The premise for this year’s Venice Art Biennale, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, was derived from a concept devised by the self-taught Italian-American artist Marino Auriti. ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ was conceived as a museum in which everything in the world would be collected into one space; a testament, made by way of objects, to all human knowledge and achievement. Auriti’s model of the building that was to house this insatiable collection, which opened the exhibition at the Arsenale, shows the depth of ambition the artist held for his idea. The model represents a part neo-classical, part modernist super-structure that aimed not only to be built on the mall in Washington D.C., but also to be the tallest building there. Had it been realised it would have been massive and imposing (occupying sixteen city blocks), a sort of temple to the achievements of man. As it is, it stands as a somewhat deflated example of hubris, one man’s great ambitions that now look so excessive as to warrant display as a curiosity.
Gioni’s biennale suffered from a similar sense of bathos. Inhabiting the Central Pavilion of the Giardini and the enormous Arsenale, it contained a vast range of interspersed artefacts and artworks, ranging from key pieces by contemporary masters, to collections of objects by past artists, to what are best described (with due attention to the problems of the term) as examples of ‘outsider’ art. However, beyond a few abstract themes, it was hard to grasp what stakes were raised by this exhibition in relation to the wider world of contemporary art; it felt as though this was an exercise in inclusion and display rather than a coherent and conceptually robust proposition.
An interest in both spiritualism and the unconscious dominated Gioni’s curatorial interpretation of ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’. This dual theme came together in the opening gambit of the exhibition: pages from Carl Gustav Jung’s Red Book displayed in an octagonal room at the entrance to the Central Pavilion. Jung did not intend for his book to be exhibited as an artwork; instead it was a record of his own personal cosmology, a document of his visions and fantasies that laid some of the groundwork to his theory of individuation. Bright and intricate, a relationship to illuminated manuscripts is clear. The pages include legible, figurative drawings, and feature images of the natural world made strange: the sun explodes in pointed and twisting rays, and fire spews from the earth. After this introduction, the threads of the unconscious and spiritualism are present throughout the exhibition; work such as that of Hilma af Klint, Harry Smith, Dorothea Tanning, Augustin Lesage, Arthur Bispo do Rosário are just a few examples.
The display of Rudolf Steiner’s blackboards near the entrance to the Central Pavilion, together with Jung’s manuscript, sum up the kind of spirituality that is central here. Neither representing institutional religion, nor New Age spirituality, this is a somewhat outdated mysticism, prevalent at the start of the twentieth century, which considers investigation into the spiritual world through imagination, creativity and visionary experience to be a scientific endeavour. This implication of some kind of scientific approach permeated the organisation of the exhibition and its accompanying literature, and it felt as though objects were presented to us for assessment, but without the classifying system being made clear.
In parallel with this, Gioni’s curatorial attention to the darker drives of human sexuality spoke to the complementary theme of the unconscious, which avoids the spiritual and instead places human psychology under pseudo-scientific investigation. The works associated with this topic, which are in a minority compared to those allied with Jung, connected more closely to a Freudian tradition, which posits a mind that is riven by psychosexual drives. Hans Bellmer’s series of prints, Petit traité de morale (1968), are beautiful and unsettling, the intricacy of the engravings meaning that body parts emerge from a tangle of lines and colours. Evgenij Kozlov’s ink drawings illustrating his fantasies of sexual encounters during his teenage years show a latent adolescent curiosity that verges on the misogynistic.
Exhibited in the same room, Kohei Yoshiyuki’s series The Park focuses on voyeurs spying on couples engaged in sexual activity outdoors. The pictured intrusion into a private moment, which is in itself extreme, is made worse by our own voyeurism as exhibition viewers. We see the bodies of the lovers in near-graphic detail, and as such our viewing did not feel much better than that of the leering and reaching men who sit a few feet away from the couples. The theme of a sexualised and deviant unconscious mind felt more pertinent in the context of the biennale and its relationship to the art world than the emphasis on Jung, in that Freudian psychoanalytic theory has had such an influence over twentieth century artistic practice and arguably resonates more keenly with contemporary cultural production.
Gioni’s biennale included works made by professional artists, amateurs and people who never considered the work they made to be art, describing this inclusion as “tak[ing] an anthropological approach to the study of images, focusing in particular on the realms of the imaginary and the functions of the imagination.” On display were a variety of found ‘artworks’, the inclusion of which did not seem to follow specific criteria but instead welcomed an array of different types of making. These consisted of crafted relics, such as the Shaker Gift Drawings and Haitian Vodou Banners, but also Morton Bartlett’s uncanny dolls that he made as a hobby, and which were found amongst his possessions after his death, and Oliver Croy’s and Oliver Elser’s collection of architectural models (originally the creation of Peter Fritz) purchased from a thrift shop. Artefacts of devotion, of craft, of personal entertainment and of fetishistic indulgence were embraced.
The inclusion of Ed Atkins’ video work The Trick Brain (2012), which examines André Breton’s collections of books, artefacts and paintings, Cindy Sherman’s found photo albums, and Roger Caillois’ collection of stones seemed to be a gesture of justification for the inclusion of these artefacts not made to be art: if past masters can find inspiration in the (extra)ordinary then so can we.
Although there are fascinating objects and images that come into this category, the way in which art objects and non-art objects intermingle felt unsatisfying. This can be elucidated by returning to Auriti. The catalogue entry accompanying his model for the Encyclopedic Palace of the World states that “Auriti’s dream remains a timeless one: to embrace and encompass the unruly, multifarious universe, and to give it form.” It is precisely this giving form that made the double exhibition feel distant and to some extent insubstantial. Because of what felt like an open and genuine curatorial impulse to include both art and non-art works on an equal footing, the context that normally gives us coordinates was lost. We know the feat of collecting and organising is impressive and we know that there is much of interest included, but here it felt inaccessible. Fascinating objects and artefacts from the past lost what makes them interesting, and artworks became just more stuff: neither enhanced the other. Instead what was revealed was a collector’s urge at work: more things, more inclusion.
The sheer volume of work bears this out: Gioni included nearly double the amount of artists as were involved in either of the last two biennales, meaning it was easy to feel lost among his presentations. More importantly, without context the political power of some of the artefacts was removed. This felt like a remarkably apolitical exhibition for one that is at the centre of the art world. Even explicitly political works became curiosities rather than statements. Dahn Vo’s imported church is a good example. Installed in the Arsenale the colonial era church was transported from Vietnam and reconstructed. Hanging from the walls were cloths imprinted, through years of being bleached by light, with the silhouettes of religious artefacts. The result was a kind of Turin shroud of religiosity; it felt as if we are looking at something mysterious, ancient and distant from the contemporary world. However, despite its obvious resonances of colonialism and evangelism, these themes were minimised and the piece became another part of this mammoth collection. As with those objects shown by Atkins’ camera, things that were designed to be affective and effective were reduced to the quality of trinkets.
By contrast, politics abounded amongst the national pavilions and associated venues. Ranging from surprising interventions to practices that straightforwardly attack the viewer with a blunt and uncomplicated message, a number of countries presented work motivated by the wish to communicate a specific political point. The Maldives pavilion examined environmental change and rising sea levels, including impressive work by Sama Alshaibi, which was both formally interesting and thematically complex. Lebanon presented a piece by Akram Zaatari entitled Letter to a Refusing Pilot: aimed at the subject of Middle Eastern politics, it was aesthetically convincing but not subtle. Scotland’s presentation included work by Duncan Campbell, which examined the appropriation of artefacts by Western institutions such as the British Museum. Shown alongside Chris Marker’s and Alain Resnais’s Les Statues Meurent Aussi, it felt worthy and blunt.
The British pavilion’s immediately problematic English Magic by Jeremy Deller felt like politics filtered through Britpop. A painfully smug and unselfconscious collection of works, it alluded to the political without seeming to think about the implications of those things that it included. For example, in images from 1972 that were posed alongside photographs of David Bowie’s tour of England and Wales, there were more pictures of the troubles in Northern Ireland than of any other subject. Ex-army members draw pictures of politicians; Russian oligarchs are lampooned. After watching a video that takes a pop at the royal family – proposed as the ultimate symbols of privilege and therefore all that could ever be wrong in the world – we went and drank a cup of milky tea from a porcelain mug, in what was apparently being presented as an unironic symbol of good, normal Englishness. To underline this straightforward dichotomy of ‘aristocracy bad/normal English people good’, there was a scene of regular folk bouncing on a bouncy-castle version of Stonehenge. It felt shallow and determinedly uncomplicated.
In comparison, Richard Mosse’s The Enclave in the Irish pavilion, addressed in some detail by David Brancaleone in ER8, was substantial. In some ways it was deeply problematic. Its inclusion of documentary footage of people living in war zones and dealing with the consequences of violence both as actors and victims, was painfully voyeuristic, but the artist seems fully aware of this. The work is beautiful to the point of being sickly. The exceptional richness of the photographic prints is brought into relief by Mosse’s trademark pink colouring, which is at once artificial and grotesquely bodily. At some points it looks like blood, at others like plastic. This felt like a practice that was proposing something morally complex, a practice that is worth arguing with.
In addition, there were works that deserve particular mention. Although quite different in their conception, all felt ambitious in terms of their conceptual and aesthetic propositions. In An Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale by Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmus in the Romanian pavilion, performers re-enacted artworks from biennales past. The result was witty and absorbing. Alfredo Jaar’s Venezia, Venezia presented a scale model of the Giardini that slowly sank below a murky green pool of water, only to rise again, repeatedly. Aesthetically imposing, the movement of the water spilling from the model as it rose and fell created a sense of the world being under the threat of nature. Berlinde De Bruyckere’s Kreupelhout – Cripplewood in the Belgian pavilion consisted of a wax cast of a fallen tree, its materiality creating a compelling and evocative presence. The Netherlands showed Mark Mander’s Room with Broken Sentence, which surveyed his work from over a period of twenty three years. The newspapers that cover the windows of the pavilion, constructed so as to include every word in the English language, were a highlight.
Best of all was Bedwyr William’s The Starry Messenger, which addressed space both as a mysterious outside to be studied, but also as present in the world around us and in our very fibre. An adventure through seven rooms, it was part sci-fi exploration, part domestic scene, and part science museum display. The first room contained a model of an observatory, scaled down to slightly larger than human proportions, which was lit in such a way as to evoke model making and TV specials. In another room, with large pillars at strange angles, it seemed as though you had wandered into an episode from the first series of Star Trek, seeking exit through a small and extremely dark corridor pinpointed by stars. The video work towards the end of the piece, which riffed on the experience of the figure of a dentist in a mosaic, was carefully conceived, surprising and entertaining in the best way. Considering matter as both an astronomical enormity and a microscopic foundation, it was thought provoking, occasionally grotesque and clever. The video pulled out threads present in the installation as a whole, which was carefully constructed and sharp, treading a line between the mysterious and witty that was both complex and satisfying.
That this pavilion represented Wales, exiled from the central Giardini to a separate space in the city, brings us back to the tension between the art/ world politics perennially on view in Venice, and the flawed nature of any type of totalising encyclopedic claim. In the form given to the biennale – the curated and national pavilions – there is an implicit claim to represent everything. However, this was brought into relief by the graffiti that daubed the area around Castello and the Giardini, which read, ‘Anonymous Stateless Immigrants Pavilion’. Seemingly a hangover from a project by Ehsan Fardjadniya for the 2011 biennale, it was repeatedly stencilled onto bridges, pavements and buildings. The stencils have arrows on them that point you in differing directions, although the paths they suggest lead nowhere. Despite the two-year delay, when brought into relation with the concept of the encyclopedic, this seemed all the more appropriate. Unofficial voices are not and cannot be represented here. The art world, particularly in this manifestation, is a place of officialdom, supported by national governments, or at least national art institutions, working for their own ends, which is to promote a particular political or artistic view of themselves on an international stage. The money and the power associated with the art world are in full view in Venice, entirely appropriate given the nature of the event and the reality of funding behind such a spread.
However, with the presence of so much political work in the national pavilions, and the claims made for the central exhibition, it is important to bear in mind the way that politics works at this level. It is here that the art world’s collusion with power is at its most problematic. Official versions are the order of the day, and even those things that seem to be critical are often bolstering some form of propagandistic promotion for their institutional backers. Art’s ever-murky relationship to politics is again brought into focus: Venice shows us myriad ways to approach and avoid culture and society with art. However, and Deller’s crushed Landrover is firmly fixed in my vision as I say this, there is a strong sense at present of art quashing the urge to real political activism by means of small gestures of resistance. Even with so many different approaches present, no one tactic – not even Fardjadniya‘s unofficial intervention – seems effective. Maybe Gioni’s curation bears on this.
Just as the socio-cultural concerns of objects are neutered by their display, perhaps the consideration of complex political questions in art spaces allows those questions to be separated from everyday experience: a further degeneration into segmented and detached neoliberal existence. It is hard to imagine that a political message can be effective at changing anything within a context as officially endorsed as the Biennale, and the super yachts that line the quays near the Giardini certainly do little to mitigate this suspicion.