The 54th Venice Biennale opened to the public this week after its VIP preview, which seamed with press, celebrities, and oligarchs amidst the upper echelons of the art world. Eighty-nine countries are represented in the 2011 Biennale, 12 more than in 2009, including several nations that have never before participated, like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and tiny Andorra. While artwork at the prestigious international art fair is still being digested (the Biennale is on view until November 27), the recent awards (Golden Lions for Christian Marclay and Christoph Schlingensief) coupled with last week’s avalanche of reviews from critics around the world have provided a preliminary glimpse of the mark the 54th Biennale will leave. Read on for eclectic survey of a few interesting artists thus far.
Aidan Salakhova, Black Stone, 2011. Courtesy of the Azerbaijan Council
Artist Aidan Salakhova received national attention last weekend after the Azerbaijan government covered up her two large-scale sculptures. The works — which are now being referred to by press as “Vagina Art” — include Waiting Bride, a statue of a woman covered head-to-toe in a black hijab, and Black Stone, a marble, vagina-like sculpture. In Black Stone, the artist placed the Black Stone of Mecca, a sacred relic that Muslims kiss during the Haj to Mecca, within the yonic frame. Rob Sharp of The Independent reports that the work was covered after President Illham Aliyev toured the Azerbaijan pavilion and said that he found the sexually explicit nature of the works “offensive to Islam.” A Biennale official states that shortly after the President’s visit, “the culture minister asked for the woman in a black veil to be covered up. Now the pavilion is rushing to concoct a story to make it appear that there is no controversy, to save the country the embarrassment of going down in Biennale history as censoring their own pavilion the day before the opening.” Black Stone was also covered. Both the government and, interestingly, the artist herself, had disputed these claims, stating that the statues were damaged in their transport to Venice and would be fully revealed once they are restored. But then today, a spokesperson for the artist announced that the government of Azerbaijan has decided to remove the statues from its pavilion.
Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010, single-channel video. Photo Courtesy of Todd-White Art Photography
Christian Marclay’s The Clock might be the most famous work of 2011. It was acquired for $467,500 by LACMA and received drooling reviews from critics in London when it premiered last year — Adrian Searle at The Guardian wrote that it was “the most staggering, complex thing made by any artist so far this century.” The 24-hour film, that ticks through the cycle of a day with clips from movies depicting each minute, was made famous in New York for the seaming lines that day after day snaked out of Paula Cooper Gallery (“staggering” seems unfit to describe a work that convinced New Yorkers to wait for five-plus hours in January blizzards to see an experimental film). The Clock topped its success at the Biennale when Marclay won the Golden Lion for best artist.
Christoph Schlingensief, A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within, 2011, installation view. Image courtesy of the German Council
Christopher Schlingensief, the German artist, filmmaker, and theater experimentalist who died of cancer last August, was selected — nine months before his death — to represent Germany at its national pavilion. Schlingensief planned to transform the pavilion into a cathedral, a copy of the church where he spent his childhood as an altar boy. His work was posthumously realized by curator Susanne Gaensheimer and includes video and x-rays from his surgeries, as well as theater sets, film, and reproductions of work by artists like Joseph Beuys. Germany received a Golden Lion for best national contribution for its Schlingensief exhibition.
Tintoretto Il Furioso
Detail from Tintoretto’s The Last Supper, 1592-94. Courtesy of Cameraphoto Arte/La Biennale di Venezia
Oddly enough, contemporary art does not open the 54th Biennale. Three enormous paintings created by 16th-century Venetian painter Tinteoretto, installed in the central pavilion, are the first thing visitors see upon entering the Biennale. Bice Curige, director of the 2011 fair, chose these paintings, telling The New York Times , “I like to think of Tintoretto as an outsider,” adding that she considers contemporary artists like Cindy Sherman, Christopher Wool, Seth Price and Sigmar Polke — all exhibiting at the 2011 Biennale — outsiders as well. Critics seem to agree that this call to the past is a central theme of the Biennale — a work by Jeff Koons is flanked by 18th-century Meissen porcelain; Swiss artist Urs Fischer created a wax candle, complete with the wick, replicating in full scale Giovanni Bologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women; and Pipilotti Rist, also Swiss, exhibited LED screens showing engravings of 18th-century Venice behind contemporary images of the ocean and sky. In a sense, these references create a sort of living art history lesson, grounding and contextualizing contemporary artists within the greater art historical trajectory.
Regina José Galindo
Galindo’s replica of her 2005 Golden Lion. Courtesy of Center for the Aesthetic Revolution
Art about art and, better yet, art about the art world, has long been a favored theme of artists and curators alike, despite its propensity to be irritatingly insider-y. Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo, who won a Golden Lion at the 2005 Biennale for Best Young Artist, picked up on this trajectory, creating an exact replica of the Golden Lion she took home in 2005. Jori Finkel of The Los Angeles Times reports that Galindo’s golden replica (yes, the lions are made of actual gold) comes with a rather ironic story: after winning the prestigious award, she was forced sell off her trophy because of financial difficulties. While the story behind the work speaks saliently to contradictions within the art world, it seems a bit of a cop-out when it comes to creativity.
Fia Backström, Borderless Bastards, 2011. Courtesy of Peter Dobey of Hyperallergic
New York-based artist Fia Backström, chosen to represent the Nordic pavilion, backpacks on the “art about art about the art world” theme, but in much more lucid, politically creative manner. Backström eschewed the Biennale’s tradition of national pavilions, choosing not to limit her work to her nation’s pavilion, instead sprinkling it throughout the fair. For a piece called Borderless Bastards, she asked writers and artists from countries around the world to create “a public sculpture of a common person from the time when your nation-state was created.” She then created digital reproductions of these figures and pasted them on aluminum cutouts, placing each figure in front of the pavilion of his or her country. The Serbian and Eygptian figures went homeless — both countries refused to let Backström exhibit her figures in front of their pavilions.
Allora & Calzadilla
Allora & Calzadilla at Venice Biennale. Courtesy of The Miami New Times
Allora & Calzadilla, the duo selected to represent the United States, have created six installations, many of which feature American Olympic athletes. One of the installations consists of a military tank flipped on its head, topped with a treadmill on its wheels. For 15 minutes each hour, an American track and field athlete runs on the treadmill. Jerry Saltz, senior art critic at New York magazine described the work as “the health club from Hell, Afghanistan in Venice, and it makes a humongous racket that can be heard all around the Giardini… Allora and Calzadilla have found a way to encapsulate, possibly exorcise, summon, and certainly give visual form to the freaked-out way the world sees the United States.”