The Triumph of Performance at the Venice Biennale

by Paul David Young

Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmus, An Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale, 2013, performance, Romanian Pavilion. Photo Italo Rodinella, courtesy Venice Biennale.

When it came to the awarding of prizes on the first day of the 55th Venice Biennale (through Nov. 24), performance won. The Golden Lion for best artist in the international exhibition, “The Encyclopedic Palace,” went to Tino Sehgal, whose work was one of the exhibition’s very few live performances. And Sharon Hayes received one of the two “special mentions” for artists in the international exhibition, in recognition of her video of interviews with students about gender and sexuality at a women’s college in the U.S.
Apart from the international exhibition, there are other interesting performance and video works to be seen. The standout is the Romanian Pavilion, An Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale, by Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmuş, an ongoing live performance in which five performers enact works from past biennials. The exhibition area of the pavilion, a large, white, rectangular space, contains nothing whatsoever, except the actors and the audience. For each of the historical works, an actor announces the title and the artist of the work, as well as the year in which it was created and the year it was exhibited.

The reenactment is relatively easy to imagine for figurative two-dimensional art, and this is done effectively, sometimes movingly, by posing. But the actors also portray installation work (for example, for an audio piece, the actor’s hands spread and then contract to indicate the sound from the speakers) and even past performances. The performers place themselves in different parts of the pavilion’s interior, and the crowd reconfigures itself around them, forcing a constant renewal of the spectator’s point of view. Occasionally, it is possible to see three reenacted works simultaneously, as different performers stage different works and hold the poses for some time.

Nearby, at the Greek pavilion, Stefanos Tsivopoulos’s History Zero takes aim at the political and economic crisis in Greece with three video pieces and an extensive wall text. The wall text deals with whimsical and utopian efforts to create alternative exchange systems, such as nongovernmental currencies or barter, raising questions about how the monetary system reinforces the class structure. These questions are elaborated in the accompanying three videos. The first shows a man rummaging through a dumpster for items to re-sell, which he places in a shopping cart. This video deceptively frames the objects, such as a car part, so that for a few moments they appear as gleaming abstractions. The second video is directed at the German domination of the euro. It shows a well-dressed German artist coming into the city in his limousine, indifferently viewing images on his iPad and ignoring the world around him. Later, having arrived at his luxury apartment, impeccably furnished with elegant modernist furniture, he photographs the city from the safe distance of his balcony before receiving a call from an eager assistant, inquiring whether he finds the accommodations sufficient. In the third video, an elderly art collector, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, wanders about her apartment in a kimono. She fishes in a drawer filled with stacks of 500 euro notes and coins, removes one of the notes, and makes an origami flower out of it, which she places on a metal stem. Her mindless craft and adoration of the artwork in her home offer a stark comparison to the poverty demonstrated in the first video.

At the Russian pavilion, an installation and performance project by Vadim Zakharov, Danaë, is based on the ancient Greek myth of the same name, a sexual allegory about seduction and greed, and is plainly directed at the ethics of the robber baron society of contemporary Russia. The seducer, a male performer, sits in a saddle atop a beam that runs through the skylit space of the pavilion’s upper story. Below him and in the adjoining rooms and lower level of the pavilion, the rest of the myth is depicted. Gold-colored coins rain down from the ceiling into the lowest level; viewers can kneel along a balustrade to watch the coins crash onto the floor. Only women are allowed into the lower level, where they are given clear plastic umbrellas and encouraged to collect the coins and put them into the metal pails provided. The performance and installation utilizes the spaces of the pavilion to great effect, telling the story in a series of clear, striking images.


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