The 110-year old Venice Biennale recently inaugurated the 51st International Art Exhibition, which consists of two sections: national pavilions of 70 represented countries and two international exhibitions that were curated separately by Rosa Martinez and Maria de Corral. This enormous exhibition requires at least three or four days to experience as the venues are spread throughout the labyrinthine stone paths of Venice.
Biennales are platforms for risk taking. For Martinez's exhibition in the Arsenale, a former arms depot, she presents the diverse artworks as chapters in a book, with each area leading to a new thought. Based on Samuel Beckett's Breath, the exhibition overall gives the uplifting message that our lives are too short, so we must make the most of them.
In contrast, de Corral returns to the sterile white-walled museum look with framed paintings hung on walls and sculptures on plinths. However, she included some strong works such as Chen Chieh-jen's (陳界仁) Factory, a film about unemployed garment workers in Taoyuan.
The Biennale seems to be divided into two camps: conservatism -- such as in promoting national identity and/or white cube presentation -- and its opposite, experimentation. Several national pavilions have chosen the same safe route, the US Pavilion in the lead with its lackluster presentation of a usually dynamic artist. It comes off looking like little energy and thought was put into the exhibition on behalf of the organizers.
Some dynamic ideas that transcend the traditional art practice of object making are seen in several works. Olaf Nicolai's work is provided by nature; he offers printed matter that tells the viewer to watch the northern sky in August for St Lawrence's Tears, a spectacular star shower.
Meanwhile, artists Gianni Motti and Christoph Buechel propose something more radical. They've initiated talks with the Cuban government to rent Guantanamo Bay and transform the occupied military site into a site of culture.
The Swiss Pavilion shines in its brilliance by showing that nationalism in art, as in sport, is becoming a dated concept. It exhibited four outstanding artists, none of them born in Switzerland.
As many of the Western countries chose blue-chip artists in museum-like settings, the exhibitions from Asia are more concise, lively and moving. Thailand's pavilion entitled Those Dying Wishing to Stay, Those Living Preparing to Leave in the cloister of a church show the Buddhist-inspired works of deceased artist Montien Boonma and the videos of Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, in which she gives
lectures about death to the corpses lying at her feet. Far from being morose, the works poignantly dialogue with the tomb-lined walkway, and leave one feeling contemplative and inspired about life.
Even though it is an art show, politics still comes into play, so the pavilions for Taiwan and Hong Kong are listed in the printed matter as part of the related events. For the debut of the China Pavilion, both Chinese and Italian officials spoke about the opening of future ties between the two nations.
For the opening performance, two artists attempted to launch a small spacecraft created by a farmer living in Anhui Province. Unfortunately, there was no liftoff, but the ersatz UFO hammered the point that this work was a metaphor for the aspiring dreams of the rural residents.