Venice – a victory for brains over brawn

Maria Lind, from the September 2013 issue

By Maria Lind

Three smallish pavilions without big budgets were my highlights during this edition of the Venice Biennale. Not only do they exemplify that plenty of money and grand gestures are not necessary to make a difference at one of the artworld’s most prestigious events, they also indicate a shift in the formulation of agendas. Two of the pavilions are located outside the main biennale areas of the Giardini and Arsenale, and the third – Georgia’s Kamikaze Loggia – is a brilliant extension of the last part of the Arsenale building complex, in the final section of the old shipyard, where a makeshift structure containing a group presentation by six artists and one artist group can be reached by tall wooden stairs.

Offering the best view at the Arsenale, Georgia’s presentation includes (alongside works by other artists) carefully selected preexisting works by Thea Djordjadze and Nikoloz Lutidze. The studio of Gio Sumbadze serves as the model for the pavilion itself, which is designed by this artist. In Tbilisi, he is working in one of many ‘kamikaze loggias’, architectural addenda that have proliferated since the country’s independence in 1991. Built beneath the radar of the authorities, they are part of an older tradition of glassed balconies and other airy extensions to residential buildings. Like Lutidze’s contribution, a euroremont – a Russian neologism that refers to a local way of renovating private houses according to European standards – Sumbadze’s work, as orchestrated by curator Joanna Warsza, engages with urban development in Georgia at the time of both the ‘neoliberal revolution’ and the ‘PR dictatorship’, as the catalogue describes the consecutive periods after the Rose Revolution in 2003.

A certain spirit of collectivism is felt in the Georgian Pavilion and it is not a coincidence. This is how younger generations operate under tricky conditions, finding ways of working that often entail taking matters into their own hands, picking up the habit of apartment exhibitions that subsisted during the Soviet regime. The Bouillon Group is known for having first quickly made up and then demolished an apartment in Tbilisi, commenting on ‘facadism’, a method of renovation promoted by the former government which means that only facades were treated, leaving everything behind to decay. Bouillon has also drawn on the gestures of political and religious ceremonies in Georgia, creating aerobicslike choreographies out of them. In Venice, it was the movements of the representatives of the church in the clashes at the Tbilisi Gay Pride rally a few days before the opening of the biennale that provided the raw material for an irresistible aerobics performance on the gravel next to the canal.

Scotland’s presentation, high up in the old Palazzo Pisani, is more classical. But as with Georgia it is the precise choice of artists – Duncan Campbell, Corin Sworn and Hayley Tompkins, curated by the Common Guild in Glasgow – and the generous installation of their works that contributes to the pavilion’s success. Entering the space, you immediately feel the effects of efforts to mediate the work through people onsite and by providing written material that goes beyond the usual dutiful provision of facts. An ‘Information Assistants Programme’ has been devised whereby students from five academic institutions in Scotland are getting professional training with regard to how a pavilion like this one is conceived.

Aerobics reappear in a hilarious performance based on gymnastic exercises drawn from Soviet Lithuanian morning TV in the combined Lithuanian and Cypriot Pavilion. Here, however, the information offered is considerably and consciously more enigmatic than at the Scottish Pavilion. If you enter this pavilion by climbing the seven flights of stairs to the top, you are likely to experience a state of shock and awe: the magnificent, fully equipped sports arena Palasport Arsenale, completed in 1977, is a giant gem hidden one block away from the entrance to the Arsenale. In this concrete wonder, sculptures, videos, installations and performances are inserted under the title Oo, which is borrowed from a dream of one of the artists. Gabriel Lester’s collection of art museum walls from across the globe make perfect sense as players on a field that constructs obstacles for the play it is supposed to facilitate. As for the rest, hats off to curator Raimundas Malašauskas for drawing on generative art scenes and for directing magical moments with performances, gatherings and spontaneous dancing during the opening days of the biennale. And for showing that curatorial pirouettes where the artworks disappear in the swirl can be worthwhile, given the right staging and context.

These three pavilions turn what seems to be a disadvantage into an advantage. In addition to demanding the efforts of climbing many steps, they all use their modest scale and equally modest conditions of production to show interesting work in well-curated presentations that refer back to the current situation on their home turf. Small and often young nations (or young-nations-to-be, in the case of Scotland?) like these, with small economies and no fixed pavilion in the Giardini to act as an automatic platform for visibility, have shown that the Venice Biennale cannot be the same after this year’s edition. In fact, among the nations that have consistently had the most interesting and significant presentations since the early 2000s are Lithuania and Scotland, being right where new ideas and ways of acting are being formulated. Brains, probably helped by aerobic agility, have won over the plain force of muscles.

This article was first published in the September 2013 issue.