"ILLUMInazioni" is how Bice Curiger designates her concept for this year's Biennial. Her task: to counter the disparateness of the national pavilions by dishing up a consistent narration no matter how fragile. Where previously Harald Szeemann, Francesco Bonami, Maria de Corral, Rosa Martinez, Robert Storr and Daniel Birnbaum tried their hand, Bice Curiger is now displaying works by 83 artists from all over the world in the Padiglione Centrale of the Giardini and in the Arsenale. The exalted title promises no less than enlightenment and insight. That said, a rather narrow reading of the "metaphorics of light" is to be understood here: At a stroke the curator seeks to bring illumination into the zones of artistic production lying in the dark on either side of the national borders.
The fact that she feels guided more by a fascination with the new (and consequently the laws of the market) than penetrating philosophical and political levels of meaning in light is evident in her not deeming it necessary to specifically emphasize that a third of the artists she has invited are under 35. Only one makes the average age fly sky high: Tintoretto. He would be 492 today. However, since 1594 he has rested in peace in the Madonna dell'Orto church. And for him Bice Curiger reserves the main room in the Padiglione Centrale. Rather than devoting herself to the shadows, which speculative business casts over all those works of art displayed in the city on the lagoon, the exhibition maker prefers to ignore the pale moonlight emitted by the yacht "Luna" owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. Instead she looks back to the era of twilight when Jacopo Tintoretto captured the last beams of the golden era of the Republic of Venice on canvas. Which is why at the spot where two years ago Tomás Saraceno installed a cobweb-like network of black threads, which was associated with no less than the cosmos and philosophy of Buckminster Fuller, there are now three large-format major works by Tintoretto. The Accademia, which owing to modernization work is somewhat more generous than usual with the items in its collection has contributed "The Creation of the Animals" (1550-1553) and "The Stealing of the Dead Body of St. Mark" (1562-1566), and the Palladio church of the Benedictine monastery San Giorgio Maggiore is venturing to manage for a while without its tourist attraction "The Last Supper" (1592-1594).
Without a doubt these are breathtaking paintings. Anyone who has seen them will not be able to forget them. Not the swans and geese, flying past in formation, that seem to be remote controlled by an almighty creator. Not the table shifted out of central perspective around which a disorderly group of disciples is gathered, not understanding what is going on. Not the piazza which was thronging an instant ago and from one moment to another has become a narrow corridor, indeed a trap, from which there is no escape. Not the darkness in the sky testifying to divine anger. Not the figures shrouded in white vestments , who seek refuge in the arcades. Not the woman lying on the ground and pulling with the strength born of desperation at a camel's lead. Not the lifeless body of the martyr, which is literally stolen at the last minute and under extraordinary exertion.
Few of the artists, critics, art historians, collectors or gallery owner, who travel to the Venice Biennial every two years do not relish having a few hours "off duty" and playing hooky on the Biennial by strolling through the Accademia, paying a visit to Tizian's "Assunta" in the Frari church, winking at the small, white dog on Carpaccio's "Vision des Augustinus" or admiring Tintoretto's picture cycle in the Scuola di San Rocco. It is precisely this dialectic tension from which the Biennial has derived its magic for many years . Here the transient, there the enduring. Here the frantic celebration of the here and now; there the detachment of the historical. Here the art arranged in the White Cube and seeking its admirers and purchasers; there painting and sculpture embedded in the prestigious culture of the onetime powerful serenissima.
But thanks to Curiger's intervention Tintoretto's paintings so closely connected with the buildings, the history, power politics and social structure of Venice are now in the same location as the roving works of art at a large exhibition , whether they be the "invisible pictures" by Bruno Jacob, traces of light by Jack Goldstein, the masquerades of a Cindy Sherman or monitor vedutas by Pipilotti Rist seen through rose-colored glasses. Naked, poorly lit and degraded to a salon painting Tintoretto's works hang in the container-like architecture, robbed of their historical context. You could simply call such a form of presentation a failure if not for the sneaking suspicion that precisely this removal from context were intentional. Art historian Bice Curiger employs a method of her discipline already successfully practiced in the 19th century during art's entry into museum institutions: By brushing aside all traces of the historical images are rendered accessible.
This is shown even better in the catalog than in the show itself. Already on the first pages, even before sponsors are honored in the form of logos we encounter Tintoretto's paintings in sections. Since we are dealing with photographic reproductions the paintings could be dematerialized, dismembered and transferred to a uniform format corresponding to the dimensions of the computer screen and which accommodates our perceptual habits in the digital age. Dished up in this manner the paintings can be talked about. Under the title "Jacopo Tintoretto. A discussion from a contemporary perspective," curator Bice Curiger, art and Pop theorist Diedrich Diederichsen, artist Corinne Wasmuht and art historian Carolin Bohlmann set a strident discussion machine in motion. Naturally, we learn that Tintoretto is one of us. He broke with conventions, was innovative and relished experimentation, developed the concept of the non finito, in order to score points with the impression of the unfinished. He had been able to assert himself against competitors such as Tizian or Veronese, assert himself in competition and produce as quickly as the growing needs of the market demanded of him. Thanks to his coolness, known then as sprezzatura, he had made the greatest exertion appear easy and relaxed. And he was prophetic, grappling back in the 16th century with the theatricality addressed in the 1960s in connection with the Minimal Art by Michael Fried, and with his sceneries extending into the depth he anticipated the virtual spaces of computer games. Yes, we learn, his paintings resemble animated snapshots.
Integrated into the current Biennial, Tintoretto's painting is made into what contemporary art so badly needs in order to secure its relevance, for it is presented as a significant, recyclable reference. The more references that can be demonstrated in a contemporary work of art – or at least asserted – the more valuable it must be. You could call this a succinct description of the paradigm currently prevailing. But who profits most from incorporating a Tintoretto system of reference into the Biennial? Likely a contemporary art, which subjects itself to the mechanisms of marketing uncomplainingly and seeks in the historical to discover nothing but itself. Look here, the murmur runs through the aligned rooms of the Padiglione Centrale: This is how it always was. You have to fit in, serve the system, outdo the others, produce without respite. Be a hero of the kind Tintoretto was. Don't be so soft. Switch your light on. And let's move on.
Already published in our series on the 54th Venice Art Biennial:
> "Beyond fear and Africa" by Thomas Wagner
> "Distributing pigeons in the park" by Thomas Wagner
> "We are leaving the American sector ..." by Joerg Bader and Thomas Wagner
> "Along for the ride" by Annette Tietenberg
> "American gym session" by Thomas Wagner
> "Resistance – liquefied or solidified?" by Barbara Basting