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

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