Visitors to the Venice Biennale hope for those special moments when art can change the way we see the world. Here, our contributors choose some of their standout moments from previous Biennales. C.B.
Gerhard Richter, German Pavilion, 36th Biennale, 1972
In the installation of the series 48 Portraits (1971-72) in Venice in 1972, Gerhard put his painting of Kafka in the middle, shown-full-frontal, with all the flanking portraits appearing to gradually turn their heads from him. The installation was unique to that situation and hasn’t been done in the same way since.
This was Gerhard’s breakout show in an international sense. It came around ten years after the photo paintings and confirmed that he was a major master. This was a period in which the validity of painting was being questioned and Gerhard was one of the few artists who stuck to his guns, determined to express himself in paint. This show changed a lot of people’s ideas about Richter.
Lothar Baumgarten, German Pavilion, 41st Biennale, 1984
I remember walking around the grounds of this Biennale before it opened, without permission, and coming into the German pavilion, where there were these names on the floor. In the middle of the installation, which was beautiful, somebody had left a black umbrella. That seemed to me to be a spontaneous, Magrittean effect that I thought was brilliant.
Baumgarten remains under-appreciated—his work is interesting and complicated and, while he has had moments of attention, he deserves more.
Sigmar Polke, German Pavilion, 42nd Biennale, 1986
At the 1986 Biennale, Sigmar Polke was awarded the Golden Lion for his unusually innovative and impressive ensemble in the German pavilion.
During the previous winter Polke had recorded his impressions of the empty pavilion with still and movie cameras to gain inspiration for the Athanor project. The overall realization involved atmospheric, meteorological, cosmic and psychological dimensions, thus inviting the viewer to discover and explore a wide range of phenomena without stipulating apodictic, formal, answers.
A group of tall so-called “Spiegelbilder” (mirror paintings) done in artificial resin, silver leafs and dry pigments seemed to immerse the viewer (since 1987, these have been permanently installed at the Museum Abteiberg, Moenchengladbach).
Polke’s references to art history and German history included a painting series with variations on Dürer’s curlicues (now at the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich). A colorful painting that referenced Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Netherlandish Proverbs (1559), showing two dogs fighting for a bone (now at the Kunsthaus Zurich), set a contrast.
Unconventionally, a raster painting, depicting a faceless German policeman, was hung outside on the pavilion’s facade. Four large monochrome “Farbtafeln” (color charts), painted with long forgotten pure pigments, had partially poisonous properties. A silk cloth painted with Tyrian purple—the most expensive color dye historically—and canvases painted with silver compounds or with Indigo, completed the astonishing ensemble.
Jasper Johns, American Pavilion, 43rd Biennale, 1988
This exhibition, “Jasper Johns: Work Since 1974”, was important. It later came back to the Philadelphia Museum, which sponsored the exhibition, and in many ways, the installation seemed almost more planned for the museum than the pavilion.
Johns has had an up and down career outside the US, and he’s been relatively little seen in Europe over the past 30 years. He’s not a presence there as much as New Yorkers might expect. An exhibition opening at the Royal Academy this September will be his first the major retrospective in London (“Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth”, 23 September – 10 December). It will be an occasion to rediscover someone who hovers in the uncanny space between “name brand” ubiquity and relative obscurity in terms of specific works.
Jenny Holzer, American Pavilion, 44th Biennale, 1990
In 1990 Holzer represented the US and created one of the most striking exhibitions I’ve ever seen. She filled the walls with electronic signs that ran with a never-ending parade of her texts and truisms in different languages. She also carved her texts into marble tiled floors, sarcophagi and benches.
In a very short space of time, Holzer had achieved an art world trifecta: an exhibition at Dia (“Jenny Holzer: Laments”, 1989-90), at the American pavilion in Venice, as well as a remarkable solo show at the Guggenheim in New York (“Jenny Holzer: Untitled (Selections From Truisms, Inflammatory Essays, The Living Series, The Survival Series, Under a Rock, Laments and Child Text)”, 1989).
Hans Haacke, German Pavilion, 45th Biennale, 1993
In a work that echoed Caspar David Friedrich’s painting The Wreck of Hope (1823-24), Haacke took up the massive marble floor tiles of the German pavilion, stacking and breaking them so that when you came into the space, you had to walk over teeter-tottering fragments that resembled ice floes.
Aside from the sight of them, the tiles clacked and wobbled, so there were sonic and kinetic effects as well. This pavilion was, after all, designed in 1938 to reflect the grandeur and permanence of the Third Reich, a grandeur Haacke parodied and, to some degree, ruined.
He also put a huge Deutsche Mark at the front of the pavilion’s exterior, just above the door symbolizing the mercantile nature of the new Germany.
There have been so many great installations in the German pavilion since the 1970s, but Hans Haacke stands out for me. I’d count it as one of the greatest national pavilions ever at Venice because what he did was so simple and radical—and incredibly potent. He took a sledgehammer to the perfect marble of the fascist floor so that what remained appeared as though in flux.
Haacke is certainly the most significant political artist to have been working since the late 1960s. Taking on his own national roots in this international exhibition had a power and sculptural presence that remains one of the most memorable works of art I can ever remember seeing.
Louise Bourgeois, American Pavilion, 45th Biennale, 1993
The highlight of this show was a series of cells made in the early 1990s, which remain one of the most important bodies of work that the artist created in her 80-year career—and she made great and profound art in every decade.
So much of Bourgeois’ work is focused, in a great variety of sculptures and drawings, on the childhood trauma of capturing her father in deception of her mother by having a secret relationship with their nanny.
She spent decade upon decade re-examining the same trauma and these cells are the places in which she lays the pain to rest by re-enacting and re-staging the iconography and imagery associated with the traumas and putting them in cages—as though they were no longer part of her present life but something of the past, boxed in.
After this—not un-coincidentally—she moved the narrative of her life forwards by cycling back through various decades of her adulthood, and making sculptures out of the physical materials of her life, incorporating dresses she wore as a young woman, and going on to make sculptures out of the linens that remained in her closest and represent her as an aging woman.
This Venice exhibition was an exquisite and pivotal point in the life of an artist whose primary narrative was built around childhood that she retold from a thousand different and highly inventive perspectives. It would set her on a course of coming to grips with the different phases of her life, including aging and dying.
Pipilotti Rist, Swiss Pavilion, 47th Biennale, 1997
The first time we had seen the work of this magically inventive artist was in 1997 when her work Ever is Over All (1997) was displayed in the Arsenale as part of the central thematic show. The video shows a woman wandering down a city street in a way that makes her seem like a lighthearted modern-day Dorothy in ruby-red shoes. She skips down the street holding a long object that looks like a flower but has the presence of a club, which she uses to smash the windows of the cars she passes.
In 2005, she represented Switzerland at the Biennale, projecting a video, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, onto the entire ceiling of the San Stae church (which she had filmed at Inhotim, the museum I helped to create in Brazil).
The four-channel film conjured a hypnotic trance, with images of women within nature, of exotic fruits and plants that burst forth. There was such deep sensuality to the work that it was actually shut down after before the Biennale closed: after a group of 45 Catholics lodged a complaint with the Pope, the parish priest closed the show on the grounds that showing naked bodies was unacceptable inside a church.
Marina Abramović, Italian Pavilion, 47th Biennale, 1997
This was a fantastic show. Marina sat in a pile of fresh, or relatively fresh, beef bones that she scrubbed clean over the course of several days while delivering a monologue surrounded by screens projecting images of her parents. They had been high-ranking heroes of Tito’s resistance to Germany in the Second World War, so Marina grew up as a princess of the nomenklatura of Yugoslavia.
Of course the meat that clung to the bones rotted during the performance—so they stank, adding a visceral aspect to the largely historical piece and linking it at a gut level to the ongoing war in former Yugoslavia.
Maurizio Cattelan, Italian Pavilion, 47th Biennale, 1997
Nobody who saw it could ever forget that amazing sculptural installation where art was wedded with architecture by Maurizio Cattelan placing his pigeons all over the rafters of what used to be called Italian pavilion (Turisti, 1997).
Yet the piece that most stands out for me was a work in the Arsenale (Mother, 1999) in which a living fakir lay on the ground in a deep meditative state, with his eyes closed and his hands in a praying position. With the exception of his head and hands, his entire body was covered in sand. Cropped in the ground in this way, the man almost had a death presence.
The amazing part of Mother was that it was a live scene, but read like a static sculpture because of the nature of the fakir’s contemplation. It had a presence that was incredibly sculptural but at the same time created a bizarre reversal in the viewer: here we were, looking at someone in the sort of meditative state that art viewers strive for.
Cai Guo-Qiang, Chinese Pavilion, 48th Biennale, 1999
The first time I ever saw Cai Guo-Qiang’s art was when he did an installation in the first Chinese pavilion in 1999. He created a series of sculptures that seemed to be in the language of Socialist Realism, in a style that mirrored the kind of official Communist art that we’ve always thought of as anti-Contemporary, made in opposition to the avant-garde. But Cai deconstructed that trope in an inventive way, by dissembling and reassembling the figures to create groups that formed a sculptural history painting.
The artist was on site making the work, which turned the installation into an ever-evolving live panorama, so there was a sense of constant of transformation and development.
Shirin Neshat, Iranian Pavilion, 48th Biennale, 1999
There are certain occasions during a Venice Biennale in which you see a piece of art that defines a moment in such an extraordinary way that, without even knowing the artist, you recognize that you’re in the face of something significant. Those special instances are what we crave most in biennials—work that changes your thinking about what contemporary art is.
Shirin Neshat was known to us though her over-painted photographs, but Turbulent (1998) is by far her most renowned video work. It consists of two screens. On one, a man is singing in prayer. On the other, a female figure is singing too, in the most extraordinary way.
It was the first time that I remember, as a Western viewer, looking at a figure from the Islamic world dressed in the kind of attire that is often looked upon as oppressive in the West and using it as permission for total freedom. What the woman was singing was so amazingly transformational; her voice and the relationship of her hands to the microphone was almost sexual—and yet she was in traditional garb that seemed otherwise to reinforce the roles of a culture. But she was able to find abundant woman-ness in that in the same way that Robert Ryman finds endlessness in white.
Pierre Huyghe, French Pavilion, 49th Biennale, 2001
This was the first major installation of the Anlee project: Pierre teamed up with Philippe Parreno to buy a Japanese anime character, and Pierre made a series of videos. This was probably his breakout exhibition and it was an innovative thing to do in terms of video—going to mainstream anime production and taking from it something to would be reprogrammed and given a life of its own.
Marlene Dumas, Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa/Palazzetto Tito, 2003
Often, some of the best art in Venice is in satellite exhibitions that are not officially a part of the Biennale. One of the locations for some of the most consistently exquisite exhibitions is the Fondazione Bevilacqua la Masa/Palazzetto Tito. Certainly one of the most memorable shows I’ve seen there was of works by Marlene Dumas, which focused on smaller scale paintings that trod a thin line between death and oppression and sexual exaltation. A single painting called Death of the Author (2003) remains one of her greatest paintings.
Kiki Smith, Fondazione Querini Stampalia, 2005
Another off-site exhibition, this installation by Kiki Smith was at the Querini Stampalia—a historic palazzo that, every two years, invites a contemporary artist to create work within it. Smith placed her art throughout this domestic space, which is part-house and part-museum. She tapped into that to make powerful sculptures that turned the building itself into a sculptural presence.
“Think With the Senses, Feel With the Mind: Art in the Present Tense”, 52nd Biennale, 2007
It’s hard to pick a favorite from the Biennale I organized in 2007. Chéri Samba was in the Italian pavilion, which was the first time an African painter was at the centre of the exhibition rather than a sideshow. In that context, he was flanked by Richter, Kelly and Anselmo.
Kara Walker did wonderful videos for her installation (see above) and there were several animations, notably by Steve McQueen and Tabaimo. Sigmar Polke painted a huge cycle of canvases that François Pinault bought and installed in his museum on the Punta della Dogana. Sophie Calle made a tender installation with a tape of her mother’s death. There was too much to choose just one—or even a dozen.
David Altmejd, Canadian Pavilion, 52nd Biennale, 2007
David Altmejd was still quite a young artist when he represented Canada in 2007. The national pavilion is an oddball kind of space in that feels a bit like a tree house. Altmejd completely transformed it so that one no longer had a sense of the architecture, turning it instead into a sculptural space by utilizing mirrored walls and surfaces, as he often does.
It was memorable to see how his sculptures resided in this space—in a way, borrowing language from a funhouse hall of mirrors and applying it to a particular and unique piece of architecture to create the visionary, experiential and figurative work that he makes.
Monika Sosnowska, Polish Pavilion, 52nd Biennale, 2007
One of the more interesting artists to have emerged in the past few decades, Sosnowska was representing her native Poland in 2007 and filled the entire building with a sculpture that looked like it had been smashed, folded and wedged in order to fit the space.
It consisted of the metal armature of the exterior structure of workers’ housing in Poland, turning the remnants of the Communist era into one of the great monumental sculptures of recent decades.
Bruce Nauman, American Pavilion, 53rd Biennale, 2009
This was essentially a mini retrospective of key works by Nauman, combined with new installations. It was an amazing way to look at the life and work of one of the most influential artists of the post-war period.
Charles Ray, Boy With Frog (2008), opening of the Punta della Dogana, 2009
This work was made in the manner of the historic sculptures that populate the city but depicts a very contemporary boy holding a frog. There’s something so ordinary about this boy who is nonetheless shown in such an eternal way, and something so American about his stance, suggesting the literature of Mark Twain.
It was commissioned by François Pinault for the opening of his museum on the Punta della Dogana at the 2009 Biennale. The work is almost anti-Classical because of the boy’s casual position, while being very Classical in its white cast polyurethane that suggests carved marble sculpture. The boy is depicted larger than a man, so is truly monumental.
Situated in one of the most prominent and visible points in the city of Venice, Boy With Frog integrated a very contemporary reinvention of the classical language of sculpture in a city that is otherwise a museum of the glories of the past. Yet, after objections by city authorities, the statue was removed in 2013 and replaced with a reproduction of an historic lamp-post.
Fondazione Prada, opening exhibition, 2011
When the Prada Foundation opened in Venice in 2011, it staged an exhibition curated by Germano Celant of great works from the collection (“Fondazione Prada. Ca’ Corner della Regina”). The many thematic rooms displayed were extraordinarily thoughtful and beautiful. The depth in which Prada has collected great artists such as Lucio Fontana is impressive, and the installation included unprecedented juxtapositions that somehow made perfect sense.
The one that stood out the most for me was by the staircase, where a two-panel Brice Marden monochromatic painting (Blunder, 1969) was hung opposite a Domenico Gnoli representational painting from the 1960s (Red Hair on Blue Dress, 1969). There was a level of curatorial intelligence that underscored that this collection embodied the highest standards.
Mike Nelson, British Pavilion, 54th Biennale, 2011
Mike Nelson took the British pavilion, whose architecture is so embedded in the minds of the visitors, and which has so defined the selection of artists placed within it, and completely blasted it apart. He created a series of environments, deconstructing the building in such a way that you did not recognize the interior.
He built instead a very elaborate network of intimate environments that made you feel like you were in another part of the world, wandering into functional spaces that had been temporarily emptied of their occupants.
Not only was the language of these spaces more of the Turkish bazaar that the British aristocracy, it was such an experience to move through it—you had to crawl through spaces, doorways were hidden, climb up ladders into nooks and crannies and attic spaces—that the work rethought the notion of a British pavilion at a biennale. It was a journey of discovery and often discomfort, which gave glimpses into immigrant cultures that have been flowing into Europe for the past few decades.
It resulted in an amazing experience that was second only to the remarkable sculpture by Gregor Schneider that resided in the German Pavilion in 2001 (for which he won the Golden Lion). In Totes Haus u r (Dead House u r), Schneider disassembled his childhood home and reconstructed it to create passageways and spaces in the interstices between rooms and floors that led nowhere. Schneider presented the whole as an anti-monumental sculpture.
“The Encyclopedic Palace”, 55th Biennale, 2013
Massimiliano Gioni curated one of the most memorable multiple artist exhibitions of recent years. He combined contemporary artists with historical ones, insider artists with outsider artists, combining in his display the work of people trained to make art with work made in therapeutic psychiatric environments, as well as visionary pictures by mystics and people who could see auras.
It was an entire vision of the creative mind, whether high art as we know it or life lived in different ways.