VENICE, Italy — By the light of the setting sun, a skateboarder practices tricks on the edge of a seaside jetty. Heavy waves roll in and break against the shore in a constant motion in the background. The skateboarder keeps to a narrow radius and his movements are rhythmic and supple. The board appears to be an extension of his body — senses, mind and action welded into an indivisible unit.
This unassuming video by Australian artist Shaun Gladwell captures the spirit of the current Venice Biennale, whose title — “Think with the senses, feel with the mind” — exhorts attendees to let the senses and intellect enrich each other. In the two sections curated by the biennale’s director, Robert Storr, individual works of art form a web in which different themes and media co-operate or contrast with each other in a fruitful way. Aesthetics play a prominent part, distinguishing the current biennale from the previous one, as well as similar events held in recent years.
At the 2005 Venice Biennale, much-feted curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist created the controversial “Utopian Station,” the architecture of which was reminiscent of a shantytown. There, films, archive materials, social projects and various performance acts put a sharp focus on the processes of art-making, rendering the exhibition of more interest to those taking part than to the visiting public.
Storr’s presentation actually creates a space in which art and the beholder can meet: a place in which to experience art and to reflect on it. Some critical voices maintain that the presentation is conservative, and that the exhibition has no obvious sense of direction or desire to create change. There is, however, general agreement that individual works are of high quality.
“The overall quality is very high and there is consistency about the works which are shown,” says David Elliott, director of Istanbul Modern and former head of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum. “Also dramatic is the fact that countries that were marginal are beginning to take their place on the stage.”
The art world has been strikingly enriched by contributions from Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America. Artists and curators from these regions are now a natural part of the international art scene in which they play an increasingly important role.
Among Storr’s chosen artists are Cheri Samba from Congo, Waltercio Caldas from Brazil, Dan Perjovschi from Romania, Nalin Malarin from Pakistan, Chen Zhen (1955-2000) from China and Japanese artists Hiroharu Mori, Izumi Kato and Tabaimo, to name a few from countries which, until recently, were regarded as being outside the center of the art world.
A megaevent, the biennale’s size is both a strength and a weakness. The risk is that the show will dissolve into a cacophony of styles and themes that create confusion instead of clarity. But the richness also provides an essential overview necessary to identify trends. The current biennale shows the new geography of the art world which, as Elliott points out, is a powerful movement.
Another evident trend is the politicization and social commitment of art. A notable share of works comment on the political situation in the world today. They paint a dark picture of war, dictatorships, oppression, disease and other physical and mental suffering.
The union of place and history are fundamental elements in Japanese artist Tomoko Yoneda’s serene photographs of locations in which nothing particular seems to be happening, but which, until very recently, have been the setting for conflicts, wars and deaths. The titles describe what is hidden beneath the surface, as in “Minefield — View of Minefield Located by Tourist Attraction in the Demilitarized Zone, Paju City, South Korea” (2004).
“The images are not a finite statement but become a record of a moment in time from a location in constant transition,” Yoneda says. “They highlight the ordinary in order to reveal its hidden dark history and serve as a silent but potent critique of that history.”
The recent past and the various layers of history are also present in the Japanese pavilion in Masao Okabe’s ambitious installation titled “Is There a Future for Our Past? The Dark Face of the Light” (1996-2007). The pavilion curator Chihiro Minato, who worked closely with Okabe, believes the work calls into question how Hiroshima is remembered in the hopes of making the past more concrete.
Storr observed at the opening that “We are living in pretty terrible times.” But he maintained that his exhibition is sober and clear-eyed in an era obsessed with money, adding: “One day the money will cease, but the art will remain.”
Works by Japanese artist Yukio Fujimoto stand out from the media hype despite — or perhaps because of — their low-key appearance. Fujimoto’s presentation is minimalist and deals with sound and silence. By sitting on the chair in “Ears with Chair” (2005) and putting the two long paper tubes to their ears, a visitor finds nothing remains as it was — sounds are amplified as the experience of the room is entirely altered. By means of a small shift in one of the sensory organs, a visitor becomes conscious that there are always new ways of understanding their perception of reality.
Several works deal with existential questions of a more universal character. The Chinese artist Yang Zhenzhong’s monumental video-projection portrays modern man’s reaction to death in a way that is both simple and gripping. He has filmed people facing into a camera and repeating the words “I will die.” Stranded for a moment in the flow of everyday life, they are reminded for an instant that every one of us — including those who view their guileless faces — sooner or later will breathe their last.
One of the most interesting pavilions is South Korea’s, which is showing Hyungkoo Lee’s exhibition titled “The Homo Species.” The works deal in a quasiscientific way with the artist’s “undersized Asian male complex.” Upset by the experience of being small in comparison with his Caucasian student fellows in the United States, Lee presents pseudomedical instruments and therapies for treating his “complex.” He has also created a fictitious museum in which appear the skeletons of cartoon figures like Tom and Jerry.
The Chinese pavilion houses one of the few expressly feminist exhibitions at the biennale. Titled “Everyday Miracles,” it comprises work by four female artists, Cao Fei, Kan Xuan, Shen Yuan and Yin Xiuzhen, who are all concerned with everyday experiences in modern China. Particularly successful is the combination of Yin’s textile objects — reminiscent of a new TV tower in Shanghai — with the dilapidated warehouse in which they are shown.
Though Storr has been criticized for not giving sufficient space to one of the most important forms of expression in contemporary art — the moving picture — two of the films and videos on show distinguish themselves on account of their narrative strength and sophisticated style. One is Gerard Byrne’s “1984 and Beyond” in the Irish pavilion, a staged discussion of the future by 12 science-fiction writers that originally took place in 1963; the other is Chinese artist Yang Fudong’s five-part epic titled “Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest,” which is being shown together for the first time.
The black-and-white feature film contains numerous references to other films, as well as to Chinese painting, poetry and history. The events have a dreamlike character and the principal figures, consisting of a group of young men and women, move between the city and the countryside. The mood is mysterious and melancholic, at times verging on the absurd, but primarily sensual and erotic.
In fact, “Seven Intellectuals,” by clearly uniting thoughts, feelings and visuals, summarizes well the biennale’s overriding theme.
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