2009 Venice and Istanbul Biennials


Art exhibition can be conceptualized as forums that act to bring together art objects and the audience. The art objects can be paintings, sculptures, films, music and the like. Generally, the exhibit is temporary, running within a specified period of time and place. There are varying types of exhibitions. Some are retrospective. This means that they take a flashback on the work and achievement of past artists. There is also what is commonly referred to as a traveling exhibition, where the exhibition moves from one city to the other. The exhibition can showcase the work of a single artist, a group of artists or a particular theme or topic. Also, some exhibitions are open to any artist, meaning that any artist can exhibit his works there, while others are only open to a preserve few.

This paper is going to look at two biennial exhibitions. These are the Venice and Istanbul 2009 biennials. The writer will look at, among other things, the significance and curatorial as well as thematic structure of each of these exhibitions. The history and influences of these exhibitions will also be looked at. The relevant ideologies and approaches behind each of the exhibitions will be addressed, and a comparison made between the two.


This exhibition is also referred to as Biennale di Venezia in Italian (Dorment: 11). It can be visualized as a contemporary art exhibition, given the fact that most of the works that are exhibited are from contemporary artists. It is held after every two years in Venice, Italy (Dorment: 11). It is held in odd years, the last one having been held in 2007. It is composed of


2009 Venice and Istanbul Biennials

Venice Biennale of Architecture and International Festival of Contemporary Dance among others (Bayonte: 14).

The first of its kind took place in 1895 (Bayonte: 14). At these initial years, decorative art was the major attraction. However, it was not until the 20 th century that Venice Biennale acquired an international face. This started in 1907, when national pavilions belonging to different countries around the globe started to be erected in the exhibition (Dorment: 12).

The First World War influenced the exhibition a great deal. After the war, there was an increase in the number of innovative modern pieces that were exhibited here (Dorment: 12).

Initially, Venice city council was the overseer of the event. However, this was to change in the year 1930. The council relinquished the control to the national fascist administration (Bayonte: 14). From the same year, there were several additions to the exhibition. The Music Festival was introduced in 1930, while the International Film Festival was introduced in 1932 (Dorment: 12). 1934 saw the introduction of Theater Festival to the exhibition. There was also the introduction of grand prizes in 1938 (Dorment: 12).

The exhibition was not held for six consecutive years in the heat of the Second World War. It resumed again in 1948. This time round, the exhibition showed an interest in European avant-garde movements (Bayonte: 14). This attention was to develop into global contemporary art. Abstract expressionism made a debut in mid 20th century, while pop art premiered in 1960’s (Dorment: 12).

The exhibition has undergone some difficult times in the past. For instance, there were protests in 1968 that led to the abandonment of the aforementioned grand prizes (Bayonte: 13). Thematic exhibitions were now favored more than their monographic counterparts. Sometimes, the Biennale acted as a cultural protest against some perveived ills in the society. This was


2009 Venice and Istanbul Biennials

what happened in 1974, when the works exhibited were seen as protesting against the rule of Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet (Dorment: 11).

The latest edition of this exhibition was held in 2007. It was curated by American Robert Storr (Bayonte: 14). It was themed “Think with the Senses-Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present Tense” (Dorment: 12).

2009 Venice Biennial

This exhibition will be running from fourth June to fifth October (Bayonte: 14). It is directed by Daniel Birnbaum, a Swedish curator. It is the 53rd edition of this exhibition. Birnbaum aptly

themed this year’s exhibition as




ent: 12).

The exhibition is based at a park in Giardini. Although with recent years it has expanded way beyond the boundaries of this park, this still remains the focal point of the show. This year, Giardini has at least thirty national pavilions (Bayonte: 13). Each pavilion is managed by a single country. The countries will be using the pavilions to showcase their artistic works. For example, the major exhibitor at this year’s American pavilion is Bruce Nauman (Bayonte: 14). This means that the majority of the exhibitions that will be showcased in this pavilion will be the work of this artist.

Major Aspects of 2009 Venice Biennial

Every exhibition has its major aspects, which compose the major highlights of the same.


2009 Venice and Istanbul Biennials

Usually, the aspects are in line with the year’s thematic concept (Bayonte: 13). This is no different in this year’s exhibition. The director highlighted three specific aspects for this year’s exhibition.

The first is the “proximity to the processes of production” (Dorment: 12). What this means is that the exhibitions will make a connection between the finished work and the creation process. It will be “closer to the sites of creation” (Dorment: 12). The sites of production in this case are the studio and workshop where various processes are carried out in order to come up with the finished product.

Traditionally, museums tend to showcase a piece of art that is already finished. The processes of production are hidden from the eyes of the audience. However, Birnbaum wishes to change all this in this year’s Venice biennial. He is striving to incorporate creation and education, where the audience can experience a work of art been created. This is in line with his theme “making worlds”. To this end, there are some works that are referred specifically referred to as Birnbaum works. They will be showcasing worlds in the making through works of art that are in the making (Dorment: 11). According to this curator, a piece of art should not be taken as just an object. It does represent the vision that the artist has of the world. That is why he refers to it as world making (Dorment: 12).

The second aspect of the exhibition, as Birnbaum conceptualizes it, is the “relationship between some key artists and successive generations” (Bayonte: 14). He further says that “(a number of) historical references will anchor the show” (Bayonte: 14). It is the norm to find some artists who are sources of inspiration to entire generations. But their works are not showcased in your everyday galleries or museums. They are what can be referred to as “underground artists” (Dorment: 14). These are the artists that Birnbaum is talking about.

The third aspect is an exploration of drawing and painting (Dorment: 12). This is with the recent proliferation of several videos and installations in this exhibition. According to Birnbaum, this new development provides the audience with a new dimension of exploring art. Whereas


2009 Venice and Istanbul Biennials

hitherto they could only communicate with the artist through the canvas or such other traditional medium, they can now do the same via videos and installations (Dorment: 12). A case in point is Tomas Saraceno’s installation. This is at the Italian pavilion. It is referred to as black holes, corpses and zeppelins

(Dorment: 11).

Some Specific Works in Exhibition

There are some works that were exhibited at 2009 Venice biennial that are worth mentioning. This is due to their eye catching nature and the special way that the artist has of connecting with the audience.

One of the major attractions is Francis Upritchard’s Yellow Dancer. This is a New Zealand sculptor who is exhibiting at his country’s pavilion. This is a sculpture that depicts a man doing a jig. The most eye catching feature of this sculpture is its bright yellow color. This work will be exhibited in Fondazione Claudio Buziol (Dorment: 11). This is within Palazzo Mangilli-Valmarana (Dorment: 11). This sculpture has been strategically placed on one of the busiest walking routes from the city’s train station.

Another piece of art worth mentioning is to b found within the British pavilion. This is Steve McQueen’s film. It depicts a park in winter. The park has what Bayonte refers to as “smattering of lost mutts, cruising men and wreathes of mist” (14).

But perhaps the most catching of them all was an installation across the Nordic and Danish pavilions (Dorment: 12). This was done by Elmgreen and Dragset, a Danish-Norwegian art duo. This installation depicts a man in a swimming pool. The man in the installation is a gay playboy. He has a “lavish taste for art, design and gigolos” (Bayonte: 14). The installation depicts his corpse floating in his opulent outdoors swimming pool. This installation accorded the two artists


2009 Venice and Istanbul Biennials

a special gong during awarding of prizes.

Ceal Floyer, a British artist, also had one of the most interesting works in the exhibition. It is a projection of a simple photograph. This is of a Japanese bonsai tree. The projection is blown up to the size of a fully-grown oak tree. At first glance, the projection may appear ordinary enough as to not deserve a second glance. But a closer look will reveal to the audience that Floyer did not trim the tree (Bayonte: 14). This can be seen as a sign of liberation from the “ancient practice of artificially stunting the growth of a living organism” (Bayonte: 14).


This exhibition can also be conceptualized as a contemporary art exhibition. It is held every two years, just like the Venice biennial. It was held for the first time in 1987 (Gibbons: 20). It is held in Istanbul city in Turkey. This exhibition has been known for its presentation of works with explicit political content. In the past, politically inclined artists such as Huseyin Bahri Alptekin, Nevin Aldag and Marko Peljhan have dominantly featured here (Searle: 24).

2009 International Istanbul Biennial

This is the eleventh edition of this international exhibition (Searle: 25). It is running from the twelfth of September to eighth of November 2009. Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts is the force behind this exhibition. Unlike the Venice exhibition that is run by a single appointed curator, this one is run by a group of curators (Gibbons: 21). These are the What, How & for

Whom, who are also popularly known as



2009 Venice and Istanbul Biennials

(Gibbons: 21).

The aforementioned curators are based in Zagreb, Croatia. It is a group of four curators. These are Ivet Curlin, Ana Devic, Natasa Ilic and Sabina Sabolovic (Gibbons: 20). The group has been in operation since the year 1999.

The title of this year’s exhibition is “What Keeps Man Alive?” (Searle: 25). It is a direct

translation from the song “Denn wovon lebt der Mensch?” (Searle: 25). This song is an accompaniment of a 1929’s play “The Three Penny Opera” (Gibbons: 21). It was written by Bertolt Brecht together with Elisabeth Hauptmann.

2009 Istanbul International Biennial: Ideologies

According to Gibbons, this is the most political event to take place here “since the fall of the Berlin wall” (20). The organizers of this event are of the view that we are in a crisis marking the “end of days” (Searle: 24). According to them, the crisis will annihilate the earth together with the art that is found therein.

For the past two decades, there has been what Gibbons refer to as hedonistic nihilism (20). But apparently, there is no place for such stuff today. The artists who have turned themselves the puppets of the bourgeoisie have no place in this new order. They are of the view that our only savior is the politics, hence the political overtones surrounding this exhibition. The same thing that happened to the huge banks of the world with the economic meltdown will not spare the artists.


2009 Venice and Istanbul Biennials

This exhibition sets itself apart from others in its league. It is a foregone conclusion that biennials are expensive and irrelevant undertakings. Rarely are they highlighted by their clamor for new world order (Gibbons: 20). This is where the Istanbul exhibition departs ways with the rest. The organizers of this exhibition are going for nothing short of rebirth of art on the lines of Brechtian, the artist whose song they have adopted for their event (Searle: 24). This will be the engine for social change in the society. They are of the opinion that art has “lost its way” (Searle: 24). The saddest part is that the audience is so gullible to take note of this fact.

This is the reason why most of the artists that are featured in this exhibition are right-thinking. And it is not only the works of the living that the curators are exhibiting. They opine that as long as the piece of work carries the relevant and right message, it deserves to be featured, regardless of the fact that the artist might be dead.

Works Exhibited

Like in the Venice biennial, there are also some works that are worth the attention of the writer in this exhibition. As earlier indicated, the works that are relevant to these curators are the ones that carry the right political message. It is no wonder then that the works which the writer found to be worth mentioning all had political overtones.

The first is Administration of Terror. This is a compilation of Bureau d’Etudes, a Paris based group. The most outstanding aspect of this piece of work is that it seeks to connect the “the banks, intelligence agencies and shadowy business networks” which rule the planet covertly (Gibbons: 20). This is a very pertinent issue in today’s society, where establishments with long histories are tumbling right left and center. Large banks have crumbled, and this group wants to scientifically connect this economic failure to the failures of other institutions in the society, like the intelligence.


2009 Venice and Istanbul Biennials

Another politically charged piece of work is by an American artist. This is Trevor Paglen. In this piece of creation, he is surveilling spy satellites flying over the city of Istanbul. To drive the point home about the abuse of human rights in the society, the floor is littered with trampled reports on human rights in Turkey. This is an indication of the amount of human rights abuse that is there in this society, which is been perpetuated from the highest powers.

When others are talking of the impending end that is coming to the world, Jesse Jones is of the view that the end is already here with us. This is depicted in his video piece titled Mahogany.

Thi s video has a lot of influence from Bertolt Brecht’s works (Searle: 24). It is about the demise of a city that was plagued with pleasure seeking individuals. The message of the video is vividly carried by the words of the “city’s messiah.” He is of the view that “nothing cannot be done in this free-market heaven” (Searle: 25).

This is not so unlike the self declared evangelists of today’s capitalism. They preach that everything is possible in today’s capitalist world. They trade all the morals of the society for profit. And the end result is the same as in this video: The city will come tumbling down one day. And this is with us now. The capitalist world, which is depicted as the city in this video, is crumbling.


A Comparison between Venice 2009 Biennial and International Istanbul Biennial 2009

One of the similarities between these two biennials is that they are held every two years. Venice biennial is held in odd years. This means that after 2009, the next one will be on 2011, because this is the next odd year on the line.


2009 Venice and Istanbul Biennials

The biennials also deal with contemporary issues in the society. Venice biennial exhibits the works of contemporary artists, in what it terms as “making worlds.” As such, this exhibition can be conceptualized as an indication of the continuously changing nature of the physical world. On the other hand, Istanbul International Biennial is dealing with contemporary moral and social issues. Most of the works that are exhibited showcases the rotting that the world is undergoing right now, starting with the crumble of the political and economic systems.

However, there are also some differences between the two exhibitions. While the Venice one exhibits art for the pure enjoyment of the same, Istanbul’s uses art as a political tool, a tool to drive political change. The works categorically go against capitalism and advocate for communism.

Also, Venice Biennial adopts an optimistic view of the social order. The overt and covert tone of the exhibition is that the world is in a gradual state of rebirth. This rebirth is expressed in their art which they call “making worlds”. On the other hand, Istanbul exhibition adopts a pessimistic view of the world order and the world in general. The overriding message is that the world is in a state of rot, and it needs cleansing, even if the cleansing has to be violent.


Bayonte, Bernard M. “Venice Biennale 2009: Making World’s.” Universe in Universe,

23(2), 2009. 13, 14.

Dorment, Newton B. “Venice Biennale 2009: Artists Leap of Faith.” The Telegraph,

12th September, 2009. 11, 12.

Gibbons, Desmond U. “Istanbul International Biennial 2009: What Keeps Mankind Alive?” Europ ean Biennial Network,


2009 Venice and Istanbul Biennials

2009. 20, 21.

Searle, Combes T. “11th International Istanbul Biennial and the Political Overtones.” The Guardian,



September 2009. 24, 25.