Location| Venice Biennale 2011: Photos and Reflections (Part 1, Canada)

The Venice Biennale is one of the most anticipated contemporary art exhibitions
in the art world, held in one of the most unique and somewhat unlikely settings on the planet
(photo: D. Barenscott)

Over the summer, I embarked upon a pretty ambitious month-long trip to Europe that took me from Budapest to Paris, from Venice to Dubrovnik, and touring around the Mediterranean as far as Turkey. Taking a much needed break from the rigours of teaching and other administrative tasks over the past academic year, I wanted to take some time to focus on important facets of my research and also work in as many key exhibitions and museum visits as I could. At the beginning of the year, I had blogged about important exhibitions to watch in 2011, and I am happy to report that I did my best to see as much great modern and contemporary art as I could in Europe, even while continuing to be sucked into a Gothic or Medieval church or two along the way! 

Of my contemporary art encounters, the Venice Biennale was perhaps among my favourite. This might seem an obvious choice to many, but I had grown somewhat ambivalent about what I would see on display after many years of lukewarm reviews and questions about the relevance of a nationality based exhibition in an increasingly global art world context.  

The main and original site of the pavilions are situated in a large city park on
the Western most edges of Venice (photo: D. Barenscott)
After downloading and sorting through my hundreds of photographs (yes, it paid to bring along a good digital camera on this trip!), I decided that I would share and reflect on a number of the pavilions I visited over a series of blog posts over the next week or so.

I wanted to begin with Canada—not just because I happen to be Canadian, or because our artist representative Steven Shearer happens to be from Vancouver (although these are valid enough reasons, right?)—but because the pavilion stood in very stark contrast to the direction other country’s took in their artistic and thematic choices.

Note Canada's awkward position on the map in relation to other nations.
To begin with, the Canadian pavilion traditionally occupies an odd and very small and difficult space in the overall design of the broader Biennale grounds at the Venice Giardini (gardens). Lodged between and behind the much more prominent England and Germany pavilions, Canada is relegated to the very edge of the exhibition grounds and perceptually seems to get lost, reflecting our often perceived global position as a distant and small player in larger global affairs. Steven Shearer’s works, as I introduced in a post last June, already seemed a somewhat unlikely choice for placement in the pavilion since his works gave shape to a much more personal and less overtly political or broader social approach as with past choices that drew visitors to the pavilion (i.e. other Vancouver based artists such as Rebecca Belmore, Rodney Graham, or Ken Lum). But after seeing and experiencing the exhibition for myself, it makes sense to me why he took on the challenge of both the space and place of the pavilion.

The inside entrance to the Canadian pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale
(photo: D. Barenscott)
Shearer's large scale mural of one of his "heavy metal poems" did
manage to catch audience attention, but the interior of the exhibition space was
in sharp contrast to the spectacle of the sign outside
(photo: D. Barenscott) 
Shearer’s art practice, which is mostly made up of drawings, paintings, sketches, and murals, channelled a kind of quiet and contemplative retreat from the more brash, spectacular, and sometimes overtly in-your-face new media, performance, and installation focused projects seen in a majority of the other national pavilions. The only hint of that came with his large and provocative mural (see image above) that actually worked to grab visitor's initial attention to the Canadian space. Once inside, however, I kept thinking as I walked through the space and watched other’s engage with Shearer’s works, how much more attention was being paid to these works and to a practice that some would now think of as far more traditional in orientation.

(photo: D. Barenscott)
(photo: D. Barenscott)
A quiet retreat from the noise of the Venice Biennale
(photo: D. Barenscott)
Canada, of course, is well known and often closely connected to its pioneering role in new media, video, and digital arts technologies, and so it was a bold move to go with a body of work that asked for a renewed attention and interest to less technologically centered art-making practices. As Shearer explains in an interview this past summer with the National Post, the “Canadian” identity is one that he also views as shifting, indeterminent, yet worthy of consideration. 

Q:  How does it feel to be representing Canada in Venice?

A I don't feel like I'm representing a nation. To make something about being a Canadian person... I don't know how you do that other than just do what I've done, be an artist based in Canada. And at many points, I never even thought I'd be an artist. I had social anxiety and for a long time wanted nothing more than to be left alone in my parents' basement making drawings and playing guitar. The fact that those kinds of activities are what pushed me out into the world... that's about as big of a transition as I can handle.

Q: So what are you doing in Venice?

A I wanted to respond to the Canada Pavilion's space, and also to some anxiety that exists about its small scale and lack of prominence. So I decided to create a false front for it and put one of my poem murals on it. This way, at least from one point of view, the Canada Pavilion appears to be as big as the German or British ones. I also liked putting this large thing out in front to point out how intimate the Canada Pavilion is. It's not a great pavilion for big, dominant works. It was made to show paintings, drawings and small sculptures. So inside, I decided to do that. Overall, I was interested in celebrating the space rather than trying to negate it.

I for one was very glad to see Canada represented in this way, and hope that the curatorial decisions made for this year's Venice Biennale signal a new direction for representing Canadian contemporary art to the rest of the world.