What to CEE at the Venice Biennale

VENICE, ITALY—I was running late. I needed to get to the Kosovo Pavilion to meet with the artist Petrit Halijaj, so I was blowing through room after room in the “Encyclopaedic Palace”, the official curated show at the Venice Biennale. I didn’t see the Jakub Julian Ziolkowski paintings (I own one of his pieces) and totally missed Miroslaw Balka’s “Black Pope Black Sheep” (1987) sculpture. But my mother and I put our breaks on when we came into a room filled with dozens of life-like plastic pieces. These striking people—with death mask-like faces—had their bodies seemingly melting away from them, poised in a haunting, almost windswept refrain. We wandered for a few minutes, enthralled and captivated,  nodding to each other that we had to come back to check this particular installation again.

Only later did I realize these sculptured works – entitled-“Venetians” –were the work of  Polish artist Pawel Althamer  (a variation of Althamer’s people had originally been displayed at the Deutsch Guggenheim in Berlin in 2011-2012 under the title “Almech.”) and they had been produced in collaboration with Almech, the small-scale plastic manufacturer started by Althamer’s father. Althamer has said that it’s a “major achievement to realize that the body is only a vehicle for the soul.” And his piece both personifies this and proves a major achievement in its own right.  Althamer’s plastic figurines exemplify what  really great contemporary art is all about—it stops you dead in your tracks and it never leaves you.

I finally got to the Kosovo Pavilion—still reeling from the plastic people—and literally ran into Erzen Shkololli, the artist who now runs the Kosovo National Gallery and is the Commissioner of Kosovo’s pavilion. We had met  in February when I wrote a piece for the IHT/New York Times about the art scene in Pristina, so we had a brief catch-up. There was a small queue so my mom and I waited, taking in the smell of the dirt and the twigs that Halijaj, a 26 year-old artist, had brought over from Kosovo. Entering a dark, rounded object with bird’s feet (I missed that but my mom’s eagle eye caught that little detail), we entered the dark, slightly spooky site-specific structure. Inside, round a bend, there were two holes in the dirt. Peering through, there was a shockingly white wall, more twigs and dirt on the ceiling and clothing hangers and a huge yellow suit hanging up. Knowing that Halijaj is very interested in the idea of misplacement, home and belonging –in part because he had to leave his rural Kosovo home during the war in 1999–my impression was  that in the darkness, one can find openings of light and hope.

kosovo pavilion venice biennale 2013Halijaj and I never met when I wrote my story on the Pristina art scene—our interview was over Skype—but we instantly recognized each other when I came out of his “Untitled” piece. Wearing a beard and a huge warm smile, he asked me if I had seen his canaries. I must have looked befuddled, so he explained that his two canaries from Berlin were actually a part of the exhibition and he ran behind the structure, disappearing from view.  He then reappeared after a few minutes and led me back through the structure and lo-and-behold, there were two colourful birds flying around in the white painted back part of the exhibition, happily feeding and moving from branch to branch. Seeing the birds, I got a whole new feel for what the installation represented–this idea that even in the midst of being lost, running, hiding and fear, the sound and sight of birds represent freedom. But they are also oblivious to the world around them, innocently singing their tunes as the world below them churns and spouts with hatred.

It was incredible and I loved the fact that the artist had to actually get the birds moving around for me. We chatted for a few minutes outside, where he told me he had been working on the installation since mid-April, putting the piece together like a huge bird’s nest. We talked about what it meant that he was representing Kosovo, which for the first time had a pavilion at the Biennale. Smiling and relaxed, Halijaj said it had been something of a whirlwind but he was happy that people seemed to  be intrigued by his piece.

The whole trees and twigs in the Arsenale section of the Biennale proved to be a theme, as we then headed over to see the Latvian pavilion.  Entitled “North by Northeast,” the show featured the artists Kaspars Podnieks and Kriss Salmanis. Inside the darkened space, a huge, real tree branch was swinging from a mechanical arm, sweeping across the small room at a steady pace. The walls on one side were covered by black and white portraits of older people, standing—or so it seemed from afar—in the snow. But the videos, on the opposite wall, showed that they were not standing but instead seemed to be hovering over the ground. I thought maybe they had hung themselves—I looked for a noose—but then realized the image must have been superimposed over the landscape. It was quite jarring but I was intrigued, reading later that the piece was inspired partially by the location and dislocation of Latvians in political geography. In other words, Latvians who were part of the Soviet Union (and many ethnically Russian) have long struggled not only with border changes but also an idea of who and what they are as a nation.  During Soviet times, they were the Westernmost limit of the USSR and therefore, seen as the embodiment of the West by many Soviet citizens. But once the country collapsed in 1991 and with Latvia joining the EU in 2004, the Baltic is now Europe’s northeastern-most border with Russia. So for some within the European Union, they are seen as something slightly Eastern and foreign. Clever piece, this playing with the landscape.

hungaryThe next day, we headed to the Giardini to check out a few more country pavilions. The US was downright lame (I don’t like minimalism and the trend of trying to be to clever by half) while the Hungarian pavilion was the most introspective work I saw during my biennale weekend. “Fired but Unexploded” by Zsolt Asztalos, is exactly what it says it is; videos of found unexploded devices from World War I and II. On top of the television screens (there were about 15 or so), are headphones where you can listen to various sounds like children playing, faxes humming and the thump-thump music in a dance club. Though you are not given information of where these devices—some German, some Soviet, some Hungarian—were found, it makes you think about what would have happened if those devices had exploded during the war. Or if they had exploded–years later (when I was living in Warsaw, a popular disco had to be evacuated one night when an explosive device from World War II was somehow found just next to the club). Would those sounds of everyday life not exist? And how random and troubling a world we live in where explosions can make the ordinary volume of life seem almost sinister.

Serbia’s pavilion (they inherited the Yugoslavia building structure), was rather baffling to me. “Nothing Between Us”, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art , featured Vladimir Peric and Milos Tomic. While I found Tomic’s videos about sound interesting, Peric’s “Museum of Childhood” made no sense to me. The 3D-ish wallpaper of plastic Mickey Mouses– angled with precision on one wall– faced a 3D-ish wallpaper across the pavilion, of razor blades. Not a clue what that was all about, though I appreciated the exactness of placing the materials on the walls.  Meanwhile, Romania’s pavilion reminded me of the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Featuring the artists Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmus, the piece  is “an empherical but bold monument to the Biennale Arte, a critique of its display of power or conservatism but also a celebration of its openness for experiments.” Huh? Often descriptions of art exhibitions use a language that only those really deeply in “the know” can decipher. Anyway, all I saw were a group of five people standing in a line, staring closely at the walls and every few seconds, one of them would move to the end of the line.  I guess if you say it’s art, it is. Like if the Emperor says and believes he has new clothes, he does. Meanwhile the rest of the world sees he’s actually naked.

smolenski-bellPoland, next door to Romania, was one of the pavilions I was really intent on seeing. Organized by the fantastic Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, “Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More” is a sound installation by Konrad Smolenski, who is represented by Leto Gallery. Active in both contemporary art and the independent music scene, many of Smolenski’s works combine the viewer’s expectations dealing with the linearity of sound. His piece features two huge bells (something you see in many church towers across Venice) and two large speakers. It features a musical piece written for the bells, with other sounds resonating from the speakers;  a juxtaposition of noise that the ear must figure out. As you walk into the pavilion space, there is a large sign on the floor, stating not to get too close when the bells are ringing and that earplugs are on offer. Intriguing, I thought, as I stood around, really psyched to hear and see this musical composition.

And then, nothing happened. At all. At first, I thought it was broken, so I walked around, looking to see if the plugs had been taken out of the wall socket.  But all looked okay. So finally, wondering what was the deal, I asked a man who was standing around. Turns out, he works as a photographer for Zacheta and said that the bells only ring on the hour and the sounds last for 20 minutes. So, if you are not there when it rings, you don’t get to hear the composition. Unfortunately, with time not on my side, I had to wander off.  I later overheard someone at the British Pavilion saying that the piece was by far the most incredibly moving and intense think they had seen.

I would have loved to have seen the Bosnian pavilion, which after a 10-year hiatus from the Biennale, featured the works of Mladen Miljanovic and I didn’t get a chance to see Croatia, Estonia and the Czech Republic/Slovakia either. Nor did I get to see many collateral events that take place across Venice during the Biennale. I did a quick walk through the “Future Generation Art Prize”, which is funded by Ukraine’s Pinchuk Art Centre, hoping to find Nikita Kadan’s work, but didn’t have any luck finding it in the rundown and abandoned palazzo. I also would have loved to have seen Wojciech Pus’s piece that he did with Angelika Marku at the Palazzo Donà. And my mom and I never did make it back to see Althamer’s plastic figures (or to see his Parallel Convergences show at the Casa Dei Tre Oci with Russian artist Anatoly Osmolovsky.) But thank goodness the Biennale runs til November. I can time it better on my next visit.

1st photo of Althamer’s venetians, 2nd of Kosovo Pavilion, 3rd is from Hungarian video installation and 4th of Smolenski with one of the bells