When ART becomes a STAGE: The Venice Biennale

I would like to begin my blog post with a sentence inspired by my good old friend René Magritte: This is not a review. It is neither a review of the Biennale nor of the exhibited art. It is rather a subjective focus on what I’ve been able to see during my two days in Venice. And what is my focus usually? It’s of course the matters of FACTION I’m interested in. Concerning art and its players FACTION usually comes up when art becomes ALIVE, IMMERSIVE & PERFORMATIVE. And how does art become alive? By leaving its classical place (the walls!), by conquering the room and by inviting its visitors to enjoy it with all senses: SEEING, HEARING, SMELLING, OUCHING (OR RATHER WALKING IN OUR CASE) & FEELING.

Venice as a HOST

Venice as a stage for the Biennale comprising a huge leading exhibition in two locations, about 90 national pavilions (!) and numerous special projects is one of a kind. Its venues are unique: The Giardini with many very diverse buildings, the architecture of the Arsenale and the uncountable palazzos and diverse locations in the city. Now what I’m going to look at is how the art got into a dialogue with its venues in Venice. From the classical art hanging on the wall (totally neglecting its room) and the art comprehending its room as a case to the art existing getting into a dialogue with its space – I have seen wonderful examples for all.

A MODEST begin

The here presented artworks / venues have all been part of either the main exhibition named MAY YOU LIVE IN INTERESTING TIMES, curated by Ralph Rugoff and the national pavilions at the Giardini and the Arsenale.

I would like to begin with the so-called modest examples of the PERFORMATIVE ART. Hanging classically on the wall, the paintings of Njideka Akunyili Crosby represent the classic of the classic. Only the wooden panel walls add a certain something to the series of portraits. You could also add the video installation of Korakrit Arunanondchai to the category of MODEST COURAGE FRACTION. The difference to the paintings is, that adding sound also adds a little pinch of magic. Furthermore three screens/ parallel films also multiply the usually 2-dimensional visitor experience. In both cases you as a spectator are not addressed. The artwork doesn’t count on you, it exists for itself without people looking at it or being present.


The next step of STAGING ART is installations, that are taking the room but not really letting you in. Liu Wei’s closed room full of geometrical forms, Renate Bertlmann’s pointed rose garden or Sun Yuan & Peng Yu’s machine and algorithm led, automated sculptures are great examples. They take space for themselves but don’t really get in contact with the spectator. Due to their movement and sound Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s machine sculptures go a little further than the others – a certain performative poetry surrounds them and make an intense impression, even though you don’t really participate as a visitor.

Prefering a VISITOR over a SPECTATOR

But where and when does a conversation between a spectator and art really begin? This very moment, when a spectator becomes a visitor and is able to walk through the art. Or on the art – just as is the case with the beautiful works of Mark Justiniani at the Philippine pavilion. The artworks themselves were actually stages. The number of persons able to walk on them being limited, you had to remove your shoes which already prepared you for a special moment. As you started walking on Justiniani’s stage you looked down and all of a sudden realized a frightening height or rather depth of the inside of the art object you were walking on: A wonderful optical illusion made you believe the object was a many meters deep hole. It seemed you were just about to fall like into a rabbit hole. That rabbit hole by the way was filled with multiple objects with a very specific, used aesthetic, evoking numerous narrative paths. So without actually really having a dialogue with the room the artwork by Justiniani draged you inside of it and created a wonderfully factionate moment. A wonderful example of interactivity dragging its visitors into the inside of itself. Pretty unusual – pretty neat.


What kind of art comes after the classically closed object? Well, when the prior mentioned walls or floor transform into a room, which stages an artwork, then art is likely to open up. The British Pavilion as a good example for this was filled with objects by Cathy Wilkes. Here we had a group of the most diverse objects, found as well as assembled, and sculptures spread all over the pavilion’s halls. But – although the works of Cathy Wilkes were arranged all over the place, the room itself remained loyal to the idea of the white cube. The exhibition hall did not really communicate with the artworks – it could have been replaced by any other neutral exhibition space.

Looking for a DIALOGUE

But where did art get into a real dialogue with its case? Let me give you a wonderful example: The Nordic Pavilion, showing the huge installation “Weather Report: Forecasting Future” by Ann Graff, Ingela Ihrmann & nabbteeri. This pavilion as a case was already pretty powerful: It was designed by Sverre Fehn and via a specific design plays with the idea of creating a somewhat Nordic light in Italy and even lets trees break through the ceiling. The artworks on display thematized climate change and the tense relation between human and non-human beings. Both architecture and art worked beautifully together – the room as a case was perfectly staging the artworks. Of course the group of works could have been exhibited somewhere else, but it wouldn’t have had he same effect and it wouldn’t have been the same exhibition at all. Their PERFECT DUET is very charming to the visitor’s experience strolling through the objects – it was just a match!

Coming closer to a PERFORMATIVE POETRY

Now with the last examples we’re getting closer to the PERFORMATIVE MAGIC in our QUEST FOR FACTION! Let me suggest the German pavilion as the perfect, next level artwork-meets-case instance. This pavilion itself is a monumental building, whose optics mostly date from 1938. Many artists exhibiting there have been addressing this part of the countries’ and the buildings’ history through the decades. 2019 it was Natascha Süder Happelmann, who staged a multimedia artwork. A massive wall has been built in the middle of the very high room, evoking a dam. On the one side there was an eclectic sound installation (whistles, electronic beats as well as minimal sounds and chirping of birds) – on the other side an almost empty space dominated by the harsh, grey optics of the wall itself and some huge rocks spread all over the hall. The evoked topics of migration and isolation were pretty obvious – I agree. Süder Happelmann even closed the huge front door – as a visitor you had to enter the pavilion through the back door. But the way the artist created that metaphor of Germania shutting its doors and Europe closing its gates was just perfectly elegant. The wall, the sounds, the atmosphere – everything played a precise role within the synthesis of the art and the pavilion. The art found its perfect stage – and the pavilion found its perfect art – PURE FACTION was created in Germania.


We have stated a very strong faction game at the German pavilion so far. But we should also be talking about another artwork – a kind of counterplayer – that was even more simple, more harsh and more powerful: the infamous object “Barca Nostra” by Christoph Büchel. You’ve certainly heard much about the so-called scandal of this artwork: The boat, filled with immigrants, was the location of one of the most terrible tragedies during the great migration wave in 2015. Approximately 1000 refugees died because of a crash between the boat and its rescuing freighter. Placing the shipwreck, “a collective monument and memorial to contemporary migration”[1]at the Arsenale, Venice’s military port, in a pretty unobtrusive manner was – now let’s say – a thing.

As I hadn’t read anything about the Biennale before visiting I didn’t even notice that the shipwreck was an artwork and part of the exhibition. It just looked like a shipwreck that belonged to the Arsenale, fitting perfectly into the surrounding architecture of the port. I didn’t even notice that I was on the stage of Büchel’s installation. Realizing what the shipwreck was, getting to know its history and learning about its place at the main show MAY YOU LIVE IN INTERESTING TIMES was just breathtaking. It made me – and probably many other people – shiver with consternation.

Many voices have been criticizing Büchel’s artwork for being cheap provocation, tasteless and disrespectful. That it was counting on its shock effect – playing a perfectly staged PR game. Well, I do agree partly. Actually one could discuss all of the critical voices. In fact, I am not a fan of political art at all either. But this? This was just everything. It was political. It was shocking. It was thoughtful. It was pure. It took you inside of its story without asking. You were part of it and you didn’t even notice. No fuss, no superfluous elements nor anecdotical narration were present there.

A PURE synthesis of ART and its STAGE

Many critics asked: Is this art? Well, in my opinion it was a perfect, contemporary READY-MADE A perfectly located installation. A perfectly immersive, performative object. I hope, that’s hopefully enough characteristics to qualify Büchel’s “Barca Nostra” as art. Of course in the first place the shipwreck could be understood as a memorial, too holy and too delicate to be placed into any other context than its own political ambience. But placing it at the Biennale – in Italy, where a very specific political stand has been taken towards immigration during the recent years – is just too good to be true. Using Venice and its port as a stage for such a political statement for me is not cheap. In fact it’s more than just ELEGANT – in all its CRUELTY. No other place would have ever served the wreck such a stage than the Arsenale. It is the architecture, the port, the Biennale, it’s Venice and Italy that complete Büchel’s artwork. And YOU COMPLETE IT – standing in the middle of it.

Christoph Büchel's "Barca Nostra" at the Arsenale

HOW TO USE this blog article

Well, what a ride! From a classical painting to a ready-made shipwreck – we’ve seen a lot. Hopefully not too much for your taste!

My article wasn’t supposed to be a review – I’m afraid it may have become one – at least a little. I also have the impression, that my analysis might have become a little nerdy as well. Be that as it may – the question is: What sense does my article make for you? I believe that by focusing on different stages of art stages you’ll have new criteria when visiting your next exhibition of contemporary art. I am sure that you have visited shows and have been perplexedly looking at works not knowing anything about them.

The next time you’ve got that feeling, please just ask yourself: What does the artwork do for me? Does it communicate with me, its space and time? Not: What can I do for the artwork? How can I understand its story? Because ideally by counting on you as a visitor the art is going to explain itself without many words.
Madame F


(2) Comments

  1. Wow… I haven’t been to an art gallery before and the day I would go, I think I would buy all the works there. Lol. This is beautiful. 

    1. Madame F says:

      Thank you! Well, if my blog article has inspired you to visit art galleries, it was all worth it!

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