The Biennale effect
The 57th Venice Biennale opens this week, its central exhibition curated by Christine Marcel, of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Founded in 1895, initially, as a celebration of an Italian royal wedding anniversary, it has become an international survey of the state of art and thinking around it. Though biennials have and continue to proliferate - the Biennial Foundation lists just shy of 200 on its website - Venice is still arguably the most important, definitive, contemporary art event.
So, what does the 2017 edition say about the state of the art world? One striking early impression comes courtesy of the venerable French commentator Judith Benhamou-Huet, who characterized one message of Marcel’s exhibition as ‘the should not have to be a slave to his work’, noting in particular one of the 900 works in the exhibition as a photograph of the famous German sculptor Franz West, asleep on a sofa which he designed.
Perhaps viewing the Biennale as an assertion of the artist's right to lassitude explains Benhamou-Huet’s comments that the Biennale is ‘unequivocally anti-commercial’ and ‘anti-art market’. But are the models of non-profit exhibition and the forums of the art market really so separable?
Given the timing of international art fairs such as Art Basel, which traditionally opens in June, the month following Venice’s vernissage, an art world credo was for a long time “See in Venice, buy at Basel”. Aka: top tier collectors - and the galleries who cater to them - could use Venice as a kind of prestigious shop window, a preview of sorts, before the summer’s economic activity.
Whether in the central exhibition curated by Marcel, or in one of the national pavilions, which are located in the Giardini surrounding the central exhibition space, or the ever increasing number of off-site pavilions in temporarily rented palazzi across the city (which this year includes relatively under-represented art scenes like Andorra, Antigua & Barbadu, and Kiribati as well as a Diaspora Platform dedicated to the transient, mobile populations of the world) — the long-term benefit of the exposure and prominence granted by an artist’s inclusion in the Biennale is such that commercial galleries with long-standing ties to their artists will often contribute to the production and shipping costs (as well as collateral events such as celebratory dinners and receptions) incurred by their artist’s participation. Such arrangements are rarely explicitly signaled, but the fact that art - wherever it appears - is potentially for sale to those with the right contacts and accommodating pockets explains why collectors, patrons and gallerists swarm La Serenissima, and not just curators and art lovers, looking to take the pulse of the times.
To some extent, it’s all a matter of timing. At the last Biennale, in 2014, industry record The Art Newspaper quoted one art adviser as observing sales taking place at the Biennale’s opening gate. That year, the opening week of Venice preceded Frieze New York, meaning the usual dictum was flipped - ‘See in Venice, Buy at Frieze New York?’ asked the same publication’s front page on the fair’s opening day edition, noting the presence in the fair of works by participating artists from Katharina Grosse, Joan Jonas, Isaac Julien and Kara Walker, among many others.
This year, Frieze New York closed just days before the Biennale kicked off, meaning hundreds of curators, collectors, artists and art lovers took off from Randall’s Island Park (where the fair is located) and immediately set their sights on Venice. Among them is Cecilia Alemani, who as well as being Director of High Line Art in New York, is Curator of Frieze Projects New York, overseeing three new site-specific commissions at the fair as well as an historical Tribute. But this year she has another project to attend to - curating the Italian Pavilion at the Biennale. Alemani is no stranger to biennials - her partner, Massimiliano Gioni of New York’s New Museum - curated the much-acclaimed 55th Biennale, in 2013. But this is her first official involvement in Venice. She intends to break with tradition, she tells me, eschewing the multigenerational survey which is typical for this nation’s participation for a tightly-focused show of three Italian artists from a similar generation to Alemani herself - Roberto Cuoghi, Adelita Husni-Bey, and Giorgio Andreotta Calò, each working with ideas of magic and enchantment as a response to crisis.
Alemani has worked with the last of these artists, Andreotta Calò, at Frieze New York itself - in 2016, she commissioned from him an audio work for the Frieze Sounds program, supported by BMW and played in their fleet of cars that service the fair. It makes sense to start working with an artist in Frieze Projects, Alemani says, before going on to another collaboration since the fair functions as a kind of laboratory: an ideal setting for a dry run. “There are certain institutional boundaries which don’t apply in the fair”, Alemani says. “And it helps free the artists if works are not being made for immediate sale”; the entire Frieze Projects programme is funded on a not-for-profit basis, she notes - projects like this year’s performance of “cinematic doubling” (which saw Leonardo DiCaprio impersonators in character wandering the fair), would be not be acquirable even by the most dedicated collector.
So, if Venice is not free from commerce, nor is Frieze New York without its pockets of insulation from the market, and as examples like Alemani’s work with Andreotta Calò demonstrate, key figures switch from one context to another with ease. Instead of seeing biennials and art fairs as two separate or opposed domains, we might view them instead as distinct but complimentary models which participate in the same global currents of discussion and exchange. It should then come as no surprise that Frieze New York 2017 offered many opportunities to see the work of artists also featured in Venice. These ranged from emerging and mid-career figures like Vietnam-born, France-based Thu Van Tran, who was given a solo presentation of her assemblage-sculptures probing constructions of ethnic-identity and outsider-ness at the fair by Brussels' Meessen De Clerq - to more veteran practitioners like 63-year old Kiki Smith, who has contributed a whole room of works on Nepalese paper to the central exhibition, and a large work on paper which was proudly displayed on the outside wall of the stand of Galleria Lorcan O’Neill. The Swiss-American sculptor Carol Bove (who is representing Switzerland in the Giardini) had new sculptures on the stand of David Zwirner (paired with photographs by William Eggleston), as well SculptureCenter, a beloved New York non-profit who were given a stand on the fair to raise funds via the sale of works like Bove’s. Olafur Eliasson is another participant in Marcel’s main exhibition at Venice, and at Tanya Bonakdar visitors could see a new sculpture by the Icelandic artist making its public debut at the fair - a departure for Eliasson, it was formed of glass globes in concentric circles, tinted in differing degrees to resemble planetary cycles: a luminous image of cosmic harmony.
Among the more experimental, emerging artists, a New York-based gallery took the opportunity to showcase a project by Dawn Kaspar, whose contribution to Venice - The Sun, The Moon, and The Stars (2017) - will see the artist spend six months in a temporary work space she has set up inside the Biennale’s main pavilion, playing music, talking to visitors and, according to one report, occasionally tolling with an axe. At the fair, Lewis gave the artist a similar free-rein: the stand was transformed into an active laboratory for the artist at select appearances, and strewn with the artful detritus of her activities the rest of the week. There was a live element to another of Marcel’s selected artists, Anri Sala, whose installation of self-playing drum kits was a sparse but striking solo presentation by Marian Goodman Gallery. The drums played a track made by the artist that joins bridges from popular songs. Sala, who spoke at the fair as part of the Frieze Talks programme curated by CCS Bard’s Tom Eccles, spoke of bridges as ‘underdogs’ of song, here elevated to the status of temporary destinations.
Another Biennale artist working with sound is Samson Young, who is representing Hong Kong this year. His work, in the form of a striking installation involving neon light and text shown at Galerie Gisela Capitain. Though still a relatively “young” artist, he is no newcomer to Frieze, having been commissioned to make a “sound walk” for Frieze London 2016 as part of that fair’s parallel non-profit programme, this one curated by Raphael Gygax of Zurich’s Migros Museum. Gygax’s program also included a new film commission from Rachel Maclean, who is representing Scotland at this year’s Biennale. Other Frieze Projects alumni with a role to play in Venice this month include Koki Tanaka, who was commissioned by Alemani in 2014, and was selected as Deutsche Bank’s Artist of the Year for 2015. Additional key artists showing in Venice from Deutsche Bank’s Collection include Kemang Wa Lehulere, our current Artist of the Year, in the Future Art Prize; Sharon Lockhart, whose art is shown in the Polish pavilion; and Erwin Wurm in the Austrian pavilion.Also exhibiting work alongside Koki Tanaka in the Viva Arte Viva exhibition are Ernesto Neto, Frank West, Petrit Halilaj, Gabriel Orozco, Agnieszka Polska, Mariechen Danz, Frances Stark, Achraf Touloub and Franz Erhard Walther, which illustrates the broad range of the collection Deutsche Bank owns.
Fairs can, just as biennials are widely understood to, provide a platform for bringing attention to promising and emerging talents. Jens Hoffman, Director of Special Exhibitions and Public Programmes at New York’s Jewish Museum, and the curator of biennials in Shanghai (2012) Istanbul (2011) and Lyon (2007), suggests that “it could be argued that biennials have lost their function as places to discover art as it was traditionally the case” in some part simply through the increasing ubiquity of art fairs (“I counted more than two hundred of them in 2016”, Hoffman told me).
But discovery is not only some young man’s game. Romania is represented at the Biennale this year by the 91-year-old artist, Geta Brătescu, whose command of drawing, photography, film and performance is complimented by her masterful textile sculptures, several of which were displayed at Frieze New York 2017 by Ivan Gallery. The central exhibition in Venice will contain work by Irma Blank, an 83-year-old Italian practitioner of a kind of concrete poetry, who was exhibited at Frieze New York by P420 in the Spotlight section. This part of the fair, curated by Toby Kamps of the Menil collection, is dedicated to little known or under-represented historical positions. It is often a place in which curators make discoveries - Huguette Caland, and the late Heidi Bucher - both included in Marcel’s exhibition this year - have previously been presented in the Spotlight section at the Frieze Masters fair in London. Alemani notes that some biennials exhibit a stronger and stronger presence of historical figures “the so called “overlooked artists’” - but sees the commonality as less a matter of one model learning from another as both responding to a need for change. “Both biennials and art fairs have been around for decades - that need to refresh is in both of their DNA”, she says.
With all these points of contact, repetition and resonance between this year’s Biennale and Frieze New York, and the interconnectedness of the art world which both this arguably reflects, it is easy to forget that the art world is not monolithic: that audiences are various. Jo Stella-Sawicka, Artistic Director of Frieze, notes that however “glocal” the art world seems, even some of the most dedicated collectors and curators - precisely because of their dedication (or the work that enables it) - have to be selective with their time. “Not everyone at Frieze New York will be going to Venice”, she notes. “Part of what makes it so special when galleries at the fair show work connected to the Biennale or other biennials”, she says, “it that it gives audiences a glimpse of what they otherwise would miss”. Less a preview, then, and a more of a consolation.
Not everyone in the art world is so sanguine about the overlaps between events. The Art Newspaper quoted the dealer Thaddeus Ropac as saying that the “integrity” of curated events made it improper to link commercial efforts for them. Hoffman - though a self-confessed “art fair addict” - talks about the potential for fatigue in the increasing numbers of both fairs and biennials. Perhaps we might adapt the Buddhist Koan: Wherever You Go, There Art Is. Still, Hoffman, told Frieze in 2016: "missing the key fairs each year would be like missing a Champions League final between Real Madrid and Manchester United." The same must be true for Venice this year, as well. If you’re going to watch the game, get a front row seat.
Author: Matthew McLean
Photo credits: Mark Blower/Frieze, Alessandra Sofia, Frieze