Stay of life in Venice
1 June-24 November 2013
by MICHAEL SPENS
Survival is perhaps the message of the 2013 Venice Biennale, but confusion of aims, contradiction of purpose and confounded icons prevail in the spread of national Pavilions throughout the city centre, across the canals. All this, plus the distance between exhibitions, ideally requires visitors to spend up to 10 days to take in everything.
In the Giardini significant Pavilions are less widely dispersed: since the allocations of 1895 reflected imperial prestige, there was a distinct pecking order in site allocation. This year, keen at last to be represented, if not yet in the Giardini, the Vatican is at the Arsenale, minded to be playful with contemporary art, playing safe with a three-part focus on the Book of Genesis. It may not sound exciting, but it turns out to be an inspired effort to “heal the rift between art and faith”, in the words of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
The Biennale itself is simply looking for a respite from the overwhelming commercialism and commodification prevalent in both the art world and society, as well as seeking to retain the universal enlightenment concept of “the sublime”. For the Vatican in the Arsenale, the themes of “creation”, “uncreation” and “re-creation” are offered as alms, as a kind of redemption. The theme of “creation” was given to the Italian group Studio Azzurro, and its Creativity is an interactive work in mixed media. The Czech photographer Josef Koudelka deals with the longstanding Roman Catholic concern with “The Fall of Man”, in other words “uncreation”, while environmental studies by the Melbourne-born Californian painter Lawrence Carroll represent “re-creation”. Given the limits of dogma, this Pavilion of the Holy See is, as Biennale president Paolo Baratta has claimed, something to be welcomed in this age of commodification, and indeed it will enhance the debate on art, making it more dialectical, although perhaps not in the way the Vatican imagined. Now, for the future, what would a Vatican Pavilion look like?
The Biennale programme (labiennale.org) is suffused by other national muscle-flexing. Britain supports an exhibition by Anthony Caro, who is no stranger to the Biennale. At the 1984 Venice Biennale, around the corner from Harry’s bar, dealers deposited a yellow steel sculpture by Caro as a promotional gimmick. It clearly upset the gondoliers whose pitch it was on, so they created another sculpture from odd found objects, sprayed it yellow and added a sign playing on the Italian word caro, meaning expensive: “Questo è caro ma quello è piu Caro” (This one is expensive but that one is more Caro). This year the sculptor has a major show here in the Piazza San Marco.
The UK Pavilion built in 1895 for what was then a great imperial power, stands facing down the primary axial route from the entry point to the Giardini, an archetypal Palladian building. For 2013, this British pavilion is hosting a remarkable Jeremy Deller show: in one part, to a sound track by David Bowie, Deller orchestrates a proliferation of English images and events, a kind of shock-horror yet nostalgic mix, a heady concentration of episodes of English life today, which might twang the patriot’s heartstrings, and mystify the world. By drawing, in a kind of cinéma-vérité form, hundreds of such events (some distinctly unresolved, such as the death of Dr David Kelly at the start of the Iraq war), Deller leads us to question the artist’s role today in this complex, riven society, components of which are inevitably politically engaged. Oppositions are set up, not always to be resolved. As The Observer newspaper described it: “Weaving together oligarchs, tax avoidance, the Iraq war and Ziggy Stardust, it offers an exhilarating portrait of a nation awash with culture, money and conflict.”
Deller’s show is called English Magic. But Deller is both conjuror and editor, assembling unlikely scenarios next to each other. During the 2011 Venice Biennale, Roman Abramovich’s yacht Luna (valued at a staggering £400m) was moored beside the Giardini, blocking the external views to the lagoon and the jetty. Deller has parodied the event here by way of comment. Against the oligarch’s presence, Deller posits his hero, William Morris. Morris is epitomised here by Deller through Morris’s carved original woodblocks on display. A painting by artist Stuart Sam Hughes shows a giant Morris trashing the diminutively portrayed Luna: occupying a whole wall, the vessel is upended into the lagoon. Deller’s art ranges widely and eclectically, numerous installations focus on parades, political dramas; on edge, but yet with a curious innocence. Nowadays, every nation needs a Deller, which is why the British Pavilion sings more than most (britishcouncil.org/visualarts).
The Biennale 2013’s International Exhibition (always an inhouse event) for a key “grande mostra–ricerca” takes the original concept for Il Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace) conceived by the Italian-American artist Marino Auriti in the early 1950s (the model of which is now permanently preserved in the American Folk Museum in New York): a museum intended in a pre-cybernetic age, to accommodate all the world’s ‘knowledge’, as a 700 metre tall building. So using the tower model as a metaphor, Massimiliano Gioni, the curator of this, the 55th Biennale, has created an exhibition that now confronts the whole contemporary context of the proliferation of knowledge in cyberspace. The exhibition assembles a multifarious range of 20th-century objects and “art of today” and confronts this accelerating universal momentum. It considers the dilemma of “the realm of imagination” and searches for “any which” role for man’s imaginary vision in a profane world filled with superimposed images of life and its fulfillment. This is itself an inspired event, but, of course, it raises more questions than it solves, no more so than in the Encyclopedic Palace, Auriti’s modern Tower of Babel, which comes as a highly relevant metaphor for today’s expanding yet conflict-ridden realm of electronic knowledge.
This Biennale is, as always, drawing in the crowds. It remains an unmissable event for the first week for the cognoscenti (young and old), but later takes on something of the social profile of a Royal Academy Summer Show. It is indeed remarkable that it is not taken over by commodification. Deller’s work, after all, is not very marketable for reasons of scale. The British Council, in a positive effort, has also taken to supporting a Scottish and a Welsh Pavilion in separate venues. At the Wales Pavilion in Santa Maria Ausiliatrice (Ludoteca), Bedwyr Williams shows his The Starry Messenger, which takes its theme from Galileo’s self-published discourse on his discoveries through the telescope, seeing both the minuscule and the infinite. (walesvenicebiennale.org.uk)
The exhibition from Scotland, likewise deemed a “Collateral Exhibition”, shows narrative installations by Corin Sworn, film episodes by Duncan Campbell, and painted gestural colour-field paintings by Hayley Tomkins (scotlandandvenice.com). This Scotland Pavilion is held at the Palazzo Pisani. The Demarco European Art Foundation has an exhibition entitled Scotland in Europe: Europe in Scotland. Richard Demarco had given a presentation of his own plans at a private view there from 28 May, and has celebrated his own forthcoming Italo-Scottish programme at the studios of Polish artist Sonia Rolak, on the island of the Giudecca.
The Giardini core is dominated by the British, French and German pavilions, which were located following that early 20th-century allocation of pavilion sites, followed by the US and Japan. Smaller nations admitted in the immediate postwar ”idealistic” era observe the pecking order: only France and Germany exhibit their frustration today by amusingly but usefully swapping their pavilions. Can Germany be serious in showing a lesser work by Ai Weiwei, an array of suspended wooden stools simulating a hanging garden? Except that the artist is everywhere, including another private gallery in Venice. (www.deutscher-pavillon.org/2013/en). This is commodification perhaps, but with some evident political motivation. Three artists also included are Romuald Karmakar, Santu Mofokeng and Dayanita Singh. Such choices are intended to demonstrate Germany’s contemporary and transnational (ie, non-nationalist) global art perspective. By contrast France, in the German pavilion, offering a triple-screen video installation, has Anri Sala seeking to “unravel” Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major, with visual images imposed, in a witty form of de-constructivism. This part of the gardens seems to reverberate with witticisms, some unintentional. (pavillonfrancais.com)
Australia’s Pavilion shows Here Art Grows on Trees, by Simryn Gill, a site-specific project. The Pavilion itself is a temporary structure, about to be replaced by a permanent building. There are two temporary set volumes alongside, but at separate levels. Gill has filled the upper level with collage drawings on 12 large screens, entitled Lets Go. Lets Go. The lower level is entitled Eyes and Storm: the roof of both is partly removed. Nature and the elements and bird life and insects bring about a gradual disintegration of the paper, a kind of entropy back to foliage, with the environmental content reduced to pulp. The project itself synchronises by taking out the roof structure, with its intended removal as part of the planned demolition amongst the trees of the site (venicebiennale.australiacouncil.gov.au).
Trees also feature in the Finnish Pavilion (frame-finland.fi), with Fallen Trees, where the artist Antti Laitinen reassembles shattered trees, creating a new clearing of fresh growth. This Pavilion in the Giardini has a prime position, although located behind that of the USA. Close up to the British Pavilion, the Japanese Pavilion contains Abstract Speaking by Koki Tanaka (jpf.go.jp/venezia-biennale). This Pavilion, orchestrated jointly by Tanaka and Mika Kuraya, chief curator at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, has achieved a diverse and carefully thought through combination of talents, including, Recycling The Japanese Pavilion 2012, the original of which was curated by the architect Toyo Ito. The 2013 team applied a different, deliberately more abstract perspective from the 2012 architectural team’s focus on the Rikuzentakata tsunami. Art and architecture now get combined in reviewing common issues as they emerged in 2013. The other activities commissioned for this Pavilion include a ”poem written by five poets at once”, “a piano played by five pianists at once”, ”a haircut by nine hairdressers at once”, “a pottery produced by five potters at once”. Tanaka hopes with these episodes to capture “the pure moment of collaboration”. A further but separate item concerns “painting to the public” (open-air), again drawing out the meaning of the act of painting rather than of the finished work. The 2013 Pavilion explores the real basis of collaboration, and its urgency as a social habit in the post-tsunami 21st century.
The above selection of Pavilions are a random selection, yet they give an idea of the mood, preoccupation and motivation running through this 2013 Biennale. Thus guilt, redemption, confusion, collaboration linked to the mysteries of the Cosmos, 1610 (Galileo via Williams) and Cyberspace c1960 (Encyclopedic Palace c1966); and the mythic value of trees (Australia, Finland) urgently substantiating the necessary survival of humanity, but by a form of mental flagellation on the assumption that all else fails. The fathers of the Biennale are right. If nothing else, future Biennales can indeed heal the rift between art and humanity, if not faith.
The penultimate thought is best provided by the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar. In the Chilean Pavilion his installation Venezia Venezia “interlaces the interaction of the viewer” with, for example, a postwar photograph of Lucio Fontana climbing over the ruins of his destroyed Milan studio juxtaposed with a model of a flooded Giardini rendered in immaculate detail, contained in a watery grave. Jaar’s tone is somber, as much a metaphor as the Encyclopedic Palace. Yet his message is clear and this Biennale points the way, however disjointedly.
But the ultimate caution comes from the small black-and-white brochure supplied, A Guide to Sacca San Mattia, l’Isola abbandonata di Murano, Venezia. This does not refer to the Island of Murano itself, seat of the greatest glassmakers of Venice, including Antonio Salviati, who make glass here but fill a showroom in a Palazzo on the Grand Canal with glistening, reflective chandeliers and other sought-after glassware. This is an abandoned Murano satellite, full of waste from these industries. (There is a similar island off Manhattan, Fresh Kills on Staten Island, where most of the 9/11 waste was dumped.) San Mattia could be renewed, a resort for wildlife and those seeking respite. Now there is real hope, despite the toxic deposits of asbestos, heavy metals and waste glass. Surprisingly, nature has thrived in an area that is more like the Zone in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker than anything else. And at last there are realistic proposals and fund-raising campaigns from Venice to save this potential sanctuary, a respite from the Biennale, or indeed more optimistically, an integration with it. An exhibition has been mounted for the duration of the Biennale 2013 in the Spanish Pavilion.