VIVA ARTE VENEZIA: Venice Biennale 2017

Published on ocula, 31 August 2017

Lorenzo Quinn, ‘Support’, 2017. Grand Canal, Venice. Photo: Diana d’Arenberg

If hell is other people, as the delightful Parisian existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre once remarked, then the Venice Biennale during the four day preview is a veritable inferno. So I headed to the Biennale a week later: no queues, no crowds, and no tiny damp lodgings where the ceiling falls in on you in the middle of the night (true story).I felt serenity for the first time in La Serenissima.

Started 114 years ago, the 57th edition of the mother of all biennials, this year titled ‘VIVA ARTE VIVA’ and curated by French curator Christine Macel, chief curator of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the central exhibition includes 120 artists (108 of whom are participating in the Biennale for the first time) and 86 national pavilions, four of which—Antigua and Barbuda, Kirbati , Tunisia, Nigeria—are participating with national pavilions for the first time.

‘VIVA ARTE VIVA’ intends to reach out beyond politics ‘to celebrate(s) mankind’s ability to avoid being dominated by the powers governing world affairs’ through art, with Macel highlighting the role of art and artists in the times of uncertainty, while not directly addressing the uncertainty. In the Central Pavilion at the Giardini, visitors are greeted by Belgrade-born conceptual artist, Mladen Stilinovic’s photo series of ‘An Artist at Work’, in which, the artist is shown mainly sleeping. This sets the tone for an exhibition that looks inward, rather than out.  Where Okwui Enwezor’s 2015 Biennale felt like a political manifesto, replete with readings of Das Kapital, Macel’s Arsenale exhibition can only be summed up as ‘Burning Man goes to the Biennale’.

James Lee Byars, ‘The Golden Tower’, (1976). Campo San Vio, Venice, 2017.

With a central exhibition divided into eight pavilions with names like ‘The Pavilion of Joys and Fears’; ‘The Pavilion of the Earth’; and ‘the Pavilion of Shamans’ (I could almost feel my Kundalini rising), this is an exhibition of art for art’s sake. It is textural, sensual, imaginary and joyful—an escapist romp away from the harsh political climate of intolerance and fear we are currently facing in a show that feels like a Kumbaya camp fire. A netted ‘tepee’ structure by Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto, hangs from the ceiling in the centre of the Pavilion of Shamans, replete with soil, plants, cushions and  members of the Amazonian Huni Kuh tribe performing a religious ceremony during the preview week. On the day I saw it, a group of happy-pants and bead wearing kids were hanging out inside it chanting, singing, and talking about their experiences drinking ayahuasca.

There was, to Macel’s credit, a strong representation of artists from beyond the art world’s central canon. A wonderful presentation of large canvases by Syrian-German expressionist Marwan, who died last year, filled one of the central pavilion’s rooms, and Lebanese artist Huguette Caland showed beautifully detailed ink drawings of women’s limbs and genitalia. Cuban artist Zilia Sanchez’s three dimensional minimalist and monochromatic acrylic paintings, suggestive of nipples, jutted out from a wall. A long vitrine was filled with ‘Al Saadi’s Diaries’ (2016), thirty years of diaries packed in sardine or tobacco tins.

The exhibition is light on technology and heavy on craft, with its connotations of the intimate, traditional, and ritual, with textiles, needlework and an assortment of objects made from beads, wood and string, many of which located in the so-called Pavilion of Women. A large installation of colourful yarn balls by Sheila Hicks, Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands (2016-2017), cascades from a wall; Rina Banerjee presents sculptures made out of beads, shells, fabric and other tchotchkes; there is painted underwear and an apron by Heidi Bucher; and a festive neon walk-in installation of flower, tinsel and fabric vaginas by Russian artist Irina Korina. Placed in such a context diminishes the power of the work of many of the female artists exhibited, reinforcing the stereotypes of crafts and textiles as ‘female art’.

Anne Imhof, ‘Faust’, German Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2017
Xavier Veilhan, ‘Studio Venezia’, French Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2017.

Over at the national pavilions, the Golden Lion for National presentation went to rising star Anne Imhof’s Faust for the German Pavilion. The biggest sensation of this year’s biennale preview, the presentation features black-clad (and un-clad) dancers performing above and below a transparent stage built over the pavilion’s floors, littered with spoons, chains, and bottles, with a couple of Dobermans thrown in. I found myself in what felt like a Berlin S&M club. I asked a few gushing friends why they liked it. Its appeal apparently had something to do with a ‘90s heroin chic Margiela fashion campaign.

The work is meant to tap into sociopolitical concerns for a milenial generation – alienation, angst, confinement, anxiety. The sparse glass-floored space was crawling with a bunch of bored-looking performers – kids in jeans and hoodies–playing with their iPhones, just sitting around, staring into space, or crawling around on the floor. I see this all the time on the Berlin U-Bahn.  The ennui was contagious. It was a pavilion of nothing, the art equivalent of a Seinfeld episode. Audiences watched with bated breath every movement of the performers, who were writhing and slouching beneath a glass floor like lab rats in a maze. I watched one performer stare at a wall for ten minutes. He lifted his arm. Then he put it down again. He twitched his foot. The jury described the presentation as “a powerful and disturbing installation that poses urgent questions about our time.” It did indeed pose a lot of questions about our time and how to spend it when you have an afternoon to get through dozens of pavilions. Many had to wait three-hours in a queue to see this­.

Beside the German pavilion stands the Korean pavilion. An unmissable cluster of neon signs glow on the facade of the pavilion building. Titled Venetian Rhapsody and created by artist Cody Choi, the installation references the casinos of Las Vegas and Macau, reflecting on the spectacle of global capitalism. The signage promised pole dancing, free peep shows, free narcissictic people disorder, and free orgasms, with all major credit cards welcome. It sounded like everything the art world is at the best (and worst) of times, and I was up for the experience. But inside, I found a reflective, engaging and visually dense exhibition comprised of an installation and a film that spoke of national histories in relation to individual stories—small lives threaded together into a larger more complex national identity.

The political became ‘urgent’ (to borrow an overused term in the art world – thanks HUO) as activism and socio-political gestures (or misplaced good intentions in the service of art) featured as a prominent theme at many of this year’s Biennale pavilions. Mark Bradford’s U.S. pavilion was, deservingly, another hot ticket pavilion. Tomorrow is Another Day is a multilayered expansive show interweaving personal narrative with American social history, looking at the country’s turbulent political climate, social justice, and race. Bradford turned the rotunda of ‘the White House’, as the Palladian style U.S. pavilion is nicknamed, into a ruin. Littered with rubble from the outside, and dilapidated and peeling inside, it resembles an abandoned rundown or foreclosed house. Inside are sculptures and large sanded-down ‘paintings’ made of layered billboard posters that Bradford made his name from.

Bradford’s dilapidated white house represents American democracy in trouble, a nation in crisis politically and socially.  The artist struggles with how to represent a country that no longer represents the marginalised with an installation that asks questions about America’s relationship with class and race. In conjunction with the national pavilion show, Bradford launched a six-year socially conscious retail endeavor, The Process Collettivo, which employs prisoners from a local district of Venice. For 300 Euros visitors could buy a Bradford-designed bag of recycled material with proceeds going to the collective. A bargain when you consider what anything that Bradford touches goes for these days.

Mark Bradford, ‘Tomorrow is Another Day’, US Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2017
Grisha Bruskin, ‘Theatrum Orbis- Scene Change’, Russian Pavilion. Venice Biennale 2017

Olafur Eliasson presents a similar endeavour back at the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, creating a workshop-cum-studio which employs Venice’s migrants to manufacture lights that guests could buy for a donation. Yet, the lamps seem ungainly and too large to pack or bring in hand-carry for most visitors who flew in. Walking into the ‘workshop’, which felt more like an installation, visitors could watch the workers. It was a well meaning effort, but felt like an awkward, impersonal, fetishised display of marginalisation, reinforcing a dichotomy of privileged versus underprivileged within the exhibition.

Countering this sense of marginalization was the Iraq Pavilion, which serves as a place for a country ravaged by war to affirm its national and cultural identity. Housed in the Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti, the exhibition presents a vitrine that extends right through an entire room, containing time-worn and preserved archeological artefacts, including ancient clay pots and a neolithic-era clay fertility goddess, as one would in a history museum. All 40 objects are on loan from the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, which was looted after the U.S. invasion of 2003. A number of the included objects were actually recovered or returned artefacts, and the exhibition is the first time all objects have been legally allowed out of the country. Works by eight artists, including Jewad Selim, considered the father of modern Iraqi art, complement these artefacts. Titled Archaic, the exhibition is testament to the country’s survival and struggle, and speaks of the cultural genocide, not just of Iraq, but also of Syria, at the hands of international state forces, as well as the Islamic State.

Offering another form of archeology was the Irish Pavilion, where Jesse Jones presented her film and installation, Tremate, Tremate (‘Tremble, Tremble’), whose title comes from a 1970s Italian wages-for-housework movement, where women chanted: Tremate, tremate, le streghe sono tornate! (“Tremble, tremble, the witches have returned!”). A pavilion that looks at the witch as a feminist archetype, the exhibition looks back at an archeological dig of a 3.5 million year old specimen, to the 16th century witch trials of Europe and the abortion legalization today, imagining a different legal order where women held power.

The uncontrollable, defiant feminine could also be found in the exhibition of the late Italian artist Carol Rama, Carol Rama. Spazio anche più che tempo (Carol Rama. Space even more than time) showing at the Palazzo Ca’Nova. The exhibition, Rama’s first in Venice in a decade, explores the various stages of the artist’s career, bringing together figurative and abstract paintings that delve into the psychosexual. (A larger exhibition of her work at the New Museum in New York is running parallel to the Venice show.) Rama’s erotic abstractions went unappreciated for decades before achieving recognition only very late in life­—she received the Biennale Golden Lion in 2003 at the age of 85, recalling the Guerrilla Girls 1988 ‘Feminist Manifesto’, which called attention to disproportionate gender representation and wage inequality in the art world, stating that one of the advantages of being a woman artist is ‘knowing your career might pick up after you’re 80.’ The Romanian Pavilion also presented the work of another grand dame of art, the conceptualist Geta Brâtescu, bringing together photographic works, installations, drawings and notebooks of the nonagenarian artist.


Of the major art attractions at the Biennale, there was the show described in one review as ‘one of the worst exhibitions of contemporary art staged in the past decade’. Billed as the biggest show around – and bearing a striking resemblance to the Grenada Pavilion – Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable occupies both Pinault Collection spaces in Venice: the Punta della Dogana and the Palazzo Grassi. Reportedly ten years and tens of millions of dollars in the making (I hear most of the works were sold and the venture more than paid off), the exhibition brings together stories, barnacle encrusted objects, film, and photographs, salvaged from a fictitious shipwreck some 2,000 years ago off the coast of East Africa. After years of silence and market indifference the show is seems intent on salvaging not just lost treasures of this fictional wreck, but presumably also the artist’s sinking career.

Mingling fact and fiction, history and pop culture, this is a theme park of cringe-worthy kitsch. There’s a bronze of the Hindu goddess Kali (modeled on South African Die Antwoort rapper, Yolandi); there’s Mickey Mouse, and a chained damsel in distress about to be attacked by a sea monster that looks straight out of a Flash Gordon comic; there’s a giant headless demon, towering David-like over the Palazzo Grassi centre; and pop singers Rihanna and Pharrell also make an appearance. Hirst serves up spectacle, celebrity and entertainment to a contemporary art market that has become defined by those very things. He does so with a Duchampian sense of humour and a nose for hilarity, showing that anything can become collectable and valuable—like a turd wrapped up in gold foil—as long as a brand name is attached to it. In the end, though, the joke’s on us. It was Duchamp, after all, who said: ‘Art is not about itself but the attention we bring to it.’

The 57th Venice Biennale is open to the public from 13 May to 26 November 2017.

Installation by Francis Upritchard at Arsenale, Venice Biennale 2017.
Vajiko Chachkhiani, Georgian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2017.
The Axel Vervoordt curated ‘Intuition’ at Palazzo Fortuny, Venice Biennale, 2017.

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