Aleksandra Mir

A Whole New World? On the 53rd Venice Biennale

By Ceci Moss, New York, June 2009

Making Worlds
7 June – 22 November 2009
Internazionale d'Arte - La Biennale di Venezia, Venice

...'Making Worlds', the theme for this year’s 53rd International Art Exhibition curated by Daniel Birnbaum, argues that art should be seen as a form of “world making” and taken seriously as such. His accompanying essay in the catalog holds a distinctively transcendent ring to it, one that calls out for a universal solidarity through art, in stating, “Perhaps art can be one way out of a world ruled by leveling impulses and dull sameness. Can each artwork be a principle of hope and an intriguing plan for escape? Behind the immediate surface we are many – together and individually, through the multiplicity of imaginative worlds we hold within.” Given the very real worlds of national and political ambitions on the table in the Biennale’s pavilions, not to mention the surreal economic and class component to these sorts of events, Birnbaum’s curatorial statement, which suggests that art is autonomous from these factors, seemed like floral hyperbole in comparison. Why would the U.S. Pavilion be the only country to extend their Bruce Nauman exhibition to three locations across the city? And why would the United Arab Emirates Pavilion feature numerous models of large-scale cultural projects proposed for Abu Dhabi? The world’s fair mentality is here for the long run, that is to be sure. The strongest projects I viewed, in both the main exhibition and the pavilions, were able to eek out a space, certainly not a “world”, with a degree of critical distance and integrity away from the Biennale circus.

Venice is one of the few cities in the world to completely rely on boats for delivery, transportation, garbage disposal, and every other municipal need you can think of. The upkeep of the city is expensive due to this fact, thus the only economy to quite literally keep the town afloat is tourism. Judging from the multiple skyscraper-sized cruise boats I saw pull in daily, and the hundreds upon hundreds of tourists who packed the city’s narrow passageways, it seems that this industry is alive and well. Two art works in the main exhibition dealt directly with Venice’s transition from an historic city to a Las Vegas-style destination with a sense of humor. For VENEZIA (all places contain all others) (2009), Aleksandra Mir printed a million postcards featuring the typical design and typeface found on a Venetian postcard except the artist switched out the images for other locales around the world near bodies of water, therefore VENEZIA is emblazed across picturesque images of white water rafting or an iced-over lake in the forest. Visitors were encouraged to take the deceptive postcards and use them, further circulating these fake mementos. The segment of the title, “all places contain all others” emphasizes the interchangeability of the Kodak moment, implying perhaps that the authenticity of these images is not so important after all. Miranda July’s Eleven Heavy Things (2009) in the sculpture park of the Arsenale similarly played with the snapshot or memento, where viewers were invited to take pictures with her eleven sculptures installed on small grassy knolls. Words were inscribed on the sheeny white fiberglass blocks in July’s signature handwriting with statements such as, “We don’t know each other, we’re hugging for the picture, when we’re done I’ll walk away quickly. It’s almost over.” in Eleven Heavy Things - Pedestal for Strangers or “This is my little girl. She is brave and clever and funny. She will have none of the problems that I have. Her heart will never be broken. She will never be humiliated. Self-doubt will not devour her dreams” in Eleven Heavy Things - Pedestal for a Daughter. Cartoonish wig-like shapes with cut out silhouettes for posing lightened up these candid declarations, and most of the visitors opted to snap photos with the whimsical blobs. Both VENEZIA (all places contain all others) and Eleven Heavy Things acknowledged the spectacle that is the Biennale and its relationship to the larger visual ecosystem of the city’s tourist industry, and folded this into their conceptual framework. Far from an attempt to forge a new world or new reality, Mir and July responded to their immediate environs with wit and candor...