The Venice Biennale & Venice – Hurry up!

November 27 is the last day, so you’ve got a month to go there. And it’s well worth it. The connoiseurs may have their sophisticated views of what is really happening now, what the significant trends are, etc. I’d say instead: Go there without any preconceived ideas, take in as much as you can. There is so much inspiration in so many directions that you can hardly return home without feeling it was worth the time, energy and costs (on the latter, Venice hotels and restaurants charge at least double rates while the Biennale is on, so…).

It is simply impossible to write about it, so sorry for this short attempt to defy the impossible! There are the official, enormous Biennale spaces at Giardini and the Arsenale. But then – without much co-operation or even communication with the Biennale management, it seems – there are art events all over town at museums galleries, art institutions, in abandoned flats, backyards and in the streets. My wife and I spent about 8 hours per day for a week and we probably saw only a fraction.


© Jan Oberg 2011

That’s Venice and the Biennale* – enormous, weird, overwhelming, frustrating, enigmatic, and simultaneously an incredible positive documentation of multi-cultural creation in a globalizing world. In the midst of wars, environmental decay, deep economic crisis and all the rest, it simply gives me hope to walk around at the Venice Biennale and in the rest of town.

I believe it should be OK to write about it in a totally subjectve but positive manner and with an emphasis on what attracted me in general and as a photographer in particular. So I’ll simply tell you what made a lasting impression on me – lasting because it is more than a month ago I visited Venice and I find that some things have stayed with me while others are now more or less forgotten. If you’ve been there, can we compare notes?

Julian Schnabel at Museo Correr – breathtaking, amazing – so many techniques, styles and constant experimenting. Seeing these huge canvasses in this environment adds to the experience.

Real Venice at the small island San Giogio Maggiore – truly amazing photos of Venice, sold to the benefit of saving Venice (see the preceding blog post).

Future Pass – From Asia to the Future World of Art – an incredibly rich space in the picturesque quarters of the Guggenheim Collection. While the economic centre of the world is moving East, the East’s art and creativity is moving West. As the curator states, “I first conceived of this special exhibition as a forum through which to demonstrate how the creative energy of Asian contemporary art exists in dialogue with the rest of the world; I also wanted to reveal the new aesthetic movements that are being led by artists from Asia. This is an exhibition about new art of the 21st century that is conscious of questions of heritage, environmental issues, and innovations in green resources for the future.” And that says it all. So diverse and inspiring.

The United Arab Emirates Pavilion – all of it, but in particular the incredibly mystique-beautiful grand photos by Lateefa bint Maktoum. Your first impression may be that these are just beautiful poetic images but take a closer look – they are sophisticated collages, bordering on the enigmatic, surrealistic.

Here a few snapshots from the city…


© Jan Oberg 2011

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection’s show of the collection of Mme Ileana Sonnabend. As pointed out everywhere she was married to Leo Castelli – perhaps the most influental gallerist in New York through whose rooms pased the greatest contemporary artists way before anyone had heard about them. For sure, she worked with him long after having divorced him, but she was a uniquely important gallerist/dealer and art collector on her own, both in Venize, Paris and New York. (This show ended on Oct. 2). More about Sonnabend here. Yes, there was money in it then too – but there was also the dimension of patronage of young extremely talented artists who broke through thanks to the Castelli-Sonnabend eyes for talent.

The Pavilion of Iraq – tucked aside in a beautiful old ramshackle building close the Arsenale. The theme is Wounded Water – seemingly with a focus on the environmental dimension but, I assume, not without references to the Saddam era and the sanctions and terrible occupation of the artists’ country. Walid Siti’s works attracted me in particular.

Chinese Song Dong’s exciting installation of 100 wardrobe doors collected from Beijing families, combined with his own family’s house on which stands a superimposed steel-made pigeon house – sending you thinking about the possibly rather poor life of these families back in time. This installation hosts a series of other artists too.

Iran’s Pavilion – deeply moving, not the least for its black-and-white images by Mohsen Rastani and the arrangement of hundreds of black and white photos of citizens who died during the Iran-Iraq war.

Italy’s Pavilion – by far the most unconventional of all! And most controversial and dividing visitors and experts into either love-or-hate. I belong to the first category – it was a little bit like an art flee market because it consist of all kinds of works put together by 200 intellectuals who had been asked by the curator, Vittorio Sgarbi, to suggest artists and works. It is also by far the largest – totally weird, diverse, surprising, kitch and quality next to each other…Mega-exciting and promoting headon the eternal debate about: What is art? Te answer is: Nobody knows and nobody has the authority to define it. Period!

Japan’s Pavilion – Multi-media installation by artist Tabaimo called “telecu-soup” – you submerge yourself in fast-changing animations depicting aspects of Japan’s identity as an island. More or less weird, you may say, difficult to grasp – but indeed innovative, “different” from everything else, and perhaps of particular interest this year given Japan’s many crises.

Nathaniel Mellors “Talking Heads” – strangely attractive, humorous and unpleasant as machine-like artificial humans must be. They certainly don’t leave you untouched in that dark room, the visitor both getting frightened and laughing…

Pipilotti Rist – art video films placed in old-time thick golden frames like a renaissance painting moving over nice old paintings of Venice. An electronic irony of your sofa piece – or dead serious depiction of kinetic Venice? On your wall! Here’s her homepage.

Sigmar Polke – the late German artist. Together with Gerhard Richter, belonging to my favourites for doing painting and then again not doing paintings but something else too that compels you to – mindfully – see more deeply. I for one just can’t walk past them.

Luigi Ghirri – very touching small photographic masterpieces in the Central pavilion. A nice contrast to Cindy Sherman whose huge photos I didn’t fancy at all.

Annette Kelm – somehow a very honest photographer, with a great sense of everyday beauty. I simply liked her works – aesthetically pleasing while also modest everyday like.

Here follow some snapshots from various art spaces and exhibits at the Biennale:


© Jan Oberg 2011

Corinne Wasmuht – a huge oil painting at the arsenale – only one of her – that I returned to and can not forget and also cannot interprete or understand. It is a series of housing structures and people – and then again, it is not that. Perhaps it is photographic in some sense, perhaps it is simply intriguing and beautiful? The link illustrates brilliantly that the painting is not one but many in one.

It is otherwise interesting that oil painting seems out – for the moment at least. There were very few oil paintings by young artists; they seem much more devoted to installations, video art, increasingly to photography and making art out of given spaces. And whatever hybrids beween those and others. Canvas, brushes and colours doesn’t seem sophisticated enough, not enough high-tech perhaps. That may be why I have always admired David Hockney who can traverse the most diverse media – including oil painting – and bring something new to each of them, from some of the other media he also masters.

Josh Smith – also oil painting, collage, a little à la Rauschenberg, but anyhow independen-minded, raw and spontaneous, bordering on the graffiti and Basquiat but less of a shootout!

Giulia Piscitelli – series of beautiful silk prints (hydroclorid acid on silk) – decorative but much more than that, brilliant integration between colours, materials and shapes/sequence. And what would be wrong if “only” decorative, after all. Whatever beautifies our world…please!

Wales’ Pavilion, particularly Times Davies was also memorable – roaring video film in one end and the beauty of a hand sliding through slow water in the other.

Paulo Ventura whose enigmatic, collage-like images are very surprising and make you look twice. His “Automaton” series seems from Venice, or at least inspired by it – and no wonder we all are. He is part of the Italian Pavilion like a series of other brilliant photographers such as Olivo Barbieri, Guido Guidi and Giovano Capello (neither having good website, for all I can tell).

The last I want to menton is a low-budget, mega-idealistic project “Meating (spellling!) Art from Palermo!. A bunch of young creative, anti-commercial artists put together their resources and rented a closed-down butcher shop at Via Garibaldi (close to both Giardini and Arsenale) and made a fascinating art space out of it: pieces of art arranged as meat in the old white counter, on the walls, placed on the old tables in the ramshackle rooms. There are even Venezians who come in and ask for real meat still! Wow! And in contrast to the expensive cafées of the Biennale, they served wine and cheese at prices out of the Coop shop next door.


* * *

Is any type of summary of the Venice Art Biennale possible? No! So here is one…

Contrary to world of economics, politics and the culture of militarism and destructive interventonism, the world of art is anything but stagnating. The creators are much much more creative and visionary than the destroyers of our world. From this point of view at least there is no reason to panic in the midst of global crisis. Humanity has hope and vision, albeit the destroyers get most media attention.

Two, innovation now comes through from Middle East and Asia and from what one may call the margins of Western art – from where new trends in the margins of one field or media touch base with peers in other fields, overlapping, hybrid – simply because they have no interest and see no purpose in seeking acceptability in the centres and in the extreme commercialization where art is seen as a commodity and nothing more. It would be difficult to see this years’s US Pavilion as innovative, rather as genuine kitch. Gone are indeed the days when the only 39-year old Rauschenberg received the Golden Lion in (1964)

Three, the Andy Warhols and Damien Hirsts of the art world may be outrageously expensive but their bubbles will burst, quality not matching prices. I don’t mean to say that they are irrelevant or without talent, but I am saying that when speculation, calculation, money-making and phony art spinn is peeled off, there is no reason that they should be a bit more “famous” or expensive than anyone I’ve mentioned here.

Four, the 28 national pavilions should go if they keep on showing one or two national artists. It may have fit the world of yesterday but not the globalizing, integrating and multi-cultural world that is emerging. Denmark has shown the way in this respect  by letting non-Danish artists in – perhaps a signal back home to the pervasive xenophobia in that little bombing-happy nation? Poland has invited an Israeli. How could artists in touch with today’s world not transgress the nation state and its borders?

After all, one of the main purposes of art-making – as of peace-making – is to tear down walls and create unity in and through the amazing diversity the world still holds in spite of all – vain – attempts at homogenizing and standardizing everything.

Fifth, this year’s theme and Biennale title is “Illuminations”. That’s broad enough to accomodate virtually anything – you could just as well call the Biennale Everything, or something similar. Artists – fortunately – do exactly what they want and have passion for here and now. And that is illuminative too in the sense of throwing lights in all directions upon our problem-ridden but still magically rich world.

Finally, let me mention a relatively new phenomenon: that people don’t look at art only. They take pictures of it. (I do too!)

It is anything but strange that we want to preserve at least some of millions of visual impressions and cheat our memory – “hey, while you forgot, I have photos to remember”.  But then, let’s return to these pictures an re-live the experience.

The good thing about writing a little tour de horizon recapitulation such as this is that I have just re-lived all the places, looked through all the pamphlets, catalogues and maps I got there, browsed the hundreds of photos I took – most of them with my iPhone, so light to carry around and so discreet when you want it to be. I’ve found it quite fruitful to do that, rather than rushing on to the next art venue somewhere.

And now – a good 6 weeks after the visit to Venice – Christina and I have made up our minds based on the wonderful experiences above (and more than is mentioned here, for sure):  that we are going to go there also in 2013 – feeling the pulse, the art world’s and our own. (We were there in 2007 but missed 2009).

And, so, my apologies to those 99% of the artists in Venice who are not mentioned here. I told you that I saw only a fraction of it all over 8 days x 8 hours and some works I saw did not make any lasting impression to be included here a few weeks later.

If you can’t go there, there are tons of links on the Internet to virtually everything. But there are also two “apps” which of course don’t cover everything but literally are very handy: iBiennale and Christie’s Venice Biennale and they are free. The Biennale is accessible in more than one way in our marvellously inter-connected world.



“I take photos, therefore I am (an art lover)!”
© Jan Oberg 2011

* “Established in 1895 the Venice Biennale is the oldest, and remains the most important and prestigious event on the international contemporary visual arts calendar. Every two years Venice becomes the world stage with the attention of the world’s visual arts community and media focused on Venice over a six-month period.” (From Wales’ intro).

Would love to read your views, ideas or suggestions here

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