Wednesday 24 June 2015
La Biennale di Venezia: the 56th International Art Biennale All the World’s Futures (9 May–22 November 2015)
Just days after the opening of the 56th Biennale biting criticisms of curator Okwui Enwezor’s Central Pavilion were already appearing. It seems that the oldest international showplace for contemporary art is also the most feverishly pitched and vulnerable to judgement. The Biennale, established by a decree from the mayor of the city, opened for the first time in 1895 to great public acclaim and a whopping 224,000 visitors. Today it seems the curator never has enough time. They are expected to surprise, delight and challenge with a wealth of ‘fresh’ artists and, given the Biennale’s importance in the art calendar, are seemingly also charged with recasting the entire conception of a biennale. The curator must miraculously conjure all of this in the floating, historical, utterly charming and mostly non-climate-controlled environment that is Venice.
Being a Venice Vernissage virgin this was my first date with the heady triad of press launches/official opening/opening parties in fabulous palazzo settings. These are held by each of the national pavilions and also include the countless collateral events and associated projects – not to mention the literally thousands of professional meetings taking place across that fragile, impossible, sinking and magical city. View the Biennale map
It should be said at the outset that the New Zealand Pavilion with Simon Denny’s impressive work SECRET POWER forged a notable presence amid the sea of art at this year’s Venice Biennale . . . more on that later.
Okwui Enwezor described his approach to curating the Biennale in the following way:
‘Rather than one overarching theme that gathers and encapsulates diverse forms and practices into one unified field of vision, All the World’s Futures is informed by a layer of three intersecting Filters, namely: Garden of Disorder, Liveness: On Epic Duration and Reading Capital. The three Filters represent a constellation of parameters, which will be touched upon in order to imagine and realise a diversity of practices.’
Enwezor’s sweeping and layered exhibition achieves in showcasing many artists unfamiliar to the Biennale’s primarily European audiences and in providing a central focus to politically strident works that engage with the trauma and hypocrisies of our time. This, along with the intentional density of the layout, may prove uncomfortable for some.
I found the Central Pavilion in the Giardini attentively curated; its works were positioned with considered enterprise, such as the placement of three wonderful painters in concert: Ellen Gallagher, Huma Bhabha and Emily Kame Kngwarreye. The Hans Haacke room of sympathetic works, the heady intensity of the paper-strewn Thomas Hirschhorn space, the haunting Marlene Dumas room of skull watercolours, Isa Genzken’s lively unrealised models, John Akomfrah’s video meditation on the sea, and Wangechi Mutu’s metaphysical video and sculptural work all provided rewarding foci. As an extension of the Pavilion, Enwezor located a series of arresting sculptures by Raqs Media Collective throughout the main thoroughfare at the Giardini that deconstructed the idea of the monument.
Certain artists were allocated a major presence in the Central Pavilion including the intriguing Fabio Mauri, whose work provided an impactful portal to the Giardini exhibition. Artists such as Australian indigenous painter Daniel Boyd, photographer and media artist Chris Marker, painter Huma Bhabha and time-based artist Samson Kambalu, among others, were present in both the Giardini and Arsenale venues – all are exceptional artists.
The ARENA, a large blood-red performance space, designed by Ghanaian/British architect David Adjaye, held central sway in the heart of the Giardini’s Central Pavilion space with Isaac Julien’s Das Kapital Oratorio and Olaf Nicolai’s backpack audio work among a dozen or so performative projects that require time and scrutiny. It has been said that the scarcest resource of the 21st-century is human attention. The opening of Venice Biennale in its striding, panting, agenda-driven glory is testament to that observation. Enwezor’s thronging array of works over two sites also reminds us of our own role in real-time editing as we navigate through the swarm of knowledge on offer and the urgent questions of our time.
Yet the Venice Biennale is much more than the Central Pavilion. The country pavilions are driven by a different momentum – nations jostle to present timely (not always new) work in unexpected ways; to be uncompromising in selection, brave in reach and, importantly, to be noticed (which is known as achieving ‘cut-through’ in the profession).
One thing I found interesting at this year’s Biennale was the number of country pavilions that riffed off the architectural forms of the pavilions themselves. This is perhaps a reflection on the site-specific nature of much of today’s art practice. It’s interesting how the Architecture Biennale is full of art projects and the Art Biennale is crammed with architectural interventions. Perhaps one feeds into the other in this potent site which is constantly at the service of the still hale and hearty international ‘national pavilion’ model.
The crowded intensity of Enwezor’s Central Pavilion was counterpoised with often airy and indeed somewhat empty pavilions in which artists play with a lightness of touch and work with light itself as it was allowed to enter. Oversized cylindrical semi-kinetic structures were installed above head height (Szilard Cseke in the Hungarian Pavilion); walls removed (Heimo Zobernig in the Austrian Pavilion) or broken through (André Komatsu in the Brazilian Pavilion); windows replicated and stacked within a soundscape (Camille Norment’s elegant Rapture in the Nordic Pavilion); while other artists located small careful gestures in largely empty spaces (Danh Vo in the Danish Pavilion and the subtle mediations on impossible cities by Marco Maggi in the much talked about Uruguay Pavilion). Interestingly, this aesthetic continues at Punta Della Dogana over the Grand Canal at Salute. There, Danh Vo has curated Slip of the Tongue from the Pinault Collection, creating a restrained installation of some materially explorative work including modest sculptural contributions from Vo himself.
One of the most memorable in this architecturally spacious vein in the Giardini was Pamela Rosenkranz’s seductive and synthetic Swiss Pavilion, Our Product. One enters an empty room awash in artificial green light. From there a narrow walkway leads to a luminous fleshy pink-hued space waist high with water reflecting the architectural structures above. For me, this appeared like an ethereal, elemental reversal of the materials in Walter Di Maria’s The New York Earth Room, 1977.
In contrast, a small number of pavilions offered intensive sensory immersion: Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho’s futuristic sci-fi projections for the Korean Pavilion, The Ways of Folding & Flying which inverted the building’s exterior membrane into an extended screening site; Chiharu Shiota’s astonishingly beautiful and popular installation, The Key in the Hand for Japan; and BGL’s hyper-excessive accumulative installation for Canada which combines humour and repetition with an extravagant use of ordinary materials.
The United States Pavilion deserved its long queues at the Vernissage with a marvellously resolved, inventive and moving series of installations, projections, assemblages and performances. They Come to Us without a Word by the 78-year-old Joan Jonas examines rhythms of ritual and the authority of objects and gestures.
Australia celebrated its new $7.5 million black box in the Giardini (opened by Cate Blanchett and the Minister for the Arts George Brandis), which was designed by respected Melbourne architectural firm DCM and primarily funded from private sources. In the new space over 1300 works comprised Fiona Hall’s vast and manifold walk-in cabinet of curiosities, Wrong Way Time in the new space, a project that continued the artist’s intensive investigation of our fragile natural environment and what she calls ‘the madness, badness and sadness’ of today. Just days after this two-fold achievement, the head of the Australia Council, who successfully managed and fundraised for the new pavilion project, was informed by the Arts Minister of an immediate reduction of near $105 million from its annual budget (amounting to around a 50% cut) to be transferred for distribution to the arts from the Minister’s own office . . . interesting times
Over to the Arsenale, the Byzantine-style enclave of former shipyards and armouries, where the long pathway to the left of the Corderie was draped in mammoth, dark-stained hessian coal sacks in a work that addresses supply and demand of raw commodities, exchange and value by Ibrahim Mahama, one of 12 African artists in the Central Pavilion. Enwezor’s Central Pavilion in this site was less carefully articulated and is wrought as a rather disorientating assortment of cubicles that both gave little room for work to breathe and offered a platform for unexpected synergies. That being said and noted by many people during the Vernissage, there are certainly spacious and powerful moments such as Katharina Grosse’s vast painterly dystopian installation Untitled Trumpet; the mercurial Qiu Zhijie’s room of objects of wonder, Chris Ofili’s chapel-like space of painted walls and works (that is a microcosm of his New Museum solo exhibition of 2014) and a superb room containing a suspended canopy of tiny scrolling video portraits by the brilliant Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman accompanied by the late Chris Marker’s seminal PASSENGERS featuring 134 photographs taken in the Paris Métro.
Unexpected highlights for me were Argentinean artist Mika Rottenberg, whose work comprises literally thousands and thousands of pearls and a quirky video, projected in a too-tiny room; and the fascinating multi-channel video by Melbourne duo Sonia Leber and David Chesworth, whose Zaum Tractor explores the early 20th-century Futurist language Zaum and was filmed among the retro-modernist political architecture of regional Russia.
The final work in the Arsenale’s Central Pavilion is Rirkrit Tirivanija’s absorbing on-site brick-making workshop project, recast from its original presentation in Beijing. The politics of labour, its market and value systems play a key role throughout this exhibition.
I am reminded of Nietzsche’s remark; ‘We have art in order not to die of the truth.’ The Central Pavilion exists as a ferment of art and ideology that addresses the precarious, messy, poignant, overwhelming, beautiful, treacherous and hopeful world in which we live today.
It is always rather confusing at this point in the Arsenale as it’s unclear where country pavilions begin and the Central Pavilion ends, especially given that the spaces shift every year. This year there is considerably more space for country pavilions with more sites located in the Arsenale, such as that used by Charles Lim Ye Long’s strong installation for Singapore in a newly renovated space. Elsewhere, Voyage Trokomod is a strong work by the always impressive Heri Dono for Indonesia; it is a commentary on Western hegemonies and post-colonialism, which merges a Trojan horse with the komodo dragon. Two rather over-produced offerings represent Italy and China.
Tumbling out of the dark corridor spaces of the Central Pavilion one enters a small room inhabited by cage-like sculptures – Speculating on the Blue by Flaka Haliti for Kosovo. Then the mood shifts dramatically as one enters a disarmingly misty and cool watery space: the Tuvalu Pavilion. Crossing the Tide by Taiwanese artist Vincent Huang offers a sublime and potent meditation on the effects climate change is having on Pacific communities; in this work only sea and mist exist and the walkway sinks disconcertingly underfoot.
Unusually, the Central Pavilion resumes in the farthest reaches of the garden at the rear of the Arsenale with an open and expanding invitational performance space metres from the water organised by Lemi Ponifasio from MAU, the only artist from Aotearoa to participate in the Central Pavilion. Installed nearby is a beautiful sound installation by Emeka Ogboh in a tiny historical octagonal building. Also in the garden is a charming, vividly coloured open-air library by Australian Emily Floyd, who continues her examinations of contemporary manifestos and socially-minded cooperative action; and a delicately hewn garden installation by Sarah Sze (who consumed the US Pavilion in 2013), which requires attentive visual detective work to reap its subtle rewards.
Yet the Venice Biennale is much more than the Central Pavilion. Beyond the Giardini and the Arsenale lie a wealth of country pavilions, official ‘Collateral’ projects and unofficial art events. Simon Denny’s SECRET POWER in the New Zealand Pavilion is located smack-bang in the middle of San Marco, in a space that has not previously been used for this purpose – the astonishingly beautiful and historically important Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (National Library of St Mark’s). The library is one of the oldest surviving public manuscript depositories in Italy, holding one of the greatest collections of classical texts in the world. Its establishment is a story of political negotiation, power and passion for knowledge. Its founding gift, in 1468, came from the Byzantine humanist scholar, patron and collector, Cardinal Bessarion. Bessarion was an illustrious Greek scholar who contributed to the revival of learning and international exchange in the 15th century. It is also home to a spellbinding array of ceiling paintings by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, whose content speculates on the acquisition of knowledge. Denny’s intensively researched project has at its core the 2013 PowerPoint released by Edward Snowden and examines, particularly, the Five Eyes Alliance (United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). These congested cabinets of faux reliquiae from the visualisation – adopted by and circulating within the current information economy – offers an investigation of the shared disquiet concerning information, knowledge and public and private realms. An article in the Guardian discusses Denny’s investigation of how the National Security Agency (NSA) used images to communicate its methods internally and looks at the way this forms the basis of his investigation. The project is expanded with an installation at Marco Polo Airport where Denny recasts the elaborate ceiling paintings from the Biblioteca Nazionale onto the floor, literally inviting visitors to walk through history. One of the aspects that I found so intriguing about this obsessively interrogative project is its blatant yet dispassionate contemporaneousness, its investigation of the agency of current new modes of aesthetic language invented by the information economy for its own purposes. Daniel Birnbaum homes in on this aspect of the work in his Art Newspaper commentary, one of many more sympathetic and less hostile reviews published a month or so after the opening.
‘I have never seen contemporary paranoia and conspiracy theory so perfectly packaged. We speak loosely about “contemporary” art, but Denny’s contribution is perhaps the only work fully worthy of that evasive term.’ ‘Venice Verdicts’, The Art Newspaper no 269, June 2015, p 88.
The Philippines Pavilion was curated by Patrick D Flores and is presented among an accumulation of exhibitions at the European Cultural Centre, Palazzo Mora. It was a pleasure to see Jose Tence Ruiz’s effusive work again as well as a thoughtful multi-screen work by Manny Montelibano. Elsewhere Jump into the Unknown continues the Nine Dragon Heads project that originated in South Korea in 1995 and is project co-managed by New Zealander Ali Bramwell (who also exhibits). Dansaekhwa is a highly satisfying Collateral exhibition showcasing artists alongside a partner solo exhibition of seminal painter and sculptor Lee Ufan . The Dansaekhwa (single-colour) modern movement from 1970s–80s in South Korea links with, although differs from, the Japanese Mona-ha movement.
Across the water at the Magazzini Del Sale, where Brett Graham and Rachael Rakena installed their project Aniwaniwa in 2007 as a Collateral Event, is AES&F’s 001 Inverso Mundus (Inverted World). Inverso Mundus weaves images of baroque opulence, medieval ideograms and illustrative references, alongside faux torture devices, mysticism and commentaries on current disparities of wealth distribution into a metaphoric fiction of painterly and digital carnivàle.
Historical exhibitions on offer include the excellent Rousseau show in Palazzo Ducale and the Nuovo Oggetivita (New Objectivity – Modern German Art in the Wiemar Republic 1919–1933) at Museo Correr in association with LACMA, an impressive exhibition which examines the volatile artistic output during a potent time of enormous political and social upheaval, alienation and experimentation that challenged sociological and sexual norms.
I will end with a note of admiration for the Museo Fortuny at Palazzo Fortuny, which is entirely independent of the Biennale. The current exhibition Proportio (Proportion) continues the tone set by the game-changing Artempo. Where time becomes Art in 2007. A major source of inspiration for David Walsh’s MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) in Hobart. The recent exhibitions crafted under at Museo Fortuny induce an intoxicating air of contemplation, time-shifting and regardful looking. Three floors of the Palazzo Fortuny are inhabited by architectural models, drawings, furniture, ceramics, historic and contemporary art works, textiles, silver bowls, Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo’s own sumptuous scenographic murals along with lingering soundscapes from discretely placed time-based works. This inspired constellation of human production spans time, material form and intentionality.
It is 120 years since the first Art Exhibition was launched in Venice as a gesture of civic aspiration, the 2015 iteration hosts 89 participating countries – 29 in the Country Pavilions in the Giardini, 31 in the Country Pavilions in the Arsenale, and the rest scattered throughout Venice – as well as 44 Collateral events by non-profit organisations accepted by the curator. I have outlined one personal take on this enormous enterprise; anyone who visits the 56th Venice International Art Biennale will encounter an abundance of concerns, sensibilities and experiences. There are multiple worlds on offer in Venice, you choose.
All photos by the author