The Venice Biennale: The Arsenale

From: Eva
Category: Art
Date: 11 June 2005


'Always a Little Further' is the title of the Arsenale section of the 51st Venice Biennale. This is an all together much cooler affair than Bonami's noisy thrashing of two year's ago. Whereas Bonami chose to invite several sub-curators to the Arsenale, resulting in a competing and confusing exhibition, almost the entire section has this time been curated by Rosa Martínez (with the exception of the underwhelming Chinese Pavilion, their first ever official representation, in the annex space occupied by 'Utopia Station Project' at the last Biennale) . The result is a much more coherent exhibition than the last. The title has been taken from that of a Venetian fictional work featuring a romantic traveller, "always independent, always open to chance and risk, and always crossing all kinds of frontiers in pursuit of his own destiny". There is an inevitable element of surprise in this large exhibition, also at times of mysticism. The general quality is mixed and it's to its credit that it's not as easy an exhibition to summarise as that of two years ago. The way Martínez has covered the huge Arsenale space has been to split it into an area where works presented retain the central fluidity of the vault like space, with another section where we are move between dark rooms with video projection/installation, entire immersed in the experience.

The exhibition starts with a radical feminist statement in the form of the Guerrilla Girls' series of giant posters proclaiming the inequalities between male and female representation, both in the art world and more particularly in Venice at Biennales. We are told that the percentage of woman artists in the Biennale in 1895 was 2.4, a hundred years later it was 9%. The Guerrilla Girls have also created a giant chandelier placed on the floor in the middle of the room. When you get close you realise that it's made out of tampons, unused. Before arriving in Venice I had already heard this Biennale described as the 'female Biennale', the two curators have been described as 'the Spanish girls', and here we are at the very beginning of the exhibition itself with feminism right on the agenda. With Barbara Kruger being awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement and Annette Messanger yesterday winning the award for the best Pavilion it's easy for cynics to be dismiss these achievements by saying that the odds are stacked in favour of the women this time around. So is it being heavy handed to start the show with the Guerrilla girls? Why not address this issue, I say. The statistics on the Guerrilla Girl's posters are real and the posters are also humorous and well made. The idea behind the tampon chandelier is corny but it is very nicely done, quite a pretty piece.

Having been alerted to the gender of the artists in the show it's difficult to then not be aware of the gender of the rest of the artists in the next few rooms, who are all women although looking at the press release now balance seems roughly equal between the sexes. There are few paintings in the exhibition, most works being video or three dimensional installation works. Semiha Berksoy's quiet paintings straight after the Guerrilla Girls are the exception. Runa Islam's video of a young woman flirting with the breaking of porcelain is retrained and effective. The Russian art collective, Blue Noses' work 'Quest' grabs your attention as soon as you enter the room which they share with Nikos Navridis' subtler piece. 'Quest' consists of twelve boxes with projections inside. Peering into the box you see humorous little scenes of naked men and women playing with plastic crocodiles and leapfrogging over each others. Navridis has another related work later in the exhibition, of a kind of carpet projected on the floor that suddenly starts moving. Luckily when I saw it I was not hungover but even so I wanted to be sick, it has such an immediate physical effect of the floor spinning, just like the later stages of drunkness.

There are a couple of very 'Political' works, namely Santiago Sierra's sound work over the doorway as you enter about how much the Biennale attendants are paid, Rem Koolhaas' works about gallery and museum spaces and Buechel & Motti's work about Cuba, the USA and Guantanamo. Generally though the show exhibition did not ram politics down your throat the way I felt Bonami did a couple of years ago, and for that reason you pay more attention.

London's 'Centre of Attention' is presenting Swansong, a white block you can lie on while they play the music you'd like to be heard at your funeral, while other Biennale visitors gawp at you and wonder if you're trying to impersonate Conelia Parker's Tilda Swinton sleeping. 'Morning Has Broken' was the choice of the Italian journalist who was lying there when I walked past.

More from the Biennale will follow, with a report from the Giardini.