Venice Biennale explores artistic freedom

By Colleen Barry

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, June 1 2011 10:45 a.m. MDT

Visitors look at the installation by artist Christoph Schlingensief, at the Germany pavilion of the 54th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale contemporary arts festival, in Venice, Italy, Tuesday, May 31, 2011. The festival opens on Saturday June 4th and runs until Nov. 27, 2011.

Luigi Costantini, Associated Press

VENICE, Italy — Outside the U.S. Pavilion, a runner pounds a treadmill on an overturned 60-ton military tank. The visually commanding exhibit at the 54th Biennale contemporary art exhibit reverberates — loudly.

At the Danish Pavilion nearby, a contemplative exhibition that explores free speech issues is periodically disturbed by the rumbles.

The juxtaposition of the booming Americans and the quiet Danes wasn't meant to make an artistic point — but the frictions caused perfectly capture one of the main themes of this year's Venice biennale: artistic freedom and its boundaries.

"It's a matter of negotiation," said artist Kobe Matthys, whose exhibit in the Danish pavilion backs onto the courtyard where the tank rests. "I don't mind the tank, because it's in the background. But it seems that all the videos pump up the volume to compete. The more silent works, they have to also manifest themselves."

Every second year, the contemporary art world converges on Venice to bask in its latest creations, a movable feast that requires patient navigation of the lagoon city's canals to reach the national pavilions, a main exhibit and dozens of side events. The Biennale opens Saturday to the public and runs through Nov. 27.

The main exhibit at the Arsenale, curated by Switzerland's Bice Curiger, is titled "IllumiNations." It seeks to integrate with the national pavilions by posing questions about national identity and art. It features 83 artists from all over the world.

This year, a record 89 countries have national pavilions, most in Venice's shaded Giardini, including for the first time Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Malaysia and tiny Andorra.

Just as telling, however, is who did not come. Bahrain and Lebanon withdrew at the last moment due to unrest at home. The impact of the uprisings sweeping the Middle East — from Tunisia to Libya to Syria — resonates strongly in Venice, nonetheless.

The Egyptian Pavilion presents the work of Ahmed Basiony, a new media and sound artist who was killed Jan. 28, on the third day of the popular uprising in Cairo's Tahir Square.

Basiony, a 32-year-old professor at the Helwan University in Cairo, was trying to film a sniper when he was struck twice by rubber bullets. He apparently keeled over, and was hit by a police car, said curator Aida Eltorie.

"He was that movement, that symbol of the majority. ... He was one of those people killed for the repression happening in Cairo for 30 years, maybe longer," Eltorie said.

The exhibit, conceived by Basiony's friend and fellow artist Shady El Noshokaty, features five screens projecting video Basiony recorded during the first days of the uprising, interposed with a project he made a year earlier called "Thirty Days Running in the Place."

The video of the uprising show the intensity of the protesters, engaged in earnest conversations, commenting about the high prices of lentils. In the running-in-place video, Basiony wears a hooded plastic suit and runs in place for an hour while sensors on the soles of his feet, under his arms and on his chest transmit data to a computer, which is run through a software program to create a digital display.

"He is tackling the idea of consumerism, being consumed and wasted," Eltorie said. "It was very much about his state of mind, and about what he felt about being an Egyptian."

At some pavilions artists spend months installing their works, but Basiony's friends won the Egyptian government's consent to feature his works just at the end of March. While grateful for the opportunity to share his work beyond his native Cairo, they are not yet convinced this heralds a new era of openness.

"There are no guarantees right now. We are in a transition now," Eltorie said.

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