The 57th Biennale di Venezia – was curated by the recently appointed director of the Centre Pompidou, Paris, Christine Macel. Optimistically titled VIVA ARTE VIVA, this Olympian presentation of art proposes “an alternative to individualism and indifference… designed with artists, by artists, and for artists. It includes 85 National Pavilions located in the Giardini, the Arsenale, and dotted around the city of Venice like the first Antigua and Barbuda Pavilion in Fontamenta Nani, in addition to 23 official collateral events like “Ataraxia” at the Salon Suisse, and “Future Generations Art Prize” at the Palazzo Contarini Polignac.
At its heart is Macel’s “global” exhibition, which unfolds spectacularly across nine “chapters” in approximately 20,000 square meters of exhibitions space between the Curator’s Pavilion at the Giardini to the Giardino delle Vergini in the Arsenale. Elegantly
“Going to Venice should be like going closer to society… like a microscope: you can see cultures in more detail, and what it means to be a part of the times.” – Olafur Eliasson
following her curatorial threads, it showcases 120 international artists, with many immersive and theatrical site-specific installations that include a central woven tent “A Sacred Place” by Ernesto Neto, and a wall crammed with bails of naturally pigmented fibre “Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands” by Sheila Hicks. These are realms of “dreams and utopias” and to walk its length is an art Odyssey.
The first two introductory realms, Pavilion of Artists and Books and Pavilion of Joys and Fears, begin at the Central Pavilion and open with “The Green Light Project,” brainchild of Olafur Eliasson in collaboration with Vienna-based TBA21. In this living studio space, 40 migrants from different backgrounds work together to create Eliasson’s geometric green light design out of sustainable materials. It is both a work of art that shapes its environment (through modular structures) and a conversation, one that proposes to find solutions in the process of working together.
“Going to Venice should be like going closer to society… like a microscope: you can see cultures in more detail, and what it means to be a part of the times. When I was working in Vienna in 2015, migration increased dramatically in Europe, and it became very clear that the EU would not come up with an adequate response.“The Green Light Project” is very much about the artistic process… about the space between thinking and doing.” says Eliasson in a video for Designboom.
In this sense, everyone brings their own cultural conversation to La Biennale. There are dozens of satellite exhibitions like the Diaspora Pavilion featuring Yinka Shonibare’s library (Palazzo Pisano Santa Marina), the Pavilion of Humanity featuring Trump’s tie on a gun by Michal Cole, Glasstress (Palazzo Franchetti) with Ai WeiWei’s chandelier of revolt and Karen Lamonte’s voluptuous draped figures, and Axel Vervoort’s sensationally low lit “Intuition” at the Palazzo Fortuny anchored with heavyweight seminal works including Basquiat.
With such a colossal amount of art to look at, triage becomes obligatory. Everyone asks each other “what’s your favourite?” and somehow the repetition of this question draws you into a deeper one, namely “what’s your culture?” What you like best might be determined by where you come from, rather than where you belong. So with a full disclosure of my Irish Hungarian working in London bias, here is a gallop through some highlights of La Biennale di Venezia:
BRITISH PAVILION “folly” Phyllida Barlow JAPANESE PAVILION “Upside down, it’s a Forest” Takahiro Wasaki
Begin at the Giardini and queue for the most popular pavilions first. Start with Phyllida Barlow’s “folly” at the British Pavilion, a tonic to Hirst’s monumental “fakery” project which opened at the Palazzo Gritti “Treasures from the wreck of the Unbelievable.” Barlow, one of the many artists represented by Hauser and Wirth at La Biennale, has a collateral show this summer at Turner Contemporary’s ‘ARTIST ROOMS’ in Margate . Known for her temporary, speedy constructions, she whipped up a colossal set of monolithic shapes (using industrial materials like scrim, polystyrene, cement, timber, and bonding plaster) splashed with red, yellow and pink paint. It feels like walking into the backside of a fantastical opera set; gargantuan structures jam, jut and clutter the pavilion’s rooms. Nicholas Serota, Anthony Gormley, Richard Wentworth, and Andy Goldsworthy were amongst the adulating crowd for the British Council’s opening ceremony, but on the fringes, the international press and curators guffawed. “It’s like someone walking past you in a gallery and letting rip an explosive fart!” I overheard. For some, it would seem national context is key to appreciating the British Pavilion.
For French Pavilion Studio Venezia by Xavier Veilhan, or Anne Imhof’s award winning production for the German Pavilion on either side you must adhere to the performance times, so get in line for the Japanese Pavilion. “Turned upside down, it’s a forest” by Takahiro Wasaki is a work that surprises the screen conditioned mind by asking you to physically breach the divide between the work and the viewer. It’s like sticking your head into an Ian Banks novel; wonder is followed by discomfort as those in the pavilion above peer down at you. Stand the heat of their gaze, and you will notice the furry outline of a miniature forest circling the opening’s rim. This is a work that hinges on voyeurism, mentally flipping you onto either side, through the strangeness of being seen. It also echoes Imhof’s performance, which banks an uncomfortable national history then asserts a paradigm shift by shocking the audience into active participation (there are two caged Doberman dogs in the German Pavilion).
Prepare to be delighted by the monochromatic shadow play at the Russian Pavilion, Theatrum Orbis curated by Semyon Mikhailovsky, with Grisha Brushkin, Sasha Pirogova and Recycle Group. Further on is Women of Venice at the Swiss Pavilion. Their collateral series of talks “Salon Suisse” at Palazzo Trevisan hosted by Koyo Kouoh – founding artistic director for RAW the curator for 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London and New York – is seriously thought provoking. Kuooh is a cultural maverick. She provided a “global voice” amidst these national heavyweights, and gave it a name: ATARAXIA. Her vision is to “investigate how best to reconcile such feelings of disenchantment with the aim of mobilising these conditions into … spirited forms of response.” Her ambitious discursive framework ATARAXIA is inspired by Roland Barthe’s collection of essays
“Mythologies” (1957).It became clear that the cultural thread I was following was about the activation of response.
With this in mind, get in line for Mark Bradford’s epic triumph “Tomorrow is Another Day” at the United States of America Pavilion, curated by Christopher Bedford and Katy Siegel
from the Baltimore Museum of Art. Beginning with a gargantuan heel that swamps the first room (possibly Bradford putting his foot down), he takes you through a perfectly sequenced group of works including monumental paintings, sculptures, installations, film and finishes with a poem. It is blinding. Bradford sequesters a vast range of media including hairdressing materials from his mother’s salon, highlighting the inherently social nature of our material world. This exhibition is a testament to his long-term commitment to giving voice/space to those on the margins – showing both their vulnerability and resilience. The final room shows a short film on repeat that will stop you in your tracks. A young boy in yellow shorts walks away from the camera, down a road with a gradient that acts as a Trompe-l’œil. “In my mind, I am trying to figure out whether he is moving forward or not, whilst I am standing still, and just as I start to want to move I see he is moving. It made me feel what progress is, how you have to keep going,” said Anne Jonas, the Private Secretary to the Governor-General of Antigua. To anyone wondering where the “other” voices were in the Giardini – Bradford towers like Bolt with his Olympian creativity and boundless universality.
Make good use of your time in the queue by taking turns to explore the Israeli Pavilion “Sun Stand Still” by Gal Weinstein. A total sensory experience, it is both deliciously musky and repulsive. Somehow this encapsulates our morbid and fascination with destruction, and Weinstein’s longtime fascination with our desire to stop time. Then head over the bridge directly to the Romanian Pavilion. Here you will find the recreated studio of polymath Geta Brătescu. “Apparitions” curated by Magda Radu, is a sensitive and timely retrospective of Romania’s leading female artist who worked during Ceaușescu’s reign of terror in the 1960s. Laid out in thematic clusters, this exhibition attempts to mirror how Brătescu came to see her studio as both a physical space and a meta-artistic entity. It achieves this by showing the complete range of her vision and then pulling it all into focus with a seminal work (self-portrait): her hands central forms of investigation and tools of creation.
Head to the Arsenale where you can complete Macel’s epic Viva Art Viva across the seven remaining Trans-Pavilions. Julian Charriere’s “Future Fossils Spaces” created out of lithium- brine in acrylic containers, was otherworldly. It highlights questions of future legacies, energy, and what traces of humanity we leave behind. This filmic installation by Thu Van Tran “In the fall, on the Rise” is set of works in a host of different media inspired by the rubber plant, and question the way we use and abuse it as a material. Pause for ice-cream before taking in the remaining national pavilions. Highlights include the Argentinian Pavilion, Singapore Pavilion, and getting my “Freesa” and the Tunisian Pavilion.
If there is one national pavilion you must not miss it is the first Antigua and Barbuda Pavilion in Dorsoduro, across the Academia bridge and to the right of Philip Guston and the poets. The story of how this show “The Last Universal Man” came to be in Venice is a feature in its own right (see interview with curator Barbara Paca). It begins with an encounter between beautiful minds, at that crucial moment when one was on the brink of disappearing. Barbara Paca first met Frank Walter through one of his paintings, on the wall of a friend’s house. Struck by its unique signature and powerful motifs she asked after the artist and was told Frank Walter was dead. That afternoon, by sheer coincidence and a distant likeness for his “pink skinned” relative, Paca was introduced to the reclusive genius living
in solitude on the top of a hill in a wind struck house. “It was a still life: a meta-space arranged methodically which included rain stained letters, stacks of handmade frames, paintings… everything in its place with a
So powerful was their first meeting that 12 years and two books later, Walter became the catalyst for Paca to establish the first Antigua and Barbuda Pavilion at La Biennale. Through a selection of his paintings, writings, sculpture, audio recordings and writings, this exhibition invites visitors to inhabit the creative world and discover the humanist vision of this now seminal Caribbean artist Frank Walter.
Now that you have done the legwork, this is the day to explore the fringes of La Biennale
GLASSTRESS 2017 – Ai Weiwei Future Generations Art Prize and Karen Lamonte Njideka Akunvili Crosby
Glasstress 2017, Palazzo Franchetti
This exhibition is magical, wondrous and subtly profane. All the fragile and light refracting qualities of glass, so relevant to Venice through its connection to Murano, are sequestered by a punchy line up of artists who never shy away from of socio/politico statements. The works include Ai Weiwei’s title “finger”, Tony Gragg’s enormous “but plugs” and the delightful Karen Lamonte whose voluptuous translucent figures present an alternative and very seductive perspective on the female form. She also spends a lot of time chasing clouds, and her outdoor anchor work
Future Generations Art Prize, Palazzo Contarini Polignac
Showcasing the winner and shortlisted works for this 2017 prize throughout this Palazzo, Akunyili Crosby’s vibrant painting, replete with her signature Nigerian batik fabric, hung in a room of its own, stole the show. She is represented by Victoria Miro Gallery, who have just opened a little gem of a gallery off San Marco in Venice with Chris Ofili’s “Poolside Magic.”
Diaspora Pavilion, Palazzo Pisani Santa Marina
Off the beaten track in Dorsoduro, this exhibition is really worth getting lost in Venice for – and somehow befitting with the notion of diaspora. Enter through a golden curtain to discover floating ships – a recurring motif across Venice now so threatened by cruise ships and rising sea levels. Head up to Yinka Shonibare MBE’s sensational library – a library full of books covered in his signature Nigerian batik written by immigrants. When I asked him how he chose them he replied, “Immigrants mostly, and then a few anti-immigration authors thrown into the mix like bad apples… but I am not telling you where they are.”
WOVEN FORMS, Palazzo Benzon, Lluis Lleo
My serendipitous discovery of this show had a lasting impact. Inside artists were commissioned to create unique designs for r- and-company.com by considering the form, material and process of rug making. Including Wendell Castle, Hun Chung, and Katie Stout, LLuis Lleo, the New York-based artist from Barcelona who just unveiled a series of monumental outdoor frescoes on Park Avenue, had created two rugs. Like magic carpets, each was invested with his signature fresco painting style, one that bleeds colour and gives form lightness.
INTUITION, Palazzo Fortuny, Axel and May Vervoort Foundation
Save this show for last – it is completely brilliant in concept, installation and content. In many ways a contrast to Macel’s bright optimism in VIVA ARTE VIVA, this show is deeply brooding. With low lit lights, this encounter with seminal works that include Jean-Michel Basquiat, Theirry de Cordier, Willem de Kooning, Anish Kapoor, and Marina Abramovich is thrilling. Exhausted I entered a darkened room on the second floor and sat before Susan Morris’s “Motion capture drawing (ERSD) – View from Above”, 2012, and cried my heart out. Moved beyond words it was time to go home.
Jean-Michel Basquiat “Versus Medici
Words: Nico Kos Earle Photos: Nico Kos Earle and Artlyst