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A Global View of the Arts

Deborah Barkun, chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Ursinus and director of museum studies, spent part of her summer acting as the social media correspondent for the Fresh Art International podcast during the 58th International Art Exhibition in Venice.

The biennale, titled May You Live In Interesting Times, opened May 11 and runs through November 24. According to its website, the exhibition is curated by Ralph Rugoff, currently the director of the Hayward Gallery in London.

“The Venice Biennale is one of the most significant global contemporary art events, held every other year, beginning in 1895, and interrupted only by the first and second world wars,” Barkun explained. “The exhibition is immense and includes hundreds of exhibitions that overtake palaces, churches, public squares, museums, galleries and other locales across Venice and the surrounding lagoon islands.”

Barkun answered a few questions about her experience for ursinus.edu. The podcasts can be heard online.

Q. How long were you in Venice and what were you tasked with capturing on social media for Fresh Art International?

A. This year, more than 88 nations were represented. I arrived in Venice at the tail end of the opening press week and stayed for a month. Each day, I posted to social media about a single work of art: a combination of photographs, video, sound and critical commentary. I fell into an impromptu rhythm of focusing on themes, such as self-portraits or art inspired by poetry. The endeavor was a thoughtful exercise in short-from writing and economy of language, and in retrospect, an excellent way to jump-start my summer writing. Moving forward, Cathy Byrd (founder, director, producer and host of the podcast Fresh Art International), will follow-up with artists she wishes to interview and feature.

Q. What were some of the most interesting or inspiring pieces you saw while there?

A. This is such a tough question. Mass migration and climate change are central themes of many works included in VB58. Shilpa Gupta (India), Nujoom Alghanem (UAE), and Teresa Margolles (Mexico) produced dynamic works responding to these issues. Orkhan Mammodov’s Circular Repetition in the Azerbaijan Pavilion and Tamás Waliczky’s Imaginary Cameras in the Hungarian Pavilion asked compelling questions about relationships between human innovation and emergent technologies. Zanele Muholi (South Africa), Mari Katayama (Japan), Avery Singer (U.S.), Martine Gutierrez (U.S.) and Maarten Baas (Netherlands) explored complex issues of identity, embodiment and representation through diverse approaches to self-portraiture.

Q. What was the most memorable part of the experience overall?

A. Works of art are political and social documents of a particular time and place. For me, the Venice Biennale is especially valuable because it provides a window onto particular curators’ and artists’ visions of the contemporary world and contemporary artistic practice. From a political standpoint, one becomes aware of the degree to which national representation at the Biennale can function as an assertion of cultural and artistic identity. For example, the pavilion of the Syrian Arab (Republic) presented an exhibition by diasporic Syrian artists called “Syrian Civilization is Still Alive;” the Venezuelan Pavilion opened days late as a result of political upheaval at home. The context of Venice, a former republic with history of great political, economic, naval and artistic dominance, provides a unique setting, in which some of the most contemporary global works of art in some of the most contemporary media are sited in and juxtaposed against Renaissance grandeur in ways that can be remarkably sensitive, challenging, poignant, or confrontational. It is heartening to see the degree to which Venetians, in particular, appreciate the humanitarian and cultural value of these endeavors and perceive them as a continuation of an artistic legacy.

Q. How do you think your experience in Venice and what you saw there compares to what Ursinus art students are taught here at the college?

A. Like the Venice Biennale, contemporary art courses at Ursinus approach artistic practice from a global perspective, taking into account the ways that artists, artworks, and audiences traverse continents and contexts via travel or technology. We study the political, economic, and cultural phenomenon of global biennial or triennial exhibitions, of which there are now hundreds internationally. Presently, I am designing a special topics course that takes the Venice Biennale as an origin point from which to study the ways these exhibitions reflect and produce knowledge and meaning.