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Bice Curriger
Bice Curiger

Talking with Bice Curriger

An Inside Look at the Venice Biennale
by Barbara Pollack

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The waiting is over (and it's time to make your travel plans). Bice Curiger, the artistic director of the 54th Venice Biennale, June 4-Nov. 27, 2011 (the professional preview is June 1-3, 2011), has announced the thrilling details of "ILLUMInations," her showcase exhibition that takes place in what is now called the Central Pavilion in the Giardini and the Arsenale.

Of the 82 artists in the show, 32 are born after 1975 -- not quite "Younger than Jesus" -- and 32 are women. One highlight: The show includes three paintings by Tintoretto, the Venetian mannerist who is of course well represented in the city with major paintings at the Madonna dell'Orto in Cannaregio and the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in San Polo. His inclusion, Curiger said, is to challenge the focus on "the now."

As one might suspect from the title, "ILLUMInations," Curiger has a dual purpose. The first is an emphasis on "light" in all its allegorical possibilities -- a notion "well-suited to Venice," she said -- ranging from a floodlighted stair construction by Monica Bonvicini to a 1985 painting of an exploding volcano by the late Jack Goldstein.

The second is to raise the issue of nationalism, a perennial theme at Venice, which is "burdened" by national pavilions -- a notion frowned upon by theoreticians but perpetually in favor with everyone else, as is shown in the 2011 installment, which boasts 88 national pavilions, up from 77 in 2009. Countries participating for the first time include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Bangladesh and Haiti. An additional 40 collateral exhibitions throughout the city are also planned.

Just as a reminder, at the U.S. pavilion is Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, whose top secret project involves actual Olympic athletes, some of them running on a treadmill on top of a tank (?). Other national representatives include Hany Armanious (Australia), Artur Barrio (Brazil), Yael Bartana (Poland), Christian Boltanski (France), Ayse Erkmen (Turkey), Dora Garcia (Spain), Thomas Hirschhorn (Switzerland), Sigalit Landau (Israel), Oksana Mas (Ukraine), Bjarne Melgaard (Norway), Mike Nelson (Great Britain), Vesa-Pekka Rannikko (Finland), Navin Rawanchaikul (Thailand), Markus Schinwald (Austria), Christoph Schlingensief (Germany) Steven Shearer (Canada), Melanie Smith (Mexico), Tabaimo (Japan), Angel Vergara (Belgium) and Corban Walker (Ireland).

For "ILLUMInations," Curriger, who is curator at Zurich Kunsthaus and cofounder and editor-in-chief at Parkett, has come up with a line-up that mixes new faces -- those under-35s, again -- with names prominent from top galleries and the festival circuit. These include Carol Bove, Martin Creed, Song Dong, Omer Fast, Urs Fischer, Fischli & Weiss, Katharina Fritsch, Cyprien Gaillard, Ryan Gander, GELITIN, Elad Lassry, Klara Lidén, Christian Marclay, Jean-Luc Mylayne, Philippe Parreno, Mai-Thu Perret, Sigmar Polke, Seth Price, Pipilotti Rist, Cindy Sherman, Josh Smith, Monika Sosnowska, Rosemarie Trockel, James Turrell, Rebecca Warren and Corinne Wasmuht.

To light the way, Curiger recently sat down with art writer Barbara Pollack to answer a few questions.

Barbara Pollack: How did you come up with the theme of "ILLUMInations"?

Bice Curriger: It's my own point of view, but at the same time, when you do a show at the Venice Biennale, you are surrounded by national pavilions. This time we have 88 pavilions, which are beyond my control and able to speak more competently about their own countries.

Is it time to do away with the concept of "nations" at Venice?

I think it is a bit too easy to say that the national pavilions at Venice are "old fashioned." If we consider the idea of the "nation," we can see it belongs very much to history, to the history of the 20th century. And where, if not in art, can you approach heavy concepts and deal with them in a more relaxed way and illuminate them?

So it's a question of remaining open to history?

If we don't deal with this history, are we not erasing something from memory? Adolf Hitler and Mussolini walked through the Giardini! It is part of the history of the 20th century. It is part of the history of the biennale. The national concept, as I see it, is a metaphor for communal living and for community. The art world also is a nation in a metaphorical sense.

In your explanation of the title, "ILLUMInations," you reference the Enlightenment -- which is another concept that people might find anachronistic.

It is a word, "illuminations," but it is also the title of a book of symbolist poems by Arthur Rimbaud and a book of essays by Walter Benjamin. All these different associations belong to the cultural discourse. Being in Venice, you have to accept that the biennale is like a bazaar, a marketplace for the exchange of ideas. So of course we aren't going to throw out the ideas of the Enlightenment. If you defend human rights, you deal somehow with values established with the Enlightenment.

A number of artists are making works for the show. Are they taking the idea of illumination literally?

I am not doing a show about light bulbs! It would be easy to find works like that. There are many. When I approached the artists in the show, I told them of my plan to include three paintings by Tintoretto, which I wanted because of their fantastic use of an ecstatic light. But it was totally open whether an artist might pick up this theme or not.

For me, illumination is in an abstract sense the essence of what art gives to its audience. It is illuminating in an intellectual way. It gives me access to the world. Some of the artists in the show did pick up on the reference to Tintoretto. They chose among their works something that has to do with light.

While you were making your selections, did you see a major trend in contemporary art?

Yes, I looked long enough to see that many artists are dealing with classical genres. They do sculptures, they do paintings. It is not this emphasis that was there in the 1960s and '70s on "anti-art" or taking your art practice out into society. It is more looking at the fundamentals of art and culture itself.

How much is your biennale going to deal with the state of the world?

I trust that artists are dealing sensitively with questions about who we are in this world. I am not a curator who goes out and makes a statement about the state of the world and then looks for artists who can illustrate that. I prefer to go and look for the voices, for artists who tell me something about I don't already know.

What impression do you want visitors who come to your exhibition to take away?

The Venice Biennale has really broad public who are expecting to see contemporary art in a different way than they do when they go to a museum. I don't want to disappoint this trust they somehow give! I hope they will be a little bit illuminated.

BARBARA POLLACK is author of The Wild, WIld East: An American Art Critic's Adventures in China (Timezone 8 Books).