Venice Biennale

June 12, 2013

While summer in Muscat is in full swing, and exhibition season in Oman has come to an end, European art markets have absolutely no intention of slowing down. If you happen to be in Italy this summer, try to make a short trip to Venice to see the hottest art event of this year, the Venice Biennale 2013. The 55th edition of the art world’s largest international festival, which takes place once every two years, opened on June 1 and runs until November. You will discover that all these years you’ve been missing out on the most glamorous art party being held in the most beautiful city in Europe.

Unlike Frieze, Art Basel (opening tomorrow), or any other big international art fairs, the Venice Biennale is non-commercial. The art is for show, not for sale (officially at least), and multiple pavilions are represented by countries, not galleries.

It’s quite disappointing to know that Oman is not part of this mega event and never has been. Eighty-eight countries are participating this year. Among them there are ten newcomers: Angola, the Bahamas, Bahrain, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Kuwait, the Maldives, Paraguay, Tuvalu, and the Holy See. Almost every country in the world presents its most interesting and controversial artists, trying to surprise the visitors with the unexpected. It’s all about national pride, but in most of the cases, the artists selected to represent their homelands dismantle the old-fashioned ideas about their national identity.

One of the main attractions of the Venice Biennale is a dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s installation Bang, a tangle of 886 three-legged wooden stools, which is on show in the German pavilion. I don’t know if Ai has run out of ideas or has been under house arrest in China for too long, but he obviously didn’t have a chance to see a very similar, if not a better installation by Tadashi Kawamata in Abu Dhabi Art last year. The striking installation of hundreds of chairs stacked on top of each other, creating a cave within the Manarat al Saadiyat building in Abu Dhabi, was inspired by the Emirati custom of sitting on the floor. To me, Ai Weiwei didn’t create anything new. Currently the most celebrated artist in the world, he still remains remarkably untouched by even a spark of imagination, and his idea of piling up objects (sunflower seeds, crabs, bicycles, chairs) is becoming annoyingly repetitive.

The Spanish pavilion opted for a load of rubble this year. The curator of the installation says that the artist’s work explores “the boundary between urban regeneration and decay”. Whichever way I look at it, it’s still a load of rubble.

The Russians, ever so predictable, made it rain gold coins on people holding see-through umbrellas. I don’t know what kind of message they are trying to deliver, but if it doesn’t rain gold in your country, go to Russia. They don’t know what to do with their money, they started throwing it away.
South African pavilion will probably shake you a bit with ‘down-to-earth’ artworks that have a refreshing honesty and directness. Zanele Muholi spent a decade photographing black lesbians in the country, and the photographs on display will give you a glimpse into the lives of women who are often erased in history.

My personal favourite is the spices installation in the Latin American pavilion entitled Campo de color (Colour Field) by the Bolivian artist Sonia Falcone. Sonia covered the floor with hundreds of clay pots filled with cocoa, cayenne, chili, pepper, cinnamon, turmeric, thyme, mustard, curry, paprika and other spices to create a minimalist composition in the field style. It spreads out like a colourful landscape of sensations and provokes different perceptions. It makes you want to look at it, touch it, smell it, taste it, and simply admire it.

Contemporary art is a big business these days, and Venice Biennale is a good place to see the very best and worst of it. Pavilion after pavilion contains sculptures, paintings, and installations that have absolutely no connection with the history of art, and, in some cases, cannot be called art at all. And that’s exactly what the Brazilian artist Fabio di Ojuara was trying to say in his street art performance. His toilet humour raised a few eyebrows. He was outside the pavilions wandering the streets of the Biennale in Adam’s costume with the toilet seat for a necklace. The toilet seat had a sign on it: “Now every shit is art.” Is it? I suppose you have to visit the Biennale to decide for yourself.