Jun 07 2013

Field Trip: Venice, Beyond the Biennale

by HG Masters

Across the Arsenale was “Love Me, Love Me Not,” an exhibition of artists from the Caucasus, which the nonprofit Yarat produced. Here, a sculpture by Slavs & Tatars of Molla Nesreddin, The Antimodernist (2012) the collective’s mascot figure, famous across the Muslim world for his comic wisdom. 

No trip to Venice for the Biennale is limited to the Arsenale or the grounds of the Giardini. So many countries now participate in the festival that there isn’t space for all of them in the Biennale’s buildings; as a result, many national pavilions are housed in rented palazzos and warehouses spread out along the city’s waterways and far-flung islands. Seeing them all, or even a handful of them, with a map in hand to navigate labyrinthine Venice, is like a treasure hunt, complicated by crowded vaporetto rides, tricky bridge crossings and streets clogged with tour groups. In addition, private cultural spaces (run by billionaires), including the Prada Foundation, the Pinault Collection and the PinchukArtCentre, host exhibitions to capitalize on the large number of art viewers descending on Venice in the Biennale months. 

“Beep beep!” Director of the 55th Venice Biennale Massimiliano Gioni, panini in hand, speeding out of the Arsenale on a golf cart. 

Just outside the Arsenale’s entrance is the Hong Kong Pavilion, where Lee Kit installed his ever-so-subtle arrangements of objects, paintings and videos that come as close as possible to not being art—or anything, for that matter—at all. 

Two of Lee Kit’s videos in “You (you),” one of them showing a painted fabric work of his and the other with Kit’s hand delicately placing what looked like beans in various arrangements on a piece of fabric. 

China’s other SAR, Maccau also had a pavilion, entitled “PATO.Men,” by the artist and architect Carlos Marreiros. “Palace Theatre Of Memory Encyclopedic” was a riff on Gioni’s “Encyclopedic Palace” as in these two “soft” (Oldenburg-like) versions of Marino Auriti’s “Encyclopedic Palace of the World.” 

Marreiros is a constant and comical draughtsman, who creates characters of his own devising, here assembled on the surface of a surfboard that represented a contemporary Noah’s Ark. 

Along with the rather dismal official People’s Republic of China Pavilion, there were two large exhibitions of Chinese art on the far side of the Arsenale “Passage to History: 20 Years of La Biennale di Venezia and Chinese Contemporary Art” and the supersized “Voice of the Unseen: Chinese Independent Art 1979/Today,” curated by Wang Lin from the Guangdong Museum of Art. Ironically, the latter seemed intended for Chinese audiences, as there was scant information about the works on view and their website is in Chinese. 

In the style of Gilbert and George, this massive work by Taiwan-born Hou Chun-Ming. 

The welcome statement speaks for itself. 

In “Love Me, Love Me Not,” Farhad Moshiri’s “Kiosk de Curiosité” (2011), an installation of 550 carpets, each woven with a magazine cover and arranged like a newsstand.

Since the beginning of its participation in Venice in 2001, the People’s Republic of China has forbidden Taiwan from having a national pavilion (and the Venice Biennale slavishly bows to such political pressure). However, Taiwan’s exhibitions are consistently more relevant and professionally curated than the China Pavilion. Curated by Esther Lu, with artists Chia-Wei Hsu, Bernd Behr and Katerina Sedá + BATEZO MIKILU (a group of high school students), it was accurate, more than ever, to say “This is Not a Taiwan Pavilion.” 

Here, a table outside Chia-Wei Hsu’s video Marshal Tie Jia, named for the frog deity worshiped on the Matsu Islands (in the strait between Taiwan and the mainland) whose role as the secretive leader of the Chinbe Village is a mixture of lore and Chinese mythology. 

Chia-Wei Hsu’s video Marshal Tie Jia, showing a nighttime dance ritual on a pond. 

“Rhizoma: (Generation in Waiting)” was an Edge of Arabia production, co-curated by Sara Raza [AAP‘s West and Central Asia desk editor], featured young Saudi artists and looked at their interest in new-media practices. Here, Basmah Felemban’s Drawn Out Truths (2013), consisting of glass sheets etched with patterns resembling at niqab or burqah that viewers could put their face behind. 

“Otherwise Occupied,” the Palestinian Pavilion, featured Bashir Makhoul and Aissa Deebi. Here, Makhoul invited visitors to pile up boxes in the courtyard, until they resembled the hills of Palestine and the ad hoc houses that Palestinians construct for their families. 

At the Bangledesh Pavilion, “Supernatural,” installation was still underway, as Lala Rukh Selim puts the final touches on her piece “Life on the Delta” (2013). 

The Azerbaijan Pavilion, “Ornamentation” included Fakhriyya Mammodva’s “Girlish Dreams” series of 75 photos in these circular gold frames. 

Also in the Azerbaijan Pavilion, a sculpture by Rashad Alakbarov, which though a tangle of wires on the floor, casts the outline of a scholarly figure on the wall. 

“Winter,” the Central Asia Pavilion, was more subdued this year than in past editions. This architectural intervention by Kamilla Kurmanbekova and Erlan Tuyakov “Zhol (The Way)” (2013), led visitors between the different rooms. 

At the Iraq Pavilion, the Basra-based WAMI collective (comprised of Yaseen Wami, Hashim Taeeh) created this room of cardboard objects that contrasted sharply with the interior of the Venetian palazzo. 

On visit to the Pinault Collection’s Punta Della Dogana, huge paintings by Zeng Fanzhi from his series “This Land So Rich in Beauty” filled a central space. 

More interesting was the pairing of Arte Povera and Mono-ha works in the next room at the Punta Della Dogana. Two simultaneous movements from the late 1960s and early 1970s, in Italy and Japan, respectively, have much in common in their approach to raw materials boldly presented in simple, crude arrangements. A sculpture by Alighiero Boetti, a neon piece by Mario Merz, and Nobuo Sekine’s canvas Phase of Nothingness–Cloth and Stone (1970–94) are the background. In front is Kishio Suga’s Gap of the Entrance to Space, with 11 natural stones and 21 cut stones on a field of zinc plate.

The PinchukArtCentre in Kiev brought the works nominated for the “Future Generations Art Prize” to Venice, at the Palazzo Contarini Polignac. Here, Rayyane Tabet’s small cast-concrete building blocks were laid out on the groundfloor like a whole city in miniature. 

If you caught it at the right moment, Yan Xing’s installation with a naked man lying in bed staring at viewers was quite disarming, as if you were walking onto a movie set at the wrong moment. 

On Saturday June 1, members of the Turkish art community rallied in San Marco Square, at the Arsenale and in the Giardini to raise international awareness about the violence against protestors then happening in Istanbul. Here, the group outside the Arsenale, in front of the Hong Kong pavilion.

HG Masters is editor-at-large of ArtAsiaPacific and is based in Istanbul.