Enjoy the Riches of the Countryside
Alise Tīfentāle, art critic
One of the more significant themes in the Venice Biennale this year was a kind of revival of the image of the ‘noble savage' from the era of the Enlightenment, together with the romantisation of nature. Which makes sense, because after all the cultured and civilised European (and American) normally is pretty far from nature, unless we count the greenery flashing by, seen through the car window when driving on a motorway, or the documentaries about exotic animals on TV.

In Latvia it's not quite that bad yet, because almost every urban and apparently modern and technocratic coeval is acquainted with the phenomenon "relatives in the countryside", and maintains a certain connection to the archaic farmstead or at least a house with a garden on the outskirts of the city. There is an unwritten rule that to unwind means the harmonious reunification with nature, spending time in an uncivilised rural or seaside setting. Even if it means a quick stopover at one's over-grown garden at the "holiday house" for a couple of days, for some desperate weeding in the heat of the day, battling against the almighty entropy, and during moments of rest sitting in the shade, listening to the wonderful summery sounds of the Latvian countryside: the polyphonic whirring of mowers, trimmers, hedge cutters and mulchers, both near and far, the neighbours' favourite music, the distant rumble of the motorway and the railway, and in the background, the barely audible, yet regular buzzing of the airplanes in the sky.

To weed, to trim, to water, to fertilise, to take care of the vulnerable, to fuss around the compost pile, and then, at a run, to return to the computer and various projects. Or else one can also treat nature as an absolute consumer, finding a nice meadow or a river bank for a picnic with friends, family or colleagues: grilling sausages, swimming and drinking beer, mean-while leaving the car radio on. In any case, we Latvians love nature. That is why many pieces of art at this year's Venice Biennale may appear different to us in comparison to, say, a hyperactive art journalist or a superintellectual curator from London or Moscow. That is, the things which may be exotic and mysterious to an urbanised cosmopolitan are very familiar to us, and merely elicit a sincere smile. For example, a real, plant-matter compost heap, placed inside a small room in such a way that the elegant art lovers cannot avoid direct contact with it when passing by (one of the works of art in the Austrian pavilion curated by Valie Export - the installation titled Laubreise by Franziska & Lois Weinberger).
Lara Favaretto. Momentary Monument (Swamp). Giardino delle Vergini, Arsenale. 2009. Courtesy of Galleria Franco Noero, Turin
On the other hand, Lara Favaretto, an Italian artist, had made a genuine swamp in the bushes behind the Arsenale exhibition halls, in honour of those who have gone missing without notice, as the artist explains. Favaretto’s work Momentary Monument (Swamp), included in the exhibition Making Worlds curated by Daniel Birnbaum, is both discreet and unnoticable (viewed in passing it looks like dug up soil, which could be taken to be unfinished gardening work – until one notices the small white sign with the title of the work), yet at the same time it resembles an open wound, a “carbuncle”, an uncultivated and raw fragment of the brutal processes of nature amidst the well-kept and manicured surroundings. The artist says she devoted the temporary swamp of oblivion to those who are missing: the author Ambrose Bierce, artist Bas Jan Ader, traveller Cristopher Johnson McCandless, the chess-player Bobby Fischer. A beautiful gesture, both sentimental and melancholic, pointing out the futility of human endeavour (both as regards the huge effort invested in creating something that mimics things that occur in nature of their own accord, as well as the fact that the termination of one’s life is the last point of reference, after which the substance of the human being sinks into the swamp and disappears without a trace, transforming into lichen, mud and water). The swamp as a magnificent metaphor, as materiality, and metaphysics.

Even more discreet is the work by the Slovak artist Roman Ondák, in the pavilion of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the Giardini of the Biennale (it must be said that a slightly spooky sensation of parallel reality is evoked by the name Czechoslovakia – a country that doesn’t exist any more – on the pavilion). Ondák’s work Loop is indeed an effective trap for an inattentive, superficial and tired spectator (as were most of the visitors on the Biennale press day): the pavilion has been literally dissolved into the atmosphere; moreover, it was made with very little funding. The door of the pavilion has been removed and the interior has been turned into the exterior: there is soil on the floor, planted with the same kind of trees and bushes as there are outside the pavilion, and the visiting masses flow along the gravel path, mostly without even noticing that they are in the very middle of a work of art, carelessly wading through it. They have been caught in Ondák’s ingenious loop, and many of them seek in confusion – where on earth is that work of art?.

For instance, Charlotte Higgins, arts correspondent for the British newspaper ‘The Guardian’, writes in her blog: “I walked back and forth through the damn pavilion several times before I “got” it”.1 Michael Archer, another commentator on the arts, mentions the work by Roman Ondák as one of the first in his review of the Biennale, backing up his opinion that many of the Biennale works this year are to be enjoyed “virtually”: “Roman Ondák’s transformation of the Czech/Slovak pavilion into a walk-through continuation of the Giardini’s gravel path with shrub planting to either side is the most succinct, humorous and thoughtful expression of this fact”.2 Confusion and perplexity in the absence of anything in the pavilion – a space designated for art – which is usually perceived as art: these feelings could be the essence of the work. On further analysis, the author is challenging and rejecting the approved means of expression in contemporary art, as well as reflecting on the idiosyncrasies of per-ception, and on the imaginary and the real borders that give structure to the world of a civilised urban person. The work also casts doubts upon and re-evaluates accepted values, in its own way a critical comment on the unscientific materialism of consumer society (a work of art which cannot be “consumed”, as it’s not there, is just the experience of the spectator and the reaction that follows).

Medicinal herbs
A more didactic approach to enjoying the richness of nature was to be observed at the Belgian pavilion: in an ambitious project Quadra Medicinale the artist Jef Geys studied the prevalence of herbs in the urban environment. He asked acquaintances in Moscow, Brussels, Villeurbanne and New York to look for certain plants, and they found them growing among concrete slabs, in cracks in the asphalt, in courtyards, on roadsides, by manhole covers and in other places. These modest and hardy friends and rescuers of humans have been carefully catalogued: photographed, described, even the address where they were found has been registered, and a description of each plant’s medicinal properties, a dried sample and a drawing is attached. In somewhat utopian manner the author states that herbs found in cities are a God-given free pharmacy for the poor and the homeless. One part of this project was not realised: this was an intention to publish the exhibition catalogue as an “edible newspaper”, printed on material which can be eaten after reading. The artist turned 70 this year, and throughout his long career he has been socially engaged, constantly discussing in his works the conflict between the artificial “social system” and natural human rights and obligations (including the authoritative attitude on the part of art institutions). For example, within the framework of one of his projects (Summer House, 1977) Jef Geys built, without any help from anyone else, a little house for living in the countryside, and used only the timber and other natural materials which he himself had found and prepared. As the author of this work of art, Geys signed his name in the freshly-poured cement on the threshold at the entrance of the house. When the encyclopaedia Oosthoek was preparing an entry for Geys, he gave them a photo of the house as an example of his art, but the editorial staff rejected it (“it’s not a work of art”)3.
Nikhil Chopra. Yog Raj Chitrakar: Memory Drawing VII. Performance (48 continous hours, 3-5 July). From the exhibition Making Worlds curated by Daniel Birnbaum. 2009. Photo: Zenta Dzividzinska
Palm trees and snakes
Flora and fauna is actively involved also in the national exhibition of Cyprus. In Rumours, another ambitious work, the artist Socratis Socratous both embraces a message on the political situation in his country, and cunningly plays with the informal flow of information, i.e. rumours. On the basis of one local “urban tale” (to summarise: a number of palm trees were imported from the Turkish part of Cyprus and planted in the Greek part, but very soon stories started to spread that hidden amongst the roots of these palm trees there were the eggs of cobras, which were to hatch and crawl to the surface of the ground in order to bite people), Socratous attempts to spread similar rumours among the Venetians and visitors to the Biennale that there are snakes in the city, and that palm trees have begun to appear at unexpected places. Palm trees like menacingly protruding gun barrels are transported around the city in a cargo boat, (it must be added that the sight of this is some-what startling, especially to those who do not know that it is a work of art), meanwhile two cobras, together with their charmers, live in the exhibition hall permanently, in a small room behind a glass wall. The licence to keep cobras issued by the Cypriot institution responsible for these matters is also on display. I managed to find out that the cobras were actually there only during the opening days, and had been transported back home later. At the same time, I suspect that these rumours are just a part of the project, and that during my visit the snakes were peacefully sleeping in their box, just like the snake-charmers from Cyprus who were lounging about nearby.

Sand, fog, and darkness
The artists have copiously used the entire range of senses and emotions which can be created with the means of expression available to modern art. For instance, visitors at the Venice Biennale are given the opportunity to succumb to solemn seriousness and tense dramatism – this is the impact of the mat woven from human hair by Zoran Todorovič, the Serbian artist, and no less unsettling is a work by the Hungarian artist Péter Forgács, in which he uses materials from historical archives about the extensive research on determining racial features carried out by a Nazi anthropologist, an Austrian scientist in the 1930s (Forgács has used the large photo and film collection of portraits assembled by the scientist, as well as records on the research method used: taking plaster masks of living humans). The exhibition visitor may also lightly balance on the verge of soppy sentimentality when watching the poetic, femininely touching video works by Fiona Tan, the Dutch artist. Likewise, it is possible to indulge in philosophical discourse and to totally lose oneself in the text when looking at the Turkish national exhibition, where the most significant element is a compilation of philosophical essays in three volumes. Or, quite the opposite, the viewer can also lightheartedly regress to the state of a being a flippant child, where everything is just an object of play and nothing can be taken seriously any more, for example, the Ukrainian pavilion (which has been very much discussed in the Western press, devoting a lot of attention to the posh and ultrafashionable yacht be-longing to the influential business man Victor Pinchuk, patron of the exhibition and owner of a contemporary art centre. On the opening day of the Biennale the yacht was shamelessly “parked” in the most visible place: right next to an equally attractive yacht belonging to the well-known businessman Roman Abramovich).

By the way, the Ukrainian contribution at this year’s Venice Biennale is no less excellent and pleasing than the one in 20074. This time the centre of attention is the structural model of the process of art (i.e., the establishment of the curator, the role and functions of the artist), as well as the immaterial essence of art itself, expressed by the effects utilised: once more, the richness of nature, this time held under control and subjected to the intentions of the artists. Ukraine ambitiously and confidently bought the biggest and best advertising space in the city (just in front of the Accademia bridge), where the curator of the Ukrainian pavilion was introduced to the public: no less than Wladimir Klitschko himself, a boxer of Ukrainian origin, portrayed with gilded inline skates in his hands. One assumes that his only contribution in the creation of the exhibition is to attract the public. Meanwhile, the authors of the exhibition are the fashion artists Illya Chichkan, who is Ukrainian, and Mihara Yasuhiro, who is Japanese. The installation Steppes of Dreamers is spread out over several rooms, serving as a fake film set, possibly for a horror film, where on the ground floor the spectators are welcomed by a branded artificial fog (Attair Gezir 1000 DMX with 15 litres of “liquid of fog”) and a floor covered in branded sand (Ultimo Classic Display Sand). Further along, there is darkness and surreal, mechanical dolls, with appropriate background music, and yet another room in darkness, which is unexpectedly lit up by cheerfully colourful light-bulbs flashing up in the grand gilded chandelier of the exhibition hall.

When visiting the exhibition alone, one truly enjoys a certain mood of physical and emotional presence, in which the main role is played by the sensations of the viewer, (impossible to formulate), and not the material quality of the work of art. For example, Ben Hoyle, arts correspondent of ‘The Times’, having already mentioned the Ukrainian exhibition in the title of his article about the Venice Biennale, calls it “one of the most ambitious entries” of the Biennale this year (referring also to the charming personality of Wladimir Klitschko, and the financial clout of Victor Pinchuk)5. To my mind, Steppes of Dreamers is a great example of how the use of a formal method – the seemingly playful motif of a game – in art can result in a powerful work of art of high quality, even though at the first glance it may have seemed like a none too funny joke (as when looking into Klitschko’s eyes).
Ragnar Kjartansson. The End - Venice. Performance installation. 2009. Photo: Rafael Pinho. Courtesy of the artist, Gallery Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reikjavik
As Part of Nature – the Artist as the Exhibit
Several artists have chosen the genre of performance, together with strategy of their physical presence, in order to achieve more direct contact with their audience. The curator Daniel Birnbaum introduced in his exhibition the performance Yog Raj Chitrakar: Memory Drawing VII by Nikhil Chopra, Indian artist. Previous parts of this performance were shown in the Yokohama Triennial (2008), in a solo exhibition in Mumbai (2007), etc. Chopra’s performances are taking place in a remote corner behind the Arsenale, in a solitary former chapel, where he disguises himself as his fictional character Yog Raj Chitrakar, inspired by the personality and experiences of his grandfather, who was also an artist. Memory Drawing includes both the artist in action, like drawings on the canvases on the walls, and his passive presence: during my visit in the middle of the day, the artist was sitting down to rest and was watching a landscape of his homeland which had been projected onto the floor at his feet. The table has been laid for lunch or dinner, there is a candlestick, as well as half-eaten loaf of bread and fruit. In the corner of the smallish room there is a bright metal bucket of water and other items for personal hygiene. Grandfather’s jacket, his shaving brush etc. are other objects which help the artist to bring to mind his grandfather. Although in the commentary on this performance in the exhibition catalogue it is stated that it raises the issue of the colonial past of India, it can be also perceived as a personal, intimate study about oneself, one’s origin and roots. Moreover, an important element is the small size of the room, so that the spectator, on entering, feels like a stranger who has intruded on somebody’s living room without having been invited. The artist is just an arm’s length away, he is breathing the same air as I am, but at the same time he is inaccessibly far away (the landscape of India in front of his eyes and a family history which is unknown to me).

A visit to the Biennale has to come to an end at some point, and in conclusion I visit Iceland’s national exhibition titled The End. Here the artist Ragnar Kjartansson (whom we introduced to the readers of ‘Studija’ in the last edition) is using the pavilion as his studio for the duration of the Biennale (from June until November). First of all one can enjoy his video work displaying the artist and a friend, dressed in furs and (one would think) woollen socks, and playing sorrowful country music on a variety of instruments (including electric guitars and a real concert grand piano) against the backdrop of a vast, endless, and monumental Canadian mountain landscape, where their only audience appears to be a total void and the wind. The artist himself is in residence in the central hall, in a spacious room with direct access to the Grand Canal, accompanied by his friends and a model, whose portrait he will be ceaselessly painting for the entire period of the Biennale. For this purpose, the artist has been supplied with around 200 fresh white canvases in different sizes, as well as with records, beer, and cigarettes. In a relaxed unhurried mood, whilst sociably chatting with his friends and acquaintances, the performance artist Kjartansson is painting sketchlike portraits and piling them up against the walls of the studio. All of this together is titled The End, and indeed, there is something melancholically existential and Weltschmerz inducing about this performance lasting for months on end; yet at the same time this performance offers a healthy dose of humour, which turns The End into a genuine art experience. How to perceive it depends to a large extent on the spectator (on the balance between a sense of humour and Welt-schmerz in their perception). I don’t think that a standard scientific analysis is suitable for the art by Kjartansson, for example Laura Cumming, the arts correspondent of The Observer, has made one of the most precise and perceptive comments about The End, describing it as “continuous performance called The End, which involves smoking, drinking and painting dismally bad portraits round the clock from now to the closing day. Iceland is bankrupt, the Biennale is paralysingly grand, and Kjartansson can barely paint. But still the artist must go on – Venice expects – no matter that he is doomed to fail.”6 The artist will definitely go on, and even if it looks like a failure, it could just as well be a heart-breaking tragedy á la Goethe or Schiller.

The author thanks the State Culture Capital Foundation for the opportunity to attend the Venice Biennale

(1) Comment by Charlotte Higgins in her blog is available at:

(2) Archer, M. Not seeing but drowning: my visit to the Venice Biennale. The Guardian, June 10, 2009.

(3) Geys, J. Quadra Medicinale. Kempens Informatieblad, 2009, p.10.

(4) Let me refer to my own enthusiastic review – Castles to Workers (“Pilis – strādniekiem!”). Studija, No 55, 2007, p. 66-73

(5) Hoyle, B. Ukraine pavilion is a Venice Biennale knockout. The Times. June 8, 2009.

(6) Cumming, L. On your vaporetto to the far pavilions. The Observer, June 7, 2009.

/Translator into English: Jānis Aniņš/
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