Categorized | Reviews

55th Venice Biennial: Part II

Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538
In addition to the main event of Massimilliano Gioni’s Ill Palazzo Enciclopedico, the 55th Venice Biennial also hosted exhibitions in 88 national pavilions, ten more than was the case two years ago. It also featured 46 officially designated collateral exhibitions. There were several other special exhibitions that took place in Venice that were not part of the official program. One of these was held at the Palazzo Ducale, and was titled Manet: Return to Venice, making a compelling case for a Venetian influence on the work of the French master. It was an easy case to make because the highlight of the exhibition was a side-by-side hanging of Manet’s Olympia (1863) next to Titian’s Venus of Urbino of 1538 (both works on loan from the museums that own them). Every half-decent art history survey class touches on a comparison of these two paintings, and there is much that can be seen on projected computer screens. But there is much more that cannot be seen in any way other than viewing the actual works in person. Both works take courtesans as their subjects, and their compositions and iconography are so similar that it is impossible to imagine that Manet was not consciouslyeditorializing on the earlier painting. More subtle was the difference in the way that the two artists painted skin tones, with Titian’s celebrating the radiant voluptuousness of flesh, while Manet’s famously defiant model is pictured as being waxen and sickly. This is a distinction that is poorly revealed in reproduction, and not sufficiently discussed in the art historical literature, but still vividly evident in the actual works.
Of the officially designated collateral exhibitions, I found three worthy of special remark, but I am willing to

Jung-Wook Kim, Untitled, 2008, ink on paper

admit that I missed a few, and here I dare anyone to say that they visited each and every one of them. One of these was a collection of works titled Who is Alice?, containing 30 works by 15 artists curated by Chu-Young Lee by from the collection of the National Museum of Contemporary Art in South Korea. Here the look was very much in keeping with the Pop Surrealism undercurrent of Ill Palazzo Enciclopedico, but it had much in the way of polished craftsmanship and stylistic originality, making a good case for the vitality of South Korean contemporary art.  One room was devoted to the work of Jung-Wook Kim, consisting of large ink-on-paper paintings of bandaged heads and contorted torsos, all revealing heavy psychological emotion with a light and poetic painterly touch. 

Emphasizing surrealist-inspired fantasy and pop-culture derived delirium, this exhibition did a good job of balancing elements of humor and pathos. For humor, there was Myung-Keun Koh’s large mock skeleton of a rabbit appended with large buck teeth, suggesting that a grave robber had exhumed the remains of Bugs Bunny. For pathos, there were the large photographs by Hein-Kuhn Oh of very young teenage girls nervously hoping to escape the camera’s scrutiny of their fragile identities. I was also impressed by the quiet subtlety of U-Ram Choe’s spider web covered alarm clocks, which drew an analogy between natural processes and mechanical time, suggesting that the former would inevitably triumph over the later.
Hein-Kuhn Oh, Su Ra Kang, Age 18, July 19, 2008 

In a large maritime warehouse near the Basilica San Salute, there was a group exhibition titled Rhizoma: Generation in Waiting, curated by Sara Rosa and featuring the work of 20 young artists working in various cities on or near the Arabian Peninsula. Rosa’s curatorial statement sets the agenda for the work that was included, pointing to how it is informed by communications technology and the logics and illogics of textual transmigration. So be it, but another way of looking at the exhibition was to see how it shows works of visual art negotiating the conflict between deep historical traditions and the inexorable imperatives of modernity, which, like a tragic love story, is a theme that can inspire a multitude of artistic variations. One that struck my funny bone was a video by Sarah Abu Abdali titled Salad Zone (2013). It featured two burka-clad women treating a television set as if it were a dangerous animal that had intruded into their home, each taking turns to strike the monster with long sticks and a shovel in hopes of forcing it to retreat.

On the Fondamenta Nuove looking out upon the North Lagoon was another collateral exhibition titled The Emergency Pavilion: Rebuilding Utopia, which was hard to miss because of the red and white banner that was displayed on the building’s exterior, emblazoned with the word Solidarietá in letters large enough to be visible to all of the boat traffic in the area. The banner was part of Emily Jacir’s contribution to the exhibition, curated by Jota Castro, who was also one of the artists in the exhibition showing sculptures consisting of dead butterflies partially crushed under heavy rocks. This pavilion had two high points: Jorge Tacla’s somber grayscale paintings of war-ravaged apartment buildings and Jacir’s sound piece of multi-lingual overlays of a speech that was given by the commissioner of the Venice Biennial in 1974, passionately upholding the role of the artist as bearer of society’s ethical conscience.  No doubt, there is some irony there, but for most of the artists included in the Emergency Pavilion, the utopia in question is simply yet another return to the putative radicalism originally enshrined in Harold Szeeman’s When Attitudes Become Form exhibition that took place

Jorge Tacla, Identidad Oculta, 2013, oil and marble powder on canvas, 66 x 61"

 in the Kunsthalle Bern in 1969. This is just bad nostalgia, and it is directed at something that was probably much less radical than its later-day worshipers believe to be the case. Even though you can still paint in an abstract expressionist style, you cannot really be an abstract expressionist owing to the non-replicability of the cultural circumstances that gave that movement its form and purpose. Armed with the same historical principal, it is time to recognize and question the mannerism of artists who continue to pulverize Szeeman’s equine cadaver in the name of allegedly utopian political postures. The fact that the Armani Foundation was hosting another walk down the When-Attitudes-Become-Form memory lane should prove the contemporary point, or pointlessness, of that particular form of tired “utopianism.”

The harsh and frightening reality of a bona-fide contemporary political emergency was the subject of a multi-screen film installation titled The Enclave by Richard Mosse and curated into the Ireland pavilion by Anne O’Sullivan. Mosse acquired a large amount of a type of  nfrared film developed by the US military to distinguish camouflage from natural foliage, rendering the latter as a bright and rather sickly looking pink-magenta. Working with cinematographer Trevor Tweeten and composer/sound editor Ben Frost, Mosse visited the war-ravaged country of the Democratic Republic of Congo, using an Arriflex 16mm camera to shoot scenes of combatants and refugees, always capturing the fear and anger in their faces. The camera was mounted on a Steadicam platform that was about four feet taller than a normal line of sight, and this created the effect of gliding above and about the human subjects of the film, rather like a ghost looking upon the lives of people who, for no fault of their own, were trapped in a hellish fate with no end in sight. When combined with the effect produced by the infrared film, an effect of lurid ghastliness was achieved, but it was also brought into dignified measure by polished editing and a subtly mournful score.
Richard Mosse, The Enclave, 2013, mutli-screen projection at the Irish Pavilion
Different parts of the film were simultaneously projected onto seven screens set at oblique angles, and at some points one or more of the screens suddenly went black, oftentimes when the sound of an explosion or gunfire were heard. These sudden blackouts reminding viewers that, for the people pictured in the film, life could be cut short at any moment, and that amplified the anxiety conveyed by the work.  The exhibition also featured a trio of large photographs also utilizing the infrared film, translating that country’s breathtaking natural landscape into elaborate aerial view hallucinations.
Richard Mosse, The Enclave, 2013, film still 

Mosse’s Enclave was undeniably stunning in effect and deeply tragic in its implication, making the Ireland Pavilion the most memorable and affecting of all of the national offerings. It also recalled an art world dustup that took place over 30 years ago pertaining to a series of photographs taken by Sebastiao Salgado, focused on the workers and their dismal working conditions in a Brazilian goldmine. Like Mosse’s Enclave, Salgado’s prints were esthetically stunning, even as they were also calls for global empathy that fell on deaf art world ears as well as ideologically blinkered eyes. The complaint that was leveled at Salgado’s work by Ingrid Sishey (then the editor of Artforum) went something like this: Salgado’s work is bad because it estheticized exploitation in a way that blunted or otherwise excused the critique of it. I never agreed with that point, because I was and still am a fan of the work, seeing in it not just “estheticization” (whatever that is), but a real attempt to establish the rhetorical grounds for an ethical empathy with the work’s human subjects in relation to their dire circumstances, creating a real warrant (rather than a pseudo-critical “argument”) for a political response. I get the same thing from Mosse’s Enclave, but I also expect that it will draw out and update the same kind of critical controversy. 

The Austrian pavilion featured a three-minute film loop directed by Mathais Poledna titled Imitation of Life (2013). Like Mosse’s Enclave, it was earmarked by highly polished production values and was more than a little bit disturbing, but otherwise, it was about as different as could be. It used the hand drawn animation

Mathias Poledna, Imitation of Life, film still

technique that is familiar to us from what was produced by the Disney studios in the late 1940s and early 1950s to show an animal singing upbeat songs accompanied to bouncy orchestral music. But as the film progresses, the cheerfulness grew strained and insincere, even a bit hostile. The general look and sound of the animation spoke of Disney in many ways, even as it also conveyed a subtle burlesque of over-packaged American innocence. But the actual character was in no way part of that studio’s bestiary of copyright-protected intellectual property. Ha!

“The time has come to confess our rudeness, lust, narcissism, demagoguery, falsehood, banality, greed, cynicism, robbery, speculation, wastefulness, gluttony, seduction, envy and stupidity.” This was the motto of Vadim Zakharov’s installation titled Danaë inside the Russia Pavilion, but it was only made readable to the male viewers of the piece. That was because women were ushered into the lower level of the building, given umbrellas and subjected to a periodic shower of fake gold coins that spewed from a truck-tire seized shower head affixed to the top of the two-story building. The men could view all of this from a platform which also housed the complex mechanism that delivered the coins.  While the above-cited motto would no doubt make

Vadim Zakharov’s installation, Danaë

us feel guilty for our voyeuristic complicity in this golden-shower fantasy, its placement of viewers inside an architectural bachelor machine would have made Marcel Duchamp proud.  And let’s remember, too, that Danaë was the Greek princess of Argos who was impregnated by golden rain.

Sarah Sze was the featured artist in the American pavilion, and portions of her 2013 installation titled Triple Point required some warming up to, particularly the part that seemed hastily installed atop and around the building’s exterior. More absorbing were the four interlinked interior rooms, which revealed Sze’s project in more subtle and absorbing detail. It would be a mistake to align her work with various “scatter projects” of the type that were made by Robert Morris or Barry Le Va four decades ago, although she does use the strategy of dispersing diverse materials. In fact, Triple Point featured the calculated dispersal of thousands of different objects and materials deployed in a way that emphasized a complex game of reconstruction morphing into an immersive installation. Looking something like the forensic reconstruction of the fragments of a crashed airplane, it also came across as a Sisyphean effort to organize kindred materials according to maddeningly fluctuating rules of categorical kinship that sometimes were responsive to the containment of the building’s interior, and at other junctures indifferent to it. The concept and subject mater of complex networks poses a special challenge for 21st century artists, and every time we think that we can wrap our minds around the idea of what a network is, it shows itself equally adept at wrapping itself around artistic consciousness to reveal itself as the real instrument that organizes experience in ways that defy objectification. Sze’s work has always engaged this uniquely 21st century dilemma, but in Venice, she used abrupt jumps from the very tiny to the very large, and from the particular to the general in a much more sophisticated way compared to previous efforts, which sometimes erred on the side of spectacle.
Sarah Sze, Triple Point, installation
Ai Weiwei was one of four artists exhibiting in the Germany Pavilion who was not a German citizen, and it was not even the real Germany Pavilion. That is because the French and German ministers of culture decided to swap buildings as a way of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Peace Treaty. As was the case with several of the other national pavilions, the point was that modern countries have become multicultural, casting doubt on the long-term legitimacy of the nation state. Ai’s installation was a fairly interesting stack of three-legged stools clustered so that viewers could walk through them as if exploring an overgrown pergola. I didn’t catch any subversive subtext in the piece beyond the fact that Ai was the featured artist, and if anything, it showed him in the light of de rigueur predictability given his contributions to many previous global mega-exhibitions.
Alfredo Jaar, Venizia, Venizia

A different meditation on the fate of the nation state was found in Alfredo Jaar’s installation titled Venezia, Venezia at the Chile Pavilion. It featured a highly detailed scale model of the various pavilions in the Giardini, surrounded by a pool of water. At periodic intervals, this miniature pavilion complex would submerge and stay under water for several minutes, and then slowly rise back into visibility. Everyone knows that, like fabled Atlantis, the city of St. Mark might sink into the sea, although there is cause for some optimism because of a massive engineering effort underway to save the city. But Jaar’s piece also invites a more subtle reading, in that the periodic flood of the miniature Giardini might also reflect the deluge of forces ranging from mass immigration to electronic fund transfers that are hastening the impending obsolescence of the nation state.

Yet another mockery of the nation state idea was found in Jasmina Cibic’s installation titled For Our Economy and Culture ensconced in the Slovenian Pavilion near the Rialto Bridge. In a foyer, the viewer could see nine of the worst still-life paintings every painted, hung salon-style atop thin fabric imprinted with digital line drawings of insects. So far, so lame; but in passing through the insect curtains, real hilarity ensures via a video projection showing five people sitting in a jury box, deliberating in English about which artist to choose to represent Slovenia in the Biennale. This was fun to watch, because even though the deliberations were couched in the language of bureaucratic politesse, it was clear that each of the deliberators had axes to grind and influences to peddle, so their postures of disagreement and the comic euphemisms by which those postures manifested themselves made them all look like double-dealing buffoons. If we were to multiply this conversation by the number of curatorial venues hosted in Biennale Cinquanta Cinque, you would get a disturbingly clear idea of why contemporary art looks the way that it does.
The 55th Venice Biennial through November 24, 2013.  
About the Author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward.  Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America.  His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010).  He is the coordinator of the annual Art Criticism Conference at the San Francisco Art Institute. 
The author would like to express his gratitude to the Faculty Development Fund of the San Francisco Art Institute for providing support for the research upon which this essay is based.


2 Responses to “55th Venice Biennial: Part II”

  1. Very clear and comprehensive survey of the various Pavilions. One in particular stuck out for me – the Richard Mosse multi-screen video installation. Great work, Mark.

  2. kate ruddle says:

    Great article Mark!

    Love the line “Looking something like the forensic reconstruction of the fragments of a crashed airplane”

    – Kate Ruddle


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