This article originally appeared in the May issue of D Magazine. The Venice Biennale kicks-off this week.
Every other year in May, the sinking streets and labyrinthine waterways of Venice are overrun by collectors and curators, dealers and museum directors, artists and art aficionados who descend on the Italian city for the Venice Biennale. The sprawling art expo features a curated exhibition as well as artists chosen by countries to represent them in various national pavilions, thus mixing aspects of major art survey with the boosterism of a world’s fair.
This year, however a number of lucky visitors to the Venice Biennale will fine an unassuming publication with a curious tittle slipped into their hands. It is called The Dallas Pavilion. Flipping it open, people will be confronted with images of a foreign landscape – a concrete strip of interstate and a seemingly endless, flat grassland overhung by an expanse of bright blue sky. “Approaching the Metroplex,” the tile reads. “DFW and the Unframed Urban Landscape.”
There is no spot on the globe quite like Venice, a compressed and contained urban ecosystem made up of pedestrian-scaled streets, navigable canals, and piazzas that pool between baroque buildings. Compare that with the sprawling, wide-open, uncontained urban environment of North Texas. This jarring contrast is just one of a few disconnects meant to provoke interest in the little book that was imagined, in part, as a way of thrusting the overlooked artistic endeavors of North Texas onto the stage of one of the world’s oldest and most renowned showcases of contemporary art.
The Dallas Pavilion is the project of two artists, Jasper Joseph-Lester and Southern Methodist University professor Michael Corris. It is a clever cross between tongue-in-cheek jingoistic civic marketing and renegade pop-up art show, a municipal pavilion couched in the form of an art book. Featuring a series of essays, interviews, and reproduced text-based art pieces and prints, the book presents features on a number of local art spaces and events—from 500X and Barry Whistler Gallery to the Tuesday night lecture series at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the original Fair Park location of the Dallas Museum of Art—as a way of cataloging the locations that exhibit and give form to North Texas’ art community. Think of it as a way of placing Dallas’ creative output in its own book-size pavilion.
“A pavilion is just a way of bringing things together,” Corris says. “It doesn’t have to be architectural.”
The Dallas Pavilion isn’t the first art book distributed at the Venice Biennale. England-based Joseph-Lester previously created another such publication, Project Biennale. It offered a play on the promotional aspect of the Venice Biennale, serving both as commentary on the form of the biennale itself, a manifestation of art world power structures, and as a shameless display of opportunism on the part of the artists who operate outside the confines of those structures.
Joseph-Lester met Corris when they taught together years ago at Sheffield Hallam University, and he took an interest in Dallas when he visited last year and started asking artists and gallerists which spaces in town they saw as important locations for art-making and exhibition. He and Corris figured that those spaces themselves offered a portrait of the local scene. They also determined what locally is understood as art that contributes to the region’s cultural identity—much as a biennale does.
Corris says he and Joseph-Lester will print 1,500 copies of The Dallas Pavilion, 500 of which they’ll hand out in Venice. He says outright that he has no delusions about what it will accomplish. While the book bears some similarity to the kind of brochure the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau might distribute (if it were actually savvy to the Dallas art scene), civic marketing is a point of reference or an organizing intent, not an end goal for The Dallas Pavilion.
In fact, you could make the argument that the publication’s primary audience is not the bewildered art lovers in Venice who will toss their copies of the book into the bottoms of their suitcases after a week of romping past work by some of the world’s major art protagonists. Rather, from reproductions of provocative works of art to shots of sculpture at NorthPark, from obscure text-based pieces to images of Museum Tower thrusting its way into the oculus of James Turrell’s ruined Tending, (Blue) at the Nasher Sculpture Center, The Dallas Pavilion depicts an eccentric cross section of Dallas culture. It offers local audiences a glimpse of what this city looks like when it’s packed up for international export – even if no one overseas is buying it.
Image from The Dallas Pavilion.