Venice Biennale ‘Viva Arte Viva’

Every time I go to the Biennale, I have this overwhelming feeling of visiting 10 exhibitions in one go – an enormous mental (and physical) effort. It is as if the global contemporary art scene remained dormant for 24 months, and then, all of a sudden, exploded with uncontrollable power before the world’s eyes.

Given the sheer volume of the display (10 rooms in the Arsenale, 43 rooms in the Central Pavilion, 30 national Pavilions in the Giardini, plus the collateral events scattered around the city), it’s virtually impossible to give a comprehensive overview of the Biennale. I’m attempting here to give a few remarks of my experience and enjoyment of this year’s Biennale, themed “Viva Arte Viva” (13.05.17 – 26.11.17)

I thought the Arsenale was particularly inspired and cohesive this year. Arranged by sub-pavilions (Pavilion of the Common, of the Earth, of Traditions, of Shamans, of Colours, and so on), it gently tamed the tangle of contemporary art with a thematic approach. The first artwork to grab my attention was Lee Mingwei’s ‘The Mending Project’, in front of which people were literally queuing to take pictures. While I’m not normally a fan of the touristy “snap-and-go” approach, I have to admit I could see their point. The work was made of a pile of well-folded clothes, from which a thousand threads originated and led to the nearby walls. The whole was visually appealing and colourful, intricate and orderly at the same time.


Lee Mingwei, ‘The Mending Project’

But then again, you simply cannot stop at every single artwork, can you? I decided to focus on the ones I felt attracted to. Among them was ‘The Tyranny of Conscientiousness’ (Charles Atlas), a panel showcasing different skies at different times of the day, which struck by their impressive palette. Inevitably, the work reminded me of Horace’s caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt (Epistles, 1.11.27): we are all under the same sky after all, but (I would add) it’s utterly beautiful.


Charles Atlas, ‘The Tyranny of Conscientiousness’

Surprisingly enough, in the Pavilion of Traditions, the much-anticipated installation by Garbiel Orozco (‘Visible labor’) and Francis Upritchard’s sculptures left me a bit disappointed. For different reasons, the artworks failed to engage me, and I felt no particular thrill as I browsed Orozco’s beams and small objects, and Upritchard’s distorted human figures.

Moving on, the Dionysian Pavilion proved hugely fascinating. The name left me a bit perplexed, as it was supposed to indicate that the pavilion featured only the work of female artists. It’s slightly reductive to associate the “Dionysian” with women alone, as the anthropological concept can embrace so much more (ecstasy, music, the chthonic, the excessive, the obscure). Indeed, there can be – and in the Pavilion there were – Apollonian women. The most interesting piece in this respect was Maha Malluh’s ‘Food for Thought’, a rational display of audio-cassettes on bread trays. What I loved about this artwork was its cultural implication. Bread trays are the quintessentially female bread-making tool in Saudi Arabia, and they were here loaded with cassettes of Muslim rules recited by the muezzins. Malluh, one of the first female artists to have their work exhibited in Saudi Arabia, shows what it means to be a woman with grace, determination, and transparency – all of which are Apollonian qualities.


Maha Malluh, ‘Food for Thought’

The Arsenale continues with what a room that seemed devised specifically for chromo-enthusiasts like me, the Pavilion of Colours. A real firework of energy, the works in this section were a brilliantly tangible proof that art can (and should) be concerned with aesthetics, and not just with meaning and thought-provoking-ness. Amidst the feast of joy and hedonism, what fed my eagerness for colours was Nancy Shaver’s ‘Standardisation, Variation and the Idiosyncratic’, a vibrant series of ready-mades coming from charity shops.


Nancy Shaver, ‘Standardisation, Variation and the Idiosyncratic’

Closing the Arsenale was the Pavilion of Time and Infinity, where art takes the visitors beyond the “here and now”, reflecting on past and future. Lilliana Porter’s ‘Man With Axe’ was an arresting portray of (un)civilisation, fleshing out the circle of destruction and the place of mankind within it. A small man is shown as destroying a series of objects, which grow bigger and bigger, until it becomes clear that they go beyond the scope of his destructive action. He might just be toying around with what are in fact the ruins produced by someone else, by something bigger. “What is the impact of our actions here on earth, as a society but also as individuals?” the artist seems to wonder.


Lilliana Porter, ‘Man With Axe’

Just as mind-blowing was Polish artist Alicia Kwade, with her ‘Pars pro Toto’ (gotta love a lofty Latin title), a sculpture installation consisting of planets emitting tantalising, pulsing sounds. They were displayed outdoors, in the Giardino delle Vergini, just outside the Arsenale, which I thought was the best location for such a mind-opening work.

In the Giardini proper, the National Pavilions were a bit pale compared to the Arsenale. A few of them struck me as uninspired, at times simply trying to be gimmicky, rather than revelatory or stimulating in any way. Art felt a lot more like a display of power, and the effort to impress the audience was sometimes blatantly obvious.

Nevertheless, as I went around, stopping here and there, following both the Corriere della Sera‘s recommendations and my personal fancy, I found some genuinely fascinating gems. The South Korean Pavilion, for instance, was worth visiting just for the room packed with clocks going at different speeds, each of them complemented with a name and a date. The installation, ‘Proper Time’, by Lee Wan is a tangible proof that reading the artist’s notes is extremely worthwhile. The guide reads: “each clock moves at a different rate that is determined by the amount of time the individual in question must work in order to afford a meal”. Inequality and our shared human condition are here eloquently encapsulated in a powerful experience.

Some countries decided to dedicate the whole Pavilion to one artist only, with mixed results. In the UK Pavilion, I found the enormous sculptures by Phyllida Barlow difficult to engage with, while Romanian artist Geta Bratescu did a great job in her solo-display, which was lively and multifaceted. Other countries went for the experience, from the music-driven French Pavilion (a warm wooden space, filled with sensuality and charming clumsiness) to the participatory nature of the art by Austrian artist Erwin Wurm: please, do sit on the artworks!


Geta Bratescu, Series of collages from the Romanian Pavilion

The best experience, however, was the one offered by the Japanese Pavilion. After a short queue, the visitors ascended some stairs and popped their head out of a rather narrow hole. What opened before their eyes was the landscape from the perspective of the sea, dominated primarily by an ink-coloured oil slick. The immersive (quite literally) experience was then counter-balanced by a visit to the actual pavilion, having the chance to see the artworks from a more canonical perspective. The works by Iwasaki play with the notions of micro and macro, spanning from minute attention to detail to large-scale pieces.


Takahiro Iwasaki, ‘Out of Disorder’ (Mountains and Sea) from the Japanese Pavilion © Inexhibit

As it’s always the case, some nations were less memorable (e.g. Russia, Australia, USA, Israel, Egypt, Spain), but I was almost grateful to the pavilions that weren’t exactly mind-blowing: a bit of rest here and there. I was not entirely convinced by the tragedy-inspired narrative ‘Laboratory of Dilemmas’, in the Greek Pavilion. It was rather difficult to follow, and perhaps too ambitious for an contemporary art display, though it would have made a great theatre pièce. But that was nothing compared to the Venetian Pavilion, centred on the theme ‘Luxus’ (luxury). An ostentatious celebration of the most stereotypical aspects of Venice, the showcase was tacky, touristy, and almost embarrassing. Indeed, what art should not be.

My final destination was the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, again dominated by a thematic approach, which proved once again a winning point – the best way to control artistic diversity. The two main sections here were the Pavilion of Artists and Books, and the Pavilion of Joys and Fears.  By and large, the dichotomy worked, even though at times some sub-themes verge onto the banal (e.g. the trite pair otium vs. negotium).


John Latham, Installation in the ‘Pavilion of Artists and Books’

It was great to see a lot of paintings, testifying that painting is alive and well. Paintings were especially prominent in the ‘Joys and Fears’ section, which to my mind backs up the emotional charge of the painted medium, and its capacity for capturing inner motions. As I made my way out of the Giardini, round about the closing time (6pm), I was grateful to the Biennale for the richness of the material displayed. In many different ways, what is clear is that art is indeed ‘viva’ (alive), and we should not for a moment stop having faith in its power.


All pictures taken by the author, unless otherwise stated.



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