AO On Site at the 54th Venice Biennale 2011: Final Overview and News Summary

June 6th, 2011

Inside the Greek Pavilion – all photos by Caroline Claisse for Art Observed.

“The Biennale is like a wind machine,” Biennale President Paolo Baratta eccentrically stated at the festival’s opening. Whether he was referring to the Biennale’s power to stir things up, or to fuel the art world through another two years, the metaphor felt apt. Early last week, the 54th Venice Biennale opened to press and professionals. Although the usual vaporetto strike caused momentary chaos, determined art world people made their way around the city in water taxis, iPhone/iPad apps in hand. The exhibition opened to the public on Saturday, June 4th and runs through November 27th, 2011.

Artist Kwok Mang-ho (a.k.a Frog King), who represented Hong Kong.

Full overview of pavilions, exhibitions, events, and awards after the jump…

Bice Curiger on the move in the Giardini.

The theme of the 2011 Biennale is ILLUMInations, chosen by Swiss curator Bice Curiger, who serves as Artistic Director for the festival. The Biennale is divided into three main sections: The 54th International Art Exhibition housed in the Arsenale and the Central “International” Pavilion in the Giardini, National Pavilions in the Giardini and several off site, and Collateral Events around the city itself. Some of the more well-attended events this year were Anish Kapoor’s AscensionVenice in Venice, Glasstress with Doug and Mike Starn’s Big Bambù, Soundscape Taiwan, and Dasha Zukhova and Neville Wakefield’s project “Commercial Break” featuring a highly publicized short film by Richard Phillips about Lindsey Lohan. These events are just one way President of the Biennale Paolo Baratta creates funding for the festival. Alternative voices were heard at Pirate Camp, a nomadic artist residency, as well as Rhizome’s project Manifest.AR, an artistic augmented reality intervention visible only through smartphones and tablets.

[Art Newspaper: Pirates of the Venice Biennale]
[Artinfo: The Starns - Big Bambú Venice]

In addition to these events, there are also private exhibitions running concurrently to the Biennale, including exhibitions by Julian Schnabel and Barry X Bell at the Museo Correr, the Courtauld Institute, and the Prada Foundation (AO coverage to follow on all three), and two by the Francois Pinault Foundation at the Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi.

[Art Newspaper: Pinault goes global]
[Artinfo: François Pinault Serves Up a Lose-Lose Pair of Art Experiences in Venice]
[LA Times: Thomas Houseago's can't-be-missed sculpture at Palazzo Grassi]

The official opening of the Nordic Pavilion, with speech by former Venice Biennale director Daniel Birnbaum

Inside the Nordic Pavilion, with paintings and sculpture by Andreas Eriksson.


The 54th International Art Exhibition opened to stellar reviews. Split between the International Pavilion in the Giardini and the Arsenale, the exhibition theme was inspired by Nicolas Bourriaud’s 2009 novel The Radicant and 16th century Venetian painter Tintoretto, the latter of whose legacy in the city is highly influential. Ever the art historian, Bice Curiger chose three works by Tintoretto to grace the entrance of the International Pavilion. These works highlight the special quality of light in Venice and provide a thoughtful link between the history of art and its contemporary surroundings.

[Art Newspaper: “I’ve included a very well-known outsider: Tintoretto!” Bice Curiger]
[NYT: Venice Biennale: Echoes of Old Art]
[VernissageTV: Video: ILLUMInazioni/Arsenale]
[NYT: On the Pigeons]

The Biennale’s theme, ILLUMInations, was scrawled across the International Pavilion by Josh Smith. The theme also draws attention to nationality in an arguably post-national art world. Paolo Baratta calls the biennale “a great pilgrimmage wherein the works of artists and in the work of curators the voices of the world meet, to talk about their own and our future.”

Australian artist Anastasia Klose of ACCA Pop-up Program.

Australian artist Laresa Kosloff of ACCA Pop-up Program, who had artists sign her cast.


The Venice Biennale is to national and cultural showcasing what Art Basel Miami is to fashion and luxury brand art crossovers. Out of the 89 exhibiting countries (a large increase from 2009’s inclusion of 77 nations, or in comparison with 61 nations in 1999), there are 28 “settled” or permanent pavilions. The national pavilions that received the most press attention were the U.S. Pavilion, with politicized sculptures and performances by artist duo Allora and Calzadilla, the French Pavilion with an existential installation by Christian Boltanski, the Swiss Pavilion with a characteristic tin foil installation by Thomas Hirschhorn, the British Pavilion with Mike Nelson’s transformative installation, the GermanPavilion with the work of the late artist/director Christoph Schlingenseif, which won the Golden Lion for Best National Pavilion. Also notable was the Lithuanian Pavilion, which received an honorable mention for the Golden Lion for Best National Pavilion. The majority of pavilions consisted of installation; Art Observed had feature coverage of all these pavilions.

[Artinfo: Gymnasts and Art-World MVPs Turn Out for the Indianapolis Museum's Lavish U.S. Pavilion Party in Venice]
[LA Times: Notes from the Venice Biennale: What does it mean to be an American artist anyway?]
[Art+Auction: Win a Creepy Christian Boltanksi Artwork!]
[BBC: Venice Biennale: Art meets politics]
[Artinfo: Bound for Glory: Cavorting Athletes and Oblique Politics at the Debut of Allora & Calzadilla's U.S. Pavilion in Venice]
[Art Newspaper: Artists get political for Venice Biennale 2011]
[Artinfo: "It's an Art Project, Let's Keep It at That": A Q&A With American Diplomat David Mees on the Politics of the U.S. Pavilion]
[NY Mag: Jerry Saltz on the Ugly American at the Venice Biennale]
[NPR: Art As 'Smart Power' At The Venice Biennale]
[Art Newspaper: “I’m not quite sure what installation is…”]
[Artinfo: "Love Is Looking at Each Person as Unique": A Q&A With French Pavilion Artist Christian Boltanski on Bringing the Disappeared Back to Life]
[Artinfo: The Nine Best National Pavilions at the Venice Biennale]

All images by Caroline Claisse for Art Observed unless otherwise noted.

Other national representations included Australia: Hany Armanious; Scotland: Karla Black; Ireland: Corban Walker; Sweden: Fia Backström and Andreas Eriksson; Canada: Steven Shearer; Iran: Mohsen Rastani, Morteza Darehbaghi, and Mohammad Mehdi and Monir Qanbeigi; Iraq: Ali Assaf, Azad Nanakeli, Walid Siti, Adel Abidin, Ahmed Alsoudani and Halim Al Karim; Egypt: the late Ahmed Basiony, Montenegro: Marina Abramovic and others. Greece: Diohandi; Croatia: Tomislav Gotovac and BADco; Hungary: Miklós Peternák; Poland: Yael Bartana; Thailand: Navin Rawanchaikul; Czech/Slovaki Pavilion: Dominik Lang; Brazil: Artur Barrio; Venezuela: Francisco Bassim, Clemencia Labin, and Yoshi; Turkey: Ayşe Erkmen; Uruguay: Alejandro Cesarco and Magela Ferrero; Japan: Tabaimo; South Korea: Lee Yong-baek; Norway: various artists; Denmark: Taryn Simon and others; Austria: Markus Schinwald; Belgium: Angel Vergara with curator Luc Tuymans; Spain: Dora García; The Netherlands: Barbara Visser, Ernst van der Hoeven, Herman Verkerk, Johannes Schwartz, Joke Robaard, Maureen Mooren, Paul Kuipers, Sanneke van Hassel, and Yannis Kyriakides; Catalonia: Mabel Palacín; Iceland: Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson; Hong Kong: The Frog King; Israel: Sigalit Landau; the Saudi Pavilion featured sisters Shadia and Raja Alem.

[NYT: The Art World’s New Darlings]
[NYT - T Magazine: Visiting Artists | Ahmed Alsoudani]
[FT: Chinese Pavilion]
[Art Newspaper: Penelope's labour]
[Artinfo: A Pavilion in the Making: Behind Ireland Representative Corban Walker's Destabilizing Venice Biennale Installation]
[CNN: Haiti, Iraq show for first time at political Venice Biennale]
[Guardian: Venice Biennale gives voice to Iraqi diaspora and struggling younger artists]
[Art Newspaper: Azerbaijani artist unveiled]
[Art+Auction: Syrians Not Too Happy With the Art in the Syrian Pavilion]
[Artinfo: Artist Alleges Corruption at South Africa's Venice Pavilion]

Venice’s legacy as a mercantile center linking east and west remains strong; Middle Eastern unrest and the waves of the nearby Jasmine Spring just south across the Mediterranean were felt. Nations participating for the first time were Andorra, Saudi Arabia, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, and Haiti. Nations returning after a long absence are India, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, the Republic of Zimbabwe, South Africa, Costa Rica, and Cuba.

Outside the Belgian Pavilion

Inside the Belgian Pavilion

Two controversial pavilions in this year’s Biennale were the Italian Pavilion, whose curatorship was entrusted this year to Professor Vittorio Sgarbi (chosen by the Italian Minister of culture Sandro Bondi) and the Azerbijan Pavilion, which saw its artworks covered up and censored.

[Artinfo: Meet Vittorio Sgarbi, the Contemporary-Art-Hating Firebrand Behind Italy's Venice Biennale Pavilion]
[Art Newspaper: Italian Pavilion: Vittorio Sgarbi’s sprawling, sexed-up show]
[Art Newspaper: Censorship in Venice: sculptures covered up at Azerbaijan pavilion]


The awards were announced on Saturday, June 4th, the same day the Biennale opened to the public. The first awards, the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, had been decided a month prior by the jury; they went to Franz West and French appropriation artist Sturtevant. Appointed by Bice Curiger, the jury includes visual artist and musician Hassan Khan (Egypt); independent  curator and art critic Carol Yinghua Lu (China); director of the Museion Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Bolzano, Letizia Ragaglia (Italy); writer, critic, and Centre Pompidou curator Christine Macel (France); and filmmaker John Waters (USA).

The Golden Lion for Best Artwork went to Christian Marclay for his globally crowd-pleasing “The Clock,” shown at Paula Cooper Gallery in 2010. Honorable mentionwent to The Golden Lion for Best National Pavilion went to Christoph Schlingensief for Germany, with honorable mention to Darius Mikšys for Lithuania. Many were rooting for the self-proclaimed “underdogs” Allora and Calzadilla, but no one can contest the award going posthumously to Schlingensief, an artist whose life was dedicated to art and humanitarian efforts. The loss of his life at 49, in the midst of the planning for the Biennial, prompted curator Susanne Gaensheimer to reconsider how the pavilion should be constructed and it is this immense effort and personal nature of the exhibition that won them the award. Dedicated to the The Golden Lion for Best Young Artist went to Pakistani artist Haroon Mirza, with special mention to Swedish artist Klara Lidén.

Inside the Greek Pavilion

[Artinfo/Modern Art Notes: Franz West wins in Venice, but…]
[Art+Auction: Germany Takes Home Golden Lion at 2011 Venice Biennale]
[Artinfo: 18 Questions for Filmmaker (and Venice Biennale Juror) John Waters]

An award dedicated to the younger generation of artists is The Future Generation Art Prize, which grants $100,000 to artists under age thirty-five. Created by theUkrainian billionaire and art collector Victor Pinchuk, the award this year is yet to be given, but leading entries were displayed at Palazzo Papadopuli. The prize was awarded for the first time last December, to the Brazilian artist Cinthia Marcelle, chosen by a jury consisting of former Venice Biennale artistic directors Daniel Birnbaum and Robert Storr, as well as the 2002 director of Documenta XI, Okwui Enwezor, and famed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

[Art+Auction: Spills and Thrills at Venice’s Future Generation Art Prize Celebration]
[Artinfo: Museo Fortuny's Eccentric "TRA" Show Sinks While the Future Generation Art Prize Exhibition Soars in Venice]

Outside the Greek Pavilion


As is only natural for such a comprehensive program, there were some projects that did not live up to their hype. Anish Kapoor’s ambitious project “Ascension” on the island of San Giorgio di Maggiore opened with technical difficulties. The smoke column was up and running the following day, but the bubble of illusion had already burst.  A last minute cancellation of James Franco’s project “Rebel” on the island of Certosa had many people turning around in their water taxis.

The official opening of the U.S. Pavilion with speech by IMA director Maxwell Anderson

[Artinfo: Rebel Needs a Pause: James Franco Postpones His Venice Biennale Art Tribute to James Dean]
[LA Times: Anish Kapoor's 'Ascension' falls flat before big crowd]
[Art+Auction: Anish Kapoor Venice Fail]
[Bloomberg: Abramovich, Pinault Watch as Kapoor Spooks Venice Biennale]

Gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac outside the French Pavilion

Venice in Venice and Commercial Break were the two major star-studded events. The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, headed by contemporary art impresario Dasha Zukhova hosted one of the most exciting events of the Biennale, “Commercial Break.” Curated by Neville Wakefield (the man behind PS1’s Greater New York), the exhibition is an intervention into the public space, inviting over 60 renowned artists to create fake 15-second ads for a barge-mounted JumboTron that sailed up and down the Grand Canal. It’s a riff on Venetians who object to advertising, despite the revenue’s potential to help stop the city from sinking, andhopes to provoke conversations about this issue. Following her huge exposure in the press, Zukhova’s after-party was swanky. Zhukova is the girlfriend of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich; their yacht apparently upset Venetians when it docked in Venice and blocked the view across the lagoon. Notable guests at the Biennale included Jeff Koons, Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Campbell and Elton John, who reportedly bought a work. Although Ai Weiwei’s voice was not present, he remained a constant source of conversation and inspiration, a neon sign shone for him at Cipriani.

Curator Jean Hubert Martin with Italian and French ministers of culture inside Christian Boltanski’s French Pavilion

[WSJ: Dasha, Dasha, Dasha]
[Artinfo: All Eyes on Her]
[Artinfo: The United States's Venetian Feat, Gov Guts Kansas's Art Commission, the Charms of Dasha Zhukova, and the Week's Other Top Art Stories]
[Artinfo: Stampede of the Glitterati: Stars Swarm Dasha Zhukova's "Commercial Break" Party at the Bauer Hotel]
[Art Newspaper: Oligarch ahoy!]
[Business Insider: Venice Is So Annoyed By Roman Abramovich's Superyacht, It's Thinking Of Instating An "Oligarch Tax"]
[Artinfo: Roman Abramovich's Mega-Yacht Angers Venetians]
[Art+Auction: Celebrity Sightings at the Venice Biennale]
[LA Times: Hot-rod gondolas in the Grand Canal and L.A. art in a 15th-century palazzo]
[London Evening Standard: The art world parties through the recession at 54th Venice Biennale]

Outside the Brazilian Pavilion

Outside the Russian pavilion

Inside the Russian Pavilion

Inside the Russian Pavilion, curated by Boris Groys

Inside the Russian Pavilion: Collective Actions, Trips out of Town (1976-2011)

Inside the Russian Pavilion: work by Collective Actions

Inside the Russian Pavilion: Collective Actions

Inside the Russian Pavilion: Collective Actions

Outside the Canadian Pavilion

Paintings by Steven Shearer in the Canadian Pavilion

Steven Shearer, Night Train (2009-2010)

Steven Shearer,
Guys and Dolls (2006)

Outside Frogtopia, Hong Kong Pavilion

Inside Frogtopia, Hong Kong Pavilion

– Overview article and news summary researched, written, and compiled by Art Observed’s Jen Lindblad

Related Links:

– 2011 Preview: Venice Biennale [Artinfo]
– Venice Biennale 2011 [Artnet]
– Biennial or Bust [Art Newspaper]
– Postcards from Venice: Pt.1 (First Impressions)Pt.2 (Arsenale)Pt.3 (Off-Site Pavilions)Pt. 4 (Private Collections) [Frieze]
– Real Venice [Art Newspaper]
– Art’s Tranquil Voice [WSJ]
– Essential Venice: Paolo Ventura [Art Newspaper]
– We’re in the money [The Art Newspaper]
– The end of an art prankster [Art Newspaper]
– Venice Biennale Street Art [Art+Auction]
– Venice Biennale: The ‘It’ Bag [NYT]
– Venice Biennale: The Enormity of the Beast [NYT]
– 72 Hours at the Venice Biennale [NYT]
– Setting the Art World Alight [WSJ]
– Breadth in Venice [FT]
– Everything is ILLUMInated [Artforum]
– Venice Biennale Thrives Despite Tough Economic Times [NYT]
– At the Venice Biennale, national artists know no boundaries [LA Times]
– Newcomers make their mark at Venice [Art Newspaper]
– Money Talks, Make That Sings [NYT]
– And the best dressed gondolier is… [Art Newspaper]
– Slideshow: At the Biennale [NYT]

Art Observed’s 2011 Venice Biennale Coverage:
– AO On Site at the 54th Venice Biennale 2011: Dasha Zukhova and The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture presents “Commercial Break” curated by Neville Wakefield [Art Observed]
– AO On Site at the 54th Venice Biennale 2011: Preview (with photoset) of François Pinault Foundation’s “In Praise of Doubt” at Punta della Dogana, through December 31, 2011 [Art Observed]
– AO On Site at the 54th Venice Biennale 2011: Preview (with photoset) of Glasstress 2011 and Mike and Doug Starn’s Big Bambú, through June 15, 2011 [Art Observed]
– AO On Site at the 54th Venice Biennale 2011: Preview of Mike Nelson’s “I, Impostor” at the British Pavilion [Art Observed]
– AO On Site at the 54th Venice Biennale 2011: Preview (with photoset) of Lithuanian Pavilion [Art Observed]
– AO On Site at the 54th Venice Biennale 2011: Preview (with photoset) of “The Heard and the Unheard” by Soundscape Taiwan for the Taiwan Pavilion [Art Observed]
– AO On Site for the 54th Venice Biennale 2011: Preview (with photoset) of the 54th International Art Exhibition in the Central Pavilion, and announcement of 2011 winners of the Golden and Silver Lions [Art Observed]
– AO On Site at the 54th Venice Biennale 2011: Preview (with photoset) of Anish Kapoor’s “Ascension” at Basilica San Giorgio di Maggiore [Art Observed]
– AO On Site for the 54th Venice Biennale 2011: Preview (with photoset) of Swiss Pavilion with artists Andrea Thal and Thomas Hirschhorn [Art Observed]
– AO On Site at the 54th Venice Biennale 2011: Preview (with Photoset) of “Venice in Venice” [Art Observed]
– Art News: Rachel Harrison wins the 2011 Calder Prize [Art Observed]
– AO On Site for the 54th Venice Biennale 2011: Preview (with photoset) of Christoph Schlingensief’s German Pavilion [Art Observed]
– AO On Site for the 54th Venice Biennale 2011: Preview (with photoset) of Allora & Calzadilla’s “Gloria” at the U.S. Pavilion [Art Observed]
– AO On Site at the 54th Venice Biennale 2011: Preview (with photoset) of Francois Pinault Foundation’s “The World Belongs to You” at Palazzo Grassi, through December 31, 2011 – [Art Observed]
– AO On Site at the 54th Venice Biennale 2011: Preview (with photoset and interview) of Christian Boltanski’s “Chance” at the French Pavilion [Art Observed]
– AO On Site Preview and Summary: 54th Venice Biennale 2011 Begins This Week [Art Observed]