Tales of Transformationby Jurriaan Benschop
The 57th Venice Biennale | May 13 – November 26, 2017
During the opening days of the Venice Biennale, in a classic hotel on the Grand Canal, U.S. artist Mark Bradford was reflecting on the issue of inclusive art history. An interesting conversation evolved about how an artist can, against his will, be stereotypically tied to a generalized identity, and be excluded from institutions, or included in discourses where he does not feel at home. Bradford talked about “the blackness laid on me without me deciding what it meant to me” and that he “didn’t want to be defined so narrowly.” A fair point, which deserves the attention of institutions and curators, in times of excessive identity branding. Meanwhile, decisions implying inclusion and exclusion might be inseparable from art, as distinguishing between works—in light of quality, value, authenticity, etc.—is at the very heart of its operations. Certainly also at the very heart of the 57th Venice Biennale.
In the Giardini, where the central and national pavilions are situated, Bradford’s Tomorrow is Another Day in the U.S. pavilion can be experienced as a passage from oppressive atmosphere to open environment. From the side of the Jeffersonian-style building, one enters into a room consumed by a collaged and painted surface hanging down from the ceiling, like the belly of a fat animal. Navigating around its edge, one then moves through a room of large, dark, serial-patterned paintings—an angry charred Medusa sculpture at its center—into a space filled with natural light and three large paper-collage paintings—the most powerful in the show. A faint hint of figuration seems to breathe a soul in these large non-representational works. The extent to which one should read the passage through the pavilion as a metaphor for the current state of things in the U.S., or related identity issues, is quite open—which speaks for the work.
Equally interesting, in terms of balancing the defined with the undefined, are the works by Milena Dragicevic in the Serbian pavilion. Her series of paintings, Erections for Transatlantica, evoke an imaginary space, suggestively situated between Europe and the Americas. The paintings are both bright and restrained; in each, some physical presence appears, through a figurative motif or simply a gesture, against a colored void.
A particularly moving work, rooted in art history as well as the Biennale’s history, is the film installation Flora by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler presented in the Swiss Pavilion. It tells the story of a largely forgotten lover of Alberto Giacometti, Flora Mayo, who was also a sculptor. On screen, she appears fictionalized, shaping a head in the studio, however on the other side of the screen, recent footage captures Flora’s son speaking affectionately about his mother’s life. The two moving images ingeniously share two sides of the same screen and one voiceover—merging documentary and fiction. The exhibition hints at Giacometti’s historic repeated refusal to represent Switzerland in the Biennale, as he did not want to be narrowed down to a national identity—a sign of artistic independency that nowadays would be hard to find.
In the Belgian Pavilion, Dirk Braeckman’s exhibition of photographs is all about seeing, taking time, discovering figuration and information in what seems at first to be only a formal play of lines and light. Pushing his medium to the edge, Braeckman transforms documentation of undefined spaces, female figures and places into illusive images full of secrecy.
If one would wish to discuss the Biennale’s main exhibition, curated by Christine Macel—Viva Arte Viva—in line with the curator’s motto, it would be apt to focus on the artwork, rather than the curatorial concept. Her vision of the biennale, to celebrate art and explore the world of the artist, succeeds most in the second half of the Arsenale, where connections between art and shamanism, traditions, the Dionysian, and time and infinity are forged. Bringing artists from various walks of life and cultural origin together in a meaningful way, Macel’s approach, here, is palpably inclusive.
Textile works bring with them associations of craft and decorative arts, such as those by Teresa Lanceta, inspired by traditional Moroccan carpets and reminiscent of abstract modern painting. Across from them hang three large ink landscapes on silk by Hao Liang, sharing the refinement of traditional Chinese landscape painting, but finding their own, at times surreal or futuristic, imagination. These works, along with, for instance, the sculptures of Francis Upritchard, convey a high sense of concentration and focus.
Further on, a freestyle creation myth projects from Pauline Curnier Jardin’s video Grotto Profunda, Approfundita, reflecting on life and death, the origins of species and of art works. Rich and visually evocative, the movie, projected in a colorful cave, shifts between an outer and an inner world. The work is equally existential as it is lighthearted, and touches upon a theme quite central to this Biennale: stories of creation and transformation.
Macel curated her exhibition as a journey through nine chapters, or ‘trans-pavilions,’ which at times help viewers to connect with the content of the works, like the Dionysian Pavilion. In other cases, the classification seems superficial, as in the Pavilion of Colors, or it is disruptively overshadowing of the artworks, as in the first rooms of the show, focusing on the studio practices of artists. In Olafur Eliasson’s project, Green Light—An artistic workshop, what is intended as a moment of ‘collaborative learning,’ in which refugees, asylum seekers, and members of the public can participate, in fact produces a rather embarrassing moment of exposure, if not exhibitionism. Macel’s research of studio practices might have been central to her conception, but does not always translate as exhibition material. One could also argue that a studio is a private space, where artists can unfold and experiment in full freedom, which should be cherished instead of showcased.
Throughout the Biennale, Macel laid out several concepts, but did not make an ideological exhibition, and that is something to appreciate. She focused on art itself and its diversity, and offers a lot to discover in terms of lesse known artists—far more than can be described here. Noteworthy, however, is this: it is not the grand gestures that steal the show in Venice, it is rather the quality found in the seemingly unspectacular, and the enduring dedication of artists to their ideas, materials, and beliefs.
Jurriaan Benschop is a Berlin-based writer and art critic.