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The treasures of the world in Venice, 2013

— August 2013

Associated media

Sonia Falcone, Campo de Color, in the ILLA-Latin American pavilion, El Atlas del Imperio at the 2013 Venice Biennale. Photo: Michal Fornalczyk

In the final part of their report on the Venice Biennale, Basia Sliwinska and Michal Fornalczyk go in search of the show’s ‘treasures’

Venice Biennale is all about ‘treasure seeking’. One can stumble against unexpectedly subtle pieces, awakening the senses, in many of the official pavilions. I was mesmerized by a multicoloured spice landscapeby Bolivian artist Sonia Falcone in the Latin American pavilion. It was galvanizing and awoke in me a sense of positive joy in discovering different smells captured in myriad clay pots filled with multicoloured powders with aromas of chilli, paprika, cocoa, cinnamon, thyme, turmeric and many other spices, all imposing their fragrances on the viewer. The installation was ‘an archive of the palate of the world’, symbolizing the daily importance of tasting and flavour. It also reminded one of the Old and the New Worlds, brought together through commercial trade routes, which at times restructured the geopolitical landscape of the world. The installation awoke the sense of smell but the intense colours of the spices also excited the eye. Falcone refers to the French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud (b.1965), who looks at globalization from an aesthetic perspective.

The Korean ambient installationTo Breathe: Bottari(‘bottari’ means ‘bundle’ in Korean) invited us to contemplate and question notions of space and time. The artist, Kimsooja (b. 1957), wrapped the entire internal space of the pavilion with a translucent film. The light and colour were diffracted and reflected onto the walls and floor, creating fluctuating rainbows. The interior was filled with the sound of the artist’s breath, inhaling and exhaling. What was seen was contrasted with the unseen represented by an anechoic chamber – where all sound is absorbed by the structure – cast in darkness and devoid of sound. The interior became a living space, where poles of visual knowledge and what was hidden from the sight were contrasted and challenged.

One of the newcomers to Venice, Kosovo, was represented by Petrit Halilaj, who knitted twigs, mud, soil and branches brought from his homeland into a giant, lyrical bird’s nest. One could enter the structure and breath the scent of soil, peering through a small hole into a space, which became a home for the artist’s canaries. It also featured a dress that belonged to Halilaj’s mother.

There were a number of different kinds of tree showcased in the pavilions, starting from the Latvian pavilion, where a huge tree suspended from the ceiling swung like a pendulum. There was a felled tree by Berlinde de Bruyckere in the Belgian pavilion. Terike Haapoja transformed the Nordic pavilion into ‘pavilion of the species’, focusing on nature and what is non-human.

Alfredo Jaar created a miniature model of the Giardini for the Chilean pavilion and made it sink in a green pool of water and then resurface in an endless cycle. The audience was forced to watch national pavilions disappear in water to be raised up again. They became witnesses contemplating the nature of globalism. Jaar uses water as his visual agent, which acts as a mirror with surfaces in constant flux.

The first-ever pavilion of the Bahamas surprised me. It was both spellbinding and calming. Tavares Strachan’s Polar Eclipse meditated on the world of the North Pole with its whiteness, ice and shifting cultural ideologies. It re-enacted the 1909 polar expedition of Robert Peary and Matthew Alexander Henson, the latter believed to be the first American to reach the Pole. Strachan created a culturally hybrid space filled with the sound of ‘ayaya’, a song from Inupiaq folk tradition sung by 40 schoolchildren in Nassau. The song expresses individuality but it also creates an intergenerational bond between communities and, in the context of the Biennale, cultures. The space of the pavilion was filled with a levitating Inuit figure, video works and neon sculptures, which addressed the nuanced shifts in cultures and histories over space and time in the wake of globalization.

Joana Vasconcelos Trafaria Praia, a decommissioned passenger ferry boat transformed into an idealistic deterritorialized location, was enthralling. It sailed from Lisbon to Venice and offered the visitors excursions around Venice. Vasconcelos addresses the historical relationship between Italy and Portugal by focusing on three shared aspects: the vessel, water and navigation. At the same time, the boat became her artwork. Its exterior was covered with large panels of ‘azulejos’, Portuguese hand-painted ceramic tiles depicting views of the Lisbon skyline. The interior was transformed into a light and textiles installation with tones of whites and blues, which enveloped the visitor in a womb-like environment suggesting an underwater world. It was a sensorial wonderland leading to the deck of the boat, where events debating Portuguese culture are hosted. 

Finally, Vadim Zakharov, showing in the Russian pavilion, provokingly claims only women can save the world from corruption. He restaged the Greek myth of Danaë, who was imprisoned in a subterranean chamber after her father heard a prophecy that he would be killed by her son. She was still impregnated by Zeus, who took the form of a shower of gold, and gave birth to their son, Perseus. Zakharov’s installation restaged the myth as a multilayered image in the present culture. It was split over two levels. The main floor was governed by men, greed, power and corruption. On the entrance, a smartly dressed oligarch rode above the visitors, saddled on a beam, eating peanuts and casting the shells on the worthless masses below. In the middle room, cascades of golden coins rained down into the lower floor, which was a zone destined for women only. In the third room a suited man hauled the coins up in a bucket and returned them to a conveyor belt feeding the shower. The two holes, one through which the gold coins showered down and the other through which they were hauled up, were the only points of communication between the two levels.

The cycle was endless unless women visitors, who were offered umbrellas to protect themselves from the shower of golden coins, refused to collect the coins and return them to the bucket. Zakharov targets Putin’s regime but also the audience, who keep the spectacle alive and so continue the vicious cycle of corruption and greed.

The 55th Venice Biennale can be best summarized in Zakharov’s words, ‘Protect yourselves! You are about to enter a danger zone at your own risk!’ This zone, even if sometimes too obvious or not too innovative, is still enjoyable.

In the end, this is Venice, with its breathtaking views and delicious gelati!


Basia Sliwinska
School of Art and Design, Middlesex University.

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