Venice Biennale and Contemporary Asian Art: A Juror's Perspective

When I was asked to be one of the five jurors for the 50th Venice Biennale's International Pavilions, I had a number of immediate reactions. Needless to say, I was quite pleased to have been invited to judge the best pavilion at what many have declared the “Olympics for the Arts.” It was a recognition of the work in contemporary art we have done at the Asia Society for the past decade. Even more importantly, a solid endorsement of the growing importance of contemporary Asian art on a global stage. (Clearly, I was selected because of my work in contemporary Asian art, not because of my familiarity with western contemporary art!)

When we were given the list of 64 national pavilions, both in the Giardini and scattered throughout the city, I was surprised by the number of countries that chose to participate in this international spectacle. Many of the small former Soviet republics, from Latvia to Lithuania and Georgia, had taken palazzos, piazzas, and tiny alcoves to show their selected artists. Knowing the complexity of Italian bureaucracy, I marvelled at the sheer tenacity that of these small countries, not just for finding the premises and getting the necessary permits and utilities to put their exhibitions together, but also for their commitment to the process.

The Asian participation was also surprisingly large: Thailand, through the efforts of Apinan Poshyananda, managed to create a pavilion in a three-month period, surely a record of some sort. Indonesia also had a small space, while Singapore came back for the second time with a very nice location off-site. Iranians, under the leadership of Sami Azar, the Director of the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Teheran actually organized a small installation of three artists, which was impressive and indicative of Iran's desire to engage with the world. And of course, Japan and Korea were at the Giardini.

In this cacophony, there was a glaring absence of Chinese and Indian pavilions. China had actually planned to have a pavilion but SARS derailed those plans. The fact that these two countries represent a large part of the world population, their absence particularly highlighted the limits of "national pavilion" concept on the one hand and the reality of the "international arena" of the Venice Biennale on the other. Whoever can pay, can be admitted to the club, regardless of the importance of a particular country. Luckily there was a large contingent of Chinese artists in the exhibition curated by Hou Hanru at the Arsenale. In that sense, almost complete absence of Indian artists anywhere (save the Raqs Collective) was especially obvious.

From a juror’s perspective, the early days of opening of the Venice Biennale are particularly thrilling and utterly exhausting. On the one hand, you get into the pavilion without any major fuss and you are treated to expensive catalogues and other materials. You can avoid lines even at the most popular pavilion. And, once in a while you get treated to nice cold soft drinks, which, during the heat wave of Venice, was a great boon. One also can’t complain about the special water taxi or a special guide to take you even to the remotest of locations for national pavilions scattered throughout Venice.

The biggest shock came with the realization that to see the pavilions--all sixty-four of them--in two-and-a-half days, one had to be on a “forced” march from early morning into the evening. While one’s friends and colleagues were running from one party to the next, or at least comparing notes on which parties they were or were not invited to, as a juror, you pretty much had to pass on most invitations. The fact that you were invited to them all meant a lot, especially to the other party enthusiasts. In fact, it was difficult to be very social, even when one managed to get to a party. The efforts of people to coax-out tidbits of information about the “winner” were both amusing and tiresome. Ranging from the oblique questions, such as “what are your favourites?” to the more obvious ones, “who is the front runner? I promise, I won’t write about it until after your announcement” (from a prominent art critic), this continuous barrage made it difficult to simply enjoy the party, talk about art, or gossip about the art crowd.

The most amazing aspect of being a juror was the fact that although most of us had not met each other before, we had a remarkably easy time in agreeing on the top five pavilions. Things got more difficult after that point. Passionate discussions about art, politics, politics of art, and validity of nation-based art pavilions in the 21st century age of globalisation were an exhilarating part of the process, especially as we sought to select the ultimate winner.

The award of the “Golden Lion” for the National Pavilion to the Luxemburg pavilion and to the young artist Su-mei Tse was a surprise to the art-insiders, but the jurors were clear about their choice. “Art Conditioned”, as the installation was called, was as much about images as about sound, as much about collusion of diverse elements of form, space and sound as about in-between-ness of cultures. Born of mixed parentage (Chinese father, English mother) and trained in the dual traditions of western classical music and contemporary visual art practice, Su-mei Tse, through her art, vividly expressed the joys and conflict of contemporary, globalising cultures that go beyond nation-states. For all of us who have been committed to the study of contemporary Asian art, Su-mei Tse provided a poetic expression to the complexity of our endeavour.

Artists like Su-mei Tse demand that we develop a more nuanced approach to the study of contemporary Asian art that reflects the realities of Asian expressions beyond the physical boundaries of Asia. I look forward to the future of contemporary Asian art practices and studies that will increasingly take into account these complexities of works going beyond easy definitions of east-west.



Vishakha N. DESAI

Wed, 1 Oct 2003

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