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by Vittoria Martini

The Evolution of an Exhibition Model. Venice Biennale as an Entity in Time

Vittoria Martini, Italy, April 19, 2020

When OnCurating contacted me to ask if I would agree to republish the following text, it was precisely at a moment when I was (and I still am) elaborating reflections on the future of biennials in light of the current global upheaval. Obviously, I was happy to have the opportunity to offer my text again, but the instinctive reaction was the necessity for a foreword. The following text was written in 2011, so not very long ago; it is a historical text, therefore a kind of evergreen text, but it is clear in my mind that for any piece of writing that we will consider studying from now on, we will check the publication date, as a sort of BC/AD COVID-19 to assess its relevance.

This is particularly the case if we are talking about biennials, "one of the most significant phenomena in contemporary global culture" in the definition recently given by Charles Green and Anthony Gardner (1): the exhibition format, which is the symbol par excellence of globalization, whose main features are precisely a high level of connectivity and high level of circulation. (2) Green and Gardner argue that biennials have brought benefits to art history and artistic production, giving the local communities of the art system the opportunity to encounter contemporary art and related places the ability to emerge in the global network. This has led to a "networked semi-coordination of biennials" (3) in which openings are scheduled within a few days of each other, to ensure international movement from one biennial to another, in what at the beginning of the 21st century we called “global nomadism.” In 2009, Boris Groys analyzed the biennial in the metaphor of the art installation, as "a model for a new world political order, because each biennial tries to negotiate between national identities, cultural and global trends, economic success and the politically relevant." (4) This is because, according to Groys, the biennials build a "community of spectators" and, therefore, are the ideal basis for initiating a politeia for the establishment of a new order.  Biennials as a powerful mass media for the production of discourses, a place for political experimentation, dynamic, resilient, resistant, in a global cultural flow that produces “locality” and “local subjectivities” (5).We now have to think about the inevitable transformation of the biennial format in light of the fact that “global nomadism” will probably remain a feature of the first period of the global era, while we are about to enter the second. It is therefore necessary to start thinking about the sustainability of biennials in an ecological perspective, both culturally and ethically. More than ever, we need to look at history, in a longue durée vision of the phenomenon. This is because it is history that builds geographies and not the other way around (6), and geographies have never been as crucial and as physically unbridgeable as today, in what we used to call the “global village,” for us who used to take several flights a year to go to biennials and for art tourism. In our hyper-connected world, if an exhibition is relevant and produces discourses, it generates debate wherever it is. So, it is useful to pick up a text that has become a classic, such as “The Global White Cube” in which, in 2005, Elena Filipovic first posed the question of the relevance of the “location,” i.e., the geographical identity of the place where a biennial is held. (7) It seems obvious, but it is not the same thing to visit the biennial in Venice, in Gwangju, or in Havana, because the context is different, the public is different, the culture is different. But it is within the space of the exhibition that a sort of homogenization of discourses has been created, a homogenization of the checklists of the artists, of the curators, and therefore it is the same inner structure of the biennial that has weakened its own potential. And this is how leaving behind the "location" you are experiencing, after having traveled thousands of kilometers by plane, you enter the biennial space to experience any other "global white cube": in Venice as in Gwangju, you will find more or less the same selection of artists—no surprise, because in the meantime there has been a homogenization of curatorial discourses that in most cases make artworks silent, and are the heart of what should be an "ideological dramaturgy" in the space. The power of a biennials lies, in Filipovic's words, in "the articulation of a particular physical space through which relations between viewers and objects, between one object and others, and between objects, viewers, and their specific exhibition context are staged." (8) The space, intended here as a specific located location, and the viewer are at the center. In order for biennials to function at their full potential as a model and a free space for experimenting with a new political order, they must be rooted in the place where they are geographically located; they must act as institutions of cultural production, working from the geographical, historical, social, and political contexts in which they are located. A connection between the context and the artworks is necessary, as Filipovic writes, it is necessary to "locate a project," to "use" the location; it is necessary that we begin to think that the primary viewer is the local one, not more and not mainly the one that travels thousands of miles by plane. That’s why I believe that the "Southern" biennials, which have proliferated in recent decades and which until yesterday were a model of resistance with respect to the globalization of the art system, may set the course for the future. (9)

For this reason, I found it particularly fitting, in this moment of transition, to look at history by proposing this text in which I described how, at a time when Western society was transforming following the social upheaval in 1968, the Venice Biennale questioned "the same social function as those institutions which produce culture, that is, to penetrate and restore significance to locations in the city and to the territory." (10)

History produces geography, and the richness of this second phase of the global era sees biennials as protagonists, if they can become local platforms for critical experimentation in a global world that can resist cultural homogenization thanks to the building of a global politeia.


Notes Foreword

[1] Charles Green and Anthony Gardner, Biennials, Triennials, and documenta: The Exhibitions that Created Contemporary Art (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016), 3.

[2] Arjun Appadurai, “How Histories Make Geographies: Circulation and Context in a Global Perspective,” in Transcultural Studies 1, no. 1 (2010): 8.

[3] Green, Gardner, Biennials, Triennials, and documenta, 241.

[4] Boris Groys, “From Medium to Message: The Art Exhibition as a Model of a New World Order,” in Open 16 (2009): 65.

[5] In this very short text, it is necessary to stress Appadurai’s explanation concerning the cultural flows in “the relationship between the forms of circulation and the circulation of forms.” Appadurai, “How Histories Make Geographies,” 7.

[6] Ibid., 9.

[7] Elena Filipovic, “The Global White Cube,” in Manifesta Decade: Debates on Contemporary Art Exhibitions and Biennials in Post-Wall Europe, eds. B. Vanderlinden, E. Filipovic (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 80.

[8] Ibid., 79.

[9] Charles Esche, “Making Art Global: a Good Place or a No Place?,” in Making Art Global (Part 1): The Third Havana Biennial 1989, ed. Rachel Weiss (London: Afterall Books, 2011).

[10] Visual Arts and Architecture Program in Biennale di Venezia. Yearbook 1975 Events 1974 (Venice: La Biennale di Venezia, 1975), 259. In this short text, I can’t go into details concerning documenta’s role as a territorial institution of culture.



The Evolution of an Exhibitory Model.
Venice Biennale as an Entity in Time


In 1968 the English art critic Lawrence Alloway concluded his journey through the history of the Venice Biennale, with these words:


The Venice Biennale (...) has reduced our ignorance about twentieth-century art. Thus, in future, anthologies or compilations based on the past model will not be sufficient to hold neither specialists, nor the wider public. Greater control of exhibitions, so that relevant themes can be cogently displayed, may be necessary, though obviously this will present difficulties, given the Biennale's cellular structure... The problem for the Biennale now is to work out a control system to replace laissez-faire, without losing the cooperation of the thirty-seven nations that participated in 1966 (1).


The Venice Biennale 1895–1968 from Salon to Goldfish Bowl was one of the first books to present history of art from the viewpoint of its distribution and for years, it was the only existing critical account of the most celebrated and long-lived of the biennials. By analyzing the Venice Biennale as a system, Alloway presented a history of the institution in connection with art in society, looking at works of art not as artistic objects in themselves but as part of a system of communication. Conceived as “an entity in time”, the Biennale was able to adapt itself to political and social changes without ever losing “the spirit of its institutional identity” (2).

The book covered the period up to the beginning of the dispute, ending with the words from the quotation above: an urging that was the inevitable destiny of the major perennial Venetian exhibition, which would have otherwise died as a cultural fact. The English critic understood how urgent it was for the Biennale to devise a “control system” of its exhibitions that would solve the complex “cellular” structure. Such a structure had to exist over the years, and had established itself on the basis of the incommunicability between the main exhibition and the autarchy of the participating nations. Indeed, the Biennale had no say regarding the art-related choices of those countries that participated in their national pavilions. Towards the end of the sixties, the situation had resulted in a large international exhibition which was heterogeneous, incoherent and no longer competitive in terms of its critical approach. At the same time, the “laissez-faire” approach, the consequence of its old normative structure that prevented any type of managerial planning, resulted in the loss of the Biennale’s cultural role and specificity. At the end of the sixties, the Venice Biennale as a public institution did not seem to perform its role of producing culture, but it had more of a merely commercial function.

This story is inserted, chronologically, at the very point where Alloway’s ends, this is when the Biennale’s institutional and functional crisis had reached its peak, thus causing it to be the objective of the 1968 protests. The Venice Biennale can be seen here as an archetype, as a “source” to examine and as the centre of that art communication system represented by biennials. As an archetype, the Venice Biennale is an “area of condensation, place of memory, map, network, space of modernazation” (3), cointaining within itself, at the same time, all the features which distinguish contemporary biennials.

The seat of the exhibition, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, was originally conceived as a place for welcoming Italian and foreign artists invited by the International Committee. Italy had recently been united and an Italian cultural and linguistic identity did not yet exist. The International Art Exhibition (NOTA), which was conceived as an “educator and initiator of a new, modern culture for ‘giovane Italia’”, immediately became ground for dispute (4). This was because the international aspect  of the exhibition, sanctioned by the statute of 1894, had already been called into question in 1901, when the General Secretary of the Biennale, Antonio Fradeletto, established the “sale regionali” (Regional Halls) to be used for hosting the Italian artists divided by schools. The progressive Italianization of the exhibition resulted in a growing need for exhibition space for hosting foreign artists (5).

In 1907, with the excuse “of guaranteeing the most favorable international solidarity”, Antonio Fradeletto conceived the national pavilions as allowing Italian artists to show divided according to their region, and foreign artists to have an independent exhibition space(6). The proposal was so successful that by 1914, seven large international powers had already erected pavilions, bringing “art from all over the world” to Venice (7). By statute, the national pavilions were (and still are) completely independent from the administration of the Biennale, operating as embassies to which the principle of extraterritoriality applies (8). Consequently, over time, a “cellular” structure, that is a non-uniform, but rather, dispersed exhibition came into being; one that was not international, but made up of the “autonomous participation of single countries”, amongst which no cultural interdependency existed (9). This situation did not create problems until the end of World War II, when the world, and particularly Europe, found itself transformed both geographically and politically and the very concept of state-nation fell into crisis.

At the end of World War II, after more than fifty years since its foundation, the Biennale had to find a cultural role in order to reintegrate itself into the international art scene. According to the Secretary General Rodolfo Pallucchini, the “new climate of liberty” could only be reached by turning back to the origins of the exhibition. By this he meant following, almost literally, the declaration found on the catalogue of the first edition of the International Art Exhibition: “attracting more public by the notoriety of the illustrious foreign artists who would be competing”. The new approach would offer those who were unable to travel so far, and in particular young Italian artists, the chance to “get to know and compare” the different international art movements (10).

Through a series of exhibitions which presented the most recent movements in international art without ever disengaging from historical analysis, the exhibition formula for the first post war editions of the Biennale was met with great success (11). But in the introduction to the 1956 catalogue, Rodolfo Pallucchini declared that the cycle of historical exhibitions had ended and that “it would be idealistic to think that a complete picture of the arts can be given every two years to the Biennale” (12). According to the General Secretary, the historical-informative activity of the Biennale was brought to completion and it was now time for another phase, that of “current art” shows (13). Meanwhile, Pallucchini’s term had come to an end and the cycle of historical exhibitions was exhausted, thus intensifying the debate concerning the function of the Biennale on the international exhibition scenario.

The discussion regarding the renewal of the Venice Biennale structures, initiated just after the end of the Second World War, proceeded in diferent directions. Who did the Biennale address? What kind of public? What goal should the two exhibitions have: an informative, educative or critical one? How was the Biennale placed on the international contemporary art scene? These were the questions asked at the 1957 Conference of studies on the Biennale, which brought together, for the first time, different Italian specialists from the art and museum-related fields to consider the problems of the Venetian institution. On this occasion it was decided that the renewal of the Biennale’s cultural function and its exhibition system had to proceed hand in hand with the renewal of its regulatory system. This is how the question of the Biennale’s cultural function came to be inserted into the larger context of contemporary art exhibitions in Italy (14). Indeed, due to its periodicity and the lack of other specific institutions, the Biennale had acquired a role similar to that of a museum: its exhibitions were created and managed with a museum-like approach (15). As a consequence, the debate of the conference addressed the issue concerning the exhibition spaces, in particular that of the seat of the exhibition at the Giardini. The main pavilion had continually been rearranged without a coherent plan, and over the decades it had become a labyrinth which was both unsuitable and rigid (16). The Biennale had to overcome and free itself from “museum aesthetics”, in order to renew and readjust its needs to the character of contemporary art and culture. Hence, it was evident that the functional renewal of the Biennale should be subordinate to the renewal of its exhibition space. What became evident on that occasion was how the exhibition spaces of the Biennale should have been open, “timed”, so as to create a structural conformity between the location and the role of the exhibition as a “culturally alive instrument” (20).

By the early sixties, the Venice Biennale was no longer one of a kind. Based on the Venetian model, while at the same time updating it, the São Paulo Biennial (1951) was established, followed by documenta in Kassel (1955), and the Paris Biennale (1959) brought to light the obvious backwardness of the Biennale in terms of its exhibition system. To renew itself the Biennale had to appear younger than its new competitors did, although its history seemed to have become more of a burden than an asset. By the end of the fifties, there were numerous obstacles to the project of renewal. There was mainly the age-old question of Italian participation denounced on more than one occasion by Pallucchini who defined it as “collection of samples” and not “an exhibition open to dialogue and exchange” (18).

The main pavilion had become, especially after being managed by the fascist government, like a large salon for Italian artists who were members of the unions, while the national pavilions, for reasons of space, could present few artists. For this reason, the International Art Exhibition as a whole was obviously imbalanced. In 1969 the “Studio International” emphasized the unfeasibility of the Biennale system, which presented art divided by nation, when it was already taken for granted that contemporary art was supranational (19). “Studio International” claimed that the Biennale put all its faith in its geographical position and in the overabundance of works, without taking into consideration where the works originated. In such a situation, any special exhibition organized by a committee appointed by the Biennale would be unable to harmonize the exhibition as a whole, resulting in a disjointed exhibition with no critical direction. The “excessive broadness” of the Italian section debased any innovative direction the entire exhibition might have had.

As a result of being hostage to the Italian artists who had colonized the main pavilion, it was left powerless when faced by the countries it hosted. Despite this, from the early fifties, and throughout the sixties, all forms of international art were presented at the Biennale, from Informal to Pop Art. Venice was the centre of the cultural-political debate on Abstract and Figurative art, the stage for the decline of Paris and the emergence of NewYork as capital of contemporary art, for the U.S. market and for American art. Its role was mainly celebrative. At the end of the 1950s, Venice was the most exclusive and delightful place for doing business and meeting the art world, a place above all others for international social life. In Lawrence Alloway’s own words, “the Biennale as a party” (20).

But at the end of the 1960s, the laissez-faire approach could no longer work. Entreched in a ghetto for experts and the élite, the Biennale had not been able to update its exhibition model. Consequently, it had lost its hold on reality in a rapidly changing world.

The need for a new statute for the Biennale, to replace the existing 1938 one, had been discussed since 1945. In succession, all governments between 1945 and 1968 recognized that Italian cultural authorities, among which the Biennale was the most obvious example, should be completely re-formed. However, over five legislations and twenty-three years, the Italian ruling class was not able to formulate a new law.

The debate, which had never been placated, arouse with new vitality with the events of 1968 involving all cultural institutions at international level.

As a consequence, in 1968, caught in the tidal wave of “global dispute”, the Bienniale was overwhelmed by student protest because it encapsulated all the contradictions that more than twenty years of debate and controversy had not been able to solve. The Biennale was attacked especially because of its failure to take responsibility as a public institution. Instead of promoting independent culture, open to criticism and knowledge, it seemed to be irremediably linked to politics and spoilt by seemingly casual organisational criteria. This system presented exhibitions that were more interested in subcultures and the market than in research and critical and scientific in-depth analysis. Secondly, the Biennale was being disputed both for its structural and cultural backwardness, and for its being frozen into an exhibition model that no longer had the cultural role of informing and bringing up to date. Its avulsion to any type of updated cultural production, and its persistent isolation from the life of the city in which it was located, was also under attack. Students had noticed that the Biennale had died as a cultural event and they voiced their opinion provoking violent clashes with the police (21). News of the police repression at the Biennale caused a stir all over the world, thus discrediting both Venice, in relation to its tourist industry, and the Biennale in terms of culture. It was this very dispute, however, that drove politics to quicken the pace and ultimately reach tangible results for the formulation of the new statute.

On the occasion of its 20th anniversary of the first post-war Biennale edition,  having recognized the institutional crisis and the need for a deep renovation strategy, the Biennale had conceived its 1968 edition as conclusive to a cycle (22). The wish to structure the edition in an innovative way compared to the past was mainly evident in the drastic reduction of the number of artists invited to participate in the Italian section. There were twenty-three, while only four years previously there had been seventy-two. The Biennale’s “innovatory intentions” of 1968 were achieved in its main exhibition entitled Lines of Contemporary Research: from Informal Art to the New Structures. It was the first time that the Biennale had organized an exhibition, which placed all the current tendencies in international art side by side. Even Lawrence Alloway pointed out how the “thematic exhibition” appeared to be an opening, albeit moderate, towards another exhibitory form (23). The title itself established that the aim of the exhibition was not to gain results, but rather to formulate an intention and establish a working method that could renew the exhibition-review model, one which, in 1968, was still the formula used by the Biennale. However, although innovative and full of good intentions, the title of the main exhibition was not in itself sufficient to present a coherent show in line with the current state of the arts, which would provide the key to interpreting the entire International Art Exhibition.

In August 1968, Germano Celant defined the Biennale as a “Nineteenth-century ferry that sails indifferently on the waters of the May Revolution” (24). It was necessary to adjust the Venetian institution to the needs for “independence, representativeness, and participation”, qualities that were increasingly perceived and present in the areas related to its cultural activity (25). At the same time, there was a pressing need to consider its institutional revival, “to thoroughly re-think the conventional ‘exhibitional’ structure itself”.

In September 1968, when the 34th International Art Exhibition was still open and Venice’s film festival on the Lido was under dispute, an important round table was held in Venice to deal with the crisis of the Biennale. In the Venetian headquarters of the magazine “Metro”, the editor Bruno Alfieri organized Proposals for the Biennale. A round table conference, a project. He invited Giulio C. Argan, Gillo Dorfles, Ettore Colla and Germano Celant to discuss the project for reorganisation that he had presented in order to “stimulate reactions and ideas” (26). In this occasion, Gillo Dorfles denounced “the antiquated exhibition system” and suggested to make “a clean break with the arrangement by national pavilions” (27). He maintained that by abolishing the pavilions, the conceptual unity of the exhibition would have been assured, and the exhibition would finally be able to offer a complete outline of the international art situation. Dorfles envisaged a “permanent unitary structure made up of extremely open and mobile elements”, Germano Celant also wanted to abolish the pavilions because they were the main reason behind the dispersive nature of the exhibition. Indeed, they conditioned the space in a pre-arranged way suppressing its  “fluidity”, an essential prerequisite to accommodate any contemporary art practice. According to Celant, the Biennale was dead because of both “creative and spatial asphyxiation” (28). In this context, the Biennale still continued to present itself more like a universal show than an international exhibition, as, for example, documenta.

In December 1969, the Biennale convened a meeting with the commissioners of the nations who owned the pavilions, in order to jointly discuss the programme for the 1970 edition (29). To involve the foreign commissioners in the discussion was to give out an important signal to overcome the institution's structural limits. The proposal was “to experiment a totally new Biennale”, and in view to tangibly convey the idea of a reorganised and “open” Biennale, the owners of the pavilions were called to take active part in the exchange of views (30). During that meeting, for the first time ever, it was suggested to give a theme to the central exhibition to which national participations could also adhere.

A general theme would allow the International Art Exhibition to overcome its dispersive structure and lend it the coherence to which it aspired. The general theme would have to be “wide and flexible” enough to ensure that the maximum number of pavilions adhere to it. Sweden, just to mention one country, was unwilling to accept, since it felt that no radical break had been made with the past. It believed that the only way to overcome the disparate  nature of the exhibition was to put forward a precise theme, which all pavilions would have to follow (31). According to Sweden, this was how the Biennale could link the “specific theme” of the special exhibition to the “general” one applied to the entire exhibition. Once again, however, the Biennale was faced with the insurmountable obstacle represented by the statutory autarchy of the national pavilions, since it could only suggest they adhere to the theme rather than being able to impose it. Work by the Biennale towards a radical transformation of the exhibition structure of the international show was resumed for its 1972 edition. The general theme presented was Work or Behaviour, a theme that was “wide and flexible” enough. This would be the “framework of interest and research” and the focus of the Italian section. The foreign nations were invited to “refer to” or “establish a link with” the “proposed theme” (32). The “operational theme” of the Italian section would provide the “ethical and cultural values”, that is the direction for the whole exhibition which, as a result, would  reach “a further conceptual harmony in terms of its layout”. Hence, the theme Work or Behaviour had become a clever compromise, inspired by a sort of “aesthetics ecumenism”, one that would leave nobody unsatisfied. (41)

The 1972 Biennale fell on the same year as documenta, the periodical exhibition started in 1955 and held in Kassel every four years. In Kassel, that year, the exhibition was curated by only one commissioner, Harald Szeemann. The curator had decided to abandon the traditional criteria of selecting work based on quality and significance, in favour of one that depended on the general theme he had presented (33).

While the theme in documenta had become the real subject of research, in Venice it only seemed to have given a coherent feel to the exhibition, while any type of research was absent. Therefore, the same year, two great periodical international exhibitions showed how differently a system of structural analysis could work in an aesthetical field focused on the development of art practices. The theme Work or Behaviour was very significant at a time when artistic practice was gradually moving towards a “dematerialization” (34). Works of art had become concepts, processes, situations, information, a fact which was also contained in the subheading of the exhibition When Attitudes Become Form, organized by Szeemann himself in 1969, and based on the duality between behaviour and work of art. Hence, the experimentation of new exhibition practices was a consequence of the birth, in the same years, of new art practices.

The 1972 Biennale proved to be still far removed from international current issues because it presented the problem in an unfocused way without contributing critically to the debate. On the pages of “Art International”, the critic Henry Martin expressed his disappointment in noting that the size of the exhibitions in Venice in 1972, was so large as to cause admiration, but at the same time generate discouragement for the enormous potential that the institution had been unable to exploit. The unsolved problem remained the same: the Biennale had to make clear what type of large perennial exhibition it wanted to be. Was a different formula possible, one that was not the usual incoherent ensemble that continued to turn the Biennale into the “show of shows”? According to the English critic, “work or behaviour” was not a theme, rather a mélange that failed to put forward any questions but a bitter observation: “And one ends up with the total waste of what might have been a truly important experience if structured in some other way” (35).

On  25th July 1973,  the President of the Italian Republic passed law no. 438, named “New  Regulations of the autonomous Body ‘La Biennale di Venezia’”. This fully reformed law replaced the 1938 one. Its first article ruled that the Biennale was a “democratically organised institution of culture”, which aimed at guaranteeing “full freedom of ideas and forms of expression” and at organising “international shows regarding the documentation, knowledge, criticism, research and investigation into the field of the arts” (36). Therefore, the new Biennale had been provided with an open and project-based foundation, thus allowing for a working methodology based on experimentation, which openly acknowledged the requests of the 1968 protest.

The architect Vittorio Gregotti was appointed director of the new section of Visual Arts and Architecture. The choice to place a character like Gregotti in charge of the oldest section of the Biennale, clearly expressed a true desire to break with the past, starting from the very core of the institution. From the beginning Gregotti expressed the need to transform the dispersive organisational system of the Biennale exhibitions, divided between the autonomy of the national pavilions, the special exhibitions, and the outdated system of selecting Italian participating artists through a committee. Gregotti wanted to change the working methodology by focusing on the preparatory stage of the exhibition, on research and elaboration of those “fundamental themes, in order to critically cover the entire production system of visual arts” (37). Working by defined projects was the way to turn the Biennale from an anthological review of the most recent artistic output, into an organisation promoting the type of “research that expressed itself by means of the exhibition itself” (38). Gregotti intended to set up the Biennale exhibitions as events focused on prominent issues, and consequently work by projects. The new director immediately stated his conviction that the history of the institution should not be cancelled from the reform, but should become instead the legacy and the basis on which to build. Only by following this working procedure could the Biennale become “a little more productive and a little less receptive”, less of a reporter and more of a protagonist , that true place of research and experimentation provided for in the new law (39).

According to Gregotti, the new procedure should consist of three stages. Firstly, it was necessary to establish a system of general principles, then, having outlined the  programmatic choices, place the exhibitions directly in charge of single experts. In this perspective, the exhibitions of the Biennale would “question the same social function as those institutions which produce culture, that is to penetrate and restore significance to locations in the city and to the territory” (40).

A new way had been paved for the Biennale. If the role of informing and updating had already been performed by other institutions, the Biennale had the unique chance to “present itself as a critically polycentric workshop”, owing to, or due to its distinctive exhibition structure.

In 1974, it had been impossible to organize the traditional exhibition with the foreign nations, because of the change in legislation of 1973, the nomination of the new Board of Directors and the tardy appointment of the directors of the single sections. Therefore, it was the 1976 edition that was first officially held under the new reform. The general regulation of the International Art Exhibition decreed that foreign countries “invited to set up their respective sections in the pavilions” were allowed to participate, along with those who had applied directly to the Biennale presidency, as they did not have their own pavilion (43). Over time, it had become standard procedure for the Biennale to invite those nations with a national pavilion in the Giardini to participate, because the entry “Biennale di Venezia” was part of the state budget of nearly all the proprietors of the pavilions. In many cases there existed officials working in the overseas Ministries for Foreign Affairs or Culture who were in charge of permanently overseeing the affairs regarding the participation of their country in the Venetian exhibition. The Biennale would send the official invitation addressed to the governments of the countries proprietors of the pavilions, through the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs, to the embassies existing in Rome. Once the country had accepted the invitation, it was completely independent from the Biennale; it only had to communicate the chosen artist to be inserted in the catalogue within the set time.

According to the standard procedure established after the war, the organisation of the exhibition started more or less a year before the opening, that is between “June and September of the odd years” (44). The 1973 reform caused such a complete upheaval to a well-consolidated equilibrium that it no longer appeared to be debatable. Article 10 of the new law decreed that, as from that moment, participation in the Biennale would be conditioned by a direct and personal invitation addressed to the artists by the board of directors of the Biennale (45). With article 10, not only did the countries proprietors of a pavilion at the Giardini lose their traditional independence from the Biennale, but, substantially, they were also deprived of any authority whatsoever. During the 1969 international meeting, several commissioners had voiced their perplexity as to why their representation could not be included long-term in the Board of Directors (46). Voices were circulating in the art world that in the wake of the 1968 protests, the Biennale was planning to demolish its pavilions. The truth was that the issue of international dealings was so relevant that on 31st July 1974, the new Biennale began its life with a meeting with the representatives of the foreign nations. Indeed, on the contrary to what had been established by the law, the Biennale aimed at collaborating “more widely, continuously and extensively than in the past”, in order to overcome “the sectorial, provincial and diplomatic character of the old Biennale”.

The reformed Biennale and its new Board of Directors thought it inevitable to revive the exhibition at international level by being able to “critically participate in the artistic and civil ongoing debate” (47). So, in a series of meetings held with the foreign nations before consultants of administrative law, the Biennale dealt with the issue of the changed dealings with the pavilions imposed by the new regulations. The commissioners of the countries maintained that they would no longer be able to participate unless the Biennale guaranteed that they would have “a decisive role in choosing what should be exhibited in their national pavilions”. The issue at hand was simply of not only an artistic nature, but it referred to the ownership, administration and public financial support involved in funding their participation. “We have discovered we are fossils in a system that is destined to be abolished with the new regulations”, objected the German commissioner Klaus Gallwitz. On the other hand, Gerald Forty, the British commissioner, suggested a solution that had already been adopted by the Paris Biennial, where a completely autonomous central international committee, nominated by participants, was in charge of the selection of artists (48). Had an international central committee been formed in Venice, one that was able to choose freely without undergoing political pressure, the countries would probably be more motivated to collaborate financially. In order to follow the article no.10 of the new law, it was decided that the selection of artists for the International Art Exhibition would have been made through the nomination of “widely known experts per each of the single countries chosen, acting on the basis of every potential confidential arrangement with the countries involved”. Legal advice provided by experts, clarified that the new law allowed the Biennale to work with each country on the basis of agreements that should be of a “unitary, global and unbiased nature, excluding any type of discrimination and expropriation” (49). According to the Biennale, the Giardini area was both an Italian and international asset: it was impelling to achieve coordination in order to use the location to its best. The institution suggested that a “moral public domain” be established in agreement with the foreign countries (50). This arrangement would change nothing in the traditional dealings besides reserving the director of the Visual Art Section the right to invite the artists as provided for in the new law (51). Therefore, the “moral public domain” implied a pre-arranged use of common spaces on the basis of a programme drawn up with unanimous approval. The objective was to reach “an authentically international expression”, in order to present artists who also worked in different countries other than the ones who had a pavilion at the Giardini, thus lending a wider vision to the Biennale’s cultural scope. Both the board of the Biennale and the director of Visual Arts, together with the foreign commissioners would therefore nominate the national experts and select the artists to invite. In case of refusal of a country to accept the selected artist in its own pavilion, he or she would be invited to show at another location. The commissioners of the foreign pavilions would engage directly with the Visual Arts Section, and had power of veto. In so doing, the director became the sole person in charge of the entire exhibition. This procedure seemed to be the only plausible one, which would keep the proceedings within the law and, at the same time, establish more direct, productive, and collaborative dealings between institution and national pavilions.

“Contemporary culture has this key characteristic: it is an international culture”, maintained Gregotti. He was convinced that the core objective of the open debate with other countries was not to defend locations or representation; instead, it was far more productive to try to jointly re-establish an objective for the Biennale, in order to overcome its national character (52). The request for independence of the various countries lay primarily in the selection of the artists, and was placed in this framework of overall selection. Gregotti believed that the issues on article 10 and the selection of artists could be overcome through collective work. This, he intended to carry out in collaboration with the foreign commissioners in order to single out “several fundamental themes significant to all countries”, and try to reach an agreement on the criteria for selection. The procedure would provide the chance to initiate a debate on a “common issue” (53); the specificity and the act of sharing the theme would make the difference and pave the way for a new exhibition formula, thus transforming the exhibition. Only by adopting this working strategy, a new function could be found for the Biennale, one that no longer caused it to be a superfluous institution, but rather facilitated its specific use by establishing continuity with its own history.

The 1975 Biennale opened on 30 and 31 May with the International Convention on the New Biennale. If the two previous meetings had favored a fruitful exchange amongst countries, one, which had allowed the new regulations to be examined and had established a new exhibition formula, the objective of this third seminar was to present a theme for the following year’s exhibition. According to Gregotti, the “collective produce” of the renewed Biennale had to be founded on tradition. This did not yet allow for a radical alternative to the complete renewal and the international participation structure.

The proposals presented by the Commission were discussed and eventually the theme of the “participation” was chosen by the foreign participants. Since it was still considered too broad, and he did not want to repeat the same mistake of vagueness as in 1972, Gregotti decided to overlap the theme with the notion of “environment”, one which was “general enough and is sufficiently precise to constitute the basis for a series of specific enunciations and projects by the different nations” (54).

Thus, the “wide and flexible” theme suggested in 1969 and applied in 1972 became, in 1976, “broad and precise”, a nuance of adjectives which radically changed the theory behind the Biennale. The theme “environment and participation”, therefore, was not perceived as a compromise, but as “a real action, a real work condition” in which the two notions had originated from their political, other than creative, clash. Environment, participation and cultural structure was the theme-cum-title which set a broad ground for discussion and addressed all activities of the Visual Arts and Architecture section and the international participants, thus becoming a common basis for dialogue. The “environment” was intended as a notion both purely related to space and to a social context. The joint work carried out by the Biennale and all the participating countries, lent a new angle to the theme, thus opening the debate on an international scale, allowing those involved to take stock of the situation underway, and offering a coherent exhibition to the public.

The working strategy devised with the participating countries led to an edition in which all the exhibitions were variations on the general theme of the “environment”. Moreover, it became even more concrete because it was linked to, and was confronted with, a complicated historical and jurisdictional context: the seat of the Biennale. However, which was the new role that the Biennale had presented in order to differentiate itself from all the other large-scale perennial international exhibitions? Gregotti had no doubts: it was primarily the “common platform for public funding” that distinguished the Biennale and its participating countries (55). This distinctive characteristic would become productive if exploited so as to guarantee the autonomy it aspired to, or rather the possibility to develop themes that were of a “non-commercial” interest, ones which were crucial for the universal social, political, and cultural debate. According to Gregotti, the Venice Biennale had to become the international platform for critical debate on current issues which, starting from the visual arts, would invest the other fields of knowledge.

The first official edition of the reformed International Art Exhibition made its debut by invading the whole of Venice with eight exhibitions set up in six different areas of the city, and presenting the national participations in their pavilions, at the Giardini,  after four years of absence. The new formula would be tested in the traditional seat of the Giardini, in order to start afresh, symbolically, in the place where the structural problems first arose: old structures, new formula.

The entire 1976 edition radiated from the historical-critical exhibition set up in the central pavilion. The latter aimed at providing the public with the “general interpretative picture” of the theme (56). Ambient/Art. From Futurism to Body Art was curated by the critic Germano Celant, and set up by architect Gino Valle. The exhibition presented a historical reading of the relationship between artist and space. It analysed, in particular, the rapport between audience and artists in relation to physical locations over a period of time that covered the whole century, from 1912 through to 1976. Ambient/Art re-examined the notion of context in relation to visual arts, in the light of the “tradition of the new”.

The exhibition was divided in two parts. The first presented a series of “documents” which were the physical reconstruction of the most representative environments created by artists in the first half of the 20th century. For the second part, Celant had invited thirteen artists to create a site-specific environmental work in the space assigned to them inside the pavilion. The entire exhibition was supported by a considerable amount of documentation, which included archival material and photographs, following the curator’s specific educational-lead approach. The peculiarity of Ambient/Art which should be highlighted is the dual nature of the environmental theme given to the entire exhibition.

“Since we need to operate in a structure (Pavilion), the external architectural and environmental values of which have already been established, the only possibility that remains is to modify and organize its internal space. The exhibition concept is therefore based on the analysis, condition and modality of the inside interaction between the art and environment. By the latter, we intend the space limited by 6 floors (floor, ceiling, and four walls) that can also be defined as “brickwork box on a human scale”. The physical limits on which the historical research of the rapport between art and environment is based is, therefore a contained space (57)”


Germano Celant’s historical-introductive exhibition did not only intend to turn over a new leaf compared to the past, but it dictated the beginning of a new era. Indeed, in order to develop the concept of “environment”, Celant analysed the context itself in which the exhibition would be developed, that is the central pavilion with its historical stratification caused by its different uses throughout the years: first as a ballroom, then as a riding school and for the previous seventy years, as the seat of the Biennale art exhibition (58). The original space had always been hidden because it was covered by the superstructure of exhibition layout. According to Celant, any exhibition concerning the history of the rapport between environment and art should develop in a context that is “aware” of its limits, a real context. So he decided to strip the space down completely, eliminating all the additional structures in order to reveal the original structures: the brickwork of the wall, the wooden beams, the skylights on the ceiling. “Cleansing the space to take history back in time”, was his theory, once he had realised that the only elements which remained of the original building were the floor, four walls and the ceiling (59). Having reflected on which movement first used the walls not only as a pictorial support, but as an integral part of the work of art, Celant decided to reconstruct the environments designed by 20th century artists in Venice, in the Biennale,  in order to take history of art back in time. The simple and “sincere” space with its flaking walls showing the brickwork, its visible wooden beams, and its ceilings revealing all the precariousness that so far had been the “temple of the arts”, allowed the public to immerse itself into the history of art, not through art objects but rather through space (60).

Ambient/Art was an “active” exhibition where the very concept of “space” took on a precise meaning. This was achieved  by comparing the environment of the exhibition, the Biennale’s original space, that empty area, with its reconstructed space that contained the history of art and artworks (61). In Ambient/Art space and spectators were the absolute protagonists. Celant had perfectly grasped the concept behind the Biennale’s new thematic formula. His exhibition possessed all its characteristics: it was international and provided only one critical vision, the curator’s, giving an excursus which went from history to the current times. Moreover, the exhibition offered a critical reading of the Biennale space itself, which became the core of the international exhibition because it allowed light to be shed on how, in art practices of recent years, the interest in the rapport between the work of art and its surrounding space was growing, along with attention to the passage from closed project to circuit in which the location itself became both an element and a significant part of the project.

Despite presenting itself as a historical exhibition that followed a chronological order, Ambient/Art finally broke all links with the Biennale’s exhibition tradition of the past. There was no longer any difference between works of art and documents, between genres, masters and living artists. At the centre of things lay the curator’s point of view and his or her will to take the public on a journey into a non-conventional history of art.

The 1976 Biennale was criticized because it only offered one solution which seemed to be ad abundatiam, that is too many exhibitions all together, in the apparent attempt to please everybody. Moreover, the distribution of the exhibition forced the public to move from one part of the city to another, and therefore to have a lot of spare time, as if the exhibition were more for residents. However, Environment Participation and Cultural Structures set a record of number of visitors, one that to this day has yet to be broken. The new formula not only worked, but it was also a resounding success (62). The equilibrium between historical, informative and updating exhibitions had multiplied the levels of interpretation and led to proposals which prompted communication with the spectators, who were also able to participate in debates, meetings and seminars based on discussion and exchange of ideas.

Ambient/Art was the backbone of the entire exhibition which visitors could decide how to visit on the basis of their interests, while keeping in line with the single main theme. With its new exhibition formula, the Biennale had recovered a specificity and a cultural use at an international level. It needed to be based on the event, “on focusing each time on a central point of contemporary creativity”; only in this way could it acquire a precise role in the overdeveloped international exhibition panorama (63). The objective was to trigger off a critical discussion in the attempt to reach the widest possible audience, without however imposing passwords or being prey of easy populism, but simply by producing culture. The goal was to transform the post-reform Biennale in an archetype and laboratory of a new way of planning large international exhibitions.

Independent research work conducted outside the market regulations allowed for free investigation, without ulterior motives, if not the ones of a genuine cultural and specific nature  assigned to each edition. The selection of current and tangible social, political, cultural and artistic international pressing issues, and their in-depth analysis in various shows in collaboration  with the participating countries, allowed the Biennale to present important and coherent exhibitions that were internationally relevant.

The ”new” Biennale had now become a strength to be used to present and discuss current inconvenient social or political  themes, thus turning the Biennale into the specific location for carrying out international debates on current cultural issues.

The thematic exhibition formula, tested for the first time in 1976, marked the birth of the contemporary Biennale and the end of the exhibition era based on reviews and a laissez-faire approach. However, 1976 was the first trial; it was re-presented in 1978 in a perfected way, but after that, the debate ended. Indeed, in 1980, the theme had already become a “pillar”, therefore more of a suggestion than a truly structured research theme. The difference is substantial and it lies between the 1972 edition of the Biennale and the 1976 one. It lies between a misleading general theme which was so broad as to hold all, and a well targeted collective project work; between a label that can be applied everywhere and a specific research theme that can be placed among the critical international issues or is a tangible or pressing current debate. The 1976 formula was then adopted without provoking any more discussions and thus emptied of all its content. The attempt to put forward new proposals, in order to overcome the “multicellular” nature of the structure of the seat of the Biennale, was never made again. The few times sporadic artistic directors have seriously applied a thematic formula with its charge of content and complexity, the exhibition has always proven to work (64).

While in 1968, in order to overcome the structural problem, it was suggested to adopt a Futurist type approach and destroy the national pavilions in the Giardini to create single open and flexible exhibitory space, in 1973, it was thought to be sufficient to insert an article in the new law reform to solve the problem. Instead, in 1998, the issue has been cleared up by imposing the restrictions of the Monuments and Fine Arts Office on the majority of buildings located in the Giardini area of the Biennale (65). Originally temporary buildings, the national pavilions have today become monuments of nations fossilized in an era of splendour. Since 1995, all countries who wish to, can participate in the International Art Exhibition outside the Giardini, in the city itself. This situation has transformed the “cellular” structure described fifty years ago by Alloway, in a unique “multicellular” structure fullof new potential.

By analysing the context in which Ambient/Art was to be inserted in 1976, Germano Celant understood that “Since we need to operate in a structure … the external architectural and environmental values of which have already been established, the only remaining possibility is to modify and organize its inside space”. These words can be applied to the overall exhibition structure of the Biennale, if we also bear in mind Celant’s conviction of the need to develop interaction between art and context only in a “conscious” environment. From this stance, a new path of research could be paved for the Biennale. The institution would, once again, call into play its structural limitation, it would however, re-gain a unique cultural specificity. The number of participating nations is not important, what is important is their relevance in the debates and discussions that the Biennale can create along with them and owing to them. That very “awareness” of its structural layout, if taken beyond the folklore of the Giardini and of Venice as theme parks of contemporary art, could give life to a new “control system” of the Biennale exhibition, which as a result, would be renewed once again, without losing the “heart of its institutional identity”.

“The Evolution of an Exhibition Model. Venice Biennale as an Entity in Time”,
in Just Another Exhibition. Histories and Politics of Biennials, F. Martini, V. Martini eds., Postmediabooks 2011, pp. 119-138

This text is an excerpt of the yet unpublished doctorial thesis “The Venice Biennale 1968-1978. The unattainable revolution”,
2011, PhD programme in Theories and History of Arts, 22nd cycle, School for Advanced Studies in Venice.


Vittoria Martini is an art historian, PhD.

She currently teaches History of exhibitions at Campo, the course for curators run by Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo (Turin) and she collaborates with Naba – Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti, (Milano).

In 2005 she curated the historical and archival research for Antoni Muntadas project On Translation: I Giardini (Spanish Pavilion, 51. Venice Biennale), in 2009 she was invited by Thomas Hirschhorn to participate in the project The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival (Amsterdam, 2 May - 28 June), she was responsible for the publications for Pirelli HangarBicocca (2018), she collaborated with Artissima (2017-2019).

Among her recent publications: Spain. Artistic avant-garde and social reality (1936-1976). Documenting the political reasons at stake behind an exhibition at the Venice Biennale, in “documenta studies” (forthcoming 2020); 1948|1968 The Venice Biennale at its turning, in N. de Haro Garcia, P. Mayayo, J. Carrillo eds. Making Art History in Europe after 1945, Routledge 2020 (with S. Collicelli Cagol).



Given the historical moment, it was impossible to return to ASAC - Historical Archive of Contemporary Arts to update the reference to documents which therefore dates back to the indication of 2011.


[1] Alloway, Lawrence, “The Venice Biennale 1895-1968: From Salon to Goldfish Bowl”, Greenwich (CT), New York Graphic Society 1968, p. 153.


[2] Alloway, op. cit. p. 14.


[3] Cfr. F. Martini, One Biennale, Many Biennials, in F. Martini and V. Martini eds. “Just Another Exhibition. Histories and Politics of Biennials”, Postmediabooks 2011, p. 99


[4] West, Shearer, “National desires and regional realities in the Venice Biennale, 1895-1914”, “Art History”, No.3, September 1995, p. 413.


[5] West, Shearer, op. cit., p. 417. The percentage of Italian artists in 1895 was 45.26% of the total of artists exhibiting; in 1905, it was 54.7%.


[6] Ibid., p. 415.


[7] Belgium (1907), Hungary (1909), Germany (1909), Great Britain France (1912), Holland (1912), Russia (1914).


[8] The document to refer to as the example of the agreement between the Municipality of Venice and the foreign countries is Municipio di Venezia, 1905/09 – III/4/22, Venice Municipal Archive, Venice.


[9] Alfieri, Bruno, Editorial, “Metro: An International Review of Contemporary Art”, No. 12, 1966, p. 5.


[10] Pallucchini, Rodolfo, Introduction, “Catalogo XXIV Esposizione Biennale internazionale d’arte”, Venice, Edizioni Serenissima 1948, p. XII.


[11] Roberto Longhi, a member of the subcommittee, believed that past history was repainted by “present history” and that “the past was the one to offer us not an already formulated rule, but the freedom of mind needed to well interpret the present”. The first post-war Biennals help develop a taste for contemporary art, by informing the public and consecrating the artists from a didactives perspective of didactics.
Pallucchini’s intent was to “develop contrition and recognition in the face of modern figurative culture, from which Italy had obtusely excluded itself for nearly a century”, Bandera, Maria Cristina, “Le prime Biennali del dopoguerra. Il carteggio Longhi-Pallucchini (1948-1956)”, Charta, Milan 2000.


[12] Pallucchini, Rodolfo, Introduction cit., p. XVII.


[13] Alloway, op.cit., p. 139.


[14] “The legislative choices to make ... not only referred to the obvious need for a re-formulation of the outdated regulatory system on which the ‘Biennale’ was based, but also the expectation of a thorough critical review of its structure and objectives, in view of regaining competitivity with other great international art events and the adaptation to the recent acquisitions of aesthetical research”, in Foreword, 1° Ordinamento Della ‘Biennale’ di Venezia, Indagine conoscitiva, Raccolta di Atti e documenti, Ufficio di Segreteria della 7° Commissione permanente, Senato della Repubblica 1972, p.XI.


[15] “The mistake that lies at the foundation of the decadence ... of contemporary art exhibitions, is especially ... the desire to continue to exhibit our work as if it were ‘old’ like in a Museum”, comment by Sergio Bettini, Comune di Venezia e Provincia di Venezia, Proceedings of the Conference of studies on the Biennale, Cà Loredan, Venice 13 October 1957, p. 25.


[16] Zevi, Bruno, “Una camera mortuaria per i quadri italiani”, “L’Espresso”, 1 July 1962.


[17] Comment by Sergio Bettini, in Comune di Venezia e Provincia di Venezia, Proceedings of the Conference… cit., p. 31.


[18] Pallucchini, Rodolfo, Introduction, “Catalogo della XXV Esposizione Biennale internazionale d’arte”, Venice, Edizioni Alfieri 1950, p. XI.


[19] Russel, John, “Ciao, with Friendship”, “Studio International”, No. 913, July-August 1969.


[20] “It is the four days of the official opening that lend a special value to the Biennale”, Alloway, op. cit., p. 23


[21] “The worst danger for the Biennale at the moment is to die as a cultural event, and to disappear from Venice, Italy and the world as a cultural event”, comment by councillor Gianni De Michelis, Venice council, report in shorthand of the meeting held on 10 June, 1968, page eg-4/b, Venice Municipal Archive.


[22] As the Secretary General, Gian Alberto Dell'Acqua, wrote in the introduction to the catalogue, in two decades “the aspect and the terms of contemporary artistic output [had] radically changed … traditional technical categories were going through a difficult situation” and the world had undergone a rapid transformation. In this climate of profound changes, the 34th Biennale was conceived with “innovatory intent” compared to the past. Dell’Acqua, Gian Alberto, “Introduction”, “Catalogo della XXXIV Esposizione Biennale internazionale d’arte Venezia”, Venice, Fantoni 1968, p. 23.


[23] Alloway, op.cit, p. 26. Alloway’s book was being printed at the same time as the opening of the 1968 exhibition.


[24] Celant, Germano, “Una Biennale in grigio-verde”, “Casabella”, August 1968.


[25] Foreword, 1st Code of ‘Biennale’ di Venezia, Survey, Collection of Acts and documents, Secretary Office of 7th Permanent Commission, Senate of the Republic 1972, 1st shorthand minutes 21 September 1972, Foreword , p.XII.


[26] Alfieri, Bruno, “Biennale portfolio”, “Metro: An International Review of Contemporary Art”, No. 15, 1968, p. 55.


[27] Ibid., p. 41.


[28] Ibid., p. 43.


[29] Biennale’s activities in 1970 and the XXXV International Art Exhibition, unit 226, A new Biennale, Historical Fund, Visual Arts Series, Historical Archives of Contemporary Arts (from now on FS, AV, ASAC), and Working Committee of the meeting of the Employees for the Venice Biennale activities in 1970, unit 227, Working Committee, FS, AV, ASAC.


[30] Meeting of Foreign Commissioners for the Organisation of the 1970 Art Biennale, tape recording of text, fully transcribed, unit 225, Foreign pavilions conference, FS, AV, ASAC.


[31] Ibid. Sweden wondered if the Biennale had paid any attention to the proposals for a radical changed presented at the round table conference organised by Metro.

The theme could not be mandatory for those pavilions that were completely autonomous in terms of  selection. In 1972, some countries adhered to the theme presented by the Biennale with interesting results, thus proving how it could be possible to overcome the disjointed structure of the exhibition. Austria presented work by Hans Hollein, Belgium a homage to the Cobra group and a performance by the Mass Moving group, France exhibited Le Gac and Boltanski and Germany Gerard Richter. Japan adhered to the theme while Holland presented Jan Dibbets. Finally, the U.S. showed many artists, among which Diane Arbus.


[32] 36th International Art Exhibition, Subcommittee meeting, summary minutes, 15 November 1972, unit 273, Italian Subcommission, FS, AV, ASAC.


[33] The general title of the 5th edition of documenta was “Questioning Reality - images of worlds today”. For an in-depth study of the curatorial issue related to large-scale international perennial exhibitions, please refer to Martini Federica, Martini Vittoria “Questions of authorship in Biennial Curating, Filipovic E., Van Hal M., Ovstebo S. (edited by), “The Biennial Reader: An Anthology on Large-scale Perennial Exhibitions of Contemporary Art”, Ostfildern, Hatje Cantz 2010.


[34] The terms relates to the title of Lucy Lippard’s famous book “Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object”, published in 1973.


[35] According to the British critic, the 1972 Biennale was like entering Borges’ “Library of Babel”, where everyone could follow their own itinerary by choosing random books on the shelves, without being given a direction, Martin, Henry, “Venice 1972: The Show of the Shows”, “Art International”, Summer 1972, p. 91.


[36] Law 26, July 1973, no. 438. New Regulation for the Autonomous Body ‘la Biennale di Venezia’.


[37] Remark by Vittorio Gregotti, IX Board of Directors’ meeting, 26th July, 1974, ASAC.


[38] Remark by Vittorio Gregotti, Meeting at the “Saloni” 28th-29th October, Cinema City Vanguard Seminar”, unit 288, October -November 1974, FS, AV, ASAC.


[39] Remark by Vittorio Gregotti in the interview “La Biennale dei partiti”, in “Bolaffiarte”, October 1974.


[40] IX Board of Directors' meeting, op. cit., p. 4.


[41] Visual arts and Architecture Program, in “Biennale di Venezia. Yearbook 1975 Events 1974, Venice, La Biennale di Venezia 1975”, p. 259.


[42] “Delle arti”, Spettacoli&Società, September 1975.


[43] General rules, “Catalogue XXXIV Esposizione Biennale internazionale d’arte”, pp. LXIV-LXV.


[44] General notes, unit 291, 30 October 1974, FS, AV, ASAC.

In 1974, for example, the traditional organisational mechanism of International participations had triggered off automatically. Despite not receiving an official invitation from the Italian ministry, some countries nominated their commissioners and some even chose their artists. The Biennale had to ask the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs to communicate that the 1974 exhibition could not go ahead because of the issue of organisational precariousness that the recent reform had generated.


[45] Article no. 10 of Law of 26 July 1973, no.438, New Regulations for the Autonomous Body ‘La Biennale di Venezia’. “The participation to the events organised by the autonomous body ‘la Biennale di Venezia’ is conditioned by the direct and personal invitation addressed to the authors of the board of directors”. Article no. 10 will be amended on 13th June 1977, with law 13 June 1977, no. 324, Amendments to the law 26 July 1973, no. 438 regarding the ‘New regulations for the autonomous body La Biennale di Venezia’.


[46] Meeting of foreign commissioners to organize the 1970 Biennale, unit 225, Foreign Pavillions Conference, FS, AV, ASAC.


[47] “4-year general plan of activities and events (1974-1977), in Biennale di Venezia. 1975 Yearbook” cit., p. 62.


[48] Proposal from Norway, unit 294, Laboratory Code, FS, AV, ASAC.


[49] Meeting of Foreign Commissioners 30 October 1974, unit 292, Commissioners Meeting, FS, AV, ASAC.


[50] 1st Meeting of the foreign pavilion representatives at the Giardini on 31 July 1974, unit 290, 31 July 1974, FS, AV, ASAC. The lawyer, Mr Ghidini, an expert of administrative law attending the meeting, pointed out that “the term ‘moral public domain’ is ideological and not technical; it should therefore not be taken literally in relation to the word property, which instead brings to mind the concept of expropriation”. From the very first meeting, the director’s explicit intent was to find “a way out” of the limit imposed by Article 10 of the law “which was shared by everybody”. The aim of the Biennale was to reach an “authentically international expression”.


[51] Ibid.
Law 13th July 1977, no. 324. Amendments to law 26 July1973, no. 438, decreed that “Participation to the events (…) occurs by invitation only, addressed to the authors of the Board of Directors. Should the latter consider it appropriate, they will agree with the competent bodies of the foreign countries on the type of cooperation to be adopted both regarding programmes and regulations”.


[52] IX Board of Directors’ meeting , 26 July 1974, ASAC.


[53] 1st Meeting of the Representatives of the Pavilions at the Giardini held on 31st July 1974, unit 290, 31st July 1974, FS, AV, ASAC.


[54] International Conference on the New Biennale, 30-31st May 1975, unit 296, Conference transcript, FS, AV, ASAC, p. 32. On that occasion Gregotti said, “we realize that a single theme is the best we can obtain from an exhibition that will deal with a sole common theme from different viewpoints and presenting different contributions”.


[55] Ibid., p. 17.


[56] Contribution by Vittorio Gregotti, International Conference of the Representatives of the Countries Participating in the Biennale, 9-10 January 1976, unit 337, Preparatory Conference 37 Biennale, FS, AV, ASAC.


[57] Literature presented by Germano Celant to the Board of Directors 5-7th December 1975, unit 303, 1975 Meeting of the Visual Arts and Architecture committees, FS, AV, ASAC.


[58] To read about the history of the central pavilion, the historical seat of the Biennale at the Giardini, please refer to Romanelli, G.D., “Il Padiglione ‘Italia’ ai Giardini di Castello (già Palazzo dell’Esposizione)”, in “Biennale di Venezia. 1975 Yearbook” cit., p. 645 and Martini Vittoria, “A Brief History of of how an exhibition took shape”, in Starting from venice: Studies on the Biennale, Ricci, Clarissa ed., et.al 2010.


[59] “Arte Povera IM Spazio and Ambiente Arte”, conference held by Germano Celant on 2 November 2009, within “The History of Exhibitions: Beyond the Ideology of the White Cube (part one) Course in art and contemporary culture”, Barcelona, Museu d’art contemporanei.


[60] “The organisers, however, rather intent on sealing the ‘temple of the arts’ with unambiguous enunciations (and as a temple, nothing more than a Greek, Apollonian one)”, Romanelli, op.cit. p 650.


[61] Visual Arts, unit 303, Meeting of Visual Arts and Architecture Commissioners 8 November1975, FS, AV, ASAC. In the course of this meeting, the project Ambient/Art is agreed to. On 30 January, Celant had written up the precise project of the exhibition, arranging “two months of work in situ” for setting it up. Art in/as Ambient curated by Germano Celant, unit 324, Environment, FS, AV, ASAC.


[62] According to the official records, the 1976 edition of the Biennale totalled a record of 692,000 visitors, cf. Di Martino, Enzo, “La Biennale di Venezia 1895-1995. Cento anni di arte e cultura”, Milan, Mondadori 1995, p. 86. In the moral and political review on the 1976 events, the director writes of the “mass of people visiting the events (...), which is possible to estimate at over a million (...) from 20 July to the end of October”, Ibid., page 126. ASAC does not possess any calculation, or specific statistics on the influx of visitors to the Biennale, therefore it is impossible to know whether, for example like in documenta, the majority of visitors came from the surrounding areas.


[63] Gregotti Vittorio, “Report by the director of the Visual Arts and Architecture section”, unit 356 Literature from the international conference, 3-4 June 1977, FS, AV, ASAC.


[64] Here I'm referring to the most evident example of a perfectly functioning original thematic formula, that is the 43rd edition of the 1993 Venice Biennale curated by Achille Bonito Oliva, “Cardinal points of art”.


[65] Ministry for Arts and Culture and Environment Heritage, central office, decree of obligation 19 September 1998, venice Superintendency 19 settembre 1998.

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Issue 46 / June 2020

Contemporary Art Biennales – Our Hegemonic Machines in Times of Emergency

by Ronald Kolb, Shwetal A. Patel, Dorothee Richter

by Daniel Knorr

by Roma Jam Session art Kollektiv

by Delia Popa

by Diana Dulgheru

by Daniel Knorr

by Farid Rakun

by Raqs Media Collective

by Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala

by Ekaterina Degot

by Yung Ma

by Eva González-Sancho Bodero and Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk

by Raluca Voinea

by Răzvan Ion

by Daniel Knorr

by Lara van Meeteren and Bart Wissink

by Raqs Media Collective

by Robert E. D’Souza

By Manifesta 12 Creative Mediators: Bregtje van der Haak, Andrés Jaque, Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, Mirjam Varadinis

WHW in conversation with Omar Kholeif

by Henk Slager

by Vasyl Cherepanyn

by Ksenija Orelj

by Catherine David

by Okwui Enwezor

by Sabeth Buchmann and Ilse Lafer

by Julia Bethwaite and Anni Kangas

by Federica Martini

by Vittoria Martini