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Marina Abramović, Confession (2010). B&W DVD Loop. Courtesy: the artist and Lisson Gallery.

Performing the Biennale 

by Deanna Sirlin

The Venice Biennale is one of those institutions everyone loves to hate. While the art press wants to be outraged, the art cognoscenti would like to be congratulated for having known about and silently watched all of these artists for years, and the artists just want to be included even as they despise the process of selection. However, I have been going to the Venice Biennale since 1993, and there are moments to remember and relish. Of course, there was the year it was so beastly hot, and the year when the art was so flat (which may have been the same year). This year, the art seems to be strongly influenced by the current diva of art, Marina Abramović who has called herself the grandmother of performance art.

Abramović performed her Balkan Baroque at the Biennale in 1997, a work no one who attended the vernissage will forget, as an overpowering odor wafted up from the basement space of the Italian Pavilion where Abramović washed 1500 fresh bloody cow bones while singing folksongs from her childhood in front of a three-channel video of herself flanked by each of her parents. Abramović has brought attention to performance by re-performing the work of her fellow artists, with their permission, in a project titled Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim Museum in 2005. More recently, other artists re-performed approximately fifty of her works spanning forty years for her retrospective The Artist is Present. I mention these two exhibitions because I believe they have had a tremendous influence on both artists and curators and have played a significant role both in establishing performance as a viable form in gallery and biennial settings and in suggesting that the artist’s role can be to script or direct a performance rather than to perform. 

I started my journey through the current Venice Biennale in the Giardini where the national pavilions are, and for no reason other than that it was first on my path I entered the Spanish pavilion and a work by Dora Garcia titled The Inadequate for which she invited multiple performers to perform a different text or engage in some kind of discussion each day. Garcia is like a curator, choreographer, or director: she chooses the texts and the performers and has set a schedule of events that runs through the entire six months the Biennale is on. As Garcia explains in her materials, the concept of inadequacy she is exploring relates to communication. She quotes the sociologist Erving Goffman: “To be awkward or unkempt, to talk or move wrongly, is to be . . . a destroyer of worlds. As every psychotic and comic ought to know, any accurately improper move can poke through the thin sleeve of immediate reality.” Goffman is referring here to the way the maintenance of social reality depends on the maintenance of discourse: to perform discourse incompetently is to rend reality itself. If the text I heard performed, which combines ideas from the underground filmmaker Jack Smith, the theatrical visionary Antonin Artaud, and the comedian Lenny Bruce is any indication, Garcia is indeed particularly interested in the ways both psychotics and comics (and some people who may fall into both categories) push the limits of acceptable discourse.


Darius Mikšys, Behind the White Curtain (2011).

For comparison’s sake, I will jump ahead to one of the last sites I visited, the Lithuania Pavilion in a chapel outside the Giardini and a work titled Behind the White Curtain. Artist Darius Mikšys acts as a performer and curator. He brought to Venice 173 artworks by artists who have received the State Grant from Lithuania’s Ministry of Culture over the last two decades (1992–2010). It is a performative installation where the viewers choose the art to be brought out from behind a white curtain and placed on display. The works Mikšys brought to Venice were like the texts chosen by Garcia, and the staging of them, bringing them out from behind the curtain, parallels the idea of having performers present the texts. These are artworks whose main method is to rearrange and re-present the work, words, and ideas of others. This is hardly a new idea; I think of Fred Wilson,  who began rearranging collections within museums and galleries twenty years ago as his artwork (and who represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2003), but the liveness of the acts of appropriation in Garcia’s and Mikšys’ work does bring something new to the table. I also remember an artist performing with the collection at the Johnson Museum in Ithaca, NY in 1981. But that work, as I recall it, was not as politically charged as the way Garcia and Mikšys use their performers’ immediate actions to raise questions about the social and institutional structures underlying them.

Back to the Giardini, and on to the brilliant work presented in the United States Pavilion by the artist team of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, who have been making conceptual and performative works that that engage social practices since 1995. In one phase of their ongoing Chalk Project, they brought large sticks of chalk to Peru so that people could write on the piazzas in big words that will be seen. Their work for the Biennale, Gloria, which consists of six separate pieces, is a showstopper. Outside the pavilion is an overturned military tank procured from the government of the United Kingdom, all US tanks being in use at this time. Atop the tank is a treadmill exercise machine and every so often a former US Olympic athlete runs on the treadmill and the tanks treads move as well. It is noisy and pointed. Inside the pavilion, there are wooden reproductions of Delta and American Airlines business class seats. Using these seats in the place of a balance beam or pommel horse, Olympic gymnasts perform two choreographed routines, one for male gymnasts and the other for the women. An American viewer cannot help but think of 9/11, but the piece also interrogates the relationships between class and comfort and gender and strength. It is a triumphant work, that mixes sport and political, economic, and military power with art.

The national pavilions house the strong work in this Biennale. For all the hype, most of the work in the Arsenale and the Italian Pavilion, chosen by the Biennale’s Swiss curator, Bice Curiger, is pretty flat in her choices of artists and work, despite their being grouped together under the title ILLUMInazione (ILLUMInations). A few standouts are the Swiss veteran Bienniale artist Pipilotti Rist, who exhibited three small Venetian-style intaglios over which she projected moving images recycled from her own past work and resembling fireworks to create small yet evocative works, which were indeed illuminating. Rist made her international art world debut in 1997 at the Biennale with her two-channel video of Ever Is Over All. It was a feminist hit. She has been in the Biennale frequently since, and in 2005 she represented Switzerland with a spectacular installation at the church in San Stae, the only thing most visitors liked in that year of intolerably hot weather. In 1999, she exhibited a machine that blew smoke-filled clear soap bubbles outside the Arsenale called Nichts or Nothing.


Speaking of blowing smoke, there seems to be a lot of that going on at this year’s Bienniale, both literally and figuratively. In the Chinese Pavilion at the end of the Arsenale is a show by five artists all of whom use scent in their work. Cai Zhisong has installed sculptural “clouds” that emit smoke every ten minutes or so that has the distinct fragrance of tea. His artist colleague Yuan Gong uses a large humidifier, set on a two-hour cycle, to generate a recurrent wet fog in the interior space. Such special effects are fun, but don’t add up to much. However, Anish Kapoor has a provocative work, Ascension, inside the Basilica di San Giorgio. It is a stream of smoke in the center of church that rises in a thin stream up to the ceiling where an exhaust fan pulls it up and out. It is both visually beautiful and conceptually elegant. Kapoor describes it by saying, ”What I am interested in is the idea of the immaterial becoming an object.”

Another provocative work is to be found in the Polish Pavilion. For the first time in history, Poland is represented by a non-Polish artist, Yael Bartana. Not only is Bartana not Polish, she s an Israeli video artist who works in Amsterdam and Tel Aviv. Her ….and Europe will be Stunned  is a chilling three-part mockumentary about a fictional political movement dedicated to calling Jews back to Poland. Many thought the movement to be real; I had to sign up for it to obtain a press kit. The work offers an array of metaphors concerning identity, nationalism, violence, and propaganda that speak specifically to the history of European Jews, yet also more generally to the situation of displaced peoples.

And of course Marina Abramović has a work in Venice, albeit as part of a group show in the beautiful Palazzo Bembo on the Grand Canal. The show, Personal Structures, is affiliated with the Biennale, though it was organized separately. Her video work Confessions, from 2010, is a 60-minute loop of Marina and a donkey in the white box space of a gallery looking at each other. Who is confessing what to whom, I do not know, but I can say that the donkey looks happy. 

Images at right, from the top: 
Anish Kapoor, Ascension (2011)

Anton Ginzburg,  At the Back of the North Wind (2011)

Cai Zhisong, Cloud (2011)

Photos: Meredith Sims


Deanna Sirlin is the Editor-in-Chief of The Art SectionShe is an artist and a writer.  

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