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Published 02/01/2008 email E-MAIL print PRINT

The 52nd Venice Biennale

The 52nd Venice Biennale ended on 21 November 2007. It will have presented an enormous challenge to all those responsible for its dismantling, because it was certainly memorable for its overwhelming scale and complexity. It spread its physical presence far and wide, far from 'I Giardini', where it was first located in its earliest years as a complex of pavilions in a gardenscape affording panoramic views of the Venetian Lagoon, encompassing the Lido, the Isola di san Giorgio, the Giudecca and the Grand Canal.

The 2007 version of the Biennale suggested that the nodal point of the Biennale had moved from the Giardini's tree-lined environment to the distinctly urban setting of the Arsenale, a historic dockland where the navy of the Doge was built and maintained.

The title of this year's Biennale took the form of an exhortation: 'Think with the Senses - Feel with the Mind in the Present Tense'. Robert Storr, the American art historian, as the Biennale's director, wrote an essay as his introduction to the Biennale catalogue in the form of a most useful short guide. This contained these two significant sentences: 'While the show looks forward, it does not look back. No attempt is made to trace genealogies or construct a new canon - and none at all to compete with art fairs or handicap the market'. It should be noted that in the short guide, 11 of its 82 pages are devoted to adverts and the page preceding Robert Storr's introductory essay shows a map of Europe under the title 'The Grand Tour'. This links the Venice Biennale with the 38th Basel Art Fair, the 12th Documenta exhibition in Kassel and the Munster Sculpture Project.

These are four coinciding major events in the 2007 art world calendar. An accompanying text reassures the reader of the fact that the Biennale ' ... started a dialogue about the institutions' respective organisations and working methods, producing also a joint website for their visitors in the summer of contemporary art which happens once every ten years'. This advertisement highlights its website (www.grandtour2007.com). It reveals in no uncertain terms that the 2007 Venice Biennale is part of a much bigger picture, dominated by the international art world's capacity to relish the all powerful and now-dominant market forces, made manifest in the concept of international art fairs linked to the burgeoning world of auction houses dealing with contemporary art. The sad proof of this was made clearly evident by their inescapable presence on the Giudecca for the first time of a Venice Biennale International Art Fair.

Davide Croft, as President of the Venice Biennale Foundation, wrote an introductory essay to accompany that of Robert Storr. Davide Croft referred in his essay to the strategy employed by Robert Storr which gave Turkey its own national pavilion and added an exhibition representing African contemporary artists. He saw this strategy emphasising the global nature of the Biennale with a record number of over 70 participating countries, which included for the first time Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Moldova, Mexico and Lebanon. He expressed his support for the concept of the Biennale extending its presence into 'the whole of Venice', including the islands of San Servolo, San Lazzaro degli Armeni and Sant'Erasmo.

Among the many countries now infiltrating their presence into the labyrinthine world of Venetian alleyways and small canals were Scotland, Wales and Ireland (linking the Irish Republic with Northern Ireland). You had to make a special physical effort to relate them to the 'British Pavilion' in the heart of 'I Giardini'. The effort was rewarding because it revealed the wide-ranging nature of the ways in which contemporary art is now evident throughout the British Isles. Tracey Emin was given the responsibility to fill every room of the British Pavilion. She revealed her capacity to personify the all-powerful role now played by the London art world and at the same time to express her vulnerability as a human being, surviving the trials and tribulations of the contemporary urban art scene in which the words 'success' and 'celebrity' are all too dominant.

Scotland's pavilion was located in the Palazzo Zenobia, Cellegio Armeno Moorat Raphael in the Fondamenta del Soccorso in the historic district of the Dorsoduro. The Scottish exhibition consisted of the work, mostly small-scale, of six artists who for the third successive Biennale could be referred to as Scotland's 'emerging artists'. This year, they were Charles Avery, Henry Coombes, Louis Hopkins, Rosalind Nashashibi, Lucy Skaer and Tony Swain.

They were recent graduates of Scotland's art schools, with Glasgow School of Art predominating. Together, they expressed a world of shifting states of reality and an uncertain future.

The exhibition was presented under the aegis of the Scottish Arts Council, the British Council in Scotland and the National Galleries of Scotland. The funding from these official sources was in marked contrast to that available to the exhibition presented at the Scottish Pavilion located in close proximity to the British Pavilion in 1990. This exhibition presented three Scottish artists, David Mach, Arthur Watson and Kate Whiteford, under the aegis of The Scottish Sculpture Trust and The Demarco Gallery on a small budget, which proved that an effective national contribution can be made to the official Biennale programme by sheer effort of will.

At the three-day symposium entitled 'Venice Agendas' presented by Wimbledon School of Art in collaboration with the art schools of Cardiff and Dundee at the Metropole Hotel, Robert Storr was given the opportunity to speak at length on his views of the Biennale's future in an uncertain and fast-changing art-world climate. His views were questioned and clarified by the likes of Bill Furlong and Mel Gooding, two stalwarts of the Venice Agendas, who in fact initiated this most welcome addition to the Biennale experience in recent years.

Robert Storr was the first American to direct the Biennale. Listening to him at the Venice Agendas gave me the opportunity to compare his concept of the Biennale with the concept which controlled the two successive Biennales directed by Harald Szeemann in 2001 and 2003. Harald Szeemann was the first non-Italian Biennale director and the only one to be invited to make his mark twice in succession. On 23 December 2003, he wrote me a short letter which I took as good advice when I was involved in the possibility of the Edinburgh Festival having a section devoted to an exhibition programme inspired by the success of the Venice Biennale. He wrote: 'I see you continue to have intense discussions for your Festival - modelled on which Biennale, 2001 or 2003? I hope you make a Celtic Festival - no globalisation without roots!!' The mark made by Harald Szeemann gave me hope for the Biennale's long-term future. Can I entertain such a hope for the Biennale after its undoubted success in 2007? Harald Szeemann's directorship held in check all too expansive plans to encourage the Biennale's physical enlargement. Now, the mark made by Robert Storr this year causes me to question the Biennale's future, with its power to threaten and overwhelm the vulnerable small-scale physical reality of Venice with art that for the most part tends to ignore the message which Venice itself proclaims of an incomparable, life-enhancing man-made beauty.

There were all too few national pavilions and contributions by individual artists making a special effort to acknowledge the fact that any manifestation of art experienced within the context of Venice as a gigantic 'Gesamtkunstwerk' is bound to be judged misplaced and inadequate unless it is made from the highest and most noble aspirations in harmony with the scale and the stuff and substance of 'The stones of Venice'. I must say that Joseph Kosuth managed to achieve this with his thought-provoking and exquisitely beautiful 'light' installation that paid due respect to the history and significance of the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni.

Richard DeMarco



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