On the Venice Biennale 2013

For as long as I can remember, I have always perceived the Venice Biennale to be the most exclusive, most illustrious, and most highly publicized art event in the world; my readings of the 2013 Biennale have not changed this perception, but rather enhanced it. Perhaps the most critical aspect of this weekend’s research that has contributed to my image of the Biennale has been the exhibition’s contemporary relevance, which I am convinced is the root of its ultimate importance.

What highlighted this for me was the thematic nature of this year’s exhibition, “The Encyclopedic Palace,” which, according to Chief Director Massimo Gioni, is a theme of relationships. In Gioni’s words, this year’s exhibition takes on “the constant challenge of reconciling the self with the universe, the subjective with the collective, the specific with the general, and the individual with the culture of her time,” and is focused on the concept of “internal images,” “focusing in particular on the realms of the imaginary and the functions of the imagination” (Gioni, La Biennale). Deliberately open-ended as to invite the flourishing creative juices of the 150+ artists’ imaginations flow, the Biennale’s focus on the self’s relationship to the external world is of particular relevance in an age where social technology has converted our relationships to digital, and where globalization has blurred the boundaries between cultures.

Of all the national pavilions represented at the Biennale this year, of particular interest to me is the Kosovo pavilion, that will be exhibiting only the Kosovan artist Petrit Halilaj’s installation that has been described as “not so much a tree as a giant, earth-perfumed root ball, or giant-sized bird’s nest,” shown below (Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian). Due to the nature of this year’s theme of internal versus external, tree imagery (including actual trees or branches) is somewhat of a recurrent icon throughout the Biennale, as a literal juxtaposition of the nature/outdoors invading the theoretical “indoors.”

The Kosovo exhibition is installed at the pavilion at the Arsenale, a cluster of warehouses previously used as shipyards and armories. Among his peer artists exhibiting at the Arsenale will be the Bahama’s Tavares Strachan, Turkey’s Ali Kazma, and Argentina’s Nicola Constantino, the latter of whose digital reinterpretation of traditional media of portraying the notorious Eva Perón may at first seem divergent from Halilaj’s. However, Constantino’s installation (images shown below) similarly creates imaginary spaces in which the spectators can physically place themselves, thus emphasizing the internal-external theme through the self in the imagined environment. It therefore seems fitting that the Kosovo pavilion should be placed amongst these artists along the warehouses of the Arsenale, each exhibition transporting guests and spectators to new environments.

Kosovo is also interesting as a representative country of a republic that is politically very young (having declared independence only in February 2008) yet ridden with a comprehensive history (having been a province of conflict throughout the reigns of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empire). Halilaj may have been the perfect choice for the first artist to represent the nation in the context of the Biennale, as he epitomizes the expression of this fluctuating history; his curator, Kathrin Rhomberg, writes of Halilaj, “His memories of a rural childhood, his personal experience of war, destruction, exodus and displacement are the very basis of his reflections on life and the human condition” (Rhomberg, e-flux). The nation’s representation in the Biennale this year denotes an era of renaissance for the republic, marking its territory in the international community that the Biennale society comprises of as a relevant player in the contemporary art world. In terms of its implications on the art market, although none of the artworks exhibited at the Biennale are supposed to be sold due to the 1968 sales ban, it is hard to deny that “the biennale’s impact on the art market is notable: showing in Venice speeds up sales, gets artistic careers going, cranks up price levels and helps artists land a dealer ranked higher in the market’s hierarchy” (Velthuis, The Art Newspaper — I highly recommend reading this article). So, for those of us like me who previously could tell you with minimal certainty that Kosovo was actually a country, the nation’s representation at the Biennale serves to both make the nation known as well as boost the nation’s credibility in terms of the art market (which the Patron’s Payoff has taught us has both direct social and financial benefits. Evidently, this benefit to the nation’s economic markets is considered lucrative enough for the government, as it is often government organizations that serve as commissioners of the pieces that are exhibited at the Biennale; for example, Kosovo’s Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sport was one of Halilaj’s biggest commissioners this year.

The other pavilion that I find interesting for several reasons is that of USA. In contrast to Kosovo, the USA pavilion represents a nation whose status at the Biennale has been as a long-established contributor as well as nation well-represented and highly active in the contemporary art market.

One of the main reasons I am so attracted to the USA’s 2013 pavilion is that I am somewhat familiar with its sole exhibitor, Sarah Sze, as she is an alumna of the boarding school I graduated from, Milton Academy. At the center of the Milton Academy campus is the Student Center; at the center of the Student Center is a Sarah Sze installation entitled “The Edge of One of Many Circles,” pictured below.

I’ll admit, when visiting the campus for the first time, I found the piece to be odd and out of place at first. It includes menial and seemingly meaningless objects, including plastic cups and scissors. In fact, many of my fellow students found it strange and some had very strong negative reactions towards it. Some would actually add to it, seeing if they couldn’t lodge paper planes and pencils into its crevices.

One of Sze’s most fervent critics was my roommate, who wrote a highly disparaging article for the school newspaper that proved to be one of the most controversial and highly debated articles published that year. One of the responses that was published in the same paper the very next day was written by an art instructor at our school, who had apparently been a teacher of Sze back in the 80’s, whose words had me rethink the function of the installation. The Student Center being one of the largest buildings on campus with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the quad (to which a disproportionate amount of our tuitions was allotted), Sze’s installation functions as a literal centerpiece for the campus, both from indoor and outdoor perspectives. This was not an accident; Sze says of the installation: “You can see it from above, from directly below and from all sorts of angles. People will live with the piece—rediscover it all the time. During the day it’s backlit and has a skeletal quality. At night, looking from the outside, it’s lit up. So it has a day life and a night life.”

Similarly, Sze’s “Triple Point” at the 2013 Biennale combines a very odd slew of objects (Vogel of the NY Times writes: “Anyone reading a list of items in her complex installation might think it was for a scavenger hunt or what to pack for an unusual Outward Bound trip”) to create an environment that obscures the boundaries between interior and exterior, to be exhibited with a window overlooking the Via Garibaldi. Conceptually, there are obvious similarities between Sze’s exhibition and Halilaj’s — both being efforts to question defined margins of interior and exterior — but aesthetically the two are very different. While Halilaj’s environment is a rather primordial aesthetic, involving “a sort of primitive cave made of mud and tree roots, smelling of earth, which you can enter and peer out of” (Gayford, Bloomberg) that likely harkens to Halilaj’s rural personal history, Sze’s “Triple Point” incorporates the use of fake nature (manmade rocks and ivy, for example) in conjunction with branded items such as Illy coffee napkins, screwdrivers, and tubs to reflect the same concept through a more materialistic lens. This brings up the point that despite the conceptual similarities, the artists have branded themselves very differently, which can translate to extremely different representations of their corresponding nations in the international art market.