VENICE, Italy – The Venice Biennale, perhaps the most important contemporary art exhibition in the world, is under way, and for the first time Costa Rica is taking part with its own national pavilion, amid the palazzos and canals of this storied city.
Under the title “ILLUMInations,” the 54th Venice Biennale emphasizes the intuitive insight and illumination of thought fostered by an encounter with art, and its ability to sharpen the tools of perception, as underlined by Zurich-based curator Bice Curiger in the biennale’s splendid and inspiring exhibitions. And indeed Venice was illuminated and illuminating as the most unique city in the world came to life early this month during the opening week of the celebrated biennial art show.
At its two locations, the Giardini and the Arsenale, “ILLUMInations” includes inspiring works such as Swiss contemporary artist Urs Fischer’s large wax sculptures slowly melting like candles, Swiss-American visual artist Christian Marclay’s cinema installation “The Clock,” and U.S. artist Rashid Johnson’s mirrored geometric panels. The large entrance room at the Giardini is spectacular with paintings by 16th century Venetian master Tintoretto surrounded by stuffed pigeons installed by irreverent contemporary genius Maurizio Cattelan. Also attesting to a returning fascination for the old masters are the Canaletto-inspired videos by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist and the large figures in the “etched” landscape by U.S. photographer Cindy Sherman.
Although Costa Rican artists have participated in the exhibition in the past, it has always been outside the official program. This year, Costa Rica’s first Venice Biennale national pavilion was opened June 3 with a concert by none other than Costa Rican Culture Minister Manuel Obregón.
An international project by Tico artist Francisco Córdoba, Costa Rica’s exhibition, titled “Stupore,” is based on the fundamental idea that before speaking, man painted, danced and created musical sounds, linking the process of making art not to the laws of man but to those of nature. Curator Francesco Elisei attempted to formulate the pavilion using works that reflect on how the mind is born free and is “stupefied” by the emotions it is able to feel, and that knowledge represents the path to freedom, transcending time and space. The result is a somewhat confused mixed of works by 11 artists, only three of whom are Costa Rican: Córdoba, Luis Chacón and Jaime David Tischler. Working against them is the pavilion’s location in Sant’Elena, miles away from any other show.
Another Costa Rican artist present at the biennale is Sila Chanto, whose work is included in the group show curated by Alfons Hug for the Latin America pavilion. Chanto’s work is based on plaques of patriotic inspiration seen in the streets of San José, reprinted in inverted writing, a commentary on the political setbacks of independence in Latin America.
The German pavilion won the prize of the international jury with a profound installation dedicated to late artist Christoph Schlingensief, openly exhibiting the artist’s struggle with cancer, illness and faith.
The U.S. exhibition, with artistic collaborators Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, drew attention with an upside-down tank with a treadmill installed on top, parked in front of the pavilion in what seemed to be a commentary on the futility of war.
One of the most elegant and impressive exhibits this year is the Austrian pavilion. Markus Schinwald played with the architecture of the building to create an unsettling space, a deconstructed spatial maze infused by pictorial elements of control, discipline and self-correction.
Many national pavilions feature inspired commentaries on current affairs. While outside the Chinese pavilion demonstrators chanted, “Free Ai Weiwei!” (the imprisoned Chinese artist and activist), Egypt showcased a series of videos by Ahmed Basiony, including his last, shot on Jan. 28, before he was killed during the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square at the age of 32. Artist Diohandi wrapped the Greek pavilion in plywood, hiding the grand facade, and titled the show “Beyond Reform”; inside, the solitude of the flooded floors evokes the sense of loss the country is experiencing. And the Iraqi pavilion is presenting two generations of artists, both victims of political instability and war.
The 54th Venice Biennale runs through Nov. 27, making the next few months a great time to cross the pond and head to the Grand Canal. For information, see www.labiennale.org. For more on the Costa Rican pavilion, go to www.biennale-costarica.com.