The 52nd Venice Biennale
by Bettina Malcomess
My arrival in Venice was in the tradition of young South African artists in Italy, the most recent precedent being that of Mr Edward Young. Perhaps a little overexcited, I'd rushed out of my hotel room on the first day of the press preview only to miss one of those little steps subtly wedged between the ancient little streets and bridges. So, I sprained my ankle. Between moving hotels three times and the many hours spent lost (limping slightly) between venues of what the Biennale calls 'collateral' instead of 'fringe' events, it was somewhat challenging to romanticise this very beautiful, very old city. Looking over the catalogue I realised how much of the 'fringe' I had not made it to. At times I wondered if I'd been at this Biennale at all.
The Venice Biennale, as small and maze-like as its streets and canals are, is vast. Aside from the collateral events, there are the substantial main shows which take place at the Arsenale and the pavilions in the Giardini. There is so much to take in that after two days many people give up and retire permanently to one of the little cafés or bars outside the Arsenale. It is here, on the real 'fringe', that much of the actual event takes place: the curatorial politics, the Dinners with Dealers, the artist pick-up's, the exchanging of business cards and ideas. Venice, a city on water, has a way of catching you in a certain current. From the press conference for the opening of the first official African Pavilion in Venice, I immediately found myself caught up in the flow of its artists, curators and the other South Africans attending. Given that Venice is so vast, and I was somewhat handicapped, I did not mind locating myself here for the first few days.
Following the controversy surrounding the African Pavilion, what Art South Africa termed a 'stink', I was surprised to meet a charming, young, trendy Sindika Dokolo, along with his Norwegian mother, talking about the need for the African Pavilion to not be exclusively African, but to have a universal appeal. Over the next few days I would come to understand the difficulties and resistances faced by curators Simon Njami and Fernando Alvim. This included the last minute withdrawal of sponsorship from MoMA, and a request to remove 'Africa' from the name of the pavilion.
Despite the controversy, the African Pavilion, entitled 'Check List- Luanda Pop', seemed to attract a constant buzz of film crews and media. It was located very centrally within the Arsenale complex, next to the new Turkish pavilion, and before the Chinese Pavilion and the new Italian pavilion. The show itself included 30 artists. While some of these were born in Africa, most such as Bili Bidjocka, Ingrid Mwangi, Olu Oguibe and Oladele Bamgboye, live in Europe or the United States. Interestingly, those artists who still live and work in Africa were South African and Angolan. Artists not strictly of African descent, but whose work in the collection deals with some aspect of 'African' identity were also included in the show. It was unexpected to see two Andy Warhol prints, Muhammad Ali I and II, alongside a Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Spanish artist Miquel Barcelo's mixed media painting Noyau Noir.
During an interview, Fernando Alvim said that on the selection of their proposal for 'Check List', Biennale director Robert Storr had requested them not to make another 'Africa Remix'. The only resonance between the two shows is perhaps the number of artists, and the 'mix'. It was on the 'fringe' that I picked up several comments critical of the amount of work on the show. On entering the pavilion, you are greeted by a wall, where Bidjocka's interactive work invites you to sign a visitor's book with its pages projected on the wall. The 800 sqm space is divided by several walls, so that it forms a series of interconnecting L-shapes. One half of the space was devoted to video work, the other to painting and installation.
On turning the first corner into the main space, the viewer is met by no less than five video works, in a sort of long corridor: Minnette Vári's Alien, Amal Kenawy's sparsely beautiful Boobytrapped Heaven, Loulou Cherinnete's witty White Woman, and a split screen documentation of Ruth Sacks' Don't Panic. On the closest wall to the entrance is Paul D. Miller's (aka New York's DJ Spooky) New York is Now. While this makes for a captivating, and extremely sensorily stimulating entrance to the pavilion, what happens is that it is difficult to read the works individually. I found myself constantly drawn to Vári's Alien, or alternatively the large screen installation of Miller's, whose sound dominates that of the others.
The next works in the sequence are consecutively, Geers' ultraviolet Seven Deadly Sins installation, Tracey Rose's video of underwater basketball game, and then Alfredo Jaar's disturbing and rhythmic 5 part video work, Muxima. A young Angolan architect was responsible for the innovative design, the intention of which was to emulate the L-shape of the Arsenale, the world's oldest rope factory, and also the kind of claustrophobia of the maze of Venice streets. The inability to locate yourself is successfully reflected in the partitioning, yet, as a result of this, the space given to each video work also serves as a passage, making it difficult to stop and watch.
The other half of the pavilion is a more-or less open space, reminiscent of the openness of the walkway alongside the water in Venice. Here more traditional paintings are exhibited alongside drawings. Basquiat's Pharynx is opposite the black and white photographic still lives of Bamgboye. These are mixed with wall installations, a kind of memorial assemblage including political posters, flowers and keepsakes and a somewhat lighter collection of popular movie posters and record covers called The Best of the Best.
The most striking sculptural installation is without doubt Mounir Fatmi's Save Manhattan. Speakers arranged on the floor cast the shadow of the New York skyline on the wall, between Santu Mofokeng's Johannesburg photographs and Andy Warhol's Muhammad Ali prints. In reference to the twin towers, the two tallest speakers loop a sound between static and explosion. The aesthetic here is 'pop' and Alvim explains the influence of jazz on his curation. The work is eclectic, and certain combinations seem improvised, switching between light and heavy themes. For me, the 'mix' has rhythm. Ghada Amer's very beautiful embroidered painting, Not about Orange, captures the movement between the figurative and the abstract. Like the diversity of themes, artists and works combined here, there is both an identity and an escape from any singularity, any simple location.
Many of the National pavilions that were striking came from previously eastern bloc countries. Among these were Serbian Mrdjan Bajic's crazy part-missile, part-national monument sculptures, and Romania's 'Low Budget Monuments', consisting of clever minimalist installations. Both make reference to a particular history and attempt to move on from it. The French pavilion artist, Sophie Calle, who advertised for her own curator, constructed an entire exhibition around a break-up letter. The letter, real or fictional, ends with the words, 'Take Care of Yourself', the title given to the exhibition. Calle sent the letter to several women, some artists, actresses and performers. Their interpretations of the letter become the video, photographic and graphic representations that fill the pavilion. Calle once again makes of particular experience something universal, and somehow captures the performance of the feminine in a visually interesting way.
The 52nd Biennale also marked the launch of the first Portuguese pavilion, now housed permanently in a 16th century building, visibly located on the Grand Canal. Here Angela Ferreira, Mozambiquan-born and South African educated, presented Maison Tropicale, based on architect Jean Prouvé's Modernist project to build a structure that could be dismantled and reassembled in the colonies. Ferreira constructed a sculptural interpretation of this structure so that viewers had to walk through it, like a kind of enclosed gang-plank, to enter the space. Here photographs document the ruins and left-over foundations of the colonial project, such as Brazzaville.
For me this is an exhibition that resonates with the struggle of the African Pavilion, between a European idea of Africa and the realities of the postcolonial and diaspora.
Overall, the mixture of sensuality and conceptualism of the African and the Portuguese pavilions fitted with the theme of the Biennale: 'Think with the senses, feel with the mind'.
In Robert Storr's show at the Italian Pavlion in the Giardini, I was surprised to see so much painting, especially the late modernist work of Sigmar Polke. The work of Cheri Samba occupied a significant place in this show. Again I found the concentration of video in one section of this space difficult to take in, in this somewhat over-curated space. Interestingly, the work selected for the Arsenale showed a pre-occupation with war and conflict, what Storr calls 'troubled times' in the catalogue. This, however, was a sparingly and carefully curated show.
There were lulls between more thematically difficult works, such as Jason Rhoades' crazy, colourful neon installation, Tijuanatanjierchandelier next to Paulo Canevari's Bouncing Skull, a video work showing a boy playing with a skull in Belgrade. The length and original structure of the Arsenale lent itself to the variety of media and scale of work. Yang Fudong's exquisite and quiet film narrative sequence, Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest was divided into five central viewing booths, so that viewers could watch each hour-long section with breaks in between. El Anatsui's works appeared both in the Arsenale show and outside a 'fringe' exhibition space in the city, where it covered the entrance of a museum, which I found closed on the only day I could get there.
This brings us, I suppose, to the question of being both inside and outside. I spoke at length to N'gone Fal and Olu Oguibe, both experienced as curators in Africa and Venice, about the difficulty of curating while constantly making the statement that contemporary African art exists. It was interesting to me that the people and the pavilion I felt most at home with were those connected to the African Pavilion. The award of the Golden Lion to Malick Sidibe this year, the inclusion on the main shows of so many African artists, amongst them Anatsui and Samba, and the announcement of a permanent African Pavilion in Venice, make the 52nd Biennale significant from our point of view in South Africa. Whether we call ourselves African or not, 'we' are no longer on the outside looking in.