Should Artists Go To The Venice Biennale?

by Paddy Johnson on June 9, 2011 · 3 comments Venice

Thomas Hirschhorn's Crystal Resistance at Switzerland's Pavilion

Are biennales like art fairs – a quick way to kill an artist’s soul? I sometimes had this impression while I was in Venice last week, even though nothing is for sale. There’s a lot of art to see, sure, but more importantly, people to schmooze! Given that the day the Biennale opens to the public the crowds thin dramatically — this is same day the three-day advance press and VIP preview closes — it’s hard to think the show is mostly about the art.

“It's one thing to see a show, which would be interesting, but going to the Biennale as an artist — or anyone — is a social act with a purpose.” artist and writer Mira Schor told me earlier this week. Schor did not attend the Biennale this year, and has not in years past. “I think that one can be totally involved in art and not see that as a priority. It's not realistic for a lot of people. I mean, it costs a lot of money to go to Europe, so it's a luxury. Especially living in New York, I've seen enough to know what's going on (and I don't see everything).”

While this is most certainly true — Schor herself is an example of a great artist who has not participated in the Biennale — gallerist Jane Cohan‘s observations about her client’s travels suggests the draw isn’t all social either. “This biennale has a bit of an unusual schedule because you have a larger gap between Venice and Basel” Cohan told me, referring the Basel Switzerland fair, which launches on the 15th this year, 11 days after the Biennale preview closes. “a lot of the clients that we spoke to decided to come to Basel and then follow that with a trip to Venice. And that way they avoid a lot of the lines that you're witnessing on the opening days.”

Others attend the preview and return to see the art later, though, as I mentioned at The Daily, far more people say they will come back than actually make the trip. Past the price, the best time to see the show is at its launch; the Biennale is not known for its rigorous exhibition upkeep. “I’m just waiting to see what will happen in the French Pavilion,” Aaron Cezar, the London-based director of the Delfina Foundation, told me. Both of us laughed — tattered wall labels are a staple of the Biennale towards the end of the summer,  so Christian Boltanski’s elaborate mechanical chain of baby head photographs moving like film strips through scaffolding has no chance of making it to November.

Of course, if this piece breaks there’s no great loss to the Biennale — what Boltanski’s engineered is no more sophisticated than iTunes’s random shuffle — but there are still reasons to consider making the visit. “There aren't very many occasions where you can see large-scale installations with such complexity, whether you like the coherence [of the main exhibition] or not.” Till Fellrath, the Executive Director of Art ReOriented told me, acknowledging that the size of main show can often leave a viewer feeling like they had just walked out of an art fair. “I think Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation is a great Biennale piece…[his work] is a little up and down sometimes but this universe you can immerse yourself in it and you discover different kinds of layers and I actually quite enjoy that experience. And you don't see these pieces in a regular museum show. This would probably overpower a curated group show.”

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