The Art Biennale is the world’s greatest platform for contemporary art. Held every alternate year for the last 106 years, it is influential and impartial; and the artwork is extraordinary. This year, the Biennale does not disappoint.
Daniel Birnbaum, the Swedish director of the Biennale, continued the tradition of creating an unconventional impact with two enormous shows at the Arsenale and Pavilion of Exhibition (the rest of the Biennale is independently curated by participating countries).Ninety-six artists have participated in the main exhibition of the 2009 Biennale. Four are Indian. Such impressive representation from India proves Birnbaum’s commitment to reflect the expanding geography of the art world — the dynamic centres of art emerging in India, China and the Middle East. To achieve this, Birnbaum has worked closely with a team of international specialists: Jochen Volz, Maria Finders, Tom Eccles, Hu Fang and Savita Apte. A specialist in south Asian art, Apte has been instrumental in selecting the four Indian artists — Nikhil Chopra, Anju Dodiya, Sunil Gawde, Sheela Gowda — and Tibetan artist Gonkar Gyatso for participation in the Biennale.
In a bold move, Birnbaum has abandoned white walls, allowing the dramatic architecture of the exhibition buildings, courtyards and gardens to play a part in the viewer’s understanding of the artwork.
Polish-born Goshka Macuga’s enormous tapestry depicting provocative political narrative has been draped around and across two solid unshakeable pillars. This is apt since many artists have drawn their inspiration from Venice and the Arsenale itself: Spanish-born Jorge Otero-Pailos’ imprint of the Arsenale wall on a giant polyurethane sheet (complete with dust and plaster) hangs majestically beside the original wall, while Mexican artist Hector Zamora’s inflatable blimp wedged between the narrow walls of the Arsenale, resulted from exhaustive research into the history, myths and memories surrounding Venice.
Overall, Birnbaum has given impressive support to installation and performance art. From Hans-Peter Feldmann’s installation of gently rotating shadows to Michelangelo Pistoletto’s athletic smashing of 22 mirrors, the art of this exhibition is alive, changeable and personal.
Near the shipbuilding yards of the Arsenale is the other half of the Biennale: the Giardini, a sprawling, sumptuous green park with scattered pavilions built in regional architectural styles as a symbol of national prestige by 78 participating countries (India declined participation in 2003). The art is diverse — the Spanish pavilion showcased Miquel Barceló’s tranquil exploration of the world’s seas, while Japan’s shocking ‘Windswept Women’ by Miwa Yanagi presented giant images of eerily bejewelled women writhing in pain or ecstasy.
Within this context of exceptional creativity, the Indian works of art are achieving a high impact. Sheela Gowda’s giant, abstract installation wraps, twists and heaps 4000m of braided hair from Tirupati up and down a stark white wall, hoisting fiat car bumpers high above the head of the viewer. Her work seeks to ‘recontextualise’ commonplace objects, enabling the viewer to derive their own significance from the work. “The art must be potent, to seize the viewer’s interest, but open so other people’s references can enter. That is my challenge.”
Away in a clock tower looking out to sea, Nikhil Chopra’s continuous 48-hour multimedia performance was underway. And in the Pavilion of Exhibition, Anju Dodiya’s powerful ‘Seasons Tryptich’, developed layer by layer from pulp paper, was subtly unnerving its viewers. Sunil Gawde’s mesmerising moon installation hummed mechanically, unravelling all awareness of time. “This is not an ‘arty arty’ piece,” suggests Sunil “I use precision and planning to produce my vision in the best possible way.” Responses to the Indian exhibits seem unanimously positive.
Perhaps the most significant endorsement of the works has come from Glen Lowry, director of the MoMA in New York, who has long refrained from affirming the importance of Indian art.
The rest of Venice has been transformed for the Biennale. Collateral events — shows, talks, lunches and receptions — have mushroomed, taking place in churches, galleries and restored homes. Yoko Ono and John Baldessari will be honoured this year with the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Venice’s labyrinthine waterways are bustling with visiting commuters. As evening approaches, the fading warmth of the spring sunshine brings together artists, funders and supporters in the relaxed setting of President Paolo Baratta’s rooftop terrace. Prosecco, Italian champagne, flows into the night and the crowd reshuffles as the party hoppers come and go. The legacy of the Biennale continues.
(Pia Gadkari is a London-based journalist)