Thursday, June 2, 2011

ILLUMInations - 54 Venice International Art Festival

The Black Arch by Shadia & Raja Alem
(Venice, Italy) Mecca is a place on Earth filled with Heaven's scent, built by the angels before mankind arrived so we would not be lonely, according to pre-Islamic myth. Mecca is where Adam was finally reunited with Eve after they were thrown out of Paradise and wandered the earth separately for two hundred years. For me, Mecca is another word for the heaven inside us all. Even though we live in a material and dense world, far away from home, we can still feel the vibrations of heaven if we make our own pilgrimage to Mecca. If Adam or Eve is there when we arrive, so much the better.

Last week, I approached the fountain in Campo Santa Maria Formosa to fill my bottle with water before going to work in the Querini Stampalia. Three beautiful women arrived moments before I did, each to wash a peach.* One of the women offered to let me go first, and I declined. We began talking about the water fountain, and the musical sound it made in the square. Throughout the day, birds, dogs, children, tourists, and residents drank and splashed at the fountain. The vegetable vendor and construction workers filled their buckets to complete their chores. It was the center of activity in the square. I told them the water had been shut off a month or two ago for bureaucratic reasons which were not clear; the local population had made a fuss, and the fountain had recently started flowing again.

Shaida &Raja Alem
Photo: Teresa Sartore
It turned out the women were from the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia. Shaida Alem and Raja Alem are sisters who are the artists representing their kingdom for the Biennale International Art Festival this year; Shaida is a visual artist; Raja is a writer, Mona Khazindar is the co-curator, together with Robin Start, who was not there at the fountain. (Nationality/gender clarification: Shaida and Raja are sisters who were born in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. Mona is a woman who was born in Maryland, USA. Robin is a man who was born in London, UK -- a warm-hearted gentleman, actually -- that I met later during La Biennale. And Cat is a woman who was born in South Carolina, USA:) "You are Saudi Arabian women? Where are your burqas?" I joked.

I knew it was the first time that Saudi Arabia was here for La Biennale. I told them I had seen His Royal Highness Prince Turki Al-Faisal when he was in Venice for the Euro-Gulf Forum in October, 2008, and had been impressed by what he said -- he truly seemed to want an international peace based on tolerance, understanding, sound business practices, and the building of bridges between the cultures -- not by imposing one culture upon another, but a creative exchange between cultures. Another member of the royal family, Prince Faisal Bin Salman, had said they were reaching out to the world -- they felt they had been wrongly portrayed and would like to correct the situation -- 'not to please others, but to present ourselves.' He'd also said they realized they had made mistakes when it came to women, and were encouraging female artists to share their perspective with the world.

Now, standing in front of me at the fountain in Santa Maria Formosa, were three women here in Venice on behalf of Saudi Arabia -- the physical manifestation of the princely words spoken nearly three years ago. The synchronicity was magical, and they invited me to see their installation on June 1st.

After the Forum, I had written a blog entitled Men Like Gods. It was one of the most difficult blogs I'd ever written, trying to capture the huge amount of information that I'd seen and heard about a topic utterly foreign to me. I'd said: "Inviting Cat Bauer to a Forum like this was a brilliant idea because I come with very little baggage -- it is like inviting Alice to Wonderland -- and I am going to give you my honest impressions, as simply as I can. First, like many Americans, I have very little sense of geography. To me, the entire Gulf region was a vague black hole filled with scary Muslims."

Yesterday, during the preview for Biennale, when I arrived at the installation for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I found myself standing in front of an enormous black hole.

Shaida and Raja Alem were born in the actual city of Mecca, which, today, is the destiny of the pilgrimage called "Hajj" for Muslim people of all colors and nations. Shaida and Raja's father was a spiritual guide for the Hajj; his work was that of a Moutouef, which is a title inherited by the sons of Judges in Mecca. The role of a Moutoeuf is to host people, and initiate them to the rituals. Shaida and Raja, in turn, inherited that role from their father. It may surprise many of us who are unfamiliar with the Islamic culture, but throughout history, women of Mecca played the role of spiritual guides, side by side with men, receiving the pilgrims in their pavilions and houses.
On the other side of The Black Arch, which is the name of the installation, is a core filled with dazzling colors, mosaics, and 3457 stainless steel spheres, and a large cube balanced on its point at the center of the arch. Shadia told me (and I am paraphrasing) that 3...4....5.... it's all very well. But we must jump to 7, which is the X factor.

From the catalogue interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist:
Shadia Alem: Physically it is simple, everyone will see the elliptical wall when they enter, and this wall is the black; the unknown. But if you cross to the other side you will find several universes. We created this elliptical barrier, like an arch, and behind it you find 3457 stainless steel spheres gathered together and going in circle after circle on the ground. One sphere reflects into the other and the other... and they become an endless mutiplying energy field. And there is a cube, which represents our city of Makkah (Mecca), surrounded by the stainless steel spheres reflected on our city.
Raja Alem: Inside the cube is another black cube, which we relate in a way to the Black Stone of Al-Ka'ba; it's filled with pebbles which are used to throw at the devil during a specific moment in the ritual of the Hajj. But those pebbles or stones are not only stones. They are sculptures, as they have been touched by millions of people and used to stone the negative moments of their lives. And these tons of stones are recycled. Once they are thrown by the pilgrims, then they are picked up and reused by the next group, and the next year the same stones are used. So those stones are sculpted by the hands and by the emotion of those pilgrims. It has a very Sufi like quality. ...There are these stories in our family about these powers my grandfather had, and our family is called Al-alem, which means the one who has the knowledge.

Here is an exerpt from Commissionaire's note in the press kit on the occasion of Saudi Arabia's inaugural pavilion at the Venice Biennale:

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a modern state with a rich culture, deeply rooted in history. The most monumental event in the history of Arabia was the revelation of Islam, a humanitarian message that is proud and respectful of the conviction of others and seeks to achieve peace in the world.

The Venice Biennale has been, for over a century, the meeting place for artists and the showcase of the best art the world has to offer. It is the largest, most influential and most established art event, and this is why the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has chosen it as a platform to bring forth the message of the Saudi people who are confident of their values, and proud of their authenticity. Through our artists and through our work we are keen to interact with other nations through colour, words, voices and artistic endeavour, which represent the elements of creativity as an ultimate message of communication between peoples.

We proudly support our artists Shadia and Raja Alem, who, in the Black Arch, chose their home city of Makkah, a central point of radiance, to embrace Venice, a city of openness, in a connection between East and West. Two voyagers, an Arab (Ibn Batutah) and a European (Marco Polo) perfectly represent each city and the dialogue we encourage between cultures.

The theme of La Biennale di Venezia 54 Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte is ILLUMInations, and after only one day I have enough material to write 1000 posts. There are 28 permanent pavilions inside the Giardini used by 30 owner countries, who are considered permanent participants; the permanent participants can do whatever they like; there is no need to pay attention to the theme so each country is operating on their own, just like little independent nations. However, over at Arsenale, and at various other venues around Venice, there are many more countries who have asked to be invited, and who are equal participants, bringing the total of the Participating Counties up to 89 -- here for the first time is the Principality of Andorra, Saudi Arabia, People's Republic of Bangladesh and Haiti. Others have returned after a long absence: India (1982), Democratic Republic of Congo (1968), Iraq (1990), Republic of Zimbabwe (1990), South Africa (1995), Costa Rica (1993, then with IILA) and Cuba (1995, then with IILA). So, it is sort of like there is a G30 group of nations in one section, and a X59 group of nations everywhere else. (I just made that up, "X59," for Shadia's X factor:). There is an entirely different energy among the X factor nations, which might be called illuminated -- the current is open and flowing, not contained behind definite walls.
Yesterday at the press conference, Paolo Baratta, the President of La Biennale, explained that in 1999, a new form of Biennale Art was introduced, and a curator was nominated to oversee the international Exhibition. Now, in 2011, we are in the 7th year of the new system, which might explain the difference in energy that I am feeling. So, back in 1999, after 116 years, everything changed with the introduction of the curator. This year's curator is Bice Curiger of Zurich. Paolo Baratta: "I mention the importance of the curator's role and the responsibility invested in him (her). The curator must have an open eye, an independent spirit, generosity towards the artists, a strict capacity for selection and great faith in that mysterious goddess quality: an open view of the world. The world recognises these qualities in Bice Curiger. With her, we have gone back to Zurich. We began with Harald Szeemann, in 1999. Some friends describe these twelve years of La Biennale as "the happy journey from Harald's beard to the cherry red of Bice's lipstick."
The year 1999 was also the first year that I started working with La Biennale, so I am like a microcosym of the macrocosym that is Biennale. After twelve years, the energy this year feels like a "glow." Two years ago, in 2009, there was so much destruction and chaos deliberately inflicted into my life that I did not even go to the preview, though I did manage to whiz into the Biennale in July. This year, I feel full of energy and enlightenment. Paolo Baratta said that when a country is facing difficulties they want to be part of the World of Art. He said that Haiti, Chile and Egypt wanted strongly to be with us. He also said that we are proud to have China with us, and has personally written a letter to the Ambassador saying it would be nice to have happy news about Ai Weiwei very soon. In fact, everyone is walking around with bright red "Free Ai Weiwei" tote bags. He said that for the next six months Venice welcomes this great mass of vital Energy that comes with the Biennale, and we are waiting for people from all over the world to arrive in the spirit of pilgrimage to experience what artists bring and give to us.
More from Paolo Baratta: "At a time when art has for some time ceased its emphasis on the provocations of anti-art, we are looking means of communication between the artist's work, our look and our spirit; we want to understand and to feel that added extra that art generously gives us and whispers to us, we want illumination as visitors, as lovers of art, as individuals and as members of the human community.

And let there be Illumination!"
Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog
*I had originally written "each to wash an apple. I must have had Adam & Eve on my mind:) Plus, after I originally posted this, I had to clarify genders and nationalities -- one of the beautiful problems of La Biennale is everyone is so international and without borders that it is often not clear.


  1. Mecca is a place on Earth filled with Heaven's scent, built by the angels before mankind arrived so we would not be lonely, according to pre-Islamic myth. Mecca is where Adam was finally reunited with Eve after they were thrown out of Paradise and wandered the earth separately for two hundred years. For me, Mecca is another word for the heaven inside us all.

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