2.20 / Review


By Matthew David Rana June 29, 2011

Although empirical study surrounding the nature of light dates at least as far back as the seventeenth century, no single theoretical model encompasses its contradictory behavior. In the field of quantum physics, wave–particle duality postulates that light exhibits both wave-like and particle-like behavior when subjected to different experimental conditions. Even though they may occur alongside one another, both behavioral characteristics cannot be observed simultaneously. This dualism has been both attributed to the limitations inherent in the act of observation, and hypothesized to actually be a fundamental property of all matter. Regardless of which interpretation is correct, the emergence of the paradox not only demonstrates that our conceptual categories often prove insufficient, but it also suggests that our knowledge of what constitutes a world is highly contingent and unstable.

Of course, light has never been a stranger to duality, having long been used as a metaphor for presence, truth, divine and human knowledge, and processes of inclusion and exclusion. Consider Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, and its resonance within humanistic notions of enlightened and unenlightened individuals, or the ways in which what is “brought to light” and what is “kept in the shadows” act as powerful regulatory mechanisms within discursive, political, and representational spheres.

ILLUMInations, the 54th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, embraces dualisms such as these and turns them into operative metaphors. Prominently displayed in the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, three large-scale paintings by Tintoretto, the sixteenth century Venetian “painter of light,” act as an introduction to the exhibition’s dominant theme, which itself is a kind of chiaroscuro distributed across various levels.1 The Biennale’s curator, Bice Curiger, has opted to overlay the painterly technique—which uses sharp contrasts between light and shadow as a way of modeling—onto the spaces of the Arsenale and the Central Pavilion, literally creating incessant movement from black box to white cube. More than suggesting shadowy zones of uncertainty or the disclosure and emergence of form, this creates a heightened sense of drama, an effect that is bolstered by Curiger’s references to Walter Benjamin and Arthur Rimbaud in the exhibition catalogue, as well as her ambition to “shed light on the institution itself,” by drawing attention to the show’s socio-political dimensions (i.e. the nations referred to in the priceless title).

For example, in the Central Pavilion, Curiger encourages viewers to consider Five Thousand Feet is the Best (2010) by Omer Fast—a video that presents a series of vignettes on topics such as testimony, security, grifting, war, and trauma through various narrative strategies—in connection to the porous notion of borders. Alternately, in the Arsenale, James Turrell’s Ganzfeld APANI (2011), an immersive light installation for which the artist has created the illusion of a wall where there is none, is framed in relation to the Enlightenment teleology of rational human progress. Despite the complex interplay between the two works, reductive appeals such as these—to the dark as obscurantism and lies, and to the light as discovery and truth—are repeated throughout the galleries and quickly grow tiresome. Nevertheless, this belabored approach provides a sense of continuity to a mega exhibition that is soberly installed but generally hectic in its offering of works by eighty-three artists from over fifty countries and several decades.

Within the melee, there are notable highlights, such as Christian Marclay’s Golden Lion-winning work, The Clock (2010), a twenty-four hour film in which time is featured as the main protagonist. Composed of appropriated footage from films spanning the last hundred years, The Clock unfolds in real time, functioning both as a working timepiece and a history of world cinema. Not only is Marclay’s film mesmerizing in its technical accomplishment, it creates startling juxtapositions within a fragmented narrative, such as when excerpts from Spiderman (2002) are intercut with clips from The Sting (1973) and Breathless (1960). Similar to Marclay’s film, contributions from Mariana Castillo Deball, Trisha Donnelly and Ryan Gander each drew me into temporally distinct worlds, subtly holding their own against the scenography without creating a spectacle. Castillo Deball’s drawing and video, El dónde estoy va desapareciendo (The “Where I am” is disappearing) (2011), recounts history from the perspective of a Mesoamerican codex, while outside the Arsenale, Donnelly’s untitled stone sculpture has the gravitas of an ancient monolith. By contrast, Gander’s discreet yet densely titled works, such as Your present time orientation (First Act) – Random abstraction (2011), are scattered throughout the exhibition, hinting at the processes by which shifts such as that from abstraction to appropriation are even possible.

Otherwise, the artist-created para-pavilions offer a welcome reprieve from the exhibition’s general pacing. In particular, Song Dong’s recreation of his family’s ancestral home and Monika Sosnowska’s star-shaped pavilion—which includes

Ryan Gander Your present time orientation

Ryan Gander. Your present time orientation (First Act) – Random abstraction, 2011; installation view, ILLUMInations. Courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia.

Ahmed Basiony 30 Days of Running in the Place

Ahmed Basiony. 30 Days of Running in the Place, 2011; installation view, Egyptian Pavilion, 54th International Art Exhibition. Courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia. Photo: Matthew David Rana.

photo essays by South African artist David Goldblatt and a hyperactive sound installation by Haroon Mirza—complicate the Biennale’s central metaphor in a manner similar to that of the national pavilions. Though independently curated, these pavilions productively shift the exhibition’s focus toward what one might call light’s secondary properties: time, speed and intensity.

Conceived as “an extended performance, made of objects, conversations, monologues, theatre, silences, and debate,” Dora García’s exhibition The Inadequate, in the Spanish Pavilion, makes reference to the inadequacy of both artist and nation to represent each other.2 A central stage plays host to an ongoing series of performances and events including, while I was there, a two-day seminar on post-Fordism in art. Flanking the stage are vitrines displaying a wealth of ephemera and research material in connection to the two videos on view: The Deviant Majority (from Basaglia to Brazil) (2010), which charts the history of the anti-psychiatry movement, and The Inadequate: James Joyce, Trieste and Psychoanalysis (2011), which weaves in discussions surrounding the author’s time living in Trieste and his efforts to develop a language for the unconscious with footage of a theater group for individuals who have been diagnosed with mental illness. The cumulative result is a compelling—albeit somewhat familiar—meditation on shifts in our understanding of marginality, both as a historical condition and in relationship to institutional structures. 

Dora Garcia post-fordism Venice Biennale

Dora García. Seminar on post-Fordism in art from The Inadequate, Spanish Pavilion, 54th International Art Exhibition. Courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia. Photo: Matthew David Rana.

But if in order to question notions of nationalism, García’s work tends to overvalue the position of the outsider, then Yael Bartana’s work in the Polish Pavilion does the same for the revolutionary hero. The exhibition, …and Europe will be stunned, features her trilogy of impeccably shot films narrating the history of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland—a quasi-fictional organization seeking to repatriate diasporic Jews—alongside that of its iconic leader, SÅ‚awomir Sierakowski, who, when he’s not playing himself in Bartana’s films, happens to be a bona-fide left-wing philosopher, activist, and journalist. But the takeaway stacks of red poster-size manifestos that claim to revivify Zionist phantasmagoria in order to “write a new history” are immediately problematized by the nearby Egyptian Pavilion. On view there is 30 Days of Running in the Place, a memorial to the late artist Ahmed Basiony, who was killed in January during an attack on demonstrators in Tahrir Square. Although undeniably poignant and timely, the installation of screens that randomly alternate between video documentation of the artist’s performances and of uncut footage shot on his digital camera and cellular phone during the protests does justice neither to the artist’s work nor to the complexity and significance of the Arab Spring. Indeed, this so-called “revolution without leaders” is currently on the threshold of co-optation by a dominant narrative, as Mai Abu ElDahab cautions us in Borderless Bastards (multi culti abc) (2011), the audio guide to the pavilions created by Swedish artist Fia Backström, in which she interviewed several art world professionals on the issues of cultural identity and national representation.

Predictably, I left less illuminated than exhausted, having over the course of two-and-a-half days spent nearly twenty-two hours looking at art, with approximately two of those hours vainly seeking out pavilions located in the city’s labyrinthine interior. (Although, I suppose, with any exhibition attempting to overview our contemporaneity, there must out of necessity be some lost time.) While sitting on an outbound vaporetto, gathering my thoughts and reviewing my notes, I looked up and was temporarily blinded by the sun’s reflection on the Grand Canal. As the city slowly came back in to focus, I had a heightened sense of my surroundings: the vibration of the boat’s engine, the scent of the water, the sound of idle conversation in languages that I couldn’t readily identify. Though insignificant when compared to the amount of bodies and resources mobilized in order to mount a major international art exhibition, this fleeting moment nevertheless served as a reminder that the sudden flashes—of the known and the unknown, of past and present, of disorientation and reorientation—that the Biennale sought to create are often unpredictable, rarely planned, and hardly binary.


ILLUMInations, the 54th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale is on view through November 27, 2011.



1. The paintings include The Last Supper (on loan from san Giorgio Maggiore Basilica), The Stealing of the Body of St. Mark and The Creation of the Animals (both housed in the Gallerie dell’Accademia).

2. From the exhibition brochure, http://theinadequate.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/guia.pdf

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