la Biennale di Venezia
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Introduction by Bice Curiger

ILLUMInazioni - ILLUMInations

What is a Biennale? What kind of audience can be counted on? What is the role of the curator? By adopting the title ILLUMInations the 54th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale also aspires literally to shed light on the institu­tion itself, drawing attention to dormant and unrecognized opportunities, as well as to conven­tions that need to be challenged. ILLUMInations points to light, a classical theme in art that closely relates to Venice. Equally, by accentuating its spurious suffix “nations”, its semantic scope is not only broadened to embrace the real world and socio-political dimensions, but it also highlights the distinctive character of the Venice Biennale with its national pavilions. Far removed from culturally conservative constructs of “nation”, art offers the poten­tial to explore new forms of “community” and negotiate differences and affinities that might serve as models for the future.
 
Any reference to nations also automatically implies borders, as is demonstrated by Omer Fast in his puzzling filmic works, or by Sigmar Polke's Polizeischwein, which makes fun of a border guard - an emblem of state authority - with anarchistic humour. ILLUMInations addresses another “border zone”, the threshold between modernity and earlier history. The 54th Exhibition has incorporated an old master: Tintoretto, the painter of light. In many respects his art is unorthodox and experimental, but instead of seeking to trace superficial formal analogies between Tintoretto and art of the present, the aim is to concern a form of pictorial energy that is altogether “anti-classical”.
This pictorial energy is also fuelled by the friction that results from letting a painter who belongs to tradition become involved in a contemporary context. Several of the artists participating in ILLUMInations make direct reference to Tintoretto in their works, such as Nicholas Hlobo (quoting The Creation of the Animals), Monica Bonvicini (who was inspired by the great stairway in Tintoretto’s The Presentation of the Virgin, housed in Venice), James Turrell (echoing Tintoretto’s palette), and Christopher Wool (from whose paintings one can instantly believe that he has been studying Tintoretto’s works closely for years on end). With Urs Fischer yet another chapter of art history has been incorporated into the Biennale. The artist has replicated the famous sculpture by Giambologna, The Rape of the Sabine Women, in the shape of an enormous candle, to let it slowly burn down during the exhibition in an act of complete submis­sion to its own destruction.
 
At any rate, the Venice Biennale these days is the venue where different groups of artists, whether firmly resident in some place in the world or migrant and itin­erant, can meet and intermingle, an arena of negotiation to ascertain what future role should be assumed by culture and art in a globalized world, which values ought to be safeguarded and which jettisoned. New groupings of artists have started up, such as the Chinese duo Birdhead, whose quasi-seismographic photographs shot in great quan­tities document their subjective exposure to a rapidly changing urban environment. Mai Thu Perret’s art makes repeated reference to historical moments of female collective experience. The paintings by DAS INSTITUT (Kerstin Brätsch and Adele Röder) comes across as a large-scale installa­tion in the pitch of hyperactive Pop. The artists’ group GELITIN has planned a glass melt­ing action in the Arsenale’s Giardino delle Vergini as a communal happening, accompanied by music and a convivial get-together.
 
The exhibition itself offers an opportunity to foster a process of mutual interaction among the artists, who have been asked to create large sculptural structures, the parapavilions. Song Dong, Monika Sosnowska, Oscar Tuazon, and Franz West have been asked invited each to design a parapavilion that could also host works by other artists. Within the exhibition as a whole this has generated various degrees of conver­gence or cross-semination between artistic statements. In contrast to the familiar add-on “narrative” enacted in the juxtaposition of works by individual artists in a group exhibition, the parapavilions infuse the presenta­tion with greater dynamism. This has also resulted in new forms of collaboration among the artists. The parapavilion created by Tuazon, for instance, which houses in its interior a work by Asier Mendizabal, while its outer walls have been transformed by Ida Ekblad into a painting ground for her intervention. Franz West presents the reproduction of the kitchen from his home in Vienna. The works by artist friends usually found hanging there are now presented on the exterior of the structure, while on the inside Dayanita Singh is showing her pho­tographic projection Dream Villa. In yet another act of curatorial intervention, exchange and mutual inspiration between the artists was fostered by drawing up five questions concern­ing the theme of identity. These were put to the artists involved in the “international exhibition” ILLUMInations as well as to those showing work in the national pavil­ions; their responses are reproduced in the catalogue, where the voices of the artists come to depict an image that evokes a collective contemporary mental landscape.
 
Going back to the title, the reference to light is clear in many works featured in the exhibition. James Turrell creates a space of light, an ocean of colored light that erases all spatial definition of proximity and distance. With Philippe Parreno and Jack Goldstein, ILLUMInations presents two artists of the next gen­eration who are concerned with the theme of light, particularly in relation to mass media reality. On top of that, it goes without saying that photography assumes particular thematic prominence in ILLUMInations, with Luigi Ghirri, Annette Kelm or Elad Lassry.
 
A large number of artists are now availing themselves of the vast pool of popular or mass cultural myths that have taken possession of us. Maybe the same “materialistic, anthropologi­cal inspiration” that Walter Benjamin associated with “profane illumination” in his essay on surrealism also comes to bear in the works of Katharina Fritsch, Loris Greáud, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Cindy Sherman, Rashid Johnson, or Christian Marclay.
 
Again and again, ILLUMInations makes clear reference to origins and provenance, but also to domes­ticity. Nicholas Hlobo has supplemented his sculpture with the sound of himself singing one of his mother’s songs about an African tribe; elsewhere Song Dong has trans­ported the more than 150-year-old home of his parents to Venice. The theme of domesticity is also manifest in the parapavilions where home, or the kitchen, is exposed in a metaphorical sense to a series of tipping points, a draught of air that makes it susceptible and ready for something unknown. Others is the title of an intervention by Maurizio Cattelan, the repetition of a work exhibited at the 1997 edition of the Biennale. Mounted beneath the ceiling of the Central Pavilion, 2000 stuffed pigeons lurk above the visitors, an oppressive image of menace that perhaps one only notices in the course of time. What do these pigeons looming over our heads stand for? What kinds of intruders or outsiders are they?
 
In fact, the theme of the outsider plays a not insignificant role in ILLUMInations. Has Tintoretto, although acknowledged as a great innovator, not to some degree been treated as an outsider in the history of art? In these terms Guy de Cointet, Jeanne Natalie Wintsch, Gedewon and Llyn Foulkes can all be considered interesting outsiders. Inspirational outsiders acquire their relevance through the challenge they pose to the certainties of consen­sus-driven mainstream discourse. But in a culture which no longer has just one center but many, is there not precisely this one basic pattern that stands out in the comparison between Western and non-Western art?

ILLUMInations presents contemporary art char­acterized by gestures that explore notions of the collective, yet also speak of fragmentary identity, of temporary alliances, and objects inscribed with tran­sience. If the communicative aspect is crucial to the ideas underlying ILLUMInations, it is demonstrated in art that often declares and seeks closeness to the vibrancy of life. This is more important now than ever before, in an age when our sense of reality is profoundly challenged by virtual and simulated worlds. This Biennale is also about believing in art and its potential. Artists work without a safety net, and people who work with artists cannot help but be inspired, question their own assumptions, and constantly strive to do their best.
Bice Curiger, June 2011