romanticism is primarily a dream – its pure, free escapism, but its also an illusion – like a lover who enchants or disenchants himself with its own imagination.

KK: You were born and brought up in Albania, but live in Italy. This put you in a uniquely informed position to fill the Albanian pavilion in Venice. How does your relation to both counties affect the work which you will be exhibiting here?

DR: I don’t think that this fact influences my work directly, especially the new work realized for the Venice Biennale, Some say the moon is easy to touch . However, I do certainly often feel that I live on a bridge, and this gives me some instability. However, at the same time, it gives me a chance to look from different points of view. 

But moving, nowadays, is common to men. I explored this notion in my 2008 video This will be my space!, which was more directly linked to concepts of mobility, travel and location. A month before leaving a house where I lived for a year (in Italy), the owner decided to rent it to other people. So with two hidden cameras I documented the passage of people interested in renting the house.
The video reflects on the concept of living space  that for many of us now has become like a sliding scale in which we all pass and no one stops.

Pavilion of Brazil - Artur Barrio: Registros + (Ex) Tensões y Pontos

Artist: Artur Barrio

Curators: Moacir dos Anjos, Agnaldo Farias

Venue: Pavilion at Giardini

Pavilion of Bulgaria - Bond of Generation

Artists: Greddy Assa, Pavel Koichev, Houben Tcherkelov

Curator: Georges Luks

Venue: Palazzo Carminati, Santa Croce 1882

Pavilion of Romania -

Performing History:

Artists: Ion Grigorescu, Anetta Mona Chisa, Lucia Tkacova

Curators: Maria Rus Bojan, Ami Barak

Venue: Pavilion at Giardini

Romanian Cultural Resolution-documentary:

Artists: Adrian Bojenoiu, Alexandru Niculescu

Venue: Istituto Romeno di Cultura e Ricerca Umanistica, Cannaregio 2214

Pavilion of Andorra - Més enllà de la visió  (Beyond vision)

Artists: Helena Guàrdia Ribó and Francisco Sánchez Sánchez

Curators: Paolo de Grandis, Josep M. Ubach Bernada

Venue: Chiesa di San Samuele, Campo San Samuele

Pavilion of the Republic of Azerbaijan: Relational of Baku

Artists: Mikayil Abdurahmanov, Zeigam Azizov, Khanlar Gasimov, Aga Ousseinov, Altay Sadikhzade, Aidan Salakhova

Curator: Beral Madra

Venue: Gervasuti Foundation, Fondamenta S.Anna (Via Garibaldi),Castello 995

Graham Lister interviews Beral Madra, curator of Relational, Of Baku, at the Azerbaijan Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale

“For me curating is being true to historical, socio-political developments, as well as to artist’s statements and preferences.”  At a time of increased communication, virtual movement and turbulent international affairs, events such as the Venice Biennale have an important role to play on the globalised cultural stage; not just in terms of showcasing the work stemming from a geographical location, but also in considering implications of trends in contemporary art practice and within the broader context of social responsibility.

As curator of the Azerbaijan Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale, Beral Madra has assembled a collection of works by artists who have different physical relationships to the capital city of Azerbaijan, Baku. Beral Madra has curated at 6 previous Venice Biennales, and coordinated the 1st and 2nd Istanbul Biennales. Over the last 30 years, she has been director of the BM Contemporary Art Centre in Istanbul. I asked her about Relational, of Baku in the Palazzo Benzon, which features work by Azerbaijani artists, Mikayil Abdurahmanov, Zeigam Azizov, Khanlar Gasimov, Aga Ousseinov, Altai Sadikhzadeh and Aidan Salakhova.

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Graham Lister [GL]: Can I start by asking what does the theme of the Biennale, ILLUMInations personally mean to you?

Beral Madra [BM]: It is quite difficult to entitle a biennale of this scale; the expectations of the artists, the sponsors and the public are different and to bring these expectations to a common idea is a hard task! I find Ms. Curiger’s [Visual Arts Director, 54th Venice Biennale] vision positive and optimistic – which to my opinion is the common position of the established institutions and their representatives in Europe and USA. When I try to support this title, I think: If there are over 80 countries in this Biennale participating with their national identities – which has not changed since a century - she has no other choice than to highlight this nation issue making it more elegant by adding the art-historical dimension related to European traditional painting! However, when I approach the title from a critical angle I think: The current state of affairs particularly in the Mediterranean is not allowing us to be so optimistic and positive. We are living in a transition process of questioning and overcoming the 20th century nation state ideologies, which is extremely polluted with racism, wild capitalism and political corruption. The artist in general and their production is in accordance with this reality and reflecting this rather chaotic and dramatic momentum. So the title is ambiguous; and maybe this was her intention.

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[GL]: This year, the Azerbaijan Pavilion exhibition is entitled Relational, of Baku. The range of work has been selected to exemplify the changes that have occurred in Baku, and more generally across geographical identities in art over the last three decades. Where once national identities were foregrounded, these have been moved aside in favour of cultural identities based on the city as the source of direct inspiration. Beral Madra sees curating as reflecting the personal social situations of artists and as such, has chosen to include practitioners who have a continuing relationship to the city of Baku. At the present time, Baku is becoming an extremely desirable tourist destination, and is considered by many to represent a link between Europe and Asia. Of the artists who feature, four of them, Aidan Salakhova, Khanlar Gasimov, Zeigam Azizov and Aga Ousseinov, although strongly connected to Baku as a city, pursue their practice in the major art centres of Moscow, New York and London. In their practice, one can clearly see a dialogue which has developed to an extent between perceived western and more eastern social issues, and at the same time, elements of the changing focus on city-states, rather than nation-states is touched upon.

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[GL]: In your text regarding the premise of the exhibition, you note that the ‘nation-state’ is an archaic system of organisation. How do you feel that this idea is explored via the work of the selected Azerbaijani artists? 

[BM]: Not only me, but the artists of the show are aware of the ‘globalised state of cultureand end of nation state and the complexity of being aware of this dialectical phenomenon; I mean the governments, the private sector and the public are still resisting to accept this reality whereas the artists are continuously indicating and underlining it. In this show, the artists are dealing with many stereotype convictions related to religion, 20th century modernist sociological and political remnants, to modernist capitalism and to individual positions and identities by going to their details, for example the veil and religious symbols (Aidan Salakhova), the origin and quest of the artist (Zeigam Azizov), the interpretation of recent-past history (Aga Ousseinov).

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[GL]: Indeed, the grouping of the works in the Palazzo Benzon means that a selection of visual and intellectual contrasts are created. This in turn creates a specific dialogue; one which relates to different time periods, to various socio-political concerns and to changing interpretations of personal identity. In effect, it appears that the content of the Azerbaijan Pavilion is connected to an underlying current of social and (inter)national responsibility; a concept which in itself is rapidly changing in technologically-driven, turbulent, globalised times.

The Azerbaijan Pavilion is located in the 1897 Palazzo Benzon. Beral Madra has said that she focused on “entering the building surreptitiously and leaving the works to make an impact on the viewer.” Her curatorial practice is focused around putting the artist at the centre of the process. The chosen theme for the pavilion was presented to the artists early on in the process, allowing them to develop their works with both the theme and with the intended exhibition space in mind. The Venice Biennale does not offer white cube spaces, but instead challenges artists and curators to work with, and to engage with the historical contexts in which the examples of contemporary art and design will exist. According to Madra, even the pavilions in the Giardini have a history, and it seems to be the case that the artists and indeed the curators have a responsibility to enter and adjust to the spaces themselves, rather than to overpower or challenge them.

Visitors to Biennales are often described as cultural tourists. Relational, of Baku, relates on a certain level to the touristic gaze, showcasing a particular aspect of the heritage of the city. In the graphic design for the pavilion a prehistoric drawing of gondolas from a rock formation near Baku is shown. This it would seem immediately connects with the overarching theme of the Bienalle, IllumiNATIONS; showcasing the timeless creation of artefacts and their continuing value in the contemporary world. It must be said though that although Madra notes that the touristic gaze is not something which a curator focuses upon, it is something of which she is all to aware; noting that after all, once the opening week has finished, “the exhibitions of 89 countries will be visited by anonymous tourists, who will all get their share [of Azerbaijani / Baku culture] from contemporary art manifestations.”

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[GL]: In the current globalised arena in which we exist, the term ‘Diaspora’ and its use has changed. Although some of the artists you have selected pursue their practice outside Azerbaijan, as a group of practitioners they clearly do not sit under a simple 1980s-type idea of diaspora, and I wonder if you could comment on how you would describe the interconnectedness of the exhibiting artists?

[BM]: As you indicate, this exhibition is not based on Diaspora production. It is based on the new culture policy of Azerbaijan, which in terms of contemporary art focuses on the creative individual, on interaction between the local and the international, on visibility in high level international events. There is an obvious interest in making a claim on the artists whose origin is Azerbaijan and a respect to their achievement in the international art scenes of other metropolis. These artists claim their rights to reflect their origins and to collaborate with the existing institutions.

 

 [GL]: Does the decision to show artists whose works reflect the cultural transitions from modernism, through postmodernism, toward relational aesthetics reflect general trends of artistic production in Baku?

[BM]: What we are presenting in this exhibition is quite significant: These artists represent the last generation in Azerbaijan who were born during SSCB. In their work we can trail a complex transition from modernism to relational aesthetics; they could not block their memory, but they could not escape the influence of today’s fusion of different streams of knowledge. Again, I would like to quote Bourriaud. He entitled his project for the Fourth Tate Triennial “Altermodern”. He said: “Altermodern’ is a word that intends to define the specific modernity according to the specific context we live in – globalization and its economic, political and cultural conditions”. From now on we will witness this process.

 

[GL]: Do you see events such as the Venice Biennale as theoretically having an underlying duty of social responsibility?

[BM]: Indeed yes; these events which present multi-cultural productions convey the true globalism to audiences that are still not aware of this phenomenon. On top of it, these events are platforms of individual freedom of expression. Artists in 90% of the world are living in non-democracies or poor-democracies; and in these countries they have multi-identities; the function as artists in the traditional sense, but as initiators of social movements and as agents of democracy. In international events, these artists can present their opinion and criticism and convey the democratic content of contemporary art to the attention of global public opinion.

 

[GL]: You have said that the Venice Biennale is an event for the privileged and less for emerging artists. Is this a situation that has developed recently, or has this consistently been your experience at this Biennale?

[BM]: For the lucky one’s Venice Biennale is a great opportunity to enter into the international art market. In many countries there is no-art market or only local-art market, so that artists are dependent on public money which is also not so abundant! Since a decade Venice Biennale – and also Istanbul Biennale -  have acquired an additional function other than opening new artistic trends and contemporary debates, namely they provide an opportunity to dealers, collectors and institutions to discover new art / young art. However, here it requires new moral values. The privileged part of the art world is not so aware of – or they just prefer to deny- the not so healthy negotiation between the market economies and art making. In other words, investment in art has become interference to art. I must say that there are very sophisticated “curators” and “directors” who prefer to play the game of power; they advocate “globalized state of culture” but act for “privileged state of culture”.

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[GL]: June 5th brought an interesting development to any consideration of the Azerbaijan pavilion. After apparent protests from the Azerbaijan President, Ilham Aliyev, two sculptures by Aidan Salakhova, were covered up by pieces of cloth at the entrance to the Palazzo Benzon. Azerbaijan is a secular Muslim country and both works are linked with contemporary attitudes toward, and current issues surrounding faith. Waiting Bride 2010-2011, depicts a woman covered in a jet black veil, while another work comprises a replica  of the religious Black Stone (the eastern cornerstone of the Kabba, at the centre of the Grand Mosque in Mecca)  in a vagina-like marble frame. 

After visiting the exhibition prior to the official opening, it is reported that the President was unhappy with these works by Salakhova, being particularly concerned with the offence he perceived the pieces caused to Islam. The official line is that apparently the sculptures in question were damaged during transport to the Biennale. This may be the case but the speculation surrounding the act of covering these art works raises an interesting debate.

The censoring of any elements of any exhibition would appear to contravene the Venice Biennale’s underlying philosophy celebrating artistic expression, but this event in the Azerbaijan exhibition certainly brings up questions related to potential overall control of the content of the pavilions by the corresponding national government. At the fore of this particular issue are tensions which exist between artistic expression and religious beliefs, and the manner in which a country desires to be presented to the global audience. What is perhaps worrying is that if the censorship lasts for the duration of the Biennale the autonomy of Azerbaijani curators and perhaps the independence of artists can be seen to be superseded by governmental intervention. Right or wrong, stemming from a duty of perceived social responsibility or based on religious beliefs, the act of censoring the carefully chosen output of an artist or curator on this globalised stage is certainly a contentious issue for anyone involved in art.

Beral Madra is a curator and critic, and is director of the BM Contemporary Art Centre in Istanbul. http://bmsuma07.blogspot.com/

Graham Lister is an artist, writer and Visiting Staff Member at The Glasgow School of Art. http://community.thisiscentralstation.com/grahamlister

Country: Italian Pavilion

Artist: Multiple Artists 

Curator: Vittorio Sgarbi

Venue: Arsenale, Padiglione Italia, Tese and Giardino delle Vergini

Considering the sheer mass of artists in the Italian pavilion, it would be nothing short of inappropriate to try to ‘summarise’ the genres on display (and rather time-consuming). Work in multiple media is stacked, layered and crammed into the Italian pavilion on curved shelving to ensure the maximum space is utilised. Thus, like any exhibition featuring such a diverse range of artists, cohesion is the primary downfall of this presentation. And while this year coincidentally is the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification as a country (with many artists choosing to reference in their artworks), no overarching theme comes through explicitly to the overwhelmed viewer.

While summation is impossible, a notable strand of derivation from the world of ancient Rome and the Italian Renaissance pervades, in some cases leading to a repetition of models – two works both relying openly on Mantegna’s Dead Christ lead to shockingly similar artistic conclusions. These tend to be hit-or-miss, and rather than wade through the incoherent jumble, I would recommend spending time in the only cohesively effective section, the ‘museo della mafia’ section which occupies the suspended wooden platform.

This dark, oppressive environment chronicles the history of the mafia, and includes artistic interpretations of the subject. While a disturbing series of exhibits, this is a necessary counterweight to some of the optimistically naïve celebrations of Italy’s 150 years – and manages to leave a far deeper impression than the multiple green, white and red-coloured works that derive their sole meaning from those invested in the Italian flag.

Title: Entre Siempre y Jamás (Between Forever and Never)

Artist: Multiple Artists

Curator: Alfons Hug

Co-Curators: Paz Guevara, Patricia Rivadeneira, Alberto Saraiva

Venue: Arsenale, Isolotto, Pavilion of the Istituto Italo-Latinoamericano

Working for Change: Project for the Moroccan Pavilion

Curator: Abdellah Karroum 

Artist: Multiple participants

Venue: Spazio Punch, Ex Birrerie, Giudecca Island

Think back to the last politically or socially-orientated art exhibition you last saw. Perhaps you stopped by once, soaked in the atmosphere and left. Perhaps you visited on multiple occasions and discovered every last metaphor and subtext. But then the exhibition ends. The work is packed up, possibly sold, and the expressive or motivating impulses are paralysed; limited by the boundaries of conventional exhibition schedules.

That is not Working for Change. Instead this project, present at the Venice Biennale via Morocco, has sufficient momentum to ensure that its subject – artistic production within changing societies – will continue to be tackled long after leaving its temporary home. As Abdellah Karroum (curator) explains, there is no beginning, middle or end to this project: it is not a spectacle to be produced, exhibited and then discarded. Working  on the foundations of his ongoing project l’appartement22, Karroum designed this project to both benefit the artists selected, all of whom engage with the position of art in society, and to propose a new method for working with artists within the Biennale context. And while the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ may have formed the immediate context for Working for Change, it is clear from the outset that politics is not the only concern of these artists.

Rather than curate a traditional exhibition, Karroum instead invited artists to ‘occupy’ the space, working on table to discuss and potentially produce new work. This combination of research and production is a key aspect of the project, and is the first signifier that it has more potential than any finite exhibition. Resembling more a coordination office than a gallery or exhibition space, the Spazio Punch is filled with desks, not white walls and empty floor space. Some artists have already departed, leaving only traces behind, while others remain and some have yet to come: this tactic alone ensures the forward motion of the project.

An early occupant was Younès Rahmoun, a Moroccan artist, whose work Khamsa (Five) follows the artist’s attempt to form geometrical shapes from five wooden sticks, a reference to the five-branch star of Morocco. As such, the work acts as metaphor for the current political turmoil, by finding new configurations from old elements. However, through Rahmoun’s incorporation of the camera – the artist views his work from the lens and therefore creates hesitations – it also references the media’s involvement in societal changes. Furthermore, the video performance is accessible on the project website, allowing for a continual exposition and influence capable of extending the work infinitely beyond its initial performance in Venice.

A more practical approach has been taken by Tomas Colaço, a Portuguese artist, who has been present from the outset. Using a painting he brought to cover an old mattress and provide the artists and curators with a sofa, Colaço has adapted his existing work to the project. This is also reflected in his integration with the neighbours around the Spazio Punch, who are teaching him organic gardening and involving him in their community. This connection has already reaped benefits, assisting another artist with her project: setting up a living ‘still life’ for the opening night which was then consumed and destroyed, again linking art, community and life. In both these cases, art itself has been used to further the project in some form, be it the sustenance or comfort of those involved, again ensuring a forward momentum.

On the other hand, Doa Aly’s contribution is more theoretical. An Egyptian artist, the political uprisings in her country led her to consider how artists could function and contribute to a new system. Unsure of the questions that needed to be addressed, she compiled a list of questions written by others, contributing a selection instead of a visual piece. Once more, momentum is suggested through this bibliographic gesture, as while answers are not initially provided, the compilation of a list stimulates the search for the solutions, and ensures its continual relevance.

Another artist ‘present’ is Karim Rafi, a sound artist and poet. Unable to come physically to the Biennale, Rafi maintains a constant digital link to the project, emailing an image and/or text every day which is placed on the desk he chose for Venice. By setting up his own proxy desk in Casablanca and sending communications each day, Rafi has enacts a performance that relies on participation in a digital sense, therefore mimicking the media’s effects within society. Through this method, Rafi overcomes spatial distance to maintain a proximity to the project, while also highlighting a key aspect of life in the digital age: social interaction via digital surrogates. This performative work again may continue indefinitely, reliant only on access to an internet connection.

This reliance on digital media is also reflected in the general ethos of Working for Change, which strives to maintain connections with both the Biennale and the outside world. Karroum has insisted upon dialogue with pavilions facing political and societal changes, including China and Egypt. The discussions are also filmed and put online, ensuring that Working for Change is both capable of fostering new dialogue within the Biennale, and making this accessible in a larger context. This act similarly allows Karroum to investigate the position of art within both the Biennale and the national country, with the discussions highlighting any discrepancies between the two. Furthermore, satellite television broadcasts BBC and Al-Jazeera in the project space, allowing the artists and curators to keep up-to-date. As Karroum suggests, today the media moves faster than art: the inclusion of the television therefore narrows this gap, helping Working for Change remain connected to world events, and potentially reflect them instantly.

Working for Change then certainly fulfils its title. Instead of a singular exposition, the momentum of this exhibition ensures its efficacy as an active movement, considering both the position of art in society, and suggesting a way for art to directly affect that society – by being intrinsically linked to it. Each artist reflects an area of the interaction of art and society, and their staggered occupation of the Biennale and the extension in Rabat that will occur later prevents any stagnation of the project. Furthermore, the project’s presence online, continually accessible, means the work being done here will remain influential outside the temporal limits of a fixed-term exhibition. Tied directly to Karroum’s conviction that today’s political scenarios are linked to the activist work of artists, Working for Change is symptomatic of a longer-term commitment to art as social change.

Think back to the last socially-responsible art exhibition you saw. Now consider the example of Working for Change. Which do you think will be the most influential?

 Jen Owen

www.radioapartment22.com

Title: Georgian Pavilion: Any-Medium-Whatever

Artist: Tamara Kvesitadze

Curator: Henk Slager

Venue: Palazzo Pisani S. Marina

Simultaneously seductive and disturbing, the undulating forms employed by Tamara Kvesitadze in Any-Medium-Whatever allude to some of the most oppressive methods utilised by humans in their struggle to inhabit the earth. Yet Kvesitadze’s social agenda is not expressed explosively, or as a militant call-to-arms screeching out at the viewer. Instead, it is her sedate methodology that lends this exhibition its poignant impact, as by illuminating the darker elements of human nature and positing a feasible alternative, Kvesitadze manages to communicate important insights to the viewer both aesthetically and conceptually.

Having already exhibited at the Venice Biennale in a 2007 group show, this solo exhibit has offered Kvesitadze the opportunity to revisit her concerns on a larger scale. But while admitting that her focus on the aesthetic has slackened (a primary factor guiding her self-confessed “romantic” exhibit Man/Woman back in 2007), it is clear that the visual still plays an important role in imparting Kvesitadze’s conceptual intentions to the viewer.

Any-Medium-Whatever features five works that consider the past, present or future consequences of human territorialisation, and our interactions as a species. It also begins with the end: Untitled, a sculptural-yet-painterly image of the debris left lingering once life has passed away provides a striking opening, with appliqué objects appearing to bleed back into their support, as the connections between them slowly erase. But Untitled also shares the space with the mechanical gestures of F=-F, which dictates the atmosphere of the area and inflects upon our reading of the artwork, preventing it being considered in isolation as an aesthetic object. Untitled is, according to the curator Henk Slager, a “conceptual anchorpoint”, both a history and a future, related to the struggles for territorialisation occurring elsewhere in the exhibition.

From consequence, one progresses to cause. A paragon of rigidity, formula, of change without real change, F=-F is a mesmerising exercise in vision, both inviting one’s gaze and forcing our rejection of it in disgust. On first glance the installation appears simple, as the sleek white masks bend to and fro betraying little of the complex machinations controlling them - until one hears the gently audible sounds of machinery, or views it from the side. But within the repeated motion of these generic masks, this regimented grid format effectively draws attention to the selfish, threatening and above all pointless modes by which humans clamour to occupy space to the detriment of others. This political message, enhanced by the machine’s control and the militaristic organisation of the aesthetic is however balanced by a personal one – something Kvesitadze is keen to emphasise. And it is indeed more by allusion to ourselves, through the potential to relate these generic forms to daily interaction that this work achieves its impact, in conjunction with the simultaneous beauty and repulsion of this oscillating object.

However, if one still struggles with the message Kvesitadze wishes to express, one may find the answershanging in the dark shadows behind F=-F, as Sphere places the present state of human territorialisation in lucid perspective. Deceptively static, a closer look reveals that this work also expresses the momentum of change and mutation, while also revealing the absurdity of the temporary change in the balance of power. Featuring once more the blank faces, crowded onto a sphere reminiscent of earth, these forms push in and out in fluid motion, recalling the controlled regularity of F=-F. But here the urgency of Kvesitadze’s message becomes more intense, as the pressure of human interactions are displayed more tangibly, as the weight of the sphere bears down on the swelling faces. Furthermore, the decision to conceal the mechanics involved manage to make the viewer more subtly aware of the distorting, disturbing and quite sinister effects one person’s struggle for territory can have on those around them. And it is through this simplicity, and the universal nature of the generalised, idealised forms, that the message Kvesitadze wishes to impart – for people to consider their effect upon others, and to strive for more equal interaction – is emotively expressed to the viewer.

Yet as the title suggests, these concepts may be expressed in multiple ways, and the final static works of this exhibition also contribute to Kvesitadze’s social agenda. Disappearance once again features the generic masks, allowing it to retain congruity with the other works. But in representing the figures fading equally into oblivion, this time in a static fashion, Kvesitadze reinforces the idea that no matter how hard one strives for dominance, with the passing of time each will disappear in equal fashion.

The final work Relationship dominates the outside courtyard, and while extending the scope of the preceding works, it is also far removed from them both aesthetically and conceptually. Light layers combined with a totemic verticality provides a liberation from the soulless mutation of Sphere or F=-F, which continue to mutate without achieving equality or sustainability. Relationship is an ideal, representing a balanced vision of humanity that is not concerned with reducing the ‘other’ in order to expand, but strives to coexist harmoniously. By providing this alternative scenario, Kvesitadze manages to summarise the messages prevalent in this exhibition, whilst still maintaining the balance of attractive aesthetic and significant, meaningful expression.

Kvesitadze is deeply invested in her project, utilising here what she considers the positive platform of the Biennale to pursue a social agenda that is easily accessible to the viewer. And it is also clear that she consistently balances her political considerations with the personal pain that first inspired her to create these works. While she declares that in art “you can be a revolutionary”, it is just as important for Kvesitadze that the ideas be expressed with subtlety and deliberation, adding that this method “could perhaps bring more results than a demonstration”.

And it is clearly this unwillingness to be abrasive or militant in her pursuit of a social agenda that makes these works so effective at highlighting the means by which we reduce and affect others. By her reliance on simple (and often beautiful) aesthetic forms, combined with the at-times visible and audible mechanical processes, we become startlingly aware of the sinister processes we utilise, and which have negative effects on others. Kvesitadze makes it clear that too often one person’s success is to the detriment of others, and by the hopeful message of Relationship forces a rethink of our oblivious natures. While the simplicity of this final work is based on an idealistic vision of equality that many may wish to view as outdated, this counterpoint to F=-F and Sphere is necessary to providing us with the final impetus for change, and is an alternative that should be embraced.

Any-Medium-Whatever does not need to resort to short-lived shock tactics in order to express its poignant message. Here the works are presented without fuss or exclamation, and this subtle staging is undoubtedly what lends this exhibition its lasting resonance – probably the most important factor that will provoke us to change.

Jen Owen

Title: outside itself

Artist: Federico Díaz

Curator: Alanna Heiss

Venue: Arsenale Novissimo Nappa 90

Jen Owen interviews Federico Diaz:

Jen Owen: Are you excited to be working with the Venice Biennale on this installation?

Federico Diaz: I have a very close relationship with Italy – my family and I lived in Milan in the 80s. I visited the Biennale for the first time when I was nine and we’ve been there every two years ever since. So for me the Biennale is like a long-time dream, and with the new installation outside itself, I’ve now entered it.

JO: How much does this new work connect to previous themes and your general outlook on art?

FD: ‘Outside Itself’ follows up on the project Geometric Death Frequency 141, which is now at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The character and creative process are similar. In both cases, the entire form of the installation is based on algorithms and assembled by robots. ‘Outside Itself’ is a new evolutionary phase in which visitors walking through the installation have a direct impact on the resulting form.

JO: How important are aesthetic concerns? For example the black spheres?

FD: I have long been fascinated by the space we do not perceive and which is more significant for me than the reality we are able see. Our senses are limited and what is visible is not necessarily what is important. Black is the manifestation of the space that creates us. Black spheres represent photons.

JO: What do you feel will be gleaned from the finished sculpture, when all the people have come and gone and influenced its form? Do you feel it will be a ‘readable’ representation of the visitor group, or is it intended to be a more impenetrable mechanical reflection?

FD: Visitors will see three parts of the installation. The first part is the space where robots stick together the structure composed of black spheres. The second space that visitors walk through gradually fills into a monumental form made of 250,000 spheres. The third part is a projection where we see a moving structure of black dots reacting to the visitors’ movements. This projection is mapped out onto a structure made of spheres. Everything is linked and without providing a complicated explanation, people will understand that they, too, have the ability to create the final, resulting form.

JO: Your new installation is naturally very tied to the Biennale’s theme ILLUMInations. While it expands upon ideas you presented at Mass MoCA, was it designed to tie so directly in to the Venice thematic this year?

FD: Yes, ‘Outside Itself’ follows up on Geometric Death Frequency 141 very naturally. Already at MASS MoCA, the form was created by objectifying light. The black spheres represent individual photons. ‘Outside Itself’ gradually emerges as infrared sensors track people’s movements in the installation. As a result, over the course of the entire Biennale from June till September, a sort of map will be generated that will be the basis for the resulting form composed of individual spheres. The sculpture is produced from data, and the data is different every day based on how quickly people go through and what colour clothing they have on. What is responsible for this is the interaction between the photons reflecting off people’s bodies. So light is brought in by people and they then create the form.

JO: With regards to the human interactivity, how important to your work is the idea that it is merely a human presence that controls the robots? For example, is it key to your work that there is no actual direct link, merely a visual connection free from control?

FD: Each photon has a unique position both in our world and in the virtual world, in the simulation we create. Movement is not predicted. Each sphere has its own unique position that is different and changes from moment to moment. It is a system of chaos. We don’t know what outside itself will look like at the end or even how it will begin. As it would be impossible to create the object and form manually, it is adhered together by robots that directly gather information about the people. Always at the end of the day, the software evaluates the map of people’s movements and starts to build the structure out of black spheres.

JO: It is suggested that viewers of all ages and nationalities will influence the sculpture’s form, and yet they are merely reflected via sight into a mechanical process – do you feel that this moves a step beyond the social networking and human use of technology today, as the viewer merely becomes a visual stimulus with no further input than presence?

FD: When a person gets dressed in the morning, their clothing says something about their personality and the colour their psychology. Each colour reflects light differently, and this is the basis for how we perceive it and how it has an effect on us. The resulting form mirrors the social networks of the people who went through the Arsenal in the course of Biennale di Venezia. The mechanical process of the robots is the extended arm of our space we don’t perceive. Without the robots, the installation would not and could not have come into being.

JO: Regardless of the technological and mathematical links, this speaks to me about the power of spectatorship and empathetic mirroring in society. Was this something that also inspired your project?

FD: Yes, the main statement is that Art is not art if human hands bring it into existence. I want to provocatively state that what’s important is the idea. Society’s mental field. Collective morphological fields inspire me.

JO: Is it important to you that this is all mathematically programmed and carried out by machines, rather than allowing any further creative interpretation by a human? Do you often work with rationalised responses to humanity’s presence?

FD: Mathematical processes are the language of nature, but it’s not important to emphasise them. They are the essence of the installation, and the algorithms are controlled by Robots. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote his book on a typing machine and the publisher did not want to publish it, arguing that the book was written by a machine. Those are the beginnings of mechanics. Without human input, the mechanism doesn’t work. Robots will stand still. Let’s understand that they are just a new perspective so that we can understand the relationships that are not visible to us.

JO: The use of identical black spheres will no doubt somewhat erase the diversity of the audience that shapes it. Was this your intention?

FD: This year I am writing the Manifesto Nero. Black is fundamental, just like White. They are borderline colours that join us with the world beyond the limits of our senses.

JO: The Venice Biennale is, much like your installation, a reflection of its constituent parts and those that come to see it. Do you have any comments on the Biennale as a collective artistic enterprise, and on the aims of this bi-annual event?

FD: The Biennale is celebrating its 116th anniversary; it is the oldest international exhibition in the world with an enormous history. The significance and joining of all nations underlines this – and this is another reason for ILLUMInations this year.

Artist: Dmitri Prigov

Curator: Dimitri Ozerkov

Venue: Universita Ca’ Foscari, Dorsoduro 3246 (Calle Foscari)

Challenging the viewer from the moment they step through the dark curtains, this exhibition by Dmitri Prigov thrusts the viewer into a tense, threatening environment. Initially faced by a shrouded man banging on a manuscript and shouting in Russian, we are however acutely aware that the sounds around us are not solely accounted for by this image. Our curiosity grows, and as we step through the second set of curtains we are faced by what appears to be the true(r) source of the aggressive noises, as two men sit in chairs shouting at one another. But once again, we do not have the ‘full’ story. Casting our glances back over the forbidding curtains behind us, we move forward to continue this tense experience with the third man, who retells a story in an increasingly emphatic tone.

While this corridor of tension is intriguing, despite all attempt to linger and watch the entire sequence, it is hard to remain within the curtains for any length of time. Instead, one longs for the white space beyond the final projection. And yet even on escaping this channelled aggression, the graphic drawings and installations of Prigov are infected with the tension and anger embodied in the initial videos. While both absurd and at times disconcerting images, the noise that resonates through this exhibition, as well as our memory of the initial projections feeds into the graphic works, with sight, concealment and above all discomfort coming to the fore as the major themes expressed in Dmitri Prigov.

Jennifer Owen

Title: Lucid Dreams

Artist: Cristiano Pintaldi

Curator: Achille Bonito Oliva

Venue: Ex Cantiere Navale, Castello 40 (San Pietro di Castello)

Rather than through the specific images themselves, it is through the labour-intensive process involved in their creation that the conceptual strength of Lucid Dreams is articulated. On viewing these works up close, the large-scale images transform into abstract configurations of red, green and blue, imitating the methods used to translate video images onto a television screen. But while relying on the methodology of the televisual medium, these paintings still manage to provoke a startling realisation of the constructed nature of images.

Pintaldi’s emphasis on the created or ‘composed’ image is conveyed through his laborious process, making one heavily aware of the method by which television transmits media images to the viewer, reducing our visual experience to unintelligible pixels. Furthermore, the discrepancy between the black and white images visible from a distance, and the RGB components visible up-close is particularly illuminating, forcing you to question the images one trusts from afar.

For Pintaldi, these images also reflect the conjunction of individual images – our own perceptions of singular events – and mass images, which we all acknowledge as ‘real’ despite their presentation to us through the edited perspective of the media. By emphasising their painterly structure, these works therefore draw our attention to the formulated media image, arousing our suspicion of these everyday Lucid Dreams.

Jennifer Owen

Norway

(part 1)

'The State of Things': Series of lectures at various institutes across Venice, programme available here:  http://www.oca.no/programme/norway-in-venice/venice-biennale-2011/the-state-of-things 

Lecturers: Judith Butler, Vandana Shiva, Franco Berardi, T.J. Clark, Jacques Ranciere, Eyal Weizman 

(part 2)

'Beyond Death: Viral Discontents and Contemporary Notions about AIDS' with artist Bjarne Melgaard 

Curator: Pablo Lafuente, Marta Kuzma and Peter Osborne 

Location: Various

Laura Stocks interviews curator Pablo Lafuente 

Laura Stocks: This year Norway is independent of the Nordic Pavilion. In what way does the absence of the pavilion affect Norway’s representation?

Pablo Lafuente: The temporary interruption of the collaboration with Finland and Sweden in the Nordic Pavilion in the Giardini, which is going to last for three editions of the Biennale, was for us an opportunity to try new models of national representation and new relationships to audiences in a context that does not often enough lend itself to it. By liberating us from having to organise an exhibition in the actual pavilion, it allowed us to explore what kind of relationships art could establish with other fields within the Biennale, with the urgencies affecting the world today, and with the local – institutional and individual – scene in the city. After a lot of discussion, we decided to organise two programmes – The State of Things and Beyond Death: Viral Discontents and Contemporary Notions about AIDS, the latter led by artist Bjarne Melgaard – that explored what we thought were key issues and did so in collaboration with local institutions such as Università Iuav di Venezia, the Fondazione Querini Stampalia or Università Ca’ Foscari di Venezia, and through discursive and pedagogical programmes.

LS: ‘The State of Things’ is initially based on the concept of the Nansen passport, how does this reference or relate to contemporary nationalities?

PL: We thought that the figure of Nansen and his passport were extremely suggestive and we thought a productive image for our times – he professed a genuine internationalism that was put at the service of those minorities that were oppressed or not recognised by the established political and administrative structures.  In the current situation, when it is not easy to find such attitude, we thought invoking Nansen’s figure would serve as a wake up call and perhaps as a model for action.

LS: Current political, social and economic issues are global in scope; to what extent does this transcend the representation of individual national identity?

PL: Norway has traditionally adopted a role of international mediation, already from Nansen’s time. And this is something we wanted to reflect. But, as you say, urgent issues are very often, if not always, of international significance. The tensions and conflicts affecting one society are never exactly the same as another’s, but it is possible to find close parallels between different contexts, as exemplified by the recent public revolts and citizens’ movements in Tunisia, Chile, Egypt, Spain, Yemen, Israel or Greece, or the racist political discourse that certain parties and sectors of society of considerable size promote in France, the US, the Netherlands or Norway.

LS: What was the criterion for the chosen intellectual speakers? 

PL: We approached thinkers, activists, philosophers, writers… whom we respected, and whom we thought had a track record and a contemporary history of engagement with the situation of the world, be it as thinkers or agents/activists. We aimed to ask a diverse set, in geographical and professional terms. The specific issues were to be selected by them, and we wanted to make sure that there was, if not a comprehensive list of key issues, at least one that was diverse enough to offer a complex picture of the problems affecting the world today.

LS: How can art and large multinational events, such as the biennale, be used to take on a social responsibility?

PL: Discussion is always important, on every scale and context. Key issues and voices are often ignored in the world at large, or not given enough time and space. The contemporary art context has proved to be able to function as a good platform for discussion, although this hasn’t been always explored in full. This activity has been mostly absent from the Venice Biennale, and we thought there was no reason to continue that way. In fact, we thought that a platform with the visibility and profile of the Venice Biennale could not ignore this possibility (or, if you want, responsibility) to think about the world that surrounds it.

Once that is decided, each context will allow for and demand specific approaches. A look at the pedagogical activities of, for example, documenta 12 or the 1998 Bienal de São Paulo can show how social responsibility can be tackled.

LS: The series of lectures for ‘The State of Things’ are disseminated orally. What is the effect of this type of discourse and how does this differ from visual forms? 

PL: The lectures are given in different Venues in Venice throughout the duration of the Biennale. They are also broadcast live through OCA’s website, and the recordings archived there. Sections from the lectures have been posted on YouTube. A book will appear, upon the conclusion of the programme, with revised transcriptions of the lectures. All these formats aim to reach as wide an audience as possible – those who were in Venice during the opening, those who live or visit Venice subsequently, those who come to OCA’s website because they are already interested, and those who come across them by chance on the Internet. All these formats offer different types of access, experiences and agencies, but in general they allow for a displaced experience (in time and in space) that a conventional exhibition hardly ever achieves.

LS: Whom is the intended audience, considering the intellectual and complex content of the lectures?

 PL: The audiences are many: art audiences (those visiting Venice and those who become aware of the project through our marketing initiatives), academic audiences in Venice (university students, researchers and teachers, who we have targeted throughout), and individuals, worldwide, who might be interested in the work of Vandana Shiva, Judith Butler, Saskia Sassen, Eyal Weizman, T.J. Clark or any of the other speakers, and who, as I pointed out above, may come across the lectures by chance.

The content, as you say, is complex, but not targeted to academics. The lecturers have until now articulated those ideas with clarity, and there is no reason why anyone who speaks English could not engage with them.

LS: The programme ‘Beyond Death: viral discontents and contemporary notions about aids’ simultaneously forms part of Norway’s representation at the biennale. The four-month course involves participating students, how will a larger audience effectively receive the information?

PL: We have informed about the nature of this programme and its different levels of audiences through emails, through the catalogue, press releases… The immediate audience is the students, who have worked with Melgaard for four months. They have also worked on an exhibition, ‘Baton Sinister’, that was open to the public, and that offered a hint on the work done throughout the four months. So this audience is a second-level audience whom the project is not directed to, but who can engage with its ideas and formalisations regardless. Then there are discussions, such as this one, in which hopefully the format and the ideas of the project are reflected upon.

LS: The course relies on the engagement of its students. How heavily does involvement from the public make for a successful understanding to Norway’s representation this year?

PL: We had very clear in our heads that we were not interested in conventional relations to audiences, as is normally the case in Venice: very simply, perhaps too simply, these consist on putting together an exhibition among many, and hoping visitors to the city decide to visit it. We wanted to work with more specific audiences (students, Venice-based people) without forgetting about the usual Venice visitors and others who don’t go there. Discourse has a different set of channels of distribution from ‘physical’ art, and some shared problems as well as others, different ones. For us it is very important the discussions are accessed, at the time the lecture is given, but also subsequently. 

LS: Bjarne Melgaard, who leads ‘Beyond Death’, is a Norwegian artist - in what way (if at all) does the programme explicitly reference Norwegian society?

PL: Melgaard was invited to develop a programme for the students in relation to AIDS and its representations today. He devised the detail of the programme, and he taught it, together with guests he invited. The programme doesn’t make explicit reference to Norwegian society, although it reflects on an issue that seems to have been forgotten, although it is still important for those affected, directly or indirectly, within Norway and outside of Norway.

LS: What is Norway’s main aim by including such social and cultural issues? 

PL: As curators, Marta Kuzma, Peter Osborne and myself wanted to highlight the importance of placing art within the world at large. AIDS was a key issue for art and the artists in the 1980s and 90s, but it has now almost disappeared as a topic – while remaining a key emergency in the world, especially in parts of it. We thought it was important to address it.

LS: Would you say art has a responsibility to engage in politics?

PL: It’s difficult to talk in general. ‘Art’ is too abstract to have agency, and therefore responsibility. My colleagues and I, as curators of the Norwegian representation, felt a responsibility to use this opportunity to engage in social and political issues.

Interviews with:

Liang Yuanwei, and Yang Maoyuan

Leah Gordon

BADco. Collective

Diohandi

Michael Parekowhai

Ho Tzu Nyen or June Yap (curator)

Hajnal Nemeth

Ayse Erkmen

Hany Armonious

Oksana Mas

Andrea Thal

Mabel Palacin

Fia Backström and Andreas Eriksson

Mike Nelson

Gerard Byrne

Karla Black and curator

Shadia and Raja Alem

Francisco Tropa

Sigalit Landau

Polly Morgan

Mary Angela Schroth (curator)

Markus Schinwald

Mary Angela Schroth (curator)

Katerina Gregos (Curator)

Emil Aleksiev (curator)

Marianna Christofides and Elizabeth Hoak-Doering

Gavin Rain

Sarah Gold and Karlyn de Jongh

Georgy Mamedov

Reem Al Ghaith, Abdullah Al Saadi and Lateefa Bint Maktoum

Sanja Kojic Mladenov (curator)

Guus Peumer (curator)

Yael Bartana

Alessandro Librio & Margherita Berloni (EB&Flux)

Federico Diaz

Tamara Kvesitadze

Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania

Kristaps Ģelzis

Abdellah Karroum

Darius Miksys

Driant Zeneli

Beral Madra (curator)

Dr Susanne Gaensheimer (curator)

Tabaimo

Martine Feipel and Jean Bechameil. Kevin Muhlen (curator)

The State of Things’

Lyndi Sales

Dora Garcia and Katya Garcia-Anton (curator)

Hsieh Chun-te

Albania Pavilion: Geopathies

Artists: Anila Rubiku, Orion Shima, Gentian Shkurti, Eltjon Valle, Driant Zeneli

Curator: Riccardo Caldura

Venue: Spazio Rolak, Giudecca 211/b

Images of Driant Zeneli’s work, courtesy of Driant Zeneli and Prometeogallery di Ida Pisani:

Some say the moon is easy to touch…- video - 05’00” 2011

This is a Castle! 2010

The Dream of Icarus was to make a Cloud - video - 4’05” 2009

Kamila Kocialkowska interviews Driant Zeneli

  "I am interested in the road that leads to utopia, when it is still imbued with dreams" says Driant Zeneli, the Albanian representative of this year’s Venice Biennale. "Someone once said that utopia is like the horizon, you take one step towards it and it moves ten steps away, you take twenty steps and it moves twenty steps away. As you walk, you never reach it."

It’s a bold statement for the artist, considering that, by and large, utopia is a woefully outdated concept within the contemporary art world. Its generally perceived to be suggestive of a naïve idealism, a quixotic hopefulness, it’s seen as misplaced notion, an irregular piece in the jig saw of the twenty-first century world view.

But for Zeneli, it is precisely the Romantic inflection and replete historical significance of Utopia which offers us an engaging and unique new lens through which to view the changing nature of national identity.

The diversity of Albania’s historical and political past is continually evoked in his performance-based work. As for many Eastern European artists, one of his key focuses is dealing with the aftermath of communism in the country. Much of his work stems from the foundational paradox that the bleak reality of the Soviet state was built upon a fairytale of Utopia.

“About a year ago, my dream was to touch the moon” says the artist, “a dream that had haunted me. Over the past eighteen years, the moon had never been so close to the earth, so my desire became a necessity. On 20 March 2011, finally, I used a bungee jump, in the middle of the night to touch the reflection of the moon in a lake. This is the work I am exhibiting for the 54th Biennale”.

Kamila Kocialkowska: Your work This is a Castle (2010) documents some of the post-communist architecture of Albania. How far do you feel architecture can represent the identity of a nation?

Driant Zeneli: I don’t believe that architecture only belongs to those who realized it, but also to the people who actually live in it, as well as people who perceive it from the outside.

The history of Albanian architecture is pretty interesting. During the Communist regime between 1950-1990, the dictator Enver Hoxha built approximately five hundred thousand bunkers throughout the country, and in recent times, some free-thinkers like Ludwig II of Bavaria have been building castles instead.

Albania has gone through some fairly extreme economic developments in recent decades, both covering the Communist era of fast food and low costs, and then seemingly embarking upon a paradoxical “return” to the middle Ages. The castles built in the last decade in Albania are mostly restaurants or public places intended for fun and for consumption. 

I was deeply intrigued by this peculiar and unusual take on the built environment, so I proposed a trip across Albania as tourists and archaeologist along with gallery owner Ida Pisani and curator Denis Isaia. Ida Pisani photographed me in front of various castles, whilst Denis Isaia wrote down everything that happened on the trip. One of his diary entries reads; This is a Castle tells the story of the social, commercial, and architectural changes that are sweeping through the country after the fall of the Communism, and of the imbalances that are moving from the west towards the south and east, only to return in a sinister new form”.

KK: There is a palpable element of ‘heroism’ in your work. This particularly comes across in work such as your 2007 Mur-Art installation and the references to Icarus in your recent work. What’s your stance on the modern artist as hero?

DR: I certainly think that contemporary heroes could be compared to Icarus – after all, he was someone who tried to challenge the impossible. He relates to Samuel Beckett’s concept of an artist; someone who means to look for a failure which no one else dares.

Still, in common perception, the stereotype of the hero has been handed down by contemporary American culture. I explored this in my work Born in U.S. and A in 2007. President George W. Bush was then making a trip to Europe and would be visiting Albania, and you could sense a real enthusiasm in the people. The work I made in response to this was a photomontage made ​​by taking a photo of Diane Arbus, American Boy. I installed this image  on the wall of a building in Tirana during Bush’s visit.

KK: There is a poetic lyricism to your works such as The Dream of Icarus (2009), in which you succeed in creating a cloud. Is imbuing your work this is sort of neo-Romanticism important to you?  

DR: From my point of view, being Romantic means having a pinch of folly, being able to move’ a view, not only through the artist’s gesture and through image, but also through  imagination. Without these elements in art and life, we would not have even been able to realize this interview. For me Romanticism is primarily a dream – its pure, free escapism, but its also an illusion – like a lover who enchants or disenchants himself with its own imagination.

KK: You were born and brought up in Albania, but live in Italy. This put you in a uniquely informed position to fill the Albanian pavilion in Venice. How does your relation to both counties affect the work which you will be exhibiting here?

DR: I don’t think that this fact influences my work directly, especially the new work realized for the Venice Biennale, Some say the moon is easy to touch . However, I do certainly often feel that I live on a bridge, and this gives me some instability. However, at the same time, it gives me a chance to look from different points of view. 

But moving, nowadays, is common to men. I explored this notion in my 2008 video This will be my space!, which was more directly linked to concepts of mobility, travel and location. A month before leaving a house where I lived for a year (in Italy), the owner decided to rent it to other people. So with two hidden cameras I documented the passage of people interested in renting the house.
The video reflects on the concept of living space  that for many of us now has become like a sliding scale in which we all pass and no one stops.

Pavilion of Brazil - Artur Barrio: Registros + (Ex) Tensões y Pontos

Artist: Artur Barrio

Curators: Moacir dos Anjos, Agnaldo Farias

Venue: Pavilion at Giardini

Pavilion of Bulgaria - Bond of Generation

Artists: Greddy Assa, Pavel Koichev, Houben Tcherkelov

Curator: Georges Luks

Venue: Palazzo Carminati, Santa Croce 1882

Pavilion of Romania -

Performing History:

Artists: Ion Grigorescu, Anetta Mona Chisa, Lucia Tkacova

Curators: Maria Rus Bojan, Ami Barak

Venue: Pavilion at Giardini

Romanian Cultural Resolution-documentary:

Artists: Adrian Bojenoiu, Alexandru Niculescu

Venue: Istituto Romeno di Cultura e Ricerca Umanistica, Cannaregio 2214

Pavilion of Andorra - Més enllà de la visió  (Beyond vision)

Artists: Helena Guàrdia Ribó and Francisco Sánchez Sánchez

Curators: Paolo de Grandis, Josep M. Ubach Bernada

Venue: Chiesa di San Samuele, Campo San Samuele

Pavilion of the Republic of Azerbaijan: Relational of Baku

Artists: Mikayil Abdurahmanov, Zeigam Azizov, Khanlar Gasimov, Aga Ousseinov, Altay Sadikhzade, Aidan Salakhova

Curator: Beral Madra

Venue: Gervasuti Foundation, Fondamenta S.Anna (Via Garibaldi),Castello 995

Graham Lister interviews Beral Madra, curator of Relational, Of Baku, at the Azerbaijan Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale

“For me curating is being true to historical, socio-political developments, as well as to artist’s statements and preferences.”  At a time of increased communication, virtual movement and turbulent international affairs, events such as the Venice Biennale have an important role to play on the globalised cultural stage; not just in terms of showcasing the work stemming from a geographical location, but also in considering implications of trends in contemporary art practice and within the broader context of social responsibility.

As curator of the Azerbaijan Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale, Beral Madra has assembled a collection of works by artists who have different physical relationships to the capital city of Azerbaijan, Baku. Beral Madra has curated at 6 previous Venice Biennales, and coordinated the 1st and 2nd Istanbul Biennales. Over the last 30 years, she has been director of the BM Contemporary Art Centre in Istanbul. I asked her about Relational, of Baku in the Palazzo Benzon, which features work by Azerbaijani artists, Mikayil Abdurahmanov, Zeigam Azizov, Khanlar Gasimov, Aga Ousseinov, Altai Sadikhzadeh and Aidan Salakhova.

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Graham Lister [GL]: Can I start by asking what does the theme of the Biennale, ILLUMInations personally mean to you?

Beral Madra [BM]: It is quite difficult to entitle a biennale of this scale; the expectations of the artists, the sponsors and the public are different and to bring these expectations to a common idea is a hard task! I find Ms. Curiger’s [Visual Arts Director, 54th Venice Biennale] vision positive and optimistic – which to my opinion is the common position of the established institutions and their representatives in Europe and USA. When I try to support this title, I think: If there are over 80 countries in this Biennale participating with their national identities – which has not changed since a century - she has no other choice than to highlight this nation issue making it more elegant by adding the art-historical dimension related to European traditional painting! However, when I approach the title from a critical angle I think: The current state of affairs particularly in the Mediterranean is not allowing us to be so optimistic and positive. We are living in a transition process of questioning and overcoming the 20th century nation state ideologies, which is extremely polluted with racism, wild capitalism and political corruption. The artist in general and their production is in accordance with this reality and reflecting this rather chaotic and dramatic momentum. So the title is ambiguous; and maybe this was her intention.

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[GL]: This year, the Azerbaijan Pavilion exhibition is entitled Relational, of Baku. The range of work has been selected to exemplify the changes that have occurred in Baku, and more generally across geographical identities in art over the last three decades. Where once national identities were foregrounded, these have been moved aside in favour of cultural identities based on the city as the source of direct inspiration. Beral Madra sees curating as reflecting the personal social situations of artists and as such, has chosen to include practitioners who have a continuing relationship to the city of Baku. At the present time, Baku is becoming an extremely desirable tourist destination, and is considered by many to represent a link between Europe and Asia. Of the artists who feature, four of them, Aidan Salakhova, Khanlar Gasimov, Zeigam Azizov and Aga Ousseinov, although strongly connected to Baku as a city, pursue their practice in the major art centres of Moscow, New York and London. In their practice, one can clearly see a dialogue which has developed to an extent between perceived western and more eastern social issues, and at the same time, elements of the changing focus on city-states, rather than nation-states is touched upon.

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[GL]: In your text regarding the premise of the exhibition, you note that the ‘nation-state’ is an archaic system of organisation. How do you feel that this idea is explored via the work of the selected Azerbaijani artists? 

[BM]: Not only me, but the artists of the show are aware of the ‘globalised state of cultureand end of nation state and the complexity of being aware of this dialectical phenomenon; I mean the governments, the private sector and the public are still resisting to accept this reality whereas the artists are continuously indicating and underlining it. In this show, the artists are dealing with many stereotype convictions related to religion, 20th century modernist sociological and political remnants, to modernist capitalism and to individual positions and identities by going to their details, for example the veil and religious symbols (Aidan Salakhova), the origin and quest of the artist (Zeigam Azizov), the interpretation of recent-past history (Aga Ousseinov).

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[GL]: Indeed, the grouping of the works in the Palazzo Benzon means that a selection of visual and intellectual contrasts are created. This in turn creates a specific dialogue; one which relates to different time periods, to various socio-political concerns and to changing interpretations of personal identity. In effect, it appears that the content of the Azerbaijan Pavilion is connected to an underlying current of social and (inter)national responsibility; a concept which in itself is rapidly changing in technologically-driven, turbulent, globalised times.

The Azerbaijan Pavilion is located in the 1897 Palazzo Benzon. Beral Madra has said that she focused on “entering the building surreptitiously and leaving the works to make an impact on the viewer.” Her curatorial practice is focused around putting the artist at the centre of the process. The chosen theme for the pavilion was presented to the artists early on in the process, allowing them to develop their works with both the theme and with the intended exhibition space in mind. The Venice Biennale does not offer white cube spaces, but instead challenges artists and curators to work with, and to engage with the historical contexts in which the examples of contemporary art and design will exist. According to Madra, even the pavilions in the Giardini have a history, and it seems to be the case that the artists and indeed the curators have a responsibility to enter and adjust to the spaces themselves, rather than to overpower or challenge them.

Visitors to Biennales are often described as cultural tourists. Relational, of Baku, relates on a certain level to the touristic gaze, showcasing a particular aspect of the heritage of the city. In the graphic design for the pavilion a prehistoric drawing of gondolas from a rock formation near Baku is shown. This it would seem immediately connects with the overarching theme of the Bienalle, IllumiNATIONS; showcasing the timeless creation of artefacts and their continuing value in the contemporary world. It must be said though that although Madra notes that the touristic gaze is not something which a curator focuses upon, it is something of which she is all to aware; noting that after all, once the opening week has finished, “the exhibitions of 89 countries will be visited by anonymous tourists, who will all get their share [of Azerbaijani / Baku culture] from contemporary art manifestations.”

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[GL]: In the current globalised arena in which we exist, the term ‘Diaspora’ and its use has changed. Although some of the artists you have selected pursue their practice outside Azerbaijan, as a group of practitioners they clearly do not sit under a simple 1980s-type idea of diaspora, and I wonder if you could comment on how you would describe the interconnectedness of the exhibiting artists?

[BM]: As you indicate, this exhibition is not based on Diaspora production. It is based on the new culture policy of Azerbaijan, which in terms of contemporary art focuses on the creative individual, on interaction between the local and the international, on visibility in high level international events. There is an obvious interest in making a claim on the artists whose origin is Azerbaijan and a respect to their achievement in the international art scenes of other metropolis. These artists claim their rights to reflect their origins and to collaborate with the existing institutions.

 

 [GL]: Does the decision to show artists whose works reflect the cultural transitions from modernism, through postmodernism, toward relational aesthetics reflect general trends of artistic production in Baku?

[BM]: What we are presenting in this exhibition is quite significant: These artists represent the last generation in Azerbaijan who were born during SSCB. In their work we can trail a complex transition from modernism to relational aesthetics; they could not block their memory, but they could not escape the influence of today’s fusion of different streams of knowledge. Again, I would like to quote Bourriaud. He entitled his project for the Fourth Tate Triennial “Altermodern”. He said: “Altermodern’ is a word that intends to define the specific modernity according to the specific context we live in – globalization and its economic, political and cultural conditions”. From now on we will witness this process.

 

[GL]: Do you see events such as the Venice Biennale as theoretically having an underlying duty of social responsibility?

[BM]: Indeed yes; these events which present multi-cultural productions convey the true globalism to audiences that are still not aware of this phenomenon. On top of it, these events are platforms of individual freedom of expression. Artists in 90% of the world are living in non-democracies or poor-democracies; and in these countries they have multi-identities; the function as artists in the traditional sense, but as initiators of social movements and as agents of democracy. In international events, these artists can present their opinion and criticism and convey the democratic content of contemporary art to the attention of global public opinion.

 

[GL]: You have said that the Venice Biennale is an event for the privileged and less for emerging artists. Is this a situation that has developed recently, or has this consistently been your experience at this Biennale?

[BM]: For the lucky one’s Venice Biennale is a great opportunity to enter into the international art market. In many countries there is no-art market or only local-art market, so that artists are dependent on public money which is also not so abundant! Since a decade Venice Biennale – and also Istanbul Biennale -  have acquired an additional function other than opening new artistic trends and contemporary debates, namely they provide an opportunity to dealers, collectors and institutions to discover new art / young art. However, here it requires new moral values. The privileged part of the art world is not so aware of – or they just prefer to deny- the not so healthy negotiation between the market economies and art making. In other words, investment in art has become interference to art. I must say that there are very sophisticated “curators” and “directors” who prefer to play the game of power; they advocate “globalized state of culture” but act for “privileged state of culture”.

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[GL]: June 5th brought an interesting development to any consideration of the Azerbaijan pavilion. After apparent protests from the Azerbaijan President, Ilham Aliyev, two sculptures by Aidan Salakhova, were covered up by pieces of cloth at the entrance to the Palazzo Benzon. Azerbaijan is a secular Muslim country and both works are linked with contemporary attitudes toward, and current issues surrounding faith. Waiting Bride 2010-2011, depicts a woman covered in a jet black veil, while another work comprises a replica  of the religious Black Stone (the eastern cornerstone of the Kabba, at the centre of the Grand Mosque in Mecca)  in a vagina-like marble frame. 

After visiting the exhibition prior to the official opening, it is reported that the President was unhappy with these works by Salakhova, being particularly concerned with the offence he perceived the pieces caused to Islam. The official line is that apparently the sculptures in question were damaged during transport to the Biennale. This may be the case but the speculation surrounding the act of covering these art works raises an interesting debate.

The censoring of any elements of any exhibition would appear to contravene the Venice Biennale’s underlying philosophy celebrating artistic expression, but this event in the Azerbaijan exhibition certainly brings up questions related to potential overall control of the content of the pavilions by the corresponding national government. At the fore of this particular issue are tensions which exist between artistic expression and religious beliefs, and the manner in which a country desires to be presented to the global audience. What is perhaps worrying is that if the censorship lasts for the duration of the Biennale the autonomy of Azerbaijani curators and perhaps the independence of artists can be seen to be superseded by governmental intervention. Right or wrong, stemming from a duty of perceived social responsibility or based on religious beliefs, the act of censoring the carefully chosen output of an artist or curator on this globalised stage is certainly a contentious issue for anyone involved in art.

Beral Madra is a curator and critic, and is director of the BM Contemporary Art Centre in Istanbul. http://bmsuma07.blogspot.com/

Graham Lister is an artist, writer and Visiting Staff Member at The Glasgow School of Art. http://community.thisiscentralstation.com/grahamlister

Country: Italian Pavilion

Artist: Multiple Artists 

Curator: Vittorio Sgarbi

Venue: Arsenale, Padiglione Italia, Tese and Giardino delle Vergini

Considering the sheer mass of artists in the Italian pavilion, it would be nothing short of inappropriate to try to ‘summarise’ the genres on display (and rather time-consuming). Work in multiple media is stacked, layered and crammed into the Italian pavilion on curved shelving to ensure the maximum space is utilised. Thus, like any exhibition featuring such a diverse range of artists, cohesion is the primary downfall of this presentation. And while this year coincidentally is the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification as a country (with many artists choosing to reference in their artworks), no overarching theme comes through explicitly to the overwhelmed viewer.

While summation is impossible, a notable strand of derivation from the world of ancient Rome and the Italian Renaissance pervades, in some cases leading to a repetition of models – two works both relying openly on Mantegna’s Dead Christ lead to shockingly similar artistic conclusions. These tend to be hit-or-miss, and rather than wade through the incoherent jumble, I would recommend spending time in the only cohesively effective section, the ‘museo della mafia’ section which occupies the suspended wooden platform.

This dark, oppressive environment chronicles the history of the mafia, and includes artistic interpretations of the subject. While a disturbing series of exhibits, this is a necessary counterweight to some of the optimistically naïve celebrations of Italy’s 150 years – and manages to leave a far deeper impression than the multiple green, white and red-coloured works that derive their sole meaning from those invested in the Italian flag.

Title: Entre Siempre y Jamás (Between Forever and Never)

Artist: Multiple Artists

Curator: Alfons Hug

Co-Curators: Paz Guevara, Patricia Rivadeneira, Alberto Saraiva

Venue: Arsenale, Isolotto, Pavilion of the Istituto Italo-Latinoamericano

Working for Change: Project for the Moroccan Pavilion

Curator: Abdellah Karroum 

Artist: Multiple participants

Venue: Spazio Punch, Ex Birrerie, Giudecca Island

Think back to the last politically or socially-orientated art exhibition you last saw. Perhaps you stopped by once, soaked in the atmosphere and left. Perhaps you visited on multiple occasions and discovered every last metaphor and subtext. But then the exhibition ends. The work is packed up, possibly sold, and the expressive or motivating impulses are paralysed; limited by the boundaries of conventional exhibition schedules.

That is not Working for Change. Instead this project, present at the Venice Biennale via Morocco, has sufficient momentum to ensure that its subject – artistic production within changing societies – will continue to be tackled long after leaving its temporary home. As Abdellah Karroum (curator) explains, there is no beginning, middle or end to this project: it is not a spectacle to be produced, exhibited and then discarded. Working  on the foundations of his ongoing project l’appartement22, Karroum designed this project to both benefit the artists selected, all of whom engage with the position of art in society, and to propose a new method for working with artists within the Biennale context. And while the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ may have formed the immediate context for Working for Change, it is clear from the outset that politics is not the only concern of these artists.

Rather than curate a traditional exhibition, Karroum instead invited artists to ‘occupy’ the space, working on table to discuss and potentially produce new work. This combination of research and production is a key aspect of the project, and is the first signifier that it has more potential than any finite exhibition. Resembling more a coordination office than a gallery or exhibition space, the Spazio Punch is filled with desks, not white walls and empty floor space. Some artists have already departed, leaving only traces behind, while others remain and some have yet to come: this tactic alone ensures the forward motion of the project.

An early occupant was Younès Rahmoun, a Moroccan artist, whose work Khamsa (Five) follows the artist’s attempt to form geometrical shapes from five wooden sticks, a reference to the five-branch star of Morocco. As such, the work acts as metaphor for the current political turmoil, by finding new configurations from old elements. However, through Rahmoun’s incorporation of the camera – the artist views his work from the lens and therefore creates hesitations – it also references the media’s involvement in societal changes. Furthermore, the video performance is accessible on the project website, allowing for a continual exposition and influence capable of extending the work infinitely beyond its initial performance in Venice.

A more practical approach has been taken by Tomas Colaço, a Portuguese artist, who has been present from the outset. Using a painting he brought to cover an old mattress and provide the artists and curators with a sofa, Colaço has adapted his existing work to the project. This is also reflected in his integration with the neighbours around the Spazio Punch, who are teaching him organic gardening and involving him in their community. This connection has already reaped benefits, assisting another artist with her project: setting up a living ‘still life’ for the opening night which was then consumed and destroyed, again linking art, community and life. In both these cases, art itself has been used to further the project in some form, be it the sustenance or comfort of those involved, again ensuring a forward momentum.

On the other hand, Doa Aly’s contribution is more theoretical. An Egyptian artist, the political uprisings in her country led her to consider how artists could function and contribute to a new system. Unsure of the questions that needed to be addressed, she compiled a list of questions written by others, contributing a selection instead of a visual piece. Once more, momentum is suggested through this bibliographic gesture, as while answers are not initially provided, the compilation of a list stimulates the search for the solutions, and ensures its continual relevance.

Another artist ‘present’ is Karim Rafi, a sound artist and poet. Unable to come physically to the Biennale, Rafi maintains a constant digital link to the project, emailing an image and/or text every day which is placed on the desk he chose for Venice. By setting up his own proxy desk in Casablanca and sending communications each day, Rafi has enacts a performance that relies on participation in a digital sense, therefore mimicking the media’s effects within society. Through this method, Rafi overcomes spatial distance to maintain a proximity to the project, while also highlighting a key aspect of life in the digital age: social interaction via digital surrogates. This performative work again may continue indefinitely, reliant only on access to an internet connection.

This reliance on digital media is also reflected in the general ethos of Working for Change, which strives to maintain connections with both the Biennale and the outside world. Karroum has insisted upon dialogue with pavilions facing political and societal changes, including China and Egypt. The discussions are also filmed and put online, ensuring that Working for Change is both capable of fostering new dialogue within the Biennale, and making this accessible in a larger context. This act similarly allows Karroum to investigate the position of art within both the Biennale and the national country, with the discussions highlighting any discrepancies between the two. Furthermore, satellite television broadcasts BBC and Al-Jazeera in the project space, allowing the artists and curators to keep up-to-date. As Karroum suggests, today the media moves faster than art: the inclusion of the television therefore narrows this gap, helping Working for Change remain connected to world events, and potentially reflect them instantly.

Working for Change then certainly fulfils its title. Instead of a singular exposition, the momentum of this exhibition ensures its efficacy as an active movement, considering both the position of art in society, and suggesting a way for art to directly affect that society – by being intrinsically linked to it. Each artist reflects an area of the interaction of art and society, and their staggered occupation of the Biennale and the extension in Rabat that will occur later prevents any stagnation of the project. Furthermore, the project’s presence online, continually accessible, means the work being done here will remain influential outside the temporal limits of a fixed-term exhibition. Tied directly to Karroum’s conviction that today’s political scenarios are linked to the activist work of artists, Working for Change is symptomatic of a longer-term commitment to art as social change.

Think back to the last socially-responsible art exhibition you saw. Now consider the example of Working for Change. Which do you think will be the most influential?

 Jen Owen

www.radioapartment22.com

Title: Georgian Pavilion: Any-Medium-Whatever

Artist: Tamara Kvesitadze

Curator: Henk Slager

Venue: Palazzo Pisani S. Marina

Simultaneously seductive and disturbing, the undulating forms employed by Tamara Kvesitadze in Any-Medium-Whatever allude to some of the most oppressive methods utilised by humans in their struggle to inhabit the earth. Yet Kvesitadze’s social agenda is not expressed explosively, or as a militant call-to-arms screeching out at the viewer. Instead, it is her sedate methodology that lends this exhibition its poignant impact, as by illuminating the darker elements of human nature and positing a feasible alternative, Kvesitadze manages to communicate important insights to the viewer both aesthetically and conceptually.

Having already exhibited at the Venice Biennale in a 2007 group show, this solo exhibit has offered Kvesitadze the opportunity to revisit her concerns on a larger scale. But while admitting that her focus on the aesthetic has slackened (a primary factor guiding her self-confessed “romantic” exhibit Man/Woman back in 2007), it is clear that the visual still plays an important role in imparting Kvesitadze’s conceptual intentions to the viewer.

Any-Medium-Whatever features five works that consider the past, present or future consequences of human territorialisation, and our interactions as a species. It also begins with the end: Untitled, a sculptural-yet-painterly image of the debris left lingering once life has passed away provides a striking opening, with appliqué objects appearing to bleed back into their support, as the connections between them slowly erase. But Untitled also shares the space with the mechanical gestures of F=-F, which dictates the atmosphere of the area and inflects upon our reading of the artwork, preventing it being considered in isolation as an aesthetic object. Untitled is, according to the curator Henk Slager, a “conceptual anchorpoint”, both a history and a future, related to the struggles for territorialisation occurring elsewhere in the exhibition.

From consequence, one progresses to cause. A paragon of rigidity, formula, of change without real change, F=-F is a mesmerising exercise in vision, both inviting one’s gaze and forcing our rejection of it in disgust. On first glance the installation appears simple, as the sleek white masks bend to and fro betraying little of the complex machinations controlling them - until one hears the gently audible sounds of machinery, or views it from the side. But within the repeated motion of these generic masks, this regimented grid format effectively draws attention to the selfish, threatening and above all pointless modes by which humans clamour to occupy space to the detriment of others. This political message, enhanced by the machine’s control and the militaristic organisation of the aesthetic is however balanced by a personal one – something Kvesitadze is keen to emphasise. And it is indeed more by allusion to ourselves, through the potential to relate these generic forms to daily interaction that this work achieves its impact, in conjunction with the simultaneous beauty and repulsion of this oscillating object.

However, if one still struggles with the message Kvesitadze wishes to express, one may find the answershanging in the dark shadows behind F=-F, as Sphere places the present state of human territorialisation in lucid perspective. Deceptively static, a closer look reveals that this work also expresses the momentum of change and mutation, while also revealing the absurdity of the temporary change in the balance of power. Featuring once more the blank faces, crowded onto a sphere reminiscent of earth, these forms push in and out in fluid motion, recalling the controlled regularity of F=-F. But here the urgency of Kvesitadze’s message becomes more intense, as the pressure of human interactions are displayed more tangibly, as the weight of the sphere bears down on the swelling faces. Furthermore, the decision to conceal the mechanics involved manage to make the viewer more subtly aware of the distorting, disturbing and quite sinister effects one person’s struggle for territory can have on those around them. And it is through this simplicity, and the universal nature of the generalised, idealised forms, that the message Kvesitadze wishes to impart – for people to consider their effect upon others, and to strive for more equal interaction – is emotively expressed to the viewer.

Yet as the title suggests, these concepts may be expressed in multiple ways, and the final static works of this exhibition also contribute to Kvesitadze’s social agenda. Disappearance once again features the generic masks, allowing it to retain congruity with the other works. But in representing the figures fading equally into oblivion, this time in a static fashion, Kvesitadze reinforces the idea that no matter how hard one strives for dominance, with the passing of time each will disappear in equal fashion.

The final work Relationship dominates the outside courtyard, and while extending the scope of the preceding works, it is also far removed from them both aesthetically and conceptually. Light layers combined with a totemic verticality provides a liberation from the soulless mutation of Sphere or F=-F, which continue to mutate without achieving equality or sustainability. Relationship is an ideal, representing a balanced vision of humanity that is not concerned with reducing the ‘other’ in order to expand, but strives to coexist harmoniously. By providing this alternative scenario, Kvesitadze manages to summarise the messages prevalent in this exhibition, whilst still maintaining the balance of attractive aesthetic and significant, meaningful expression.

Kvesitadze is deeply invested in her project, utilising here what she considers the positive platform of the Biennale to pursue a social agenda that is easily accessible to the viewer. And it is also clear that she consistently balances her political considerations with the personal pain that first inspired her to create these works. While she declares that in art “you can be a revolutionary”, it is just as important for Kvesitadze that the ideas be expressed with subtlety and deliberation, adding that this method “could perhaps bring more results than a demonstration”.

And it is clearly this unwillingness to be abrasive or militant in her pursuit of a social agenda that makes these works so effective at highlighting the means by which we reduce and affect others. By her reliance on simple (and often beautiful) aesthetic forms, combined with the at-times visible and audible mechanical processes, we become startlingly aware of the sinister processes we utilise, and which have negative effects on others. Kvesitadze makes it clear that too often one person’s success is to the detriment of others, and by the hopeful message of Relationship forces a rethink of our oblivious natures. While the simplicity of this final work is based on an idealistic vision of equality that many may wish to view as outdated, this counterpoint to F=-F and Sphere is necessary to providing us with the final impetus for change, and is an alternative that should be embraced.

Any-Medium-Whatever does not need to resort to short-lived shock tactics in order to express its poignant message. Here the works are presented without fuss or exclamation, and this subtle staging is undoubtedly what lends this exhibition its lasting resonance – probably the most important factor that will provoke us to change.

Jen Owen

Title: outside itself

Artist: Federico Díaz

Curator: Alanna Heiss

Venue: Arsenale Novissimo Nappa 90

Jen Owen interviews Federico Diaz:

Jen Owen: Are you excited to be working with the Venice Biennale on this installation?

Federico Diaz: I have a very close relationship with Italy – my family and I lived in Milan in the 80s. I visited the Biennale for the first time when I was nine and we’ve been there every two years ever since. So for me the Biennale is like a long-time dream, and with the new installation outside itself, I’ve now entered it.

JO: How much does this new work connect to previous themes and your general outlook on art?

FD: ‘Outside Itself’ follows up on the project Geometric Death Frequency 141, which is now at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The character and creative process are similar. In both cases, the entire form of the installation is based on algorithms and assembled by robots. ‘Outside Itself’ is a new evolutionary phase in which visitors walking through the installation have a direct impact on the resulting form.

JO: How important are aesthetic concerns? For example the black spheres?

FD: I have long been fascinated by the space we do not perceive and which is more significant for me than the reality we are able see. Our senses are limited and what is visible is not necessarily what is important. Black is the manifestation of the space that creates us. Black spheres represent photons.

JO: What do you feel will be gleaned from the finished sculpture, when all the people have come and gone and influenced its form? Do you feel it will be a ‘readable’ representation of the visitor group, or is it intended to be a more impenetrable mechanical reflection?

FD: Visitors will see three parts of the installation. The first part is the space where robots stick together the structure composed of black spheres. The second space that visitors walk through gradually fills into a monumental form made of 250,000 spheres. The third part is a projection where we see a moving structure of black dots reacting to the visitors’ movements. This projection is mapped out onto a structure made of spheres. Everything is linked and without providing a complicated explanation, people will understand that they, too, have the ability to create the final, resulting form.

JO: Your new installation is naturally very tied to the Biennale’s theme ILLUMInations. While it expands upon ideas you presented at Mass MoCA, was it designed to tie so directly in to the Venice thematic this year?

FD: Yes, ‘Outside Itself’ follows up on Geometric Death Frequency 141 very naturally. Already at MASS MoCA, the form was created by objectifying light. The black spheres represent individual photons. ‘Outside Itself’ gradually emerges as infrared sensors track people’s movements in the installation. As a result, over the course of the entire Biennale from June till September, a sort of map will be generated that will be the basis for the resulting form composed of individual spheres. The sculpture is produced from data, and the data is different every day based on how quickly people go through and what colour clothing they have on. What is responsible for this is the interaction between the photons reflecting off people’s bodies. So light is brought in by people and they then create the form.

JO: With regards to the human interactivity, how important to your work is the idea that it is merely a human presence that controls the robots? For example, is it key to your work that there is no actual direct link, merely a visual connection free from control?

FD: Each photon has a unique position both in our world and in the virtual world, in the simulation we create. Movement is not predicted. Each sphere has its own unique position that is different and changes from moment to moment. It is a system of chaos. We don’t know what outside itself will look like at the end or even how it will begin. As it would be impossible to create the object and form manually, it is adhered together by robots that directly gather information about the people. Always at the end of the day, the software evaluates the map of people’s movements and starts to build the structure out of black spheres.

JO: It is suggested that viewers of all ages and nationalities will influence the sculpture’s form, and yet they are merely reflected via sight into a mechanical process – do you feel that this moves a step beyond the social networking and human use of technology today, as the viewer merely becomes a visual stimulus with no further input than presence?

FD: When a person gets dressed in the morning, their clothing says something about their personality and the colour their psychology. Each colour reflects light differently, and this is the basis for how we perceive it and how it has an effect on us. The resulting form mirrors the social networks of the people who went through the Arsenal in the course of Biennale di Venezia. The mechanical process of the robots is the extended arm of our space we don’t perceive. Without the robots, the installation would not and could not have come into being.

JO: Regardless of the technological and mathematical links, this speaks to me about the power of spectatorship and empathetic mirroring in society. Was this something that also inspired your project?

FD: Yes, the main statement is that Art is not art if human hands bring it into existence. I want to provocatively state that what’s important is the idea. Society’s mental field. Collective morphological fields inspire me.

JO: Is it important to you that this is all mathematically programmed and carried out by machines, rather than allowing any further creative interpretation by a human? Do you often work with rationalised responses to humanity’s presence?

FD: Mathematical processes are the language of nature, but it’s not important to emphasise them. They are the essence of the installation, and the algorithms are controlled by Robots. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote his book on a typing machine and the publisher did not want to publish it, arguing that the book was written by a machine. Those are the beginnings of mechanics. Without human input, the mechanism doesn’t work. Robots will stand still. Let’s understand that they are just a new perspective so that we can understand the relationships that are not visible to us.

JO: The use of identical black spheres will no doubt somewhat erase the diversity of the audience that shapes it. Was this your intention?

FD: This year I am writing the Manifesto Nero. Black is fundamental, just like White. They are borderline colours that join us with the world beyond the limits of our senses.

JO: The Venice Biennale is, much like your installation, a reflection of its constituent parts and those that come to see it. Do you have any comments on the Biennale as a collective artistic enterprise, and on the aims of this bi-annual event?

FD: The Biennale is celebrating its 116th anniversary; it is the oldest international exhibition in the world with an enormous history. The significance and joining of all nations underlines this – and this is another reason for ILLUMInations this year.

Artist: Dmitri Prigov

Curator: Dimitri Ozerkov

Venue: Universita Ca’ Foscari, Dorsoduro 3246 (Calle Foscari)

Challenging the viewer from the moment they step through the dark curtains, this exhibition by Dmitri Prigov thrusts the viewer into a tense, threatening environment. Initially faced by a shrouded man banging on a manuscript and shouting in Russian, we are however acutely aware that the sounds around us are not solely accounted for by this image. Our curiosity grows, and as we step through the second set of curtains we are faced by what appears to be the true(r) source of the aggressive noises, as two men sit in chairs shouting at one another. But once again, we do not have the ‘full’ story. Casting our glances back over the forbidding curtains behind us, we move forward to continue this tense experience with the third man, who retells a story in an increasingly emphatic tone.

While this corridor of tension is intriguing, despite all attempt to linger and watch the entire sequence, it is hard to remain within the curtains for any length of time. Instead, one longs for the white space beyond the final projection. And yet even on escaping this channelled aggression, the graphic drawings and installations of Prigov are infected with the tension and anger embodied in the initial videos. While both absurd and at times disconcerting images, the noise that resonates through this exhibition, as well as our memory of the initial projections feeds into the graphic works, with sight, concealment and above all discomfort coming to the fore as the major themes expressed in Dmitri Prigov.

Jennifer Owen

Title: Lucid Dreams

Artist: Cristiano Pintaldi

Curator: Achille Bonito Oliva

Venue: Ex Cantiere Navale, Castello 40 (San Pietro di Castello)

Rather than through the specific images themselves, it is through the labour-intensive process involved in their creation that the conceptual strength of Lucid Dreams is articulated. On viewing these works up close, the large-scale images transform into abstract configurations of red, green and blue, imitating the methods used to translate video images onto a television screen. But while relying on the methodology of the televisual medium, these paintings still manage to provoke a startling realisation of the constructed nature of images.

Pintaldi’s emphasis on the created or ‘composed’ image is conveyed through his laborious process, making one heavily aware of the method by which television transmits media images to the viewer, reducing our visual experience to unintelligible pixels. Furthermore, the discrepancy between the black and white images visible from a distance, and the RGB components visible up-close is particularly illuminating, forcing you to question the images one trusts from afar.

For Pintaldi, these images also reflect the conjunction of individual images – our own perceptions of singular events – and mass images, which we all acknowledge as ‘real’ despite their presentation to us through the edited perspective of the media. By emphasising their painterly structure, these works therefore draw our attention to the formulated media image, arousing our suspicion of these everyday Lucid Dreams.

Jennifer Owen

Interviews with:

About:

A Virtual Biennale is a project produced by the LINE Magazine collective.

It seeks to document the Biennale through a coherent online format, where hierarchies are significantly flattened and the work exists purely in images. By transferring the physical to the virtual, the online Biennale emphasises the Fair's existence as a spectacle, which much like Venice, exists primarily in our imaginations and through the frame of the lens.

2011's Venice Biennale is titled 'Illuminations' and is curated by Bice Curriger. It seeks to 'unveil hidden truths.' Taking this idea as our lead, we hope to elucidate the truths that remain implicit within the Biennale and shed light on them through this webpage and a forthcoming edition of Line Magazine titled 'The Illuminated Artist'.

Over the next few weeks a series of interviews, reviews and critical essays will be added alongside these images. The texts will question the function and purpose of the Biennale in the age of globalisation, the social and political nature of some art showcased and the responsibility of its makers, curators and audience. It will also expose and question the corruption of funding, prizes and sponsorships at the Fair.

Members of the LINE collective:
Rachael Cloughton, Emily Burke, Kathryn Lloyd, Joao Abbott-Gribben, Jemma Craig, Jennifer Owen, Laura Stocks, Matthew Macaulay

Line Magazine was founded in 2010 by Rachael Cloughton and Thomas Carlile: linemagazine.tumblr.com / www.linemagazine.co.uk

© Rachael Cloughton 2011

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