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Women on the verge: Jennifer Allen on the fifty-first Venice Biennale.

ONE CENTURY. That's about how long it took the Venice Biennale to figure out that a woman could indeed head the city's renowned international festival for contemporary art. Perhaps in an effort to compensate for decades of missed opportunities, the new Biennale president Davide Croff and his fellow board members chose not one but two women to run the fifty-first edition next summer: Maria de Corral and Rosa Martinez. Both Spaniards have already curated the Spanish pavilion at Venice--de Corral presented the work of Jorge Oteiza and Susana Solano in 1988, and Martinez let Santiago Sierra close the pavilion to all but those carrying Spanish passports in 2003. De Corral, who formerly directed Madrid's Reina Sofia and the visual arts division of Barcelona's Fundacio "Ia Caixa," will oversee the Italian pavilion. The Arsenale will be curated by Martinez, chief curator at the new Istanbul Museum of Modern Art and a veteran of the international biennial circuit.

"I am fully aware of the feminist dimension of this nomination," says Martinez. "I only hope that ours is not an exceptional case." In contrast, de Corral, who also cocurated Venice's Aperto section in 1986, doesn't see any feminist political agenda, however belated, in the nomination. "It has to do with standards of quality and professionalism," she states, "although my exhibition will undeniably have a woman's perspective." While the press release initially promised a retrospective approach in the Italian pavilion and fresher works in the Arsenale, the two sections have since developed some points of contact. "Our exhibitions will be distinct due to our different backgrounds and generations," explains Martinez. "But we have decided to share the selection of artists who will realize specific new projects in common spaces like the bookstores, cafeterias, and restrooms." For de Corral, the short preparation time--the opening is slated for early June 2005--precludes the historical approach that has marked her museum shows, whether on Georg Baselitz or Julian Schnabel. "But as with all the exhibitions I have done," says de Corral, "my intention is for visitors to establish a conceptual and physical relation to the work." Martinez--who likes to follow the I Ching as closely as Marx's Das Kapital--is aiming for synchronicity. "Unlike a traveling museum show, a biennial takes place in a very specific place and at a very specific moment in time," she says. "I cannot say what form this specificity will take in Venice, but it will be there--perhaps linked to the city's character as a baroque stage or as a Byzantine fantasy."

Whatever links emerge, de Corral and Martinez can count on hooking up with Robert Storr. The former MOMA curator will in 2007 become the first American to head the Biennale and is also organizing an international conference for next fall, which will act as a collaborative bridge between the fifty-first and fifty-second editions. Another first in the Biennale's history, Storr's advance nomination and his conference are part of a three-year plan that President Croff has devised to make the Biennale "an active interlocutor" instead of a mere "container" for art. Storr, whose most recent project was this year's SITE Santa Fe Biennial, insists that the symposium is not modeled on Documenta 11's "platforms": "My ambition is more modest: to reconsider collectively what large-scale international exhibitions can and should try to accomplish." While examining aesthetic codes, languages, and paradigms, Storr's conference will also look at the Biennale's history and its many imitators. "It's not just about promoting the already-existing assortment of biennials, nor criticizing them," he explains. "Rather, I want an open-ended discussion that will set the stage for new generations of art."

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One hopes that Storr's guest speakers will openly discuss not only the fate of the US pavilion [see page 82, "Venice Breach"], but also the Biennale's recent step toward privatization. Italy's culture minister Giuliano Urbani--whose controversial reforms have made way for the privatization of national heritage sites--introduced legislation last fall to transform the Venice Biennale into a public-private foundation. While promising more autonomy to the Biennale. Urbani initially proposed to link the visual arts festival to the ailing Rome Quadriennale and Milan Triennale and to allow private investors a vote on the board along with a say in programming. In December 2003, a group of former festival directors, including Germano Celant and Achille Bonito Oliva, gathered in Rome to protest the reform--with apparent success, since the fusion with Rome and Milan was dropped from the final legislation. Yet the role of private investors remains unclear. Francesco Bonami, who curated the 2003 Biennale, believes that the new foundation will operate more like an American museum. "Many changes are needed in Italy, but the only problem is that the government often implements changes without knowing where they will end," he says. "It's not evil; it's just sloppy." Like his successors, Bonami confirms that he was granted full autonomy.

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What can one expect in 2005 and 2007? No curator is giving away any details, but Martinez sets the tone: "Big names or small names, famous or not, the artists and their works should speak to the spectators about the problems in their lives. After all, we know that the personal is the political." At the dawn of its second century, the Venice Biennale will finally have the opportunity to find out how this slogan of feminist theory translates into curatorial practice.

Berlin-based critic Jennifer Allen is a regular reviewer for Artforum.
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Author:Allen, Jennifer
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Nov 1, 2004
Words:902
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