It seems like a lifetime ago that Okwui Enwezor gave his dark, poetic, haunting and urgent vision of “All the World’s Futures,” in the 2015 Venice Biennale. Now the world’s futures are here in the form of nine “transpavilions” with titles that refer to a contemporary interest in creatives as mystics, which make up the main exhibition by Christine Macel. She said “The exhibition puts art and the artist first. Everything in the show has been deduced from this starting point.” Since her selection of 120 artists could not be placed into one box, she chose a celebration as the title: VIVA ARTE VIVA – long live art – it sounds like a toast, and it's an anti-theme. Sure, why not.
While Enwezor mounted a deeply intellectual and political exhibition for the Biennale (with readings of Marx) paired with works that directly addressed colonialism and crisis (of all kinds), Macel instead leads viewers on a journey “from interiority to infinity.” In the beginning is “the artist in their own sphere”— in the end is the whole universe. The key to it all seems to be a return to humanism, spirituality, post-neo-hippieism, Descartes, and ultimately “utopian stations” (recalling the legendary 2003 Biennale with the same name). That exhibition began with the words “Today the world is too dangerous for anything less than utopia.” This is truer than ever today. The good news – according to Robert Storr – is that many of the artists are unknown (at least to him) and 103 of the artists have never exhibited at the Venice Biennale before. To quote Storr, the best way to approach this exhibition is to “think with the senses, feel with the mind” – and use as much heart and emotion as intellect.
Pavilion of Artists and Books
We look forward to Dawn Kasper who moved her studio to Venice for six months, where we can literally see the artist at work. Also, the great Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei is working on a project in Venice for half a year. His practice expands the discourse of Relational Aesthetics beyond the Eurocentric view. In this first stop on Macel’s journey, we explore the materials artists use in their studio practice as well as aspects of their intellectual research (inspiration, knowledge, influences). Looking to Nietzsche on his philosophy of the importance of doing nothing Macel was inspired by the iconic giant of postwar art Franz West who did his best work while “chatting to friends or napping on the divan.” This does not do justice to one of the most prolific important figures in contemporary art, but Macel explains “in order to create anything at all, you need to spend half your time doing nothing.” Lastly, African American artist Senga Nengudi, who takes inspiration from the writing of Rumi (a mystic poet) creating work that combines performance and sculpture. Nengudi is highly under-rated a real genius among artists working today.
Pavilion of Joys and Fears
Rachel Rose is a rising star we love and are rushing to see. She is an innovative video artist who moves beyond narratives while still telling stories. Her work along with Hong-Kong-based Firenze Lai (both among the youngest artists showing) are at the most cutting edge in an otherwise techno-phobic anti-internet exhibition.
Pavilion of the Common
It seems what Documenta 14 in Athens was to music, this year’s Biennale will be to dance. Both the Italian artist Maria Lai and pioneer in experimental dance Anna Halprin are a nerve center of the larger themes including knowledge held inside the body. Halprin’s work Planetary Dance directly addresses the urgent practices around the Anthropocene.
Pavilion of the Earth
This pavilion is centered around the Japanese art collective The Play as they build a (boat) house by the Arsenale, floating on the canal. Filmmaker Charles Atlas is also central. He filmed legends at the intersection of dance, performance, subculture, queer culture, and fashion (including Merce Cunningham, Yvonne Rainer, Leigh Bowery, and Anthony Hegseth). Atlas presents a new work of a drag queen superimposed over a sunset. Also one of our favorite artists of the moment, Erika Verzutti, brings her Brazilian background and its long history of radical art to a contemporary vision. She often uses tropical plants for instance, or stones that recall biomorphic and organic elements in a large-scale sculpture titled Turtle. We can’t wait to see her mysteriously erecting a graveyard for dogs.
Pavilion of Traditions
As opposed to his other large-scale immersive audio-video installation works, here Anri Sala presents subtle pencil drawings on wallpaper with a printing roller embedded in it. This is the perfect pavilion for him whose career has focused on memories of the past. One main inspiration was Francis Upritchard who is known for her sculptures that replicate shrunken heads, referencing ‘mokomokai’ which the wind shrunken heads made by New Zealand's indigenous Māori.
Pavilion of the Shamans
This is the standout pavilion that gets to the core of the paradigm shift Macel is championing with a trajectory from Duchamp through Beuys to AA Bronson. Shamanism seeks to heal, and there is a lot to heal from. Among the most epic (instagrammable) works in the show is Ernesto Neto’s huge fiber and textile installation. Titled A Sacred Place it is a collaboration with Huni Kuin people who are performing traditional rituals. This might redeem Neto whose work was becoming formulaic. Shamanism has had a huge resurgence especially among young artists who are interested in both white and black magic and where the two intersect.
Pavilion of the Dionysian
Consisting almost entirely of female artists, this space dedicated to a Nietzschean kind of hard-core feminist moment is interestingly a post-gender blending of artists. Appropriately you find the amazing Canadian artist Jeremy Shaw here. He is a badass and probably in some way a feminist too, showing a work based around Ayahuasca (a hallucinogenic brew).
Pavilion of Colors
Here we experience the ‘fireworks’ of art, a culmination of the joy of the title. Yes! A pavilion for color, we respect Macel for being unabashedly visual. The much deserving and life-affirming Arte-Povera master Giorgio Griffa presents his joyous paintings (this harkens back to earlier pavilions). It's such a treat to see his works. Nothing compares to their simplicity, internal rules, and ecstatic states. Karla Black is an installation artist who continually knocks us back with pure beauty and poetry. She fills the rooms with powder, soap, chalk and pure pigment.
Pavilion of Time and Infinity
This is last (or first, or middle) transpavilion contains the “Garden of the Virgins” where performances will happen every day.
It would be a crime not mention the all too smart prankster who breaks all the rules and is the heavyweight king of camp (self-described “Filth Elder”), John Waters. The 71-year-old cult figure shows his 2007 work of five red, white and blue signs extolling everyone to “Study Art” giving reasons such as “For fun or fame,” “For profit or hobby,” “For breeding or bounty,” “For pride or power,” and “For prestige or spite.” We could not agree more, and we‘ll continue to study art especially “For breeding or bounty” – whatever that means.
The National Pavilions
To clear up any confusion the term pavilion has expanded into a grand idea, it can be a building (in the Giardini), it can be a site-specific installation inside a larger building (the Arsenale), a temporarily appropriated venue/palazzo in the city or it could not exist physically at all.
There are incredible cultural politics behind the now 86 national pavilions (give or take a few with growing numbers of unofficial ones) They are an outdated concept coming from when Venice was more of a ‘world's fair’ and not a biennale. Similar to the Olympics, every country wants to send its best artists, it is, after all, a big competition. A source of pride is to be selected for representing a country which also reflects ideas of current national identity.
The first national pavilion we will immerse ourselves fully in is the German Pavilion, represented by the incomparable Anne Imhof and her collaborators. It is an epic experience that requires durational viewing and will surely reward you for all the time (maybe hours) you spend with it. There is so much to say, but it is best to be experienced with an open mind and heart. Besides, everyone will surely be talking about it.
The Swiss Pavilion is often really great, and they are not scared of high production budgets. This year curator Philipp Kaiser titled it provocatively “Women of Venice” (after a series of sculptures by Alberto Giacometti) referring to the scandalous but not talked about the fact that although Giacometti made these works in particular for the occasion, he was never shown in the Biennale. A two person show with (duo) Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler and the outstandingly amazing Swiss-born Carol Bove reference this vast universe of Alberto Giacometti. Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler are presenting a film documentary of Flora Mayo, who was a lover of Giacometti's in the 1920s, while Carol Bove takes him as a source of inspiration for a new suite of her iconically theatrical sculptures.
One pavilion that rarely gets enough attention is Scotland. This year represented by the fantastic neo-surrealist video artist Rachel Maclean. She created a brand new film called Spite Your Face in Santa Caterina. It’s a remake (sort of) reimagining Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883). As usual, we plunge into a grotesque (green-screen) dystopia and also, as usual, the artist is a fantastic cameo playing all the roles.
Another young star of Venice and among our favorite thinkers on art, James Richards represents Wales. He is creating a site-specific installation that is based on a soundscape. Central to Richards’ work is his sampling from many sources and collating them together with his own ‘authored’ material in a composition that applies the logic of rhythm in music to the visual and to the spatial.
There are so many other pavilions we are looking forward to. In a nice twist that resists the bonds of nationalism, American artist Sharon Lockhart represents Poland. She is presenting her film that came out of research with a youth center in Rudzienko. Similarly radical in politics and collaboration between artist and community activism is Mark Bradford who represents the US but whose project will extend long after the Biennale closes into a six-year collaboration with a Venetian social cooperative for ex-offenders. They have created a store selling goods they produce. While the great Jesse Jones represents Ireland with a new work Tremble Tremble – like the Shaman Pavilion in the main exhibition, it calls on new interests in magic. The hippest artists in the scene are under 30 or above 80. Among them is Geta Brătescu in the Romanian Pavilion. Nearly a century old she has seen and experienced many of the world’s pasts and brings them together in in her show titled “Apparitions.” A pioneer among multimedia artists a lot of her work deals with self-representations through assemblage, literary texts, performance, photography and memories. As the artist says “Memory is an apparition; an epiphany, like art.”
A last “pavilion” we look forward to doesn't exist, at least not as you might expect – it is imagined. The NSK State (Neue Slowenische Kunst) is a “utopian formation, with no physical territory, not identified with any existing nation state.” More than 200 artists like the amazing Ahmet Ögüt, philosophers (including Slavoj Zizek) and so-called creatives explore the tricky area between statehood and citizenship. Anyone can apply for citizenship of NSK, no one is rejected, they have asked 100 individuals to give their perspectives on the EU. We already have our papers for NSK, and there is a passport office for anyone else wanting to join.
One of Berlin’s big deal curators, Udo Kittelmann curated the exhibition around photographer and giant of contemporary art Thomas Demand at Fondazione Prada, placing Demand in collaboration with writer and filmmaker Alexander Kluge and the stage designer Anna Viebrock. Resulting in a Gesamtkunstwerk titled “The Boat Is Leaking. The Captain Lied,” as Kittelmann stated “with the idea of the sea, the wind, storm as a metaphor for our recent world. We hope that the show gives hope in these stormy times.”
We wish it were possible to avoid the spectacle of billionaires and Damien Hirst, but it is not. You know what we mean. Inevitably you have to see what everyone is talking about. We hope that it’s so bad, it's good.
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See you on the deck of the Bauer having an Aperol Spritz with lots of ice and those amazing oranges you can only get in Italy.
– Justin Polera