Biennial Venice 2011
Shedding a light on Illuminations
published in: (H)Art #80, April 2011, p. 20

No doubt, the Venice Biennial – the mother of all art biennials – is still one of the most important and eagerly-anticipated events in the art world, not least because of the often discussed national pavilions which seem a bit outdated nowadays but still give the biennial this special edge. The expectations for the curated main exhibition in the Central Pavilion and in the Arsenale are high, and one can imagine that the position of the respective curator is not an easy one, overexposed to public pressure and criticism. After all the Biennale is regarded as being the most comprehensive and influential contemporary art exhibition in Europe (besides the Documenta which only takes place every five years in Kassel). The respective curator usually plays a very prominent role, so it’s no surprise that an image of this year’s curator Bice Curiger, curator at Kunsthaus Zürich since 1993, is the first thing you see when you enter the website of the Biennial. Bice Curiger, well-known art historian, critic and curator at Kunsthaus Zurich, cofounded the prestigious art magazine “Parkett”, of which she is editor-in-chief. She also has been publishing director of London Tate Gallery’s magazine “Tate etc” since 2004 – there are not many curators who could be described as more acknowledged in the European art world than Bice Curiger.

In March, she and Paolo Baratta, president of the Venice Biennale, undertook a promotion tour to Zürich, Berlin, Moscow and London to introduce their programme of this year’s biennial which is titled “Illuminazioni/Illuminations”. On occasion of these – extremely well-attended – press conferences Bice Curiger took the chance to present her major ideas for the exhibition as well as the facts around it. First the facts: As usual the show will be laid out in the Central Pavilion in the Giardini and in the Arsenale, featuring 82 artists from all over the world – not all of their names have been revealed yet –, including 32 artists who were born after 1975 which probably is supposed to indicate that the biennial is a rather young one and many of its participants are still “emerging”. Yet you find “hipsters” like Klara Liden, Cyprien Gaillard or Das Institut and Kerstin Brätsch on the list of youngsters too. But there are also established ones among the named artists, such as Fischli & Weiss, Pipilotti Rist, Franz West or Cindy Sherman. Most of the shown artworks will be made specifically for the Biennial. Somewhat astonishing seems the special remark in the press release that 30 of the 82 participants are women. Why is it, in 2011, worth an announcement that not nearly half of the artists of the Biennial are female? Given that this announcement comes from the organizers themselves it seems that this is supposed to be regarded as a notably good thing, however it rather makes one wonder – and a little depressed – how long it still will take until we have the first major exhibition with more female than male artists and just nobody will care and why we haven’t reached this point yet, not even when the curator is female herself.

It’s good to hear Curiger talking about her work and her perspective on the recent art discourse. It is so common that curators and critics only mention “specific” criteria and aspects without bothering to actually specify them that Curiger’s clear and sharp-sighted approach means a relief. Of course, it’s probably a bit too widespread when the curator explains that the title “Illuminations” not only “emphasizes the intuitive insight and the illumination of thought that is fostered by an encounter with art and its ability to sharpen the tools of perception” but also “suggests a wide range of associations, from Arthur Rimbaud’s wildly poetic ‘Illuminations’ and Walter Benjamin’s ‘Profane Illuminations’ on the surrealist experience to the venerable art of mediaeval illuminated manuscripts and the philosophy of illumination in 12th century Persia.“ That has a bit of a sweeping swipe but sounds great and just one has to see how this wide range of references actually will ber reflected in the exhibition. Particularly interesting is Curiger’s emphasis “on the ‘light’ of the illuminating experience, on the epiphanies that come with intercommunicative, intellectual comprehension” and that, “despite the fact that, in recent years, the idealization of enlightened reason and a specific brand of European western scholarly practice have come under fire, we cannot help respecting and even defending their value particularly in regard to the debate on human rights.”

These essential thoughts led Curiger not only to invite artists which are less-known in Europe like Gedewon (1939-1990 in Ethiopia) or Birdhead from Shanghai (Song Tao and Ji Weiyu, born 1979 resp. 1980 in Shanghai) but also to commission four artists – Monika Sosnowska, Franz West, Song Dong und Oscar Tuazon – to create “Parapavillons” with works by other artists, thus giving the curatorial control partly out of hand and accommodating the contemporary phenomenon of the “artist-curator”.

By the way: Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594) is invited too. The incorporation of his work into the show is supposed to “transmit unexpected, stimulating signals and cast light on the conventions of the art trade regarding both old and contemporary art”, since “contemporary art rarely moves beyond the territory covered by the history of Modernism.” Well, that might be true, but this bridging to earlier epochs reminds of the last Berlin Biennial 2010 when curator Kathrin Rhomberg tried to include works by Adolph Menzel (1815-1905) which were – badly – installed in the Alte Nationalgalerie, separately from everything else, and had no impact on the Biennial whatsoever. It rather brought up the question if the viewer needs this disgruntingly didactic art-historical reminder. Same will have to be asked for Tintoretto in Curiger’s show, especially in Venice where not even the biggest ignoramus can fail to notice that there was art before Modernism.

ILLUMInazioni – ILLUMInations
Venice (Giardini and Arsenale), June 4th – November 27th, 2011
Preview June 1st, 2nd and 3rd, 2011