Monday, June 27, 2011

Today’s Mediterranean is a scene of political and economic crisis, of war conducted with high technology and what is more a scene of anonymous victims of terror, whose number is not even mentioned. Yet, in the coming six months artists, prominent art experts and collectors, gallerists from over 80 countries and a very heterogeneous public is celebrating contemporary art manifestations from 31st may on. Despite the economic crisis all over the region, millions of Euro will be poured into this more than a century old art event.
The inhabitants of the Mediterranean have always been able to live in hell and paradise at the same time. Both metaphors being the production of human mind create the timeless utopia/dystopia dilemma. Raymond Willams’s description of four utopias, namely a better place imagined to be existing; a better place naturally existing in the universe; a better place created by human labour; a better place created by technology and science. All these are paradises; but the global politics and economy utilizing these utopias as their vision masterfully transforms them into dystopias. Art making and art production seems to be the only way to maintain the paradise dimension of these utopias as it is a better place created by human mind and hand!
Bice Curiger has announced her concept as “ILLUMInation”, advocating the nation based structure of this biennale which at the beginning of 90’s adjusted itself to the globalisation by introducing multi-cultural artist based exhibition in addition to the national pavilions. At the same time Curiger approached the global production with a retrospective look to art production, focusing on Tintoretto, which is the most touristic element of Venice. Tintoretto’s masterpieces welcomed the viewer in the Italian Pavilion, which is the culmination point of the biennale. The paintings displayed in the labyrinth-space of the Italian Pavilion could not compete with Tintoretto in their concepts and aesthetics; most of these paintings reveal the stagnant and spiritless examples of modernist abstraction. Yet, Tintoretto will attract more tourists to the biennale...
In strong contrast to Curiger curated exhibitions, most of the Pavilions had strong political content in consideration to the related nation’s current political status. The as “art and sports” presented multi-disciplinary work “Gloria” of USA Pavilion artists Puerto Rico-based art team of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla was far from “exciting” – this was the motto at press conference - but rather spine chilling. The existence of the military tank in the Giardini revealed the controversial war-peace circumstances in the Mediterranean. However, the collaboration of USA Government with the various art and culture institutions, which was again underlined in the press conference, was an example of the “glorious” possibility of free creation and criticism.
The other impressive pavilion, which is directly related to today’s Mediterranean drama was the Egyptian Pavilion which showed the work of Ahmed Basiony (1978–2011) who died during the revolution. With its double content, performance as an artwork and documentary as a political action, this installation was gratifying the function of art making in the non-democratic countries. The running on the place performed with digital connections to transform this movement into an art-map was juxtaposed with the real-time shots of Basiony. As a loyal Venice Biennale visitor, I can say that it is the first time since 25 years that I have seen a real contemporary art work in the Egyptian Pavilion. It is very comforting that the revolution could even restore the official corruption that always misrepresented the art production in Egypty.
The other Pavilion which was reflecting its nation’s socio-political, economical and psychological conjuncture was the Greek Pavilion. First of all, it was very timely to invite a woman artist; secondly Diohandi was the best choice, not only because she is one of the senior women artists of Greece, but because of her agitating “illumination” of the pavilion. The pavilion was covered by a wooden board, which concealed the neo-classical building and isolated it in the Giardini. In juxtaposition to this rudimentary coating, the inside proposes a philosophical serenity.
Russia, Serbia and Croatia were represented by artists from the same generation of the polarized world.
Curated by Boris Groys, “The Empty Zones” exhibition in the Russian Pavilion was an archive exhibition covering the actions of the group Collective Actions, founded by Andrei Monastarsky (1949) in 1976. Serbia presents Dragoljub Raša Todosijević (1945) with a comprehensive retrospective work which is being introduced in three parts. Curators WHW are presenting Antonio G.Lauer a.k.a Tomislav Gotovac (1937-2010) with his films since 1960’s. There was another similar exhibition in neighbouring Croatia, curated by Branko Franchesi, director of the collection of Marinko Sudac, a Croatian business man. A selection from this collection which contains some 20.000 pieces of the avant-garde of ex-Yugoslavia was presented in the ship of Tito, at Rjeka harbour.
Is this a coincidence? I don’t think so! This is an awakening from a series of unaccountable Post-wall and Post-soviet exhibitions of the 90’s, which were curated by foreign curators with a lot of prejudice and lack of profound research. For more than a decade the artworld has evaluated the art production of that era through the “gaze” of foreign curators; which probably promoted a selection of artists and art works to the international level, but at the same time overshadowed the others and in particular the memory of the art production of the 60’s to 80’s. Now, it seems the time has come to restore this memory.
Istanbul art scene revealed its presence with Ayşe Erkmen’s “B Plan” water purification installation in the Pavilion of Turkey (Arsenale), which reflected her minimalist, industrial design and environmentalist style. Another celebrity from İstanbul Vasıf Kortun, who just opened the doors of the newly restored building of former Garanti Platform with a new concept and name (SALT), had serenely and contentedly curated the UAE Pavilion (Arsenale). As a curator from Istanbul I was invited to curate Azerbaijan Pavilion (please see:, which ended up with the removal of Aidan Salakhova’s two sculptures and my press release protesting and supporting the artist. This kind of official intervention has not happened to me before; even in the most radical, authoritarian nationalist political ideology periods of Turkey! My more modest contribution to Italy’s ongoing illegal human traffic problem, rather than to the biennale was the exhibition of Mehmet Günyeli in Oratorio di San Ludovico (Nuova Icona), displaying the photos of the boats from the harbours of the Aegean Sea.
While Istanbul’s ongoing fame is being fostered through these presentations, its real-self or enigma was disclosed by Mike Nelson in the British Pavilion. One of Mike Nelson’s early installations “The Deliverance and the Patience” which he has realized in Ex Birreria, Giudecca, Venice in 2001 consisted of a labyrinth built on 240m2 with many rooms, some furnished with furniture and objects and corridors. He created a hermetic environment for the viewer and invited them to a kind of negotiation between narration and reality. We must remember here that this idea of “architectural installation” within the exhibition space had another example in the same 2001 Biennale: Gerog Schneider’s “Dead House Ur”. Though different in their concept and content, the hermetic and mysterious form and the relation to the viewer’s perception was the same. However, as usual the media has covered Schneider’s work, because it represented a leading pavilion and left Nelson’s installation out! Nelson has continued working on this concept and when he was invited to the 8th Istanbul Biennale he entered into one of the most neglected historical buildings, namely Valide Sultan Caravansarai in Eminönü district. For a month or two he transformed one of the artisans work space into a photo lab, in which he displayed numerous photographs of the district. British pavilion is now hosting an elaborated version of these two previous installations. The uncanny entrance court, vaulted rooms, narrow corridors and staircases wait on the viewer to drive them into the “subconscious” of Istanbul. The numerous photographs hanging in the photo-lab room is supporting this concept with visual material. To my opinion, this installation had a strong political message, referring to the position and role of Turkey (Istanbul is the metaphor for Turkey and for the neo-Ottoman politics of the ruling party) in the ongoing crisis in East Mediterranean, Near Asia and Middle East.

Beral Madra, June 2011

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

I was invited by the Ministry of Culture of Azerbaijan to be the advisory curator of the exhibition of Azerbaijan Pavilion in 54th Venice Biennale. From September 2010 on I have worked with Mr. Chingiz Farzaliev, who acted as commissar and local curator. All the works of these artists have been evaluated in meetings in Baku and Venice. Aidan Salakhova has presented her sculptures in every detail which have been produced in Carrara and these works together with the works of the artist have been published in the catalogue and announced in the website from April 2011 on.
31st of May, when I came to the pavilion I was informed that Ministry of Culture has found Salakhova’s two sculptures which were installed in the entrance of the Palazzo controversial to the prestige of the country.
Aidan Salakhova and me, we felt very concerned and responsible of the image of the exhibition and respecting the position of the other artists we tried to be positive and find a solution. As it could not be removed during the opening days, the sculptures were covered with textile. Until 5th of June, every day we have discussed with the authorities and responsible people of the pavilion and explained that:
-Removing the sculpture will mean “censorship” and it will do more harm to the image of the country than the sculpture itself; it would be much effective, if the officials would place a label next to the sculpture and declare that the authorities are not acknowledging and approving the form, message or concept of this sculpture, that it is the interpretation of the artist.
-The concept of the sculptures has been misinterpreted and misjudged by the authorities or by their advisers; all symbols, signs, objects Salakhova is using have a historical and traditional knowledge and anchorage.
-The meaning and message of this work is extensively explained in my catalogue text and is eventually the artist’s interpretation of “being woman under the religious dictums”; here the religion is not only related to Islam but also to Orthodoxy and other religions, which before Islam introduced the veil;
-The selection of artists and the works have been made by me and by Mr. Farzaliev with utmost responsibility and prudence; during this process there was not one negative hint that came on Salakhova’s work.
-The Venice Biennale is a platform for extreme artistic freedom, for sensitive topics, for limitless criticism; therefore all countries must consider and accept this context before participating.
However, we were not able to convince and stop the removal of these sculptures.
In my 30 years of profession, I have never experienced this kind of conflict. However, lately I am observing, probably most of my colleagues also do - the growing intrusion of the political and official power on contemporary art production and on the artists and curators in many countries, including the developed democracies. Contemporary art production and its theoretical and critical context is being employed and exploited by the official power as well as by the private sector as a tool for high prestige and glory; but at the same time its content and concepts are not tolerated and acknowledged.
We in the production sector of contemporary art are witnessing and enduring this use/abuse process. We release protests and supports for the victims of these attitudes. Journalists investigate and write about it. However, at the end the damage is done and the artist or the curator suffers.
In the case of Azerbaijan Pavilion, I think from now on this is the problem of the artists and curators living and working in Azerbaijan. I have done my best, to bring the Azerbaijan contemporary art production into the agenda of international contemporary art; however I must acknowledge that I was naive and I failed. The artists, art critics and curators in Azerbaijan should act and liberate art making, art production and creative criticism and take their long deserved position in the international art.
On the other side, this is also becoming a general problem in the art world and I think the artists and curators should have an international legal protection against these conflicts.
Beral Madra
Tuesday, 07 June 2011