First impressions of “Illuminazioni” exhibition at Venice Biennale

Elegant, intelligent and well paced, but its curator Bice Curiger takes few risks

Visitors take in Tintoretto's

Visitors take in Tintoretto's "Last Supper" as part of Bice Curiger's Illuminazioni

VENICE. Organising the Venice Biennale’s headline exhibitions in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni and the Arsenale is the high point of most curators’ careers—and also one of the most exposing. Swiss art historian Bice Curiger, the curator of the Zurich Kunsthaus and co-founder of the art magazine Parkett, is only the third woman to be entrusted with this task and the sixth non-Italian. She has called her show “Illuminazioni”, and has invited 83 artists to take part.

In stark contrast to several of the national pavilions, as well as Robert Storr’s exhibition for the 2007 biennale, she has chosen to steer clear of political statements. Instead, Curiger has organised a show that despite its conceptual underpinnings also focuses on the classic themes of form, composition and materials. The selection shows a clear bias towards Western European artists with a lesser one towards those from the US. There is also a notable contribution from names who became famous in the 1960s and 1970s and towards later artists whose work references that period.

“The relationship between art and current affairs as we know them through the media can be problematic: what seems so clear and important today may be old hat by tomorrow,” Curiger said, explaining her aversion to the overtly political. In her official curatorial statement she said she wanted to focus on the idea of light and enlightenment, mutual interaction between artists, the relationship between art and popular culture and on issues of identity.

Perhaps her biggest break with tradition is the inclusion in the central hall of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni (formerly the Italia Pavilion) of three major works by Tintoretto, two from the Gallerie dell’Accademia and one, The Last Supper, 1594, from San Giorgio Maggiore. The rest of the exhibition is a sober, intelligent survey of works by the likes of Gianni Colombo, Jack Goldstein, Sigmar Polke, Seth Price and Gabriel Kuri. There are some deliberate relationships between individual works, for example Philippe Parreno’s light installation at the entrance with Jack Goldstein’s video, The Jump, 1976, while in other sections artists’ rooms flow satisfactorily from one to another. The German-born philosopher Boris Groys, who is also curator of the Russian pavilion, said that he thought the exhibition was particularly successful because “every work of art has been chosen to reflect the individual position of the artist but also to place it in a national context or within a particular tradition.” He cited Fischli and Weiss’s simple clay sculptures, which are abstract but also look a lot like pipes and builders’ blocks. “They clearly relate to minimalism but also to manual work, while the quality of the production and the attention to detail speaks of a certain Swiss tradition of craftsmanship,” he said.

The works in the Arsenale section of “Illuminazioni”, as befits the cavernous space, are of a larger and more dramatic scale. However, a number of rooms revealed the same strict curatorial approach. The third major space in the sequence displays works by Mai-Thu Perret, Rashid Johnson, Andro Wekua, Annette Kelm and Ida Ekblad, all of which have a strong thread of architecture and construction. Interspersed with them are some real showstoppers, such as Nicholas Hlobo’s dragon made of tyre inner tubes, Iimpundulu Zonke Ziyandilandela, 2011 (see related article), Urs Fischer’s sculpture, a huge wax “candle” interpretation of Bologna’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, and Christian Marclay’s The Clock, 2010.

“Illuminazioni is, if anything, rather traditional,” said Jens Hoffmann, the director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, in San Francisco. “I mean that in the best possible way: gone are the endless rows of black boxes with hundreds of videos, no more overly political work that is formally underwhelming and no more pseudo intellectual curatorial concepts. I think 'Illuminations' is as good as the international group exhibition in Venice can be in terms of its selection of works, the use of the spaces and overall display. It is very understated, subtle and elegant.” Hoffmann added that the title is probably the worst part of the show, “and I guess we can live with that.”

The critical reaction generally favoured Curiger’s other innovation: the creation of four “para-pavilions”, in which Franz West, Song Dong, Monika Sosnowska and Oscar Tuazon were invited to create individual spaces that could also house works by other artists. West is showing a “reproduction” of his kitchen in Vienna with works that usually hang there by his artist friends. The works are displayed on the outside of the structure. Inside is projected Dream Villa, a work by Dayanita Singh.

“There is a intelligent and subtle rhythm between the monumental pieces and the smaller works,” in the Arsenale, said the French curator Catherine David. “The exhibition has a Swiss, central European flavour with great consideration for the history of form and formalism. It does not pander in any way to fashions, which I liked a lot,” she added.

Others agreed with the assessment, with a caveat. “[The exhibition] does not take too many chances,” said Joseph Backstein, the director of the Moscow Biennale. Ossian Ward, the art critic and art editor of London’s Time Out magazine, said: “The Arsenale is the stronger of the two venues, but overall 'Illuminazioni' fails to take any real risks. Besides, that is, the parachuting of three Tintorettos into its midst, which neither steal nor cement the show.” Ward added: “Unfortunately we are now so accustomed to this current language of contemporary art and of many of these artists, precisely because of the biennial circuit that Venice helped create. By rights it should still figure as the original and the best, but the breadth of the art world has now made the pre-eminence of the Venice Biennale more contested than ever before.”

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