People in all corners of the world are proclaiming that Europe is dead.
For some, this is a consequence of financial and social policies that have utterly altered the fabric of the old continent. For others, its a lament based on the disconnect between the Europe that exists today and the Europe that was said to have existed before (or at least did in the hearts of its children).
Others still see it anecdotally, as a natural, if somewhat, karmic consequence of centuries of colonialism.
Whatever the take and the reality, it seems that in 2011, much of Europe is busy licking its wounds, old and new.
In the Serbian pavillion, Dragoljub Raša Todosijevic's Light and Darkness of the Symbols brings a critical eye to political and social traditions and values.
Given the rhetoric surrounding the fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia, how its descent into war was preceeded by the fall of the Berlin Wall and of European communism, and how symbols such as the Swastika had become entrenched into the mentality and subconscious, Todosijevic's argument was that old lores, symbols and traditions no longer held any significance in a new context.
To that effect, he began in Dada style, by his own accounts, to transplant said imagery into new contexts, in the hope that viewers would be forced to rethink their own attachments and values of the symbols he was effectively attempting to stip of their power.
In Light and Darkness of the Symbols, particularly with its current placement within the Venice Biennale context, we are forced to think about our understanding of these symbols and of how our reactions to them betray the fact that they remain as loaded as ever.
Perhaps the most surprising use of imagery within a national context was that found in the Swiss pavillion.
For better or worse, Switzerland has long been seen as a nation of neutrality, an emblem of successful democracy in Europe. In recent years however, it has joined other European nations (particularly those in the north) in a new wave of ethnic and immigrant unrest, famously leading to the banning of minarets in the country. Its a nation with four national languages, and presumably an overarching requirement for assimilation (a concept not unfamiliar to other nations).
Thomas Hirschhorn's cavernous world, The Crystals of Resistance, replete with crystals, plastic furniture, copius aluminium foil, mass media imagery and his trademark duct tape creates a jagged little world where boundaries and danger (in the forms of broken glass) are around every corner.
Hirschhorn is intent on confronting conflict, on addressing it as a means of achieving a better world state. The installation, filled with numerous imagery, never shies away from the sensitive and taboo. Here, slutty, half dressed Barbie dolls sit under Tibetan prayer flags, whose individual pieces have been replaced with Middle Eastern images of violence, capital punishment and torture. Huge duct tape doner kebabs hang from the ceilings like embryos, wrapped in Persian rugs. Elsewhere, mannequins have their guttaral parts consumed by crystals. It's disturbing stuff, confronting, and, yet, in its low fi, accessible way, as easy to relate to as a walk around an ethnic market. A thorough and ever evolving explanation of the installation can be found or Hirschhorn's website.
The Europe that we think we knew is an hallucination. A memory seeped in rose colors. Hirschorn's crystal world is a far more accurate picture of Europe in 2011, scars and all.
Of all the representations at the Venice Biennale 2011, none impressed me more than that of Hungary.
Hajnal Németh's Crash, quite rightly described as an experimental opera, right from the beginning challenges the normal modes of expression and representation. From the outside, with the European licence plates taken from throughout the union and emblazoned with lyrics from the opera that lay within, the first impression was a little austere, cold.
However, from the moment I walked in to the installation, I was under total sensory assault, in the best possible way.
Entering the pavillion, I was immediately transported into the environment of a crime scene. The windows in the pavillion had been obscured by red perspex, which was used to literally blinding effect. Lyrical opera pumped out throughout the complex, and the journey commenced.
The journey was one into a number of failed journeys. The premise seemed to be based on monotonous, factual police accounts and interviews involving car incidents and presumably, fatalities, but that were injected with a heightened and exaggerated sense of drama which made for compelling viewing.
A crashed up BMW under the harsh unforgiving light immediately established a forensic site in which viewers were participants, armed with aural and visual clues to steer us along the route. The secret, if morbid joy of being able to immediately peer directly into a crash scene satiated viewers before the journey continued on to the dialogues, all layed out on stands, as if they formed part of an invisible orchestra, the music all the while resonating throughout the building. In fact, by seeing the crashed car at the beginning of the exhibition, viewers could shift their focus towards the details, the sometimes banal recounts that speak of how most of our memories work. A small enclosed viewing room housed the headshots of 12 drivers, but, taken from behind, so as to conceal their anonymity, redirecting our normal appetite for visual clues.
In the finall room, the video presentation elevated itself above and beyond cliche and corniness...here, the dialogues and transcripts, made up of routine questions (were you driving a rental car?) were sung in couplets and monologues (along with elongated, baritone responses in the negative or affirmative).
Nemeth, in a short blip with Italian Vogue, strongly refutes the idea that she is representing Hungary, the central European nation which, whilst growing in the European stature, is also emerging as one of the union's most challenged countries for press freedom and freedom of expression.
Biennale and European politics aside, this is resolutely a European work from beginning to end, visually and musically. In terms of the concept, its a one of a kind.
All I will say about Australia's pavillion this year is that I welcome the news that they are going to rebuild the pavillion, and that a new pavillion will be ready in 2015 assuming funding has been secured.
As for the exhibition itself, early buzz didn't so much surround Hany Armanious' The Golden Thread, but more the freebie tote bag that the artist had designed and that the pavillion gave away in droves.
Given that the bags have run out, I would think that the buzz has worn out...and the exhibit runs to November.
I liked John Kelly's take on the exhibition. The disappointment I felt may have partly been because I was really looking forward to seeing the Australian exhibit, that I was with Italian friends who were all interested in what is going on in the Australian art scene. I have to say, after a cursory look around the exhibition, they left with the impression that the art scene perhaps wasn't as interesting and challenging as I made it out to be. That's perhaps an unfair call, and maybe one made not entirely on the basis of the works on exhibit. The disappointment may have stemmed from the fact that the Australian pavillion is located in the vicinity of the American, German, French, Israeli and British pavillion...really, the business end of the event. Each offered well thought out exhibitions and performances that seemed to offer something new to the cannon. I found that the neighboring Canadian pavillion also struggled to offer something that could maintain the kind of enthusiasm one feels when they stumble upon something they find interesting or challenging. The business of fairs like the Biennale is harsh; with so much on offer, you want to be sure that you put up something that stands on its own, and is well suited to the context.
At the 2011 Biennale, video was used to great effect in a number of the pavillions and individual exhibition spaces.
In some cases, such as in the work of Sturtevant and Basiony (the latter representing Egypt), the use involved multiple screens of repeated and related imagery culled from alternate sources, or cut and edited so much that its original context that it didnt seem immediately relevant, whilst in the Korean and Austrian pavillions, video complemented other pieces and exhibition designs which were forward thinking and exciting to partake.
In each of these exhibits, the white cube no longer exists. In the Korean pavillion, Lee Yongbaek covered much of the walls with wall to ceiling glass panels, completely covered in his floral photography. In the Egyptian pavillion, utter darkness aided only by the illumination of five oversized video screens held sway, whilst in the Austrian pavillion, a maze was constructed, rising up from knee length to ceiling, forcing visitors to scurry through narrow hallways to find Schinwald's hidden paintings and obscured furniture parts (before culminating in twin video screens at either side of the pagoda).
In Lee Yongbaek's The Love Is Gone, But The Scar Will Heal, a sort of amalgamation of a number of the artist's series, juxtapositions of opposing imagery powered his video performances and the overall installation.
On entering the Korean pavillion, the bulk of the work centred around Broken Soldier, a series of images which contrasted images of military types whose camoflauge was stamped into floral patterns. These disparate images were accompanied by another series, Pieta, taking their initial inspiration from the Italian tradition, but enlarging them to huge proportions. Providing a natural focal point for the exhibition, this series of works seemed to communicate well with the wider attempt of the exhibit. Pieta: Self Death is modelled on the well iconographic Madonna and Jesus, whilst at the opposite end of the exhibition, Pieta: Self-hatred displays two oversized modelled figures hellbent on the act of destruction.
The destruction theme is taken up again in the series of Broken Mirror in which ornate, gold leaf style frames house mirrors, which then transform into screens where violence is enacted on the mirror surfaces. The video performance then, continually reinforces Lee's interest in conflict and resolution, all within a greater humanist/religious context. Throughout this exhibition, control meets destruction, restraint meets combat.
The Arab Spring isn't often referred to throughout the Biennale. Often, mostly European nations take swipes at modern Islamic culture through a Western lens, but in Egypt's pavillion, the violence and conflict which seemed to power the Korean pavillion takes on another significance.
Ahmed Basiony was a multimedia artist, whose work included performance art, music, and digital art. Footage of 30 Days Running in the Space, a conceptual, performance piece he carried out in 2010 at Cairo's Opera House and Palace of the Arts, is accompanied by his own footage of the riots and demonstrations in Tahrir Square that captured the world's attention in January 2011. Sadly, Basiony was caught up and killed by security forces during the uprising, just days after it began. Unlike the Korean pavillion, here, within the walls of the Egyptian pavillion, the violence was not theoretical or a musing on human behavior, but instead, a poignant and moving demonstration strongly rooted in reality and, coming just months after Basiony's death, utterly current.
Whilst the dedication to Basiony is highly personalised, Austria's Markus Schinwald presents the human condition in a completely different manner. On partnering video screens, located at either end of the pavillion, a 9 minute film features five anonymous characters, who are reduced to the sum of their movements. Devoid of personality, they appear to be like dolls that have come to life; mute, struggling with basic movements of their limbs, and trapped in a series of repitition and drills. Shot in what seems to be an abandoned industrial site, the video, complete with a narrator is fascinating, and brings into focus the artist's fascination with legs; the claustrophobic, slightly inhuman element to the exhibit comes together with the video as viewers eventually realise that their participation, their searches through the labirynth, have been rewarded.
The production values of Markus Schinwald's project, helped by Austria's healthy biennale budget (400,000 euro), couldn't be more different than those found outside Giardini. At Arsenale, Elaine Sturtevant, one of this year's recipients of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, showcased her work in a tiny outbuilding amongst Arsenale's old docks, and continued to challenge the idea of authorship and ownership, by editing a series of disparate filmed sequences into a furious, buzzing loop. I thoroughly enjoyed her work, particularly appreciating her decision to leave stock footage with its brand stamps, be they television channel insignias or software watermarks.
I have some more of my highlights from the Biennale on the way, but more importantly, its significant to know how artists adapt the technology to their own needs and causes.
It came as no surprise to see how prevalent video and film factored in the exhibitions on offer at the Biennale. The moving image is one of the most immediate forms of art, and as such, often makes a faster and more intimate connection with visitors than other formats.
There is something about video that loosens people's inhibitions and natural barriers to art. The accessibility of the media offers artists the opportunity to connect with viewers without the need for a lot of supplementary material. I've both staged and visited exhibitions where people's confidence in reading art has only been assauged by a careful, studied look at any accompanying didactic informaton that sits beside or near the object.
With video, people tend to be more confident in making their own decisions and judgements. Most people are well enough versed through television, music videos and film, to innately understand how to read images and look for clues when a narrative is on offer. What was interesting, if not a little surprising in Venice, was how warmly people tended to react to the video work.
The scope of video was impressive. In the Japanese pavillion, Tabaimo's Teleco Soup was enthralling. A 360 degree immersive screen, made mostly of sloping walls and mirrors created an impressive and confined environment onto which Tabaimo's opera unfolded. A constant push pull dialectic offered viewers glimpses of the various elements of our world; an organic survey of the heavens, terra firma and all that lies beneath the earth's surface.
Throughout the looped vision, we see the relaionship between man and his environment, or more specifically, the Japanese and their environment. The confines of the arching screens and the dark, enclosed pavillion seem to further support the idea of inversion and seclusion.
The media release speaks of the sociological term Galapagos Syndrome, which was recently coined in Japan. Briefly, it makes the point that, as a society, Japan has increasingly seemed to turn inward in the face of globalisation. The insularity is a reflection of the self contained environment of the Galapogas. Of course, this insularity is nothing new; Japan was famously isolated (of its own choice) from the rest of the globe, and Tabaimo's addressing of this, along side her repeated use of environmental and natural motifs, makes for a modernised, if yet, still traditionally Japanese presentation of a modern (and not modern) idea. Pretty breathtaking.
In accordance with the request of the Japanese pavillion, I have not uploaded any images of the Teleco-soup project. For more information, or visuals, visit the link posted on Tabaimo's name earlier.
The Venice Biennale is a bit like an Olympics.
You have a lengthy period of performance and spectacle, participation from an ever growing number of countries and participants, and after the event, you are presented with statistical and budgetery information designed to strike us with wonder as to the scale of the spectacle.
Before, during and after, we rate the infrastructure, we rate how well organised the event was, and we congratulate ourselves on how inclusive it was on an international scale.
Collectively, we marvel at the sheer scale of everything.
But these arbitrary measures of success are the only way we can really gauge the significance of an event of this size, because, the sheer diversity of the events on offer and the output of the participants makes for a dizzying collage.
Just as there are those emotional, inspiring moments, and the moments of utter defeat and disappointment in the Olympics, the same is on offer at the Biennale. You can't necessarily say that the Biennale was brilliant, or that it was shit, or that it in effect offers up the best of what the contemporary art world has to offer, because it's a quilt; a patchwork of a lot of national and commercial interests and the product of a lot of curatorial input and artistic output, that is often bent to serve bigger agendas. It, like the Olympics, is full of significant and insignificant moments, and its the micro, rather than macro view, that means more in the end. At the end of the day (or two days in the case of the Biennale), a visitor might hope that they saw more things that inspired, challenged or moved them than they did things that simply annoyed, disappointed or worse, left no stain on their memories at all.
I spent two days at the Biennale; day one visiting the numerous pavillions at Giardini, and day two visiting the exhibits at Arsenale, which is a looser continuation of the Giardini set up.
What I saw often provoked me, good and bad, and such was the amount of work and participants on offer, that even after two solid days of visiting, I didn't see it all. You have to remember that beyond Giardini and Arsenale, Venice gives itself over to the Biennale, and there are also dozens of off location events and exhibits on offer, making it impossible to completely cover in two days. That said, I made a fist of it, and subsequent posts will explain my thoughts and my impressions at a micro level. ;)
I have been known to really struggle with certain aspects of Rome, and I often wear my complaints on my sleeve, especially in relation to the way in which people comport themselves in this city.
But on the other hand, one thing that continually captivates me about this city is not so much its glorious history, but more its extremely layered and complicated history, the physical manifestations of which are often stacked one layer atop the other. It's mesmerising and inspiring to find yourself living in a city where medieval sits side by side with classical and contemporary, giving the city its unique identity. In a way, its like living at an archeological dig site, where you are constantly considering the people who were here before you, the fleeting nature of human life and the legacies that we leave to future generations. I know that sounds a little corny, but I can't think of any other city in the world where this sensation is so evident, as if every street has an older story under its wobbly surface in contrast to its present day existence.
One of the inspiring things about Rome 2011, is that you can see that it is a city that, with a fair bit of punching and screaming, is trying to push its way forward, out of the shadows of other European cities who are seemingly more at ease with the 21st century. New layers are constantly being added to the city; some complex, some monumental, and others, subtle, a little hidden and a welcome surprise.
Last year, Space Invader, supported by a gallery in my hood, the WunderkammernWunderkammern, carried out a residency in Rome, adding his little touches to some of the city's oldest (and, occasionally, ugliest) parts. One of my joys was, heading home along the Casalina (lets just call it a brutal thoroughfare) on my scooter and zooming by one of his hard to spot works. Imagine my utter sadness when I noticed it had 'disappeared'. :( Space Invader's plaques were at a certain point ubiquitous throughout the city. In fact, a google map created by his supporters locates not only his little mosaic masterpieces that continue to stick to their old and crumbling supports and those that are no longer with us, but those that were also put up in imitation. The list on the official website, is reasonally up to date, and, worldwide, but oddly enough doesn't seem to incorporate his Roman stay. That said, Australians in particular might be interested to hunt down the old stock image on the map to see how utterly brilliant his initiative can often be. For the more photographically minded, head to Flickr instead to see just how widespread the infestation has been.
As for the disappearing act that seems to be becoming more and more widespread in Rome, I expect to see some of these little masterpieces springing up soon at Porta Portese or some of the other black markets. Unfortunately, this is one of the selfish behaviors of locals that from time to time make me want to throw my hands up in the air and moan about. :(
On the weekend I made a return trip to Tivoli, which, these days, has almost become part of the conurbation of Rome. It's a relatively easy place to reach being just 30km or so away from Rome, and as such, is home to many of Rome's foreign workers given the proximity to the city and its lower cost of living in comparison to Rome's.
If you make it past the sulphuric quarries at the city's entry, you'll quickly realise that Tivoli is also home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Villa Adriana (pictured) and Villa d'Este. With 47 listings, Italy is the most represented country on the UNESCO listing, which should stand as a reminder that there are copius amounts of culturally significant sites to visit in Italy with or without UNESCO status. Culture is big business in Italy; the culture sector accounts for around 12% of the entire economy, but with Italy's stalled economy, there is never enough money to manage the upkeep of Italy's many monuments and cultural sites.
Increasingly, Italy is catching up with other nations and seeking corporate support in the management and upkeep of its heritage. Newsweek spelled out their own figures, pointing out that heritage sites are not just struggling to stay afloat, but that they are literally crumbling. In January 2011, Tods made headlines with their agreement to fund restoration works of Rome's Colosseum and Milan's La Scala theatre, and in recent days talk has been circulating that Diesel plan to fund the restoration of Venice's Rialto Bridge.
Which brings us to the case of Tivoli. Although the town and its villas are significant, and indeed, quite spectacular, increasingly dwindling visitor numbers attest to the competition in this country for the visitor's dollar. Tivoli's two villas, one located at the foot of the town, and the other, Villa D'este, in its centre, are operated seperately. A entry ticket during the summer forVilla d'Este is currently 11 euro, whilst a similar price is also asked at Villa Adriana. The latter, an outdoor site which is currently one of many throughout Italy which is not in full operation (areas are cordoned off due to their unsafety), has seen its ongoing requests for maintenance funding only being partially granted by the Ministry of Culture. A recent article suggested that Villa Adriana in particular, despite its grave needs for restoration works, is not considered a priority site, particularly in the face of an increasingly shrinking national culture budget. The question then, is it the responsibility of a site of international significance (as recognised by UNESCO) to find alternate forms of funding from the private sector. Or, could a joint ticket scheme between the villas improve patronage and boost their spending pots?
Firstly I want to say that there are a lot of architects in Italy. Official figures suggest there are close to 100,000 of them here. Basically, that's a figure that accounts for 25% of all architects in Europe, conveying just how competitive and widespread the profession is in this country.
As for those in Rome, I feel like every second person I meet is either an architect, or someone in the process of completing their architectural degree.
That said, being an architect in Italy can be a bit of a dog's life, so I don't envy them at all. Endless tales of customers (both private and government) who don't pay (until years after the fact if ever), having to deal with organised crime and corruption in a bid to secure lucrative tenders, and a society that often balks at new, challenging or experimental architecture makes it an environment where one often has to look further afield for job satisfaction and paying clientele (think elsewhere in Europe, the Middle East, and increasingly, China).
So much of what is written about Italian architecture focuses on the romantic, classical architecture that dominate its cities, particularly those traditional Grand Tour cities like Florence, Rome and Venice. But occasionally, domestic architecture in this country has allowed architects to indulge their sense of daring, imagination and utopian ideaology (including the Coppedè quarter of Rome).
A population boom in the post war period Rome (1950s-1960s) saw the city grow haphazardly, with a range of unplanned suburbs sprawling out, particularly to the city's east and west; 'suburbs' or makeshift urban environments whose lack of planning added great strain to the city's infrastructure and overcrowding issues. Millenia old Rome was simply not prepared for so many people. and the problems that surfaced as Rome's population boomed, continue today.
Interestingly, one of the approaches to the overcrowding that was already taking place in the 1960s was to build an epic, 'self contained' community, capable of housing some 8,000 inhabitants on the city's outskirts. The Corviale was built with the aspiration that the complex would be something of a utopian ideal, where residents could live in a community which had all of its services at the ready. The interesting part of this approach was not so much the idea of relocating 8,000 people to an unserviced peripheral area, as this was happening throughout the western world at the time, but more importantly, into one building which ran almost one kilometre in length. Yes. The Corviale runs almost a full kilometre in length. That would be something like the equivalent of a 250 storey building if it was standing upright.
B-type cities around the world commonly compete for the temporary honor of hosting the World's Tallest Buildings, but few I imagine would be keen to challenge on length. What's mistifying is how the architects and planners (chiefly Mario Fiorentino) could have thought such a project would contribute anything positive other than a roof and some walls to the lives of its inhabitants. The truth probably lies more in the idea that this was a social experiment, rather than a true desire to meet the needs of such a huge chunck of residents.
Public housing projects, especially those that are built on strata prototypes have traditionally been socially challenging places, the obvious consequence of stacking so many people on top of each other. Europe is home to a handful of these elongated buildings; in Vienna, the 1920-1930s built Karl Marx-Hof stretches a full kilometre, but rarely rises above 6 floors in height, but more commonly other buildings adopt the brutalist approach into which the Corviale seemingly sits, including Faloweic in Gdansk and Park Hill in Sheffield in the UK. These conurbations are as infamous to locals as the Corviale.
The Corviale, a set of twin buildings that span almost a kilometre a piece, are eleven floors high, home to some 7,000 inhabitants, who, enclosed in this building, remain shut off from the surrounding areas of the city, on whose periphery they remain. Elements of the building are reportedly unfinished, despite having been built in the 1970s, but these are not the complex's only failings. The absurdity is that people are also squatting in the unfinished parts of the building.
On paper and in theory I can see how the idea, as flawed as it was, was a concession to the imagination and daring of architecture. However, as cities around the world revisit their ideas of social housing, moving away from the failed brutalism concept towards a more resident friendly model, it surprises me that in 2011, not enough is being done to remedy past failures.
As you pass by the building, there is a sense of amazement that overcomes you, in a kind of creepy and foreboding kind of way. Imagine living in that kind of battery hen environment. Suburbs are often made up of long stretches of individual buldings, blocks, houses that are attached or semi attached, but generally they have their own entries, their own boundaries, something which the monolithic Corviale doesn't have. Instead, The Corviale, is relentlessly repetitive, color coded in part, but for the most part, its a seemingly endless labyrinth.
Transitioning of the Corviale's residents into more suitable living quarters should be a key priority for the city of Rome, as should the preservation of the building, both for aesthetic and cautionary reasons. The preservation and re-use of the building shouldn't be too challenging... But the movement of at least 6000 people into something more appropriate will be a huge undertaking in a city like this. Rome is a city where rentals, even in the city's peripheral areas are often prohibitive, forcing people not only to share apartments, but commonly to share bedrooms in a system of posto-letto, in which, you pay a few hundred euro each month for a bed in a a room with at least one other room mate.
With a number of proposals already floating around for the transition, and 100,000 professionals at the ready to take on a meaty project, it will be interesting to see what happens to the Corviale and its residents.
Dave Di Vito
Subscribe to the mailing list for information about upcoming releases and a free excerpt!
Dave Di Vito is a writer, teacher and former curator.He's also the author of the Vinyl Tiger series and Replace The Sky.
For information about upcoming writing projects subscribe to the mailing list.
Dave hates SPAM so he won't trouble you with any of his own. He promises.