Location| Venice Biennale: Photos and Reflections (Part 3: Germany, France, and Great Britain)

Venice by night.... a unique atmospheric experience
(photo: D. Barenscott)
Having looked closer to home with my reflections on the Canadian and US pavilions at the Venice Biennale in Part One and Part Two of this post, I will now turn to some thoughts on three exhibitions that reflect more current trends in immersive installation, new media, and the intersection of filmic and visual arts in contemporary art. Perhaps not surprisingly, the German, French, and Great Britain pavilions best reflected these approaches and with the most drama.

Venice Biennale 2011(photo D: Barenscott)

German Pavilion, the sign says it all
(photo: D. Barenscott)
First, it was nearly impossible to ignore the publicity surrounding the German selection for this year’s Venice Biennale. The late artist and filmmaker Christof Schlingensief had agreed to participate just nine months before passing away of terminal cancer, and so the pavilion organizers were faced with the challenge of how to present the artist’s controversial work without his guidance. In the end, a large scale replica of Schlingensief’s boyhood church created the spatial container for a tribute to his creative projects joining film, experimental theatre, and mixed media. We spotted the pavilion almost immediately—it is tough to ignore a building with the words EGOMANIA emblazoned on it—and entered into what was both a terrifying and strangely kitschy and surreal space. The church-like setting had been transformed into a temple of “Kino,” complete with alter and benches to sit and contemplate the birage of motion pictures on three screens above the viewers’ heads. 

As a controversial filmmaker within his native Germany, Schlingensief’s difficult films-- such as A Hundred Years of Adolph Hitler (1989) and The German Chainsaw Massacre (1990)-- deal with the unspoken and repressed elements of the nation’s violent past. The pavilion was awarded the top prize at the Biennalethis year, yet I could not help thinking that all of the violent spectacle shown there only worked to reinforce negative stereotypes visitors might already hold about Germany. There was also something very creepy and unsettling about how people were interacting with the show—many were giggling and seeming to enjoy the “forbidden” quality of what was being represented. Perhaps this was Schlingensief’s understanding of human nature at work—seeking to expose and confront us with our hidden impulses.    

A peek inside cannot the church to Kino
(photos: D. Barenscott)
Moving to the French pavilion, the theme of motion pictures and immersive environments was approached from a different direction by the mixed media artist Christian Boltanski. The multi-room exhibition "Chance" featured one of the most intriguing spaces for visitors to explore. Floor to ceiling scaffolding and a maze-like setting invited people to walk through the show and the addition of moving images of babies faces (quite literally on tracks above our heads), and a great deal of mechanical noise (unusual in an “art space” that is often a quiet space of contemplation) added to the high sensory experience. Every minute or so, the noise and the track would stop, focusing on one single image of a baby’s face. Titled The Wheel of Fortune, the quality of random selection in this project reflected the other rooms where Boltanski featured statistics of people who would be born and would die that day (Last News from Humans) and an interactive piece that allowed people to form a new human through pressing a button and assembling a face from random fragments of pre-existing photographs (Be New).

(photos D: Barenscott)
Finally, our visit to the Great Britain pavilion rounded out the last of these most experiential exhibitions. Mike Nelson’s much talked about atmospheric installations, which immerse the viewer in an unfolding narrative that is built through a sequence of carefully reconstructed spatial structures, are like a grown-up versions of those amusement park rides that move people through reconstructed haunted houses. The final project does not disappoint and a real sense of adventure and play takes hold as we enter the pavilion. First, we are told to watch our heads at all times and be careful not to trip or fall over all of the materials on the floor and overhead. Second, we are placed inside what appears to be a real space, with harsh lighting, poorly ventilated and dusty rooms, together with rusty cans, implements, dirty mattresses, rugs etc. strewn about the dingy floors. 

Inside the spaces of the Great Britain pavilion-- a contemporary art version of a haunted house
(photos: D. Barenscott)
One of the guides tells us that it is meant to be replica of a Turkish workhouse, yet its bleak atmosphere and bizarre additions (like the room pictured above that is used as a photo development lab) was one that likely triggers connections to any number of sweatshop or illegal spaces of temporary refuge for migrants and other marginalized and "outlaw" elements.  As we were also told, Nelson attempted to reconstruct an earlier installation from another Biennale held in Istanbul in 2003. That is, the whole project is as much a conceptual one of trying to recreate an installation using a different space and geographic location as it is about the very embodied experience the final project provides its audience. No doubt it left me with a very disorienting sense of where I was, and that is perhaps the journey that we were meant to take with all three of the pavilions I have outlined here.