Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Art World’s Olympics

Well... I guess since most of us are so poor this year and are not in Venice either , might as well go global and see what everybody else who is there is talking about. This article by Kelly Crow for the Wall Street Journal discusses the Venice Biennial.

The Art World’s Olympics
Century-old event copes with downturn; Artists’ moms cook soup

The shaky global economy helped sink prices for new art last fall and exacerbated a world-wide pullback in arts sponsorship. The result is a biennial that is quieter than two years ago, although the competition for attention is still intense.

The U.S. and France are hosting opening-night cocktail receptions instead of lavish dinners. Russia, meanwhile, says it needs help meeting its roughly $993,000 pavilion budget. It’s around $70,000 shy. Over at the Palazzo Michiel dal Brusa, Iceland and Singapore are asking artists’ mothers to cook Thursday’s shared party meal—Icelandic fish soup and wonton soup, respectively.

Early last fall, organizers said 92 countries were expressing interest in joining the biennial but the number eventually dropped to 77, still a record. Among the absent: India, which is instead championing four Indian artists like Nikhil Chopra who are already exhibiting in other group shows here. “This is not the year to throw the biennial’s most extravagant dinner,” says Carlos Basualdo, commissioner for the U.S. pavilion.

The biennial is the Olympics of the contemporary art world, a century-old tradition in which countries send in their best artists to exhibit in pavilions and palazzos across the city. Instead of medals, artists vie for recognition on the global art field. The stakes here are high—Olafur Eliasson and Ernesto Neto are among the breakout biennial artists who went on to global fame.

The event is a proven hit with the public, and nearly 400,000 people are expected to visit the biennial before it closes Nov. 22. Roughly the same number of people attended in 2007.

United States
Bruce Nauman is an Indiana-born artist who rose to fame in the 1970s by using neon tubing, animal hides and ambient sounds to push conceptual art beyond the slick borders of Pop and into video art. Now, his neon signs that flash words like “Prudence” and “Pride” ring the roofline of the U.S. pavilion. In a new twist, commissioner Carlos Basualdo placed additional pieces in two local schools, and the artist enlisted local students to translate his latest sound piece, “Giorni,” into Italian

Paolo Baratta, the biennial’s president, says he began preparing for a financial slowdown last year by asking major artists in the biennial’s group show, “Making Worlds,” to help pay their own shipping and installation. He also raised ticket prices to $25 from around $20. (The 30,000 invited VIPs still get in free.) Such moves allowed him to use more of his roughly $10 million budget to defray costs for younger artists.

Participating nations say they would rather scale back sharply than bow out, and a visit to the biennial’s two primary venues helps explain why. Around 30 small buildings in a variety pack of architectural styles stand closely together within the Giardini, a Napoleonic park on the city’s eastern edge. Nations who have their own buildings are loathe to turn them over to any other country.

Beginning in 1895, during the heyday of world’s fairs, Venice invited powerful nations to erect art exhibition buildings: the U.S. pavilion is neoclassical, the Russian pavilion is peach-colored Baroque, the Nordic pavilion is sleekly modern. Nearly a dozen countries like China have since been assigned space in the nearby Arsenale, a cavernous storage area; the rest must rent palazzos elsewhere. The informal competition for best pavilion can be fierce. The United Arab Emirates, a first-timer to the biennial, is lending visitors audio guides that make wry references to Bob Dylan and pop performer Lady Gaga in addition to talking about Dubai photographer Lamya Gargash.

“Basically, it’s this artificial village where everyone wants to grow the biggest pumpkin,” says artist and curator Michael Elmgreen, who lives in London. Mr. Elmgreen and his collaborating partner Ingar Dragset, who hails from Berlin, have threaded a single exhibit, “The Collectors,” through two adjacent pavilions for Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden. The curators’ winning proposal involved transforming the two pavilions into “homes” for imaginary art collectors, complete with faux doorbells, mailboxes and actors hired to play real-estate agents. That exhibit marks the first time the two pavilions have agreed to share space and billing, the biennial says. Mr. Elmgreen says the move was motivated by an impulse to experiment rather than to save money.

The Russian pavilion’s “Victory Over the Future” group show aims to give off avant-garde energy. Alexey Kallima created a room-sized mural of a crowd at a soccer match and Andrei Molodkin’s “Le Rouge et Le Noir” features two vitrines shaped like the Nike of Samothrace, filled with either crude oil or blood. “It’s brutal and beautiful,” says curator Olga Sviblova.

Many artists this year tried to tackle the biennial’s theme, “Making Worlds,” by addressing issues of globalization, the economy and cultural memory. In the Dutch pavilion, Fiona Tan uses Venetian merchant Marco Polo as a muse: she trucked in antique treasures and Chinatown kitsch and arranged it all around the pavilion. The pieces have been cleared out, but visitors get a glimpse via her video, “Disorient.”

The biennial doubles as a showcase for government officials and arts councils who typically select their nations’ artistic representatives. During the opening ceremonies this weekend, expect everyone from Queen Sonja of Norway, to cultural ministers from Hong Kong to stop by. The U.S. pavilion, which is exhibiting Indiana conceptual sculptor Bruce Nauman, invited the Clintons and the Obamas but is awaiting a reply, says Mr. Basualdo.

At least 44 art foundations and private collectors are exhibiting work during the biennial as well, led by Francois Pinault’s newly opened art space Punta della Dogana, which juts out into the Grand Canal opposite St. Mark’s square. The collection includes several pieces by Jake and Dinos Chapman, Rachel Whiteread, Takashi Murakami, Paul McCarthy and newcomer Matthew Day Jackson.

Australian commissioner Doug Hall says he’s still determined to show visitors a good time. This week, his pavilion threw a party for their artist Shaun Gladwell and over 300 guests on a rented island, nearby San Saovolo. “To look indulgent and indulge in art in Venice isn’t the image corporate sponsors want to project right now, so the biennial is more measured,” Mr. Hall says, “but maybe that also makes it cooler.”

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