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Ragnar Kjartansson, The End - Venice, 2009, performance installation.
Commissioned by the Center for Icelandic Art.
Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik.
Photo: Rafael Pinho.

by Deanna Sirlin
The Art Section

Venice is a place to see contemporary art from all over the globe in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. There seems to be art in the city all of the time now, not just during the Biennale. There is the Pinault collection, the Emilio Vedova Foundation, as well as other many other permanent museums around the city. In this issue we have included many images hoping you, too, will feel a bit like you have been on this journey. For those who have Schadenfreude—yes, it was hot, but mostly it was humid. Yes, it was crowded, but I did not feel this year that the vaporetto might sink, as I have in some previous years. And I’m sorry, but yes, there were some good moments of art and even one or two great ones. I certainly do not mind wading through it all, even the high water, if the place is Venice.

The Art Section was fortunate to attract the sponsorship of Oliva Nera, our favorite restaurant/osteria in Venice (and that of many in the know). And I appreciate and want to thank my Venice-based writers who helped me while I was in Venice. I also want to welcome two new correspondents to this issue: Floriana Piqué, a curator and critic who is based in London, and artist/photographer Steve McKenzie, who travels the globe and calls Atlanta his home. And last, but not least, The Art Section’s editor, Philip Auslander, gives us a further discussion of analyzing art through documentation.

All my best,



John Baldessari, I Will Not Make Anymore Boring Art, 2009. Photo: Alain Hamon.

The Art Pilgrimage

by Deanna Sirlin

I am on the boat, as so many say into their cell phones. I am on a vaporetto moving slowly down the Grand Canal in Venice. I listen to two young Italian teenagers reading a banner on the outside of the Palazzo Ca' Giustinian. Very slowly they read the words of John Baldessari, “I will not make anymore boring art.” They laugh but then start discussing what this means, and they are really thinking about it. This is the ideal moment with which to begin my preview of the 53rd Venice Biennale.

I always like to go to the Venice Biennale. August 1993 was my first time in Venice, a trip I took with my mother-in-law, a brave lady to go looking at art with me. The heat and humidity were unbelievable as we moved slowly through the Biennale’s two main venues, the Giardini and the Arsenale, carefully looking at the immense amount of art gathered in each place. We saw everything, even taking a boat out to the Armenian monastery to see a wonderful exhibition titled The Treasure of the Journey; for me, the art pilgrimage was born.

Of course, there are always lots of annoying works which try to be the most abject, or sexual, or political, or loud. We have all suffered through our share of really dumb and tired and irritating shows. I remember one in particular from the Russian Pavilion at the 51st Biennale in 2005 called "Idiot Wind" (also the name of a song by Bob Dylan—really, Bob, Please get them to stop!) where every 3 or 4 minutes a great gust of hot air was blown at you from a big fan. Worth the journey? Not so much.

But it is also at the Venice Biennale that I first saw Pipilotti Rist's video installation (two overlapping projections) called Ever Is All Over (1997), which is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. I wanted to watch this video over and over again to see our heroine smashing car windows with a fireplace poker as she glides down a city street juxtaposed with fields of red-hot pokers, the flower. And it was in 1999, at the Arsenale, that I played with Chen Zhen’s percussive installation made of chairs and skins, and smelled Ernesto Neto’s fragrant, giant, spice-filled hanging white panty-hose sacks in biomorphic shapes. In 2001, I was sucked into the world of Pierre Huyghe at the French Pavilion. In 2007, I first saw the sublime work of El Anatsui and his gorgeous tapestries made from the screw tops of liquor bottles.

This year’s exhibition in the Arsenale, Making Worlds curated by Daniel Birnbaum, left me rather cold, I’m sorry to say, and ironically made Baldessari’s statement so poignant. There is nothing in this show that makes us stop and see in a new way, as Ron Mueck’s giant naked child did in 2001, just a lot stuff that does not look very curated at all. Mr. Birnbaum what art does not make a world?

This year the artist who makes all others fall to the wayside is Bruce Nauman, the artist representing the US in the Giardini. Since I’ve never considered myself a fan of Nauman’s, I did not expect to react to the work as I did. I respected him, of course, but I must admit I would sometimes become downright annoyed with his work. Nauman and his curators have juxtaposed four decades of his work in three separate sites in Venice, and this trio of exhibitions reached inside my gut and made me understand and see that his work is filled with humanity, humor, pain, and eloquence.

This triptych of shows, one in the American Pavilion at the Giardini and two more at local universities, Ca’ Foscari and IAUV, is a triumph. I found the neon works from the 1980s, in which two different statements alternate, more poignant than when I saw them in their permanent home on the campus of USC in San Diego. On the Jeffersonian façade of the American pavilion, the dichotomies became all the richer as I saw their political meanings more clearly than ever before. The new sound work Giorni (2009), which fills a hallway at Ca’ Foscari with the sound of the days of the week recited in Italian, is at once annoying and compelling. Over and over again we hear the days of the week repeated over and over in Italian—annoying, no? But wait . . . as I stay with the work I am sucked into its rhythm. I walk down the hall and continue to listen to the chant over and over again coming from paper-thin speakers on each side of the grand room. What at first was annoyng has now become like a mantra deliciously going on and on. Nauman’s Fifteen Pairs of Hands, from 1996, is like a ballet of hands as they balance on each other at the fingertips, so fully formed that the bodies are not missed. Four Pairs of Heads (Wax) from 1991 are thickly made, slightly translucent wax heads shmushed together, a harsh image that is paradoxically delicate in its rendering of interconnected parts becoming one.

Seen in the context of his other work, his performances on video are meaty interludes. I loved the work where he moves around the floor like clock hands with his body on a sketched circle. This is the sort of juvenile expression that transcends the comic into the real and present.


I love it that Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times said, “Bruce Nauman commands center stage unlike any American representative since perhaps the young Robert Rauschenberg, 45 years ago.” Nauman deservedly received a Gold Lion for Best pavilion; in Venice, he has shown himself to be the maestro that he is. The other “A” artist in Venice is the self-same Robert Rauschenberg, represented by Gluts at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Rauschenberg, who won the Grand Prize for painting at the 32nd Venice Biennale in 1964, is a force to be reckoned with, even posthumously. This exhibition of his wall relief work spanning several decades allows us to experience the greatness of this artist. We see Rauschenberg as both a colorist and a sculptor, traits that are difficult to join and use together. Each work is very beautifully presented; the galleries are organized by color and style rather than date and articulate the artist’s touch and vision. There are even several surprises. Work this good and fresh should be savored.

Back at the Giardini, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset won a Golden Lion for curating a lively and fun show for the Danish and Nordic Pavilions about collectors and the bankrupt state many are in right now. British actors were hired to play realtors and show you the “house” of the “collectors” who had to vacate abruptly, perhaps for financial reasons. The actors were marvelous and the curation fun. I’m not sure that it added up to all that much, but it is flawless in presentation.

I found the work of Dutch artist Fiona Tan to be quite a sensual evocation of historical journeys between West and East. The work in the large room is two screened videos, a larger one on the back wall in which the camera slowly pans backward to reveal more and more of a stuffed-to-the-gills collection of Asian antiques, and another somewhat smaller one with a voice-over recounting the journey of Marco Polo as we look at scenes from the east. This is a delicious work to experience in Venice, Marco Polo’s home, but I think it transcends place and speaks to the traveler in us all. Others of Tan’s works shown here are as well made and remarkable, but the portraits, as lovely as can be with their stately pace and movement, are too strongly reminiscent of Bill Viola.

Since I have been telling you only about the things I liked I should balance this text by mentioning some of the more unfortunate works passing for art at the Biennale. The worst, I think, is the German Pavilion. “Now that we live a in global world, nationalities do not matter,” I was told by one of the individuals working in the pavilion. Departing from this premise, the German pavilion contains nothing German: it was curated by a Dutch curator, who selected the British artist Liam Gillick. Gillick filled the pavilion with IKEA-like kitchen cabinets that break up the space, and there is some rhetoric about anti-fascist space and a taxidermy cat that is perched on top of one of the cabinets. I think Gillick should be made to recite Badessari’s words from the front of Ca’ Giustinian, or perhaps get a wind machine.

Here’s a short list of artists, who are new to me and whom I hope will not fade away; perhaps this Biennale will mark the beginning of long careers for them. Venezuelan video artist Magdalena Fernández made a video using the language of modernism: A Mondrian-like composition squawks like a parrot. Also, Andrea Faciu’s wonderful videos of dog puppets that are so dark and human in the Romanian pavilion. And Russian artist Andrei Molodkin’s juxtaposition of the Winged Victory of Samothrace with oil and blood is a stunningy beautiful work. The Icelandic artist, Ragnar Kjartansson, was terrific, though I preferred his videos using mountains as a backdrop to musicians playing to his live performance. The artist working with his male model in real time in the pavilion as if it were his studio did not intrigue me as much as it did many others.

At the end of the Arsenale (or the beginning, depending on your direction) stands a work by the Brazillian artist Lygia Pope, who died in 2004 at the age of 77. Her strands of golden string that become rays of light are one of the strongest works at the Biennale. While hardly new, they are certainly not boring. They alone are worth the journey.


Deanna Sirlin is Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section.

Images (from top):

Bruce Nauman, Fifteen Pairs of Hands, 1996. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.
Magdalena Fernández, 1pm006 (Ara ararauna), 2006. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.
Miquel Barceló, Le Choix des Moyens, 2005. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.
Anatoly Shuravlev, Black Holes. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.
Fiona Tan, Disorient, 2009. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London.
Andrei Molodkin, Le Rouge et le Noir, 2009. Courtesy: Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow.
Hector Zamora, Blimps over Venice. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.


Steve McQueen, Giardini, 2009.
Photo: Prudence Cuming.
© British Council, Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris; Thomas Dane Gallery, London.

Steve McQueen finds the essence of the Sublime in the sheer insubstantiality of a raindrop

by Floriana Piqué

We enter the British Pavilion through a calm Doric colonnade that induces a contemplative mood. Stillness. The Giardini is a place full of life, art, and crowds during the long summer of the Biennale, so it feels unfamiliar to see the site of such a celebration of plenty from a completely different perspective.

Born in London in 1969, winner of the Turner Prize in 1999 and of the Camera d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival for his first feature film, Hunger, Steve McQueen is representing the United Kingdom at this year’s Venice Biennale with Giardini, a 30-minute long staged film conceived especially for this occasion. The idea for this project has been in McQueen’s mind for a while, but the catalyst that caused him to bring it to fruition was the location: Venice, and the Giardini.

Two large, wide screens, adjacent in a continuum, take up the entire pavilion, completely absorbing the attention of the viewer. The shooting took place at the Giardini during the rainy days of February. Wintry, misty landscapes of empty, boarded up pavilions follow minimalist, lyrical images of nature: small beings, worms, beetles, raindrops.

The human presence of actors alludes to the possibility of stories, lives: an old lady carrying her trolley; a profile of a young man smoking in the dark; two men hugging each other, intensely, defying the borders of love and friendship. There is no narrative, but time and space are implied here. Every frame can live its independent life as a painting, demanding equal attention.

As for the images of thin, scavenger dogs, they never suggest ugliness, despite their crudeness; they never fall into an anticipation of death.

There is no space for complacency; the reality is never disfigured.

Sounds: church bells, the noise of persistent raindrops, chants from a playground, echoes of an everyday life, the noise of life which runs parallel to the silence of the images. Here, the artist finds the essence of the Sublime in the sheer insubstantiality of a raindrop.

McQueen challenges what could have been detritus, dereliction, emptiness with the power of his minute, extremely accurate observation, turning simplicity into joyful, new lives.

Venice is always present and keeps coming back in every frame, every sound; this place couldn’t be anywhere else.

The beauty comes from the illusion of beauty, from the shocking proximity of highlighted details.

Juxtaposing images on two screens, the artist requests our patience, the patience to look and look again, to observe, to take the time to wait for something, a nothing, to happen.

Leaving the safe darkness of the British Pavilion, walking in the sunny light along the grand avenue of the other pavilions, the viewer immediately acknowledges that, having seen the work of McQueen, his perception of the Giardini della Biennale has changed forever.


Floriana Piqué is an art critic and independent curator. She lives and works in London.

The 53rd Venice Biennale
A Photo Essay

by Steve McKenzie

The Art Section asked Steve McKenzie to photograph the Biennale on his recent trip to Venice. We present a small selection of his photographs here.







Steve McKenzie is CEO of Larson-Juhl and a working artist based in Atlanta, Georgia.


Images (from top left):

Judy Millar, La Maddalena Church; Krzysztof Wodiczko, Polish Pavilion.

Hans-Peter Feldman, Arsenale; Tomas Saraceno, Arsenale.

Adel El Siwi, Egyptian Pavilion; Emilio Vedova, Vedova Foundation.

Luca Pignatelli, Italian Pavilion; Huang Yong Ping, Arsenale.

Ragnar Kjartansson, Icelandic Pavilion; Ivan Navarro, Arsenale.

All photos by Steve McKenzie.

Exterior View of A Family's Home, the Danish Pavilion. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

Staging the Exhibition:
Elmgreen & Dragset's The Collectors

by Philip Auslander

The big “For Sale” sign outside says that the property is being offered by the Vigilante Group. At the entrance, Denise Foxwood, a middle-aged female estate agent in a flower print dress with a British accent and a condescending attitude gathers together the group she will tour through the house, handing out business cards she removes from her décolletage. A wealthy architect, Mr. A, and his family, who lived here, have departed suddenly, leaving their personal belongings and collections behind, at least for the moment. “Most of the art work is authentic, I’m told,” the agent relays to her charges, “and made by some quite well known names in the art world.” But the art is not for sale—just the house.

The “house” in question is actually the Danish Pavilion at the current Venice Biennale, and the story of Mr. A, his family, and Mr. B, who lives next door in the Nordic Pavilion (representing Norway, Sweden, and Finland), is the creation of Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, known collectively as Elmgreen & Dragset, a Berlin-based artist team that has worked together for fifteen years, who were commissioned to curate both pavilions. Elmgreen and Dragset are credited with both curating and “staging” the exhibition, an elaborate, large-scale theatrical confection called The Collectors, in which oblique, tabloid-ready narratives concerning what happened to the A family and the fate of Mr. B (who appears to be floating face-down in his swimming pool while young men in jeans and t-shirts loll about his home) provide the context for the gatherings of art displayed in the two pavilions made over as private homes. (As the artists themselves point out, the idea of converting exhibition spaces into fictional locales is one they have explored before, as when they turned the Bohen Foundation in New York into a subway station in 2005 or remade the interior of the Victoria Miro Gallery in London into a gay club that had seen better days in 2008.) It is noteworthy that although Ms. Foxwood distributes business cards containing a web address, there is no website with that address. The fictional world of Messrs. A and B does not spill over the footlights of the Biennale stage—Elmgreen & Dragset’s theatre is thus quite traditional, much more modern than postmodern.

Before going any further, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that I am writing here about a work I did not see. Well, actually I did see it, but only on video and in photographs, as I did not attend the Biennale this year. I am particularly interested in the performance aspect of The Collectors, which is documented in a video available on the Internet through Vernissage TV. The relationship between performance and its documentation is a fraught issue that is currently very much under discussion. It came up in last month’s TAS in my dialogue with Mark Scala. There, I said, “The usual assumption is that performance documentation gives us, at best, an impoverished experience of the original performance. But the more I think about it, the less credible I find this privileging of the live event.” The audience that actually sees the live version of any given art world performance is miniscule compared to the audience that will experience the same performance in documentary form. Ultimately, the documented version of the performance, the version that appears in the art history books, defines the performance for all intents and purposes. I am not saying that my experience of watching Elmgreen & Dragset’s real estate agent on video is the same as that of someone who followed her through the pavilion in Venice. All I am saying is that it is not clear that my experience is necessarily inferior in aesthetic, experiential, or any other terms to that of someone who went to the Biennale. The two experiences are not the same, but neither is the “real” or “authentic” experience of the performance. They are simply different iterations of the same event.

This is especially poignant with respect to the live performance in Elmgreen & Dragset’s installation, since the real estate agents (there were two, Denise and Roger Foxwood, ostensibly a husband-and-wife team) were present only during the opening days of the Biennale, meaning that only members of the art press and other elite visitors saw them perform live. This could mean that the performance I am taking as the central object of my attention here was actually incidental to the installation, nothing more than a clever and gimmicky way of providing the art press and collectors with a memorable tour of the pavilion. (Clever, and somewhat perverse for an art exhibition, since the premise of the tour is that one is there to look at the house and only incidentally at the art, which will not be there when one takes possession.) If, on the other hand, attending to the performance aspects of The Collectors enhances the installations’ meanings, the enhanced experience is now available only in documentary form even for those who attend the Biennale before it closes in November.

In their press release and in interviews, Elmgreen & Dragset propose that The Collectors addresses the psychology of collecting, the way we define ourselves through the objects with which we surround ourselves. Wandering through the houses and looking at the artwork, furniture, design objects, and personal belongings gathered there, the viewer is invited to imagine what kinds of people the fictional inhabitants are. (In the case of Mr. B, the artists have stated directly that they imagine him to be a gay man whose art collection provides him with a means of articulating an identity he may not be as direct about in other aspects of his life and the opportunity to support gay artists.)

Elmgreen & Dragset, Table for Bergman, 2009. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.

But the presence of performers portraying real estate agents encourages us to focus on other dimensions of performance in the installation. There is a sense in which the art assembled in the pavilions is itself performing—acting, even—in that it is pretending to constitute the collections of fictional characters. In most cases, the artworks perform as themselves; they portray works of art in one of the homes. But other works have been assimilated into the narrative in other ways. Ms. Foxwood presents Klara Liden’s installation Teenage Room, a blackened, burnt-out looking tiered structure that includes a fried laptop computer and a charred globe, as the room formerly belonging to the troubled teenaged Goth daughter of the family. In this case, the work is not presented as an example of how people use art to define themselves. It is not presented as a work of art at all, but as a piece of theatrical set design intended to express the sensibility of a specific character. In other instances, works of art appear as characters: the estate agent says that Maurizio Catalan’s taxidermy dog is a deceased family pet, while Elmgreen & Dragset’s own gilded brass sculpture Rosa is said to be based on a mold derived from a beloved family maid who died under mysterious circumstances two generations ago. There are different registers of performance here and different ways in which the art participates in the theatricality of Elmgreen & Dragset’s installation.

In this context, the performance aspect of other works comes to the fore. While showing off the dining room in the Danish Pavilion, Ms. Foxwood draws attention to two paintings by Elaine Sturtevant that replicate works by Frank Stella. Another register of performance comes into play--that of masquerade--as two Sturtevants masquerade as Stellas. Returning to Elmgreen & Dragset’s stated themes, one could certainly find oneself asking what it means that Mr. A collected Sturtevant-Stellas instead of real Stellas. But larger questions also loom, questions of what it means for one work to masquerade as another, especially after the real estate agent has said, “most of the work is authentic.” Are these inauthentic Stellas or authentic Sturtevants? Or both, since the authenticity of a Sturtevant is inextricable from its being an inauthentic replication of another artist’s work.

Ms. Foxwood also draws attention through a passing remark to the obvious yet crucial intertextual relationship between The Collectors and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection just down the canal in Venice. There, too, one is invited into a home to see works of art assembled by an absent owner, an owner whose adventurous life and personal connections to the artists represented in her collection are hinted at by rooms emptied of everything but art

Although Elmgreen & Dragset emphasize the role artworks play in collectors’ construction and expression of their social identities, The Collectors more broadly thematizes the way art is inserted into a variety of narratives ranging from the personal and social to the critical and historical. It thus relates to Elmgreen & Dragset’s even more overtly theatrical contribution to the Muenster Sculpture Project in 2007, a play entitled Drama Queens (with text by Tim Etchells) in which seven sculptures strongly recalling famous works move about a stage and speak with one another. In a somewhat Beckettian scenario, the sculptures acknowledge the theatre audience and talk in ways that reflect the different artistic sensibilities and values attributed to them, their respective places in the history of sculpture, and the ways they’ve been defined through critical discourse. Walking Man (inspired by Giacometti), for example, explains, “My thin-ness is best understood as the exterior reflection of an interior state. The reality that art seeks after is more than surface appearances, yes?” Although artworks become performers in a much more literal sense in Drama Queens than in The Collectors, both works examine the way the meaning of art is inevitably mediated by the narratives surrounding it.

It is worth noting, as a coda, that there is another performance going on in another Biennale pavilion sponsored by a Nordic country. The Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s The End incorporates a six-month performance in which Kjartansson will paint portrait after portrait of another man posing for him in a bathing suit in a palazzo converted into a makeshift studio equipped with a supply of beer and a record player. This performance is basically the polar opposite of Elmgreen & Dragset’s contribution. The decaying renaissance palazzo contrasts strongly with the sleek design of the Danish and Nordic pavilions. And whereas Elmgreen & Dragset’s piece is slick, swift, and theatrical, Kjartansson’s is grungy, boring, and un-self-conscious. Together, the two works trace the work of art’s trajectory from the sweaty scene of its laborious production to the swanky site of its luxurious display and the very different relationships it assumes to the one who makes it and the one who ultimately possesses it.


Ragnar Kjartansson, The End - Venice, 2009, performance installation.
Commissioned by the Center for Icelandic Art.
Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik.
Photo: Rafael Pinho.


Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section.