Given the symbolic capital of the Venice Biennale’s status in the global art world, the curatorial role of the Central Pavilion becomes the focus for critical comment. Comparisons may be odious but inevitable and this year’s curator Christine Macel, heralded with enthusiasm for her ‘humanist’ vision, appears to have stirred the previous two curatorial scenarios (Gioni in 2013 and Enwezor in 2015) into a pleasant cocktail, appropriating a hint of Gioni’s universalism and a taste of Enwezor’s anthropology, thus avoiding radicality. Overall, the individual pavilions manifested a far stronger sense of current conflicts.

In the Mexican pavilion, Carlos Murales composes encrypted writing as a strategy to escape censorship. 74 irregular shapes form an alphabet that mutates into musical form on ocarinas, played to tell the stories of immigrants being lynched. His statement is crucial: “Images of migration and lynching are metaphors of a generalised crisis that we need to view of the nationalist movements’ opposition to globalization at a time when most of a nation’s territory already has owners, what type of nationalism are we talking about?”

The paradox of the Venice biennale is precisely the placing of nationalist structures onto a global platform. It provokes urgent questions on both local and global levels. These can be met with passion or handled with reserve as revealed in the contrast between specific pavilions and the central pavilion curated by Christine Macel. With her rallying call to arms: “Viva Arte Viva”, 120 artists (103 for the first time) were conscripted. Relational aesthetics is her zeitgeist whereby art practice involves participation that is social rather than political, a populist menu that reflects current swings of voters worldwide and contrasts strongly with the 2015 Biennale direction by Okwui Enwezor, criticized precisely for its bold support of activist art.

Macel has devised a scenic route travelling through nine Chapter/Pavilions, each labelled to signal an aspect of ‘today’s world of constant anthropological and societal change’. From the humanist Pavilions of the Common, Traditions, Joys and Tears, Colours, through the ecological and philosophical: Earth, Time and Infinity to the orientalist: Dionysian and Shamans. Analogies spring to mind of tourist theme parks or Victorian colonial art fairs. Venice is the oldest of all such spectacles born from nationalist ideology.

The three pavilions at the top of the ramp in the Giardini enact their hegemonic roles through symbolic capital and cliches. This time literary affinities are evoked by formal distinctions, so that Britain accords with Shakespeare, France with Moliere and Germany with Goethe.

Phyllida Barlow’s mammoth installation entitled Folly melds medieval nightmares with Midsummer Night dreams in a wild fantasy of mock-gothic architecture spreading across 6 rooms. Threatening from afar yet funny up close, its materials are recycled detritus such as cardboard, polystyrene, chicken wire and plaster: the components of theatrical decor that are not built to last, hence offering a metaphor for past and present British crises. In face of decay, Barlow offers a pragmatic politics of resistance.

The French pavilion by Zavier Veilhan is an ‘immersive installation’ recreating the ideal recording studio, finely crafted in wood and inspired by Kurt Schwitter’s Merzbau (1923-37). As a laboratory to host musicians who can experiment and record musical creations in a spirit of collaboration rather than commerce, it is a noble concept and a grandiose technical feat, but as a framework for experimentation such lofty ideals need to be grounded in the real rather than in relational aesthetics and offer to pay musicians... unless they invite the stateless refugees over from the Green Light workshop? (see below)

The Russian Pavilion Theatrum Orbis presents three dramatic sections that trace a scary narrative of human masses on the move. Tracked by military surveillance into a virtual realm based on Dante’s inferno, their profiles are frozen in a vacuum before the finale Garden: a performative video of eternal life expressed through mystical notions of darkness and light.

This tragicomic theme was adopted by ‘Influenza, theatre of glowing darkness’ in the Denmark pavilion that was not comic simply tragic. The mediocrity of production, performance and technique, aggravated by house arrest in the dark, was enough to leave the viewer with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Thus it was a relief to move onwards and upwards to the American pavilion and to listen to the enthusiastic presentation by Mark Bradford of his stunning installation: Tomorrow is Another Day. It has an overwhelming physicality that matches his impressive height and powerful discourse on the role of art as transforming and on the artist as social activist. Recycled materials, violence and vulnerability, lumpy forms, cellular collapse, collaged layers form a grotty Grotto that suggest a sisterhood with Barlow’s Folly: two artists whose political ardour is hands-on. As he exclaimed: “Now’s not the time to be too cool for school!”

The southern hemisphere pavilions were extraordinary: both refer to British colonial oppression, indigenous resistance and migrant repercussions. Australia Tracey Moffatt’s My Horizon is a mesmerizing poem of photography and video telling stories of journeys back in time and space. In Body Remembers, a maid in 50’s vintage dress played by Moffatt, herself of aboriginal heritage, moves moodily between ruins and wasteland. Passages, also in film noir 40’s genre, are set in a grim dockland terrain with characters in flight. Vigil is a video montage of Hollywood stars screaming in horror at footage of asylum seekers in perilous boats. Her elaborate digital experimentation: The White Ghosts Sailed shows fictional nitrate footage alluding to the first colonial settlement, or as Moffatt names: ‘invasion’ in Sydney harbour in 1788. Melancholic and haunting, Moffat’s work avoids nostalgia by its contemporaneity.

New Zealand’s Lisa Reihana, of Maori heritage, presents Emissaries: a vast panoramic video ‘in Pursuit of Venus (infected)’ that is a ‘cinematic re-imagining of the French scenic wallpaper ‘Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique’, 1804-5, also known as ‘Captain Cook’s voyages’. Ten years in its making, the digital audio visual project employs complex animation techniques comprising over 1,500 individual digital layers totalling 33 million pixels per frame. There are 80 vignettes of live action where Maoris perform scenes through dance, song and rituals, inter-acting with English officials artists and scientists. Over an hour long, it is a captivating experience. To gaze at the panorama rolling from right to left along 30 metres of screen is like exploring a monumental miniature painting wheremicroincidentserupt simultaneously across a macro landscape.

Two collateral shows of significance were Diaspora featuring 19 artists presenting counter-narratives to the concept of nationalism, a somewhat equivocal terrain since so many artists today work in spaces of transition, and Leviathan, ‘An episodic narrative by Shezad Dawood’: a hugely ambitious project addressing issues of marine welfare, migration and mental health through a ten part film cycle due to complete in 2020, its visionary scale compels investigation.

Back to Viva Arte Viva with the fascinating Chapter on artists and books. John Latham’s carved book-sculptures have a vivacity that compensates for the recent dull show at the Serpentine. Meticulously crafted ‘Book Paintings’ by Liu Ye reproduce familiar covers and blank pages. Books soaked in watercolours ooze pages of abstract forms by Geng Jianyi. Abdullah Al Saadi’s diaries on rolls of paper in customized tins are inspired by the story of the Dead Sea scrolls. The Rumanian Ciprian Muresan shows fine pencil drawings copied from reproductions of old masters, creating a palimpsest of data that hints at ‘mis-information’. The Nordic pavilion also shows audaciously cut-up books by the Finnish Mika Taanila. Similar tactics lie beneath the dense paintings of McArthur Binion, whose minimalist grids reveal underlying structures of torn out address lists.

In the ‘chapter’ ‘Unpacking my Library’, referring to Walter Benjamin, artists list their books of inspiration. This is a potential contact zone whereby spectators can envisage a dialogical rapport between the work and the artist so it was interesting to note the post-colonial authors listed by the two South Asian artists in the biennale: Rasheed Araeen who lists Fanon, Senghor and Said and Rina Banerjee who names Jamaica Kincaid and Achille Mbembe. Why only two South Asian artists? Whatever happened to the promising Indo-Pak joint venture of 2015? Banerjee is one of many women artists here fusing fabric and fantasy with wit, such as Francis Upritchard, Huguette Caland, Maha Malluh, Alicja Kwade,Cynthia Gutierrez and Teresa Lanceta. Amongst the ‘mature’ feminist artists, four stand out: 84 year old Michelle Stuart for her ‘natural histories’, 91 year old Geta Bratescu for her reflection on female subjectivity through self-portraiture, Anna Halprin at 97 for her Planetary Dance Movement and the 73 years old Afro-American artist, Senga Nengudi, for her hilariously erotic sculptures made from rubber and stuffed tights. Evviva le donne!

Other signs of dialogical aims were in the daily round table discussions between artists, the ‘open’ studio hosted by performance artist Dawn Kasper and the project set up by Olafur Eliasson : ‘Green Light-An artistic workshop’. Rows of benches in the vast central space were surrounded by a motley crew of refugees, asylum seekers and students busily making polyhedron green lamps that were exchanged for a donation of 250 euros. Up-beat in the relational party mode, the mostly African refugees frequently shifted into spontaneous rap that wowed the visitors, interrupted the shop-floor routine and doubtlessly cheered themselves up from the prospect of no pay as stateless migrants. Well intentioned in its overt anti-capitalist discourse and link with humanitarian NGOs, the project was nevertheless disturbing, partly due to its ambiguous play with the debt-economy crisis but mainly due to its spectacular presentation, in Umberto Eco’s words, as a vehicle of ‘hyper-reality’. It recalled colonialist exploitations of ethnicity such as a display in 1853 when Pygmies were imported and taught to play the piano in a Regent St salon.

This sense of unease returned with the Shaman section and the suspended woven tent by Ernesto Neto named ‘Un Sagrado Lugana’. Inside this cupixawa, healing rituals were being performed on visitors by Amazonian Huni Kuin people, watched by masses of viewers on the outside. Why does this biennale feels as though we are back almost 3 decades to 1989? A time when the west began to be interested in ‘the rest’, not just in the ‘whole-earth’ frenzy of ‘Les Magiciens de la Terre’ but more importantly through the thrust of Third Text. Indeed it seems curious to find its founder, Rasheed Araeen in a biennale that seeks a nebulous universalism, in Macel’s words : “...a common space beyond defined dimensions”.

Far more disturbing is the performance in the German Pavilion. We walk on a transparent floor over bent bodies writhing and wrestling and masturbating or listening to earphones, surrounded by scrubbed spaces dotted with cutting instruments, bowls and lead and chains. It is like a morgue or a laboratory guarded by patrolling Dobermans. So stereotypically Nazi, it performs as the monstrous other, throwing back the viewer to a sense of horror fused with guilt as participant/observer, the ethnographer’s nightmare. Why does this disturb more than watching the Amazonian Indians or the African migrants? Perhaps because the viewer feels schizoid, split between the role of the predator, dominating the creatures below, capturing their images by i-phone, and the role of the victim, hounded by the crowd. She is the same, not different. It is easier to survey the ‘exotic’ other rather than the similar, as Nancy Sullivan wrote in 1995: “...the less history shared the more ‘genuine’ the outsider.”

Sign In Close
Only Critical Collective subscribers can access this page.
If you are already a subscriber, then please log in.
 Forgot Password?
Subscribe now

The Photography Timeline is currently under construction.

Our apologies for the inconvenience.