Universes in Universe

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By Pat Binder and Gerhard Haupt, directors of Universes in Universe

When Harald Szeemann made claims of globality with the "Plateau of Humankind" at the 49th Venice Biennial, we found it incomprehensible that huge regions like Africa and South America, in which it is known that there are interesting artists, were so poorly represented (see our editorial from 2001).

In this regard the situation at the 50th Biennial is completely different, whereby the event follows a general trend. In recent years, there has been a considerable increase in attention paid to art coming from, or with cultural roots in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Half of the 10 projects within the "exhibition of exhibitions" initiated by Francesco Bonami have a corresponding focus or show artists primarily from these parts of the world. Also, 5 of the 12 curators originally come from these regions (Carlos Basualdo, Hou Hanru, Gabriel Orozco, Gilane Tawadros, Rirkrit Tiravanija).

However, there is a basic problem with this biennial which affects all exhibitors equally and of which they themselves are a part: far too much art. There are over 300 artists and groups assembled in the 10 central exhibitions alone (8 in the Arsenale, 2 in the Giardini). And though the (extremely vague) main theme "Dreams and Conflicts - The Viewer’s Dictatorship" covers all of the exhibitions, one must adjust to completely different curatorial concepts with each one.

Making things more difficult at the press tour in June, Venice was then experiencing its worst heatwave in 200 years, and the exhibition halls were especially full due to the masses of experts who had arrived for the event. Surely, this contributed significantly to the bad-tempered tone of many reviews. However, the question asked repeatedly as to the sense behind such over-sized events is more appropriate than ever. If specialists can’t even come close to gaining an overview of the art on display in three days, what is expected of a "normal" audience which can only take a maximum of one or two days to see the Biennial?

And we haven’t even mentioned the other portion of the program as a whole: the islands and atolls of this gigantic art-archipelago (to keep with Bonami’s expression), the innumerable parallel and special exhibitions by countries, instutions, galleries, groups, people...

Notwithstanding all discussions about the obsolescence of national presentations at international art exhibitions, more and more pavilions are added in Venice. Hence it is not just a few countries newly formed or reawakened by the implosion of Socialism in eastern Europe who wish to have a presence, regions such as Scotland and Wales also feel moved to demonstrate cultural self-confidence. New to the event, or reappearing after a decades-long absence are, among others, Indonesia, Iran and Thailand (see our report). China was forced to cancel its participation due to SARS, but appears in the catalog.

Anyone who makes it through the exhibitions in the Arsenale and the Giardini must be either inexhaustible, or especially motivated to search the many additional venues. Indicative of this was a joke among the press: Luxemburg’s prize-winning presentation was the most-reviewed, unseen pavilion.

Our Special aims to convey an impression of the African, Asian and Latin American presence at the 50th Biennial to those unable to travel to Venice. In view of the statements above, it is probably superfluous to note that we did not have the ambition to publish a systematic documentation. We included some of that which we found especially striking and noteworthy during our tour, but our selection should not be considered a qualitative valuation. We were unable to include some works due to technical reasons, we missed others because of a lack of time. But even those who looked around more thoroughly during their stay in Venice are sure to discover things in our pages that they overlooked there.

Pat Binder and Gerhard Haupt, 2003
Directors of Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art

50th International Art Exhibition
La Biennale di Venezia

15 June - 2 November 2003

Title: Dreams and Conflicts - The Viewer's Dictatorship

Artistic Director: Francesco Bonami

10 exhibitions, conceived by different curators

See also in UiU:

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