Orient Express From Eastern Helsinki (and Eastern Europe) with LOVE

Venice Biennale 2015

  • Irina Nakhova (Russian Pavilion)
    Irina Nakhova (Russian Pavilion)
  • Xu Bing at Arsenale (Chinese contemporary art is really stunning these days)
    Xu Bing at Arsenale (Chinese contemporary art is really stunning these days)
  • Heri Dono's hilarious war machine (you could go inside) in the Indonesian Pavilion
    Heri Dono's hilarious war machine (you could go inside) in the Indonesian Pavilion
  • Argelia Bravo in the Pavilion of Venezuela
    Argelia Bravo in the Pavilion of Venezuela

Flying from Istanbul to Venice made me think about the Byzantine Empire. Both cities have been capitals of this now historical state and as I wrote my PhD on Venice I had to trace the story.

If Istanbul is nearly officially (beginning of the end?) today's hotbed of what contemporary art is, the brand of Venice leans towards commercialism, career professionalism and institutionalism. Many people hate the Biennale. It is not really fair. Well, the national pavilions are a perverse reminder of nationalism and imperialism. And somehow everything in Venice just feels a bit posh and polished. After Istanbul you cannot help yourself. You feel you have arrived to MTV Music Awards. But a lot of good work is done, every year.

In the Giardini (national pavilions) I enjoyed for example the Dutch pavilion. Herman de Vries showed equipment, photos and results of farming. There was a nice scent in the building because there were dried flowers on the floor. Of course this type of archive work is very typical for today's art, but still... something just touched me. In Giardini's cosmopolitan building I enjoyed a lot Walead Beshty's trashy porcelain works, a lot of paint and semi-representational porcelaine pieces poured all over the place. Finland had one of my favorites, by accident: I really happen to like the work of IC-98. The group (tandem) has for years been making very slow handmade animations where architectural, economic and cultural themes have been explored. Venice was a bit of a bad place maybe to show this kind of work, at least when the pavilion did not give a helping hand: you just had to know that you have to sit down and use at least nearly an hour to see the slow changes of their animation. (I did not, I decided that I'll watch this later in some other exhibition.) But where would the visitors have gained this knowledge? And there's anyway too much to see in Venice. Russia (Irina Nakhova) presented great stuff, as always. One of my favorites was the huge gas mask on the second floor of the building. (See pic 1.) In the house of Venezuela Argelia Bravo really made my day. Her audiovisual material on people wearing pussyriotesque masks and talking was just hilarious! (Pic 4.)

Arsenale made me happy. I haven't liked the curated part of the Venice Biennale this much since 2003 (Sogni e conflitti). This years curator Okwui Enzweror is someone I really respect. Together with Sarat Maharaj he made a great work in Documenta 2002 bringing back political art and presenting a lot of non-Western art to the Western public. There was a lot of playful huge stuff all over Arsenale this year. Heri Dono in the Indonesian Pavilion (pic 3) was really hilarious. He had made a dinosaur war machine you could enter. I saw a lot of great Chinese post-pop art that you couldn't anymore call pop art. I'd talk about industrial fantasies, but not in the sense that was typical for media art (you kind of do not use that term anymore). One example was Xu Bing (pic 2) who's work was somewhere between Tetsuo 2, Transformers and the technological dystopias of the 20th Century. Steve McQueen had made a great film about a fisher who died. On one side you could see the burial process (and the craft involved in it) and on the other side you could see film material on the man (same room, film on two sides of one screen in the middle). Somehow this touched me aesthetically.

I also went to see some shadow exhibitions. Some made sense, but mostly it all felt like too much. What’s the idea to bring art here, where it feels like everyone is suffering from a visual and conceptual bulimia? It is neither a good way to provide alternatives. Why accepting to be a shadow? Alternatives are of course something the world needs but you get the feeling that everyone just tries to promote something. I am so happy about Enzweror, because he really made a difference. His success story hasn't made him a product and when this kind of a guy has a lot of power he can make the alternative flourish in the mainstream.

Venice for me is oriental. Sadly I was going to write a text for the Syrian Pavilion about this issue just a couple of years ago, but the country started to lean towards war and so the catalogue the Syrians intended to do (my friend Khaled Ramadan was going to edit it) was in the end never done. Rialto Bridge is Arabic architecture and all over the city you can see that the Orient has left traces. Walking in Venice one can easily feel that not even Eastern Europe is enough as a term to discuss the non-Western side of Venice. It is somehow a warmhole to the Middle East, an architectural daydream of orientalism. I am very happy that the art presented in its Biennale is now increasingly non-Western. It really suits the city.

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