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A swansong. Death in Venice, reenacted

Barbara Basting

Dear Paolo Baratta, President of the Venice Biennale,


I have rarely left the Biennale so dissatisfied and tired as this year. No, it wasn’t the endless kilometers I had to cover in order to see the Giardini, Arsenale, Corderie. It was the art I was presented with along them.
“Viva arte viva”—the catchphrase of the main exhibition of this year’s Biennale should have already aroused my suspicions. Not that anyone pays much attention to such phrases; those of the last few shows turned out to be pretty hollow. But after this year’s visit it’s entirely clear that the clunky silliness of “Viva arte viva” hides a collapse, conceals the implosion of the idea of a somehow meaningful overview of contemporary art. A swansong. Death in Venice, reenacted.
It can’t be said, though, that none of the exhibited works are capable of speaking to us any longer or have anything more to say. It’s just that the main show is absolutely incapable of fulfilling the original idea of painting some kind of coherent picture of contemporary art, with the whole greater than the sum of its parts, as a supplement to the necessarily chaotic variety of the national pavilions. No one perhaps better anticipated this collapse than Harald Szeemann with his last Biennale, in 2001, for which he chose the main idea (or was it a crackpot idea?) of “Plateau de l’humanité” (translated either by “humankind” or “humanity”). The exhibition architecture symbolized this human plateau with a sloping floor, of all things, in the main pavilion. Now was this visionary or ironic? And what hasn’t been slipping and sliding since then!
But the collapse, the implosion of the Biennale before our very eyes doesn’t only have to do with this year’s particularly bad main show; it’s also a result of its expansion and explosion primarily in the past two decades—more exactly, of an overextension of its surface area and a soar in the number of visitors due to international interest. You can, as president, chalk this all up as a success. At any rate as the kind of success loved by number-fixated politicians and most sponsors, upon which the Biennale depends. It’s not only this success that has made you into an esteemed cultural impresario; you have accomplished a great deal, saving the Biennale from being completely junked in the Berlusconi years, for example. But your success comes at a price. It consists of all manner of compromise—with the galleries, for example, without which the Biennale couldn’t be financed, or at least not as it is at the moment.
And now this success disguises the fact that the barge-like Art Biennale urgently needs a makeover. It also prevents it from shaking off its shackles. Hasn’t the time come, for example, to take leave at last of a substantial part of the Biennale legacy, the unfortunate and increasingly impossible bracketing together of nations, achievements, and trends? How about an upfront admission that the epoch of hastily cobbled-together art narratives like “Viva arte viva” is coming to an end, because even the most mediocre art works don’t deserve them?  
Wouldn’t it also be in order to address real questions to art once again, not just to burden them with rhetorically polished slogans? Questions that may well hurt, because what’s going on in the world rather brutally devalues an art that primarily serves to distract and assuage. Questions about the current varieties of censorship and the monopolization of art. Or about the condition of the art world’s foundations, which were laid in the early modern era and likewise appear to be in need of a complete overhaul. Rem Koolhaas’s Architecture Biennale in 2014, which opened up a new horizon under its title of Fundamentals, was an exemplary step in this direction.
The Venice Biennale should once again become more than just the scantily disguised visage of the economic power relations of the art world. Isn’t it time to open its doors more spiritedly to new participants, from Africa, for instance? And why not have a go at swapping around the national pavilions in a big way? Why not, for example, encourage the countries formerly involved in colonialism and the slave trade to make their pavilions available (naturally with the necessary exhibition budget) to countries from whose exploitation they once profited, and often still do?
Of course this overloaded barge of the Biennale is no streamlined super-collector yacht like the ones anchored off the Giardini for the preview (am I mistaken in thinking that we have seen more impressive models in previous years?). It’s as difficult to steer as are those gigantic cruise ships towed almost daily through the Giudecca Canal, contributing similarly to the Biennale, with the masses of tourists they bring, to both the preservation and destruction of Venice. But one can’t and shouldn’t change tack abruptly in the face of such dangers. Still, I’d like to be really challenged again by the Biennale. I wish it the courage to make its thematic focuses trenchant, oblique, inquisitive, experimental, and anyway to go more for quality than quantity.
I don’t delude myself, as the Biennale is also just part of a wider picture. How often, for example, have people observed that it suffers from cementing a past world order and cultural hierarchy with its pavilions. This is unchanged by the fact that under your presidency new pavilions and countries have regularly been added. For it is becoming increasingly clear that this Biennalesque world order, along with the patterns of categorization and interpretation derived from it, is as obsolete as its associated catalogue of artistic evaluation criteria—that now stuttering sorting machine. For a long time it was said that art was supposed to unsettle us in our conventional everyday certainties. Today we are less unsettled by art, which has become quite predictable, than by much that is otherwise happening in the world. Not least for this reason does the cry of “Viva arte viva,” with its attendant exhibition, seem so naive and trivial that it is deeply disturbing.
Of course there’s always the possibility that you intend the whole thing to be secretly subversive. In this case I apologize for the misunderstanding.


Yours sincerely,
Barbara Basting

  • Venice
  • Italy
  • curatorial practice
  • public sphere
  • contemporary art