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Olympics of the Art World

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The Biennale really is like a big marathon (for participants and audiences alike). The official winners this year are:

Best National Participation:
Germany, Christoph Schlingensief

Best Artist at the ILLUMInations Exhibition:
Christian Marclay (United States), for The Clock, 2010, on display at the Corderie, Arsenale

The real marathon part of the Biennale is actually done by the audience though, trying to see all 89 National Pavilions, 81 artists in the curated show and 37 collateral events. For those who don’t have a full week or two at their disposal (who does?) rapid and harsh assessments must be made. The general strategy of those working at the Biennale is to dash around manically during break times and make mental notes of what is ‘good’, returning to these artworks for more extended viewing on our days off. Here’s the list of what I found Golden Lion worthy and why. With my scathing ‘not worthy’ list at the bottom.

Who: Tabiamo
What: Teleco-soup is an immersive, multi-projection animation installation. It uses large curved wall panels, floor to ceiling mirrors and a sunken, well-like projection space to help you happily lose yourself inside the beautiful, fluid imagery.
Golden Lion reason:
Although conceptually quite a simple artwork, this installation is extremely well made and is surely the closest you can get to being inside a Japanese animae. What’s not to love about that?!
+ the accompanying proverb: “A frog in a well cannot conceive of the ocean, but it knows the height of the sky.”

Who: Mark Schinwald
What: An extraordinary, untitled exhibition that performs a kind of spatial prosthesis on the pavilion. The Pavilion’s internal volume is dissected by a series of wall panels that hang from the ceiling down to crotch height. Within the recesses of this strange maze hang delicately painted portraits. They appear in the manner of Dutch still lifes, except the serene figures have apparatuses attached to their heads, like bizarre orthodontic devices. The almost symmetrical structure of the labyrinthine pavilion encloses two video spaces, simultaneously screening a short film by Schinwald called Orient. The final element is the twisted, ambiguous metal contraptions attached high on the walls, lingering like insects.
Golden Lion reason: I give this pavilion a Lion for its sheen creepiness – which is both subtle and profound in its ability to affect the viewer. And I love the odd doubling effect; the strange architectural intervention that folds the space into two hemispheres, the double videos, the echoing of structures in the videos and the real space, and the prostheses in the architecture and in the painted images. I found myself thinking about this work days after seeing it, and wanting to return to the quiet inner worlds it both conceals and reveals.

I’m also a little worried about why I like this show so much … I’d hate to know the psychoanalytic reason.

Who: Adrian Villar Rojas
What: The Murderer of your Heritage comprises a room of very large made-in-situ concrete and clay sculptures. These megalithic columns incorporate rock and plant-like forms with shapes reminiscent of intergalactic ships and space colonies from science fiction.
Golden Lion reason:
This installation made me feel as though I were in the presence of mysterious future-past relics that had been pulled from the ground. It displaces any concrete sense of time and appeals to the sci-fi nerd in me. The sheer physical scale of the work is impressive and there is an intriguing contrast between the heavy, inert material it is made from and suggested high-tech nature of the embedded forms.

Who: Hajnal Németh
What: CRASH – Passive Interview has four interconnected components; a totalled BMW bathed in intense red light; a four-part video showing duos of opera singers performing the dialogue from passive interviews with car crash survivors (a passive interview is when the questions always result in yes/no answers), filmed against the background of freeways and car factories; another red light filled room with music stands holding the scripts from the operatic passive interviews; a room with a glass ceiling where sunlight bathes a wall of car number plates, the words on them forming a strange and cryptic poem.
Golden Lion reason:
Although you may be thinking this show sounds trauma-filled and overly theatrical, it is actually quirky and sensitive and carefully blends fiction and realism. The red rooms and smashed up car do really impact on your senses and there is a latent feeling of horror, but this is balanced by the stillness and scale of the spaces, the feeling that time has been suspended, and the aural wash of operatic singing filling the exhibition.

In one of the videos the opera-dialogue takes place inside a BMW car factory, complete with automated robotic arms swinging wildly around in the background – it is simultaneously humorous and disturbing … and shows once again I am drawn to the perverse and off-beat.



No Golden Lions for you

Italy – see my ‘more is more Vs more is less’ post

Venezuela – probably the cheesiest non-ironic artist’s interview video I have ever seen. And I have no idea how the different components of the show are suppose to fit together, nor does it inspire one to find out.

Uruguay – what can I say … um: bad prints, badly hung, boring video, and even the Attendants seem to have abandoned the pavilion.

Holland – this ambitious architectural/theatrical structure is full of clever references but lacks any sensitivity to how the viewer is meant to psychologically and haptically experience it, leaving you feeling unmotivated to work through the web of meaning.

I’ll blog about the central curated exhibition ILLUMInations soon. Need to get my endurance up for this one.


Written by erincoates

September 13, 2011 at 9:35 pm

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The Multi-skilled Pavilion Worker

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We are not just pleasant faces greeting the hordes and guarding the artworks. Here are some of the other tasks performed by the humble Pavilion attendant:

Lizard Capture & Release
Escaping the heat, reptiles tend to enjoy the shady reprieve of the Pavilions. Invigorated by the sun, they require great skill to catch.

Air Conditioner Re-booting
The Pavilions are compact structures, and those with air-con have cleverly hidden the workings of the cooling system. This is good for the visual design, but means Pavilion Workers need considerable flexibility, night-vision and a lack of claustrophobia to crawl under or inside structures when air-con maintenance is needed.

Automatic Insect Repellent Reactions
Venice is essentially built on swampy reclaimed land, meaning a plentiful but extremely unpopular population of mosquitoes. Pavilions Workers are masters of the one-handed mosquito kill move.

Video Work Tolerance
It might not look like they are doing anything, but Pavilion Workers in exhibitions with audio- visual components are using enormous amounts of mental energy to endure repetitive soundtracks. This training places them on par with SS-trained soldiers, along with their endurance for standing long periods, interrogation (on the meaning of the artworks) and sleep deprivation.

Watch any Pavilion Worker long enough and you’ll reaslise a lot is actually going on. Some of the activities they are able to perform simultaneously include:
– counter clicking
– conversing with visitors on the philosophical dimensions of the artwork
– updating blogs
– skillfully and politely deflecting biting critiques of the exhibition
– working on their own covert art projects and parallel exhibitions
– arranging a schedule of social activities with the network of Pavilion Workers
– preventing undesired interaction between the visitors and the artwork
– artwork and AV equipment rejuvenation

Written by erincoates

September 6, 2011 at 2:06 pm

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The answer to that burning question

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Yes, Venetian palaces do have smoke alarms.

Written by erincoates

September 6, 2011 at 2:04 pm

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Plinth Doppelganger

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I am going to reveal myself as an exceptionally pedantic person by focusing on this, because I need to talk about plinths for a bit.

Okay, tell me what you see here:


Details of dirty old disused plinths, huh? Wrong – on both counts.

#1 is in fact a detail of Birth of Venus, a carefully crafted object cast by Hany Armanious from solid polyurethane resin, which is meticulous in its inclusion of sloppy overpaint drips and scuff marks from its supposed life as an exhibition support. Even the piece of grey gaffer tape on its surface is a part of the pigmented resin cast.

One of the reasons it is so incredibly convincing as a replica (at the Biennale at least) is because #2 is what it imitates. This is not a disused plinth but the current support for one of the other national pavilions’ sculptural works. Yep, they really are that dirty.

I am beginning to understand why Birth of Venus is such a difficult work for viewers – its hyper-realistic and imitative effect is completed by the plinths viewers see under works in other pavilions. Most viewers do not question the nature of Hany’s object, except to ask “Has the work been stolen?”

I know I know, it’s month four of the Biennale and things are not as sparkling clean and new as they were. I will refrain from talking about labels. I have revealed too much about my true nature already.

Let’s come back to Hany’s plinth doppelgangers for a minute, so we can at least think about his artwork (because clearly I am so distracted by the plinths in other pavilions that I can’t talk about the art on them right now).

Hany’s series of sculptures feature numerous support structures, often in relationship with objects that sit within or upon them. However, the display surface remains empty in both Birth of Venus and Set and Setting, which is a polyurethane resin cast of an unpainted, tatty MDF plinth, complete with nails also cast in resin (see image below).

The curator of the exhibition Anne Ellegood describes this void as the “site of potential” – and for many visitors this is regarded as a distinctly unfulfilled potential. The apparent absence of the art object provokes a degree of indignation in many, as they feel they are being deprived of the work that was made for their viewing pleasure. The crafted facsimile of the plinth is seen only as the evidence of an artwork theft or disaster.

To look historically for a moment, the plinth or sculpture pedestal has been traditionally used to elevate artwork and physically separate it from the ground – and from the realm of the viewer and of ‘real life’. This convention became seriously challenged in the late 19th century when Rodin began to abandon display norms and place his bronzes on the same plane as the viewer (see his Les Bourgeois de Calais). He was followed in the next century by artists such as Brâncuşi, Picasso and Giacometti, who conceived of sculptural work in new relationships to the wall and floor, or to integrate the plinth as a sculptural component within the artwork.

Hany has taken this convention to its logical conclusion by bringing back the plinth and making it the object of art itself. The plinth, which is meant give a clear distinction between art and life is here imitating life, to the degree that for many it is indistinguishable.

I will end with some responses from the visitor’s comment book on Hany’s Birth of Venus:

“The DEATH of Venus!”
“Can I stand of it?”
“The Emperor’s New Clothes”
“So fascinating – I love this work”
“Has the artwork been stolen?”
“This is not art”
“There is nothing here”
“Wow, interesting and thoughtful”
“Where is the art?!?”

Written by erincoates

September 5, 2011 at 8:07 pm

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A Climber’s Perspective

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The Biennale’s most climbable pavilions
The diverse and imaginative architecture of the Venice Biennale offers more than dymanic spaces for viewing art – it is a free-soloists climbing paradise. This post combines two of my interests to explore the Biennale architecture through its climb-potential.

Note: I do not endorse the misappropriation of official Biennale structures in anyway or encourage unsafe climbing practices.

Russian Pavilion
Designed by Aleksej V. Scusev in 1914, the classical-inspired facade of this pavilion with its fussy pediments offers excellent opportunities for solid edge holds and high heel hooks. Some high dyno moves required.
Degree of difficulty: 23 (Aust) / 6c+ (Ita)

Belgium Pavilion
This blocky number resembling a soviet nightclub was first designed by Leon Sneyers in 1907 and then restored mid-century by Virgilio Vallot. The grid of cement wall features are obvious holds and make this an easy climb.
Degree of difficulty: 13 (Aust) / 5a- (Ita)

Padiglione Centrale
While not a national pavilion the Padiglione Centrale in the Giardini had to be included as it offers a high-level, challenging climb.

The far left pillar is just the right distance from the wall to provide sustained stemming moves up to the block eve. Transitioning to a full-body pillar grip you could then make a long reach out to the edge and campus along to the big lettering. A heel hook up then balancy move above the lettering would get you to the roof. Chris Shamar would even sweat it on this route.
Degree of difficulty: 31 (Aust) / 8b+ (Ita)

Israeli Pavilion
Designed mid-century by Zeev Rechter and modified by Fredrik Fogh in 1966, the Iraeli Pavilion’s stark front facade is made climbable by the hanging chain detail. Even using foot smear moves against the wall though the heavy hauling up the chain is better attempted with plenty of climbing tape on your hands.
Degree of difficulty: 25 (Aust) / 7a (Ita)

French Pavilion
One of the first pavilions built for the Biennale, this imposing structure was designed by Faust Finzi in 1912 with ionic columns and a huge oval-shaped front pediment. Head left of the grand entrance for the large bricked wall and some crimpy hand holds. You’ll need good shoes to manage the micro feet holds – using the left arrete will help too. The crux of the route comes at the top, with the overhanging roof detail and a big move to get over the lip.
Degree of difficulty: 23 (Aust) / 6a+ (Ita)

please check this post again for further additions

Written by erincoates

September 2, 2011 at 5:37 pm

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more is more Vs more is less

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As a strategy for drawing the viewer into an intense experience of the artwork, overwhelming our senses by using the ‘more is more’ approach can really go either way. I want to talk about two experiences I’ve had at national Pavilions in the past couple of days, which I can best describe as ‘Gesamtkunstwerk assaults’.

*The term Gesamtkunstwerk has been used art historically to refer to a ‘total work of art’ that combines various media to immerse the viewer in a complete aesthetic and sensory experience.

More is Less

This is a blog so am going to be unashamedly subjective here: the Italian Pavilion is diabolically bad. Think tormented painters using lots of red and black. Think floor to ceiling crucifix sculptures, flashing lights and melted plastic. Then times it by 150 and put it in a long narrow (and very hot) gallery. Curator and television personality (have you seen Italian TV?!) Vittorio Sgarbi gave over his creative selection to 150 ‘intellectuals’ to choose their favorite artists for this year’s pavilion. His democratic altruism and curatorial twist are lost on viewers, because essentially the visual and aural chaos you experience is so migraine-inducing that there is no room left to think or feel anything.

I needed two spritzers after this assault.

More is More

Thomas Hirschhorn is one of my heroes. His work uses media image saturation and gross material and consumptive excess to critically dismantle these same things. And he does this with moments of brilliant absurdity and without sliding into cool irony or didactic boredom. His epic installation Crystals of Resistance for the Swiss Pavilion is the best kind of gesamtkunsterk assault. Yes it is claustrophobically full and I did feel like I was in a kind of Merzbau meth lab. But his ability to overwhelm the viewer is an apt strategy to comment on the entropic processes of globalized production/consumption. Within the suffocating atmosphere and mad detail of this installation strange crystalline formations grow, suggesting a mysterious transformative process and ultimately (I think) hope for regeneration.

Website link

I still needed two spritzers after this pavilion.

Written by erincoates

September 1, 2011 at 6:19 pm

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Four Categories: how do you look at Hany’s artwork?

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One of the things you are able to form an acute observation of by spending so much time inside a pavilion at the Venice Biennale (I will come back to pavilion workers later … we form our own categories) is how people look at art. Hany Armanious’ series of sculptures, which constitutes Australia’s sole entry in the Art Biennale this year is definitely not an easy encounter for pavilion visitors.

To give a brief description of the work before I delve into the types of responses it seems to elicit, Hany has painstakingly cast replicas of real objects into polyurethane resin, pewter and bronze, then destroyed the originals and their moulds. These highly convincing ‘replacements’ are set in curious relationships with one another; a leaf blower suspended in a tall steel framework; an old hand iron resting on a large styrofoam anvil; a block of rubber and flaking chipboard atop a metal desk frame, a piece of gaffa tape covering a hole in a low plinth, to name a few. It is work that refers to both its own making and the positioning of Modernism sculpture. And it is not work that competes easily with the flashing lights, noise and spectacle that can be found elsewhere at the Biennale – nor does it try to.

[more images and text can be found on the official website]

By the way, the following set of descriptions gives a highly reductive and grossly simplified overview of the diversity of visitors and their reactions to the work.

Category 1: Instant Dismissal
Seeing the absence of anything remotely interactive or cleverly crafted (which in fact it is) this visitor turns sharply on their heels and leaves.
Note: a sub-set of this category is lured by the air con and lingers briefly by the vents.

Category 2: The Trainspotter – Dutiful Yet Ultimately Disinterested
Compelled by an imperative they that need to at least sight every work in the Biennale, this visitor makes a quick round, sees rotting chipboard and empty plinths, then moves on, or pauses to read the visitor comments and possibly leave a remark [‘Hello Kitty from Japan’, ‘Boring’, ‘Nieto’, ‘Ciao Marco! xxx’ …]

Category 3: A Moment of Revelation
While not exerting too much contemplative or observational energy, this visitor is somewhat intrigued by the objects, and stops to read the labels. There is a moment of realization and a double take; all is not as it seems. Yet the possible meanings of this material transfiguration remain unconsidered. There is noise beckoning from the pavilion next door.

Category 4: Deep Thought
Like the supercomputer from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this visitor is fully primed and prepared for a deep, contemplative task. Pacing themselves like a long distance runner throughout the Biennale marathon and able to rapidly absorb didactic panel information and multi-lingual catalogue essays, they circle Hany’s sculptures and slowly move between them with an air of serene enlightenment.

Short interview with the artist

Written by erincoates

August 29, 2011 at 5:02 pm

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