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A deconstructed review of the 56th La Biennale di Venezia

Herman de Vries, Dutch Pavillion


A deconstructed review for the 56th La Biennale di Venezia


Warning for the reader. The following text is intended more as a vademecum than a classical review. We would say an atlas of visual and theoretical suggestions, following the futurist example of Marinetti's Parolibere (Free Words).

Foreword.  It all began with a chosen quotation, which is a personal interpretation of an artwork by one of the most influential thinkers of 20th Century, Walter Benjamin. "A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking, as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where he perceives a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress." (Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History).

The curatorial statement follows with these words "The ruptures that surround and abound around every corner of the global landscape today recall the evanescent debris of previous catastrophes piled the feet of the angel of history in Angelus Novus. (...) Over the course of the last two centuries the radical changes - from industrial to post-industrial modernity; technological to digital modernity; mass migration to mass mobility, environmental disasters and genocidal conflicts, chaos and promise - have made fascinating subject matter for artists, writers, filmakers, performers, composers, musicians, etc."

What about hope?

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, French Pavilion

A User Guide for possible survivors

I am truly convinced that, due to the high number of artworks - not avulse but typical of any Biennale worldwide - it is close to being impossible to render in an unique text the entire sense of such a complex enterprise. And after all, it is not the mission assigned to the status of a review: there is a catalogue for that, to go deeper into data. A review is not intended to be exhaustive but to record a certain atmosphere when the show is still on, available for all those interested. A further and deeper investigation would need time and critical distance. This year, for example, the catalogue of the Biennale Arte 2015 is published in two volumes. The first consists of a lenght essay by the curator with biographies of the invited artists and images of their works; Volume two is instead dedicated to National Participation and Collateral Events, admitted by the curator and valuated by the Biennale itself through the recognition of its red brand. Let's go on by giving some numbers, useful to understand the extention of the International Art Exhibition. 89 total foreign participations: 29 of them in the historic pavilions located in the Giardini, 31 arranged spaces across Arsenale and the rest in buildings throughout the City of Venice. This edition coincides both with the 120th anniversary of the exhibition foundation and with the Expo, taking place in Milan under the general frame "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life". In its self-referentiality, the press release does not mention Expo, but it is obvious that the opening of the Biennale this year one month earlier 9th May as well as its late finissage, are also due to this circumstance. Curiously some pavilions seems to offer a counter-reflection on the Expo theme, if we look at the Dutch or the French pavilion - with the vegetables vestige circles reminding some historical example of Land Art by Herman de Vries, the trees revisited in a digital key by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot - or again the substainable identities by Szilard Cseke for the Hungarian Pavilion. 

Szilard Cseke for the Hungarian pavilion.

In a way, this edition curator, Okwui Enwezor (b. 1963) Director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich since 2011, did not want to make things simpler or easier by constructing a complex system of interweaving filters, mostly, I belive, inacessible to general public. But maybe a Biennale is not for all. I mean it seems to be democratic: anyone can enter by paying the ticket but its meaning still remains inacessible to the majority. This edition is not an exception but a paradigm.

The spectator would need education, sensibility, openness and, not least, time to reach both the general and the details. For this reason, if the Central Pavilion would take an entire morning or afternoon to be experienced, the Arsenale, due also to its architectural internal complexity but also to the high number of artworks installed, would deserve at least three days. The curator decided to build up even more walls creating alternative obscure corridors and filling them with installations or videos.

And I am not writing this to discourage people rather to allert them. If you really desire to grasp the Parliament of Forms, the complex orchestration of All the World's Futures - and the term 'orchestration' is, this time, not casual - created by Enwezor, you need to be patient, to devote the right time to understand each artwork and the less evident relationships inbetween. Otherwise what you get back is an impression of inaccessibility, of a sacred impenetrable cloister, a well-known and abused methaphor for Contemporary Art at large. This may sound as a provocation or a polemic, but let's think about. How many of you, of the potential visitors to the Venice Biennale, have really read Das Kapital by Marx, or Theses on the Philosophy of History by Walter Benjamin? If Contemporary Art  aims not to fail the challenge - and the Venice Biennale puts itself as a manifesto, as a field of tensions where it is still possible to catch the compexity of our time - it has to find a different route. Different both in terms of radical or presumed intellectualism and in terms of mercification, sacrificing artworks and artists for a general label. That is why I believe that the Filters (which are expressed in a wonderfully severe manner as follows "Liveness: On epic duration", "Garden of Disorder", and "Capital: A live Reading") serve more to Enwezor ego than in the real comprehension and appreciation of each and every artworks. Additionally, in the impressing Arena he builds up just behind the famous rotunda of the Central Pavilion which hosts Fabio Mauri's works (one of the few italian artists selected, who attracted considerable attention in the last few months), one has the sense of time machine taking the spectator back to that Documenta, Enwezor curated in 2001, where reading played an important role. But Venice Biennale is not Documenta.

The Arena, Central Pavillion

Joan Jonas, US Pavillion

The President of La Biennale, Paolo Baratta, stressed how the last three editions of the eldest Biennale of the world (first edition 1895) are intended to be read as a trilogy: "three chapters in a research process to explore the benchmarks that can help us formulate aestetic judgments in contemporary art." But who really are those vague, uncertain, undetermined 'us' Mr Baratta refers to? Both Curiger and Gioni's edition appeared more accessible and concrete, even in the chosen titles (respectively ILLUMInations and the Encyclopedic Palace). But I am afraid if, guided by an impetus or by a similar storm propelling Paul Klee's Angelus Novus into the future, my grandmother or my hairdresser could come to visit Enwezor's edition and would come out devastated and undermined. Maybe it is just because it reflects the general global situation: hopeless and intricated. But at the same time to touch such an important theme, to cross discipline boundaries, is it so necessary to turn off the lights? Take, for example, the charming first gallery at Arsenale, presenting together Bruce Nauman's historical neons together with blade sculptural elements by Adel Abdessemed - a wonderfully mounted altar to nihilism. Or take the realistic paintings by Tetsuya Ishida, like a window in which it is possible to take a look at the efficient alienation effect which is another face of industrialism and regimented society.

This edition pushed me to ask: for whom are these fascinating circuses called biennals created? Most of the time, the answer seems to be: for the curator and his small circle. Or again as a gymnasium for unavoidable commercial galleries pushing their most favourite horses. But artists are not horses, artworks are not Lego, and the public needs to be consoled, sometimes.

This is why I reccomend the United States Pavilion. It features an interesting project by an older artist, Joan Jonas (b. 1936) with a lot to tell younger generations. Jonas took the chance to represent the US by creating a new video installation, entitled They come to Us without a Word. The installation is a multimedia one, including drawing, multiple projections, sound and sculptural elements, such as glasses or mirrors often privileged in the artists' practice. Each of the five rooms evokes fragility and changements, natural evolution, through creatures (bees, fish), natural forces (wind) and the human presence (children are the main characters) but also traces of ghosts. As explained by the artist "the ideas are implied poetically through sound, lighting, and the juxtaposition of images of children, animals, and landscape." Poetry is what is lost in translation, and sometimes curators work deals more with translation, losing any contact with creativity and imagination.

Sorry Mr. Enwezor, but we also truly need to find a sense of peace, sometimes and not All the Worlds' Problems. WM



Eleonora Charans

Eleonora Charans is a Ph.D candidate in Theories and History of Arts at the School of Advanced Studies in Venice. Her research is about the E. Marzona Collection.   eleonora.charans@gmail.com

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