Every two years, Venice becomes the center of the art world and the navel gazing begins. But can a prestigious art exhibition reflect reality? The 55th Biennale made a clear decision not to keep up with the 'zeitgeist'.
Wood. There's wood everywhere. Not just the German pavilion, where Ai Weiwei created a massive, fragile sculpture of chairs from the Qing Dynasty. Belgian Berlinde De Bruyckere arranged tree stumps and branches into disturbing artificial bodies, although in this case the pieces are created from wax made to resemble wood.
The Latvians have a tree with no bark as a huge pendulum swinging through their space. And Mark Manders outfitted the Dutch pavilion with a number of robust wooden objects.
Is the artistic zeitgeist materializing itself as wood? Is it an ecological metaphor and a sensory, down-to-earth answer to the challenges of the virtual world?
There's a cold wind blowing through the alleys and canals of Venice as visitors amble through the national pavilions and ruminate on the upcoming art trends. While the "acqua alta" flooding only affects the city in winter, visitors and locals alike are well advised to pack an umbrella and maybe rubber boots and scarves, too, as the art world tries to cope with an unwelcome bit of changing climate.
But it's difficult to discern any other bits of zeitgeist here at the Biennale. Even Massimiliano Gioni, the curator this year, doesn't want to talk about it. He said he's more interested in the traditions of the 18th century and the cabinets of curiosities from the past. And that leaves a lot of room for discoveries. The prestigious art exhibition presents itself as "The Encyclopedic Palace," a title chosen by Gioni for the 55th Biennale.
Rather than checking off names of "must-have" artists, Gioni put together a show full of talented, ingenious individuals who often obsessively create their own worlds. Artists like Yüksel Arslan, whose work with thousands of pieces of paper is enmeshed in Turkish history. Or Poland's Pawel Althamer, who immortalized the faces of actual Venetians in a park full of his spectral sculptures. Biennale visitors weave their way through a surreal world and - for a moment - appear to melt into the history of Venice.
Even if it doesn't put new artistic trends on a silver platter, the city is full of art that awakens one's curiosity. There's a tangible weariness with tweeting, posting, e-mailing and liking. It's time to get back to our lives, our ideas, our aspirations; time to stop the flood of images that endlessly bombard us and to sort out our own views.
The art of slowing down
With that in mind, it seems to make sense that the 2013 Biennale offers few interesting opinions on global crises. Could it be that art has retreated in the face of povery, migration and war?
That's one way to look at it, but you could also say that art does as it pleases. And sometimes it pleases to take a step back - away from the digital imperative that everything has to be commented on in real time. This Biennale has simply pushed the stop button.