Collectively Written Essay


Think with the Senses – Feel with the Mind.
Art in the Present Tense: The 52nd Venice Biennale, 2007. An Analysis

The Aims and Organisation of the 52nd Venice Biennale



The Venice Biennale is a biennial art fest based around the Giardini park to the east of the city. It was founded in 1895 as a show of international art to ‘represent the most noble activities of the modern spirit’. [1] 30 nations have built permanent pavilions in the Giardini (the important nations in the 1930s, by all accounts), the remaining 47 erect temporary ones. Each of these nations hosts its own exhibition. Britain’s entry is under the remit of the British Council, and in the year in question, Britain was represented by Tracey Emin. Other groups hold exhibitions in other spaces and palaces around the city. It seems that there are typically 77 countries, featuring the work of maybe 800 artists.


The Biennale funding is made up of 30% public money, 30% from sponsorship, and it is required to make up the remaining 40% in earnings. [1]

The Aims of the International Exhibition


In addition to hosting national exhibitions, the biennale appoints a curator for the International Exhibition, which shows about one hundred artists in the Arsenale. In our year, the international curator was the American curator, academic and critic Robert Storr, who had, from 1990 to 2002, been the Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. [2]

Robert Storr’ title Think with the Senses - Feel with the Mind arose from his conviction that ‘art is the means by which humans are made aware of the whole of their being’ [3]. He railed against philosophers who want to compartmentalise the elements of human awareness, setting off intellect against feeling, or mind against body. He saw art as a fertile river replenishing its delta; flooding the imagination and reconnecting and replenishing the segregated consciousness. [Interestingly, Nicholas Bourriaud also used a watery metaphor when describing the works he has selected for this year’s Tate Trienniale as an archepelago, or clusters of related ideas.][4]

He argued that in the troubled times he sensed around him, art provided epiphanies of intellectual, emotional and perceptual understanding enabling one to make sense of things in a given moment, however fleeting.


With these troubled times in mind, he aimed to select work from living practicing artists of all cultures, and ages (the exception – [presumably Gonzales-Torres ???] – being those who died young) without reference to medium, using the following criteria:

Storr additionally emphasised that many nations had been under-represented in earlier Biennales, and that Pavilions had been added for Turkey and for Africa within the core exhibition in an attempt to be more inclusive.


Assessment of the Aims and their Implementation


Storr wishes to examine present trouble by opening oneself to a holistic mind and body experience guided by practicing artists. His themes are full of the uncertainties of the individual buffeted by the excesses of life in the globalised world: questioning the nature of sensation, the relation between the individual and community, dislocation, conflict and death. Of course, Storr’s stated selection criteria offered the flip side of each negative as a possible theme: the work might have addressed exhilaration, engagement, belonging, community and hope. Yet, according to one reviewer “most of the artworks reflected our conflicted times in the apocalyptic images of war, violence, destruction, migration and dislocation.” [5]


This same reviewer sees the exhibition clearly in its geographical, temporal and cultural location situated as it is in an ancient decaying city, declared a national monument, yet threatened by a web of complex relationships of natural forces and human activity, its own population deserting it.


Waldemar Januszczak, writing in The Sunday Times, was not impressed: “As always, the biennale includes an ambitious mixed exhibition whose task is to bring us up to date with a particular aspect of contemporary art. Unfortunately, the show is … an underwhelming affair that fails to make good use of its fantastic location….With so much flickering newsreel on show, the biennale as a whole feels as preachy as an Islamic bookstore. It’s short on wow factor, and heavy on words. Now that the whole world seems to have chosen video as its preferred visual language, huge stretches of this display are set in the dark. … But you’ll have gathered by now that what is missing from this biennale is some art by grown-ups: the signature pieces, the leaps of invention. They exist, but they have to be sniffed out.” [6]


Amrita Gupta Singh points out that “there was less of the East than expected, no individual Indian pavilion when there should have been one, given the translation of images by Indian artists, that is taking place in the global art scenario”. However, “The spaces at the Arsenale were illuminated by the artists from Africa … splits of tradition and modernity, the African obliged to look at himself and others with a critical eye, to re-write his/her own histories… makes this pavilion one of the most exciting and talked about … some have already stated that the 2007 Venice Biennale could go down in history as the African Biennale.” [5] Yet even in this praise for a thoughtful exhibition that told a clear story, are the overtones of the cultural imperialism inherent in this international art scene: the African obliged to rewrite his history.


Singh goes on to remind us of the thoughts of Thierry de Duve, the French art critic


“Interpretation of the phenomenon [of the biennale] also oscillates between the optimistic embracing of a democratic redistribution of cultural power among established and “emergent” regions of the world, and the pessimistic recognition of a new form of cultural hegemony and re-colonization on the part of the West…There is no question that the reasons for the proliferation of art biennials are mainly if not exclusively economic. Culture sells, attracts tourists, generates economic activity, and is an integral part of the entertainment industry. [.]


“So, rather than simply signalling either successful integration of the local into the global (the optimist’s view) or hegemonic appropriation of the local by the global (the pessimist’s view), I think that art biennials are, quite typically, cultural experiments in the global economy”.


What more is there to say?




[1] The Arts Trust, Indian Contemporary Arts,

[2] Yale University press release, 28 Feb. 2006,

[3] Thoughts on the 52nd International Art Exhibition, Robert Storr,

[4] Nicholas Bourriaud in interview with mark Lawson about his goals for the Tate Triennial Altermodern, on Front Row, BBC Radio 4, 2 Feb. 2009.

[5]Amrita Gupta Singh, Images of Loss: 52nd Venice Biennale,, (The True voice of Contemporary Indian Art)

[6] Waldemar Januszczak, This year’s Venice biennale is bigger, but not better, The Sunday Times, June 17, 2007


2008, Philosophy of Art