The biennale tote bag. Merely light and foldable marketing freebees in the form of non-rigid containers for the carrying of catalogues, innumerable press releases and checklists? Or ironic critiques of an increasingly capitalist and permissive society? Austere, poetic and challenging invitations to revalue familiar things and refocus our perceptions? Now ever-present at the most vital and visible sites for the production, distribution, and public discourse around contemporary art, these large and often alarmingly unfastened cloth bags – typically with parallel handles that emerge from the sides of its pouch – have in the span of a few decades quietly become the unquestioned handmaiden of biennalisation. In Venice this year few dared to break with the tote's canvassed hegemony. The Dutch stuck their head above the parapet with a risky choice of clear plastic bags to accompany Mark Manders' pavilion – a whimsically aggressive engagement with issues of indispensability, and, perhaps with typically Dutch straightforwardness, transparency. Even if a pavilion or Eventi Collaterali can fly in Michelin-starred chefs for their dinners or legendary DJs from the South Bronx instrumental in the early development of hip hop for their parties, getting the tote bag right nevertheless remains a perilous balance of form and content, of prestige and patriarchy, greenwashing brinkmanship and sheer design cojones. So was 2013 acqua alta for tote bags in Venice? Did any of them attain the understated brilliance of the Canadian Pavilion bag at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007? (David Altmejd's noir classic in heavy twill boasted a separately tailored gusset.) Or did they match the game-changing 48 x 48 cm tote bag for Ayşe Erkmen's Turkish Pavilion in 2011? (designed by Konstantin Grcic, it featured an inner pocket made to fit the catalogue, and its own section on the pavilion website). There's a big wide world of tote bags out there...
All photos: Latitudes | www.lttds.org
This year, the Biennale organisation brought in the Milan-based Tucano to design the official tote – they've been working with the film festival for a decade or more – and they spurned the traditional heavy cloth in favour of a lightweight synthetic "skin" and webbing straps which lend the item the air of a piece of technical camping equipment. The extra-long straps allow for a certain dynamic freedom of movement that is a clear reference to the Futurists, although they may impede the shorter visitor on a busy vaporetto. Its uncompromising blackness seems to suggest mourning, yet with a vital rather than dour spirit – "time and space died yesterday" as F.T. Marinetti once said. Good effort.
Le pavillon français opted for a nocturne in Parisian fog grey for its bag accompanying Anri Sala's "Ravel Ravel Unravel". The rawness of the medium-weight cotton – or is it hemp? – speaks of torrid emotional intensity while the contrastingly spare and delicately-kerned typography attempts to echo the phasing-in and out of the pianists in Sala's grand video installation. Only printed on one side however – a note of uncertainty?
Being in part based in Alvar Aalto's masterpiece pavilion in the Giardini, Finland's representation at the Biennale has wisely shied away from grand gestures with its bag for the exhibition "Falling Trees". The exhibition was put together with "a sinuous curating process" the organisers reveal, and their serene bag prompts us, with its ample volume and unadorned reilu meininki tailoring, to weave our way through its "contingent encounter between art and nature". Onneksiolkoon! Pidän siitä todella!
The Tuvalu Pavilion pluckily represents the third-least populous sovereign state in the world, and likely the first in line to disappear underwater as sea levels rise due to climate change. The exhibition itself, by "sensational Taiwanese artist Vincent J.F. Huang" reportedly features "a sea turtle and a group of penguins belonging to an underwater mafia ring seeking revenge on capitalism and the effects this is having on their natural habitat". Wow. More understated – though no less imaginative – the cream-and-azure coloured tote bag bears the coat of arms of Tuvalu: a shield decorated in a pattern with mussel shells and banana leaves, a hut and stylised waves. A Tuvaluan inscription reads “Tuvalu mo te Atua” (Tuvalu for the Almighty). Made from silkscreened Polyfabric™ (an environmentally-friendly cloth) it hits all the right notes for ecologically-sensitive micro-nation enthusiasts. Child-safe and odor/mildew resistant.
The tote for Jeremy Deller's British Pavilion, entitled "English Magic", was manufactured in 100% 135gsm cotton by a company based, ironically enough, in Welshpool, Wales. The reverse side depicts a line drawing of the British Pavilion which has been a staple on the British bags since at least Chris Ofili's 2003 exhibition. Given the inspiration that William Morris provides in Deller's exhibition, and the fact that Morris was a prolific type designer, it is perhaps a missed opportunity that the slogan text appears in the all-too-familiar Times New Roman. British Council directives? Nevertheless it does lend it a kind of appropriate DIY quality, and the highlighter orange colour (wondering though why it wasn't pink considering how much the artist loves to wear this colour) gives it the so-wrong-its-right touch that will secure its place on the sturdy shoulders of Deller fans, Bowie fans, cyclists, birdwatchers, tea-drinkers, stone-hand-axe experts, etc., for posterity. Not likely to appear on the Christmas list of Harry, His Royal Highness Prince Henry Charles Albert David of Wales. Or autocratic Russian billionaires.
2013 saw the United Arab Emirates present the work of Mohammed Kazem in the Arsenale's Sale d’Armi. "Walking on Water" comprised a projection of the sea and illuminated GPS coordinates within an chamber, but the quality of the tote bag alone was already leaving visitors feeling like they were walking on water with its speckled blue background recalling the waves of the Persian gulf. Assalaam alaykum!
Jesper Just's Danish Pavilion had to suffer the cruel injustice of technical difficulties with its complex five-screen video installation during the opening days. And to be frank, the gloomy black-on-black tote accompanying an exhibition burdened with the icky title "Intercourses" cannot have lifted the mood. An uncharacteristic error from the style-conscious Danes? In fact the design was headed by the usually-impeccable New York based Project Projects. Nevertheless, the bag looks more suited to a Bulgarian goth club or an inner tube manufacturers' convention than something to accessorise an exhibition that "challenges the viewer’s preconceived notions of space and time". Interesting pavilion. Charismatic artist. Woeful tote. Even difficult to re-gift this one.
Scotland! A typography-forward triumph! Impactful use of the three artists surnames in a highly refined neo-grotesque sans serif which appears not at all restrained by an attempt at upholding historical accuracy or formalities. The clarity, poise and symmetry of the white letterforms, combined with the discerning deep-blue cotton base, and the cheeky short handles say "hey, let's celebrate everything that's good about Scottish creativity!" If there was a Golden Lion for totes, this would surely be in with a roar.
"See Venice and die," is what they say? Or is it Rome? Whatever, once you've experienced the bag for Lawrence Weiner's THE GRACE OF A GESTURE, organised by the Written Art Foundation and presented at the Palazzo Bembo near the Rialto bridge, you may have witnessed the pinnacle of totes. Or something pretty close. Weiner has already produced some bag legends – check out his audacious design for Printed Matter – yet this multilingual canvas produced in Westphalia is a perky filet mignon of a bag that makes the competition look like cheap mince. As Weiner says: “Art is the empirical fact of the relationships of objects to objects in relation to human beings and not dependent upon historical precedent for either use or legitimacy". Who can argue?