Texas Biennial could learn a few things from Venice art explosion

Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla’s installation Gloria at the American pavilion. - Penelope Boyer
Penelope Boyer
Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla’s installation Gloria at the American pavilion.

VENICE, Italy — What can the Texas Biennial learn from the Venice Biennale? First off, it would seem advantageous to have a city with canals as your site. Not to sound too self-serving, but a river walk might work.

The Venice Biennale has two main venues, the Giardini and the Arsenale, and dozens of far less official satellite sites. The Giardini is a park of pavilions each permanently assigned to a country; the Arsenale is the centuries-old site of Venice shipyards and armories filled each biennale year with a single massive, curated exhibition.

Last time I was in Venice, the U.S. pavilion presented Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who was featured last year at Artpace. This year, two of the most memorable among many pavilion presentations were also posthumous. Germany transformed their space into an uber-Wagnerian-night church, with graphics of black and white film clips on screens where saints might be, loud ticking of film clicking, and “Toleranz Gurzel” graffitied about. The artist, 49-year-old theatre and film director Christoph Schlingensief, had died of cancer in August. Egypt’s exhibit was “Thirty Days of Running in the Place,” a video documentation made a year ago by professor/media artist Ahmed Basiouny, who died in Tahrir Square on January 28 during the Cairo uprisings of the Egyptian revolution.

These reminded me of all the public remembrances of Chuck Ramirez who we lost late last year, how special and specific Día de los Muertos and remembrances are to our community, and how this might be an important component for a Biennial here. Who wouldn’t want to see a retrospective of the work of Linda Pace or Rhonda Kuhlman, Regis Shephard or Alberto Mijangos, Henry Rayburn or Mister Danny Geisler, lovingly done like the recent biographical tribute to San Anto’s Manny Castillo at the Alameda earlier this year?

The Artiglierie, a 16th-century artillery workshop, housed this year’s Latin American pavilion. The exhibition, “Entre Siempre y Jamas” (Between Forever and Never), celebrating the “Bicentenary of Latin American Independence” with a poem by Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti, presented works by 19 individual artists from Central and South America, the Caribbean countries, and Mexico. The works ranged from the arrestingly beautiful perfume bottles by Cuban artist Reynier Leyva Novo, each extracting essences of battles fought by 19th-century revolutionaries, including Jose Marti, made from herbs, mud, palm, rain, and river water, to the video documentation of a fabricated llama beauty contest held by artist Humberto Velez in his rural Ecuador. Mexican artist Julieta Aranda built a brick International Date Line across a gallery floor in her installation, “You Had No Ninth of May!” The work explores how crossing borders results in lost histories and time-warped futures.

The Latin American pavilion — a contrast from the rest of the Arsenale in its cohesion and so different from the other pavilions curatorially since it was a collection — was successful in its familiarity. It seemed an excellent example of the kind of exhibition in which San Antonio should excel — multi-platform, amusing, elegant, respectfully representative of local, regional, and international/inter-communidades, installed with care and intelligence, but above all representing work that is intelligent and challenging socially, historically, and politically.

This last aspect sometimes gets forgotten by biennial makers whose credible curators aren’t always on the lookout for the proactive artist. How often do we get to see such a show in San Antonio? If we’re lucky, every couple years. Explore it for yourself at labiennale.org. •