Ever since I arrived in Venice for the 55th Art Biennale, I’ve heard whisperings of a “Dallas Pavilion.” At a glitzy party in the Italian city’s famed Rialto Fish Market, where the smelly fishmongers were swapped out for a canal-side dance club sponsored by the Bronx Museum of the Arts and celebrating the opening of the U.S. Pavilion, a partygoer waiting in line whispers to a friend.
“Have you found the Dallas Pavilion yet?” she asks. It is difficult to tell what was more surreal, the Dallas name drop in setting like this, or seeing artist Cindy Sherman a few yards away boogying with Isaac Julian to beats spun by DJ Afrika Bambaattaa.
The next morning in the soggy Giardini, Dallas makes a second surprise appearance. The gray sky threatens to make everything even soggier – or rustier, as is the case for the Australian Pavilion, which features artist Simryn Gill’s mild steel sculpture “Half Moon Shine,” installed under a newly made opening in the pavilion’s roof. The rain stops long enough to allow Sarah Sze, the artist representing the US at the biennale, to speak to a crowd of art critics, stylish collectors, and curators outside her exhibition at the U.S. pavilion. Most of the wet stone architecture matches the dreary mood of the city that day, but for one out-of-place detail: a cafe table in the piazza conspicuously adorned with a bright, canary yellow tablecloth.
The table is presided over by Southern Methodist University’s Michael Corris and British artist Jaspar Joseph-Lester; spread out on the table top is the rumored Dallas addition to this year’s international art event. But that doesn’t stop a woman from walking straight up to Corris and Joseph-Lester, still bewildered by the mystery pavilion.
“Where is the Dallas Pavilion,” the woman asks, looking over the contents of the table and then around the Giardini.
“It’s right here,” Corris says, handing her a book. “Please, take one.”
The woman takes the pocked-sized volume in her hands and flips through it.
“So there’s no physical presence except this?” she asks.
“That’s a physical thing,” Corris says. “But hey, we can get into that discussion.”
During the days leading up to the Biennale’s opening, books and brochures were everywhere. Preview goers dashed around tossing exhibition sheets, catalogs, and press kits into their tote bags without giving any a second look. So it was difficult to imagine this Dallas-themed book standing out. But perhaps what sets The Dallas Pavilion apart from these other books is its intent of functioning as an exhibition.
For the project, Corris commissioned London-based Joseph-Lester in 2010 to curate a city pavilion for Dallas with the onset idea that it would not likely be a physical space as countries have at the Venice Biennale. The concept, Corris said, was partly born out of a need for something distinctly talking about the Dallas cultural scene apart from the development of the arts district and the large institutions. Joseph-Lester made three visits to Dallas, had discussions with artists and the committee they assembled, and Corris and Joseph-Lester produced a pocket-sized compendium on Dallas’ local arts scene, focusing on the “inside outsiders,” as the book references.
“The key thing for me that really stood out about Dallas as a city and its cultural life is the way art is integrated into various activities,” Joseph-Lester said. “I think it’s true of every city that there are a number of art worlds that don’t speak to each other. In Dallas it’s particularly exaggerated. You have the very large collections. You have very wealthy collectors. Then you have the commercial galleries, the grassroots artist run spaces, and activist artists. They seem very spread out. There’s not much interaction between these different areas of activity.”
Joseph-Lester says he is not in Venice “to be a champion for Dallas.” Presenting the publication acts as a sort of abridged history and side-glance at the Dallas arts scene outside of its better-known components, such as the Dallas Museum of Art and the Rachofsky collection.
Corris said he would like to the project stir discussions that help local artists find a bigger voice in the conversation about the city’s cultural direction.
“I’m very concerned that the shape of Dallas culture now that everyone is getting interested in art is going to be organized and managed from outside the artist community,”Corris said. “Artists in Dallas are particularly vulnerable because there is yet to be a market in contemporary art to support them and yet there are a lot of young people coming in from other places wanting to sell there and getting a little bit frustrated because they’re not tying into the same kind of system as in New York or LA. I’m not sure that’s going to be the right thing for Dallas. But whatever happens I think the artists have to take a large part of control to get it done.”
So far in Venice, the reaction to the book has been mixed.
“The people who express an interest in the Dallas Pavilion tend to really like it,” Joseph-Lester said. “But then people less interested don’t spend any time. There’s no in-between, it’s either ‘I don’t want to know,’ or, ‘This is the best thing I’ve seen.’”
For his part, Corris hopes any enthusiasm for the project isn’t taken literally by can-do, Dallas boosters. After all, he added, the best art is created out of the same antagonism, tension, and voids the Dallas Pavilion seeks to address.
“I hope people don’t think, ‘My god why don’t we rent a palazzo in Venice next time and show artists,’” Corris said. “It would be good to have Dallas artists shown internationally but then we’d have to do an anti-Dallas Pavilion.”
The Dallas Pavilion’s attention to the artist on the periphery of the art establishment lends the project a curious relevancy in the context of this year’s Venice Biennale. The main Biennale exhibition, called “The Encyclopedic Palace,” was curated by Massimiliano Gioni and it deliberately mixes works by familiar giants of contemporary art alongside pieces by so-called “outsider artists,” artists not typically collected by or exhibited in mainstream art museums.
Later in the week I saw Joseph-Lester and Corris heading out of the Giardini, yellow tablecloth underarm. Corris saw me and called out.
“We sold out!” he said, flashing a jesterly smile.