Autonomy or Elitism?

Art Project Depot - Features - Peter Tzanev
A Critical Glance at the 54th Venice Biennale
Author: Peter Tzanev
Sofia, 2011

1. The Crises of Perception in Situating the Spectacle

Each edition of the Venice Biennale has its own atmosphere and message, which inevitably fall into the trap of the various possible comparative assessments with the editions of previous years. In the first decades of the twenty-first century a number of new trends were launched in Venice such as the dominance of the spectator, the re-discovery of the aesthetic, globalization, the invasion of Asian art, the disputes over the new media and relational art, the new forms of social and political protest, the nostalgia for modernism, the loudly proclaimed comeback of painting (which did not materialize), the tensions between the policies of the markets and galleries, on the one hand, and those of the festival forums and new museum strategies, on the other. Against this background, the present biennial appears non-polemical, moderate, and introspective and, on the face of it, does not surprise with anything unexpected. At the same time, however, we discover with astonishment and as if quite logically that at this year’s Biennale di Venezia there is no painting and no digital or interactive art, almost no photography and video-art. What holds sway is an unshakable and solid calm stemming from the total dominance of the installation. An American art critic of repute, Roberta Smith, who has for years analyzed the Venice forum, notes that the incursion of monumental installations has transformed this year’s Biennial into a sui generis installation art contest (1). In her reportages for the New York Times she observes that discreet works are a rarity at the 54th Biennial, which, in her words, is dominated by a “late-stage festivalism characterized by large-scale labor-intensive installations (2).” This statement is corroborated by the mega-installations, which welcome the spectator at the national pavilions of Great-Britain (Mike Nelson), Germany (Christoph Schlingensief), France (Christian Boltanski), Switzerland (Thomas Hirschhorn), USA (Alora and Caldazilla), Argentine (Adrian Rojas), Turkey (Aise Erkmen), and Russia (Andrei Monastirskiy); we can hardly encounter a national pavilion of some prestige, which has not staked on installation as a form of representation no matter whether it is commenting on art, life, death, history, the aesthetic, or the political.

The expectations that this vehemently expanding and spectacular ‘installationism’ of the national pavilions would be rectified by the broad platform of the group exhibition allowing a much greater complexity and depth, which was curated by the 54th Biennale’s director of the visual arts, Bice Curiger (Beach Kuriger), have been only partly fulfilled. The Swiss art historian, Bice Curiger, who is known as the co-founder and editor in chief of the prestigious journal for contemporary art, Parkett, has developed her curator project, ILLUMInations, around the idea of intuitive self-cognition and the ‘illumination’ (enlightenment) of the mind at its contact with art, as well as the ability of art to sharpen our senses. The authors selected by her, eighty-two in number, fill up the spaces of the Arsenal and the central pavilion in the Giardini with works of various dimensions, which do not aim at clashing with or interrupting the ubiquitous perceptive regimes of the installation.

One of the most lively discussed, in a positive sense, ideas of Curiger are the four Parapavilions entrusted to four artists, who have created their detached individual spaces within the framework of the general exhibition. The works put there on display belong to authors selected by the four curators, Franz West, Song Dong, Monika Sosnowska, and Oscar Tuazon, who were commissioned by Curiger to design the four parapavilions. In the event, as was to be foreseen, the installation-curatorial hybrid of the parapavilions repeas at a macro level the fundamental contradictions, which haunt every attempt at situating diverse works in a conceptually and formally unified and integral installation. Franz West and Song Dong have ‘saved’ themselves from the burden of an installation by transporting an already existing environment. The Austrian Franz West (awarded the ‘Golden Lion” for lifetime achievement) shows a reproduction of the kitchen of his Viennese studio with the artworks hanging there; the Chinese Song Dong rebuilds the more than 150-years-old house of his parents from Beijing including works by Yto Barrada and Rayan Gander; Monika Sosnowska and Oscar Tuazon approach the task of designing their parapavilions proceeding rather from their personal quests and experiments of artists devoted to the art of the installation. Sosnowska builds an interior space in the form of a contorted star with extremely elongated points where she exhibits photographs by David Goldblatt and an installation by Haroon Mirza, while Tuazon erects in the form of a modern antiarchitectural ruin an unusually compromise-laden structure of concrete between the trees of the Giardini, where he has given shelter to a pseudo-mural intervention by the Norwegian artist Ida Ekblad and a sound installation by the Basque Azier Mendizabal.

Among the ‘stars’ that sustain the spine of the ILLUMInations curatorial project are the installation masters of long standing James Turrel, Urs Fischer, and Monica Bonvicini. Their installations, spectacular in scale and sheer impressiveness, ‘illuminate’ most effectively both the general conceptual message of Curiger and the prevalent expectations of the public. Worth mentioning from among the authors of installations, who offer an aesthetic of a newer sensibility, are the names of Gabriel Kuri and Nairi Baghramian.

However general might seem the formal and theoretical frame within which Curiger has situated her project, we can’t help perceiving her deeply held conviction that contemporary art has entered a stage where it has outlived definitely the “pathos of anti-art”. Currier’s statement that contemporary art “no longer cultivates the pathos of anti-art”, because “perception is now focused on the foundations of culture and art in order to illuminate semantic conventions from within (3),” marks a very important borderline beyond which are left all forms of activism, attempting, under the critical mask of one or the other socio-political commitment, to control a large part of the festival forums in the world of art during the last two decades. The other very important borderline, referred to by Curiger, concerns the selected authors and works that delineate a categorical disciplinary center. Kruger argues that art is a highly self-reflexive terrain that cultivates a lucid take on the outside world; this is more important now than ever before, in an age when our sense of reality is profoundly challenged by virtual and simulated worlds. In is thus that the Swiss curator replies why the serious museum institutions, international exhibitions, and festivals of visual art in recent years have been distancing themselves more and more from the media art.

The dilemma called forth by the vehement development of the new technologies with which the world of art was confronted at the beginning of the new millennium, appears today largely resolved. The visual arts (dominated to a large extent by the elemental and direct communicative regimes of the installation) and the media arts (confined within the electronically mediated medium of the new digital technologies) develop in separate and so far not intersecting directions. The visual arts grow ever more introspective with respect to their inner logic and history, while the media arts become ever more chaotically extrospective and socially oriented. The other crucial difference is associated with the opposition between linearity and nonlinearity. As a rule, media arts document, re-create or interactively call forth events of a linear character, while the visual arts count on the non-linear complex strategies, which unlock mental attitudes and experiences based on a specific kind of aesthetic autonomy and erudition.

2. The Cult of the Installation

I have already had the chance to state that in the institutional context of contemporary art the installation has gradually managed to evolve into the most immersive and all-consuming form of art because the installation ends the disciplinary tensions related to the parameters and hierarchy of the different types and genres within art (4). The questionable separation of practice and theory, technique and expression, craft and art, production and consumption, with which, in the words of the sociologist Richard Sennett, is historically afflicted modern society (5), finds its most satisfactory resolution, in my view, precisely on the territory of intersection of the installation where every genre and type of artistic and theoretical practice can freely transgress its external and internal limitations.

Besides the obvious social and economic factors favoring the development of the installation as the dominant form of art in the early 21st century, no less obvious are the purely psychological reasons embedded deeply at the core of this process. The so-called ‘economy of experience’, a term coined in 1999 by the American economists Joseph Pine and James Gilmore (6), underscores the possibility of conquering “the entire sensory apparatus of the consumers.” Unlike the goods and services, which underlie the previous economic systems, experiences are personal and exist only in the mind of the individual who, through his participation in a memorable event, feels involved emotionally, physically, intellectually, and even spiritually. The consumption of absolute experiences supersedes the consumer’s instinct for the absolute objects of modernism and the post-modern piety toward the absolute ideas of conceptualism.

The biopolitical context today calls forth maximal activation of the physical presence, and this explains the upswing of the sensory and the renewed introduction of perception psychology into the field of art. At the same time, the interest in psychology is captured by the illusion of a new psychological subject. These two motivating trends determine the dynamic prospects before the cognitive and creative economies, centered precisely on experience. The new complexity of the experience confers a new status on the most complex visual media – the installation. This status is not historical or institutional, it is related to the fact that installation at the present moment embodies best the psychological economy of engendering media.

1. Roberta Smith, Venice Biennale: An installation Art Contest, New York June 1, 2011. back...
2. Roberta Smith, Artists Decorate Palazzos, and Vice Versa. New York June 8, 2011. back...
3. Bice Curiger. Illumination. Introduction. March 2011, back...
4. Peter Tzanev. The Institution of the Neo-Avant-Garde, the End of Art and the New Post-psychological Rhetoric. In: of Art Psychology; issue: 01/2009. back...
5. Richard Sennett, The Craftsman. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2008. back...
6. Pine, B. Joseph and Gilmore, James H. The Experience Economy: Work is Theater & Every Business a Stage. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1999. back...