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The 50th Venice Biennale 2003

A Review of the 50th Venice Biennale.
By Else Jespersen

'Dreams and Conflicts. The Dictatorship of the Viewer'
June 14 - November 2

The Venice Biennale is the oldest and most prestigious contemporary international art exhibition in the world, beginning in 1895.

The Biennale is cross-aesthetic and is presenting not only visual art, but also architecture, dance, film, music, theatre. This year are some parallel festivals taking place, 1st International Festival of Contemporary Dance (12 June to 18 July), 47th International Festival of Contemporary Music (12-21 September), 35th International Festival of Theatre (15-30 October).

Very symptomatically it was in every way the cross-over and border-transgressing female artist Su-Mei Tse, living in Luxembourg, who won the prize of the Biennale, The Golden Lion, this year.
Her installation was both very philosophical and sensuous dealing with time, space, and she works in a cross-field of sound (music) and image.

Su-Mei Tse, photo
Su-Mei Tse, photo

The complex title "Dreams and Conflicts. The Dictatorship of the Viewer" supports the chaotic and multi-branched concept. Who is doing what? Are we not all viewers, both the audience, the curators the artists?
And for sure, we all know about Dreams and Conflicts.

The 50th Venice Biennale is a very complex, chaotic and multi-facetted exhibition and the missing over-view - or the missing centralistic perspective if you wish - being an essential concept in the biennale. It is of course reflecting the tendencies of the world to day - the not-controllable multiplicity and pluralism in politics, in religions and among nations. In the multicultural societies today where old ideologies and religions are transgressed, a new multi-dimensional and kaleidoscopic view and thinking is necessary. "We must learn to look and think with the eye and brain of the others", as the black American artist Fred Wilson said in a conference on the 14th of June.

Conference with Fred Wilson (in yellow shirt) 14th June with view to the Danish pavilion
Conference with Fred Wilson (in yellow shirt) 14th June with view to the Danish pavilion

The biennale-website says that the Italian curator, "Francesco Bonami has strived to exploit the unique nature of the Biennale di Venezia's exhibition structure in order to organize a major international exhibition that takes into consideration the diverse characteristics of the world of contemporary art. To achieve this, the exhibition will be composed of different projects (like islands in an archipelago), each with its own identity and autonomy". (For more information see )

Franscesco Bonami says himself in the catalogue,
"But the 'Grand Show' of the 21st century must enable multiplicity, diversity, and contradiction to exist within the structure of an exhibition"...
Dreams and Conflicts. The Dictatorship of the Viewer offers the viewer's eye and imagination a complex world transformed by the eye and imagination of the artist. It offers a world where the conflicts of globalisation are met by the romantic dreams of a new modernity."...

The physical geographic conditions in Venice also 'support' the chaotic and de-centralistic aspect. Most of the exhibitions are taking place in the area of Giardini and Arsenale. The others are around in the palazzos in Venice making it most difficult to see all the exhibitions with about 4000 artists and thousands of art pieces.
The 50th International Art Exhibition gave complete autonomy to eleven curators to make their exhibition in the big exhibition. The outcome is an exhibition of many identities, reflecting the wide ranging variety of contemporary art and thought.

That the Venice Biennale is becoming still bigger, reflects the 'imperialistic' thought that big is good. But perhaps the philosophy that' less is big' might be better, because the viewer nearly has no chance to see and contemplate all the exhibitions in the city.
The exhibition is like the society: chaotic, multicultural, anti-perspective and nearly impossible to get an over-view of, but also very interesting and challenging.

Here a brief presentation of four sections in the biennale: the Giardina, the Arsenale and the Utopian Station and the Recycling the Future-section.

Performance in the exhibition Delay and Revolutions in Giardini
Performance in the exhibition Delay and Revolutions in Giardini

The Giardini - the Pavilions
The Pavilions are the most prestigious and eldest part of the Biennale. About 32 countries from all parts of the world, but mostly European countries, are here represented by one or more artists selected by the ministries of cultures to represent their nations. The 'power' of old countries are here clearly manifested in the placing of the pavilions in the Giardini-area and in the architecture of the pavilions. In a world where new borders arise among nations the feeling of 'anachronism' is coming, especially in the Czechoslovakian pavilion and the Ex-Yugoslav pavilion now for Serbia and Montenegro.
In the Giardini the Danish Pavilion has a very central geographical placing - close to the entrance, but also in a 'transcendental' meaning: the 50th Venice Biennale with the Danish/Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson 's radical 'de-construction' of the Danish Pavilion or 'the house' has a very central place - in the history of the Venice Biennale, too.

Arsenale: Chinese computer-installation with computer art. Gu Dexin: A1.A2...A8, B1.B2...B8, 2001-2003
Arsenale: Chinese computer-installation with computer art.
Gu Dexin: A1.A2...A8, B1.B2...B8, 2001-2003

The Arsenale
The Arsenale was included in the exhibition area in 1980, and are some huge buildings (belonged once to the Venetian navy) with a huge number of artists selected by several curators (6) in this biennale. It was nearly like a 'zapping' walking through this long 'canale' with a lot of impressions and views. The area is divided into 6 sections: 1. Clandestine (curator: Franscesco Bonami), 2. Fault Lines. Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes ( curator Gilane Tawadros), 3. Individual Systems (curator: Igor Zabel), 4. Z.O.U. /Zone of Urgency (curator: Hou Hanru) 5. The Structure of Survival. (curator Carlos Basualdo) and 6. Contemporary Arab Representations. (curator: Catherine David).

As one of the first artists meeting you in the first part was the Danish video-artist Eva Koch in a large room showing an 'inter-active' video-installation from 2001 involving six projections upon two opposite walls. See VILLAR on

The 4th section with artists from Asia and other countries (China, Thailand, Korea, etc) gave the feeling of 'new energy' coming from this part of the world. e.g. the Chinese artist Gu Dexin representing computer-art in 16 computers.

Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset på Utopia Station
Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset på Utopia Station

The Utopian Station

In the Utopian Station curated by three well-known curators and artist, Molly Nesbit (USA), Hans-Ulrich Obrist (Austria), Rirkrit Tiravanija (South America / USA / Thailand) the pluralism and des-orientation were increased. The curators describe the Utopian Station so: The Utopia Station is a way-station. As a conceptual structure it is flexible; the particular Station planned for the Venice Biennale is physical too. It will rise as a set of contributions by more than sixty artists and architects, writers and performers, the ensemble being coordinated into a flexible plan by Rirkrit Tiravanija and Liam Gillick. .. It begins with a long low platform, part dance-floor, part stage, part quai. Along one side of this platform is a row of large circular benches sit, so that you can watch the movement on the platform or silently turn your back or treat the circle as a generous conversation pit. Each seats ten people. The circular benches are portable; as an option one could line them up like a row of big wheels. Along the other side of the platform a long wall with many doors rises up. Some of the doors take you to the other side of the wall. Some open into small rooms in which you will see installations and projections.

The most interesting differences in these three areas were perhaps the 'increasing' representation of still more digital media, Giardini with no computers (the media were installations, photos, videos/projections, drawings, paintings, with a falling representation from the first mentioned) to the Arsenale with computer-art to the Utopian Station where the computers were placed around - and even permitted some 'interactivity' and use by the public.
Also here in the "e-flux-digital space" you find the Utopian way of producing, seeing and collecting art: 120 international artists have contributed with a poster for the internet available to everybody with a computer and printer to print for free.
In the Utopian Station also some programmed live performances, some discussions in panels (one about the View from Asia) were taking place.

In the Utopian Station were five young Danish artists and groups represented, Olafur Eliasson, Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset, Jakob Kolding, Pia Rönicke, and Superflex.

In a very 'essential' installation for the Utopian Station the artists Elmgreen & Dragset, had built up a cave with 6 big white toy-boxes with one coloured letter on each of the 6 sides. It turned out that no matter how the boxes were occasionally placed you may read the word UTOPIA or an anagram for it. In the first three days of the biennale an ape was placed in the cave playing with the boxes. Hereafter the cave was opened to the audience to continue the playing...

Superflex-shop with the Guarana-drink
Superflex-shop with the Guarana-drink

The Danish group Superflex are well-known for their very 'social' art projects. The philosophy behind these new progressive art projects is based on the French writer Nicholas Bourriaud 's 'relational aesthetic'. (For more information see
In the garden of the Utopian Station-building they had an 'alternative' bar, where they were both producing the GUARANÁ soft drink and promoting the idea of the this counter-economic project.
The GUARANÁ-project has been developed in collaboration with a cooperative of Brasilian farmers who are cultivating this fruit with some coffin similar effects, but very healthy. They are working and using some of the capitalism mechanisms, but of course showing new ways by giving more 'profit' for the farmers, who were underpaid by the monopolies of multinational corporations.
(For more information see ) The project was a proto-type project with the purpose to create debate and make visions about how reality might look like. The artists are part of the society, they are able not just to reflect the society, but also to influence and change it.

Melati Suryodarmo, performance
Melati Suryodarmo, performance

Recycling the Future
Another part of the biennale is the representation of the future artists by the 43 art schools and students from many parts of the world.
During the opening day of the 12th of June the German Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Braunschweig also participated with some performance-installations by the class of the artist and professor Marina Abramovic in a big area near by the Giardini.
The Royal Danish Art Academy from Copenhagen was represented too in this project, but not easy to find - and actually here the viewer got des-orientated.
In the programme they were situated in the garden between Arsenale and Giardini. Here it turned out that the big screening of an old monumental statue was a piece of art, with some students from Denmark together with other art schools as the artists. The brilliant and obvious concept was to show the renovation and de-construction of the old art monuments and art relics - the de-construction of the old art world.
But also in the garden behind the Utopian Station the Danish students were collaborating in a cross-over project with students from Stockholm in several on-going projects. They were again invited by the artist Martha Rosler from New York herself being invited by The Utopian Station.

Some conclusions?
Concluding about the 50th Venice Biennale is the fact that art seems to be very politically orientated, but political on a social as well as an individual level. The political main theme was the multicultural diversity and the following dreams and conflicts in the world today, where old borders currently are transgressed, borders among nations, religions, races and sexes. - And borders in the art world as well with the new cross-over-aesthetic experiments extending the borders of our opinion and view of art, what art is and is able to do.
And how do we as individuals handle these changes? The artist and their works invite the viewer to be open and tolerant, to look with a kaleidoscopic view on the 'other' - and on yourself.