la Biennale di Venezia

I wanted to attend the Venice Biennale, as this year there seemed to be a specific focus on performance art. As well as a festival of independent performance art, Infr’Action Venenzia, curated by Jonas Stampe, there was also an event called Venice Agendas, a series of morning discussions that focussed on, so the programme told me: ‘Performance art and the alternative scene; it’s history, legacy and future.’ Infr’Action told us that the performances showcased in this event were: ‘coming out clean as a counter-current and alternative, ephemeral, human scale, un-hierarchical and profoundly non-commercial. It has nothing to sell, but can only give those who understand art a pure experience.’

Both events continued to follow the trope of situating performance in opposition to the ‘mainstream’ values of the market and the overt displays of cultural capital being paraded in the pavilions. Here we seemed to be seeing the usual dichotomy of art for art’s sake and art for life’s sake being played out within the central commercial space of the Biennale and the marginal ‘radical’ spaces outside these ‘official’ zones. Thus the two events already had a feeling of nostalgia surrounding them, performance being framed once again as radical, oppositional and dematerialized, pitting itself against the big bad market.

This was further emphasized by the first panel discussion of the Venice Agendas. Hosted by Jean Wainwright with a panel that included the artist Joan Jonas, Tony Heaton from the arts and disability organization SHAPE, artist Marcia Farquhar and Lois Kiedan from the Live Art Development Agency, London, this panel was gathered together to discuss performance practice and its relationship to risk, asking if the inclusion of performance in major galleries and museums kills the element of risk that is often related to performance or if live practices allow institutions to challenge their audiences as never before. Disappointingly, the examples of ‘risk’ given by the chair of the discussion were Fanko B’s blood work performances and a recounting of a moment within a performance by Gina Pane in the 1970’s where it looked like she was going to slash her face with a razor. I find the continual framing of performance in relation to body art frustratingly redundant as an issue and am tired of interventions into the body being re-staged and re-presented perpetually as examples of risk and danger. The belief that the body and flesh is somehow the last area of radicalism and danger is both wrong headed and exhausted. Any cursory glance at mainstream television will see programs such as Extreme Makeover, Ten Years Younger and a whole host of other programs where members of the public modify and make hardcore interventions into their bodies and flesh. Indeed, some of these are so extreme that they render performance practices rather tame by comparison. The problem here is that the panel equated risk with shock and I would argue that they are not the same thing.

The discussion was rather chaotic and unfocussed with it quickly degenerating into yet another tired theme within performance practice, the investigation of the relationship of performance to documentation. Once again, there seemed to be a retreat into standard areas of investigation. Indeed, I was rather surprised by how un-risky the panel discussion was and felt that it was for the most part a missed opportunity to really explore the motivations and reasons behind the current explosion in performance practices and the use of the art form by institutions and galleries.

One of the more sensitive and complex areas of investigation was raised by Tony Heaton, who pondered on how the legacy of the Olympics has cast the body with a disability as superhuman, the day to day experiences of disabled people being ushered into narratives of heroism, rendering them perpetually hyper-performative when in the public sphere.

Many of the artists in the Infr’Action festival such as Nigel Rolfe and Nenad Bogdanovic made daily performances just outside the Giardini where most of the international pavilions were located. Many of these performances were extremely poetic and generous to the audiences that gathered to see the work. As stated above though, the assertions made by the Infr’Action festival that it presented ‘pure’ experience and art that scoffed at the commercial circus occurring within the grounds of the Giardini only served to frame Infr’Action as rather miffed poor relations that had been left off the guest list to the big party. Yes, the Biennale is the ultra commodification of art and nothing more than a gigantic showroom, we get it! But surely it is a bit like going to Rome and complaining that there are too many Catholics. An artist that made a witty performance about this was Aaron Williamson, who over three days presented a series of works that attempted to infiltrate the Biennale. Leafleting the public with incomprehensible propaganda to win them over, using a door as a shield to storm the city and eventually standing in the park just outside the Giardini with a flashing sign announcing ‘Still Standing’ Williamson for me satirized the nostalgic position of the ‘pure’ performance artist battling against the ‘enemy’ of capitalism and commodified culture. At once a poetic, self-consciously satirical and sophisticated response to the mainstream/marginal dichotomy that is performed by both sides of the art for art and art for life divide and a testimony to the tenacious ways that performance will continue to survive, thrive and subvert these ‘hostile’ environments.

Considering that there has been a recent explosion in performance practice and its inclusion in major institutions such as Tate Modern, within the Biennale itself there was little evidence of this. For the most part when there was a live element to the works, live presences were simply used by artists as extensions of sculptural form. A notable exception to this was the Romanian Pavilion, a work made collaboratively by Manuel Pelmus and Alexandra Pirici entitled an ‘Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale’. In a completely empty space five performers re-enacted artworks from each of the previous Biennale’s. The reduction and rendering of these glittering material and historical artifacts into dematerialized form was an intelligent and critical response to the processes of fetishization that art works undergo. As the description of the work pointed out: “The retrospective can be seen as an ephemeral monument to the biennale, a critique of its Euro-centrism, vain display of power and luxury or of mere conservatism but also a celebration of its openness for experiments, for the coexistence of virtually all the trends, media, genres, that art uses or represents.”

I found the work critical, playful and completely mesmerizing. True, not the most risky thing that I could have seen at the Biennale, but this was maybe a small step in the right direction.