Nicholas Keogh and Patrick Bloomer: BinBoat, 2005; courtesy the artists

The fifty-first Venice Biennale has just closed, putting an end of sorts to all discussions and polemics concerning it. Before long, preparations for the 2007 Biennale will begin and from then on the processes of expectation, wishful thinking and illusion will build up until they explode into criticism the moment the exhibition opens its gates. Some will hate it, others will accept it and only very few will be openly enthusiastic about it – usually those who take part in the event themselves. The Venice Biennale is, however, such an old and famous institution that it can take a large dose of criticism without losing any of its glamour or international reputation, certain that in two years’ time the art world will be just as eager to visit it as it has always been.

Such never-ending celebrity and natural confidence is very reassuring, for it encourages a number of art institutions and private individuals to look for ways of participating in the event, in the hope that some of its built-in success will descend upon their own projects. For many artists and curators,  biennials (and not only the Venetian one) can become the decisive highpoint in their careers, able to consolidate their international status. With this in mind, many artists, curators and other art operators seek funds from state institutions which, spurred by nationalistic competitiveness, are  keen to be included at least in the external events programme. As with the Edinburgh Festival, which earned popularity and renown because of its Fringe, these external events contribute to the dynamics of the Biennale,  making it look younger and more accessible to the wider art community. Sometimes, these events can be the most interesting focal points of the whole Biennale . Only sometimes, however,  because for  the past couple of decades the success of contemporary art, especially in places like Venice, has depended a lot on the generosity of sponsors. Without sufficient funding, some art projects would be destined to oblivion due to the lack of adequate venues, qualified staff and sufficient publicity; and even when they are  included in the Biennale ‘s catalogue (at a charge of course!) they may still miss out in the multitude of better-financed exhibitions.

Nicholas Keogh and Patrick Bloomer: BinBoat, moored in Venice; photo / courtesy the author

Josef Beuys’ idealistic ways of getting art out of the institutions and onto the streets have been tried on occasions by single artists and organized groups during international events, but have rarely succeeded in involving or even attracting local communities. It takes a big personality and  real passion for such an operation to succeed, in particular abroad, without falling into the trap of appearing to be a theatre performance. It is neither enough to show a piece in the street, hoping to attract the attention of curious passers-by, nor enough to proclaim that the idea behind the project is ‘art for the community’ and then locate it simply in a public space. Theatre has done this for centuries without any ostentatious social claims. It takes quite a lot of strategy and a lot of hard work to get close to a new public. Those cities accustomed to art which ignores the local community, art which uses international art venues only as a golden frame, are not easy to seduce.

There are of course several successful examples of art which have been able to get in touch with the local community.  In the twenty-fourth Bienal of São Paolo, for example, Brian Maguire managed to penetrate into the favelas, involving the inhabitants in his exhibition. Maguire’s portraits of prisoners from a São Paolo prison and children from the favelas stretched his idea of social invisibility into an international context (not for the first time in his artistic output).

Nicholas Keogh and Patrick Bloomer: BinBoat, 2005; courtesy the artists

During the just-closed Venice Biennale, a couple of artists exhibiting for Northern Ireland, Nicholas Keogh and Patrick Bloomer, decided to enter the Water City by water. In order to do so they constructed a most original boat out of all sorts of startling objects, including a bathtub, a rubbish bin and a wheelbarrow. It took them six months to build and, in spite of all the pessimistic previsions, it did not sink! The Venetian canals, however, especially the main ones between  Giudecca and Lido, are far from being the idyllic smooth waters painted by Canaletto; nowadays they are very busy with traffic and consequently can be rather agitated. The artists found this out the moment their craft touched the water, when they almost capsized. Their version of a boat,  made out of scrap material – ecological, amusing and at the same time quite ingenious – was instantly appreciated by Venetians and most amazingly by  boats builders and gondoliers alike!

Their boat wasn’t the only one shown in the Venice Biennale 2005; Antoni Maznevski exhibited a starkly beautiful one transformed into the shape of a musical instrument and called, very appropriately, Mozart boat . This poetic piece was exhibited at Palazzo Zorzi by the Republic of Macedonia.

Nicholas Keogh and Patrick Bloomer: BinBoat, detail of interior; photo / courtesy the author

While Maznevski’s boat celebrated the beauty of a sailing craft by comparing it to a musical instrument, Keogh and Bloomer seemed to defy any known aesthetics. The artists made some reference to the gondola by lining their cabin (rubbish container) with lavish velvet, the type used to cover the cushions in the original gondolas, but its beautifying effect disappeared in the multitude of  objects clustered together.

In a city of almost exaggerated attention to elegance and beauty, the boat, in antithesis to these values, was a surprising success. The locals seemed to understand the artists’ effort to communicate with their city and at the same time admired their ability to construct a real, if bizarre, boat.

It doesn’t often happen that the language of art becomes so comprehensible to so many and on so many levels. The boat wasn’t seen as just an entertaining piece; it carried enough weight of serious messages of the type: “It is possible to recycle junk in an adventurous way," “The world is full of junk!" “In the right context junk can become an aesthetically interesting object," etc.

Nicholas Keogh and Patrick Bloomer: BinBoat, 2005; courtesy the artists

Of course, these messages are far from being new, but the way they were recreated was new, and we do not frequently witness an enterprise  requiring so much determination, time and skill. Keogh and Bloomer demonstrated once again that art doesn’t have to be alienated from the larger community at home or abroad; that it depends on the artists themselves, on their ability to communicate and to produce art forms with the right kind of spirit. People are always prepared to admire a certain capacity for abnegation and a healthy dose of artistic heroism when they accompany socially animated projects.

Sonia Rolak is an artist / curator / writer.

For other reviews of the participation of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the fifty-first Venice Biennale, see the current issue of CIRCA (No. 114, Winter 2005). For a CIRCA preview of the participation, click here .