Thursday, December 1, 2011

Finissage - 54th Venice International Contemporary Art Festival Wraps Up

The Black Arch by Richard Duebel
Photo: La Biennale
Winner Ex Aequo Professional Photo Competition
(Venice, Italy) The 54th Venice International Contemporary Festival closed on Sunday, November 27, 2011 with a Finissage weekend filled with stimulating conversations, much success and goodwill. Since opening in June, more than 440,000 visitors made their way through the physical manifestations of contemporary imaginations, adding their energy to the World of Art.

Harald Szeemann
Part of the Biennale's program has been a series of conversations open to the public called Meetings on Art down at Teatro alle Tese in Arsenale. On Saturday, the topic was Let's Talk About Us - Blockbuster or Betablocker, and brought together all the past curators of Biennale except for Harald Szeemann, who died in 2005. Szeemann originated the curator position here in Venice back in 1999, and was also the curator in 2001 -- in fact, he is credited with inventing the profession of "independent curator" itself. The Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles has acquired the Harald Szeemann Archive and Library:

As the largest single archival collection ever acquired by the Getty Research Institute, the Harald Szeemann Archive and Library is an essential and significant resource for the study of 20th century art and art history. Perhaps the most famous curator of the post-World War II era, Szeemann was an ardent advocate of modern and contemporary art, from Dada, surrealism, and futurism, to conceptualism, postminimalism, performance art, and new forms of installation and video art. 

Sguardi volti verso l’opera “Turisti” di Cattelan by Giulia Iacolutti
Photo: La Biennale
Winner Ex Aequo Professional Photo Competition 

It was fascinating to hear about La Biennale from the curator's point of view. From President Paolo Baratta:

In the last three meetings we have decided to put ourselves on the line by summoning all the curators of past editions of the Art Biennale and their illustrious colleagues to discuss what has been done and what might be done in the future. The Biennale has gone through many phases in the past 116 years since its foundation, and the role of its curators has varied accordingly. The new course - which began in 1999 when the newly-nominated President chose Harald Szeemann as curator - was in this sense distinguished by a profound transformation of the Form of the Exhibition, which, for the first time ever, became an international exhibition, clearly distinct from national participations, autonomous and uninvolved in the selection for the Italian pavilion. The three pillars that still characterize the Art Biennale today were thus being delineated: the curator, the national Pavilions and the public to whom the Meetings on Art are expressly dedicated.

To put that into simple English, in 1999 Paolo Baratta decided that he wanted a curator that would be in charge of the Biennale itself. That curator was Harald Szeemann. The national pavilions are mostly located at Giardini, and are like little nations with diplomatic privileges. The curator has no control or power over them, and that includes the Italian pavilion. They can do whatever they like -- they don't even have to pay attention to the theme if they don't want to. However, there is another part of Biennale which is housed mostly at Arsenale, with touches at Giardini and other venues around town. That falls under the guidance of the curator, whose mission is not to view art from the point of view of a single nation, but to look at art from an international point of view, choosing their own theme. This year's theme, chosen by Bice Curiger, was IllumiNATIONS.

The curators that took part in the discussions were:

54 - 2011 - Bice Curiger (Switzerland)

53 - 2009 - Daniel Birnbaum (Sweden)

52 - 2007 - Robert Storr (USA)

51 - 2005 - Maria de Corral & Rosa Martinez (Spain)

50 - 2003 - Francesco Bonami (Italy)

The discussion, Blockbuster or Betablocker: Biennale curator, museum curator was a tribute to Harald Szeemann who used the term "betablocker" (a drug that improves the heart's ability to relax) to indicate works of art that serve to calm, anesthetize, relax.

Visitors by Bertram Kober
Photo: La Biennale
Winnder Ex Aequo Professional Photo Competition 
There were comments about the difference between the Venice Biennale, "the mother of all Biennales," and Art Basel in Switzerland, an art fair which takes place right about the same time as the Venice Biennale. One curator said it was the difference between going to the botanical gardens versus going to a garden shop to buy plants. At Biennale, you cannot buy the art directly from Biennale, although in the past you could. It was said that Biennale was a "caring" institute, not to make money --  it would be as if a hospital dealt only with flu and colds to turn a profit. Many of the works are site-specific, and thrown away when the Biennale is over. Biennale is a place for artists to have free expression, to release their desires into society. Artists anticipate the wishes of society. Society has its own desires and wants to celebrate its own history or break ties with history -- modern man tidies things up and can create a well-ordered society. Art is unpredictable.

The curators agreed that artists are already ahead of the rest of the world, and that a curator is not an artist (though some curators are failed artists and failed poets). The World of Art is a great amplification system, and art world people can explain what is happening to the general public. A great curator is more like a great editor -- a concept I, personally, can understand as I have encountered more than one editor who thought they were an author. The best editors are geniuses at getting the best work out of an author, providing a safe environment where you feel free to create, and thoughtful feedback that opens your imagination.

Someone mentioned that John Waters said: "Another corrupt pavilion." I didn't catch which pavilion it was in reference to. Paolo Baratta said that we know that some pavilions are corrupt institutions and that we let them do it. The abuse is immediately evident. And I thought, that's true! Anyone with any intelligence can spot the corruption right away, so the impostors who think they are getting away with something are really walking around naked to the eyes of the Art World People, wearing nothing but the Emperor's New Clothes.

Dorfles infinito e lo sguardo a Ghirri  by Monica SilvaPhoto: La Biennale
Winner Ex Aequo Professional Photo Competition
Paolo Baratta has very strong ideas about what the Biennale is and what he wants from a curator. He said that with Biennale you try to get close to the point where the ineffable becomes expressed. Where the individual creates. We don't want to be regarded as a machinery that does what you expect. He said the curator of the Biennale is a daring explorer, not a historian. He or she must make mistakes, and break something that might or might not be. It must be a single figure, an individual. A committee is already compromised. There will be transparency through personal choices. Baratta said that you live only if you are free to chose, and that he will fight against committees and democracy. Choice and freedom of choice is the only way to keep alive. After listening to what the curators had to say, Baratta said that he was more convinced than ever that the curator of Biennale is a special animal with drops of genius who must have courage and character.

Perhaps you can see why they just tried to get rid of Paolo Baratta! I have made no secret of my deep admiration and respect for the President, especially when so many people in the world today do not have any courage of conviction, and are afraid to speak strongly.

For those of you who would like to read about the drama, which ties to the government of Italy itself -- which just collapsed and is being rebuilt with a new Prime Minister, Mario Monti -- here are some links:

FlashArt Online: Giulio Malgara will replace Paolo Baratta as President of the Venice Biennale 

The Art Newspaper: Unpopular choice for Biennale president withdraws

Hollywood Reporter: Baratta has received the support of culture minister Lorenzo Ornaghi, virtually assuring he would continue in the role.

The Art Newspaper: Interview with Paolo Baratta: Putting the wings back on the lion

GalleristNY: Venice Biennale President Paolo Baratta on Conflicts of Interest, Politics and the ‘Biennale Bus’

I don't know Giulio Malgara, but many people have told me that he is a nice guy, so I would assume the uproar is about his qualifications as the President of La Biennale -- Malgara is a food importer, known for bringing Quaker Oats and Gatorade (which are owned by the American company PepsiCo) to Italy, and for founding Auditel, a company that collects TV usage statistics. Apparently Silvio Berlusconi often gave political appointments to his friends who had no experience with the job they were given -- another reason why the government had to collapse. However, I do know how much passion Paolo Baratta has put into the job. Over the years, I have watched La Biennale -- in all its sections -- transform into a vibrant institution that truly nurtures and respects creative individuals with all their eccentricities instead of trying to stomp them into conformity.

Paolo Baratta
Photo: The Art Newspaper
We must remember that the idea for La Biennale as a permanent important meeting point for the World of Art was initiated in 1893 by Riccardo Selvatico, who was the mayor of Venice, as well as a playwright and poet. As we all know, the World of Art is a different world than the Everyday World, and it often makes the Everyday World uncomfortable. The Everyday World sometimes becomes so overwhelmed by what the World of Art is telling them that they try to destroy the World of Art -- even to this very day. Understandably, some creatures from the Everyday World long to become part of the World of Art and even try to force or manipulate their way in. Or worse, they try to force the World of Art people into their world, blocking artists in every way imaginable so that they are pushed into the Ordinary World just to survive. That is not nice, nor does it serve any useful purpose. It is Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That is part of the drama that just played out here in Italy, as you will see if you read the links.

It might be difficult for Americans to understand the deep desire of Italy to allow artists the freedom to create because the job of Minister of Culture does not exist in the United States. We do, however, have the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, which, scarily, is part of the US State Department. To me, the US government does not have the respect for artists, writers and other creative people that the governments of Europe and other parts of the world have, and I fear that the country will pay a great price for it. It is impossible to suppress all the artists. Impossible. All it does is make them stronger. Artists are the soul of a country, and you cannot exist very long without a soul.

Italy, a civilization that is thousands of years old, understands that it is wiser to let artists communicate their visions rather than suppress them. Venice herself understands that the reason she is still standing for all these centuries is because of the visions of extraordinary people from her past, combined with dynamic thinkers of the present, that ensure a rich and fertile future.

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog 

1 comment:

  1. The 54th Venice International Contemporary Festival closed on Sunday, November 27, 2011 with a Finissage weekend filled with stimulating conversations, much success and goodwill. Since opening in June, more than 440,000 visitors made their way through the physical manifestations of contemporary imaginations, adding their energy to the World of Art.