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July 2013: Venice Biennale: Afterthoughts

 Sara Sze, Triple Point, (detail) 2013

 

by Vanessa Saraceno

For the 55th Edition of La Biennale di Venezia, the appointed curator Massimiliano Gioni gives life to a reflection on the fate of contemporary art, offering a smart and visually fascinating alternative of the Biennale model, with its impossible desire to concentrate all the different contemporanities of the world in a single place. Inspired by the homonymous work of self-taught Italo-American artist Marino Auriti, The Encyclopedic Palace is a monumental exhibition whose aim is not to be the encyclopaedia of contemporary art, but rather an encyclopaedia of curiosities and visions, blurring the line between art and non art, professional artists and outsiders.

With more than one hundred and fifty artists, and with works and artefacts spanning over the past century, the exhibition shows two different currents, spread over two sites. Carl Jung’s Red Book, and its surreal images, is placed at the entrance rotunda of the Giardini International pavilion, whilst the Arsenale section starts with Marino Auriti’s model of the encyclopaedic palace. Art that gives form to “internal images” and art aiming to translate the world into images: two sections to show how artists work in order to organize all worldly knowledge.

As the International exhibition questions the biennale model in its structure, and the legitimacy of any definition of art in its content, most of the national pavilions queries the legitimacy of a national representation and invites us to re-think the model Venice represents for contemporary art.

In the Israeli Pavilion, Gilad Ratman presents The Workshop, a fictional underground journey from Israel to Venice taken by a small group of people. Once in the pavilion, the community starts sculpturing themselves with the clay they brought from Israel, accompanying the workshop with guttural sounds that opens to a pre-linguistic, anti-national dimension, and so questioning the Biennale as model for nations’ connectivity. The Golden Lion winner Edson Chaga brings into the Angola pavilion the complexity very global issues such as urbanism, territory and space. Placing on the floor of a XII century Venetian building 23 free-for-the-taking posters of his hometown as discarded objects, Chaga turns his hometown Luana into the Encyclopedic city, that is the place of a dialogue able to go beyond any apparent temporal and spatial distance.

This year Germany and France switched their pavilions give their questioning of the meaning of national representation a physical and architectural sign. For the German representation at the French pavilion, Ai Wei Wei, one of the most famous, persecuted artists, has assembled 886 three-ledged wooden stools at the entrance of the space, recruiting traditional craftsmen who possess the antique and now rare expertise in contemporary China. All the other commissioned artists, Romuald Karmakar, Santu Mofokeng and Dayanita Singh endured the political sphere’s proposal, offering through video, photographs and a documentary film a variety of perspectives on how biographical, cultural or political identity is related to transnational circumstances.

Gilad Ratman, The Workshop, (still), 2013.

Albanian artist Anri Sala has been commissioned for the French contribution at the German pavilion, whose interiors have been transformed in order to host Ravel Ravel Unravel, an installation of three films, two of which projected simoultaneously in the same room. The project is inspired by Maurice Ravel's Concerto in D minor for the Left Hand, composed for the Viennese pianist Paul Wittgenstein whose left hand had been amputated during the First World War. While Sala has not focused on the history of the building and did not query the meaning of national identity, on the other hand he undeniably has offered a unique opportunity for the viewers to directly experience the specific resonances that such a space and such a history hold.

Surprisingly delicate in its overwhelming transformation of the neoclassical rooms of the USA pavilion, the large scale installation of Sarah Sze creates an immersive experience that goes even beyond the gallery’s confines. The painstakingly preciseness of a three-month period installation, made by makeshift structures, machines, facilities and devices of measurement, radically transforms the space into a scientific set where the only evidence is the fragility of the equilibrium between a personal order and a disordered universe.

If Sze's installation is dealing with the aspiration and failure to build models that capture complexity, Jeremy Deller tries to interpret the notion of Britishness from a complex, international perspective, treading a line between art and anthropology and offering in the rooms of the UK pavilion a psychedelic narration on British culture, legends and recent past. Deller’s English Magic is punctuated with several murals framing a series of past installations which have been re-assembled in Venice. Portraits of powerful people, from Blumberg to an evil-looking Tony Blair, alongside with banners of civil manifestations collected by the artist and a selection of Neolithic axes compose the cheery atmosphere of the show that ends in a tearoom. What is more brit than tea?

Anri Sala, Ravel Ravel, 2013.

A bitter-sweet provocation is also at the core of Imitation of Life, a new work by Mathias Poledna presented at the Austrian pavilion. The work consists of a 35 mm animation movie all built around a cartoon character who is performing a musical number. While evoking the golden era of American animation industry of the 30’s, with a soundtrack recorded with a full orchestra, as at the Warner Brothers scoring stage in Los Angeles, Poledna’s provocative installation is tackling different issues: the relationship between European Art and American mass culture, the modernistic architecture of Austrian pavilion, the time during the 30’s when the pavilion remained empty because Austrian artists exhibited in the German pavilion, finally questioning the value of art by the analysis of the enormous amount of work -5,000 handmade sketches has been produced - needed for a 3 minutes long scene.

Alfredo Jaar’s ouvre for the Chile pavilion, Venezia Venezia is a poetical invitation to rethink the Biennale model, and in general what Venice means for contemporary art today. This year, the artist rented one of the expensive spaces inside the Arsenale, and created an immersive installation. A photo of Lucio Fontana scaling the rubble of his Milan studio completely destroyed during the Second World War opens a dusty passage that leads the viewer to a pool full of water. Around this, the viewer is silently forced into a narcissistic posture from where he can contemplate the artist’s conception (or prophecy?) on the future of the Biennale. A plastic model of the Giardini emerges from the water as a memory of an ancient time, when nationalism could still signify something. However, after few seconds, all the pavilions are again forced down, with a silent movement that inundates not only Venezia, but also the cultural authoritative stances that influence the Giardini architectures and relations between nations.

Marino Autiti, The Encyclopedic Palace, 1950 ca.  

 

 

 

 

Vanessa Saraceno

Vanessa Saraceno is a freelance journalist based in London. She holds a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Art History and Heritage Management from IULM University of Milan. Over the past three years, she has worked with several art institutions and galleries in various communications roles. She also writes and runs an art blog: http://www.arthuntermag.com

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