The title of the 57th Venice Biennale is Viva Arte Viva, and it’s about artists who create art for artists. The theme was applauded by the opening audience in May because some recent exhibitions at the Biennale have been criticized as being too political or theoretical. That’s why the new exhibition felt like coming back to the roots of art. And no matter how much some love to criticize the Biennale itself and its way of dividing art by nationality, it still holds a firm place and importance in the world of art.
The Biennale in Venice is much like the eternal city itself: unpredictable, misty, both an illusion and damaged by reality. The opening week at the most important contemporary art exhibition of the world (like Oscar Boyson and many others have claimed) is an experience, a performance in itself. Nothing compares to the range of emotions you feel viewing the artworks from dozens of countries – hope, sadness, joy, confusion, anger, laughter, boredom – and sharing this with 20,000 people from all over the world. The crowd of the opening week includes art dealers, curators, aspiring artists, journalists, hangarounds, people who have seen it all, the young and hopeful, those searching for something or those selling and offering their own vision of life. The energy of the Biennale is contagious, uplifting and tiring at the same time.
Since 1895, the Biennale has offered five times a decade the movement of the souls of the most interesting contemporary artists of the world. For the garden of the Biennale itself, we have to thank Napoleon Bonaparte, who invaded the Republic of Venice in 1797 and whose name is still abhored, but he also set up his idea of French gardens, which eventually became the location of the Biennale. Politics have never been foreign in the Biennale Gardens. Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler have walked here. Protestors have made scenes and produced fights at the Biennale. Politics, historical movements and the confusion of modern times have always been boldly shown here.
“You can’t take this all in at once. You come here, look at the art and then go home, and only afterwards you realize what you saw,” Italian art journalist Anna Battista says.
In the opening week, it’s not only the art you look at. You look at the people. They are dressed up to show their personalities, brands and ambitions. A woman in her 70s walks by. She’s wearing just a red swimming suit covered with soft dildos and is dragging a life-buoy behind her. If you don’t have a pavilion of your own, you can still do much to draw attention to your work.
“I dress up boldly to draw attention. That way people come to me, and my costume raises questions so I have the possibility to talk to new people,” Mrs. Battista says and shows off the clown collar she has made herself of plastic belt buckles.
Finland is among the lucky few of the 29 countries that have their own permanent pavilion in the Biennale Gardens. And the location is the best it can be, right next to the Central Pavilion Napoleon built in the 19th century. The Finnish pavilion was designed by architect Alvar Aalto in the 1950s. It’s small and was made cheaply from wood as it was supposed to be temporary, but now it’s a listed structure and considered to be one of the treasures of Biennale. Norway, Island and Sweden are green with envy and don’t try to hide it, because they don’t have their own pavilions.
Finnish artists such as Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865–1931) had been active in the Venice Biennale since the early 1900s. Thanks to the effort and international connections of art collector and patron Maire Gullichsen (1907–1990), who was also one of the founders of the Contemporary Art Association of Helsinki, the Finnish pavilion was made and shipped to Venice in pieces from Helsinki in 1955.
This year the Finnish pavilion was overtaken by laughter, a rare emotion to be experienced at the Biennale or in the “serious” art world in general. Finland’s artwork “The Aalto Natives” by Erkka Nissinen (1975) and Nathaniel Mellors (1974) is produced by Frame Contemporary Art Finland and the curator Xander Karskens. Nissinen and Mellors use in their theatrical artwork HD video, puppets, robotic techniques and hand-drawn stop-motion animation. Under the shadow of absurdist satire, they address serious subjects such as neoconservative nationalism, intolerance and class polarization.
The line to the Finnish pavilion in the opening week was long and slow, but the staff of the pavilion said that the audience came out with big smiles. They often heard praise on the street and later in art publications that “The Aalto Natives” was one of the best pieces of art at the 57th Biennale. “We are very happy about the response for ‘The Aalto Natives’. We started the project 18 months before the opening and had an international jury to search for a representative of Finland,” says Raija Koli, CEO of Frame. “We didn’t want it to be just slapstick comedy, and it was important that Finland is not mentioned in the artwork. Nissinen and Mellors break the barriers of nationalities and it works: the audience don’t want to come out at all, and the humor of the artwork makes everyone laugh.”
The technical challenges were serious, because the climate in Venice is not easy. There is dust, heat and humidity, and the very fine technical constructions have to survive for seven months. Raija Koli sees the role of the curator as crucial: he/she is the midwife of the artists and interprets the art. Pilvi Kalhama, the director of EMMA Espoo Museum of Modern Art, was also delighted by the Viva Arte Viva theme. It felt fresh and not too theoretical to her taste like some of the recent themes of the Biennale. She also sees the roles of artists and curators as interesting and multifaceted.
“The voice of artists is very important in society, and it’s crucial that it can be heard. It’s something we have pondered a great deal in EMMA too: what is the voice we are actually hearing and seeing in art? Is it that of the artist, or of the curator or of other staff of the museum?”
The term curator has been taken out of its traditional context in recent years. Nowadays people use it loosely and say how they “curate” their grocery bags or Instagram accounts, for example. Mrs. Kalhama thinks it’s a good thing that the word curator is now used in everyday life and that it’s not about some star curators that make art meaningful with their golden touch. Curating has become a subject at university only recently in Finland. Formal education is one way to make a career of curating visible. Freelance curators are also more common nowadays than a few years ago.
The Biennale is a great jumping point for artists. The directors of museums use the event to tighten the relationships between international colleagues and to make new contacts. Compared to bigger art markets Finland has only five or six larger commercial galleries which work partly internationally, so it’s not easy to make a living as an artist. Competition can be hard, but Pilvi Kalhama sees genuine collaboration between artists; according to her, in the inner circle, it’s not so much about jealousy or sharp elbows.
“There are different kinds of success in the art world. One can make paintings and sell them or create an installation that cannot be sold, but it brings enough money so you can make a living from your art, and you don’t have to have a second career,” says Raija Koli. Like Pilvi Kalhama, Raija Koli has also seen how generously artists share their networks and tips on how to work in different cultures with their colleagues. That solidarity and collaboration is also a beautiful way to express the Biennale’s spirit about art from artists to artists.
All pictures by Elina Simonen