Exhibition Review: the 53rd Venice Biennale, Making Worlds

This is the Biennale where I get to chat again with Ragnar Kjartansson and where I mistake an important artwork for “there’s nothing this year.”

Enjoy the Riches of the Countryside.” Review of the 53rd International Art Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia: Fare Mondi // Making Worlds. Artistic Director: Daniel Birnbaum. Venice, June 7 — November 22, 2009.

Published in Studija 57, no. 4 (2009).

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View the article on Studija magazine online archive.

Find more photos and notes from the Biennale on the Universes in Universe website.

Lara Favaretto. Momentary Monument (Swamp). Giardino delle Vergini, Arsenale. 2009. Courtesy of Galleria Franco Noero, Turin.

Enjoy the Riches of the Countryside


One of the more significant themes in the Venice Biennale this year was a kind of revival of the image of the ‘noble savage' from the era of the Enlightenment, together with the romanticization of nature. Which makes sense, because after all the cultured and civilized European (and American) normally is pretty far from nature, unless we count the greenery flashing by, seen through the car window when driving on a motorway, or the documentaries about exotic animals on TV.

In Latvia it's not quite that bad yet, because almost every urban and apparently modern and technocratic coeval is acquainted with the phenomenon "relatives in the countryside", and maintains a certain connection to the archaic farmstead or at least a house with a garden on the outskirts of the city. There is an unwritten rule that to unwind means the harmonious reunification with nature, spending time in an uncivilized rural or seaside setting. Even if it means a quick stopover at one's over-grown garden at the "holiday house" for a couple of days, for some desperate weeding in the heat of the day, battling against the almighty entropy, and during moments of rest sitting in the shade, listening to the wonderful summery sounds of the Latvian countryside: the polyphonic whirring of mowers, trimmers, hedge cutters and mulchers, both near and far, the neighbors' favorite music, the distant rumble of the motorway and the railway, and in the background, the barely audible, yet regular buzzing of the airplanes in the sky.

To weed, to trim, to water, to fertilize, to take care of the vulnerable, to fuss around the compost pile, and then, at a run, to return to the computer and various projects. Or else one can also treat nature as an absolute consumer, finding a nice meadow or a river bank for a picnic with friends, family or colleagues: grilling sausages, swimming and drinking beer, mean-while leaving the car radio on. In any case, we Latvians love nature. That is why many pieces of art at this year's Venice Biennale may appear different to us in comparison to, say, a hyperactive art journalist or a super-intellectual curator from London or Moscow. That is, the things which may be exotic and mysterious to an urbanized cosmopolitan are very familiar to us, and merely elicit a sincere smile. For example, a real, plant-matter compost heap, placed inside a small room in such a way that the elegant art lovers cannot avoid direct contact with it when passing by (one of the works of art in the Austrian pavilion curated by Valie Export - the installation titled Laubreise by Franziska & Lois Weinberger).

On the other hand, Lara Favaretto, an Italian artist, had made a genuine swamp in the bushes behind the Arsenale exhibition halls, in honor of those who have gone missing without notice, as the artist explains. Favaretto’s work Momentary Monument (Swamp), included in the exhibition Making Worlds curated by Daniel Birnbaum, is both discreet and unnoticeable (viewed in passing it looks like dug up soil, which could be taken to be unfinished gardening work – until one notices the small white sign with the title of the work), yet at the same time it resembles an open wound, a “carbuncle”, an uncultivated and raw fragment of the brutal processes of nature amidst the well-kept and manicured surroundings. The artist says she devoted the temporary swamp of oblivion to those who are missing: the author Ambrose Bierce, artist Bas Jan Ader, traveler Cristopher Johnson McCandless, the chess-player Bobby Fischer. A beautiful gesture, both sentimental and melancholic, pointing out the futility of human endeavor (both as regards the huge effort invested in creating something that mimics things that occur in nature of their own accord, as well as the fact that the termination of one’s life is the last point of reference, after which the substance of the human being sinks into the swamp and disappears without a trace, transforming into lichen, mud and water). The swamp as a magnificent metaphor, as materiality, and metaphysics.

[. . .]

Ragnar Kjartansson and Alise Tifentale. Photo: © Zenta Dzividzinska.

[. . . ]

A visit to the Biennale has to come to an end at some point, and in conclusion I visit Iceland’s national exhibition titled The End. Here the artist Ragnar Kjartansson (whom I introduced to the readers of Studija in the previous issue) is using the pavilion as his studio for the duration of the Biennale (from June until November). First of all one can enjoy his video work displaying the artist and a friend, dressed in furs and (one would think) woolen socks, and playing sorrowful country music on a variety of instruments (including electric guitars and a real concert grand piano) against the backdrop of a vast, endless, and monumental Canadian mountain landscape, where their only audience appears to be a total void and the wind. The artist himself is in residence in the central hall, in a spacious room with direct access to the Grand Canal, accompanied by his friends and a model, whose portrait he will be ceaselessly painting for the entire period of the Biennale. For this purpose, the artist has been supplied with around 200 fresh white canvases in different sizes, as well as with records, beer, and cigarettes. In a relaxed unhurried mood, whilst sociably chatting with his friends and acquaintances, the performance artist Kjartansson is painting sketch-like portraits and piling them up against the walls of the studio. All of this together is titled The End, and indeed, there is something melancholically existential and Weltschmerz inducing about this performance lasting for months on end; yet at the same time this performance offers a healthy dose of humor, which turns The End into a genuine art experience. How to perceive it depends to a large extent on the spectator (on the balance between a sense of humor and Welt-schmerz in their perception). I don’t think that a standard scientific analysis is suitable for the art by Kjartansson, for example Laura Cumming, the arts correspondent of The Observer, has made one of the most precise and perceptive comments about The End, describing it as “continuous performance called The End, which involves smoking, drinking and painting dismally bad portraits round the clock from now to the closing day. Iceland is bankrupt, the Biennale is paralyzingly grand, and Kjartansson can barely paint. But still the artist must go on – Venice expects – no matter that he is doomed to fail.”6 The artist will definitely go on, and even if it looks like a failure, it could just as well be a heart-breaking tragedy á la Goethe or Schiller.

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Art critic trying to define the Scandinavian pain while waiting for her water taxi. Photo: © Zenta Dzividzinska.

Art critic looking for another “off-site” pavilion. Photo: © Zenta Dzividzinska.