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Venice Biennial (Pt. 2): Pavilions & Collateral Exhibitions

Christoph Buchel turned a deconsecrated Catholic church into "The Mosque,"  part of the Iceland pavilion, later closed by the Venetian authorities citing dubious concerns about "public safety." 


The Venice Biennial is celebrating its 120-year anniversary, but the awarding of the coveted Leone d’ Oro (Golden Lion) to the best presentation in the Biennial didn’t start until 1955. When the event began to feature an international curated exhibition in the Arsenale in 1999 and later, at the old Italian Pavilion (now called the either the Central Pavilion or the Biennial Pavilion, depending on who is in charge of “messaging” at Biennial HQ), two Golden Lions were given, one for best work within the curated portion and one for the best presentation in a national pavilion.  Other awards are also given, but rarely do they garner any headlines outside of Italy. This year, the Golden Lions went to Adrian Piper for her presentation in the Arsenale portion of All of The World’s Futures, and to the Armenian Pavilion located in the Mekhitarist Monastery on the Island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni.  My remark about Piper’s presentation can be found in the previous installment of this review, focusing on All of The World’s Futures, but, as is usually the case, both of these awards were recognitions of lifetime achievement status rather than the best presentations in the mega-exhibition that is Biennial 56.

“Lifetime achievement” might not exactly be the right words for the choice of the Armenian Pavilion, which gained attention because of its alignment with the centennial of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, a mass atrocity resulting in well over a million deaths, enacted by the then-extant Ottoman Empire and still vigorously denied by the current government of Turkey.  Up until very recently, Armenia was part of the old Soviet Union — it is located between Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan — but became an independent republic in 1991.  It

Simon Denny, Secret Power, at the New Zealand pavilion

was the first nation state to embrace Christianity as a state religion (in 303 C.E.), a point made relevant by the role played by the aforementioned monastery in printing and preserving sacred and historical Armenian texts. The exhibition features the projects of 14 artists working in what was called the Armenian Diaspora (Armenity/ Hayutioun, curated by Adelina Cüberyan v. Fürstenberg). The monastary itself was well worth the boat ride, a beautifully serene place built in 1717, on the site of what was once a medieval leper colony. 

The idea of the exhibition was undeniably interesting, owing to its implicit story of Armenia’s troubled emergence as a modern nation within an exhibition environment that both upholds and satirizes the idea of the nation state as being “obsolete.”  That much said, the actual exhibition fell flat.  Although a few of the contemporary artists, including U.S.-based Nina Katchadourian, who presented video triptychs of herself receiving instruction in the best way to speak with an Armenian accent from her Armenian father and Finnish-Swedish mother, held their own, none of the work presented in the exhibition really benefited from their inclusion in the show, and seemed like a collection of weak afterthoughts prompted by the artists’ reaction to the monastery.
The award givers also gave Joan Jonas an honorable mention for her presentation in the American Pavilion, and again, the reasoning for this was most likely based on lifetime achievement status rather than the presentation of a compelling exhibition. I will not go so far as to say that Jonas’ immersive, three-part installation titled They Come To Us Without a Word was a full-out mess, but it did seem to err on the side of the incomplete, the indulgent and the incoherent—especially when compared to her more coherent presentation at last year’s Taipei Biennial.  The Venice piece consisted of a sprawling assortment of paintings on paper

Adrian Ghenie from "Darwin's Room" at Romanian pavilion

hung higgledy-piggledy on and about the walls, and on free-standing flat-screen video monitors and in vitrines full of miscellaneous objects that evoke a kind of magical universe of portentous omens as they might be imagined by precocious pre-teens.  In point of fact, the pre-teens are featured as performers in the videos, which seem to be unscripted re-enactments of vaguely remembered ghost stories (about bees, fish and mirrors)—looking like home movie versions of the films that Matthew Barney has been making for the past two decades, minus the high-finish production values.  Of course, to be completely fair, we should also recognize that Jonas has been doing performance oriented work with mytho-poetic purpose far longer than Barney, but the important point about performance is just that: it should perform rather than just take up space. An interesting side note is the fact that both Michelle Obama (with daughters) and Hillary Clinton were photo-op’d at the piece in mid-June, perhaps lured there by Roberta Smith’s fawning New York Times review proclaiming Jonas’ piece as a “triumph.” I beg to differ.

Even before Biennial 56 opened in early May, there were notable controversies. One of these was at the Kenyan pavilion, where as it turned out, only two of the twelve artists (selected by non-Kenyan curators of dubious credentials) were from Kenya. After some Internet-fueled outrage, including the novel notion of “neocolonialism parading as multiculturalism,” the pavilion was closed, and promises of a better effort in 2017 were made.  The other big controversy was in the Iceland pavilion, which was ensconced in a deconsecrated Catholic church in the city’s Cannaregio district. It contained an “installation” by Christoph Büchel simply titled The Mosque, which attracted large crowds of Islamic worshipers who used it for their daily prayers.  Because of this enthusiasm, Büchel’s installation was also closed (by the Venetian authorities, on the dubious grounds of “public safety”), but it did point to the historical realities of Venice never having had a real mosque, even though it was Europe’s most cosmopolitan city for many centuries. 
If it were up to me, I would have handed the Golden Lion for best presentation in the curated exhibition (All of the World’s Futures) to Wangechi Mutu or Tetsuya Ishida.  My remarks about their work can be found in part one of this review, so let’s move on to what would happen if I were the one handing out the feline statuettes in a state of happy oblivion about “lifetime achievement,” with all of the social, economic and political investments that might appertain. 
Still from C.T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska's multi-channel video projection of an opera performed live in a Haitian village: "Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01W," 2015, at the Polish pavilion
As far as the national pavilions were concerned, my Golden Lion choice goes to the presentation in the New Zealand pavilion by Simon Denny titled Secret Power, which was located in the antique Marciana library next to the Museo Correr, decorated with 16th century portraits by Tintoretto and Veronese glowering down on the proceedings. There was another component at the nearby Marco Polo Airport that I did not see, but what I did see was a brilliant interrogation of the contemporary relationship between art and politics, one that felt almost uncannily up to date in relation to all of the other ideologically themed art at Biennial 56. Atop seven tables bearing the logo of the American National Security Agency,Denny installed tall glass vitrines that would normally house computer servers, and in fact the racks that would normally hold the computers were ensconced within.  Atop and amid the racks were other things that point to some information that Denny recovered from Edward Snowden’s famous revelations pertaining to the 17-year career of David Darchincourt, who was the chief graphic designer for the agency. A casual glance would reveal the installation as a presentation of Darchincourt’s social media profile, but closer inspection shows it to be a twisted elaboration of what it means to be an artist who is instrumentalized by the machinery of power.
Spain's pavilion displayed all of Salvador Dali's TV appearances, most of which were in the U.S. Above from '54, "The Name's the Game"

For example, while perusing the vitrines, one notices graphic elements that point to something called “The Five Eyes Network,” which refers to the official collaboration of the intelligence services of the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—strongly suggesting how the later-named organizations can be seen doing the dirty work for the former, all working in concert to help the U.S. rebalance its geo-political portfolio in the direction of Asia, evidenced by the rush-to-ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.  But there is more: Darchincourt seemed to have a special interest in book design, using his graphic stylings in publications aimed at introducing pre-teens to the fun hobby of code-breaking (with cute little turtles functioning as protagonists), and to ways of duping people into believing things that are not true.  The coup de grace was one vitrine that contained replicas of props from the Terminator movies, which I am pretty sure that Darchincourt had nothing to do with.  Nonetheless, Skynet has spoken, and every artist of the future-that-is-now has fallen into line.

It does not take much imagination to garner the real point of Denny’s project. His vitrines riff off of Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass from 1923, replacing its brides, bachelors and chocolate grinder/bachelor machine with spooks and spin-masters who are but useful idiots, unconsciously participating in policy formations that suborn artistic obedience (!), thereby creating a portrait of the artist as a techno-bureaucratic stooge, a loyal opponent trapped in an unfathomable web of manufactured deceit.
Mimmo Palidino at the Italian pavilion

My Silver Lion goes to Adrian Ghenie, whose cycle of recent paintings titled Darwin’s Room was presented in the Romanian Pavilion.  Ghenie’s paintings were the best to be found in any juncture of Biennial 56, which may sound like faint praise, because painting rarely figures prominently in any international biennial, including this one.  This observation points to the chief bifurcation of today’s art world—there is the world of the art fairs, where painting, works on paper and photography reign supreme by virtue of the ways that today’s art shopper can partake of the kind of one-stop shopping, and thus, dispense with curatorial certification.  And then there are the biennials, which are configured around large sculpture, installations and projections, in other words the kind of art that needs institutional spaces and their curators to come into being.  The wisdom? There is nothing that curators love so much as art that confirms the continued need for curators.  But back to Ghenie’s exhibition, which was extensive: over a dozen large works that bespoke perfect balance of range and focus, not to mention elements of abstraction and figuration. He paints in multiple registers and uses a multiplicity of tools for application, making his painting seem almost like collaborations between separate artists.  But his works are unified by the interplay of layers of glistening color that flirt with muddiness and surprising jumps between involuted and extravoluted baroque gestures—a kind of Peter Paul Rubens meets Neo Rauch synthesis of exuberant, albeit measured, painterly affect.

My Bronze Lion goes to the film presentation in the Poland Pavilion by C.T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska, which recorded the staging of a live opera with small orchestra in a small Haitian village, intermingling musical performers with children at play and various wandering animals to display not so much a contest of different cultures as it does a surprisingly comfortable layering (dare I say, symbiosis) of those cultures. The film does a great job of recording that layering, capturing the bemusement of the village folks by the “strange ways” of their visitors. With a light touch, it also reminds of the fact that, for several centuries, art has been used as an instrument of colonialism, by way of advertising a fiction of cultural superiority to those subjected to it.  Musically speaking, it wasn’t so great, another cue that suggests that the locals need not supplicate themselves to its alien sonorities. 
Ivan Grubanov’s "United Dead Nations" at Serbian pavilion. The exhibit represents flags of nations that have ceased to exist in the past 120 years
I also have a few honorable mentions, one of which goes to the Spain Pavilion, which surrounded a central area for television monitors with a number of unmemorable installations of the most tepid and negligible kind.  But the television monitors stole the proverbial show, simply because they displayed the entire “filmography” of Salvador Dalí’s “performance art” career as it was captured (mostly) on American Television during the 1940s, 50s and 60s.  In those “works,” we saw how the Spanish surrealist styled himself as a media clown well in advance of the likes of Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons. There was also a video projection in the China Pavilion that caught my eye by Lu Yang titled Wrathful King Kong Core No. 2 (2011), which started off as a normal pseudo-documentary of a performance of Tibetan dance, and then, as the dancing and chanting progressed, transformed into a hallucinatory mandala-in-motions that turned an assortment of Indo-Tibetan deities into a pulsating Buzby Berkeley extravaganza. 
Kwon Young Woo, Untitled, 1984, gouache, Chinese ink on Korean paper, 224 x 170 cm

The Korean pavilion (which is really the South Korean Pavilion) also played home to a cinematographic fantasy featuring a female character bounding around in an astronaut suit while variously configured light beams play about her, a celebration of technology that was both charming and frightening. The work was titled The Ways of Folding Space and Flying (2015), by Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho, and was said to reflect Taoist notions of astral projection and time travel. I thought that the work’s sugary celebration of a fetishized idea of future technology was lacking insofar as a probing of the moral dilemma between the human and the post-human is concerned. 

The large Italian Pavilion contained an exhibition of 10 artists curated by Vincenzo Trione that was titled Codice Italia, which, if memory serves, was also the title of the exhibition at the same pavilion two years ago. This time around the pavilion was subdivided in such a way to suggest that each of the included artists was the subject of his or her own chapel. The curatorial statement points to how the artists in the exhibition reflect the Italian “genetic code” by way of their back-reaching transformation of the past into the here and the now while at the same time avoiding “the dictatorship of the present.” This was certainly the case insofar as Mimmo Palidino’s component of the exhibition was concerned, which featured a standing female figure whose head was contained in a wire form that also held numbers and geometric shapes. Another was the untitled installation by Claudio Parmiggiani, consisting of a wall of thick glass that was ceremoniously smashed by an attached piece of rusted metal resembling a maritime instrument.  The fact that this work was dated 1997-2015 suggests that it was a re-enactment of an earlier work, but it worked well enough here. That much said, I think that it fair to ask why works by artists such

Park Seo Bo, Ecriture No.020719, mixed media with Korean Hanji paper on canvas 180 x 260 cm

as Vanessa Beecroft, Peter Greenaway and William Kentridge are in the Italian Pavilion, which, even with their works, suffered from being far too polite.  It is easy to see why the Italian Ministry of Cultural Assets and Tourism might see this as the proper path, especially in response to the so-called disastrous presentation of four years ago.  That was the “art is not our thing” installation curated by Vittorio Sgarbi, which actually seized the holy grail of contemporary art that has slipped through the fingers of so many others—it was actually so bad that it was good. Sadly, the outrage provoked by Sgarbi’s exhibition seems to have created a backlash in the realm of official Italian art circles, for now the problem is that the organizers of the pavilion are now erring on the side of playing far too safe—no doubt in fear of having their budgets axed in the name of troika-mandated austerity. This was evidenced not only by this year’s Codice Italia, but also by the exhibition in the same space two years ago. 

Ha Chong Hyun, Conjunction 09-012(B), 2009, oil on hemp cloth 194 x 260cm

Given the political news about Greek loan default and the fate of the Eurozone that was everywhere during the month of June, Ivan Grubanov’s entry in the Serbian pavilion titled United Dead Nations (2015) was compelling for its bittersweet timeliness.  On the floor of the spacious room were nine piles of spent flags, some of which looked like they were drenched in blood.  They represented nation states (or in one case, the Ottoman Empire) that for various reasons have ceased to exist during the past 120 years — the same time period that marks the history of the Venice Biennial.  These political entities were given names on the walls adjacent to the flags, spelled out in block lettering to resemble the texts inscribed on grave markers.  Actually, I think that more than nine have disappeared during that time (Rhodesia? Belgian Congo?), and I cannot help but think of what a countervailing exhibition pointing to the flags of newly minted nation states would look like; certainly, some of them would also be blood-stained.    

There were a total of 83 national pavilions that took part in Biennial 56, of which I saw about 60.  In addition, there were also 44 officially recognized “collateral exhibitions,” many of which were in far-flung corners of the island city. One of these was titled Dansaekhwa, which was an exhibition of the work of South Korean artists born between 1913 and 1935, four of whom are still alive. Dansaekhwa translates to “single color painting,” and for that reason, we might be inclined to see these works as East Asian versions of either Minimalism or Arte-Povera. That would be a mistake, because these artists are up to something very different, something subtly and deeply connected to the long tradition of Asian painting emanating from the Chinese master

Georg Scholz, Industrial Farm Family, 1920

painters of the Song Dynasty.  If comparisons must be made, then they would have to include that most renegade of minimalist practitioners, Agnes Martin, or maybe the vogue for what was called “tough painting” during the early 1970.  But even these seem a bit facile.  However, as is the case with Martin’s work, the works of the Dansaekhwa artists do reflect a clear-eyed mindfulness that treats the works’ surface as a balanced synthesis of action and being that always seems simultaneously straight-forward and evanescent.  Three of these painters (Kim Whanki [1913 to 1974], Ha Chong Hyun [b. 1935] and Park Seo Bo [b. 1931]) work on non-traditional surfaces such as hemp cloth, creating subtle configurations that subtly elaborate on the warp-and-woof of the work’s support.  Others such as Kwon Young Woo work with Chinese ink on absorbent Korean paper, showing different ways of controlling the fluid edges of his applications in a way that echoes the “bone method” of the ancient literati painters, here modernized by way of organizing simple shapes in layered registers across the picture plane.  Given the resurgence of abstract painting that has made its presence known during the past decade, it would seem to me that the work of these artists should receive a more serious look curatorial look, especially in the way that their work contrasts to the efforts of those painters that were included in the recent Forever Now exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art this past spring.     

Another art-historical eye opener was the exhibition titled New Objectivity: Modern Art from Germany in the Weimar Republic 1919-1933.  It was organized by Stephanie Barron, and was installed at the Musei Civici (May 10 to August 30; a larger version of the exhibition will travel to the Los Angeles County Art Museum October 4 to January 18). You might have heard the German term Neue Sachlichkeit, which translates to “New Matter-of-Factness.” Among other things, it was intended as an ironic homage to American-ness and a concomitant distancing from the various expressionist movements that were prevalent in Germany from 1905

August Sander, Secretary at West German Radio Station, 1931

to 1919.  In other words, it was what happened in Germany immediately after the First World War and as such, it makes for a very interesting comparison with Surrealism, which is what happened in France after that war.  Of course, Dada happened in both places during the war (except that the French Dadists were all ducking military service in Zurich), but in Berlin Dadaists mixed in political elements in ways that its Franco-Swiss counterparts did not, and there was some clear overlap between the Berlin Dadists and the Neue Sachlichkeit artists.  A good case in point could be found in the work of Georg Scholz, who was featured in the Musei Civici exhibition, although, rather unfortunately, not represented by his indisputable masterwork, the stupendous social satire titled Industrial Farm Family from 1920.  There was a multi-colored lithograph of the same subject treated in the same way called Industrial Peasants, [1920], and that was wicked enough.  Other works by Scholz included in the Museo Civici exhibition were almost as good, albeit less biting, for example, an ink and watercolor work from 1921 titled Work Defiles.  There, he used a cast of pictorial characters such as pig-faced industrialists and war-wounded cripples to reveal the grotesque class discrepancies that were common features of the Weimar Period. 

The exhibition consisted of 150 works by that were divided into five thematic subsections (“Still-life and Commodities,” “The City as Landscape,” “Man and Machine,” “Democracy and the Aftermath of War,” “New Identities: Type and Portraiture”), but quite a few of the artists had works in several of these sections. It seemed to make a special effort to place the photography of August Sander in multiple contexts—something that the critical literature of the period often fails to do. By placing Sander’s work in this context (which has been rarely done), we see previously undisclosed ramifications of his work that give it deep historical ballast. This, in turn supports the insufficiently circulated thesis that Sander’s work was an important influence on the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, and subsequently, their many students who in their own ways have all updated the term sachlichkeit to give it meaning in these most unsachlichkeit of times. 
There was one other collateral exhibition that seemed noteworthy, in ways both disturbing and perversely delightful. It was an exhibition of photographs and video projections by Wu Tien-chang titled Never Say Goodbye, which the exhibition catalog says were made between 2005 and 2013.  I initially thought that this was Taiwan’s national pavilion, but as it turns out, Taiwan did not have an official national pavilion, and so the plot thickens. Never say Goodbye takes place in the second floor of the Doge’s Prison.  If you have ever walked across the Bridge of Sighs, you know that you have entered the third floor of a building filled with some pretty ghastly instruments of torture.  (Message: Don’t piss off the Doge).  The second floor is almost as creepy, and most certainly was a dungeon.  Tien-chang made the most of this fact, which tinctured his installation with the thick, shadowy air of gothic gloom. 
Wu Tien-chang, Blind Men Groping Down the Lane, 2008-2015, reversal film, 240 x 478 cm
Basically, Never Say Goodbye is a homosexual clown-porn version of Madame Butterfly, one component of which is an actual stage that hosted what appeared to be a holographic projection of a stage review.  Through the magic of digitally enhanced costume and make-up transformations, we see the artist performing various roles that seemed like exaggerated enticements pointed at sailors from British and American navel vessels.  Adjacently presented still photographs freeze some of those moments of metamorphosis.
Never Say Goodbye is easily readable as an allegory about an under-recognized aspect of Taiwanese history, namely its legacy as a geopolitical bitch-puppet in relation to the west’s historical contest with mainland China. I have no hard evidence to support this next point, but it may be that the Taiwanese government disavowed an official recognition of this work at some point, forcing it to be recast as a collateral event.  If that is in any way true, then we may have that rare instance where an artwork has hit a real nerve.
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).  To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke Ass Stuart's Goddamn Website.

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