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The Recession Biennale
by Lavinia Filippi
The 53rd International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia, which opens to the press on June 4, 2009, and to the public June 7th-Nov. 22, 2009, is organized this year by the Frankfurt-based curator Daniel Birnbaum, who has selected more than 90 artists for the show. "The idea," Birnbaum said, "is to give artists a chance to make their work."

Titled "Making Worlds," the show can be called a return to basics. A single large exhibition with no sections -- a specific request of biennale president Paolo Baratta -- it is specifically designed to emphasize "the process of creation." The show is installed in its usual place, the huge and labyrinthine Mussolini-era Italian pavilion in the Giardini, though now the building has a new name: Palazzo delle Esposizioni della Biennale. Where it once read "Italia" in large white block letters across the facade, it will now say "La Biennale."

Italy has been given its own pavilion, not in the Giardini with the other founding nations, but in the Tese delle Vergini in the Arsenale. The exhibition there, "Tests: Homage to F.T. Marinetti," features 21 artists (including Sandro Chia but largely presenting artists that are less known outside of Italy) organized by Beatrice Buscaroli and Luca Beatrice.

This year the biennale, like many art institutions, has had to face the world-wide financial crisis. Birnbaum, then, has a challenging mission. Not only does he have to muffle the unfailing bitter controversy that regularly comes with the event, he also has to deal with the new mood of austerity. This situation perhaps explains his call for a more utopian content. Enough with the blinking lights and artistsí names in neon; the time has come to free art from institutional and commercial weight and to focus on the creative process.

Born in Stockholm in 1963, Daniel Birnbaum -- billed as the youngest Venice Biennale director ever -- is chancellor of the Staedelschule and director of the Portikus in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany. His experience with international exhibitions is deep: Since 2001 he has been on the board of Manifesta, in 2005 he co-curated the first Biennial of Moscow and in 2008 the second edition of the Torinoís Triennale. Since the early Ď90s he's been writing for Artforum, Parkett and Frieze.

After registering his own critiques of many previous biennials, Birnbaum seems thrilled and amused to be the target this time around. He says he is ready for criticism. But we are not there yet. At the moment we can only try to understand what he has in mind for this show that we will be able to visit in a couple of months.

LF: Whatís new in the biennale?

DB: Every year the biennale is different, but this time we also have a few structural changes. The biennale wants to emphasize that it is something that happens all year long and what was formally known as the Padiglione Italia has been redesigned and renovated to become a central platform for permanent activities year round. We are building a platform to host not only big exhibitions but also small workshops and seminars.

We have enlisted artists to help us redesign the cafe [Tobias Rehberger], the bookstore [Rirkrit Tiravanija] and the educational center [Massimo Bartolini]. The exhibition space is being expanded as well into the so-called Garden of the Virgins at the very end of the Arsenale area, a romantic, fairy-tale place, very difficult to show art in because it is so beautiful in itself. Between five and 10 artists are making works there.

LF: Whatís new in the show?

DB: The show includes artists of many generations and from all continents, that is of course nothing new in itself, but this year we asked artists to work with the places as they are. Some years the biennale has maybe been more experimental, some others a little bit more museum-style; if you change the whole Arsenale into a long white corridor, for instance, then you create a slightly more museum-like presentation. We havenít done that.

We have given the spaces as they are to the artists and if they want to add something, build a wall or create a particular situation, we will try to help them, but we are not neutralizing the historic Arsenale space. We are using the building with all its challenges. Itís not easy but I think itís appropriate to the biennale: it is not a museum, it is something else.

LF: The list of artists really includes people from all generations. How did you select the artists?

DB: Sometimes people can be forgotten although they are key people. I think about Öyvind Fahlström, the political pop artist who was born in Brazil of a Scandinavian family, maybe the most relevant artist from my part of the world in the last decade. I think itís very important to reintroduce him, he is an incredibly important political artist in the sense that he was thinking about globalization in the 1960s, long before it became an active discussion. We are recreating his installation from the 1966 biennale, Dr. Schweitzerís Last Mission. Other older artists presenting a sense of history and anticipation are Andre Cadere, Gordon Matta-Clark, Blinky Palermo and Lygia Pape.

Of course, the biennale includes incredibly interesting young artists who have not been visible in Europe. One is a performance artist from India named Nikhil Chopra, who mixes performances with installations; heíll do something in the Tese delle Vergine. Another is Miranda July, who is very well known as a filmmaker and as a writer from Los Angeles; for the biennale she is making a kind of sculptural garden that viewers can participate in.

LF: Your selection features quite a number of emerging Italian artists. What do you think about the contemporary Italian art scene?

DB: This has been an Italian year for me because I have been involved in many things in Italy. Iíve seen all the big shows and Iíve done a big show in Torino. Maybe it is unusual that a curator coming from outside the country includes in a show so many young Italian artists. Iím not an expert in Italian art, but I have been working in Italy for a year, and have made hundreds of studio visits. I have involved quite a number of Italian artists at the biennale, some very young that have never been in the biennale and also some older ones. I donít see them as representative of Italy, I see them more as representative of themselves.

LF: Did you face any special difficulties in organizing the biennale?

DB: The biennale takes place during a global economic cataclysm, but I canít really say that conceptually we are reacting to the crisis. Of course, economics affects everything, and when it comes to building an exhibition some things are more difficult.

But this year the biennale has a lot of projects that involve a different kind of art economy, not the one that is obsessed with the original precious object, but rather the one that is about things that canít even be collected or sold.

We have Yoko Ono instructions, pieces that are like poems. We have the German artist Thomas Bayrle, who was born in 1937, and who is interested in the mechanical reproduction of patterns. He makes wallpapers. They are beautiful but they cannot really be collected or sold, they are multiples.

LF: Do you think you will be criticized? What criticism are you expecting?

DB: I am 100 percent sure that I will be very criticized. I have myself written about the Venice Biennale and Iíve never been very friendly. How I will be criticized? I think it will be the privilege of the critic himself, or herself, to answer that question, and I am looking forward to it. My hope is that this exhibition will not only be about things that have been and about the tools that we use, but that it will be a show about our time and hopefully about the future.

LAVINIA FILIPPI is an art critic based in Rome.