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Take a chance…

Dr William Norman, a GP partner from Cirencester, gives his view of this year’s Venice Biennale.



Christian Boltanski – Chance

Does the biggest gamble in our lives occur before we are even born? Artist Christian Boltanski has long been haunted by the mystery of birth and by the odd feeling that if his parents had conceived him a few seconds sooner he could have been someone else. His new work Chance in the French Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale explores this issue.

In the main gallery a long strip of photographs of newborn infants flies across the room as if on a newspaper press. From time to time a bell rings, the strip stops and one of the babies is singled out, its face projected on to a screen. Why has this baby been chosen? What does the future hold for it? All the faces seem similar, but all will have very different futures.

Born in Paris in 1944, Boltanski always felt that he had survived the war by chance. His 1990 piece Missing House was on a bomb site in Berlin where a building was completely destroyed, leaving those on either side untouched. He felt this illustrated the random nature of life; why some neighbours were killed and others saved. Was it the will of some higher power, or just a matter of chance?

Back in Venice, Boltanski’s work makes me think about the role of ‘chance’ and the patients I have come across in general practice. So much of their future often seems to be ordained before they are born. Pre-natal research tells us that future cardiac health is related to the mothers diet in pregnancy, and the social situation you are born into, with its support mechanisms, or lack of them, affecting your future life chances.

The artist further explores this in the adjoining galleries. Both have large, digital counters recording, on one side, the number of births in the world each day, and on the other the number of deaths. On average each day there will be 200,000 more births than deaths, a statistic that is almost incomprehensible in a gallery in Italy.

Boltanski’s final “comment” is a projection of the faces of 60 newborn Polish and 52 deceased Swiss individuals; their features cut into three parts and reassembled to form new faces. By pressing a button you can stop the constant changing images and ‘create’ a new human image. Once again the artist is inviting his audience to take part in the game of chance; your prize for matching the features of an existing human, a musical fanfare and a free gift from the artist.

The Venice Biennale

The Olympics of the art world

The 54th International Art Exhibition runs until 27th November 2011 and is bigger than ever with 89 National Pavilions and 37 collateral events. These are centred around the curated shows in the Arsenale and Giardini as well as  Palazzo, churches breweries and cafes across Venice. Entrance to the central site is €20 but the majority of exhibitions elsewhere are free and a fantastic way to explore hidden parts of the city.

Further information:


Highlights for 2011:

Mike Nelson, Great Britain Pavilion

Michael Parekowhai, New Zealand Pavilion


Mike Nelson, Great Britain Pavilion: amazing installation transforming the 19th Century building into a slum in Istanbul.

Karla Black, Scotland in Venice: beautiful ethereal installations by the Turner Prize nominated artist made of cellophane, soap, sterile earth, polystyrene and sugar paper.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Swiss Pavilion: Huge cavernous installation of the detritus of daily life wrapped in clingfilm and silver foil with crystals.

Michael Parekowhai, New Zealand Pavilion: Beautiful, unsettling sculptures using pianos, by this Maori artist




Dr William Norman is a GP Partner from Cirencester. All photos are taken by him, and are not available for download.