Hubbub and Stillness: The 2009 Venice Biennale

Hubbub and Stillness: The 2009 Venice Biennale

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[W]hat’s the problem? Clearly, the form of the mega-exhibition. The complaints are legion, and all in their way justified. The exhibitions have become too big, too crowded, too hectic; instead of qualitatively sifting the masses of art being produced, they simply follow a more or less arbitrary selection schema and toss the results back at the public to sort through. For many, the ne plus ultra of this tendency was Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany, in 2002, curated by Okwui Enwezor. Thanks to its emphasis on video, the “650,000 visitors [who] came to appraise around 450 artworks on a surface area of 13,000 square metres” (according to the Documenta website) often left wondering if they could have sat through all that footage even if they’d stayed the whole hundred days of the exhibition. Of course, these complaints have been common since before the big exhibitions became as big as they are now, and well before the advent of “time-based art” (or, as I am tempted to rename it, time-consuming art).

Even allowing for a curated portion that has been much scaled back since 2003, one could not see the entirety of the Biennale without devoting a couple of weeks to the task. Whether anyone ever actually does so, I doubt. To say this is not merely to make a point about the practicalities of the visit. Because each country chooses the art in its pavilion internally, the differences among them amount to a practical demonstration of the multiplicity of perspectives in the burgeoning international art world. This doesn’t mean, of course, that a given country represents a particular perspective on art, or that there is a particular international perspective–art is contentious everywhere, but the ideas under contention vary sufficiently that even well-informed viewers are liable to misunderstand (and to dismiss as naïve and outdated, or as slick and facile) work that emerges from unfamiliar contexts. From within the contemporary international art world, one can have the impression that everything is converging into a sort of aesthetic pensée unique. But to wander among the national pavilions in Venice is to be forcibly reminded that if such a convergence is occurring, it is happening very unevenly. While many of the smaller countries make every effort to present up-to-date forms of installation art, video and whatnot, others choose to ignore these forms altogether.

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