The 57th Venice Biennale offers a topical fusion of fake fun and tough tension. Whereas the 85 national pavilions, spinning out of the original 19th century Giardini into the Arsenale and Palazzos all share a mood of reflective anxiety, the central pavilion lives up to its title: ‘Viva Arte Viva!’ Its curator Christine Macel declares that ‘the artistic act in contemporaneity is an act of resistance’ yet her selection rather suggests acts of compliance to the art world mode for relational aesthetics. It lacks the politicised rigour of the previous curation by Okhui Enwezor, criticised for its stress on activist art.
After the thrill of the joint Indo-Pak pavilion in 2015, this Biennale presents no pavilion from either nations and only three artists from South Asian origins: Rasheed Araeen, Rina Banerjee and Shezad Dawood, all of whom are diasporan. What is not happening in the exchange between the West and the South Asian art world?
In spite of Alfredo Jaar’s hilarious mechanical maquette drowning the Giardini in 2013, the formidable trio of colonial hegemony — Britain, France and Germany — still dominate the lay out, with the US further down and Russia in between. Most of these powerhouses surprise by the force of their anti-capitalist, geo-political subtexts referring to the current refugee crisis.
Only France, with Xavier Veilhan, manages to appear coolly distant by building the prefect recording studio, a refuge where musicians can experiment, away from the noisy outside world that, paradoxically, John Cage would have loved, as does Mark Bradford in the US pavilion. Outside ‘Tomorrow is Another Day,’ litter decorates piled up gravel outside the blocked main entrance, forcing the viewer to enter a side door and circumnavigate a suspended hulk of a painting before moving towards a dilapidated grotto. All is layered with detritus and black paper, like a palimpsest of ruins. Bradford’s energetic spiel claims his subject to be cellular change, the vulnerability of the micro individual to the instability of the macro state.
Officially called Viva Arte Viva, the 57th Venice Biennale is too bland for the post-Brexit and post-Trump world
A similar scenography of decay frames Phyllida Barlow’s ‘Folly’ — the British pavilion whose six rooms are filled to the roof with cardboard, plaster, wire-mesh and wooden slats — rubbish in the guise of Shakespearian theatre sets. Whispers of Gormenghast and Gothic horrors are ominous, yet the echo of melancholy is countered by the cheeky bravado of her pieces, wild in scale and imagination, pushing Arte Povera to an absurdist level.
The Russian pavilion, ‘Theatrum Orbis’ is heavy with hints of permanent surveillance, performed through versatile animation and video. The Canadian pavilion blows itself up into a huge fountain with a complex story that is hard to grasp but comical to witness. A light relief after the distressing German pavilion next door that won the Golden Bear Award for its chilling performance by Anne Imhof and company. Expressionless figures inter-writhe like trapped animals under a glass floor. This destabilised viewer recalled the literally ground-breaking act in 1993 by Hans Haacke who smashed the original floor of the pavilion built by the Nazis in 1938.
Radical postcolonial critique by aboriginal artists pervade two outstanding pavilions: Australia shows Tracey Moffatt’s compelling photography and New Zealand has with Lisa Reihana’s ‘Emissaries’, a stunning panoramic film. Strong documentaries on cultural identity by Candice Breitz illuminate the South African pavilion. Singapore shows Zai Kuning’s magnificent recreation of a seventh century vessel as a symbol of the forgotten Malay ancestry and history.
The Chilean pavilion artist Oyarzun shows ‘Werken’ with 1,500 Mapuche masks made by indigenous artisans as symbols of their public exclusion, at once threatening and moving. The South Korean pavilion artist Lee Wan’s ‘Proper Time’ has walls of national clocks whose second hands indicate the time taken for a local worker to earn the cost of a family breakfast.
Counteracting gloom with irony, the Tunisian pavilion issues a universal travel document called Freesa in exchange for a thumb-print, the UAE pavilion’s theme of playfulness includes Lantian Xie’s ‘Taxidermy Peacock Hidden on the Beams.’
Samson Young in the Hong Kong pavilion exposes ‘Songs for Disaster Relief’ a sound installation fusing kitsch objects, fake news and fictional autobiography in an acerbic perspective on ‘crisis commodification’. The Spanish pavilion’s video and sculpture installation by Jordi Colomer charts the exuberant shifts of a ‘collective movement that reclaims nomadism as a citizenry system’, encouraging viewers to participate in a re-imagination of alternative citizenship.
Matching such lighter, yet provocative perspectives are Rasheed Araeen’s interactive ‘Zero to Infinity,’ fabulously florid minimalist boxes-of- tricks, and the witty works in mixed media by women artists such as Francis Upritchard, Rina Banerjee, Huguette Caland, Maha Malluh, Alicja Kwade, Cynthia Gutierrez and Teresa Lancela. Amongst the more mature feminist artists, three stand out: the 91-year-old Romanian artist Geta Bratescu for her reflection on female subjectivity, the 97-year-old American performance artist Anna Halprin, and the 73-year-old Afro-American artist Senga Nengudi for her comically erotic sculptures.
‘Leviathan, An Episodic Narrative’ by Shezad Dawood is a collateral project addressing issues of marine welfare, migration and mental health through a 10-part film cycle. Together with the first two video episodes are resin sculptures referring to the whale as the beast of the state, inspired by Swift’s response to Hobbes’ Leviathan, and a suite of suspended paintings on Fortuny fabric that depict objects lost at sea by migrants. These were fascinating and disturbing. Sited in the gracious Palazzina Canonica, formerly HQ of the Institute of Marine Sciences, it also programmed a series of talks, available through the web platform, by scientists, psychologists and forensic anthropologists reflecting on the effects of climate erosion and trauma in the current humanitarian crisis. All 10 episodes, filmed across diverse venues, will be presented by 2020. An ambitious collaborative project on a whale-sized scale of imagination and funding, worthy of the Biennale spirit that will hopefully inform Pakistan’s first home-made sessions in 2018.
Dr Virginia Whiles is an art historian, critic and curator
The 57th International Art Exhibition, titled “Viva Arte Viva” is displayed at the Giardini and the Arsenale venues in Venice from May 13 to November 26, 2017
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 25th, 2017