Putting on a show

As the UAE prepares to make a double debut at the Venice Biennale, we look at the history of the art world's most prestigious festival.

Visitors look at the installation by the British artist Tracey Emin exhibited at the British pavillion during the 2007 Venice Biennale.
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There are biennales and biennales. And biennales, and biennales. Over the past decade or so, the mania for biennialisation has reached such heights that scarcely a nation in the developed world now wants for one. There are two-yearly art events in Bucharest, Kwangju and Sao Paulo. A new one was set up in New Orleans to give the city a boost after Hurricane Katrina. Iran has one, even if it isn't held in Iran: the International Roaming Biennial of Tehran has so far exhibited in Istanbul, Berlin and Belgrade. There are precedents for this kind of itinerancy: Manifesta, for example, has toured European cities since 1994. More usually, however, the biennale stays put, a standing adornment to whichever city it has fetched up in. Because that's another odd thing about them, qua social artefact: you rarely find them in the capitals. In the UAE we have Sharjah. The principal British event is held in Liverpool; Japan singles out Kitakyushu for duty. One wonders: was it a bit gauche of the Russians to launch a Moscow biennale a few years ago? What does it say about Greece that its primary event is held in Athens? It's tempting to put these countries on the couch, to see what their departures from the art-world norm might reveal about them.

For the biennale has always at bottom been about national self-presentation. And that goes double for the grandmother of them all, Venice. The Venice Biennale began in 1895, when the city council decided it could turn the informal meetings of artists at the Caffe Florian into a profile-building international event. A pavilion was built in the gardens at Castello. Artists were invited by name, further submissions were solicited and space was set aside for foreign talent, the better to reveal the supremacy of the Italians.

The show proved an unexpected triumph: more than 200,000 people visited the exhibition, though this may partly be explained as the result of some canny marketing. The city had the inspiration of offering visitors a return train ticket along with their entrance fee, a deal reminiscent of the sort of package tours popularised by Thomas Cook a couple of decades before. Thousands took them up on it, making the inaugural show a hit, and to some degree also a success de scandal. For the most talked-about work in the exhibition was Giacomo Grosso's Supreme Meeting, which showed the corpse of Don Juan watched over by female figures. The painting was considered so provocative that it provoked the spontaneous formation of a commission, which ultimately voted in the painting's favour. "We unanimously reply no," it said. "The painting will not offend public morals." In fact, the painting caused the people of Venice so little distress that it went on to win a prize by popular vote at the end of the exhibition.

Thus, from its first edition, Venice announced itself as a home for the boundary pushing. It cottoned on to abstract expressionism in the Fifties, and pop art in the Sixties. Today, it has a reputation as a safe haven for all manner of neo-conceptualism. In a recent novel set at the festival, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, the British author Geoff Dyer records such manifestations of Venice's anything-goes sensibility as a wall of dartboards - fully interactive, of course - by Jacob Dahlgren, and a team of African street vendors employed by the artist Fred Wilson. "Ideally," Dyer writes, "the perfect art installation would be a nightclub, full of people, pumping music, lights, smoke machine... You could call it Nightclub, and if you kept it going 24 hours a day it would be the big hit of the Biennale."

This year, among other notable provocations, are a video of the former Velvet Underground viola-player John Cale getting waterboarded to the accompaniment of the Welsh national anthem. The UK will be represented by the video artist Steve McQueen, a Dutch resident and best known for the feature film Hunger, a broadly anti-British account of the death of the IRA volunteer Bobby Sands. Alan Vega, the former vocalist in the classic New York electro duo Suicide ("the ultimate punk band" because "even the punks hated us"), is presenting work. If past form is anything to go by, further coups are to be expected.

The biennale may have been challenging from the start, but it was a few years before it started taking on its present shape. Today, the whole of Venice is crammed with spontaneous happenings and loosely overlapping festivals of film, dance, theatre, music and architecture, all centred on the Giardini, the gardens where the first festival pavilion was built. There are 29 national pavilions in the gardens and more scattered across the city: in particular, the Arsenale, a former naval shipyard, has become a locus both for the more recent national arrivals on the Venice scene and for cutting-edge fringe activities. It wasn't always this way.

Indeed, it wasn't until 1907 that the first non-Italian pavilion opened in the Giardini. Germanic artists had been on the scene since the Biennale's early days, thanks to the political weight that Gustav Klimt and the Vienna Secession artists carried with the festival organisers; in 1899 Klimt's Judith II was exhibited to notable acclaim. The festival was arguably slower on the uptake as far as developments in French art were concerned: Rodin had a good year in 1901 and there were posthumous shows of work by the great Barbizon realists Millet and Corot, but French impressionism, for instance, which had set European art on its ear decades before, was overlooked altogether. And perhaps it is significant that the first country to establish a permanent home in the Giardini was the relative backwater, artistically speaking, of Belgium.

Others followed soon enough, however: the British, Germans and Hungarians were installed by 1909; in 1912, France joined them. Now there are dozens of national pavilions. As well as the UAE, other debutantes this year include Andorra, Gabon, Montenegro, Pakistan, Monaco and South Africa. The UAE's double debut (a national pavilion and a separate platform for the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage) will be at the Arsenale among them.

There has already been a good deal of excitement about one small state that will be making its inaugural showing in 2011: the Vatican has announced a pavilion of its own. Quite what it will contain remains to be seen, but it seems likely that Venice will be able to accommodate it. One of the focuses of the Biennale has long been a large-scale exhibition put together by a visiting director. This year's director, Daniel Birnbaum, has called his show Making Worlds. It will, he says, focus as much on the processes of artistic production as the results.

The Biennale has proven remarkably robust over the decades. It withstood a hostile leaflet campaign by the excitable Futurist poet FT Marinetti in 1910, whose Manifesto Against Past-Loving Venice rained down from the bell tower of St Mark's Basilica. There have been upsets: it fell under fascist control during the 1930s and was suspended for six years during the Second World War. The wave of proto-revolutionary protests that swept Europe in 1968 caused a major rethink in the way that the festival was structured: prizes were abolished and exhibitions became thematic rather than artist-led. Moreover, it is likely that the world's current economic difficulties will cast a shadow over the traditional whirl of party-going. But don't expect it to bow out: for all its wobbliness, the rising damp and sinking stilts, there's something oddly invincible about Venice. As Dyer writes, dismissing several historical accounts of how the city came to be built: "It still didn't make sense. Better to think that it just appeared like this, fully formed and hundreds of years old in the instant it was founded."

Catherine David, who is curating Adach's platform in Venice, emphasises the Biennale's combination of deep historical roots and buzzy contemporaneity. "You have a very messy mix of historical precedents and contemporary, mercantilist, very glamorous adaptations, all at once," she says. "And because it's Venice, because of historical precedent, because of all the things we said previously, it's still a very international platform. Meaning that, in a few days you can touch many people, and you can achieve very good visibility." And of course, the fact that the UAE is the first Gulf country ever to participate in the Biennale is an attraction of its own.

Tirdad Zolghadr is curating the UAE national pavilion. "It's the oldest biennale in the world," he says, "and it's probably one of the most prestigious arts events, so whatever happens here will hopefully have some kind of repercussion on how art is seen in this country." As he says: "It's a way to, in a very modest and small way, make a historical footnote somewhere along the line: to leave a lasting trace."

Whatever happens, the UAE's double debut at the world's greatest celebration of art marks a big step in the cultural life of the Emirates. There are biennales and biennales. And then there's Venice. elake@thenational.ae