A reading of Bice Curiger's light-themed Biennale in the Giardini and Arsenale venues.

Epiphany and discernment; constantly evolving activity; an experience that sharpens the mind and increases our perception of the world we live in; a revelation of what is visible; and a light shining on the past and its dramas, the present and its conventions and the inescapable future and its uncertainties. These are the many ways that Bice Curiger, the Swiss curator of this 54th Venice Biennale, sees art. Indeed, she gave the exhibition the title "ILLUMInations" and placed it under the auspices of Tintoretto, standard-bearer of the Renaissance Venetian school that excelled at its portrayal of light. Tintoretto literally opens the exhibition with three paintings set at the start of the route in the Padiglione Centrale in the Giardini: The Stealing of the Dead Body of St Mark, The Creation of the Animals and The Last Supper.

The tangible presence of these works act like an homage to the mysticality and exactitude of art. It is a strong gesture on the curator's part, but not exactly a successful one. Although, symbolically speaking, a powerful link exists between these large canvases and the works displayed from the next room on, the connection is not explicitly made in the exhibition. The powerful emotion produced by these works is not contagious and no relationship is triggered with the modern-day works.
Haroon Mirza, <i>Anechoic chamber</i>, Arsenale.
Haroon Mirza, Anechoic chamber, Arsenale.
Removed from their context, amassed in one room on the white walls of Palazzo Centrale and uniformly lit, the paintings seem cut off, and the sense of something new contained in the bold compositions, deep shadows, sudden flashes of light and burning tension of the struggle between darkness and light remain constrained within the frames.

What does excite, literally and just a short distance away, is one of the first works encountered, Martin Creed's The lights going on and off, a number of light bulbs projecting light all around, irregularly and intermittently. Rather than eat into the space, Creed, a sophisticated inventor of minimal objects and signs, decided to bring the onlooker's perception of space and time into play.
Marinella Senatore, installation detail, Giardini.
Marinella Senatore, installation detail, Giardini.
Slightly farther on is the labyrinthine maze of identical slanting walls and doors that forms Monika Sosnowska's parapavilion; this artist has always been interested in space and architecture as the convergences of physical, visual and psychological reality. The sense of confusion and loss of orientation conveyed by the space is only heightened by Haroon Mirza's obsessive sound installation, based on electric vibrations. Pulling you back to reality in these rooms are the extraordinarily intense pictures by David Goldblatt, a South African photographer who has, since the 1960s, managed like few others to illustrate social change in his country. Then, right under this large structure, you are plunged into another unstable situation by a long film by Omer Fast, an Israeli artist who bases all his work on a lack of linearity and the fusion of reality and construction.
Curiger wanted to give the artists a lot of space to exhibit expansive bodies of works. In many cases, they have whole rooms but, even when the spaces are shared, the relationship between the works is clearly developed, suggesting a desire to make the route intelligible
Luigi Ghirri, installation view, Giardini.
Luigi Ghirri, installation view, Giardini.
His Five Thousand Feet is the Best stems from an interview with a US drone operator who targets war locations from his post in Las Vegas, almost as if he were playing a videogame; the artist has added inextricable testimonies, pretence and odd details to a story that is both tragic and ironic. After this start, the Palazzo Centrale exhibition route progresses, with some highs in the rooms containing works by Marinella Senatore and Ryan Gander and that combine Kuri's installations and Ghirri's photographs.
Nicholas Hlobo, <i>Dragon,</i> Arsenale.
Nicholas Hlobo, Dragon, Arsenale.
Curiger wanted to give the artists a lot of space to exhibit expansive bodies of works. In many cases, they have whole rooms but, even when the spaces are shared, the relationship between the works is clearly developed, suggesting a desire to make the route intelligible. This is a thoughtful consideration for artists and public alike, a form of respect not always shown by the curators of large exhibitions. The result is a linear and extremely orderly exhibition; although sometimes fragmented in terms of narration in the Giardini section, it is far more organic at the Arsenale, where spatial continuity favours a fluid development of the route. Here, the start is marked by two large works of great pathos by Roman Ondak, whose Time Capsule and Stampede emerge from the darkness; the former is a replica of the device used successfully a few months ago to save Chilean miners imprisoned underground. The capsule conveys the depth and the movement through time as much as through space; Stampede is a video that, like a tableau vivant, shows a host of individuals—who could be us—transfixed in inexplicably alternating light and darkness.
Elisabetta Benassi, installation detail, Arsenale.
Elisabetta Benassi, installation detail, Arsenale.
The exhibition unfolds with moments of great visual impact, as in the space given over to Shannon Ebner's cruel drawings and Nicholas Hlobo's theatre dragon, and with intense works, including Rebecca Warren's sculptures, Dayanita Singh's photographs and the videos of Christian Marclay, Dani Gal and Mohamed Bourouissa. Massive, conflicting installations by Elisabetta Benassi, Urs Fischer and Monica Bonvicini speak to monumentality. Benassi's consists of a number of 1950s-era microfilm readers that read the backs of photographs without showing the "main" front, is subtle, dimly lit and has a muted soundtrack. Its meaning is linked to the indirect use of technological inventions and the concept of the story as an only partially developed area of possibility.
Christian Marclay, <i>The Clock,</i> video, Arsenale.
Christian Marclay, The Clock, video, Arsenale.
The other two mark the end of the exhibition and consist of theatrical works that are both tragic and ironic. Urs Fischer cast life-size copies of friends and replicas of classic sculptures such as Giambologna's The Rape of the Sabine Women in wax. Lit like candles, the sculptures will undergo an uncontrollable process of consumption. In contrast, Bonvicini set up a number of self-illuminating reflecting podiums, waiting there to give us our five minutes of glory. These are among the different ways this Biennale treats the theme of the monument, and explores individual and collective history in a world where virtual and simulated media increasingly permeate our reality.
Urs Fischer, wax replica of the <i>Rape of the Sabine Women,</i> Arsenale.
Urs Fischer, wax replica of the Rape of the Sabine Women, Arsenale.

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