Vol 1 No 1 (2020)
Why Venice?

OBOE Journal - Why Venice?

OBOE Journal On Biennials and Other Exhibitions launches its first issue with a focus on the Venice Biennale. Born in 1895, the Venice exhibition, although the criticism for its limitations, is still one of the most significant and defining events of the contemporary art calendar. Many are the studies devoted to the Venice Biennale, but many are the gaps and fallacies that remain around the analysis of this exhibition. Attending to some of these oversights in Why Venice? remains critically important, and not just because this is our first issue, but primarily because it intends to answer something we felt was fundamental.

Contributors: Caroline A. Jones, Maria Mimita Lamberti, Vittoria Martini, Clarissa Ricci, Camilla Salvaneschi, Martina Tanga, Angela Vettese.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.25432/2724-086X/1.1

Angela Vettese, Clarissa Ricci, Camilla Salvaneschi
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Editorial Vol. 1, No. 1.

The introduction to OBOE’s first issue aims to illustrate how a certain method of studying exhibitions is directly linked with the study of contemporary art history. Mirroring contemporary art’s gerundive nature the journal’s periodicity becomes the ideal space to write an inclusive history of biennials, but also of the many avenues for art’s manifestation.


Over the century from 1895 to 1999, we can measure the impact of biennials on themselves, and on the emergence of increasingly social forms of contemporary art.  I argue that in their inheritance from world’s (and national) fairs, biennials were engines for the transfer of fairs’ “festal apparatus” to the centre of contemporary art itself. In particular, I will review the historical case of the collaborative group Oreste in the 1999 Venice Biennale, in which “relational art” (introduced in 1993 by one of the “Aperto” curators, Nicolas Bourriaud) was further tested in the biennial context. Marking the shift from boat transport, xerox machines, and snail mail to novel infrastructures called email, listservs, and the “World Wide Web,” the Oreste collective created a transnational network bringing over 100 artists to Venice, and connecting virtually with more than 500 artists world-wide. This little-known group had no stylistic coherence or “ism” to proclaim; instead, they had a loose aesthetic agenda celebrating events, networks, and increasingly social forms of art, often staged in “Spazio Oreste.” This they claimed from the edge of the Central pavilion where the traditional nationalist building had been punctured in 1952 for a terrace garden designed by Carlo Scarpa, symbolically marking the rehabilitation of edifice and event after the years of fascism.  We can understand something crucial about twenty-first century biennial culture, by examining how local artists created a global network to localize an “artway of thinking” at the millennial turn.

Maria Mimita Lamberti
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"International Exhibitions in Venice" was written by Maria Mimita Lamberti in 1982 as part of a larger text "1870-1915: i mutamenti del mercato e le ricerche degli artisti" printed in Einaudi’s encyclopedic publication Storia dell'arte italiana. The text focuses its attention on the changes that occurred both in the art market system and in artistic expression between 1870 and 1915. Inserted in a companion volume on Italian twentieth-century art, it was intended to provide an understanding of the growing apparatus of exhibitions. The text’s precise use of archival documents combined with its original methodology has ensured that this excerpt continues to be used as a reference for those who study the Venice Biennale. Moreover, Lamberti approaches the Venice Biennale from multiple perspectives, highlighting the important fact that the Biennale is the result of many intercepting actors and forces in its history.

The first biennial that published a magazine was the Venice Biennale. The magazine la biennale di Venezia was published from 1950 to 1971. It was conceived as an institutional instrument, to keep the audience of the show informed about the activities of the Biennial during the year. The magazine had the mission to engage in the activities organized by the institution, and discuss and examine all the disciplines at the core of the Biennials program, which meant not only art, but also cinema, fashion, music and theatre. The magazine la biennale pursued the same international intents as the exhibition, becoming a site of network and exchange between different nations, as well as a medium to foster local and international critical dialogue. During the almost twenty years of its existence the publication evolved from informative instrument, which included lists of artworks sold during the editions of the biennial, alongside lists of new acquisitions of the biennial’s archive, into a container for critical thought and theory.

In 1976, art historian and curator Enrico Crispolti—charged with organizing the show, Ambiente come Sociale, for the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale—radically rethought the exhibition form. In an unconventional move, he strategically chose not to house any artworks within the confines of the gallery space. Instead, he sprawled documentary photographs, videos, texts, pamphlets, and audio recordings on tables like the products of field research. The artworks themselves were site-specific and located elsewhere in various towns and cities across the country. Adhering to the Biennale’s overarching theme of environment and decentralization, Crispolti championed artists working in Arte Ambientale (environmental art), who were making art located in the urban context and social reality. Yet, Crispolti turned the institution’s theme inside out: while visitors came to its center to see the art, they were thrust outwards towards the peripheries, and outside the city, where the actual artworks were sited. The ingenuity of this action, and the re-conception of what could constitute installation art, is evident when Crispolti’s exhibition is compared to Germano Celant’s 1976 Biennale show Ambiente / Arte, a diachronic art historical study of this new art medium. While Celant presented self-referential examples based on formal qualities, Crispolti exponentially broadened the boundaries of installation art to include the environment, urban context, social questions, and political contingency. This paper examines Crispolti’s curatorial strategy as it aligned, but also critiqued, the Biennale as a cultural institution. Furthermore, it frames the exhibition as a medium for artistic innovation, particularly in the definition of environment and installation art.

This paper argues that Cardinal Points of Art, directed by Achille Bonito Oliva has been decisive in the formation of the contemporary Venice Biennale. The 45th Venice Biennale, (1993) was memorable for many reasons: the first exhibition of Chinese painters in Venice, its transnational approach, and because it was the last time the Aperto exhibition was shown. Nevertheless, this was a complex and much criticised Biennale whose specific characteristics are also connected to the process of reform that the institution had been undergoing since the 1970s. The analysis of the exhibition starts with the examination of this legacy and continues by questioning Bonito Oliva’s curatorial contribution in order to define the specific features which helped to shape the contemporary Venice Biennale.

“When discussing the Biennale, it is impossible to ignore the particular importance of Venice as its host city”. The history of the bond between Venice and the Venice Biennale has become an archetype for all those cities that, from the end of the 1980s, took part in the so-called ‘biennialization,’ namely the explosion of the phenomenon of biennials all over the world.
Historically, the image of a decadent Venice was used as a means of regenerating the city and bringing it into the modern world. Its poetic qualities contained a universalism which opened the city up for international consumption. This appealed to universal myth and its appropriation for commercial purposes underlay the development of the early Biennale. The history, beauty and architectural singularity of Venice – which were born out of political and economic necessity – became the distinguishing attributes of the “Patrimony of Venice.”
Despite the Venice Biennale has never changed its structure, mirroring a lost modern world with its national pavilions, it survived until the post-globalized world remaining at the centre of the art world, the place where the national/local identities still have a voice. The “Patrimony of Venice” is at the core of its success and Venice and its Biennale could be seen today as the archetype of a “brand” thanks to the specificity it preserved.
In this text I will analyse the history of the bond between the city of Venice and the Venice Biennale to outline the reasons of a successful “brand”.