The Venice Biennale (blog post, 10.10.2013)

Yesterday I visited the Venice Biennale, for one day only. We made the mistake of “only” attempting the Giardini and the Arsenale areas, which means that we missed most of the national pavilions that are spread throughout the city, including the Golden-Lion-winning Angolan pavilion. This also means that we spent a lot of time at the international exhibition, The Encyclopedic Palace: in retrospect, the national exhibitions are more interesting simply because of the constantly changing curatorial perspectives one experiences moving from pavilion to pavilion. We saw some very good art, however, the following will discuss my personal highlights in the main exhibit and beyond.

The Encyclopedic Palace: The central exhibit of the Biennale, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, unfolds largely as the presentation of series of works, generally produced by a single individual (but not necessarily by a professional artist) who somewhat single-mindedly pursue a dedication to, (for example) building miniature buildings that, while imaginary, could easily have appeared in a 1970 provincial German town (Peter Fritz, presented by Oliver Croy and Oliver Elster). Or collections of carved wooden animals (Levi Fischer Ames), or photographic documentation of Nigerian women’s hairstyles (J.D. ‘Okhai Ojelkere). Ostensibly the exhibition intends to question the role of the artist, also by the display of many non-artist contributions, and the role of the contemporary, by displaying a breadth of 20th century art. There is indeed some kind of voyeuristic pleasure in examining someone’s hidden obsession (anatomically correct dolls in handsewn costumes, anyone? As long as he lived, Morton Bartlett never did share his creations–I wonder why), as for the most part I was indeed content to look at these collections–at least for the first 4 or so hours, and who doesn’t get tired after that? However, the proposition did raise 2 questions of, shall we say, ‘labour ethics’, that I’d like to at least mention:

1) Hey, wait a sec, exhibiting dead non-artists must be cheaper than paying people. Is this why we are seeing a historical turn in much contemporary art? I dunno. There do however seem to be an awful lot of contemporary visual artists who weren’t represented at the Biennale. I think it would have been interesting to take on the question of the value of encyclopedic endeavours solely based on the related problems that a) we have more professional artists than every before and b) the Internet is making these pockets of alternate knowledge futile. Do we blame Italy’s economic woes for the current curatorial concept? That’s an interesting (if not explicit) proposition…

2) Series or collections of works perpetuate the idea of an artist-as-genius while underlining the ‘labour’ involved in creating art. I think I am as sceptical of the former as I am secretly pleased by the latter: the exhibition mostly  ignores the many collaborative, complicit, social practices involved in art-making to focus on those individuals who attempt to make their observations on the world in relative isolation, often plumbing the depths of their own psyches to do so (the very first room of the exhibition is dedicated to Jung’s Red Book!). I think this image is upheld in the considerations of many of the art-seeing public. It’s effective because we enjoy watching labour (point two): while not everybody will call one painting of a circle-within-a-circle great art, if you make 387 such specimens at least your audience has some idea of the effort involved in making your reduced choice. I enjoy being able to see a process, evolution–but I am critical of what constitutes ‘acceptable’ labour in artistic work, and I don’t believe that everyone must have mono-maniacal tendencies in order to produce it. In fact, I think that lazy artists, meandering artists, easily distracted artists and artists who perhaps only produce ONE version of their painting or whatever are the only artists capable of seriously claiming they are subverting capitalist modes of production.

HOWEVER, my highlights of The Encyclopedic Palace were artists who presented clear and not really meandering propositions. And they are (drumroll):

Heaven (and everyone else) knows how much I love Tino Sehgal’s work. Performing in the documenta13′s This Variation had a transformative effective on my life and career, and I recently talked about the revival of his ‘untitled (2000)’ solo at Tanz im August 2013. Of course, with everything I see there is the temptation to measure it against This Variation, but the parallels to this new piece in Venice are obvious: performers beatbox and move to the music they produce. However, whereas This Variation had an added immersive effect of near-total darkness, the Venice piece (ashes on my head that I have no idea what it’s called) is in the light, surrounded by Rudolf Steiner’s chalk sketches on black paper and Walter Pichler’s lightly phallic sculptures. It seems that Sehgal has returned to the performance-as-object of his earliest gallery works. Performed with a maximum of three performers, the Venice piece appears to be more of a dialogue of the movers with themselves and their collaborators; kneeling on the floor with eyes shut, they aren’t really in a position to deal with their audience.

Vivian Saassen showed refined, nearly abstract portraits of locals in her chosen country of residence, South Africa. The series, Parasomnia , also comes in book form and is totally, totally on my Christmas list.

Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue (she earned an honorable mention for best young artist from the Biennale) is a strangely compelling video work featuring nail art, taxidermied animals, the desktop of a computer, and a pretty neat soundtrack. Pity I couldn’t watch the whole thing.

Ryan Trecartin produced a series of disturbing videos focusing on contemporary American voyeur/television culture. The distorted stereotypes presented in these LOUD works (which are presented in seating areas designed by the artist, a step up from the lonely bench and pitch-black viewing loops of most other video works…artists, take note) oscillate between banality and fiendishness.

Peter Fischli and David Weiss displayed innumerable unfired clay works using cartoon-like figures and motifs from fairy tales or the bible. Some sculptures would also work as absurdist comics (Two sleeping figures depict “Einstein’s parents shortly after conceiving the genius”).

Eva Kotátková worked with psychiatric patients to produce an installation dealing with the imposations and possibilities for transformation presented within contemporary psychiatric practices: a fragmented, disjointed body (and narrative) is proposed. The work simultaneously fits well with the other ‘encyclopedic’ works while subverting the notion of the artist as an individual and suggesting radically different taxonomies.

Onwards to the Pavilions. The pavilions vary greatly in quality, but if I had to do it over again I would see as many of them as I could….the shifts in quality (and perspective) that each nation offers is refreshing for the footsore Biennale visitor.

Antti Laitinen‘s tongue-in-cheek videos and photographs reflect on the unexpected event of a tree falling on the Finnish pavilion of 2011.

Akram Zaatari makes a video about an Israeli pilot who refused to drop bombs on Zaatari’s secodnary school in South Libanon in 1982. Wonderful story, somewhat disappointing video work. The accompanying tabloid-like compendium, however, fulfills the promises the installation does not.

Alfred Jarr wins the prize for ‘most unexpected’ (SPOILER ALERT): I came across the pool of water in the Chilean Pavilion and was like, ‘why is everyone standing around staring into mucky brown water?’. Why? Because at regular intervals a model of Giardini rises and sinks from the pool. A somewhat plastic admonition of the perils ahead for Venice when global warming comes a-calling, but enjoyable. Yes.

Berlinde de Bruyckere allows one to discover her sculpture (a fallen tree? A petrified kraken?) in the dimness of the Belgian pavilion.

The giant mounds of abandoned building materials spilling out of the Spanish pavilion are fascinating for the why they change one’s perception of the box-like rooms. I didn’t need to know that the materials were from a wasteland in Murano to haptically enjoy Lara Almarcugui‘s proposal.

Finally Tavares Strachan in the Bahamas pavilions demonstrating a breath-taking passion for the Arctic and space exploration. The video of Bahamas schoolchildren performing traditional Inuit songs (they were live in Venice at some point) and the glass prism  containing the barely visible skeleton of Matthew Henson (assistant to North Pole ‘discoverer’ Richard Peary) are the most delicate aesthetic proposals in a pavilion where the proposed ideas were many and good.

Biennale 2015: go for longer. See all the pavilions. Yeah.