Making Worlds in Venice

The 53rd Venice Biennale, directed by Daniel Birnbaum, offers a glimpse at the ideas of freedom, originality and the purpose of expression.

The twisted streets, canals and alleys can easily confound and disorientate visitors to Venice – even if you have been there numerous times, it is unheard of to escape getting lost at least once. It’s then quite fitting that Venice is the site of a major international art biennale. Art confounds and delights in much the same way that Venice does as an architectural and urban site.

The 53rd Venice Biennale opens in June, and though over a century has passed since its foundation in 1895; it has yet to fail in its reputation as the Biennale for international art and cultural exhibitions. In some respects, it is the Olympic games of the art world. Countries “compete” for the Golden Lion (the top prize) through their curatorial choice of artist(s) to represent them in their coveted pavilions in the Giardini. This year’s list of artists does not fail in this regard, with household names such as John Baldessari (who, along with Yoko Ono, will be awarded a Golden Lion lifetime achievement award), Carsten Höller and Chen Zhen falling out of the lips of curators, press, and gallerists. In many ways though, it is not these household names that we are waiting for to perform, as it were, but rather the relatively un-established artists; there is something to be said for the shock-factor, especially in the contemporary art world, and everyone is sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to see who will provide that this year. From the first biennale, in which Giacomo Grosso’s Supreme Meeting caused a raucous, as it was deemed morally offensive for its depiction of nude females surrounding a dead male figure, and to the present day, the Biennale has been an outpost for innovative, original art. This year’s exhibition, entitled Fare Mondi // Making Worlds, gathers together over 90 artists to demonstrate this very idea of freedom, originality and the expressive as communicated through the visual arts.

Daniel Birnbaum, director of this year’s Biennale, is intent on emphasising the exhibition’s interdisciplinary nature as realised through the various site-specific installations, events, and overall general programme. To compete in the ever-increasingly difficult economic climate, art institutions, of which the Biennale is considered part, must be broader in scope and imagination. Birnbaum has subsequently approached the exhibition from a very global standpoint, he states that within the biennale: “All forms of artistic expression are present: installation art, video and film, sculpture, performance, painting and drawing, and a live parade. Taking “world making” as a starting point also allows the exhibition to highlight the fundamental importance of certain key artists for the creativity of successive generations, just as much as exploring new spaces for art to unfold outside the institutional context and beyond the expectations of the art market.” This idea of “world-making” (and the name of the exhibition) is verbalised repeatedly by Birnbaum; he continually emphasises the importance of the exhibition within a macroclimate and its historical links between the past and the present as integral to its development. The Biennale has survived much worse, and in many ways has succeeded to a greater extent, during times of economic or social distress; this is often when art is needed the most as the inexplicable can be articulated through artistic practice and form.

This year’s exhibition is record-breaking with 77 nations participating and 39 planned concurrent events, staged in various sites within Venice. Though primarily based in the Giardini and Arsenale, the exhibition will be distributed throughout the city, weaving itself into the urban fabric, and proving that the Biennale is Venice: in much the same way as TEFAF is Maastricht and Frieze is London; the exhibition is inherent to the city itself.

Various improvements to the exhibition infrastructure have ensured that the Biennale runs smoothly. A new bridge has been constructed joining the Giardino delle Vergini and the Sestiere di Castello; in addition, there has been extensive improvements and restoration to the Arsenale, ensuring that the Biennale is more cohesive and unified as an urban-based event than ever. The historical and architectural qualities of the city demand a sensitivity in any improvements, improvements that have been carefully negotiated by city and exhibition planners, so that the basic urban structure of the Biennale remains inherently the same.

The exhibition is not an art fair as such, an important fact to remember when viewing and participating in the event. Paolo Baratta (president of the Biennale) points out: “Our role is not to give advice for the immediate choices of private or public collectors, nor that of providing official stamps of approval for fashionable artists; our role is to explore with an enquiring mind, albeit with a firm eye on quality, the choices artists make, the links between artists and those that link their works with our capacity to know or better perceive the world in which we live.” The exhibition is not, as an art fair is, driven by the market, its end point is not commercial success, but cultural success. The final result will be whether Birnbaum and Baratta have provided their audience with a thought-provoking, intelligent exhibition of international artists. To provide this they must investigate the basic framework of the art world itself.

Conventional curatorial practice is ineffective, especially as contemporary institutions, artists, and audience demand much more than they ever have before. The gallerist, Karsten Schubert argues: “The idea of the universal, all-encompassing museum, conceptually tied to a master narrative, has in the present, post-modern cultural climate, increasingly appeared to be an unrealistic and outdated notion.” (The Curator’s Egg: The Evolution of the Museum Concept from the French Revolution to the Present, page 134) Schubert continues by stating that museums and galleries have had to evolve, not only in terms of their collections and the way in which art is displayed, but that they have had to instigate a two-way dialogue with their audience. Dynamism is the key concept here, and it is the ethos of the biennale itself:  Fare Mondi // Making Worlds is about creation, a necessarily dynamic concept, and one inherent to artistic practice and theory.

This year’s jury, chaired by Angela Vettese and comprised of Jack Bankowsky, Homi K. Bhaba, Sarat Maharaj, and Julia Voss, focuses in on this idea of dynamism and examines the artists as providing more than ‘objects’ but, as articulated by Birnbaum, worlds. The various Golden Lion Awards – the two aforemen­tioned Lifetime Achievement awards, the Golden Lion for Best National Participation of the 53rd International Art Exhibition; the Golden Lion for the Best Artist of the exhibition Fare Mondi // Making Worlds; and the Silver Lion for a Promising Young Artist of the exhibition Fare Mondi // Making Worlds – will be chosen by this jury and presented at the award ceremony on 6 June.

It is not an envious process that the jury must go through as each exhibiting artist has merit and talent – regardless of the concept of “winners and losers”; to be chosen to represent their country at this prestigious event is an award in and unto itself. This is the joy and essence of the Biennale, that the exhibition is about the artists and the visual arts; it isn’t about bringing in numbers (though this is important), and it isn’t about the institution, or the big blockbuster show. What Birnbaum and Baratta have kept at the forefront of their minds in planning the Biennale is that art, in whatever form is takes, is the core driving force behind the success of the event.

The Venice Biennale ran from the 7 June through to 22 November 2009.

Niamh Coghlan