Art as a Fusion of Old and New

         VENICE, May 22, 2015 – Traipsing through the 56th Venice International
Art Biennale is not only hard on the ears, thanks to booming
sound tracks, but often hard on the eyes, even harder on a brain attempting
to distinguish between what might be mere banality and what could be
of significance.
        Although the official theme this year was a reflection between
the arts and our times as well as the fusion of old and new the artists chosen
to represent their nations exposed wars, destruction of flora and fauna,
migration, violence, poverty – nothing really novel though much of it
presented, like all publicity these days, with a cacophony of noise and
spectacular wide screen videos like the montage of John Akomfrah’s
Sea Vertigo, the rape of the maritime and terrestrial environment.
                  While art critics already praise their favorites and condemn
others for having “produced nothing new in decades” the Biennale remains an
Aladin’s Treasure Cove through which visitors can rummage for hours, even
days, making their own judgments which, in the end, is what art should be all
The two yearly Venetian art show, considered the Mt Everest for artists from around the world, is divided into national
pavilions at the Giardini with one chosen artist from that country and exhibits by selected international and national artists
at the Arsenale, the former shipbuilding quarter of Venice with its vast warehouses, dry-docks and factories where the
Venetians used to build their galleons and now houses biennales for art, music, dance and architecture.
        As more and more countries become eager to exhibit their artists, especially the new-born baby nations, this
year many of Venice’s palaces and disused churches have been rented out as art pavilions, an impulse that converted this
city of waterways into a gigantic art gallery.
        As always controversy is part of the prestigious Art-Fest.             
         Armenia was awarded the first prize this month for its exhibit detailing the 20th century genocide of
Armenians by Turks, a genocide Turkey stubbornly denies. And Iceland rented the disused Church of Santa Maria della
Misercordia whose interior Swiss artist Christoph Buechel converted into a look-alike Mosque, partly to protest, so he
said, against the absence of a mosque in Venice, a city closely linked to Islam in its past trading. But his exhibit quickly
attracted Moslems who began to use it as a real mosque, praying on their knees while facing Mecca, ordering bona fide
art visitors to take off their shoes before entering.
           Their behavior prompted Venetian authorities to close the exhibit (the Biennale is open until November 22)
at least temporarily, only a week after it had opened and commentators leveled accusations the whole mosque affair was
no more then ‘a gimmick.’
             Perhaps one of the novelties (if anything is a novelty in art) has been the rehabilitation of discarded materials
and objects that lost their use but attained other significances. This theme of fusing old and new was probably best
expressed in the novel works of Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie in his exhibits at the Arsenale. Entitled ‘Jing Ling Chronicle
Theater Project’ his works  recycled discarded industrial and agricultural objects into works of art, like an old Chinese
lamp with video windows, a wheel barrow carting art objects made of old iron and old military jackets converted into a
              One of the finest individual exhibits is Fiona Hall’s “Wrong Way Time,” an impressive collection of artifacts
made of many substances, including bread, collected driftwood, fabrics woven into extinct or rare Australian
desert animals by Hall and thirty desert aboriginal women. The skins of the animals are covered in British military uniforms
from the days when Britain carried out atomic tests in the Australian desert, tests fatal to many rare species.
             Hall’s art almost justifies the 7.5 million dollars Australia spent to transform their old Venice art pavilion in
the Giardini into a black metal cube with sliding glass doors, a novelty among pavilions.
             Still the visual highlight of the Biennale are the two 90-foot long Dragons ‘the Phoenixes’ designed by
another Chinese artist, Xu Bing, from old construction material, throw-away machinery, bicycle wheels, hard hats, all of it
flying above two flooded and roofed dry docks, a truly awesome sight.
             The ingenious use of throw away material saw Melvin Edward’s melted steel lumps in startling shapes
along a wall and Monica Bonvicini’s monumental sculpture of disused chain saws and axes sheathed in black polyurethane.
A Mao bust sat atop a stack of ancient radios and Katharina Grosse saw a future world where single tufts of grass sprout,
lonely, in landscapes of debris, garbage and dried-up soil.
            The clay-making of Fatou Kande Senghor’s (Senegal) ‘Giving Birth’ is on video, so is Kenyan Wangechi
Mutu’s video of the burden of our garbage poisoning the world and the late Emily Kame Kngwarreh’s four panel ‘Earth’s
Creation’ is a blinding explosion of color, a masterpiece.
            The art of provocation was left to Great Britain which exhibited cigars stuck in private anatomic places.
             And of course there were political messages too.
             In the main hall rotating speakers read out loud throughout the day the four volumes of Karl Marx’s
Das Capital in which he laments the role of the worker exploited by the capitalist, not a far cry from our own days. The
reading over loudspeakers prompted a group of young Americans to shake their heads and one to whisper:
‘Damn communists, still around!”
            The Albanian Merit Shirag’s video narrates the tale of dictator Enver Hoxha whose name was written in
gigantic letters on a mountain top by fawning communist organizations during his heydays. After the dictator’s death and
the advent of democracy the Albanian military napalmed and bombarded with artillery the name on the mountain but failed
to erase it. The ‘Enver’ remained standing until students finally exchanged the letters E and N which then read ‘NEVER.’       
           The Latvian pavilion (Katrin Neuburga and Andres Eglitis) details in photos the era of the ‘garage industry’ of
Soviet days when people built, repaired and produced in small garages to supplement their income on a black market.
The garage industry is still alive today “a time capsule where neo-liberalism exploits the postindustrial proletariat” the
exhibit explains. In other words citizen are still forced to work in their spare time, unpaid, to supplement their income -
or to simply keep their jobs.            
          Works of oil and charcoal on lime; chairs made from bullet capsules and the muzzles of old weapons; graphics ]
on carpets, clothing for anti-Putin demonstrations and sword-like knives bunched like flower
bouquets, all symbols of a world in transition - perhaps.                 
           In these pavilions we may interpret the plethora of art on show in our individual ways which might completely
differ from what the artist intended to say.
          But that is the real fun of a Biennale.
Uli Schmetzer is a former foreign correspondent who lives in Venice part of the year. He is the author of four books all available
on or Kindle.
The key in the hand, Chiharu Shiota