Postcards from Venice pt. 7 - Golden Lion Best Artist

The Golden Lion for best artist in Daniel Birnbaum’s ‘Fare Mondi/Making Worlds’ exhibition goes to ...

Tobias Rehberger. And the Jury’s statement:

‘Tobias Rehberger is awarded the Golden Lion as best artist for taking us beyond the white cube, where past modes of exhibition are reinvented and the work of art turns into a cafeteria. In this shift social communication becomes aesthetic practice.’

I had seen the jury – Jack Bankowsky (USA), Homi K. Bhabha (India), Sarat Maharaj (South Africa), Angela Vettese (Italy, president), and Julia Voss (Germany), all very smart and knowledgeable people – holding meetings on the outside terrace of Rehberger’s wildly coloured and patterned café (pictured above) in the Biennale pavilion (formerly known as Italian Pavilion). They must have felt comfortable there. I quite liked the coloured, tent-like roof of Rehberger’s terrace, but few people – including, apparently, the jury – really wanted to sit inside if they had the choice. This wasn’t just because of the slow service and bad food (as always in the Biennale). Rather, the seats were uncomfortable, the air sticky and the visual experience a bit like being stuck in a youth culture centre decorated by an over-ambitious skateboarder. Which is not a bad thing I guess. Don’t get me wrong, I like Rehberger’s work – he’s done great things, and I guess even with cafeterias. But I remain puzzled in regard to this jury choice. If you ‘take us beyond the white cube’, why doesn’t that include the whole experience at least, i.e. not just the visual-spatial, but also the food, the drinks, the social communication, and, maybe even ‘the aesthetic practice’? Sorry, this was not a work ‘reinventing’ past modes of exhibition, it wasn’t even reinventing past modes of sitting in a cafeteria.

Maybe this choice was a little symptomatic of Birnbaum’s biennial. There was good taste, interesting aesthetic choices; I enjoyed parts of the Biennale pavilion (the Gutai room next to the room with Philippe Parreno’s film projected onto the white Rauschenberg, the Lygia Pape paper sculptures – pictured above – etc). I also enjoyed the overture of the Arsenale with Pape’s delicated golden threads installed to look like light beams shooting into an empty dark space (Pape – good decision from the jury – got a Special Mention). And its postscript, the garden behind the Arsenale with some of the strongest work, like the Lara Favaretto swamp, the wiggling Koo Jeong-A tree stump, and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s discrete glimpse of a tennis court (not the Miranda July sculptures for me, which, with their saccharine take on friendship and conviviality, felt like the lame idea of a saturday supplement newspaper editor transformed into a mini-golf course).

Numerous other works throughout were really good and interesting (Chu Yun’s kitchen appliance lights in a dark room, Renata Lucas’s asphalt strip – pictured above – and Aleksandra Mir’s postcards – pictured below – of all sorts of weird vistas with ‘Venice’ printed on top were fun too). And maybe it’s not a coincidence that there are a lot of works by women artists that I tend to like here; this was not a silly macho exhibition like the odd fringe show around the city; it was well hung and made good use of the infamously dubious working conditions and financial limits of the Venice Biennial.

But, to be honest, I missed a sense of urgency or tension, and a thrust of ideas that would have put works into an inspiring relation beyond merely formal aspects of ‘balance’ or ‘contrast’. I’m not necessarily talking about explicitly political work that should serve to provide that sense. But rather about works that risk their own formal and methodological language, or risk anything at all, like Liam Gillick’s German pavilion did at least. I didn’t get the impression, with the possible exception of the garden behind Arsenale, that there had been a strong exchange between curator and artist. Birnbaum and Rehberger know each other well, they have worked with one another quite a few times before – wouldn’t it have been interesting to commission him to make anything but a cafeteria? A new start? A keen sense of experiment? These times call for adventurous ideas, not for playing it safe.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.

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