History Holds True in Venice


As have most cultural productions of its scale, the 53rd Venice Biennale, “Fare Mondi,” or “Making Worlds,” will be subject to a heightened level of scrutiny in light of recent world events — namely, of the financial variety. There’s something to be said for an endeavor that remains so relentlessly optimistic in these dark, if not pitch black times. Indeed, it is no small feat to shirk the psychic weight of an economic crisis that has decimated global markets, the trickle-down effect of which has shaken up the largely insular — and thus, seemingly impervious — art world. When recently asked how the credit crunch might affect the Biennale, artists and curators of the Danish and Nordic Pavilions Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset drolly replied, “There will be less champagne.”  Their ennui belies a certain truth: Infinitely adaptable, the Venice Biennale always soldiers on.

It’s worth recalling that the Venice Biennale was conceived as a demonstration of civic savoir-faire. Proposed in 1893 as the Biennial Exhibition of Italian Art (Sposizione Biennale Artistica Nazionale) the Biennale’s plan provided for the exhibition of foreign artists’ work. Under the stewardship of Secretary General Antonio Fradeletto, The First International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice (Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte della Città di Venezia) was inaugurated in 1895 in the presence of the King and Queen, Umberto I and Margherita di Savoia to great acclaim: 224,000 visitors clamored to see the new exhibition hall (Palazzo delle Esposizione) in the Giardini di Castello.

Initially named “Pro Arte,” the building was subsequently re-dubbed “Pro Italia,” an assertion of national pride that appealed to the sensibilities of American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who has just recently established the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Citing a desire to “spread goodwill among nations through the international language of art,” Carnegie delivered a rejoinder the following year, in 1896, in the form of the first Annual Survey of his growing collection (now known as the quadrennial Carnegie International). If the troves of exotic taxidermy specimens that haunt the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s hallowed halls are any indication — Carnegie killed many of them during his lavish hunting expeditions —  “goodwill” was a serious sport with transnational implications.  The game, as it were, was on.

Back in Venice, Belgium built the first national pavilion in 1907, and by 1914, Russia, Hungary, Germany, France, and Great Britain had staked their own claims in the Giardini. (Incidentally, the U.S. pavilion didn’t open until 1930.)  The 4,000-odd miles between the United States and Italy seemed to grow shorter over time as national borders (both physical and metaphorical) were erased and re-drawn by history — the Biennale was shuttered during both World Wars, the protests of 1968, and the presidency of Carlo Ripa di Meana from 1974-1978 — or technology, as with this year’s first Internet Pavilion, an ostensibly state-less entity produced by the Art Production Fund. The proliferation of such fairs and exhibitions has only grown with time; they now number well into the hundreds, giving art-world globetrotters a perennial itinerary of far-flung destinations on their endless quest for contemporary art.

In his introductory statement, Biennial curator Daniel Birnbaum considers the artwork a means of “world-making.” If such cosmic possibilities do exist, vague though they may be, then current affairs should prompt us to question what sorts of worlds are being made. At the very least, the Biennale has expanded its purview: Montenegro, Monaco, Gabon, Union of the Comoros, and the United Arab Emerates will exhibit for the first time, a hopeful expansion of the fair’s decidedly Euro-centric purview. From Elmgreen & Dragset‘s “The Collectors,” an exhibition in the form of several domestic environments curated by artists, to Icelander Ragnar Kjartansson‘s re-staging of the Venetian waterfront, the artists featured in this year’s Biennale are acutely aware of their surroundings. One can only hope that they — and the Biennale — will stay grounded.