57TH VENICE BIENNALE 2017
The Venice Biennale is the world’s largest and longest-running art exhibition now in its 57th manifestation. It has over the years outgrown its original venues, now seeping within the cities palazzos, squares, churches, private houses and vacant spaces. In the frenzied opening week, the world's art press descended on the city in their thousands; identified by armfuls of tote bags, purposefully striding in Nike footwear.
Open to the elements, Geoffrey Farmer’s ‘A way out of the mirror’ floods the Canadian Pavilion with a powerful shoot of water erupting from the floor. Speaking at the launch of the exhibition, the artist spoke of the interweaving stories of collision and reconciliation and how the word ‘collision’ can also be used to describe something gentle and delicate.
As by law in Venice it is forbidden to dig deeper than 50cm into the ground, Farmer worked with an archaeologist onsite to strip back the pavilion, unearthing fragments of pottery, ceramics and brick to realise his ‘anti-monument’. Having been deconstructed to its absolute limits, the pavilion will be returned to its original 1957 design for the 2018 architecture biennale.
At the next-door German pavilion, a pair of Doberman dogs prowl the high perimeter fence of Anne Imhof’s much talked about (and queued for) work, Faust received this year’s Golden Lion Award. High on the roof, a youth dangles his legs casually over the edge of the building. Inside, androgynous, wild-eyed young performers move in a slow trance-like state beneath a suspended glass floor, carrying out ritualistic acts; burning tissue, singing tribal chants, flogging a bell, climbing the walls, all under the voyeuristic gaze of the raptured public. It’s a memorable, haunting experience that intensifies the longer you linger.
A hive of activity in the central pavilion, Olafur Eliasson’s Green light project includes a workshop for the construction of Green light lamps collaborating with refugees, asylum seekers and members of the public. The workshop ‘modestly’ attempts to tackle mass migration and human displacement by generating sales from the project. Whilst 3D printers churn out small components, participants were busily engaged in assembling the lamps. Eliasson said that for him going to the Biennale was always more about ‘going deeper into reality, rather than exiting it’, something that many artists this year have interestingly explored wholeheartedly in response to current economic and social climates. Even works that on the surface appear completely devoid of reality, on closer inspection heavily satirise contemporary society.
The Aalto Natives is an installation with video and animatronic sculpture by Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen conceived for the context of the Finnish Pavilion. Individually known for their irreverent, absurd and story-driven work, the British and Finnish artists’ collaboration focuses on contemporary issues of morality and clichés surrounding Finnish history and national identity.
HD video is mixed with old-school Muppet-style puppeteering and hand-drawn stop-motion animation in a series of playful video vignettes that poke fun at political correctness through a theatrical critique of religion, power and human existence. Although is often the nature of the time-poor Biennale visitor, it’s worth settling in for a while with this work.
Away from the main cluster of pavilions, by a quiet canal in Cannaregio, Scotland’s Rachel Maclean presents a dark Venetian fairytale as a large-scale portrait projection at the altar of a deconsecrated church. ‘Spite Your Face’ references the Italian folk-tale The Adventures of Pinocchio and is a harsh critique of contemporary society told between two fictitious worlds; a heaven and hell, utopia and dystopia, where the lure of wealth and power entices a young boy into the glittering kingdom above. The Glasgow-based artist, who admirably plays all the parts in her films herself through layers of prosthetics, wrote the script for her darkly comic, moral tale amidst a time of significant changes in UK and global politics. Referencing the current ‘post-truth’ era, her characters, perhaps similarly to their anonymous real-world counterparts, are untethered to any sense of right and wrong, truth and lies.
Former Pompidou curator, Christine Macel’s main curated exhibition‘Viva Arte Viva’ in the medieval dockyard of the Arsenale is divided up into nine ‘pavilions’ each with its own formal (and at times ambiguous) title, such as the ‘Pavilion of Time and Infinity’. A considerable number of historical works are featured, and a notable proportionate of female artists.
The exhibition however seemingly loses its way, rejecting the current state of the world, and choosing instead to bury its head in oversized balls of wool, in a crocheted tree house and in flower pot trainers (soon to appear in a cafe in Dalston no doubt). Individually, these works such as Ernesto Neto’s ‘Um Sagrado Lugar’ and Sheila Hick’s textile-based practice illustrate important conceptual ideas, but whilst every Biennale-goer rejoices at the sight of an oasis to rest their throbbing feet, put together these works become a string of iterations that play up to and indulge the society of the spectacle.
The national pavilions beyond this however, focus back to reality, albeit with a small hook of Hollywood. South African artist Candice Breitz asks a very sobering question about the human condition: ‘What stories are we willing to hear? What kinds of stories move us? Why is it that the same audiences that are driven to tears by fictional blockbusters, remain affectless in the face of actual human suffering?’ ‘Love Story’ (2016) is a seven-channel installation based on the personal narratives of six individuals who have fled their countries
in response oppression. Re-performed fragments from these interviews are then woven into a montage featuring actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore, amplifying stories that might otherwise fail to elicit mainstream attention or sympathy.
Satellite exhibitions of note this year include the new Victoria Miro gallery space, currently hosting Chris Ofili in ‘Poolside Magic’, Pierre Huyghe's film ‘A Journey That Wasn’t’ at the Louis Vuitton Foundation. Adjacent to this, unaffiliated with the Biennale, is an exhibition by New York artist Ryder Ripps, in which the participant via VR goggles becomes a production line worker in a methodically satisfying assembly line. Behind a curtain in a dark room, a suspended iPhone locked to Donald Trump’s twitter account shines out a beam of light whilst American voices read aloud replies to his tweets.
In the basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, Arte povera champion, Michelangelo Pistoletto presents a loose retrospective with works from 1961 to present day. A number of other collateral exhibitions on the island include a new glass commission by Pae White, and above a joint Rauschenberg and Warhol screen prints exhibition at the Faurschou Foundation, an unmissable, consuming and emotionally exhausting new virtual reality work by Paul McCarthy and Christian Lemmerz.
‘The Absence of Paths’ is an artist collective representing Tunisia’s first biennale offering since 1958; a project consisting of three kiosks around the city curated by Lina Lazaar. Participants are issued with a ‘freesa’, a free pass for travel stamped with their thumbprint, after which I was left with a blue thumb for 24 hours. Re-imagining Venice as a microcosm of the world you have now been granted free access to, the kiosks are manned by individuals with first-hand experience of migration.
In the public gardens of the Giardini, Phyllida Barlow’s dressing-down of the British Pavilion is visible mid-way up the gravel avenue as it ‘spills its guts’ beyond its neoclassical facade. Clusters of grey bauble-like spheres on the terrace and below the main steps are a playful, yet somehow sombre introduction to Barlow's sculptural exploration inside. Messy, slapdash, often crudely assembled, the series of towering forms in the first room shrink down the viewer creating a theatrical encounter. The muted tones of Rack are carefully ordered painted canvas sheets in oranges, greens and yellows as if preparations for work yet to be realised.
Interested in ‘the phantom state of objects as dreams or memories’, Barlow’s work is full of rough edges and exposed internal structures, that explore a tipping scale between the work dominating the space and the space dominating the work. Looking to employ all the different ‘languages of sculpture’, she refers to her separate sculptural pieces as ‘the fallen, the upright or authoritarian, the suspended.’
‘In 2008, a vast wreckage site discovered off the east coast of Africa..’ the story begins at Damien Hirst’s unavoidable new exhibition ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ that sprawls across Palazzo Grassi and former naval customs building, Punta della Dogana. If you thought Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull was overindulgent, prepare to feel positively seasick.
An 18 metre-high towering ‘king of the wind demons’, that despite being headless persists in pure and unapologetic masculinity dominates the main atrium of Palazzo Grassi.
Amidst a staggering 200 works in the exhibition, including unicorn and Cyclops skulls, Hirst tells an elaborate lost tale of a two-thousand-year-old sunken ship of treasures destined for a gargantuan Roman sun temple. At what you would hope to be ‘the jig is up’ moment at the appearance of a coral-encrusted Mickey Mouse, it now seems the turn of the visitor to bury their heads in the sparkly sands of Hirst’s fiction. Floating along with the tide of this bling-tastic tale that avoided an eternal watery end, now resurrected for your Instagram pleasure - it’s all about what you want to believe.