Between June 1 and November 24 Venice will be a huge showcase for contemporary art as the 55th edition of one of the world’s most prestigious and most controversial biennales takes over the city of canals.
Few are the artists uninterested by this cocktail of established talents and pure spectacle and few are the countries who don’t elect to send representatives. This time round, among the seven countries exhibiting for the first time — out of a total of 88 — you’ll even find the Vatican.
Venice is one of the most of the expensive cities in Italy and here everything has to be transported by boat, which raises the final costs. In this context, the price of the Spanish pavilion, which has risen to 400,000 euros at the 2013 edition, is one of the least expensive. In comparison, Argentina has spent two million euros renovating the old weapons hall in the Arsenal, which will be its national pavilion for the next 20 years, while the US pavilion has cost just under a million and the Vatican has forked out 700,000 euros.
Spain’s official representative this year is Zaragoza-born artist Lara Almarcegui, whose controversial rubble installation awaits visitors inside the pavilion. The centerpiece is a four-meter-high pile of construction debris that takes up the whole of the main space of the building, with other rubble piles stacked up in the surrounding space. In total the installation comprises 170 cubic meters of cement, 85 of mortar, 152 of concrete and 150 of gravel, all brought by boat from a Venetian recycling plant.
Venice: just money down the toilet?
Lara Almarcegui’s installation is not the first time the contents of the Spanish pavilion at the Venice Biennale have created controversy. Ten years ago in 2003 Madrid-born artist Santiago Sierra also caused outrage by covering up the word “España” over the pavilion door with black plastic and masking tape and bricking up the entrance, allowing entry into just the foyer, the bathroom and a storeroom.
Round the back of the building, only Spanish citizens were allowed into the exhibition after showing their passport, identity card or other form of identification to a security guard. However, once inside, all they were able to see were bits and pieces left over from the previous year’s show.
Sierra, who was awarded the Ministry of Culture’s National Arts Prize in 2010, specializes in raising issues relating to accessibility and his works often involve hiring workers to perform pointless actions. Among other things, he has paid a laborer to live for 15 days behind a brick wall and men in Havana to masturbate on camera.
The pavilion floor had to be reinforced to carry the over four-ton weight of the exhibit, which is completed by a study on Sacca de San Mattia, an island joined to the nearby Murano by a bridge that emerged from the Venetian Lagoon in the 1970s as a result of the accumulation of building rubble and waste from Venice’s glass industry. “It is the most beautiful area of waste ground in the city, with its reflective colored beads,” she says. “It is also the place where all the ideas, whether ridiculous or not, for solving Venice’s problems are rehearsed.”
Almarcegui’s piece is a deconstruction of the building, introducing in its interior the same materials that architect Javier de Luque used to construct it in 1922. What it is not, Almarcegui is at pains to point out, is a comment on the economic crisis in Spain.
“It is not a reflection on the property bubble, nor on the country’s situation; unfortunately there are problems like these everywhere and not just in Spain,” the Aragonese artist explains. Almarcegui, who has lived in the Netherlands for several years, looks nervous but also happy to be representing her country in the pavilion where hugely reputed artists such as Antoni Tàpies and Miquel Barceló have previously exhibited their work.
But when asked about the controversy her 400,000-euro rubble pile has generated back in Spain, her smile disappears for a few minutes. “It really makes me sad to talk about costs and not about art,” she says.
“I have seen the same criticisms in the Netherlands and what they generate is a hatred of contemporary art. Cuts to culture will bring consequences that will do a lot of damage.”
Curator Octavio Zaya considers that all the questions about the money spent on the Spanish pavilion are the result of a campaign “against culture by the right, which doesn’t ask the bankers for explanations, let alone the Church.”
Of the famous 400,000 euros — half the amount spent on last year’s exhibit by Dora García — Zaya says 200,000 was used on setting up and transporting the installation; the audiovisual project about Sacca de San Mattia; the six work trips Almarcegui made to Venice, as well as the two he and his professionals made. He says he doesn’t have details about the other 200,000 euros, but says they correspond to the allowances for the Ministry of Culture’s participants, the catalogue, the electricity and the security for the pavilion, which will remain open until the end of the Biennale on November 6.