‘Reality’ bites at the La Budget Biennale

Displays of unbridled wealth are tipped to give way to retro recession chic at this year's Venice Biennale, the world's oldest, most-venerated annual contemporary art event. Held this year in the shadow of the global financial crisis, the international art market, a luxury market, is set to be reminded that collecting art is mostly discretionary. Michael Hutak reports.

Like last year’s return to minimalism on the catwalks, this year’s 53rd International Art Exhibition will reflect global belt-tightening with a back-to-reality motif from Swedish curator, Daniel Birnbaum, who will present "Making Worlds," which he says will emphasize process and materials and will be "closer to the process of production and the venues of creation and training -- the studio, the laboratory -- than traditional museum-style exhibitions”.

Accordingly, we can expect a more muted stanza in 2009 when the four-day preview or 'vernissage' kicks off on June 4, with the official opening two days later, when avant garde totems, Yoko Ono and John Baldessari, will be honoured with Golden Lions for careers that have “revolutionized the language of art”. Displays of unbridled wealth are tipped to give way to a revival of recession chic, and the corporate celebrations aboard the flotilla of luxury yachts, in six-hundred year old palazzi, and at swank already booked out hotels like the Cipriani, or just about any along the Grand Canal or the Lido, will be careful this year to avoid any association with the holders of so-called toxic assets.

Venice is in fact a many-headed “Mostra”, from the art olympics of the national pavilions at both the Giardini and scattered in palazzi throughout the city; to Birnbaum’s curated survey show at the Arsenale, to the ad-hoc independent and satellite shows which simply add to the frolic and ferment.

There will be enough on show to attract more than 50,000 artworld cognescenti to this treasured city to party, play, network or sell. The hard sell in Venice is not restricted to art objects or artists. A growing band of sovereign states turn up to buttress their national brand and draw a reflected glory from their official selections. In 1988, Australia was the last country to secure a lot on the hallowed bohemian Arcadia of the Giardini, one of just 26 elite nations, although our pavilion is widely regarded as a difficult space to present contemporary art, and is often mistaken as the restrooms for the imposing French pavilion which conceals it.

Selection for one’s national pavilion at Venice is often the peak of an artist’s career. While no correlative studies are extant, the attention an artist attracts in the lead up and at the Vernissage always effects prices. In 2007, emerging artist Shaun Gladwell was no exception when the work that appeared in curator Robert Storr’s official survey show, Storm Sequence, later sold at auction in Australia for $84,000, the highest price paid for a digital artwork in Australia.

Clearly the Gladwell phenomenon is still to peak, considering the Sydney-based artist’s selection again for the Australian pavilion this year. Given his 2007 Venice triumph, and his prominence since (he’s been in over 20 group exhibitions since), the perhaps predictable rumblings among Gladwell’s peers have come asking why another artist was not given the opportunity to enjoy the international exposure afforded by being the official selection? Professional development or professional jealousy? We asked Doug Hall AM, commissioner for the 2009 Australian exhibition, what the rationale was for selection in terms of international development of Australian contemporary art.

“Shaun Gladwell was selected because the selection panel thought he was the best fit in terms of the quality of his work, his international profile and career trajectory,” says Hall. “Shaun is a great Australian artist – and that above all was the main selection criteria. His work is fresh, relevant and speaks with an international voice. He was selected from five short-listed artists who submitted proposals to the 11 member selection panel.

“The fact that he was chosen as part of Robert Storr's curated show at the 2007 Venice Biennale wasn't a consideration - only past official Australian representatives are ineligible. We weren’t going to penalise an artist for being successful. The fact that Shaun exhibited Storr's show in 2007 adds to his value in representing Australia in 2009 – it allows a more in-depth exploration of his works by the various curators, artists, and other attending the Biennale.

“It's artists like Shaun, who already have some international profile, that exposure at the Venice Biennale tends to benefit most.”

Influenced by the outback, and Mad Max movies, Gladwell will present a “suite of videos accompanied by sound, photographic and sculptural works”.

The 53rd International Art Exhibition, directed by Daniel Birnbaum, runs from June 7th to November 22nd, 2009 (preview on 4th, 5th and 6th June 2009). Go to: labiennale.org/en/art/


Satellites of Art


The energising art team of Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro get their widely expected big break with selection by curator Felicity Fenner for Australia’s major satellite show in Venice, Once Removed to be held at The Ludoteca, a former convent conveniently located in the sestiere between the main art venues of the Giardini and the Arsenale. Along with works by Vernon Ah Kee and Ken Yonetani, Healy & Cordeiro will present a new installation cut again with the rich vein of irony at play in works like last year’s show in Berlin with former Australian galerist, Gitte Weise. Works like Intelligent Design or Dust to Dust (which presents pulverised Ikea coffee tables in oak and glass vitrines) can be expected to attract critical attention, supported by pair’s judicious talent for incorporating objects and detritus found on site into their works. As we write the pair are preparing a massive installation for Venice at their Sydney studio, using a stack of old VHS cassettes and a caulking gun. Living as artworld intinerants with shows all over the world in recent years, Healy and Cordiero emerged out of Sydney’s lively artist-run space scene at the turn of the millennium and are represented by Sydney dealer, Barry Keldoulis.

Art champions package it up

Australian art bureaucrats consider Venice the premier forum for presenting our contemporary art to the world; a form of cultural diplomacy that brings real commercial benefits to Australian artists lucky enough to be chosen. The Australia Council contributes a base budget of $700,000 towards the Australian participation in Venice 2009. This is supported by a fundraising program (cash and in-kind) which takes cues from the previous two efforts managed by John Kaldor, art patron and 2005 and 2007 Commissioner. Kaldor fashioned the program with both "supporter packages" for individuals and corporate packages, similar in structure to the marketing of headline sporting events. There are two levels of supporter in the 2009 program – “associates” can give $2000 or more and “champions” can give $10,000 or more if they choose. While there are no quid pro quo’s, those that give can then partake in a series of special supporter events both in Australia and in Venice during the Vernissage. They can also receive Vernissage passes – near impossible to get without connections. However, “this is an act of giving for giving’s sake,” as Commissioner Doug Hall AM says. Major corporate sponsors this year are UBS and The Balnaves Foundation. Already in excess of $1 million in cash and in-kind contributions has been generated by the program. Should one suspect that Venice is the sweetest taxpayer-funded junket in the public service, the Australia Council assures us that “all official Australian events are geared towards raising the profile of the artists during the Vernissage period and boosting attendances at both the Australian Pavillion and Ludoteca. The council says maintaining profile during the Vernissage is crucial to attracting leading curators and other thought leaders to see the works. Collectors interested in becoming a supporter can contact the Australia Council on 02 9215 9090.

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First published in Australian Art Collector No.48, April-June 2009

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