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A quick glance at la Biennale di Venezia
The Venice Biennale is considered one of the most prestigious and keenly followed international cultural extravaganzas. Since its inception in 1895, it has been in the avant-garde, nurturing new artistic trends and organizing international events in contemporary arts. It incorporates the International Film Festival, the International Art Exhibition and the Architecture Exhibition. The event continues the great tradition of the Festival of Contemporary Music, the Theatre Festival as well as the Festival of Contemporary Dance.

The 54th International Art Exhibition at the 2011 Venice Biennale, entitled ILLUMInazioni – ILLUMInations, emphasizes the intuitive insight and the illumination of thought fostered by an encounter with art and its ability to sharpen the tools of perception. Spread over the Central Pavilion, it features more than 80 artists from across the globe. More than one third of them are still in their thirties. The project, organized by la Biennale di Venezia, thrown open to public in the first week of June, continues in the Giardini and the Arsenale until November 27. It has been directed by Bice Curiger, a renowned international critic, curator and art historian. Four participating artists have conceived architectural & sculptural structures (‘parapavilions’) erected at the exhibition venue to house artworks of other artists.

If the previous Biennale’s theme ‘Making Worlds’ focused on constructive creativity, this year ‘ILLUMInations' highlights the epiphanies that accompany intercommunicative, intellectual comprehension. It also resonates with Age of Enlightenment, testifying to the enduring vibrancy of its legacy (and also focusing on the essence of the illuminating experience). An introductory note by Bice Curiger elaborates, “Questions of identity and heritage have long been crucial to contemporary art. Art is a seedbed for experimentation with new forms of ‘community’ and for studies in differences and affinities that will serve as models for the future.

“The title also suggests a wide range of associations, from Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘Illuminations’ and Walter Benjamin’s ‘Profane Illuminations’ on the surrealist experience to the venerable art of mediaeval illuminated manuscripts and the philosophy of illumination in 12th century Persia. It emphasizes the intuitive insight and the illumination of thought that is fostered by an encounter with art and its ability to sharpen the tools of perception.”

Within the Biennale exhibit spectrum, there are ‘settled country pavilions’ inside the Giardini, for the 30 official countries who are treated as permanent participants. Then there are countries that seek invitation for the event, who are offered a space either inside the Arsenale, or in other around Venice. The countries’ Pavilions are an important ingredient of la Biennale di Venezia. It’s an old tradition that envisages the presence of states - precious in today’s era of globalization time, as it gives the organizers and the audiences the primary reference point for observing or better highlighting the specific geographies of artists, different from each other.

The four participating artists/ artist groups from India, selected to represent India in this highly regarded event are Zarina Hashmi, Praneet Soi, Gigi Scaria and The Desire Machine Collective. It’s an unconventional media collective based in the state of Assam that dabbles in public space projects, film and installation works. DMC is run by a talented artistic duo - Mriganka Madhukaillya (born in Guwahati in 1978) and Sonal Jain (born in Shillong in 1975). DMC. Zarina Hashmi is a world-renowned mixed-media artist and printmaker, now based in New York. A talented painter, sculptor and video artist, Praneet Soi, now lives and works in Kolkata and Amsterdam. Gigi Scaria has fast established his credentials as an innovative video artist, painter and sculptor. Born in Kerala, he now lives in Delhi.

According to curator Ranjit Hoskote, who is in charge of the India Pavilion he was quite intrigued by the core theme of the Biennale (Illuminations) that seeks to break down barriers existing between classical, traditional and contemporary art audiences. The thrust on multiplicity is well reflected in the above artists’ practices. His diverse choices indicate a stance of erasing geographical boundaries or barriers, as well. Lalit Kala Akademi (New Delhi), recognized as India’s premier academy of art, has played a pivotal role in setting up the official India pavilion at the International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia. The India Pavilion is occupying nearly 250 square meters of space inside the Arsenale, an astounding centuries-old site where the old republic once made its fleet. It probably serves as the perfect setting for the curator and his chosen artists to explore issues related to displacement and migration.

As has been the norm, the International Exhibition this year is paralleled by National Participations. There are 89 of them, a record for the biennale (the count was 77 in 2009), located around different locations around the city, including the Giardini and the Arsenale, is curated by Vittorio Sgarbi. A statement by Paolo Baratta, President of the Venice Biennale, notes that the Biennale unveils hidden truths, gives new light and strength to new sprouts, showing older trunks and also persisting branches from a new perspective. In the works of artists and in that of curators the different voices of the world meet, to discuss their own and our future. In addition to the main exhibition program, collateral events serve as an additional component. Several non-profit organizations submit projects for small exhibits, to be hosted in and around the city of Venice, all along the six months of the main exhibition program. The Biennale’s curator judges their admissibility and quality as ‘collateral’ events. An increasingly vital aspect of the whole event’s construction is the meticulous attention paid to public engagement. The Biennale has worked on different awareness activities like guided tours. Enthused by the response to the Architecture Exhibition, the organizers have unveiled the ‘Biennale Sessions’ program addressed to institutions involved in research, development and education in the field of arts. During the Exhibition, open seminars will also be held.

Many of the works presented at the 54th International Art Exhibition have been created especially for the occasion by renowned artists like Monica Bonvicini, Loris Gréaud, Nicholas Hlobo, James Turrell, R.H. Quaytman, Norma Jean, Christopher Wool, and Dayanita Singh alluding to the theme of ILLUMInations. In it works by the Venetian painter Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594) will play a prominent role in establishing an artistic, historical and emotional relationship to the local context. These paintings exert a special appeal today with their almost febrile, ecstatic lighting and a near reckless approach to composition that overturns the well-defined, classical order of the Renaissance.

Although self-reflection is a defining factor of contemporary art, it rarely moves beyond the territory covered by the history of Modernism. The incorporation of Tintoretto’s work from the 16th century into la Biennale di Venezia casts light on the conventions of the art trade regarding both old and contemporary art. The analogies of interest in this juxtaposition are not formal in nature but rather reinforce the significance of works of art as visual vehicles of energy.