Snapshots of the Biennale: Thoughts on Navigating Between the Politics and the Parties in VeniceSource: Author: Arlene Cohrs, Susan Hayden. Published on June 9th, 2011

The 2011 Venice Biennale started with the Venice equivalent of a transit strike resulting in a nightmarish journey that turned a 30-minute trip into a three-and-one-half-hour ordeal. Once settled into an overloaded water taxi, truly dedicated art aficionados fell back on what they know best — networking. As the boat struggled to remain afloat underneath the weight of too many people and too much luggage, small talk and art-world pleasantries soon led to the schmoozing and exchange of business cards that are the stock in trade for this group. As the boat wended its way through the Grand Canal, however, even the most jaded began to absorb what was to come — first glimpsing the Fondazione Prada now ensconced at the Ca' Corner della Regina, followed by multicolored banners announcing Victor Pinchuk's Future Generation Art Prize.

Barely had they caught their breath when to the left the colossal Thomas Houseago sculpture loomed into sight outside the Palazzo Grassi. Next up was the Punta della Dogana. And finally at last the hotels.

Before guests had a chance to take the measure of this 54th Biennale, they were quickly thrust into the madness and chaos of the Venetian check-in system. Hardly workable in normal times, it virtually grinds to a halt under the weight of so many demanding VIPs. However, much like a beautiful woman, Venice doesn't really need to try to be welcoming; if there is one thing art collectors understand, it is beauty — hence all is forgiven.

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"IllumiNATIONS," the title of this year's Biennale, encapsulates the themes of beauty, light, and "enlightenment" which permeate this year's International Pavilion. But equally Bice Curiger, this year's director and curator of the International Pavilion, has played with the concept of nations in a show which encompasses politics, statehood, and human rights. And in fact, from the start at the entrance to the Giardini visitors are confronted with this essential dichotomy that is the Biennale: on the one hand receiving touristy guide maps, on the other, bright red bags embossed with the slogan "Free Ai Weiwei."

Much has been written about the major pavilions — France, Germany, the United States, and Japan — but this year the message was louder from some of the emerging nations. The Egypt Pavilion is a case in point. Its poignant homage to the young video artist Ahmed Basiony (1978-2011) killed during the recent events at Tahrir Square includes the artist's video entitled "30 Days of Running in the Place," documentary footage of the recent uprisings in Cairo, and the artist's last message on Facebook. Just prior to his death the artist posted: "If they want war we want peace. I am just trying to regain some of my nation's dignity..." While of two different generations, both Ai Weiwei and Ahmed Basiony demonstrate the impact of social media on their art and the impact of both on their politics.

Further highlighting the complexity of events in the Middle East, and just as provocative, is the filmic work of the Israeli artist Omer Fast in "IllumiNATIONS." The video titled "Five Thousand Feet is the Best" presents the sometimes tortured musings of a drone pilot in Afghanistan, surprising the viewer by deliberately miscasting and misplacing many of the images. Installed behind the Tintorettos in an obscure location in the International Pavilion, viewers are transfixed by the layered and disturbing work.

Over at the Arsenale, the artist Song Dong more subtly plays the role of both artist and provocateur by transplanting a steel and wooden house evocative of a China that is fast disappearing. Part of an ongoing project titled "Intelligence of the Poor," this work too suggests many of the issues faced by developing nations.

Not having the resources or clout of the larger emerging nations, Haiti was not forgotten due to the diligence and perseverance of an Italian curator working with a collective of Haitian artists. They boldly installed two freight containers set at a perpendicular angle and filled with art based on voodoo images. "Death and Fertility," as the show is called, displays the artworks of three artists from the slum neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, and represented an odd juxtaposition during the opening previews as it stood only several feet away from the yachts of the wealthy collectors moored in front.

And so the contradictions piled up. Even as this year's curators wrestled with so many portentous political issues, collectors took time out to revel in the many delights of Venice — their worthy slog through all the socially conscious art giving way by evening to the glamorous parties and bellini-fueled dinners at fading but still glorious palazzos.

The Biennale milieu with its insatiable appetite for the new, the cutting-edge, and wealth provided a dramatic setting this year for the powerful collectors from Eastern Europe. Notable among these was Victor Pinchuk whose Future Generations Art Prize captured a lot of attention, and Dasha Zhukova (of "Garage" fame), whose parties and art events were much talked of at the Biennale. Pinault and Prada, by now the old guard, held their ground with solid shows while the Eastern Europeans generated the glamor and excitement. Pinchuk hosted his guests with live music and bountiful buffets while Dasha transformed the terrace of the Hotel Bauer for her "Commercial Break" party which displayed multiscreen videos from cutting-edge artists.

As visitors partied well into the night and Urs Fischer's monumental wax candle sculpture based on the "Rape of the Sabine Women" slowly dripped its way into nothingness, Venice continued to sink. But this year's heady concoction of collectors and their money helped to keep the city well afloat, certainly until the next Biennale.