Friday, August 21, 2009

MGA goes to Venice

I have taken leave from my position as MGA's Gallery and Curatorial Assistant to spend six weeks working for the Australia Council for the Arts as an Exhibition Attendant at the 2009 Venice Biennale.
The Venice Biennale is an important international contemporary art event and literally takes over the city of Venice. For the full six months of the event, contemporary art can be found in churches, palaces, schools and even the Grand Canal.
There are three sections of the Venice Biennale. These include a major exhibition, this year curated by Daniel Birnbaum, which is held in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in the Giardini della Biennale and the Arsenale; national representations chosen by participating countries and held in the countries' permanent pavilions in the Giardini or in other sites around Venice; and collateral events, which are exhibitions held to coincide with the Biennale. This year there are a record 77 participating countries.
Australia has had its own permanent pavilion in the Giardini since 1988. This year Australia has sent contemporary artist, Shaun Gladwell to represent the country in the Australian pavilion.
Gladwell's exhibition, MADDESTMAXIMVS, combines a variety of video works, which primarily show Gladwell interacting with the Australian landscape. Alongside the video works, Gladwell has displayed objects used in his videos and these have become artworks in their own right. Gladwell's works are filled with references to art history as well as cinema and contemporary culture.
Gladwell has transformed the Australian pavilion into a dark cave. Its usually white exterior has been blacked out and its usually light filled interior is lit only by plasma screens, projectors, a wall of neon lights illuminating Infinite pentimento 2009 and a light box displaying his work, Absolute event horizon 2009, a series of objects used in his video work, Planet and stars sequence: Barrier Highway, 2009.
Gladwell has even changed the T in the Australia on the front of the pavilion to make it look like a lightening bolt.
Outside the Australian pavilion is a black car, a direct replica of the V8 Interceptor from George Miller's Mad Max films. This car is used by Gladwell in his video work, Interceptor surf sequence 2009, which is on display inside the pavilion on a double-sided screen suspended over the staircase. The work shows the V8 Interceptor driving through the Australian desert. As the car drives down a red dusty road a helmeted figure dressed in black gradually emerges out of the car window and climbs onto the roof standing upright. The performance is the same on each side of the screen; however, while on one side the sky is clear blue, on the other it is grey and stormy. In this work Gladwell focuses on man in the Australian landscape and makes reference to Sidney Nolan's depictions of Ned Kelly, the character of Mad Max and Casper David Fredrick's depictions of man in the sublime landscape.
Visitors may also notice a motorbike wedged into the side wall of the pavilion with most of it outside and a fraction of the front wheel poking through the inside. This bike was used in Gladwell's video work, Apology to roadkill 1—6, which is projected on a large screen upstairs in the pavilion. In this work, Gladwell pulls up on the side of a desert highway, steps off his motorbike, picks up a dead kangaroo and nurses it in his arms. The video shows this performance six times with six different road-killed kangaroos. Presented in slow motion, this work captivates and intrigues visitors and is often singled out as a favourite. This work makes reference to Joseph Beuys's performance, How to explain pictures to a dead hare.
Australia has also organised another exhibition that is on show at the Venice Biennale. Curated by Felicity Fenner, Once removed is an exhibition showing three installations by four Australian contemporary artists all referring to aspects of place and displacement. This exhibition is located between the Giardini della Biennale and the Arsenale, the two major sites of the Biennale. It is housed in an old convent, which is now known as the Ludoteca, a type of play centre with games for children.
In the chapel of the Ludoteca is a site-specific installation by Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro, Life span 2009. This work comprises 175,218 VHS video cassettes arranged to form a solid block. The combined running time of these tapes, if watched one after the other, would be 60.1 years, the average human life span in 1976, the year that the VHS was released. The mass of videos has aesthetic formal qualities and resembles a minimalist sculpture. It was made to the same dimensions as the ceiling fresco above it and so if it were to reach the ceiling it would directly fit around the fresco.
In the next room of Once removed, is Cant Chant (Wegrewhere) 2007-2009 by Vernon Ah Kee. Ah Kee draws on his Indigenous heritage when creating his works and for this installation has suspended surfboards from the ceiling. One side of the surfboards is decorated with his family's traditional shield pattern and the other shows fragments of drawings of his ancestors. The surfboards are hung in front of walls filled with text and are then seen being used by three Aboriginals in the video component of this installation. The video creates a story about Aboriginal surfers reclaiming one of Australia's most populated beaches.
The final installation in Once removed is Sweet Barrier Reef 2005 by Ken Yonetani. This is a floor-based installation made entirely of white sugar. It comprises sculptures of coral made into a garden inspired by Japanese Zen gardens. It is a futuristic depiction of the Great Barrier Reef, bleached by the pollution from industries such as the sugar industry.
While not a comprehensive description of the Australian exhibitions at this year's Venice Biennale, I hope this has provided some insight into the exhibitions Australia has exported to Venice. For further information on these exhibitions, please visit:
I have not yet seen all of the pavilions and exhibitions at the Biennale but so far highlights for me, outside of the Australian exhibitions, have been Zilvinas Kempinas at the Lithuanian pavilion, Krzystztof Wodiczko at the Polish pavilion, Fiona Tan at the Dutch pavilion, The collectors at the Danish and Nordic pavilion and Victory over future at the Russian pavilion.
I have also enjoyed collateral exhibitions including the Francios Pinault Collection at Palazzo Grassi and Punta Della Dogana as well as In-finitum at Museo Fortuny and Unconditional love at the Arsenale.
In terms of photography, there is not a great deal at this year's Biennale. However, there is a very interesting photographic exhibition by Korean artist, Atta Kim. Kim's project, ON-AIR is on diplay at Palazzo Zenobio until 22 November. I really enjoyed discovering this work. For information on this exhibition, see press release:

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