11 Jun, 2009

Not seeing but drowning: my visit to Venice

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

I went to Venice to catch up on contemporary art. So why did it feel like I was out of my depth?

Ah, the Venice Biennale. You start out with the best of intentions, and then, the minute you get there, you go straight to the Giardini. These are the gardens containing many of the national pavilions, the largest of which – a Fascist-style building formerly known as the Italian pavilion – has been renamed Palazzo delle Esposizione. They are also, interestingly, a map of Edwardian colonial world power: Britain at the end of the main avenue, flanked by France and Germany, the US occupying the central position, and everyone else in a supporting role. They provide an ambience that can’t help but colour your viewing experience.

Three days follow, throughout which you are doing pretty much nothing but looking at art, but when you leave it’s clear that you’ve seen practically nothing at all. Did I see Krossing in Mestre? No. Did I catch Blue Zone at Campo San Zaccaria? I’m afraid not. What about Seduction into the Sign in the Campo della Chiesa? There was no time. And perhaps these are much more interesting than anything that did pass under my gaze. So the guilt sets in: what was I doing all that time? What was I thinking of?

The press pack includes a 27-page list of exhibitions, all of which are, in one way or another, related to the biennale. In addition to the main sites, these can be found spread right across Venice. Some are nationally sponsored shows on a par with those in the Giardini itself. The rest, in that somewhat disturbing, quasi-military way beloved of modern art, are referred to as collateral events. Taken together, they constitute an unfeasibly large and indigestible set of offerings. I could comfort myself with the certainty that no one else managed to see this multi-national glut either, but guilt doesn’t work that way. Oh, and yes, there’s even an exhibition of work by Robert Rauschenberg at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection called Gluts.

So much of the biennale experience is vicarious, virtual. Roman Ondak’s transformation of the Czech/Slovak pavilion into a walk-through continuation of the Giardini’s gravel path with shrub planting to either side is the most succinct, humorous and thoughtful expression of this fact. It seems to say: you’re here to be here, isn’t that enough? And even what you do see is problematic. An installation by Blinky Palermo, first shown in 1976, has been carefully recreated in the main Pallazzo delle Esposizioni, right down to a careful distressing of the walls to take them back to something like their state at that time. Somewhere along the line, the artist’s name – a soubriquet he picked up at art school – has for no apparent reason been reduced simply to Palermo. Close by, and in many other locations, there are examples of the multi-coloured poles that Polish artist André Cadere would leave propped against the wall in other people’s exhibitions in order to disturb and ask questions about what was on show. Here their presence is not only sanctioned: the poles have been screwed into the walls so they can’t ‘walk’ anywhere else. Both artists have been dead for three decades. What’s real about any of that?

This year, one of the pavilions really is virtual. Jan Aman and Miltos Manetas are constructing an Internet pavilion – padiglioneinternet.com – that will remain online for the duration of the biennale. The inclusion of various net-based operations in this project introduces multiple routes by which the festival can bleed out from Venice into the world beyond. How far it will manage to do this, we can judge in the months to come. Whatever the case, its existence in virtual space may be safer than its real-life extensions, given that one such – the Embassy of Piracy, run by thepiratebay.org – was raided by the Guardia di Finanzia just as its members were packing up to head back to Sweden. No reason was given for the Italian authorities’ interest in this show, which the Swedish ambassador had carefully avoided endorsing. Pirate Bay report this on their site under the tag Diplomacy Piracy War – somewhat overstating a small incident of collateral damage in which few were hurt and much publicity was gained.

One problem with getting to see stuff is that extra hurdles – quite apart from zealous guardians of civil propriety – are placed in your way. People begin turning up at the Giardini a little before the pavilions open in the morning. The queues are usually quite orderly, but this year there is a febrile atmosphere and a heightened tension among the agitated throng. Word is, you have to get to the British pavilion fast, or you’re screwed. As the gates open there’s an unseemly spectacle as people push, jostle and run as fast as they can to line up at the bottom of the pavilion steps. Contrary to what you might reasonably suppose, this line isn’t actually a queue to get in – it’s a line to gain permission to come back later for a specific screening of Steve McQueen’s film. Pleasant young women walk up and down the line with clickers, checking to see if you’re near enough to get one of the prized tickets. Naturally, this arrangement drastically limits the number of people who are able to see the work. And so the British contribution will remain a virtual presence for many people who come. The blogger for Artforum suggests this might be “a near fascistic act of bureaucratic procedure”. Myself, I wondered whether it was simply standard-issue British bad planning.

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