Dennis Broe reviews the 2017 Venice Biennale.
This year’s Biennale is bigger but not necessarily better than the more overtly politicized 2015 version curated by Okwui Enwezor.
The event, which is running through November, is curated by the Paris Pompidou Center’s Christine Macel and represents in many ways a toning down of the more radical orientation of two years ago. Enwezor’s curated exhibition in the Guardini, the Venetian Guardians, opened with the pavilion in mourning, the entrance draped all in black, for the lingering effects of austerity and the still echoing financial crisis. This year’s Pavilion, design by Sam Gilliam, is draped in bright blue and red flags illustrating Macel’s guiding contention that “in a time of global disorder, art embraces life.”
This is also quietly one of the most feminist or at any rate female art festivals ever staged. The mood is not sombre or critical and lies a bit outside the realm of more typical art world creation and celebration of celebrity. It’s more in touch with earthly goals, as in the documentation of Anne Halprin’s “Planetary Dance” staged in California’s Marin County. It abounds in materials that accentuate women’s traditional work, such as the male artist Lee Mingwei’s Mending Project that has various threads connecting different parts of the world, and Sheila Hicks’ giant balls of yarn, that are given pride of place at the end of the long hall of the larger curated exhibition in the Arsenale, Venice’s former boatmaking complex. And, finally, it is less under the sway of celebrity. Of the 120 artists, 103 are here for the first time.
The Arsenale is divided into different pavilions, and the Dionysian pavilion is an answer to so many years of women’s sexuality being expressed for the pleasure of men. Here sexuality is expressed of, often by, and for women. Hugette Caland’s vagina etchings have the raw elegance of Egon Schiele’s nudes without the commercial vulgarity of Tracey Emin’s. French-Algerian Kader Attia’s installation first presents a narrow hall where the records of various North African and Middle Eastern female musical artists are on display, in the more confining way the industry presents them. The work then opens up into a spacious but dark room with the artist’s videos, in a way that suggests their inner being beyond the confines of a male recording industry. Only Pauline Curnier Jardin’s sado-maso porn, in a digital video cave that conforms too closely to the male image of the dominating female, mars this foregrounding of female sexuality.
The Pavilion of the Earth illustrates the continuing rape of the planet in the lust for its raw materials. Julian Charriere from Switzerland highlights the coming gold rush in the new hunt for what is being called “white petroleum,” the lithium that powers cell phones and will power the electric car. Incidentally, huge deposits have been discovered under North Korea as the Trump administration makes its bid to stake its claim on them.
Charriere’s drab towers of deposits, called Future Fossil Spaces, glow from the inside with the eerie blueish light of the mineral. Across the way are the Vietnamese artist Thu Van Tran’s depleted and mangled rubber trees, which remind us of one of the major reasons for French colonization of that country in the last century’s race for its most precious commodity.
Next to these, art superstar Gabriel Orozco’s more tepid mangled logs, titled Visible Labor, seemed languorous and overly convoluted. There is in this Biennale little follow-up to the Nigerian Enwezor’s focus on African Art, but one of the strongest moments of the Arsenal was the indigenous Inuit artist Kanaginak Pootoogook’s depictions of that besieged community participating in a whale hunt and accosted in the office of a Canadian Mountie.
Marie Voignier’s Safari Memories employs the language of wealthy safari hunters, one talks of “clutching a U237 pistol in his belt,” to, as in Ulrike’s Seidel’s film Safari, catch the colonial mentality at work in those hunts. Although here, the rich privileged mood of the Euro hunters is much more ominously about power than Seidel’s later deluded middle-class following, in the wake of this earlier wave.
Though there were strong moments, the overall more laid back and in the end less confrontational mood of this Biennale, whose lacklustre title is Viva Arte Viva, easily could move from art as salvation to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” with balls of yarn as ultimate signifiers only able to accomplish so much.
More could be gleaned from the country pavilions, those relics of a bygone nationalism, which in overall mood, outside the more typical Western powers, which propose in the sum total of their individual practices a more universalist answer than that offered by the curated event to the continuing horrors of capitalism.
In the Arsenale, Georgia’s exhibit of a peasant house filled with rain that you could peer into, retained a kind of creepiness that suggested Jim’s finding of Huck Finn’s dead father, but also of the continuing decay of the former Soviet countries in the wake of their neoliberal “awakening.” This was echoed in the Latvian What Can Go Wrong, where Mikilis Fisers’ etchings of a planetary takeover by space invaders, with the creatures conducting at the Met while dead bodies hang from the curtains and parading up the Champs Elysees, playfully suggest that in our world ruled by the 1% the takeover has already occurred.
In the apocryphal vein also was Italy’s Roberto Cuoghi’s Imitation of Christ where all kinds of distorted bodies of Christ on the cross suggest past histories of genocide – and a future genocide to come, as a Christ roasting in a digital oven echoes the new finding that within 20 years almost half of the U.S. population will lose their jobs to automation.
The strongest exhibition though, and the supreme expression of this future terror, was Russia’s tripartite hall of first a demon towering over clay workers in a shadowy future, that echoed those depicted by Alfaro Siquieros in the World War II fascist period. This is followed in the next room by the writhing body of a woman on whom the modern terror of a fading capitalism is imprinted. And a final brightly lighted room that seems to be the digital answer but instead has bodies implanted in marble, imprisoned by the digital coding scrawled on the sculpture. The exhibit constituted a truly horrific imagining of our future present and the world toward which Trump, the Republican neo-cons and the Democrat new Cold War neo-liberals are steering us.
Colonialism in both its old and newer forms is tackled in the New Zealand and Australian pavilions. Lisa Rhihana's diorama Pursuit of Venus traces the interaction between the British James Cook’s colonizing wave and the more peaceful daily pursuits of the Maori – dancing, jousting and preparing food, little dreaming of the holocaust that was to await them.
Tracey Moffat equally traces the haunted arrival of Cook in Australia in The White Ships Sailed In through found footage of an arrival of a boat in the early part of the last century, the colonial equivalent of the Lumiere’s Arrival of a Train at the Station. A second film intercuts scenes of shocked actors in Hollywood films, Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day, with arriving refugees, making the stars’ trauma seem to be about their arrival. Brazil’s Hunting Ground in its first rooms seems to suggest simply urban decay but then a video reveals the hunted are those in the favela’s in this Most Dangerous Game of global inequality.
Uruguay picks up the theme of colonial brutality in its The Law of the Funnell where a simple wooden device used to brand cattle suggests the whole colonial system or “jail machine”. A sign on the side warned visitors that it was “forbidden to jump in” which I guess means that some visitors to the Biennale, oblivious to their own subjugation, cannot wait to be a part of it and have been hurling themselves into the funnel.
The Greek pavilion was the most subtle and narratively involved illustration of technologies of conquest. The pavilion is a labyrinth through which the audience travels so that on the top floor there is a white-coated scientist explaining over multiple video screens why experimenting on humans is good for them. The pavilion then ends up with filmed debate over whether the results of the experiment should be used.
Clearly drawn from the Lost scenario of the Dharma Project, the Pavilion was itself a creepy expression of the role of experts in designing technologies that are leaving human concerns behind, in a way that the Greek people have been revisioned by the European Central Bank as a country that had to be reengineered to follow the neo-liberal model.
There are also a number of exhibitions outside the Biennale this year as Venice attempts, or rather is driven to, promote more and more of the city, as the competition between cities for a shrinking tourist dollar becomes grows ever more fierce.
So now the back side of the city, called the Dorsoduro, is being promoted as a Museum Mile, a name originally coined by developers to describe New York’s upper Fifth Avenue. Spearheading this drive is the VAC Foundation, a joint Moscow-Venice group which has taken over Palazzo Zatere and this year transformed the former palace into a three level celebration of Soviet Art at the time of the 1917 Revolution in this year of its centennial and contemporary art that echoed those principles.
I will be talking more about this exhibition and other global exhibitions commemorating the Revolution in a later article. Here was a recreation of the Russian photocollagist Aleksandr Rodchenko’s worker’s cafeteria, a print of El Lissitzky’s Constructionist and geometrical illustration of the Civil War, an attempt by the Western imperial powers to wrest the country from the Soviets titled Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, and a soundscape recreation of Vladmir Tatlin’s futurist Tower of Babel.
Alongside these works were Barbara Kruger’s 2015 Connect which presents the iphone as a device for both good and evil with “Pleasure” on one line being echoed by “Fraud” underneath, David Goldblatt’s 1980s photos collectively titled Going Home of weary South Africans returning from work in the apartheid machine, and Cao Fei’s animation of Marx, Confucius and Mao kicking around a soccer ball and debating the meaning of a good society in RMB City, his online city of the future where capital’s problems continue to play themselves out. Most interesting exhibit in the city, which you can access online at www.v-a-c.ru.
On until the closing of the Biennale are two exhibits which equally extend the critical thrust of the Biennale’s Country Pavilions. The Prada Foundation’s The Boat is Leaking The Captain Lied has three German artists taking over a Palazzo and installing film, theater and photographic works that question the direction of late capitalism.
The Prada at the moment is on the map as its Milan space currently features a Virtual Reality piece by Alejandro Inarritu on immigrants, that is causing many to for the first time consider the aesthetic merits and potential of the form. The film director Alexander Kluge weighs in on the ground floor of this exhibit with a film showing readers of newspapers questioning that content.
Elsewhere, photographer Thomas Demand’s office spaces radiate alienation and theater designer Anna Viebrock’s set installations equally recall the sterility of justice in a court setting and technological waste as a discarded computer is surrounded by other less mechanical waste. On the whole the project, while well-intentioned, was difficult to decipher, and attempted to cram too much information into a space that was poorly organized and demarcated.
Another area of the city that is being developed as an art space is the tiny island of San Giorgio. The church of San Giorgio Maggiore has been given over to the Italian artist and founder of the movement called Arte Povera Michangelo Pistoletto. Arte Povera challenged the dominance in the 1960s art world of Pop Art, positing in its return to materials and in its conceptual frame a consciousness of how commodities had been deformed by capital instead of merely a celebration of their dominance.
We can see this in Pistoletto’s early Venus in Rags where a model recreation of the goddess is dwarfed by the tattered clothes of those too poor to worship at her alter. Today Pistoletto creates mammoth art designed to, like Viva Arte Viva, overcome differences and point to an art utopia. Sometimes this is expressed in his photo posts of Cubans, including the back of a Cuban street sweeper, and sometimes, as in his gigantic projections of the peace symbol of a figure 8, it reads as combination of Christo’s Gigantic Wrappings and Coke’s “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”
Art can teach us to sing, but without a notion of discord our songs too easily reproduce the mindlessness of a globe plunging ever more quickly over the abyss.
Professor Dennis Broe teaches Film and Television at the Sorbonne. He is the author of: Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood; Class, Crime and International Film Noir: Globalizing America's Dark Art; and Maverick or How the West Was Lost. His segment "Bro on the World Film Beat" appears on Arts Express on the Pacifica Radio Network and is also available at The James Agee Cinema Circle.