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The Cinematic in Expanded Fields at the 54th Venice Biennale

Justine Grace



Everybody is concerned about time, we never have enough time to do anything, and especially to see art in Venice there is so much art to see, and so little time.

Christian Marclay


The sticky humidity of Venice’s first summer days, the arty types and hipsters visible down the labyrinthine streets with colourful show bags of the national pavilions in hand and the overheard conversations of what one has visited, must see and should avoid: welcome to the vernissage of the 54th Venice Biennale (December 2011-February 2012). Always an exciting event, this year’s Biennale promised to be a bumper edition with 83 artists in the main exhibition, 89 national pavilions and 37 collateral events. The sheer volume of art to visit was almost dizzying, turning the islands of Venice into somewhat of a theatrical spectacle, with artists, patrons, gallerists and journalists frenetically moving from one work to the next, as if trying to capture all the art on show like a child’s game of scavenger hunt. Despite the frantic energy that buzzed in the air, most of the works on show – and indeed some of the queues to enter the national pavilions (I spent two and half hours waiting to see Mike Nelson in the UK pavilion) – demanded just the opposite. The predominance of durational works and theatrical environments required time from the audience, defying the hurried spectator and their rigid viewing schedules. A recurrent feature that was epitomised by Christian Marclay’s The Clock (winner of the Golden Lion prize): a twenty-four hour film that took the passing of time as its subject matter, where the minutes of the day were portrayed through moments taken from cinema history.



Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010, edition of 6, Single-channel video, 24 hours. Courtesy the Artist and White Cube, London and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.


What stood out at for me at this year’s Biennale was not only the quasi-ubiquity of video art and experimental film, but the notion of expanded cinematic situations. I mean three things by this. The first aspect concerns the conscious dismantling of distinct cinematic modes (fictional narrative versus documentary, for example) to establish new creative possibilities for political discourse, and to destabilise conventional forms of journalism. The second aspect relates to material expansion in physical space: the ways in which artists utilised the structure of the movie theatre and the accoutrements of the more traditional arts, such as sculpture, to construct immersive and theatrical environments. The final aspect refers to the use of innovative exhibition frameworks for the presentation of video art, in order to query spectatorial conventions and the formulaic parameters of the institution. Although, as the art world elite has come to expect, the major pavilions – United States, Germany and the United Kingdom – did not fail to impress, it was for me some of the so-called ‘emerging’ nations, main exhibition artists and collateral events spotted around the island that provided some of the most poignant messages and innovative examples of experimental film and video art.


Dialectics of Cinematic Modes

This year’s theme was ILLUMInations, which incorporated, for the curator Bice Curiger, the classical theme of light in art as well as both the socio-political dimensions of the real world and the distinctive character of the Venice Biennale with its national pavilions. Indeed, socio-political questions and explorations of nationhood fueled much of the video art on display, from Yael Bartana’s filmic trilogy ... and Europe will be stunned, revolving around the imagined Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland calling for the return of the Jews to mainland Europe, to Han Hoogerbrugge’s absurd animation Quatrosupus exploring the struggles of free speech. The overarching presence of contemporary political discourse is hardly surprising, considering the recent civil unrest in North Africa and the Middle East, the West’s ongoing presence in many of these countries, and the debates revolving around the limits of freedom (speech, dress and religion) that have characterised the European political landscape in recent times. However, more than simply documenting such events or discourses, artists like Taysir Batniji – whose advertisements from an illusory real estate company GH0809 (an abbreviation of Gaza Houses 2008-2009) paired the lexicon of real estate classifieds with documentary photographs of bombed-out houses in Gaza – explored more expressive means of communicating the political to reveal latent truths and question the authority of prevailing hegemonies. (1)


The fraught position of the West in the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was subtly evoked in Omer Fast’s film, Five Thousand Feet is the Best (2010), located in the central pavilion of the Giardini. Utilising the Situationist technique of détournement, Fast juxtaposed an actual interview with a Predator drone sensor operator (predator drones are unmanned aerial vehicles flown by remote control, today the primary means of offensive operations by America) with a fictional narrative that dramatised the operator’s rambling musings about an attack on civilians and militants. The interview, held in a dimly lit hotel room, was seamlessly woven together with aerial views of a city at night and the narrative of an American family going on a weekend holiday.

















1. Taysir Batniji’s work GH0809 consisted of 20 digital colour prints on A4 paper and were exhibited as part of the pan-Arab show The Future of a Promise curated by Lina Lazaar.

Shot from the ground, the fictional story follows the family’s journey from their home in the suburban streets, through an occupying army’s checkpoint on the outskirts of town, and past a small group of resistance fighters burying explosives in the scrubland. After the family gingerly passes the fighters, the perspective shifts to an aerial view, as seen (we suppose) from the viewfinder of a predator drone. (It is worth noting the uncanny formal parallels between this aspect of Fast’s film and Jananne Al-Ani’s digital video Shadow Sites II, which documents an aerial journey across the Middle Eastern landscape.) The film ends with a rocket attack on the family and resistance fighters but, despite the supposed fatality of the attack, we see the absurdly contrived spectacle of the family members peeling themselves away from the wreckage and walking out of the scene. The overall effect of splicing the factual with the fictional also brings into focus the disjunction between what the drone pilot recounts as his experience (computer reality) and the experience of civilians on the ground (actuality of war). The film, in effect, mimics the twofold character of contemporary – American – combat. The war in Afghanistan is certainly ‘real’ (as the 1271 civilian deaths in 2010 alone attest), nonetheless the deployment of Predator drones, much like a video game, transposes the actuality of war to the level of a detached simulacrum. Fast manipulates the categories of audiovisual modes such as the journalistic interview to question where reality resides and whose reality actually counts. It is not the answers that preoccupy the artist, but rather the framework that makes such questions possible. (2)







2. Another contemporary example of blurring the distinction between fiction and documentary is Oliver Laxe’s Moroccan film You Are All Captains, which won the international critics prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010.


Omer Fast, The Tunnel, 2010, film still by Yon Thomas. Courtesy of the artist.


A similar juxtaposition of modes was used in the contribution for the Egyptian pavilion, which brought together video documentation from Ahmed Basiony’s performance 30 Days Running in the Place (2010) with documentary footage captured by the artist, on his phone, of the Egyptian uprisings (2011) in downtown Cairo. While documenting these events, Basiony was killed by snipers on January 28, 2011 in Tahrir Square, dying at age 32. (3) In the pavilion, five screens were buttressed against each other, floor to ceiling, confronting the viewer with alternating scenes from the performance and the protests. The performance was played out in a transparent square structure, transforming the act of running into a visual schema of digital codes through sensors installed on Basiony’s body and shoes that calculated the heat he generated and the number of steps he took. By splicing the documentation of the art performance with journalistic footage of civil resistance, the contrast encompassed by the two sets of film sequences – futile movement and progress, stasis and emergency, rule and revolution – was visualised to full, dramatic effect. It is an opposition that also alters the historical significance of Basiony’s performance. In light of the revolution, the static movement of 30 Days Running in the Place takes on a quasi-iconic status within the fabric of Egyptian contemporary culture and society, as if presaging the explosion of revolutionary energy after thirty years of dictatorial rule. Likewise, the phone camera footage takes on a dramatic poignancy within the context of the pavilion, both foreshadowing and now framing the artist’s martyrdom. Similarly to the German Pavilion, which featured the late Christoph Schlingensief  (winner of the golden Lion for Best National Pavilion), the exhibition of Basiony’s work had a memorial and perhaps even cathartic element that provided a space to reflect not just on art, but on the life of an artist and a nation.


3. Ahmedy Basiouny, Egypt, 30 Days of Running in the Place, ILLUMInations exhibition catalogue, Venice: Marsilio Editore, 2011, p. 350.





The documentary vein was also seen in Mohammed Bourouissa’s two-channel projection Boloss, screened within the Arsenale. Playing with the codes of documentary and images obtained by security cameras, the two projections cover a poker game that is interspersed with interviews with the players. The projected sequences move between inside shots of the card table and outside views of a cramped courtyard filled with youths who are not permitted inside. The films follow the question of someone cheating, although it seems, through the sequence of interviews, that the act of cheating is not limited to the card table. The uneasy confusion and disorder of the films was also reflected in the site of its exhibition. The screens were located alongside other works in an open and nondescript space, which allowed for the sounds of the gallery – the conversations and comings and goings of the public – to mingle with the dialogue of the films. What would normally be a distracting cacophony heightened the disorienting nature of Bourouissa’s work.


Cinematic Theatre and the Neo-Liberal Marketplace

Another distinguishing feature of the Biennale was the construction of cinematic theatre: the combination of more traditional art objects with the screening of film to create total environments. Such works were distinguished, in my view, from the tradition of installation art by the move away from the conceptual experience of space, as expressed by artists such as Mike Nelson, to a greater focus on enhancing the screening of the film by drawing attention to the figurative elements of the narrative experience. The constructed environment revolved around the film, rather than the film being subsumed as one of many elements in an installation.


The Belgium artist Hans Op De Beeck consistently works in different mediums such as sculpture, video, photography and animation, often with a focus on combining the various artistic elements to create immersive environments. As part of the curated show One of a Thousand Ways to Defeat Entropy, Op De Beeck presented the work Location (7), which forms part of an ongoing series of large-scale and experience-based sculptural installations. (4) Although there was no film actually present, the construction of the work utilised the apparatus of the cinema, and the experience of the piece was less about the conceptualisation of space than it was about the subject of mortality: a narrative on the tragedy of life.


Located at the back of the expansive Arsenale Novissimo, viewers climbed stairs to enter a darkened studio apartment furnished with a bed, chesterfield lounge, kitchen sink and the general debris of an abandoned human existence. The entire scene was made out of a soft grey plaster that recalled the ash-covered artifacts of excavated Pompeii; a memento mori where the once vital substance of the everyday was transformed into a moribund stasis. A window, a cinematic screen of sorts, provided the frame for a courtyard vista: a fountain encircled by fairy lights and two long wooden tables scattered with ashtrays, bottles and candlestick stubs, all of which were made with the same grey plaster as the interior. The heavy notes of Serge Lacroix’s music punctuated the melancholic air, further heightening the cinematic effect. The overall impression of the piece was like a short film loop, the plumes of water continuously flowing from the fountain being the only movement in an otherwise static scene. There was a sense, sitting on the lounge and looking out at the mise en scène, that we were not just spectators watching a fragment from a stranger’s discarded life, but rather made privy – a witness – to our own mortality.


4. This URL, accessed 28 June 2011.









Hans Op de Beeck, Location (7), 2011, sculptural installation, mixed media, sound, light, 500 x 1800 x 850 cm. Courtesy the Artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels.


The use of traditional art objects alongside the presentation of film was prevalent in many of the exhibitions, especially exemplified by two artists, Nathaniel Mellors and Anton Ginzburg. In Illuminations, Mellors exhibited Parts One and Two of his absurdist film series Ourhouse (2010-present). Following the structure of a standard television drama and loosely based on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), the series explores the relationship between language and power. The drama is set within the country manor of the Maddox-Wilson family and follows its breakdown after an unexpected visitor – ‘the object’ – invades the house, consuming books and effectively taking control of rational language and action. Parts One and Two were shown in different rooms, separated by another exhibition space in which Mellors exhibited his animatronic sculpture Hippy Dialectics (Ourhouse) and a new series of colour photograms, Venus of Truson (Prehistoric, Photogrammic Originals). The sculptures depict the character Charles ‘Daddy’ Maddox-Wilson doubled and joined together by his own hair. The photogram portrays an image of The Venus of Hohle Fels, a copy of which appears in the film. (5) By translating characters and items from the film into extra-filmic objects, Mellors projects the story into the viewer’s physical space.


Anton Ginzburg’s multifaceted work At the Back of the North Wind revolved around the forty-five minute film Hyperborea, a mythical region that exists ‘beyond the Boreas’ (beyond the North Wind). The film is a poetic record of a three-part journey that Ginzburg took, commencing in the American North West (Astoria, Oregon), continuing to St. Petersburg and then to the White Sea. (6) The film was surrounded by a body of work including photos, drawings, sculptures and bas-reliefs that functioned like the found objects of an archeologist, the research notes of an historian or the photographic documentation of an anthropologist. More than embellishments, they gave a physical presence to the film and a sense of ‘realness’ to Ginzburg’s exploration of the mythological land of Hyperborea.









5. This URL, accessed 28 June 2011



6. Anton Ginzburg, At the Back of the North Wind, collateral event of the 54th International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia, press release, 2011.


Anton Ginzburg, At the Back of the North Wind, 2011, Archival digital print, 58.5 x 76cm (framed) from ‘Hyperborea series’. Courtesy of the artist.


Beyond adding a sense of the tangible to the film experience, how might we approach the combination of film and more traditional art objects? Do these objects really contribute to our experience and understanding of film, or is there something else at play? In the first part of my exploration of the cinema/art relationship, I discussed Michel Chevalier’s critical framework for approaching emergent trends of video presentation in the gallery. One of the three positions that he delineated was the Duchampian remix strategy, where traditional art objects (or what Chevalier refers to as commodities) accompany the presentation of film. For Chevalier, this strategy is less about the experiential and more about subverting the ‘non-sellable’ art film. Unlike traditional modes of cultural production that through their ‘uniqueness’ can ask for a high price on the art market, the earning power of film art – which unlike populist cinema cannot even count on box office ticket sales – is almost non-existent. The relative unsellability of film art is a fact that holds true now more than ever (even with artificial means of inscribing value such as the limited edition). Considering the continuing rise of online distribution (both legal and illegal), the increased accessibility and speed of file sharing networks, and the normalisation (and acceptance within the public sphere) of decreased image quality that these new channels of distribution perpetuate, who would actually purchase film art?


Chevalier’s argument that artists should utilise the fetishistic objects of sculpture, painting or photography as the means to re-inscribe their film art within the neo-liberal marketplace has some foundation in recent art practice. For example, Mellors’ colour photograms for Venus of Truson were made to accompany the screening of Ourhouse at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art with the distinct purpose of being sold (£550 for non-members). However, it seems to me that the use of fine art objects creates a spatial experience of film that subverts both the one-dimensional screening experience, as well as the ubiquitous availability of film art on the Internet. Artists like Anton Ginzburg and Ryan Trecartin do not shy away from the possibilities of distribution provided by the Internet; they make their work freely accessible. This does not, however, necessarily reduce public interest when they do exhibit within the framework of a gallery, film festival or biennale. Both artists create sculptural environments for their films, which expand upon the narratives and provide a heightened sensory experience that is markedly different from the downloaded file on a laptop. Embedding the film within a sculptural environment turns the screen-as-window into a looking glass, inviting us to step into, and be part of, a constructed world.


The Cinema/The Gallery

In a recent interview, Kenneth Goldsmith, the founder and main curator of UbuWeb, stated:


  Galleries are a really bad place to watch video, I usually never feel like seeing it, even if they have comfortable couches. The exception has been the new Christian Marclay piece, The Clock (2010) ... what they have done there is to turn the Paula Cooper gallery into a movie theatre, with seats in a black room and couches, and it’s wonderful. (7)   7. Kenneth Goldsmith interviewed by Geir Haraldseth, ‘The Robin Hood of the Avant-Garde’, Kunstkritikk, 2 March 2011.

The above statement neatly encapsulates the enduring view that art galleries are often not the most conducive environments to watch film or video, and that when the gallery does provide a comfortable environment it is through, as Adrian Martin elucidates, ‘especially constructed black boxes: little havens of the cinema-apparatus’. (8) But is this white cube/black box dichotomy really indicative of – and helpful to understanding – contemporary viewing practices any longer?


What struck me attending both the Venice Biennale and the International Film Festival Rotterdam were the ways in which artists and filmmakers consciously transcended what has become – at least in terms of the neo-liberal marketplace and through the role of institutional framing – an entrenched distinction between art and cinema. Indeed, many of the artists and filmmakers screened/exhibited at both events, including Hans Op De Beeck, Harmony Korine and Ari Marcopolus, and others such as Yi Zhou and Yang Fudong, consistently cross the cinema/art divide, exhibiting at both film festivals and art fairs, cinemas and galleries. In addition, with the continuing rise and success of websites such as UbuWeb and Vimeo, and as artists/filmmakers such as Ryan Trecartin, Anton Ginzburg, Tommy Pallotta and Bregjte van de Haak increasingly negate traditional viewing platforms and modes of distribution, the white cube/black box dichotomy seems to me an ever less satisfactory model through which to approach and consider experimental film, video and media art.


8. Adrian Martin, ‘The Imperfect Light: Cinema and the Gallery’, Secuencias, 32, pp. 89-106. I must admit that Marclay’s The Clock certainly seized me with the promise of comfortable lounges and the enveloping calm of a cinema-like space at the end of the arduous journey of Arsenale’s exhibition halls.



As part of this trend, the third prevalent feature running through the Biennale was the use of innovative exhibition and screening formats to challenge institutional conventions, spectatorial expectations and traditional notions of contemplation. These examples from the Biennale address the relationship between cinema and art (as did the Rotterdam 2011 works), but also point to some new directions in the presentation of audiovisual work.


The Spanish artist Mabel Palacín represented the Catalan and Balearic Islands in the collateral event entitled 180° (an allusion to the 180-degree rule of cinema, which seeks to maintain a coherent, singular relationship between reality, the image and the spectator). Palacín’s contribution was a media installation that explored the relationship between the static and moving image, and was constructed with three different media elements. Palacín took as her starting point a photograph that showed a majestic vista of buildings stretching out along a waterfront in Venice. The second component was a video of the photograph, scanning across the still image to explore and reveal various mini-narratives: the comings and goings of people, their interactions, and the objects and tasks that make up everyday life. The final aspect was a series of five small monitors that showed films shot from the rooftops of Venice, ‘functioning as vanishing points, they were obtained through various recording media, in high and low quality, [and] initiated a dialogue between different characters based on the main building featured in the project’. (9) The series of works dislocates the coherency of the 180-degree rule, displacing the singular viewpoint and providing new ways of seeing. The three elements establish a complex, but nevertheless non-hierarchical perspective that mirrors the proliferation of images on the Internet, where events such as the Egyptian uprisings become the domain of the collective rather than a singular authoritarian vision.










9. This URL, accessed 1 August 2011.


Mabel Palacín, 180°, 2011, photograph. Courtesy of the artist and Institut Ramon Llull.


One of the predominant issues in any discussion regarding cinema and art is the use (or misuse) of light. The Chinese artist Yi Zhou consciously engaged with the principle of illumination, but utilised it in a way that defied our expectations. The curators Achille Bonito Oliva and Chang Tsong-zung brought together Zhou’s eight most recent short films: DVF (2011), Unexpected Hero (2011), Labyrinth (2011), My Heart Laid Bare (2011), Big Feet (2010), The Greatness (2010), The Ear (2009) and Hear, Earth, Heart (2008) for one of the Biennale’s collateral events entitled Days of Yi. The films were projected onto three different walls of the Spiazzi gallery with each screen playing in a continuous loop, so that the sounds and moving images were interacting, reflecting and reinforcing the recurrent motifs across Zhou’s œuvre. The visitor’s movement around the space was punctuated by some icons from the films (similar to the Ginzburg installation discussed above) such as the balloon-shaped Bottle in a Rice Field and the Pharrell Vase, which were both constructed in Murano glass.


Perhaps the most striking feature of Zhou’s exhibition was her conscious decision to flood the projection spaces with natural light, which at times illuminated her films almost to the point of obscurity. On first entering the space, the excess of light was somewhat disconcerting, forcing us to strain to make out the imagery of her surreal animations. However, the light also created additional layers of meaning that subtly pointed to Zhou’s extra-aesthetic concerns. On the one hand, her negation of darkness added to the fantasy and dream-like quality of her work – as if we couldn’t be sure the films were really there, unable to entirely capture her complex visual language and the unfolding dream sequences. On the other hand, as the projections merged with the crumbly, whitewashed walls of the Spiazzi gallery, Zhou also seemed to call attention to the inherent flatness of the cinematic image, a reminder that we are not looking through a window, but onto a flat surface – a wall. These quasi-opposing functions reflect the underlying contrasts that drive her aesthetic, the ‘limits between dream and reality, imagination and madness, truth and lies, and life after death’. (10)












10. Yi Zhou, Days of Yi, collateral event of the 54th International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia, press release, 2011.


Yi Zhou, The Greatness, film still, digital 3D animation. Courtesy of the artist and Contrasts gallery.


Placing video within social spaces as a means to enlarge the scope of the audience beyond the gallery-going elite is not a new phenomenon; it dates back to the late 1970s and early ‘80s with works such as Jenny Holzer’s Sign on a Truck (1984). Scott McQuire has observed, too, that ‘the migration of electronic screens into the cityscape has become one of the most visible and influential tendencies of contemporary urbanism’. (11) Working within this contemporary tradition of urban digital screens, but expanding upon it in a way that both addresses the liminal space between the private and the public and what I consider the millennial generation’s increasing desire for interconnectivity, were two interesting examples at the Biennale: Dropstuff and Commercial Break.


Dropstuff is an ongoing Dutch project that explores the medium of the urban screen. Three screens were positioned around the island of Venice and three across the Netherlands, with each presenting a selection of six artistic games by interactive media collectives such as Zesbaans and Monobanda. What was particularly fascinating was the way public engagement – the public, by logging on via their phone or the Internet, could influence the games and play against each other – drove the content and flow of imagery. Although the contribution was somewhat limited by the quality of the image and its visual aesthetic – based on simplified graphics that recalled the form and style of video games from the 1980s (a similar problem marked Maki Ueda’s Palm Top Theatre in Rotterdam) – it also demonstrated the presence of a new generation of artists who approach the audience in a direct manner, getting out of the four walls to create interactive art and film in public spaces. An example of the way new media technologies can offer what McQuire terms ‘more participatory and inclusive forms of mediated pubic space’. (12)


Seeking a similar sort of public engagement – but presenting a series of films or moving images that drew upon the complex history of art, cinema and the image – was POST Pavilion: Commercial Break, a video art intervention presenting artist’s films, curated by Neville Wakefield and created in conjunction with Moscow’s Garage Center for Contemporary Culture. During the vernissage, it was supposed to be exhibited as a giant floating video screen through the waterways of Venice; however, at the last minute this was unexpectedly cancelled, and instead the videos were shown at the opening party. For the five-month duration of the Biennale it was also accessible as an iPAD app by POST magazine (the first magazine made for the iPAD) where the snap-shot-films were available as updates. (13)


Commercial Break features the work of over 150 international artists in which content is driven by the speed of advertising and the short attention spans that mark our image-saturated world. From the ironic self-promotions of Cevdet Erek and Yoshua Okon to the satirical explorations of commodity culture by Barbara Kruger and Stefan Bruggeman, from the self-contained short narratives of Nicolas Provost and Jen Denike to the excerpts of longer films by Marcel Odenbach, Hans Op De Beeck and Gillia Wearing, artists and filmmakers alike addressed these concerns in vastly different ways. But what I ultimately found most engaging was the twofold mode of presentation (at least in terms of intention) that was both very public and very private. The various films, vignettes or snapshots had the potential to be shared within a public space or shared by different publics within the private space of a personal computer or phone; in this way, Commercial Break suggested new potentialities for the way media can act as a ‘hinge between public and private life’. (14)


With the omnipresence of digital media accompanying most of our waking life and the Internet dismantling so many of our accepted conventions in the dissemination and viewing of media art and experimental film, artists and filmmakers are faced with increasing challenges of how to present their work. What I find exciting is that so many artists are facing these demands, actively seeking to participate and project their art and films into the changing social landscape, not constrained by the limits of academic and institutional discourse.  


This is the companion-piece to the author’s ‘The Streets: Breaking Out of the Black Box/White Cube in Rotterdam’ in LOLA 1.


11. Scott McQuire, The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space (Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2008), p. 130.








12. McQuire, The Media City, p. 132.






13. This URL.









14. McQuire, The Media City, p. 132.


from Issue 2: Devils


© Justine Grace 2012.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.