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Issue 141

54th Venice Biennale

Three reports from ‘ILLUMInations’, the Giardini and the off-site pavilions 

BY Jens Hoffmann, Dieter Roelstraete AND Kaelen Wilson-Goldie in Reviews | 01 SEP 11

Jens Hoffmann 
Director, CCA Wattis Institute, San Francisco, and co-curator of the 12th Istanbul Biennial

View of the exhibition 'Performing History', Romanian Pavillion, Venice Biennale 2011. Photo: Roman Mensing / artdoc.de.

The Venice Biennale has been wandering through a dry period. The last edition that I remember vividly was in 2003, organized by Francesco Bonami with several co-curators each curating a section of their own. Everything since then is a vague memory, apart perhaps from the highly entertaining quarrel in the pages of Artforum between Robert Storr – curator of the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007 – and a few critics, among them Okwui Enwezor and Jessica Morgan. While Bonami’s Biennale was certainly not very coherent, occasionally lapsing into pure chaos, it took risks that made me feel as if I were witnessing a pivotal moment in the development of curatorial practice. Were Hou Hanru’s ‘Zone of Urgency’ or Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Molly Nesbit and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s ‘Utopia Station’ consistent and precisely articulated exhibitions? Probably not, but these contributions to the 2003 Biennale took real risks with their unusual structures and multiplicities of artistic and curatorial voices, all of which have since been utterly absent in Venice. At the time, Bonami’s exhibition received a bashing in the press and was called a flop, even an outright disaster. The appointments for the position of Artistic Director since then have been significantly affected by these negative reactions, and the appointment of Bice Curiger for this edition was very much in line with the last few selections: a safe decision.

Curiger’s exhibition, titled ‘ILLUMInations’, is anything but a risk-taking mission. This does not mean that it is dull, necessarily, but rather that the context in Venice has become so bland, its organizers so resistant to more ambitious and critical curatorial propositions, that it is almost inevitable that we keep seeing a very similar, at times uninspiring, affair: an overview of the latest trends in the visual arts, lined up one after another without much intellectual gravity. These shows have suffered from inconsequential themes and even more ridiculous titles devoid of any concrete meaning: ‘Always a Little Further’ (2005), ‘Think With the Senses – Feel With the Mind’ (2007), ‘Making Worlds’ (2009). I should add to this obscure list Bonami’s title, probably the most puzzling of all: ‘Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer’.

Despite yet another clumsy title, I rather like Curiger’s utterly no-nonsense approach in ‘ILLUMInations’, which, for the most part, simply focuses on the art displayed. One would think that should be a given, but looking at other recent biennials it’s clear how much more ambitious, and in fact overambitious, curators can be: biennials have turned into art schools, or have not even materialized as exhibitions at all, their resources poured into meta-seminars about biennials. Curiger’s show scores mostly through an excellent selection of art works and an elegant, subtle and well-crafted installation; she cannot be accused of forcing innovation for innovation’s sake, which is the problem of many biennials. Her presentation is also laudable for several novel propositions, the first of which is the inclusion of three major works in the Central Pavilion’s main space by the Italian master painter Jacopo Comin, better known as Tintoretto. These provide a complex yet subtle undertone for the show as a whole. Here, Curiger proposes, is an artist who broke with convention hundreds of years ago in a manner so sophisticated that it is rarely equalled today. The presentation of these historic pieces in this context questions the art world’s fascination with the new. Curiger calls Tintoretto ‘the painter of light’ and uses him metaphorically as well as literally (the number of works including lights or lamps is almost comical) to illustrate her argument about illumination and enlightenment in society through art. Whether this last connection is important or superficial I’m yet to decide, but it is clear that Curiger’s exhibition is bound to ideas emerging from Western philosophy. This perhaps also explains the show’s unfortunate dearth of artists from Asia, Africa and South America.

Another inspired element of ‘ILLUMInations’ is the inclusion of four ‘para-pavilions’, artist-designed structures housing works by other artists. Collaboration is one of the main principles of Curiger’s premise – something that she seems to foster through the connections made between the artists in the para-pavilions. In the first space of the Arsenale, Song Dong’s structure houses works by Ryan Gander and Yto Barrada, among others, and is made out of old cabinet doors and other parts of the 100-year-old house that belonged to his parents in China. Further on, Franz West has recreated the kitchen in his Vienna home, including all the works by other artists hanging on its walls. Monika Sosnowska’s contribution in the Central Pavilion of the Giardini is the most successful, containing a small work by Haroon Mirza and photographs by David Goldblatt. Though I didn’t like the works in this context, this was largely because they cannot compete with the powerful physical experience of walking through Sosnowska’s star-shaped structure, which, covered with domestic wallpaper, allows for a complex dialogue between the overall Biennale and the rhizome-like para-pavilions these artists created.

Other stand-out works include Dani Gal’s elaborate film about the death and final resting place of the Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann, Night and Fog (2010); Christian Marclay’s 24-hour movie marathon and the crowd-pleaser of the season, The Clock (2010); Nicolás Paris’s Classroom: Partial Exercises (2011), which will be used for drawing workshops and other educational activities and is filled with small and precious sketches of what he calls studies for pedagogical material; Klara Lidén’s Untitled (Trashcan) (2010), a group of rubbish bins from a number of European cities, cleverly installed between two sections of the Arsenale; and Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s Space Number 13 (2011), a group of large sculptures made of unfired clay, with a projection of the moon in the background. I didn’t quite get Frances Stark’s video My Best Thing (2011), but maybe I was expecting too much after literally a dozen people told me to see it. Quite breathtaking on the other hand is Urs Fischer’s large-scale Untitled (2011), a candle sculpture based on the rape of the Sabine women. Maurizio Cattelan’s Turisti (Tourists, 1997/2011), a flock of taxidermied pigeons perched throughout the Central Pavilion, is perhaps my favourite piece. It is a re-creation of his work of the same title exhibited at the 1997 Venice Biennale, but he has increased the number of pigeons from the original few dozen to a few hundred, and there seems no way of escaping them. Wherever one looks, there are the pigeons, like a scene out of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).

The achievement of Curiger’s Biennale lies neither in its concept (which is rather vague) nor in its exhibition structure (which is not particularly innovative), but in its execution of two straightforward curatorial principles: a good selection of art works and a very precise installation in terms of both physical layout and sequencing. While the Central Pavilion is always a rather tricky space to work with, given its many little rooms and complicated floor plan, the Arsenale has never looked better. There, Curiger’s dynamic and elegant sequence in the Corderie reveals her attention to the details of exhibition design. None of the rooms here look alike.

Overall, ‘ILLUMInations’ is a mature demonstration of a ‘traditional’ exhibition. In fact, its conservatism might be its biggest strength. It is not a show that makes grand gestures, but it does allow smaller pieces to shine: for instance, Ryan Gander’s humorous yet beautiful deconstruction of Modernist abstract geometric paintings. The large and spectacular works that dominated some of the previous editions are gone, most likely sent into exile at the Palazzo Grassi or the Punta della Dogana, and in their place we are treated to more delicate or modest works by artists such as Annette Kelm, Trisha Donnelly and Jean-Luc Moulène. Curiger does not want to change the world, but rather wishes to satisfy her visitors by offering an uncomplicated (but not undemanding) aesthetic and intellectual experience. She puts the art works centre stage, even though this approach does not seem particularly en vogue these days. Given the tendency of the Venice Biennale’s organizers to veer away from more experimental exhibitions and more complex curatorial articulations, perhaps it was the right, and even the only, thing to do.

Dieter Roelstraete 
A curator at Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen, Belgium, and an editor of Afterall 

Empty Zones, The Pavilion of Russia, 54th International Art Exhibition - la Biennale di Venezia. Courtesy: Stella Art Foundation, Moscow. Photo: Daria Novgorodova. 

There are some 150 churches (cathedrals, chapels, cloisters, convents) in Venice, many of which house some of the world’s finest paintings. In the last decade I don’t think I’ve ever visited a Venice Biennale without also paying a visit – it has become a ritual of sorts – to the Basilica Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, the site of Titian’s earthly remains as well as his stunning Assumption of the Virgin (1516–8). Or to the church of San Zaccaria, known to many of us primarily because of the eponymous vaporetto stop nearby: home to, among other masterpieces, an astounding altarpiece from 1505 by Giovanni Bellini and Anthony van Dyck’s Crucifixion (1622), which is tucked discreetly away in one of the church’s gloomy aisles. The Catholic Church is a mighty presence in Venice (a city not usually associated with deeply rooted traditions of religious devotion), its material wealth and visual splendour a dubious symbol of the embrace of worldly power and transcendental yearnings. If all of this reminds you of something, it’s nonetheless important to steer clear of a lazy comparison between the churches of yore and the art spaces of today – the one piece of advice I wish I had been able to whisper into the ears of the assembled Venetian curatoriat in the run-up to the 54th Venice Biennale. Indeed, the spirit of institutionalized piety casts a particularly long shadow over proceedings in both the Giardini and the Arsenale; it is certainly no coincidence that this year’s Golden Lion was awarded to a German Pavilion that had been turned into a church – ironically perhaps (it being a kind of funeral service in honour of Christoph Schlingensief, after all), but a church nonetheless. Religious imagery is at the very heart of the Belgian Pavilion (a painting/video installation by Angel Vergara on the subject of the Seven Deadly Sins) and difficult to avoid in an exhibition titled ‘ILLUMInations’ in which self-consciously flippant works by Philippe Parreno (light bulbs!) and Jack Goldstein (twinkling lights!) nevertheless give way to a dramatic grouping of Tintoretto paintings (haloes!) in the main gallery of the Central Pavilion – all of them religiously themed, of course. But then Tintoretto knew of no other art; curator Bice Curiger’s dramatic focus on his work does little to dispel early worries that we were being asked to gather in the divine presence of Art. In addition, and with some imagination, another subplot unfolds in the Central Pavilion – the taste for Olympian viewpoints, as shown in David Goldblatt’s aerial photographs of South African townships, Omer Fast’s 5,000 Feet is the Best (2011) and Maurizio Cattelan’s stuffed pigeons perched amongst the building’s warren of ridges and rods – could also be reconfigured as an approximation of a theology of vision. Illumination, no matter how literally enacted, is rarely other than an event ordained from some mythical above.

Broad strokes and Olympian visions: fervour of another kind – although it’s worth remembering, of course, that the etymology of ‘religion’ points to any kind of communality, otherworldly or otherwise – is the stuff of hot debate in the Polish Pavilion, where the stony-faced, gruelling earnestness of the final chapter of Yael Bartana’s film trilogy failed to impress this particular non-believer, its much-touted irony (or the irony of the project’s beginnings) finally drowned out by a tad too much flag-waving and method acting. In the Arsenale, this (no doubt unintended) ecclesiastical vibe inevitably peaked around the immersive installation of James Turrell (Ganzfeld APANI, 2011) – one of a handful of projects that wed the experience of illumination to that of instant community-building through the art of queuing. Luckily, something of the unruly, libertarian spirit of the early church – imagine sitting, sandal-shoed and hairy, at the edge of the Sea of Galilee – is kept intact at the very tail-end of the Arsenale trajectory (come to think of it: why do biennials have to grow, year after year?), where the Viennese art quartet Gelitin have built a provisional encampment around something like a glass-melting facility. As their fan base continues to expand and an ever-widening circle of acolytes is dragged into their projects, a distinctly cultic whiff has descended upon Gelitin’s heretical communal practice, and with sparkling wines being served in plastic cups, young naked men being spanked atop a three-metre-high pile of firewood and a clearly Brooklyn-based krautrock outfit called Japanther providing a droning sonic backdrop, I was tempted to imagine that this must have been what it was like hanging out with Jesus and the Apostles back in the early decades of the first millennium: a very welcome dose of amorphous, promiscuous irreverence in an exhibition strained by the obligations that inevitably come with the art world’s pious posing as the other world’s political conscience.

A similar spirit of refreshing insolence – elucidating rather than illuminating, light-hearted as opposed to enlightening – animates some of the most rewarding national participations, many of which are devoted to the work of artists born in the 1930s and ’40s: Andrei Monastyrski and Collective Actions in the Russian Pavilion, Ion Grigorescu in the Romanian Pavilion (the site of the most consistently high-quality exhibition programme of the last decade), Artur Barrio in the Brazilian Pavilion, and – possibly the greatest find of all – Tomislav Gotovac a.k.a. Antonio G. Lauer in the Croatian Pavilion inside the Arsenale. All (or mostly) men, it is true, and men whose flair for the gestural occasionally intersects (or intersected) with a provocative readiness to strip naked, regardless of age or bodily fitness. Something of a challenge, then, to the puritanical regime that seems to hold so much of the contemporary art world in its grip, and which may in turn be tied back to a certain revival of the religious imagination in the culture at large.

Luckily enough, for those among us whose interest in art is not always merely ‘experiential’ in the terms outlined above, this year’s Venice Biennale also offers ample discursive distractions and entertainments, from the singularly wordy Spanish Pavilion (offering a glimpse of Dora García’s doubtless formidable personal library) to a jam-packed Danish Pavilion bristling with mostly good works and all noble intentions, of the sort commonly associated with the invocation of something as spectral as ‘free speech’ – most successfully by way of work by Robert Crumb and Stelios Faitakis. Two highlights from myriad art events scattered throughout the city shared in these pavilions’ belief that ‘in the beginning was the word’ – or that, in the eventual absence of art, at least in the end the word will remain: a symposium on ‘The State of Things’ organized by Marta Kuzma, Pablo Lafuente, Peter Osborne and Oslo’s Office for Contemporary Art and featuring Leo Bersani and the unavoidable Jacques Rancière on the one hand, and the Roma Pavilion’s ‘Call the Witness’ project on the other hand. ‘A makeshift exhibition evolving over time through the flux of “testimonies” […] considering the situation of the Roma and Roma art as emblematic for the world today’ this latter project by Maria Hlavajova and Basis voor Actuele Kunst, Utrecht, not only managed to fly in the likes of Tom McDonough and Salman Rushdie for its series of talks, but also features this year’s single most rewarding ‘art’ film experience in the form and shape of Želimir Žilnik’s ‘Kenedi’ trilogy (2004–7), centered around the eventful life and times of a Kosovo-born Rom by the name of Kenedi Hasan. It is political cinema at its very best, and a damning indictment, in all its down-to-earth humility, of much of the irresponsible frivolities that get to pass for ‘political’ art in La Serenissima every two years or so.

Why do we still like or even bother with churches? Mostly because they’re often the quietest and most deserted places in a city – as is sometimes the case with a great museum in a mid-size city that has been overlooked, thank heavens, by the zealots of innovation and interaction. Increasingly, I’m sometimes inclined to believe that a thing of silence is a joy for ever, as in the blissful break from the Biennale’s frantic rush for art buzz afforded by Steven Shearer’s elegant, understated Canadian Pavilion – drawing and painting as painting and drawing were meant to be. Or, a mere boat ride away, on the Isola di San Michele, Venice’s original (and still functioning) Isle of the Dead – not the city’s best-kept secret by a long stretch, but invariably people-free nonetheless – is always a good place to restore one’s faith in, well, just about everything. Among the deceased lies Joseph Brodsky, he of more than a mere handful of memorable lines, both rhyming and rambling – such as the assertion that ‘if a poet has any obligation toward society, it is to write well’ (point taken). And that ‘art is not a better, but an alternative existence; it is not an attempt to escape reality but the opposite, an attempt to animate it.’ For those about to rock the boat in 2013: good luck!

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
A writer and critic based in Beirut, Lebanon  

Klara Liden, Untitled, (Thrascan), 2011. Ten pieces, variable dimension. Installation view: ILLUMInations, 54. Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte - la Biennale di Venezia. Courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia. Photograph: Francesco Galli.

The beauty of ‘ILLUMInations’ – Bice Curiger’s international exhibition for the 54th Venice Biennale – lies in the many paths it opens up for visitors through the long, cavernous corridor of the Arsenale and the dense, jumbled rooms of the Central Pavilion in the Giardini. The mental geography is such that you can follow the most literal articulation of the theme – Philippe Parreno’s old-school theatre marquee (Marquee, 2011) and Jack Goldstein’s melancholic 16mm film loop of a glittering diver endlessly twisting and falling (The Jump, 1978) to James Turrell’s pseudo-spiritual washes of colour (Ganzfeld APANI, 2011) and the flickering candle flames that slowly burned down Urs Fischer’s wax sculptures (life-size replicas of Giovanni Bologna’s 1583 The Rape of the Sabine Women, the artist Rudolf Stingel and an office chair from Fischer’s studio) – and still find the exhibition just as precise and well-paced as if you had plotted a route along more abstract lines of thought.

Of course, the benefit of picking and choosing different threads and through-lines is that you can ignore the works that don’t fit, appear brash or boring, or seem to have been selected to satisfy art-market expectations. Cindy Sherman’s gaudy pajama murals (Untitled, 2010, from the series ‘Murals’), Rosemarie Trockel’s couch with cashmere throw (Replace Me, 2009), Christopher Wool’s big Rorschach blots (Untitled, 2011)? Barely noticed them at all. Perhaps they were boisterous, riveting or accomplished pieces, but to my eye they were filler. Anyway, with 83 artists in the main exhibition plus 89 national pavilions and 37 collateral events – to say nothing of the countless other unofficial events glomming onto and leeching off the Biennale’s ever-expanding body – filler is the endemic condition of the event. We kid ourselves thinking more is ever truly more. Curiger has cited both Arthur Rimbaud’s prose poems, Les Illuminations (Illuminations, 1886), and Walter Benjamin’s posthumous collection Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (1961) as anchors for the curatorial ideas at play. And, in a way, the exhibition winds elliptically around those two literary nodes, from Rimbaud’s creative spark to Benjamin’s ruminative critique. Lurking somewhere in between is also a nod to Susan Sontag’s defence of the luminousness, incandescence and erotics of art in the essay ‘Against Interpretation’ (1964). Rimbaud wrote his collection of 43 poems at the age of 16 after declaring his intention to use poetry as a means of achieving clairvoyance, and to pursue the unknown through ‘a prodigious and rational disordering of all the senses’. Benjamin’s ten essays, embodiments of Sontag’s criticism of luminescence, which elevates the craft to a crystalline art, were penned while staring catastrophe in the face.

Reading ‘ILLUMInations’ with Rimbaud and Benjamin in mind opens up another path from the visionary – Jean Natalie Wintsch’s embroideries, such as Je suis radio (I Am Radio, 1924) and Gedewon’s Talisman (1995) – to the disorientating, such as Ryan Gander’s The Artwork Nobody Knows (2011), a tiny sculpture of himself tipped out of his wheelchair, and the scrambled narrative of Omer Fast’s video 5,000 Feet is the Best (2011) – to the rebellious and bombastic such as Gelitin’s Lord of the Flies-like outpost in the untamed garden and Maurizio Cattelan’s stuffed pigeons, which seem poised to shit on everything beneath them – to the mournful. An elusive sorrow runs through Elisabetta Benassi’s The Innocents Abroad (2011), an installation of nine glowing microfiche readers humming with the coded notes of forgotten press photographers; Dayanita Singh’s ‘File Room’ (2011), an expansive series of black and white images of a crumbling, disorderly archive; and Gerard Byrne’s luscious old film projectors in Case Study: Lock Ness (Some Possibilities and Problems) (2001–11), to say nothing of chasing down a myth to open up a chasm between what is witnessed, remembered and believed.

Some of the early critics of the Biennale damned Curiger for not privileging experimental art and for not using the exhibition as a launching pad for an emerging generation of artists. But, at its best, ‘ILLUMInations’ is a sensitive and serious show. It salvages more than it forecasts, pulling, for example, Luigi Ghirri’s delicate, diminutive photographs back from the brink of obscurity, or giving over the entire education room to the cryptic vocabulary of Nicolás Paris’s drawings, which accompany teaching instructions and classroom exercises as lovely as Allan Kaprow’s performance scripts (Paris’s work is also a process, with workshops for children and adults). Illumination, elucidation, enlightenment and revelation – the exhibition makes these things feel solid, lending substance to the experience of art for its makers and spectators alike.

Perhaps Curiger is chipping away at the idea of contemporary art being about what’s new or never been done. Strip down an exhibition about light and you find a show that is ultimately about time – so cruel, relentless and enslaving, it’s the only thing in life that is guaranteed to destroy us all. This is where the exhibition’s majestic irruptions matter, with Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) and a room of three Tintorettos. Marclay’s sublime and meticulous 24-hour mash-up of film clips (and bleeding sound) with watches, clocks, high drama, mundane detail and people, everywhere, waiting and longing and running late and missing each other has, of course, been shown in many venues to considerable acclaim. But it’s a mesmerizing gift here to a Biennale public who may never have seen it. It keeps perfect time and makes you contemplate your own mortality, yet still you find yourself checking your watch.

Tintoretto is a slow burn by comparison. It’s not that The Last Supper (1592–4) or Removal of the Body of Saint Mark (1562–6) appear timeless but rather that, ripped from their usual context, they seem strangely modern in their collapsing spaces, competing light sources, feverish brushstrokes and palpable endurance. No matter how globalized, the field of contemporary art is jagged and uneven. Even the most pat and settled of histories turn volatile when the past flashes up or barrels into the present. These paintings are an unstable inheritance – loaded, tenuous, taken for granted and potentially false – like the family histories breaking into the works of Song Dong and Yto Barrada, which create a whimsical correspondence between closets and clothes, wardrobe doors and hand-me-downs.

This particular pairing is one of Curiger’s four para-pavilions – sculptural works by one artist built to harbour the works of others. The best of them is by Franz West, who recreated his kitchen and turned it inside out to make an idiosyncratic display for his friends. The idea of studding the Biennale with artists’ pavilions to counterbalance national pavilions is a structural development as promising as Francesco Bonami’s decision to break the exhibition down into parts in 2003. Overall, though the para-pavilions fall short, their potential to change the shape of the Biennale at large is particularly appealing in a year when the national pavilions pile up such a wreckage of opportunities blown.

You could argued that embedded in Curiger’s title is a critique of national representation as anachronistic. It’s far less convincing as a curatorial tack. But it’s true that the national pavilions are interesting because they are capable of political posturing and vulnerable to propaganda. Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla nailed the national pavilion as parody with ‘Gloria’, in the US Pavilion, but their project might have packed more punch if they had stopped at two works – the clattering tank topped with a treadmill (Track and Field), and an ATM embedded in an ostentatious pipe organ (Algorithm, both 2011) – instead of repeating themselves in six. Precision works in Venice, which is why Ays˛e Erkmen’s ‘Plan B’ for the Turkish Pavilion – a roomful of colourful, industrial pipes sucking in canal sludge, turning it into drinking water, and then spitting it back out again – appears elegant in its futility, while Mike Nelson’s ‘I, Imposter’, for the British Pavilion, seems excessive and overdone, referring only to itself. Curiously, both works delve into the rich maritime trade between Istanbul and Venice, but if you aren’t totally obsessed with Nelson’s work, why should you care that he’s rebuilt an installation he made less than a decade ago as a bigger warren of more dilapidated rooms?

The most successful and disturbing of the lot is Yael Bartana’s slick trilogy of films in the Polish Pavilion, imagining the formation of a political movement to bring back three million Jews from Israel to Europe, as an audacious act of collective psychotherapy. The films – expertly done and shifting from the dull grey of an idea’s inception to the warm glow of its enactment and the harsh light of its first existential challenges – is deeply troubling, provocative and ambiguous, and it has stuck with me since first viewing.

Equally powerful is the Egyptian Pavilion, which pays tribute to the artist Ahmed Basiony, who was killed by snipers in Tahrir Square during the demonstrations earlier this year that toppled Hosni Mubarak. Five screens are placed side by side in a shallow space that makes it deliberately difficult to take in the work all at once. The installation randomly shuffles footage from one of Basiony’s performances, 30 Days of Running in the Place (2010), with footage he shot during his last days of protest. Had any more time passed between the revolution and the Biennale, the pavilion could have seemed opportunistic and crass. But it erred just on the side of respect to create a haunting and ominous portrayal of what the body will endure.

That said, Venice is too cumbersome and bureaucratic to respond in a swift or meaningful way to a major historical and geopolitical rupture such as the Arab Spring. (The sixth edition of the Meeting Points festival, curated by Okwui Enwezor and stretching across eight cities in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe from April 2011 until March 2012, might provide a more generative platform – if it actually gets its hands dirty and digs into in the ‘Locus Agonistes’ of its title when it rolls through Tunis and Cairo this autumn). A Syrian Pavilion stacked with second-rate Italian artists is an oblivious and insulting gesture in a season when some 1,500 people have been killed during a government crackdown in the country. And as for the bejewelled black box in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s inaugural pavilion? I really wish the sisters Raja and Shadia Alem (who funded and curated the project) had rented a car or hijacked a golf cart to drive around the Biennale for six months instead.

With a curatorial style that feels prescriptive, Curiger set rules for herself, such as not selecting any artists for the international exhibition who had already been tapped for a national pavilion. It’s unlikely to happen, I know, but a few more rules for bringing the national pavilions into being would be nice. Even a code of good conduct would make the point that it is bad form for a pavilion’s commissioner to select, exhibit and celebrate his own work (nota bene, Iraq). And speaking of commissioners (and curators), perhaps the time has come to assess the many non-profits that specialize in organizing pavilions for developing countries, many of which never return. For example, Mary Angela Schroth of Rome’s Sala 1 curated this year’s Iraqi Pavilion and the Bangladeshi Pavilion next door, while Vittorio Urbani (of the Venice-based Nuova Icona) co-commissioned this year’s Iraqi Pavilion, ‘Palestine c/o Venice’ in 2009 and the Lebanese Pavilion in 2007. All good intentions aside, what’s the racket? Does it do the Biennale any good? And how does it play into cultural politics back home, in those poor countries far from Venice, where a presence at the Biennale may very well be nobody’s chief concern, but a distant circus on a sinking island?

Jens Hoffmann is a writer, curator, and Director of Special Exhibitions and Public Programs, Jewish Museum, New York, USA

is the newly appointed Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, USA, where he is currently preparing a survey exhibition of the work of Goshka Macuga. 

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a writer based between Beirut, Lebanon, and New York, USA.