Venice Biennale 2009 Review – Rachel Howfield Massey

Venice Biennale 2009 – selected highlights

Giardini and Arsenale, Venice , Venice
7 June – 22 November 2009

Reviewed by: Rachel Howfield (Massey)


On setting off for a three day art frenzy at The Venice Biennale 2009 I never considered the possibility of writing a review. I do not consider myself qualified to comment on the (to my eyes impressive) achievements of the 53rd international exhibition or the degree of fulfilment of Birnbaum’s theme and title ‘Making Worlds’, which is certainly a job for professional critics. I am also completely unable to make ascerbic observations about the international arts scene, find coherence, capture the zeitgeist or provide any other kind of coherent overview.

Truth be known, when standing in a really long hot queue at airport check-in at the end of the third day, I amazed my partner with my profound lack of memory of most of what we had seen. He could rather impressively list each work in the order we saw it, and ascribe a score, (in the style of the football scores).

A few hours later I am back home at my computer, still feeling wonky on my sea legs, wondering how best to assimilate my experiences. It is a genuinely bewildering experience to step from one pavilion to another, and within minutes give yourself over to someone else imaginings, over and over again. Blend this with swaying boat trips through canals and lagoons, visions of crumbling buildings, heat,  and sleep deprivation and it’s no wonder that some things seem to lose their meaning. A series of images float through my mind; some favourites include  Korean photographer AttaKim’s 8hour-exposure images of cities: Japan’s wildly exuberant Windswept Women: John Cale’s a-v installation: Palestinian pavilion: Jordan Baseman’s piece for ArtsWay: Lygia Pape’s Treia 1, C,.

I naturally find myself dwelling on those works which lent meaning and possibility to my own artist practice. Like many others, the significant work for me was, ‘The Collectors’. For the first time in the history of the bienniale, two nations collaborated to produce one exhibition. Neighbouring venues, the Danish and the Nordic Pavilions at the Giardini, were host to a show of 24 international artists and designers, curated and staged by artist duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, who have been collaborating since 1995.

Elmgreen and Dragset initially found themselves struggling to respond to the late modernist classic architecture of the Nordic Pavilion; it seemed to the artists to be more like a home than a gallery. This prompted them to imagine the type of individual that would be attracted to live there, which ultimately developed into the mysterious Mr B, an art collector whose creative yearning is driven by sexual desire, he seemingly spirals into a debauched and ultimately lethal lifestyle.

The neighbouring Danish pavilion, with many rooms, offered the artists an opportunity to imagine the recently vacated home of a family. Unfortunately, two rooms were not open for viewing (the teenagers bedroom and adjoining room) due to technical reasons. The imagined family’s art collection remained on display, whilst the house was ostensibly on the market, and included some fascinating works, envied by any real collector. Some of my highlights included work by Sturtevant, who has spent 40 years replicating her male contemporaries art works, Laura Horelli’s intriguing film Haukka-pala and Jani Leinonen’s ‘Anything Helps’ – apparently a series of elaborately framed beggars cardboard signs from around the world.

This work expanded my understanding of how emphasis on the private details of someone’s life illuminates our understanding of bigger social issues (described as ‘class, priviledge, gender or nationality’ by Office for Contemporary Art Norway I enjoyed the sense of ‘keeping up with the jones’s’ between the two premises, as it seemed to say that the more we attempt to control our public face, the more we ultimately reveal about ourselves.

I was also surprised to discover that Giardini by Steve McQueen also played a pivotal role in my experience of the biennale. I had read so much about the work I was prepared to be underwhelmed. As I watched I was unsure how to respond. But, afterwards every walk between pavilions was tainted by the experience. Gazing around the park should have refreshed and relaxed my mind in preparation for the next pavilion; instead every view was filtered through the loneliness I felt through his film. This was not diminished by the fairly heated debate I had with my partner over lunch, (much to the private entertainment of fellow diners) – he could not recognise any of what I described and saw beauty, optimism and possibly even humour in the film.

Continuing the domestic theme, Mona Hatoum’s Interior Landscape, at Fondazione Querini Stampalia provides a different challenge. Once the private home of the Querini Stampalia family this museum houses Hatoum’s solo show, and a series of works mingled in amongst the museum collection.  While it was clear how the artist benefitted from the new dimension this setting brought to her work, I’m less certain of the added value for the museum. While the work related to it’s environment it didn’t spring from it or directly enhance my understanding of it. Her related work stood confidently alone in the gallery space.

Antonieta Sosa’s show in the Venezualan pavilion comprised of a beautiful display of her collection of several years of dust from her room – an instant hit for me as a fellow dust collector!

Miranda July’s witty irreverent sculptures provoked intimacy between visitors as they encouraged each other to pose for photos.

I was unsure about whether the conveyor belt experience of a biennale was really going to offer the gutsy experience I was looking for. It bettered all my expectations, and I can guarantee my presence there in two years time. Note to self – brush up on my appalling/non-existent Italian before 2011. reprint  axisweb