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Analysis & Opinion
28.06.11 Of Nations, Light And Conceptualism
By Elena Rubinova

For years the concept of national pavilions at the Venice Biennale was heavily criticized as outdated and old fashioned. Many were trying to prove that the national model does not reflect the globalization of the modern art world, but Bice Curiger, the artistic director of the 54th Venice Biennale, an art historian and a curator at Zurich Kunsthaus, has managed to breathe new life into the old model. “The national concept, as I see it, is a metaphor for communal living and for community. The art world is also a nation in a metaphorical sense,” Curiger said.

As proof of Curiger’s vision, the 54th Biennale set a new record in the number of countries participating in the art show: this year’s installment boasts 89 national pavilions, up from 77 in 2009. The highly anticipated Golden Lion award for the best national pavilion this time went to Germany, but pavilions from France, the United Kingdom and Switzerland are among the public’s favorites.

Supervised by a prominent critic and philosopher Boris Grois, the Russian pavilion exhibits “Empty Zones” by Andrei Monastyrsky and Collective Actions art group, pioneers of Russian performance and installation art. Long before the Biennale opened, Grois said that the “exhibition by Monastyrsky and Collective Actions art group would bridge the gap in understanding of conceptual art practices in the West and in Eastern Europe.”

And it certainly did. The Russian retrospective pavilion testifies to the general trend of a return to conceptualism, to the so-called “participative art.” Similar expositions were on display in the Serbian, Croatian, Lithuanian, and Brazilian pavilions, to name a few. “Empty zones” consists of three parts: an introduction with contextual photos of Soviet-time industrial zones taken by Monastyrsky in his early days, an installation built especially for the Biennale, and finally, some of the archive materials of Collective Action’s 125 actions that took place since the mid 1970s.

Whether an average foreign viewer is able to appreciate the contextual meanings is questionable, but the academic style of supervision that suits professionals makes it difficult to reintroduce Monastyrsky to a broader audience.

The main exhibition of the Biennale is called “ILLUMInations" and is meant to combine the ideas of artists as a source of enlightenment and the curator’s vision of a nation. For the main show, traditionally the domain of the chief curator, Bice Curiger pooled together prominent names from top galleries and the festival milieu, such as Urs Fischer, Sigmar Polke, James Turrell and Christian Marclay with entirely new faces. Of the 83 artists in the show, 32 were born after 1975. The only Russian among them is artist Anya Titova, a young native of Yekaterinburg who graduated from the Glasgow Academy with a degree in photography. Many critics don’t understand why the curator was so impressed with her work, but it may well be that along with other young participants, she may become a star in the next decade.

For visitors and professionals who do not want to limit themselves to the national pavilions or the main exhibition, a lot more is to be seen in Venice at over 40 collateral exhibitions. A number of them, representing modern art from Russia, could satisfy the most exquisite taste. The State Hermitage Museum, whose vast, world-renowned treasures of old art have been shown in Italy time and again, introduces an exhibition by Dmitri Prigov (1940 to 2007), one of the most important and perhaps most audaciously unorthodox of the Russian conceptualists. The Hermitage Contemporary Art Department recently got custody of a major part of the artist’s works from his family foundation, and most of them are on the display in the Ca’ Foscari exhibition halls at the magnificent historic palace on the Grand Canal. Joint efforts by the curator Dmitry Ozerkov, the Prigov Family Foundation and Ca’ Foscari University’s Center for the Study of Russian Culture made it possible to discover Prigov’s incredibly rich and diverse heritage, which has not even been thoroughly studied in Russia. "While working on the exhibition we realized that it's a great risk to misrepresent Prigov's fragile and meaningful art by doing it in a shallow way. We hope to have fulfilled our main task, to demonstrate the complexity and depth of Prigov as an artist," Ozerkov said. Thanks to video recordings of poetic performances, objects and installations, images, light and sound, the visitor gets the impression of an almost physical presence in the unique universe the artist created during his lifetime.

One other landmark on the Russian itinerary in Venice is the project called “Modernikon,” housed at the newly-restored palazzo La Casa dei Tre Oci on the Giudecca Island. The show, curated by Francesco Bonami and Irene Calderoni, features the work of 20 artists who work with a wide range of media, from painting and sculpture to video, photography and installation. Some of the artists like Victor Alimpiev, Sergey Bratkov, Olga Chernysheva, Dmitri Gutov, and Pavel Pepperstein are well established on the international art scene, while others are still emerging.

Those who stop by the old library of Zenobian in the beautiful gardens of Dorsoduro Island are rewarded with the “Old News” exposition by Anastasia Khoroshilova, brought to Venice by the Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art. A tragedy from Russia’s recent past gave rise to unusual art forms that appeal to viewers regardless of their nationality: improvised coffins look like open books where one can see portraits of mothers who lost their children in the Beslan school siege in 2004. The portraits are accompanied by fragments of television reports dedicated to the memorable event. This tribute to the Beslan tragedy is sad, but the fact that such an exhibition emerged actually sends a positive signal: Russia’s own modern art is slowly becoming more humane and socially responsible.
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