Allora & Calzadilla, installation of "Track and Field," 2011. © All rights reserved by IMA - Indianapolis Museum of Art

Walking into the Venice Biennale is like traversing into an art-induced headlock set in a labyrinthian wonderland. Slather on enough Vaperetto excursions and optical trickery, and you’ve got a fabricated case of vertigo. Upping the ante are the sumptuous parties and enough celeb sightings to make LA look dull. Want Courtney Love to cuddle with another grunge rock boy, this time Salem style? Head to the Brauer and you’ve got it. Need a mega-sized yacht owned by Forbes‘s 53rd richest man in the world (sorry Abromovich, but this is the 54th edition), take a walk near the Giardini. This year’s rich ‘n famous lineup was so absurd it looked like Cannes on high-qual crack. As a long-time attendees put it, the Biennale used to be about seeing the exhibition, attending the afterparty, and heading back to the hotel to sleep it off and do it all over again. But this year, unless one had the willpower of a health-conscious pregnant woman or the iron tolerance of an English coal worker, it was a sure thing that full coverage was mitigated by Alka-Seltzer.

Christian Marclay, "The Clock," 2010

Having just clicked the send button on final papers, my attendance to last week’s preview checked out under the pleasure category. So while my strongsuit is probably the gossip (shoes, aristos, amorous journalists, and even hotter artists all trotting around at 4am deliciously inebriated), the recently interpolated student in me is going to abstain from discussing what happened after I fell asleep in front of Christian Marclay’s Golden Lion winning 24-hour film The Clock. For saucier coverage, tune-in to the usual suspects.

Jacopo Tintoretto, "La creazione degli animali" at the Venice Biennale

Back in 2007, Robert Storr curated a highly political biennale, and while this edition’s title, ILLUMInations, may sound like it, Bice Curiger’s edition places little emphasis on titular italicization. Curiger’s exhibition plays it safe, piecing together curating’s current top 40: a high number of strapping young artists born post-1975, artists curating artists, and the inclusion of a very deceased art star, in this case Italian Mannerist painter Jacopo Tintoretto.

Urs Fischer, "Untitled," 2011

The Arsenale is, as the Germans say, nicht schlechtUrs Fisher’s life-sized candles of fellow artist Rudolph Stingel and reproduction of Giovanni Bologna’s The Rape of the Sabine Wome (1583) are standout takes on the history of lumens and luminaries.

Nicholas Hlobo, "Limpundulu Zonke Ziyandilandela," 2011. Photo © Haupt&Binder.

Meanwhile, Nicolas Hlobos’s Limpundulu Zonke Ziyandilandela, a sculptural shake up of a da Vinci flying machine and costumed terror, gives a much-needed nod to the darker side of chiaroscuro.

Song Dong, "Parapavilion (intelligence from poor people)," 2011

Despite my faux-pas nap, Marclay’s The Clock is a transfixing marathon on the mercuriality of time, and oh so worth the waking-life effort to see it. And just in case you need a quick fix for your post-Marclay bedhead, the accordion wardrobe doors of Song Dong’s Parapavilion (intelligence from poor people) is equipped with a very handy set of mirrors. However fans of Dong’s epic hoard, Waste Not at MoMA in 2009, may be disappointed by how the install job leaves parapavillion feeling like a model in a garden decorations super store.

Gedewon, "La richesse (Wealth)," 1990

Over in the Giardini, ILLUMInations played out like an elegant museum exhibition: Gedewon’s melodious drawings that recall Ethiopian narrative painting, Karl Holmqvist’s writing on the wall, DAS INSTITUT’s (Kerstin Brätsch & Adele Röder) gorgeous install of Blocked Radiants (for Ioana), Gabriel Kuri’s neo-povera balancing act, and Monika Sosnowska‘s neo-Rococo wallpapered star-shaped parapavilion/nesting place for works by David Goldblatt and Haroon Mirza, who won the Silver Lion for Promising Young Artist.

Karl Holmqvist, "Untitled," 2011, installation view

DAS INSTITUT, "Blocked Radiants (for Ioana)," 2011, installation view

Haroon Mirza, “The National Apavilion of Then and Now,” 2011, installation view. Photo by

Monika Sosnowska, "Parapavillion," 2011, installation view

However, where aesthetic cogency strikes, the haunting specter of awfulness looms nearby. Over and over, I heard whispers boiling down to: this is the biennale — where is the adventure, where is the risk?

Norma Jeane, "#Jan25 (Sidibouzid, #Feb12, #Feb14, #Feb17...)," 2011

The point of #Jan25, by the anonymous entity called Norma Jeane, is just confusing: is Egypt’s nationality a child’s toy with a sculptable identity reconfigured by Twitter?

Mike Nelson, British Pavilion, 2011. All rights reserved by La Biennale

Up the tree-lined cul-de-sac in Nations-land was Mike Nelson for Britain. Pulling out all the stops, including a good portion of the roof, rumor has it that Nelson and one assistant did most of the work transforming the pavilion into a meandering multi-room immersive abandoned workshop in Istanbul, light room and all. While criticized by some as lacking creativity amidst well-executed handiwork, the structure succeeded in fulfilling all the major criteria of being a transport device. By virtue of the smells, ranging temperatures, and tiny details down to the plastic covered light switches, the work leaves it to the viewer to realize the storyline and make or break the work’s fulfillment factor.

Christoph Schlingensief, "Kirche der Angst - Vor dem Fremden in mir," 2011, model. Photo Roman Mensing.

Next door in Egomania, Susanne Gaensheimer’s curated immersion into Christof Schlingensief’s Fluxus Oratorio, a Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within walked away with a Golden Lion for a pavilion. Even though Schlingensief was more of a “theatre guy,” it’s not a surprise. And while hit up with criticism by everyone from Austrian filmmakers to Germany’s own underling pavilion workers for memorializing a singular vision of the artist’s oeuvre, it is an awesome introduction to the man’s work for the uninitiated.

Ahmed Basiony, "Thirty Days of Running in Place," 2010

Across the park, another pavilion as memorial shaped up: Egypt’s 30 Days Running in Place. A four-channel video installation of live performances by Ahmed Basiony and the final street footage he shot before being killed in this January’s protests. The work curated by Shady Elnoshokaty isn’t great art, but it is powerful in how it engages a national issue still at-large through the efforts of two artists not known internationally.

Collective Actions, "Empty Zones," 2011, exhibition view. Photo: Daria Novgorodova. Courtesy Stella Art Foundation, Moscow.

With this year’s political heat re-carving diplomatic friends and foes sound machining in the background, it was to be expected that the national pavilions would trumpet individualized condition reports. True to the emphasis on heavy souls and minimal humor, the pavilions representing former Eastern bloc countries explored recent history, for better or worse. Of particular note are Russia’s Empty Zones curated by Boris Groys (however considering how long he’s spent working with Russian Conceptualism, it’d have to be decent by now) and in Serbia Dragoljub Todosijević’s Lightness and Darkness of Symbols curated by Sanja Kojic Mladenov, which boasts one of the Biennial’s most excellently hung walls.

Dragoljub Todosijević, "Diary," 1971- 2011. Courtesy the artist.

Over in Switzerland, Thomas Hirschhorn represented a force field of trash art, digi-love, and crystal tendencies with Crystal Resistance. Common enough aesthetics found everywhere, his install is a refreshing retreat from the overall silence the Bienniale gives to thrashed quotidian objects. However, the verdict is still out on how tolerable it is for a 54-year old man to work with a multi-sided homogenous solid and begin the accompanying pamphlet with, “I believe art is universal.”

Thomas Hirschhorn, "Crystal of Resistance," 2011, installation view. Photo: Anna Kowalska.

Not having much in the way of political ferment of their own, Denmark endeavored to survey everyone else’s problems. But in the game of “how many decent artists can you stuff into a room before you produce crap,” Greek curator Katerina Gregos should have stopped while she was still ahead.

Zhang Dali, "Second History," 2011 (left); Taryn Simon "Zarah/Farah," 2007 (center); Agency, "Assembly (Speech Matters)," 1992 - (left). Courtesy the Danish Pavilion.

Besides packing the place too tight to let the works speak for themselves, the most egregious misnomer was cutting the view of Zhang Dali’s Second History (left), a history of Mao’s official portraits and their undoctored originals, in half with Taryn Simon’s Zahra/Farah, a final look at a raped and murdered 14-year old Iraqi girl which served as the final scene in Brian de Palma’s Redacted (2007). While both pieces re-image history, China has enough problems with censorship to not need American re-enactors barging in.

Allora & Calzadilla "Algorithm," 2011, U.S. Pavilion, 54th International Art Exhibition, presented by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photos by Andrew Bordwin.

It was another American presence that took the gold this year, with Gloria. Fashioning the Guggenheim-owned Palladian-style pavilion into a playground for professional athletes, the Puerto Rican pair Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla commissioned a half a dozen track and field experts to extreme treadmill it and a handful of gymnasts to contort their bodies to meet in-flight. Paired up with Lady Liberty tanning, a pipe-organ boasting the Giardini’s only ATM machine, and a half-mast video about Vieques,  this tour-de-force is caught between mimetic brilliance and oh-so-obvious calibrations. But if anyone can get away with it, it’s this ballsy pair from the 51st state.

Allora & Calzadilla, "Body in Flight (Delta)," 2011, U.S. Pavilion, 54th International Art Exhibition, presented by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photo by Andrew Bordwin.

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