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by Dominique Moulon [ September 2009 ]
The 53rd Venice Biennale opened at the beginning of June bringing together artists, curators and critics from around the world before opening to the general public through until November 22nd. On the programme: the “historical” pavilions in the Giardini, collateral events in various places around the city and Daniel Birnbaum’s “Making Worlds” exhibition at the Arsenal.

spacerThe municipal gardens


Steve McQueen,
“Giardini”, 2009.
spacerIt’s best to get to the British Pavilion early to reserve a seat for the screening of Steve McQueen’s latest mid-length film entitled “Giardini”. The film, projected in Split Screen, juxtaposes two zones in cinemascope format, so the image, which is particularly long, evokes video installations that are more often seen in a given environment or in performance works. But the work of the English artist has a beginning and an end. As for the décor of this narration, it is entirely coherent with what is happening outside because it is indeed the municipal gardens of Venice, the same in which the “historical” international pavilions are situated that are being addressed. But the action takes place in the midst of winter when the gardens are closed to the public, when there is no question of art or architecture, in this dead season when even the passage of time seems affected, as though languidly drawn out. The main actors are errant dogs in the alleys with the sound of cheers coming from the stadium in the background. Life then is elsewhere in this city where the smallest square metre is worth a small fortune.

spacerThe Australian pavilion

Interceptor Surf: Daydream Mine Road

Shaun Gladwell,
“Interceptor Surf:
Daydream Mine Road”,
spacerThere is an exact replica of the Ford Falcon that the policeman Rockatansky drives in the film Mad Max by Georges Miller (1979) in front of the Australian Pavilion. What a strange idea to park a car in a city without streets, but you understand the reason for this odd presence once you’re inside the exhibition watching the video sequence entitled “Interceptor Surf: Daydream Mine Road” by Shaun Gladwell. We find the powerful V8 travelling along one of those emblematic roads of the Australian desert landscape where the orange coloured sand harmonises perfectly with the blue summer sky. A man, dressed in black from head to toe, climbs slowly out of the window to surf on top of the racing car, the images evolving in the languor of slow motion even though the car is moving at top speed. The slight hesitations in the gestures that the slow pace makes perceptible have a certain grace.

spacerMark Lewis

The Fight

Mark Lewis,
“The Fight”, 2008.
spacerSome recent films by Mark Lewis are silently loop-screened in the Canadian pavilion. The artist, who lives and works in London, is known for the interest he takes in the visual codes inherent in various cinematographic practices. In this exhibition called “Cold Morning”, a title taken from one of his films, he explores the strangeness inherent in the relationship between foreground and background shots in the technique known as Back Projection, which was so dear to Alfred Hitchcock. Mark Lewis used this trick, which consists of projecting previously shot sequences in the background of a scene, in the making of “The Fight”. Two time frames thus overlap: in the foreground, two groups of men and women are energetically provoking each other, while passers-by in the background pay no attention to this emerging scuffle. It will not come to blows because the action consists of prolonging the tension where the gestures are under the control of actors playing with self-restraint, and the verbal provocations are also contained by silence…

spacerCol Tempo

Col Tempo

Péter Forgács,
“Col Tempo - The W. Project”,
spacer“Surprising enough, western civilisation at the beginning of the 21st century is displaying signs of growing ethnic suspicion and paranoid xenophobia”, claims the curator of the “Col Tempo” exhibition in the Hungarian pavilion by the artist Péter Forgács. An habitué of Found Footage, Péter Forgács here exploits still and animated images from mug-shot archives taken by an Austrian Nazi in 1939. The portraits of prisoners of war are set alongside those of the Weirmarth guards and local villagers. Nudity is contrasted with uniforms, humility by arrogance with looks that are predominantly haggard. Not far from this video wall that gathers 96 of these supposedly scientific studies, there are a few portraits offering a more “intimate” relationship to spectators. The status of these images oscillates between painting and photography and photography and video. The subjects, like the frames, give them the allure of paintings and the imperceptible movements of the rotating faces in their extreme slowness places them in the fragile interstice that separates the photographic from the filmic.

spacerThe Polish pavilion


Krzysztof Wodiczko,
“Guests”, 2009.
spacerThe video installation “Guests” was specially conceived for the Polish pavilion by the artist Krzysztof Wodiczko who was born in Warsaw in 1943 and who is today a professor at MIT in Cambridge Massachusetts. The artist has literally “opened” the interior space of the exhibition with the help of video “windows” where little scenes are played out. The somewhat milky aspect of the virtual windows only allows us to perceive fuzzy silhouettes of those who remain outside. The actors outside, filmed previously, are immigrants living in Poland or Italy and coming from various regions around the world. “People who, according to Bożena Czubak, not being in their own country, remain “eternal guests”. The title of the exhibition then gives a social character to this video installation, which is also of rare effectiveness and true beauty. It is moreover, one of the works that continued to haunt me during my return from Venice when I contemplated the perfect gradation of the setting sun going from orange to a cloudless blue sky. This is because the “eternal guests” of the “Guests” installation are in fact bathed in a similar light behind virtual windows evoking the inner walls of our fears of the foreign, along with our fears of others.

spacerThe Palazzo Michiel dal Brusà

The End - Rocky Mountains

Ragnar Kjartansson,
“The End - Rocky Mountains”, 2009.
spacerA good number of the international pavilions, like the one for Iceland, are located outside the Giardini in Venice. The Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson has taken over the ground floor of the Palazzo Michiel dal Brusà, which gives on to the Grand Canal, with a video installation entitled “The End”. We find the artist accompanied by the musician David Thor Jonsson in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The five video projections of the installation correspond to five shots where the two musicians interpret the same Country and Western song with different instruments. The snow and the music then participate in unifying five distinct temporalities. We inevitably think of musicians who, through the magic of recording studios, find themselves on the same album without ever having met. But this reunification of different moments in time can also evoke, through image as well as sound, the sharing of the same moment that communication networks enable people who are in different places around the world to have.

spacerThe Arsenal

Sade for Sade's Sake

Paul Chan,
“Sade for Sade's Sake”,
© Giorgio Zucchiatti.
spacerDaniel Birnbaum, the curator at the Arsenal, who was given utter free reign for this exhibition, takes up the challenge with the exhibition “Making Worlds”, which brings together relatively diverse works. Among them there is an animation piece by Paul Chan called “Sade for Sade's Sake” which is projected right on the inside wall of the Arsenal. The title is inspired by the celebrated phrase, “Art for art’s sake”. As for replacing the word art with the name of the celebrated Marquis, it makes sense once one perceives the activities of the silhouettes that people the images in which sexual practices are mixed with religious rituals. There are rectangles that appear and then disappear at a height where works of art would normally be hung because art in fact, like sex and religion, is a practice that is common to all worlds and Daniel Birnbaum is underlining its plurality with the title of this exhibition.

spacerThe Island of Certosa

Grow Finish Unit

John Gerrard,
"Grow Finish Unit",
spacerLastly, there are a few rare side events like the exhibition “Animated Scene” by John Gerrard found on the island of Certosa, that require taking a vaporetto. The Irish artist here presents three scenes in real time that he “launched” at the beginning of the exhibition and which have slowly evolved since. The visitors to the exhibition can go back as often as they like, but will never exactly see the same spectacle. Time in the images, which are highly pictoral, appears to us in a dimension that must be that which precedes its suspension. The décor is borrowed from the vast landscapes of the great American plains: a dust storm, a corn silo and an industrial feed lot. These representations subscribe to the tradition of painting and photography of natural or industrial landscapes, but the tools exploited by the artist are similar to those of the world of video games. But these “calculated” scenes by John Gerrard are among the rare works at this 53rd biennale to evoke the evolution of the digital and network era of artistic practices. Not to mention the Internet pavilion initiated by the artists Miltos Manetas and Rafael Rozendaal, that one can visit at “padiglioneinternet.com”.

Written by Dominique Moulon for "Images Magazine" and translated by Geoffrey Finch for "newmediaart.eu", this article is also available in French on "nouveauxmedias.net".