This month I visited the Venice Biennale for the first time, traveling with my son, Ray. We took in as much art as we could find, got magnificently lost, feasted on fresh seafood and pizza, sipped spritz cocktails, and watched the theater of the street (art historians could be spotted in yellow patent leather shoes and ironic eyewear).
With nearly 140 artists from 53 countries and sites spread all over the city and beyond, the Venice Biennale is impossible to comprehensively take in. This was particularly true of the central pavilion at the Giardini. The curator of this year’s Biennale, Okwui Enwezor, organized the exhibition around a wide interpretation of the theme All the World’s Futures. A Marxist critique of capital was one through line in the show (with live readings of Das Kapital throughout the 7 months of the exhibition), and we were pleased to discover abundant work that engaged the theme without being heavy handed.
The most effective work in the Biennale was smart and playful; the work that fell flat was redundant and overly self-conscious. There were a few “experimental” video installations that filled galleries with irritating, repetitive image and sound. I will happily work for a rich viewing experience, but there are abrasive approaches to video which have been fully played out of the last 2 decades and aren’t worth the investment. I’ve reached a similar conclusion with work that engages the body in a way that’s redundant or empty. In the British pavilion, for example, I found Sarah Lucas’ installation of truncated figures with cigarettes sticking into various orifices to be tedious, signifying a thin rebellion against nothing. The walls of the pavilion were painted custard yellow, and in addition to the plaster cast figures, there were high gloss black and yellow sculptures made of resin–stretched and lumpy phalluses, balls, tits, and legs. I thought of Louise Bourgeois’ fabric sculptures of similar forms–powerful pieces that still make me uncomfortable, though I’ve seen them many times. Relative to that kind of power to create pause in a viewer, Lucas’ work seemed more like posing.
Some of the installation work offered an assault of visual information without solid conceptual linkage, though the excessive mess of the Canadian pavilion was perfectly suited to its content. There was a playful sense of nostalgia and critique in the work, and we laughed as we made discoveries in each room. Ray said, “This is just like the Canadians,” and there was something particularly Canadian about that deadpan humor!
The Swiss pavilion was an example of how brilliant an installation can be with only a few elements, in this case pervasive green light and large pool of rippling Caucasian-flesh-colored water. Pamela Rosenkranz’ piece, Our Product, was one of the strongest of the show, engaging with issues of colonialism, race, and environment without losing its visual poetry.
Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s French pavilion was another one of our favorites. Revolutions included 3 trees, “machine-nature hybrids,” moving slowly around on mobile root balls inside the pavilion and on the patio outside. They moved in time with their own metabolism, which was echoed by a sound environment; both were based on the flow of the trees’ sap and their sensitivity to light and shade. Inside, we were surprised to find an amphitheater of seats that appeared to be granite but were actually spongey, and after laughing at the discovery, it was a pleasure to relax on the cushions and spend some time with the installation.
The Russian pavilion featured a complex series of works by Irina Nakhova, referencing Venetian architecture and water, as well as Russian history. Among other things, the viewer was visually immersed in the history of Venice, in particular the city’s rich and complex relationship between water and the built environment.
Chiharu Shiota’s The Key in the Hand hummed with energy in the Chinese pavilion. Wooden boats filled the space, and each boat was obsessively strung up with red thread and keys. I had the thought that the piece was too obvious, but I was ultimately seduced; it’s a dynamite installation.
In the U.S. pavilion, Joan Jonas’ installation, They Come to Us Without a Word, takes the form of drawings, videos, and commissioned objects. The piece won us over slowly, as the narrative of the work built from room to room. Jonas managed to create a visual and conceptual logic where casual work of the hand (gestural drawings of bees, for example), masterworks of design (Murano chandeliers, among other objects), and narrative videos (children engaged in theatrical exercises, etc.) made sense–each element seemed increasingly necessary to the whole as more of the work came into view.
Experiencing Herman de Vries’ from earth: everywhere in the Dutch pavilion, was like walking into an architectural scale artist/naturalist’s sketchbook. Carefully selected data samples were installed around the expanse of the room, evoking work by Richard Long, among other earthworks artists.
There were many high points in the Arsenale galleries as well, and, as in the Giardini, contemporary work was successfully featured alongside key historical works. In the first room, we encountered Adel Abdessemed’s installation work, in the form of machete bushes, with Bruce Nauman’s classic 1983 neon, Human Nature/ Life Death/Knows Doesn’t Know.
The first hallway of the Arsenale was populated by Melvin Edwards’ powerful sculptures, which read simultaneously as masks, weapons, and agricultural tools–perfectly suited for the venue, considering its history.
One of Ray’s favorite discoveries was the hallway of drawings by Abu Bakarr Mansaray, the self taught Sierra Leone artist. I was elated to share the experience of the Biennial with Ray, and I saw the work differently because of his fresh insights.
Katharina Grosse’s Untitled Trumpet installation was low tech immersive. As we took in the room, I spotted a lizard darting into a hole in a mound of spray painted dirt and rock–a great viewing moment!
Theaster Gates installation Gone Are the Days of Shelter and Martyr is clean, concise, and hauntingly seductive. The piece at first appears to consist of slate wall/roof and a huge steel bell, yet one hears faint sound from behind the wall, and if courageous, the viewer braves edging around the bell (touching the art) to discover a hidden room with a video installation. The materials for the piece were relocated from Chicago–derelict scraps that found life reworked as art in Venice.
There are many other artists and works that deserve to be mentioned, including some excellent, relevant paintings. I will most likely revisit some of that work in future posts (as well as covering some running adventures!). Sitting on my couch back in Maine, it occurs to me that I’ve been reading about the Biennale for years, yet I could never picture how the the pavilions, main exhibitions, satellite shows, and rogue exhibits all fit together. Hopefully I’ll make it back to Venice, but in the meantime my understanding of how the work is installed in that magical city gives me a much greater ability to read and understand analysis from afar. And I have a week’s worth of time spent with my youngest son to reflect back on, which is the ultimate treasure!