Apart from the alternate appeal of the national pavilions at the Giardini and the unavoidably touristy city of Venice, the main show at the Arsenale is what I look forward to the most, every time I visit the Biennale. The main reason is I like the idea of a main show with a theme and a title, with its own rhythm – which is also why I don't like art fairs: apart from the clutter of average-looking artworks that clogs your aesthetic perception five minutes in, there is just no story behind it. Following someone's narration, sticking to some kind of perspective, that's a real challenge.
I hope you will forgive me, then, if instead of focusing on what I thought were the highs and the lows of one of the biggest and most articulate art events in the world (as others have already done better than me by now) I will merely try and share my two cents about what I felt were the main differences between Bice Curiger's vision, the current ILLUMInations show, and Daniel Birnbaum's, the 2009 Making Worlds show.
As I reported for Ymag two years ago, Making Worlds reflected the increasing interest of the art community in architecture, along with issues like world development and sustainability. From its very title, a quote from analytic philosopher Nelson Goodman, that Biennale was a celebration of intellectual effort, an often future-oriented, rational vision of world making.
Bice Curiger's show has a different feel to it, meaning it seems to be much more about feeling, rather than thinking. Instead of building new worlds, the artists this year seem to be more concerned in exploring the old ones, digging through the layers of the past and their own personal memory. This is clear at the Giardini chapter of ILLUMInations, featuring paintings by Tintoretto and a psychedelic revisitation of traditional vedute by Pipilotti Rist, but also in the meta-pavilions by Song Dong and Franz West. The Chinese artist's work – a labyrinthine installation reproducing his childhood home through an architectural patchwork of old doors and panels – definitely contrasts with Yona Friedman's similarly aggregative approach from the previous Biennale: the former embodies a dialogue with the past, the latter a proliferating process involving scrap materials and legitimating itself in its own making. Like Dong, West also recreates a personal environment: his Viennese kitchen-studio, which for the occasion – unlike the functional Biennale café that earned Tobias Rehberger a Golden Lion in 2009 – is repurposed to host artworks by other artists.
Another subtler juxtaposition we could make is between the color-changing corridor by Cildo Meireles, from Making Worlds, and this year's installation by James Turrell. The former was a spatially divided transition across a well organized color palette, a walk through a physical architecture where each space sequentially related to the previous and the following one. The latter, instead, is rather a non-space, an experience of - supposed, alleged, as you prefer - perceptual and spiritual elevation, achieved by immobility and seamless chromatic transition.
I could make similar comparisons between national pavilions as well – the wood installation in this year's Russian pavilion, evoking a certain wearing effect of time, versus Liam Gillick's more aseptic and analytical use of the same material in the German pavilion, two years ago – but then we would get caught up in the personal narrative of each artist, which is not what I wanted to do here.
Overall, I had the feeling Curiger's show was – predictably, I guess – more feminine than Birnbaum's, at least more about those things that are most commonly associated with femininity – feeling, sensitivity, memory, and so on.
If Making Worlds was about conquering the future, using artworks to plan the changing of the world, ILLUMInations starts from a rather traditional notion of art: a life-changing inspiration. Of course such light cannot be shed by art alone, but a good piece can reflect that light. And it's the case of Monica Bonvicini's melancholic intervention in the last room of the exhibition, where the neon lights and the mirror staircases are appropriately accompanied by the song “La musica è finita.” And by the glimmering of the sunlight on the canal water, somehow reflected onto the room's walls from the outside.
~Nicola Bozzi, a writer living in Amsterdam.
(Images: James Turrell, Ganzfeld APANI, 2011; Monica Bonvincini, 15 Steps to the Virgin, 2011; Song Dong, Para-Pavilion, 2011; Cildo Meireles, Pling Pling, 2009; Tobias Rehberger, Biennale Café, 2009.)