Why Venice Matters

Matthew Israel
May 28, 2013 2:21PM
You Are Wherever Your Thoughts Are, North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012
Jack Shainman Gallery

Who cares about the Venice Biennale? 

A lot of people, and for a lot of reasons.

First off, Venice is widely understood as the world’s most prestigious art exhibition. It has the longest history of any of the major (still-running) international art exhibitions; arguably, it’s one of the major reasons for the international proliferation of biennials over the last two decades—there are now over 150 occurring globally; and Venice is unique due to its format—the majority of the exhibition consists of national pavilions, which are individual exhibition spaces for countries. Countries nominate usually one artist to present work there on their behalf. (Richard Mosse, for example, will represent Ireland.) This year there are 88 countries exhibiting at Venice. 

Venice is also considered the “World Series of Curating.” In other words—for those not that familiar with baseball—being appointed as the artistic director of the Biennale is the ultimate prize/recognition for a curator. Massimiliano Gioni is this year’s director. At Venice, while the general responsibility of the artistic director is to be the diplomatic face of the Biennale, they are judged by the art world primarily on the basis of a central exhibition, split between a space near the national pavilions and the Arsenale. Many look to this show to gauge what is happening—and what will happen—in contemporary art. (The only other comparable exhibition to do this is Documenta, but it is held only every five years—hence the influence of Venice. Also, interestingly, this year's exhibition—even though it is looked to as a statement of "now"—will be more historical than in years past, hence the inclusion of the work of Dorothea Tanning, among other non-contemporary artists.) A final, major aspect of Venice is it is looked at for its stars. In short, who will be the artists people won’t be able to stop talking about at Venice? Most, if not all, of the artists included, will benefit greatly from Venice. They will be included in more, better exhibitions in the future and their work will increase in critical and market acclaim. Venice also singles out the star of all of the stars with its Golden Lion award, which recognizes the best national pavillion. Such awards don’t often happen in the art world. (Other significant awards of note? Abraaj Capital Art Prize, Bucksbaum Award, Future Generation Art Prize, Hugo Boss Prize, MacArthur Fellowship, Turner Prize.)

What does Venice's central exhibition offer to its visitors this year? Gioni has explained that for his exhibition, he is interested in the “dream of universal, all-embracing knowledge which many artists, writers, scientists, and self-proclaimed prophets have pursued throughout history.” And in particular, he is focused on the paradox of such projects in our world of now. He explains, “Today, as we grapple with a constant flood of information, such attempts to structure knowledge into all-inclusive systems seem even more necessary and even more desperate.”

One wonders, from afar, how the works in the exhibition will reflect or engage with this paradox. Not to oversimplify, but in a general sense, will each work fit one side of this idea—i.e. will some works be ambitious, encyclopedic, know-everything-about-the-world-type projects and some reflect entropy and/or nihilism? Or will many of the works situate themselves somewhere in the middle of this paradox, reflecting both sides at once. It does seem that there is judgement from the outset regarding which approach has more merit. For example, Gioni has referred to such encyclopedic projects as delusional, flights of the imagination, eccentric, and (as above) desperate, so it seems like he believes such projects to be less than necessary. Yet no one knows exactly what judgements or statements—if any and if at all clearly understandable–lie within the exhibition just yet. We’ll look to the reviews and writings about the show for some conclusions in the coming days.

Another interesting aspect of the exhibition: Gioni has said he is questioning the identity of the art object. (He has cited Hans Belting's The Anthropology of Images as inspiration.) Gioni further explains: 

Blurring the line between professional artists and amateurs, outsiders and insiders, the exhibition takes an anthropological approach to the study of images, focusing in particular on the realms of the imaginary and the functions of the imagination. What room is left for internal images—for dreams, hallucinations and visions—in an era besieged by external ones? And what is the point of creating an image of the world when the world itself has become increasingly like an image?

One wonders how the imaginary will function in the realm of actual art objects? Will it be a theme of works or something physically-enacted by artists or Gioni's curating or something else?

Apart from debates about the meaning of the main exhibition, Venice—because of its influence and international scope—is usually held up as a barometer of art world sexual and ethnic equality. Every year, one of the first questions asked in advance of the show, is how many men and women are represented and what countries are they from? Some issue has been made this year of the fact that there are more dead male artists (37) than living female artists (34) and that the majority of the total artists (155) are European or American. Gioni has responded to this criticism with the fact that the artist list is much bigger than in the previous two Biennales, that there are more countries, and that the total number of women artists is higher than in the previous two years. Amidst all of these numbers, the issue of viewing artists through the lenses of different countries comes up too. Is this a helpful or limiting way to see art, critics wonder. Also questioned is how the work of the artists in the national pavilions reflect the ideological/political/spiritual states of the countries? As a way to retain the pavilion model but question its nationalizing tendency, notably this year there is the exchange of pavilions between France and Germany. And Germany has further complicated this arrangement by inviting artists from all over the world—including Ai Weiwei from China and Dayanita Singh from India—to be in its exhibition. 

So now, while we look to Venice and waitexplore the more than 50 national pavilions and collateral events on Artsy.

Matthew Israel