Heddy Abramowitz
Artist Living in the Eye of the Storm

Art Island: The Venice Biennale 2013

Screens of videos from "The Enclave" 2013 by Richard Mosse, video, photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Screens of videos from "The Enclave" 2013 by Richard Mosse, video, photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman

Now hopping from a fledgling biennale in Jerusalem discussed here to the mother-ship of all biennales, this post focuses on art in the wider world.

Exterior, Israeli Pavilion, photo by: Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Exterior, Israeli Pavilion, photo by: Ahuva Passow-Whitman

Since opportunity struck in the manner of an astute colleague visiting the famous Venice art extravaganza, it is with great pleasure that I have invited guest blogger, curator Ahuva Passow-Whitman, to share her impressions of the Venice Biennale 2013.

One of the recurring issues I have noted throughout Israeli art history and which continues to echo today, is the dissonance between those who wish to emphasize the particularity of national identity as opposed to those seeking to flatten such differences and emphasize the commonalities with all peoples everywhere.

This tension also is reflected in the Venice exhibitions and is just one of the observations Passow-Whitman notes from her dive into the dense art waters of the famous lagoon. An expert in both Israeli Art and art history, she gives us her highlights of the Biennale and context for the Israeli presentation, as follows:

“WATER, WATER-AND ART- EVERYWHERE: Impressions of the 55th Venice Biennale”  by Ahuva Passow-Whitman

The Venice Biennale, established in 1895 as a venue for contemporary art, began its life in a beautiful park on the outskirts of Venice known as the Giardini, which are now organized into 30 national pavilions and one very large central pavilion which houses the main themed exhibition. Later, the Arsenale, once a warehouse to the Venetian fleet, joined as an additional large exhibition space.

Today, the Biennale has grown so much that it has literally invaded the city in every available space. One can hardly walk anywhere within Venice without coming across yet another “collateral” show, as these are known. The buildings used range from deconsecrated churches to empty medieval palaces through educational institutions. Peeking in these spaces can be as much or more of a draw than the art exhibited, so says a Venetian friend, since many are otherwise closed to the public. Another advantage is that they are free, whereas the Giardini and Arsenale charge hefty entrance fees.

I have been fortunate to attend every Biennale since 1997 and able to follow many of the trends in modern art, in what is clearly, the “greatest (in the sense of biggest), non-commercial art show on earth.” Of course, there are both advantages and disadvantages to this mega production being in Venice.  The magic of Venice and its vast art treasures invite inevitable comparisons.

Out of national solidarity and curiosity my first stop is always the Israeli Pavilion. Established in 1952, designed by Zeev Rechter, it is a very odd- shaped building and is divided into three equally odd- shaped floors. In the past there have been some excellent shows (Michal Rovner, Yehudit Sasportas, Sigalit Landau), some interesting ones (Guy Ben-Ner) and some strange choices (Rafi Lavie).

Heads on Stands from "Workshop" 2013 by Gilad Ratman, mixed media.  Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Heads on Stands from “Workshop” 2013 by Gilad Ratman, mixed media. Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman

This year Gilad Ratman (born 1975) represented Israel in Venice. Like so many other artists today, video was his main choice of medium and he created a piece which is called “The Workshop” which spreads out over the pavilion. It is meant to show the progress of a group of his friends from caves in northern Israel, through the earth, as it were, arriving through a hole, ostensibly dug in the floor of the pavilion itself. This group created clay heads in which microphones were placed, making unintelligible sounds and are exhibited on wooden stands dispersed in the space. Their creation is also documented in a video. The main video screen seen at the entrance shows the artist playing on a synthesizer (which itself is placed next to the screen), beating out very loud trance music.

There is basically no explanation to all of this; you have to try and figure out the progress of the group and the meanings of all these sounds. I found it rather amateurish and, frankly, unsettling. This is not the first time that video works cause that sensation; it seemed more like MTV clips put together than a coherent, complete work of art. I feel that there are far better artists on the Israeli scene who could have been chosen to represent the immense creativity we enjoy here.

Compared to the Great Britain pavilion, the Israeli entry came up even shorter. “English Magic,” an immense and varied work by Turner Prize winner, Jeremy Deller, also used videos and music as parts of its many elements. But what a difference! The main video, starting with a slow motion flight of a rare Harrier, sets the mood for a hypnotizing aura. In contrast to Ratman’s work, the music pulls you in, rather than pushes you away.

Stonehenge video from "English Magic" 2013 by Jeremy Deller, mixed media. Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Stonehenge video from “English Magic” 2013 by Jeremy Deller, mixed media. Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman

One of the most charming scenes shows a huge inflatable trampoline showing a mock up of Stonehenge, also made of giant inflated balloons. As a group of children happily jump on the central area, Stonehenge collapses before your eyes. While entertaining in itself, another layer of meaning could be a darker message warning about the future of Britain.

Tea sign from "English Magic" 2013 by Jeremy Deller, mixed media. Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Tea sign from “English Magic” 2013 by Jeremy Deller, mixed media. Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman

Additionally, the pavilion shows various aspects of English life and culture in many unexpected ways, including one of the rooms simply called “Tea,” in which every visitor could partake of a (free) cuppa, sit down, rest and relax and contemplate the moment in the midst of an intense artistic visit. In our globalized era, it is actually quite refreshing to see a pavilion that celebrates its national character rather than succumbing to the trend to homogenizing distinctions in favor of the universal.

"Bang" 2010- 013 by Ai Wei-Wei, 886 antique stools (detail) photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
“Bang” 2010-2013 by Ai Weiwei, 886 antique stools (detail) photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman

Global mixing is very much the order of the day in the Biennale: the German offering is showing, amongst other artists, the famous Chinese dissident, Ai Weiwei. Two years ago, Israeli Yael Bartana exhibited in the Polish pavilion. Also, this year, France and Germany decided to exchange their pavilions, so you see the German contribution in the French pavilion and vice-versa. This is becoming more and more popular and underscores progressive thought that there are no national boundaries or style. Very often one feels that if there weren’t a title or name on the pavilion, you would have no idea which country was being represented. Also, with so much video art exhibited, in the event of an electrical outage, one suspects there would be many fewer works to see.

The main pavilion, known as the “Encyclopedic Palace” serves, as always, as the exhibition space for many different artists chosen by Massimiliano Gioni, the Biennale’s curator.  Named after a work created in 1955 by a self-taught Italian-American artist, Marino Auriti, the piece was a model of an imaginary museum that was meant to house all the world’s knowledge. As Gioni said, his work examines “the point at which this desire becomes an obsession.” Obviously, any exhibition with such a goal will encounter trouble making sense of it and giving it direction. In fact, one has the feeling of being lost and trying to decipher what it all means. Very few rooms leave you with the impression of having seen something meaningful and worthwhile.

One of those rooms which stood out shows powerful black paintings by Thierry de Cordier, with small sculptures made of steel blocks by Richard Serra sharing the space. The central pavilion is a rather dizzying experience.

The last national pavilion I viewed in the Giardini was from Belgium showing work by Belinde de Bruyckere, showing a single display in a totally black environment. Called “Cripplewood,” the work consisted of an enormous tree lying on its side, with parts of it bandaged as if to try and heal it, surrounded by benches provided for contemplation.  Photography was prohibited to avoid breaking the aura of the sad darkness that enveloped the spectator. Very powerful and moving, it was enhanced by a short text by South African writer, J.M.Coetzee.

Some of the spaces themselves were fascinating venues, such as a deconsecrated Baroque church in the center of Venice which housed an exhibition called “Glasstress.” Venice and its neighboring islands have long been associated with the craft and manufacture of glass, usually in a decorative context. This exhibit was mounted by an association of contemporary artists who explore glass as a fine art medium.

Glass work with church interior, from "Glasstress" 2013, various artists collaboration, mixed media, photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Glass work with church interior, from “Glasstress” 2013, various artists collaboration, mixed media, photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman

Their effort shown was essentially molten glass poured over machine engines. The juxtaposition between the surroundings and the exhibition was striking, with an additional sensory reaction achieved upon entering the exhibition, where one was enveloped by Vivaldi’s music being played as an effective promo for a concert scheduled a few hours later in the same space. All combined to leave the visitor with a complex multi-sensory response.

Of all the smaller pavilions I saw, the Irish one was the most shattering on two levels: the exhibition itself, and the surroundings. The show, called “The Enclave” was a series of six video screens of films not shown simultaneously, nor set out in a way that they could all be seen at the same time. A cooperative effort of the Irish director, Richard Mosse, and American cinematographer Trevor Tweeten, who document the on-going civil war in the Congo by using an infra red camera, which turned everything green to red – so that trees and uniforms were tinged red. The images gave the viewer the impression of blood being spilt everywhere. With war-like noises as the audio, the often violent images were very hard to watch. The quality and displacement of the double-sided screens were reminiscent of the works of Bill Viola, whose videos are in their own league.

Screens of videos from "The Enclave" 2013 by Richard Mosse, video, photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
Screens of videos from “The Enclave” 2013 by Richard Mosse, video, photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman

That pavilion was very small, completely dark, and housed in an old Venetian building that stands at the very end of a tiny alleyway. When exiting after watching the 39 minute exposition of war, one almost falls into the Grand Canal, with its calm waters, gently floating gondolas and breathtaking architecture, resulting in a shock to senses and sensibility.


"Perspectives" 2013 by John Pawson, Swarovski crystal.  Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman
“Perspectives” 2013 by John Pawson, Swarovski crystal. Photo by Ahuva Passow-Whitman

Every now and then the Biennale gets it right, as it did in a work by British designer, John Pawson, who showed a very small work set in a very large space. His piece, (another collateral exhibit, this one supported by the Swarovski Foundation), named “Perspectives,” is a half dome, set on its rounded side, and made of a large piece of Swarovski crystal. A smaller round piece of crystal is placed in the center, reminiscent of a candy bowl or ash tray. Despite its small-scale, the piece does not get lost in the breathtaking cavernous church of San Giorgio Maggiore, designed by Andrea Palladio. When looking down at this “crystal ball” sliced in half, the church is literally turned upside down in its reflections, leaving the spectator feeling an imbalance between past and present.

Overall, seeing the greats of Venetian art and its unique architecture leaves one asking the question: in another 500 years, it is most likely that Titian and Tintoretto will still be remembered and admired. Who, from the Biennale, will share that honor?

Only time will be the judge.

Having said that, it is still very much worthwhile visiting the Biennale to see our world through the eyes of artists today, for good and for ill.

Ahuva Passow-Whitman,  served as Senior Curator at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for 28 years, where she was responsible for maintaining and enlarging the Permanent Collection, installing art works throughout the campus grounds and mounting varied special exhibitions.

The Venice Biennale 2013 ends November 24.

About the Author
Heddy Abramowitz is a Jerusalem artist. Born in Brooklyn, NY to Holocaust survivors, raised in the southern Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., she shelved her career as an Israeli lawyer in favor of her first love, painting, and exhibits her art in Israel and abroad. Some say she is a lawyer in recovery, others just shake their heads. Believing that art communicates when words fail, she reviews Jerusalem art exhibits in English to broaden audiences for art made in this unique city. She also occasionally weighs in on current events. Living many years in the Jewish Quarter in the Old City significantly affected her outlook on living here, a work in progress. Good dark chocolate is her one true vice.