The 53rd Venice Biennale
The Venice Biennale’s title, Fare Mondi/Making Worlds, offers no particular vantage for viewing the eclectic survey encompassing both the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in the Giardini and the Arsenale. Still, the compelling and idiosyncratic visions of Simon Starling and Nathalie Djurberg are sufficiently bound up with the corporeality of process to stand out from the sprawling exhibition.
In Starling’s kinetic installation, “Wilhelm Noack oHG,” there is a firm resistance to the virtual in favor of veritable physical presence, one of the few legible manifestations of process-driven art suggested by the title of Fare Mondi. Starling’s installation features an inventively mounted 16mm film detailing the fabrication of metal products in a Berlin Factory in spectral blacks, greys, and whites. The projector is suspended from a metal helix where the film shuttles along vertical spindles with the ease of a zipper, deconstructing the familiar guise of the reel while keeping its precise mechanical logic intact. The film itself combines new documentation, archival material, and architectural renderings through jump cuts spliced to the rhythm of the machines. As the images blur and sharpen into beautiful detail, we don’t think of the oppressiveness of factory production; instead, our understanding of the physical configuration in front of us is actively constructed as the physical expression of how things are made, their ontological form. This is precisely what memory has ceded to the sleek virtual devices of our moment.
Starling’s installation seems to invent itself spontaneously as a self-referential, yet still outwardly investigative system of thought and material form. While the art world at times seems solipsistically self-absorbed and infatuated with its digital reincarnation, Starling offers an alternate vision for the internal tradition of art where the tools, processes, and the history of objects convey, in the fullest sense, the nature of the artifact.
The simple interconnectedness of the parts of “Wilhelm Noack oHG” tells a story of materiality that is not limited to the aesthetic. Transparency of the means of reproduction gives the work of art, with Walter Benjamin in mind, a new “aura” and an investigative scopophilia of its own creative life. To quote Benjamin further, “Thus for contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art.” Starling’s installation embraces Benjamin’s paradox of an equipment-free process precisely by virtue of its thoroughgoing investigation of the life of equipment. In this way, Starling resists the present torpor of the art world, and the lightning speed of the virtual by redrawing the effects of post-industrial modernity, turning toward the poetic and circular.
Of a starkly different aesthetic styling is Nathalie Djurberg’s macabre menagerie of larger-than-life flowers and narrative claymations. With the walls all painted black, Djurburg’s installation remixes the Garden of Eden story into something overripe and disturbing, faintly reminiscent of Hans Bellmer’s doll photographs, but with more comic derision. In one of three animations, a papal trio stand shoulder-to-shoulder as a naked young woman appears suddenly from the nether regions of their velvet robes, and the popes take turns shoving her back and forth; two diggers unearth a rotund woman from a mound and suckle at her smothering breasts; virginal nude women embrace each other with deranged excitement. In another short animation, a woman finds she cannot control her arms and subjects herself to her own dismemberment. In a third, a man and woman struggle to find their way through a forest that aims to devour them.
The plasticity of the clay and Djurberg’s nuanced caricatures combine equal parts corporeality and imagination. Likewise the pliable acrylic flowers, dripping with gloss and color, convey a sinister pleasure in their material handling. As with Starling’s installation, the soundtrack becomes an enlivening and unifying element—here, Djurberg’s gongs and melodies evoke the chase of an elusive hare by a plodding fairytale giant.
Beyond the Fare Mondi survey, several of the national pavilions in the Giardini explore the cultural significance of place at the core of each artistic oeuvre, especially in the context of the Biennale. Fiona Tan of Holland parallels her meandering travelogue footage with the narrative of Venetian Marco Polo, creating a melancholic meditation on time, history, place, and national perspective. While, time and again, Marco Polo’s text categorizes the peoples of foreign nations as “idolators,” and greedily eyes their abundance of spices and plant life, Tan’s barely slowed-down footage logs the consequent suffering of commodity-driven labor in these same parts of Asia. Opposite this large-scale video, Tan projects another documenting a wunderkammer brimming with Asian artifacts, art objects and other wares. This is especially trenchant given that Tan has staged the installation within the Dutch Pavilion—placed within the context of the Holland’s own empire, it becomes a spatial and temporal suspension that turns inward on itself.
In the next room, two vertically-oriented video screens show parallel films of a woman in two stages of her life. Their visual continuity, despite the lapses in time between the pair of films, creates an intimate and poetic realism lingering on the incomprehensibility of aging and the vividness of memory. Here, as in the final atrium, where six black-and-white video loops portray people in their everyday lives, the beauty of Tan’s films rests in their deliberate pacing and austere sublimity.
In Péter Forgács’s exhibit, Col Tempo, a dynamic investigation of portraiture and subject, begins with a nod to the Venetian tradition of oil painting that, over time, has unfolded into other forms of cultural gaze and materiality. In the first atrium, Giorgone’s painting “La Vecchia,” which broadened the subject of painting to a more confrontational humanity through its depiction of an unknown, aged woman, is shown on a video monitor mounted on an easel. Nearby, a video morphosis of Rembrandt’s self-portraits serves as a prelude to the theme of the show: unmasking our view of ourselves and others in uncomfortable forms of cultural representation.
In the following room, photographic portraits of seemingly everyday people are presented as if they were oil paintings inside gilded frames. Even the glare that hits the monitors, obscuring the portrait from certain angles, simulates the experience of looking at an oil painting. What begins as familiar becomes a pictorial sleight as we realize that these portraits of anonymous men and women are almost imperceptibly moving. The medium of film, (here converted to video), as in Tan and Starling’s meditations, reveals itself through its archival nature, which here subverts the formal guises of painting to reveal something as yet unknown.
As we pass into the next room, we are confronted with a wide, hypnotic grid of colored filmic portraits of these same anonymous subjects and others facing a phrenological model head. Each subject moves deliberately from profile to center and then to the other profile; in the following atrium it is revealed that these subjects were part of an extensive anthropological survey led by Doctor Josef Wastl, a study conceived and used by the Nazis. In Forgács’s incisive historical focus, we must recognize the aesthetic as no longer divorced from cultural attitudes, projections of the other, or painful historical realities. To solidify this process of visual recognition, a subject of Wastl’s research, the former prisoner Gershon Evan revisits the evidence of his lost youth at the Vienna Museum of Natural History, where he holds the plaster life mask of his 16-year-old face, in a meeting arranged and documented by the artist. Revealing the horror of racial science in centimeters, it is a confrontation with the self that takes on both historical and deeply personal proportions.
For the viewer, this disclosure of the multi-faceted nature of the portrait is possible through the manipulations of tempo, which isolate the aesthetics of the archival images and finally reveal their real historical context. Forgács concludes his installation in the Hungarian Pavilion with a framed mirror, implicating the viewer, and a grimacing video self-portrait in which the artist plays upon the disembodied humor and distortions of the face as mask.