Biennale Arte 2017: 57th Annual Art Exhibition

Various Venues, Venice

The Welsh theorist Raymond Williams produced a kind of glossary for the study of culture in 1976: entitled Keywords, it expanded upon an appendix at the end of his highly influential Culture and Society (1958), and explained the changing uses of such interpretative terms as, well, ‘culture’ and ‘society’, as well as their cognates, e.g. ‘social’, ‘association’, ‘socialist’, etc. – words which Williams recognised as having dimensions beyond their simple grammatical functions (‘social’ being the adjective corresponding to the noun ‘society’, for instance) – as having specific socio-political charges. The important word here is ‘changing’, as Williams didn’t conceive of his ‘keywords’ as static technical terms, ‘keys’ in the sense of tools for conceptually unlocking a system under study: ‘society’, say, the object of study of sociology. The ‘key’ in Williams’ meaning is closer to the ‘key’ in ‘keystone’: these words are at junctions of the language we use to interpret, reinterpret and argue about the world, are supportive of the edifice of understanding as a whole, and are also the loci of tensions and pressures.

Daniele Donghi, Ernst Haiger: German Pavilion (1909, 1938-1939). Giardini, Venice. Photo by Annalcontrario. Licensed under CC 3.0.
Daniele Donghi, Ernst Haiger: German Pavilion (1909, 1938-1939). Giardini, Venice. Photo by Annalcontrario. Licensed under CC 3.0.

One of the ways in which a word is identifiable as a keyword is in its simultaneous ‘obviousness’ – it seems to naturally present itself when we undertake to understand certain social phenomena – and difficulty of definition. We all reach for ‘culture’ at certain moments of interpretation, but what does ‘culture’ actually mean? Can one extrapolate from the, presumably basic, meaning implicit in ‘bacterial culture’, to a highly complex affair like ‘modern culture’ (there are people who would say ‘yes’)? Why is it that when some people say ‘culture’ they automatically think of something which focuses on eating and listening to music, while others think of museums and canonical books? Others again will naturally incline to concepts of national or ethnic difference – food again, but also language, dress, ‘folkishness’. Listening to the word it becomes clear that there is a struggle for definition going on inside, a debate that is a continuation of debates and conversations that have sometimes been active for two and a half millennia, but may have taken radical turns at different points in history, often in response to whole new social experiences.

Williams found himself out of step with the cultural mainstream – that is, on the other side of a threshold of social experience – not once, but twice in his early adult life. He entered the university system between the World Wars from a workingclass, provincial background: his father was a railway worker from Abergavenny. His academic career was interrupted by World War II, in which he fought, and when he returned he found himself again somehow on the other side of a cultural shift, that marking the emergence of the post-war generation, one radical enough to change the very ‘language’ spoken among the new students. This made him particularly sensitive to interpretative language’s continual selftransformation, and not merely as a matter of technical advance, but as something socially responsive and active. Through these words the structures of society were being reproduced and transformed; often the same word was being brandished by mutually antagonistic cultural forces, so that quite different meanings resonated in the same word when examined. Which is not to say that words are merely ideological, the tools of political movements and parties – Williams mentions at one point how a particular word use has collapsed from its operation as a keyword into being ‘mere rhetoric’ – an ideological label to be slapped onto an opponent with little or no effort of understanding (‘populist’, for instance, is such a usage since at least the mid-2000s). Rather, there is a continuity with that Marxist analysis of inherent social ‘contradictions’, working themselves out and initiating crises, though in Williams the contradictions are not just functions of the productive base of capitalism, but are pressure points within the legislative, political and interpretative sphere responding to, maintaining, and sometimes reacting against that transforming material base and the relations it produces. And pace Williams’ ‘mere rhetoric’, I think there is also an element of rhetoric, that is, the study of public, persuasive language, in Keywords: the book is certainly no manual for speech-makers, but the way in which keywords work places them, I think, in that dynamic territory between theoretical discourse and political action tout court. Historicised, non-instrumental rhetoric, perhaps – what you cannot avoid if you are to take a position within society’s formations and transformations – a rhetoric you believe in (and even among the most cynical of politicians, masters of ‘mere rhetoric’, those keywords can be found which reflect their underlying understanding of the public world).

One of Williams’ keywords dominated the framing texts produced by the curators of the 57th Venice Biennale, and was felt throughout the giant concatenation of exhibitions: ‘human’. As one would expect from Williams, the keyword was surrounded, like satellites, by cognates and synonyms, some given the status of slogans, some unvoiced but operative all the same: ‘humanism’, ‘mankind’, ‘inhuman’, ‘anthropos’. Rhetorically, one might reduce the curatorial thinking behind the Biennale to a dynamic constellation of three keywords – crisis, humanism, artist – given succinct expression in the first sentence of curator Christine Macel’s ‘Introduction’:

Today, in a world of conflicts and shocks, art bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human.

We are immediately in the territory of the simultaneously obvious – our being human, the value of our humanity, the most precious part of that value – and of difficulty of definition – ‘being human’, what does that actually mean? What is it that gives it value (while the images and headlines shouting from the media repeatedly suggest that it is everywhere devalued)? What is the essence of that thing, referred to in terms of intimacy or sacredness: the most precious part? President of the Board of the Biennale, Paolo Baratta, developed Macel’s opening:

. . . this humanism, through art, celebrates man’s ability to avoid being dominated by the powers governing world affairs.

‘The powers governing world affairs’ not being the directors, curators and corporate and governmental sponsors of the Venice Biennale, presumably: Japan International Tobacco, Illy, real estate investment company COIMA, the state foundations behind the various national pavilions, ex-mayor of New York Mike Bloomberg’s philanthropic foundation, Russian gas billionaire Leonid Michelson’s V-A-C art foundation, etc. Not to mention the financial power represented by the super-yachts moored before the entrance to the Giardini for the festival’s duration.

The sense of crisis, and its relation to world political power, was impossible to ignore in the period when the 57th Biennale was being organised. What happened in world politics in late 2016 hardly needs to be repeated here, but what was equally momentous in that period was the extreme reaction of what might be described as the progressive establishment: that of utter disbelief, as if not only a political status quo, but a basic understanding of how the world worked, had collapsed. The reaction of the Biennale’s executive seems to have been very similar – a shocked distancing from something inescapable. The blatancy of austerity politics, the world’s increasing economic inequality and its open enforcement by national and international governance, still allowed space for a response in the spirit of left-wing idealism by Enwezor Okwui’s invocation of Marx in the Biennale of 2015 (even under pressure from the obvious dependence of the exhibition on the same reservoirs of wealth). But how to come to terms with the sudden running backwards of historical progress itself, the victory in world politics of rhetoric devoid of any notion of social enlightenment? The light of good intentions that had accompanied Western power and capital had been abruptly switched off. One option would have been to embrace a spirit of doom apparent in much international art, but this was hardly a formula for La Biennale. Venice’s answer bore all the hallmarks of a sense of trauma: the bad stuff, for the time being, was to be ‘avoided’, to use Baratta’s word – this was to be a Biennale where one did not speak of ‘politics’, and one could take a break from constant awareness of the dark, regressive side of human nature. Ironically, it was the artwork that most unashamedly took on the themes of dark humanity and darker politics, Anne Imhof’s Faust in the German Pavilion, that was to prove the Biennale’s greatest success. I will return to this piece later.

So what is one left with, that all art-lovers visiting dream-like, crumbling Venice with its jeweled interiors can agree upon, if not the value of ‘art’ itself? ‘Viva Arte!’, as the not-altogether convincing typography announced: in these dark times let us celebrate something that brightens all our lives (why else would we be here in Venice?). The selfexplanatory formula – ‘let’s have an art exhibition celebrating art’ – encountered difficulties, however, in trying to maintain its distance from the ongoing source of trauma, and the pressures involved resulted in a subtle shift from ‘art’ to ‘the artist’, and a reaching about for a positive value upon which the shows in the Central Pavilion and Arsenale might be built (‘humanism’).

Vajiko Chachkhiani: Living Dog Among Dead Lions (2017). Installation view. Venice Biennale, 2017. Photo by Maria Nitulescu. Courtesy the artist and the Pavilion of Georgia.
Vajiko Chachkhiani: Living Dog Among Dead Lions (2017). Installation view. Venice Biennale, 2017. Photo by Maria Nitulescu. Courtesy the artist and the Pavilion of Georgia.

In the first place, self-consciously modern art, from its beginnings in the illusionless gaze of Manet and Baudelaire, has often been anything but ‘ celebratory’ – a cold, destructive strain has been synonymous with much of modernism in art. The figure of the modern artist, on the other hand, is something that may more easily be identified with the good life, with freedom of expression, distance from the stresses and emptiness of modern work, and a creativity that includes slow time and idleness. This ‘otium’ (leisure or idle time) was celebrated in the ‘Pavilion of Artists and Books’, by, among others, Kazakh artists Yelena Vorobyeva and Victor Vorobyev’s recreation of their 1996 installation, The Artist is Asleep. With its dull wall-hanging of a generic landscape, and comfortless iron bed and thin blanket, this piece introduced an interesting note of local and temporal specificity, expanded extravagantly in the Georgian Pavilion with the folk-gothic poetry of Vajiko Chachkhiani’s A Living Dog Among Dead Lions (it would take some time to describe this piece – a Georgian rural hut reconstructed in the Arsenale with all its furniture, and with a constant interior downpour of ‘rain’).

‘The artist’ appeared in the most stunningly literal form in the inclusion of an actual working artist, New York-based performance and installation artist Dawn Kasper, in a recreation of her studio in the Central Pavilion’s Belle Époque octagonal hall (incidentally, the Belle Époque was a classic period of monetary inequality and art for art’s sake). About this figure were a number of rooms dedicated to ‘the book’, a timely subject that promised much. Unfortunately, as the odd linkage of ‘artists’ and ‘books’ suggested (both involved in ‘slow time’? both precious affairs in danger of being declared obsolescent?), it was hard to ascertain what had occurred in the way of serious thought. The equation ‘books + art’ boiled down to a library of books chosen by the Biennale’s artists (touchstones for the artist’s inner life, perhaps?), and some rooms of art made from books. Despite some powerful work being included in the latter, it was hard to sense any thread of curatorial inquiry to the placement together, for instance, of John Latham’s violent wall-hung assemblages, and crude, Sputniklike hanging Dark Stars, from the early sixties and nineties respectively, and the delicately dyed pages of Geng Jianyi’s The Reason Why Classic Is, from around 2001. It was a pleasure in particular to see all those Lathams together, to sense the strain between the rigorous formalism of the sculptural composition and the aggressiveness of the treatment of the material, but the two senses of ‘book’ represented in the room were incapable of entering into any dialogue.

Macel’s ‘humanism’, the value intended to bind the figure of the artist to the spirit of celebration, and to stand somehow in resistance to the values of those in power, manifested itself, more often than not, as a kind of sixties revival. Was there an element of nostalgia here for the atmosphere in which the baby boomer generation – the world’s custodians since at least the nineties, and now on the edge of retirement – had grown up, the time of their youth and uncompromised ideals? Much of the Arsenale felt like the giant expansion of the interior of a hippierun community centre (or an extension of Biennale artist Nancy Shaver’s New York curio shop), the visitor constantly having to negotiate small jungles of hanging fabrics, textiles and recycled knick knacks, while being presented with images of communal ‘healing’ ceremonies. It came as a relief when things took a less reassuring, Wicker Man turn, as did the video of Antoni Miralda, Joan Rabascall, Dorothée Selz and Jaume Xifra’s 1972 Ritual in Four Colours.

After the ‘Pavilion of the Common’ came the ‘Pavilion of the Earth’ where, in keeping with the general hippie-inflected feel, a concern for nature was in evidence, followed by Pavilions dedicated to ‘traditions’ (art inspired by folk-craft), ‘shamans’ and even Jim Morrison’s favourite deity, Dionysus. The lofty tunnel of the ancient naval complex’s rope factory ended in an admittedly spectacular reiteration of the woolly, non-specific positivity of what had gone before: Sheila Hicks’ towering, chromatically resonating wall of bales of fibre (in the ‘Pavilion of Colors’). Repeatedly we were introduced to artists who worked communally, healed, offered therapy, or simply wished the world well. When, in the midst of the earnestness of it all, the deadpan over-logic of Shimabuku’s interventions in the natural and technological environment appeared (‘a Macbook is the modern equivalent of Stone Age tools – what if I were to use it as an axe?’) it prompted, in me at least, what may have been excessive hilarity.

What ‘humanism’ amounted to, then, was a warm fellow-feeling, for man and nature; the kind of small-scale lifestyle and gentle habits that might go with such a feeling; and a wish for better things in the world that might take on a quasi-spiritual power to realise itself, á la the magical rites of pre-modern or ‘non-civilized’ peoples. This is a version of ‘human’ that Williams associates with the older meanings of the word ‘humane’, before the idea of ‘humane killing’ added a particularly modern inflection. To act ‘humanely’ meant to withhold from acts and behaviour that might be classed as ‘animalistic’, ‘bestial’, ‘machine-like’, ‘demonic’ – in short, harder, colder, more savage classes of conscious being. It is a return to limits, or a refusal to exceed them – a detachment from those areas of modern life that implicitly lead to the inhuman. All well and good, but what the legacy of the baby boomers made clear was the compatibility of such well-wishing and therapeutic spaces with power, often violent power, at a distance – perhaps that generation’s most important legacy – and the unconscious reproduction of privilege. This is the generation that invented ‘ humanitarian intervention’, a phrase typical in its abstract wellwishing and ‘avoidance’ of acknowledgement of brutal, local consequences.

I’m raising the matter of the ethics of the boomer generation in power because of a repeated, truly jarring phenomenon in the Biennale’s non-national exhibitions, also bound up with, as far as I can see, the aporias resulting from the engagement of a decontextualised, well-wishing self with the greater sphere of structural, cross-cultural and institutional human relations. The effect in the Biennale was ‘ anthropological’, to introduce the Greek synonym for the keyword ‘human’ – it involved a gaze, like that of the anthropologist, that objectified its human focus, despite the fact that the gazer, obviously, was also human. I’ve already mentioned the strange ‘exhibition’ of a, presumably, representative artist (Dawn Kasper) in the Central Pavilion – this was not performance, nor was it a function of a relational aesthetic of some kind, it was simply a matter of an artist, and perhaps more importantly her lifestyle, being on display as part of an exhibition dedicated to ‘the artist’. Spoken of simply as a ‘residency’, the context of gallery space and viewing public shifted the private and inter-personal into the public and made every one of the artist’s movements a kind of counter-performance, attempting to fend off the logical conversion of a sizeable chunk of her life into a kind of displayed object.

John Latham Omniscientist (1963). Books, wire, wire mesh, machine fragments, plaster, paint on books on canvas. Photo by Ed Krčma. Courtesy John Latham Foundation.
John Latham Omniscientist (1963). Books, wire, wire mesh, machine fragments, plaster, paint on books on canvas. Photo by Ed Krčma. Courtesy John Latham Foundation.

Even more bizarre were Olafur Eliasson’s space – a workshop and exhibition area for his Green Light project – and Ernesto Neto’s Um Sagrado Lugar (A Sacred Space), in association with the Brazilian Huni Kuin people. Both had humanitarian intentions, both had anthropological effects. The former revolved around a commodity for sale – a variety of geometrically severe green lamps – the proceeds going to two ‘NGOs that work with refugees’. And here were ‘the refugees’, taking a break or crafting a lamp. Again a tension was evident – as their objectification as ‘ refugees’ (and why else were they here? and it was unavoidably ‘they’) was felt by the visitor within the invitation to gaze offered by the environment. Neto’s caul-like crocheted wigwam was a focal point for the more magical aspirations of the exhibition: a recreation of a core social and religious space of an indigenous people, it seemed to radiate all the deep, life-sustaining values still adhered to by humans close to nature. And there in the middle of it were, yes, humans close to nature, two Huni Kuin Indians, representative ‘indigenous people’, in short. Seeing them waiting there came as a shock: how did they understand their involvement among the complex of discourses and motifs that make up contemporary art? If Neto had been there to mediate with the viewer (now more cultural tourist than humanitarian donor) the jarring objectification of the transplanted Huni Kuin might have been circumvented somehow. But as it was, the dark memory of the ‘ethnological exposition’, the ‘human zoo’ of the high imperialist period, kept rising despite all the good intentions.

Which brings us to the German Pavilion. Anne Imhof’s was an advanced piece of work, worthy of the attention it received – the ‘constructed situations’ of Tino Sehgal and occupation of space explored by contemporary dance were combined with architectural modification to produce something quite new and complete. After its intensity and coherence most of the other national pavilions felt scrappy, unfocused and derivitive. It was not without flaws – Benjamin Buchloh has written (in Artforum) a scathing review of the corporate fascist aesthetics of Imhof’s ‘panzerglas’ interiors. Buchloh has a nose for art that draws on the allure of totalitarian relics, having grown up in Germany in the age of Beuys and Kiefer, and, yes, there were times when Faust positively bellowed ‘Feel My Totalitarianism!’ to a soundtrack by Rammstein. But there were also ways in which the use of a new idiom to forge the same linkage between the events of the thirties and forties and a contemporary urban experience allowed something about our current situation to come through, something that issued from a level deeper than that set out by the Biennale’s curatorial agenda.

Faust essentially involved the ‘activation’ of the German Pavilion. A small, severe neoclassical building, the pavilion was built in 1938 in a style approved by the Nazi regime of the time, as a text distributed at Faust reminded the visitor. The building’s origins have long haunted the Biennale, and in 1993 Hans Haacke (sharing the building with Nam June Paik) smashed up the floor, leaving the viewer with its fragmented remains under the word ‘Germania’, spelled out in imposing letters on the central space’s wall. If Haacke’s intervention was like an explosive release of tension, making no attempt to side-step the building’s connotations, Imhof’s modifications and occupations (by collaborating performance artists) increases the same historical tension, make it palpable until it obtrudes into the present and finds an echo. The visiting crowds (and it was crowds, willing to queue for over an hour beyond the show’s official starting time in stifling heat – a certain ‘art reverence’ clung to the whole affair) found themselves in a doubled space – by the use of reinforced glass walls and floors Imhof’s performers could move through different spaces and levels, inside and out, inaccessible to the viewer. They also moved among the observing crowd, or perched above as well as below them in slowly changing poses, making no sign of acknowledgement of the viewer, with a dual-dimensional effect. Both groups of people were in the same building simultaneously, but not in the same space, and sometimes not in the same temporal flow – an idea that has its forerunners in the image of unseen angels moving among the readers in a Berlin library in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire or, more traditionally, and with endless re-echoes in popular culture, from My Little Pony to Star Trek, Dickens’ Ghosts of Christmas leading Scrooge through scenes from different temporalities, unobservable by the inhabitants. The latter brings in the theme of haunting again.

The ‘second dimension’ was very much in the tradition of Beuys and Kiefer – industrial equipment, rooms with hoses, what looked like lecterns, and what might have been mortuary slabs – but without the consolation of Imhof’s predecessors’ ‘impoverished’ materials – the lead, straw, felt, etc. Everything, as Buchloh noted, was stripped to a harsh, steely minimum. Along with these suggestive industrial fragments were electronic accessories – a player with headphones, a guitar and amp. What the viewer was left with was a sense of a living space, but one with some kind of cruel, institutional physical regime in place. The age, dress and movement of the performers – young but severe, in down-at-heel casual sportswear, making gestures or interacting in ways that suggested physical discomfort, pain and aggression – brought together the imagery of inner city subculture (that portrayed in Uli Edel’s 1971 Christiane F., perhaps) and some kind of fascist experiment (with echoes of Pasolini’s Salo [1975]). This was a human zoo pure and simple, but one in which the spaces of observed and observer had somehow been juxtaposed. What was disturbing was how the concept managed to attach itself to figures representing young urban adults, and rippled out to both the surrounding exhibitions’ unreflective presentation of fellow humans as objects of observation (‘persons’, clearly, but depersonalised by the context – ‘humans’ among ‘persons’?) and more widely to the violent economic ‘experiments’ visited on various countries since 1989: Russia’s ‘shock therapy’; the post-industrialisation of the West; austerity; the ‘water-boarding’ of Greece; the laissez-faire response to record homelessness in Ireland.

Faust wasn’t perfect, and in a certain drawing on forms and attitudes from the world of modeling (most obvious in the ‘detached’ movement through the crowd by the athletically built performers – might there be a ‘totalitarian chic’ in the offing?) it colluded with, rather than reflected on dominant social structures. But some kind of structural exposition at least was achieved, in stark contrast to the policy of political ‘looking away’, from oneself as well as the ‘bad stuff going on’, evident in the Arsenale and Central Pavilion.


1. Geng Jianyi, a pioneer of Chinese art from the eighties onwards, died this December at the age of 55.