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Alison Levy essay, 13 December 2005

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Alison Levy
December 13, 2005

The Significance of Center of Attention's Swansong at the 2005 Venice Biennale

Everything seems taken up a few notches at the 2005 Venice Biennale-from the magnitude and value of the art, the potency of the sun, to the international travelers' fashions. The experience of the Biennale is very intense, with a few hundred artworks aiming to command attention. It is also a personal, exploratory experience which allows for different meanings to be revealed underneath the entire spectacle. The curatorial partnership, the Centre of Attention's room installation Swansong (Schwanengesang), 2004, located in the Arsenale, stood out to me because it conducts a unique approach on the roles people play within exhibitions. Its inclusion in the fair took on a site-specific meaning within the large art fair experience. Swansong's contemporaneous concept can be discerned via an experiential, descriptive method, some symbology, and a look of how it responds to the rampant malady of Biennales, Festivalism.

In the midst of the celebration and exaggerated atmosphere of the Biennale, inequality was equally inignorable. Amid the thirty countries' pavilions located in the Giardini and another forty other countries represented throughout the city, there were some outsider voices heard out on the "streets" of Venice, such as the presence of Iraqi artist Al Fadhil wearing a t-shirt reading "I'm the Iraq Pavilion at the 50th Venice Biennale." Entering the curated multi-national Italian Pavilion one was immediately nudged into self reflectivity with Barbara Kruger's painted façade "Admit Nothing, Blame Everyone." However, it was the curator of the Arsenale, Rosa Martinez, who was a step ahead of this critique. By allowing the Arsenale to exhibit art which criticized the Biennale and its inclusion process artists, the Arsenale seemed to be the only place where an auto-critique was tolerated. Among the Arsenale's forty-nine artists were a few judgments about the art world. In the entranceway to the Arsenale, the Guerilla Girls brought attention to the gender imbalance and the absence of certain countries or underrepresented groups in the entire Biennale, while Santiago Sierra's sound piece announced the disparity within the fair's monetary allotments for this year's individual projects and preceding years' costs of the Biennale. Martinez's theme of the Arsenale Always A Little Further, imagined the viewer in the role of the romantic traveler, upon a discovery of art to reveal the truths of the world . This is a great concept as it goes against the prevailing idea of the international art viewer as flaneur who only recognizes exoticism in other cultures. Martinez's world traveler confronts the world's obvious disparity and injustice. Although the overall experience of the Arsenale was multi-cultural, it felt haphazard, and a few political and attention grabbing artworks seemed intolerable. This is mostly because the works were difficult and required more than a glance from the viewer, the very opposite of Peter Schjeldahl's Festivalism. A number of works succeeded in embracing the visitor in a dialogue, including a very successful work by the Centre of Attention, an unusual curatorial program based in London run by Pierre Coinde and Gary O'Dwyer.

The Centre of Attention's room installation Swansong (Schwanengesang), 2004, offered viewers an alternative to the regular art going experience through an interactive activity. By blurring the lines between curator and artist, as well as those concerning viewer and artist, how does this curated exhibit succeed to accomplish Rosa Martinez' idealistic vision? How is the work situating specifically within the Biennale, and how does it reflect upon Festivalism? Does this experiential art situation make a political or cultural statement? A descriptive analysis of the experience of Swansong helps to points out the true nature of the exhibit.

In the Arsenale, the obnoxious mixed with the reserved-the artwork that is. The experience of passing through and experiencing the Arsenal's pre-industrial, cavernous, unswerving space involved battling several heavily political works, a plethora of chaotic, junk aesthetic works, and ignoring the raucous art installations which begged for attention (such as the Little Men videos from Russians Blue Noses). Great works like Mona Hatoum's + and - were difficult to view in the cluttered setting. The Centre of Attention offered up something atypical and perhaps cathartic to the other artworks. Swansong is a combination of the curators' interactive activity and artists' objects of their choosing brought together to a unified conceptual show. Their work was a minimal surprise-a bright and simple concept. The passerby first notices the heart of their Swansong exhibition space, a giant pedestal block. Maybe there is a person who seem to be dead laying on it, or it is empty. Regardless, there is an attendant sitting at a desk with a computer to beckon the curious viewer to ask what the show is about. The attendant explains that visitors may pick a song for their funeral and lie down on the pedestal (large enough for most to feel comfortable to lie on) while the computer streams the mp3 over speakers in the space. Under a spot light, the observer-come-participant lies horizontally and encounters their funeral, for the length of their song of choice and in front of any passersby. This non threatening exhibit may have caused a few chuckles while the symbolic action of playing dead may have made others uncomfortable. Even though the interactive part stands out the most in the Swansong exhibit, the show must be read in its entirety.

There are three artworks curated within Swansong shown on the walls of exhibition, a few of whom may not be as easily recognized as some of the other artists showing in the Biennale. The group of artists has an aura of the absurd, the derelict, and an outsider status to them, each having worked with Centre of Attention in the past and either being from or residing in Britain. The works were hung contemporaneously-sparingly around the room in odd heights around the room. Benedict Carpenter is a British artist with an unusual knack for casting, in any material. For his work the Centre of Attention, Poppy, a stencil of a flower was used to spray paint its image in red onto a sheet of paper, and the paint has dripped to form its stem; a concise action which created a hazy, drippy maybe bleeding flower. The significance of the poppy is connected to war and death as a popular symbol of remembrance for soldiers who died in battle, after a certain red corn poppy which grew in certain battlefields in Europe . This symbology seems appropriate within Swansong and the British involvement within the quagmire of Iraq.

House of O'Dwyer is a London based group who make photos and collages of fashion and popular culture, much of whose fodder is British. Their work on view was a collage on a wood board; on the left of the board is a drawing of black and white flowers with a drawn ribbon which reads "Say it with Flowers," and the right has only a real green ribbon attached to the board. Maybe the green ribbon signifies the contemporary trend to wear different color ribbons and bracelets to support a cause (which is awareness of an issue but not a remedy). A bigger stretch of meaning would be the association to the Green Ribbon Club in 17th century London, an early political group who promoted the Anglican leader Titus Oates who was dismissed for drunkenness and sodomy, then became a curate, (or a person who is invested with the care, or cure, of souls of a parish,) but was again expelled for theft, drunkenness, and alleged sodomy. The rest of Oates' life was a continuation of him propagating a series of witch hunts in the name of his church. This is an interpretive stretch, but one worth looking into, especially the play on the word curate. The work is exudes a complacent feeling about the world.

British artist Damien Roach's mixed media installation, A Small Big Thing, aimed to trick to the viewer. Looking at a screen of floating white flakes which appears to be a snowstorm, the viewer is surprised to learn they are actually viewing a live feed of a camera shooting the dust particles floating in the space. "Dust to dust, ashes to ashes"-this work is conceptually swift and technologically meager in its statement. This is an important observation given the importance of showmanship at the Biennale.

The fourth artist is the wider known über-hip German photographer, Wolfgang Tillmans, showing a photograph Sommer. This work depicted a white bowl with red and green berries, with a spoon and anal love beads which cascade out of the bowl, crossing a toy's train track and out of the picture frame. Tillmans' still lifes are known to be sexy, amazingly lit, and intimate. This still life symbolism is difficult to read, but given his larger body of work, the still life would signify some human's touch. Tillmans is recognized for addressing the subject of death with beauty and sensitivity. Again, that Tillmans would make an unclear statement at the very important art fair is surprising. Many artworks seem to use the fair, which has a great amount of visitors, to make an incredible political or artistic statement. Therefore, the inclusion of these four, simply produced works by British based artists is a statement by the Centre of Attention against Festivalism, the idea that large international art events like the Biennale have become polluted with jumbo, slick, highly produced, nonetheless trivial, artworks.

As an exhibition whole, what is the overall appearance and emotive quality of Centre of Attention's display? Swansong is amusing, but the activity also causes contemplation, which is reinforced by the works of art on the walls. Which came first, the idea for the group exhibit around the interactive element, or was it the works of art which inspired the activity? Seen in this context, considering the vase of flowers near the pedestal, it is highly probably that the art pieces act to reinforce the interactive activity that is for the viewer. The tender Carpenter, the suspicious House of Dwyer, the straightforward trickery of Roach, and the lovely, yet puzzling Tillmans create a minimal show and backdrop to the funeral element. The wall works are necessary for the show to work as a whole, and the simple and somewhat sardonic works illuminate the meaning of Swansong.

Swansong requires an assistant to give the explanation and play the song. Two others artworks carried a guide in tow, the other two interactive art exhibits at the Biennale: Japanese artist Mariko Mori's Wave-UFO, which invited three people into a "spaceship" to exert emotion/brainwave control on a responsive screen; and Pipilotti Rist's Homo sapiens sapiens in a church where a few dozen people at a time lie down on cushy pillows and stare up at her projected video on the expansive ceiling-at fairylike characters romping through a forest. These other two works, by widely known, very contemporary, multimedia, nearly mythologized, women artists, are the opposite in production of that of Swansong. Yet, all three exhibits suggest a different type of utopic experience. Utopic artworks are generous with the way they teach or offer a rejuvenating or optimistic art experience. The idea of the utopia within global art fairs is very significant, and the way in which the Centre of Attention handles the audience is very different from Mori's spaceship and Rist's church video installation.

Mori's and Rist's video works were large and involved artworks. Mori's work asks the art viewer to become a participant. One must be prepped with the help of assistants before entering the "UFO"; by putting on white shoes, having their forehead swabbed for the sensors to be placed, and being instructed about the interactive video. Every fifteen minutes, a group of three is allowed into the ship, and they ascend inside the intimate round space and sit back in seats, plug their sensors into the computer and look up at the screen above. Moments later, two computer generated blobs appear on the screen for each person, and each must calm their mind to get their blobs to join up. If everyone completes the task, all three blobs would join together. This is an expensive, well known, and innovative project.

Rist's video took place at the Chiesa San Staé, and offered up a gorgeous old church to be the site of what felt like a lounge. Guests entered the quiet space and were asked to take off their shoes and lie on a futon pillow and look up at the colorful, dreamy video with naked fairies playing in a forest. Underneath the ceiling of the church, the video merged with the church's ornate religiosity to transcending the video's paganism. In this setting, the artwork's spirituality takes on a higher level. Rist's and Mori's magnificent artworks may at first be deemed signs of festivalism due to their high production, and amount of regulation and fantasy involved. Yet, these are thought provoking exhibits, not just one-liners. Interesting enough, they both depend upon the viewer sitting back, relaxing, and allowing the artwork to do most of the work. This seems to add to the concept that Venice is a vacation place, where art can refresh the weary traveler akin to a fantasy retreat.

"Visitors," she Rosa Martinez, "are invited to accomplish a journey from the belief that art still holds a promise of transformation." Rist's video gives the spectator a transcendental fantasy while the Mori video installation is literally a mind-altering experience. Mori's spaceship allows participants to imagine themselves as scientists or a test subject in the name of science. Both take at least 30 minutes of time, making them demanding experiences. Swansong asked for a short-term involvement, the length of a song. Swansong is also a different kind of self-reflective experience for the individual, in that the viewer is not told what to think or what to do exactly, only that the song and platform acts like a funeral. An interesting aside is that the viewer, by playing dead, is on display but cannot see people watching them. So, the purpose of these "fifteen minutes" is not for fame, it is a private performance. Essentially, the Center of Attention's effect on the viewer-participant is Brechtian because the viewer is made somewhat self-conscious by being on display without anything to do. Rosa Martinez also says in her press release what she hopes for the art projects, "Creating new thoughts, creating new ways of understanding reality is a way of going further." It is interesting that all three works ask the viewer to lie back and soak in the experience. Knowledge is not imposed upon the viewer, but the open experience allows the viewer's mind to wonder, muse and calm down. This is important because artworks at Biennales have received a bad rap for being only spectacles with little content. These three works accomplish much by creating a temporary space, sensitive to the individual. This may even be an alternative solution to multi-culturalism, as the viewer brings their own values to the work but the values expressed are by and large universal. How the works realize this is dependent upon their installation space.

Homo sapiens sapiens was eventually closed down by religious challengers to the naked imagery in the church setting. Though, the church setting had not only added another level to the video, but conveyed seriousness and majesty. The experience of a religiously significant space along with the mystical human imagery of the video projection felt like the experience went beyond the historical religious past of the space and into a freer past or future. It also was experienced within a large group. Wave-UFO's style of a futuristic spaceship and other involved ephemera built up a concept of idealism for the viewer-participant. There was a long waiting list to participate and many people only saw other people taking part, making it seem somewhat elite. Swansong did not have a long wait and was amenable to all; the show always retained its gallery feeling due to the white walls, an attendant at a desk, and the minimal artworks. This means that it was not a transcendental experience, like Festivalism insists; Swansong behaved like a curated show about war while going beyond the average impersonal gallery exhibition by approaching the viewer as a unique individual. The viewer is asked to participate in joking at his/her own mortality, at the same time the artworks on the walls might have the viewer considering the weight of the futility of the world is waging. The works are strong on their own, and keep their individual meaning when placed within Swansong. This is the charge of the romantic traveler Martinez is evoking. Apparent danger is to be found elsewhere in other artworks, with violent or ironic detached imagery, or ones that pay no attention to the viewer.

The Centre of Attention truly confuses the issue of the difference between the roles of the curator and the artist. Biennales especially are seen as complicating this issue, because the curator is charged with using artworks to make them fit in their plan, to fulfill a curatorial theme or aim. It is apparent that the Centre and its participating artists are not concerned about who is the artist, the concept is the focus. They are also flipping the roles of the observer and the performer. As their press release states, the viewer-performer becomes the art object, especially interesting because viewer is almost tricked into being motionless by being asked to play dead. Without the viewer-participant, there would just be an empty pedestal and there would not be any music-the viewer becomes a vessel and an entertainer, the experience is not dependent upon an audience, but that possibility adds another layer to the work. In Swansong the four participating artists' works find their meaning within the context and the title of the show. The symbology of the artworks is revealed within this context. What about considering the larger context of the Biennale?

Is the context of Swansong the world, is it institutional or does it reflect the curator's motherland, England? Since Swansong was also shown in Frankfurt and Vancouver, the work is not site-specific to Venice or the Biennale. As a commentary on our socio-political moment the understated death imagery is a peaceful statement about our times, while the work's press release says it is about facing mortality. For Rosa Martinez, the work acts as a British anti-war statement. In the larger context of the hectic and immense art event, this experience enables a break from the art marathon, and as an experience, Swansong gives the viewer a heightened awareness of their mortality using as little as possible.