The curator of the 55th Biennale di Venezia, Massimiliano Gioni, is a fan of the clear line. As he announced, “Art is a form of looking at the world, not just decorative objects”, and the Biennale in the guise of The Encyclopedic Palace served as his definition of the world. Self-taught artist Marino Auriti designed a museum in 1955 to house all human knowledge, and its model is the first thing you see when entering the Arsenale. Gioni’s Biennale is a paean to alternative systems of knowledge, a gauntlet thrown down to rationality and the hegemony of disembodied systems. This results in a cacophony of voices and positions, ranging from the voices of patients from a mental hospital (as in Eva Kotatkova’s installation) to Hilma af Klint’s abstractions– themselves an outcome of her Theosophist practices which emphasise the role of the subconscious.
Nowhere does Gioni shy away from his curatorial premise: the central pavilion at the Giardinale opens with Carl Gustav Jung’s Red Book, an illustrated meditation on the role of fantasies and dreams, leading straight into an enormous central room where Rudolf Steiner’s (the founder of Theosphy) blackboard drawings dominate. Gioni then leads us through to the exhibition’s low point–Alastair Crawley’s tarot cards. It is at this point that the exhibition starts to stutter. Rather than being a display of individual viewpoints and attempts to make sense of the world, it becomes clear that his bug-bear is the rationale itself. Opposing Theodor Adorno’s Theses Against Occultism, he ponders the question: what does it mean if we are all media, and the brain is the first medium? While earlier artists experimented with Spiritism and possession, today we are possessed by digital media. What is to be made of our obsession with images, and their effect on our imagination? Using outsider art or practitioners such as Jung whose central occupation is not art-making, he showcases art made with ‘very basic means’ (‘you can make an artwork with nothing, just time,’ he notes, and there are no shiny steel sculptures here) and that focuses on dreams and the imagination. You are either germane to this neo-Romanticist position or not, but there is no escaping the relentless narrative in the Giardini. In this, he brings to mind the work of another Über-curator, Harald Szeeman, whose exhibition When Attitudes Become Form is being restaged by Germano Celant at the Prada Foundation over the period of the biennale.
Nevertheless there are some very strong artworks. Personal favourites included Shinro Ohtake’s scrapbooks, accumulated over a period of thirty years, which scream with colour and a personal aesthetic, Fischli and Weiss’ Und Plötzlich diese Übersicht, an arrangement of more than 100 unfired clay ‘situations’, such as the Einsteins lying in post-coital satisfaction after conceiving Albert. Eva Kotatkova’s installation, made with the help of patients from a psychiatric hospital near Prague was a lyrical paean to outsider art. I also liked Carl Andre’s personal notebooks, which revealed a new perspective on his otherwise tight minimalism. Thierry de Cordier’s large-scale paintings of a tumultuous sea form the end-point to the Giardini, recalling 18th Century naval portraits.
The Arsenale is an altogether stronger proposal–perhaps because here the insistence lies less on systems and more on individual narratives. The standout piece for me (and many others, given that she won a Silver Lion for her contribution) was Camille Henrot Grosse Fatigue, an infectious video piece featuring various creation myths, situated next to the Darwinistic narrative, made during her residency at the Smithsonian. The video takes the form of a series of palimpsestic images, set to a hip hop track narrating the stories. Danh Vo also shows his impish side: he has transported a 19th Century Vietnamese Church to Venice and has erected it in the Arsenale. Accompanying this is a stolen stretcher for a Caravaggio painting. Further on, Cindy Sherman has curated an exhibition of ‘alternative’ images of the body, including photographs of transvestites going about their daily business in suburban New York, Paul McCarthy’s grotesque statues and found photographs of small children and infants.
Outsider art, beginning with Auriti, plays a key role in Gioni’s examination of the manifestations of obsession and fixation on knowledge. A gallery houses small terracotta fantasy creatures, halfway between the animator Hayao Miyazaki’s monsters and hedgehogs, by autism-sufferer Shinichi Sawada.
Ryan Trecartin’s four video installation, Not yet titled (2013) has characters of indeterminate sex who look like avatars come to life rollicking in pools, lip-synching, dancing in post-modern opulescence. The Arsenale, taken as a whole, was a richly rewarding experience, the muted colours of most installations and clean lighting a welcome change from the brash, the oversaturated and the visual excesses of much recent art.
Stand-out pavilions included Wales, which featured a meander through a fake observatory, workshop, and finally a very graphic, lush video installation by Bedwyr Williams (The Starry Messenger) in which, at some points, Williams covered himself in tiles, and a tongue was seen licking the boot of a dominatrix in extreme close up. England featured a video and installations by Jeremy Deller (English Magic). The most interesting pieces were drawings made by prisoners, former soldiers, of the day-to-day of the Afghan and Iraqi wars. William Morris tipped Roman Abramovich’s yacht into the bay of Venice, and Deller generally provided some playfully snarky political British art.
Many pavilions focussed on immersive experiences which had the tendency to slide into kitsch. Portugal’s Joana Vasconcelos had taken a working ship, sailed it from Lisbon to Venice and installed a Disney-esque grotto of fairytale lights. Similarly, Shary Boyle’s glittering sculptures and diorama in the Canadian Pavillion provided a somewhat ephemeral experience. An installation by Belgium’s Berlinde De Bruyckere of a resin tree trunk, wrapped in cloths, was somber and poignant.
Notable mentions: Montenegro for their beautifully installed, twinkling pavilion (Irena Lagator Pejovic), Luxemburg’s Catherine Lorent for fusing electric guitars with large works on paper and grand pianos, and the Central Asian Pavilions lovely Kyrgyzi videos of the countryside.
Perhaps its best to finish in the words of Gioni himself: ‘We need to look within ourselves to change world around us, and this is an exhibition about dreams, and imagination.’
LA BIENNALE DI VENEZIA
“Il Palazzo Enciclopedico”
Exhibition: Jun. 01 – Nov. 24, 2013
Jeni Fulton is a writer focusing in and on the international Berlin art scene. She is currently working on her PhD thesis in contemporary art theory. Having taken her MA in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, she now lives and works in Berlin.