Alternating States at the 57th Venice Biennale

Written by Dorian Batycka

The Venice Biennale is one of the oldest and longest-running exhibitions of contemporary art in the world, dating back to 1895 when the first International Art Exhibition was organized shortly after the unification of Italy. Over the last 120 years, the Venice Biennale has proven itself time and again as one of the most crucial and important cultural institutions in the world, attended each year by over 500,000 visitors. The 57th International Art Exhibition, titled VIVA ARTE VIVA, curated by Christine Macel, opened this past May and will run until November in the Giardini, Arsenale and selected venues around the city. This year, 86 national participants have come together including three participating for the first time: Antigua and Barbuda, Kiribati, and Nigeria.

I attended the opening preview days of the Biennale as an accredited journalist. It was my fourth Biennale in a row, but my first with journalist credentials. Since 2011, I have undertaken research in the Venice Biennale archives, co-curated a national pavilion (the first Maldives Pavilion in 2013), and exhibited as an artist (in the NSK Pavilion this year). In my eight years attending the Biennale, I have come to learn and understand the pulse of the city, its mystique, its charms, and its challenges. Venice is a city that comes together during the Biennale. Most national pavilions are situated in one of two areas—the Arsenale or the Giardini—but the city also plays host to a number of collateral pavilions that spring up each year located throughout the city’s main neighbourhoods, know as the six Sestieri—Castello, Cannaregio, Dorsoduro, San Marco, San Polo, and Santa Croce. These areas are diverse and unique, and getting lost in and amongst them is part of the charm of arriving in Venice for the Biennale. Newcomers to Venice will certainly feel inspired by the sheer breadth and amount of art on view, such that drifting through the city reveals art in even the most unlikely of places. However, the city can also feel like a theme park. Together with artists and the throng of tourists who enter Venice during the summer months, the city can feel like a decorative florilegium combining haphazard and odd artworks together, creating a semblance of spectacle that can feel equally overwhelming. At its worst, Venice can feel alienating and over-stimulatory, a place where art tourists and poseurs come to the city to network and gain some abstracted form of cultural capital. At its best, Venice can open up like a magical book full of spells and ancient recipes, showcasing the most awe-inspiring works of our time. It is, indeed, a tale of two cities.

Above all, the Biennale this year represents a mixture of influences inspired by humanism and the desire to use art as a catalyst in which to build bridges between cultures, albeit in a way that alienates artists and subsumes them to the whims of a curator authored mega show. According to Paolo Baratta, President of the Venice Biennale, the individual responsible for curating the curators, the exhibition is “inspired by humanism. This type of humanism is neither focused on an artistic ideal to follow nor is it characterized by the celebration of mankind as beings who can dominate their surroundings. If anything, this humanism, through art, celebrates mankind’s ability to avoid being dominated by the powers governing world affairs. These powers, if left to their own devices, can greatly affect the human dimension, in a detrimental sense. In this type of humanism, the artistic act is contemporaneously an act of resistance, of liberation and of generosity.” Yet, the humanism on display is merely topical. Instead of discussing the criteria of exhibition design and the curatorial impetus behind the artists selected, the exhibition has fallen to the level of pure curatorial ornamentation and abstraction.

The main exhibition unfolds over the course of nine chapters, or what curator Christine Macel calls “families of artists.” Within these, Macel sought to qualify artists on the basis of diverse experiences and essences in rooms, know as “stanze” in Italian, where visitors are expected to broadly associate artists with different practices and aesthetics. The exhibition is 100% curatorial. As with most mega shows, the curator has more or less usurped the artist to the point that the actual work exhibited becomes inconsequential.

Jelili Atiku, “Mama Say Make I Dey Go, She Dey My Back,” 2017, courtesy Gabriela Salgado

In the main International Exhibition, 120 artists have been selected by Macel, 103 of whom are exhibiting in Venice for the first time. Some, like Jelili Atiku, a Nigerian sculptor and performance artist whose work deals with political concerns for human rights and justice, were inserted into the International Pavilion in order to create a dialogue involving the human body and the materiality of the exhibition space. The project gave autonomy back to the artist away from the curator by evoking the exhibition space as a place where performance could not be reduced to a curatorial initiative. Entitled “Mama Say Make I Dey Go, She Dey My Back” (2017), the immersive ritualistic performance sought to establish a presence between visitors and performers, involving scores of actors who assembled outside the Arsenale, a former military compound converted into one of the main exhibition venues, where performers were given necklaces and objects like mixing bowls that were intended to create a dialogue between the body and materiality of the site itself. The performance unfolded in an arresting and slow manner, eventually leading to Atiku’s installation inside the Arsenale where the performers assembled the objects one by one on the floor. 

Over time, the Venice Biennale has transformed into an unabashedly curator-centric mega show. However, the effects of this are only recently—over the past two to three decades—being felt by the art world at large. Curators offer thematics because they want the exhibition to say something either about the state of art or the state of politics today. Take for example the 56th Venice Biennale, curated by Okwui Enwezor, which assembled in the main International Pavilion daily readings of Marx’s Capital. The 2015 edition was widely anticipated given its intention to examine political and economic conditions head on. Entitled All the World’s Futures, the exhibition neutralized the potential of the art-activism hybrid to a thematic construct. According to critic Mike Watson in an article for Radical Philosophy, Enwezor’s attempt to integrate the thematics of art-activism represented “the final nail in the coffin of politically incisive art.” Rather than mounting an exhibition with direct political contingencies, which was done for example in the 7th Berlin Biennale, curated by Artur Żmijewski, where global movements such Occupy and M15 were invited to challenge the hierarchical structure of the Biennale itself; the general verdict on Enwezor’s exhibition was that it failed to channel the revolutionary potential of its lofty Marxist subject. And with it Enwezor failed to project–much less advance–the art/activist paradigm. 

Aresanle, Pavillion, Venice Biennale 2015, courtesy Emanuela de Cecco

All too often—as in the case of the 57th Venice Biennale—the result is the production of themes, subjects, and debates within the highly rarified world of art discourse and aesthetics. Most large exhibitions today are literally foaming at the mouth with subjects like migration, identity politics, gentrification, gender, class, oppression and environmental issues. Certainly, all of these are worthy and important, but in the field of art, these topics risk becoming reduced to impotence as mere subjects of curator authored mega shows. In 2007, a cult reader came out that has since become the veritable how-to manual of highly networked and successful curators today. Entitled Curating Subjects (2007), the reader became an instant hit among a new class of curator / auteurs. Edited by Paul O’Neill and featuring contributions from the likes of Hans Ulrich-Obrist, Jens Hoffmann, Okwui Enwezor and others, the reader advanced methodologies curators could use in order to instrumentalize artists as pawns within the curatorial field. The text brings into contact curatorial writing that documents how they have become the Don Corelone’s of the art field today, no longer even needing artists, or even art itself, instead, moving towards exhibitions of subjects selected from à la carte ideological menus. 

The 57th Venice Biennale is a perfectly calibrated to this type of work. Above all, it’s an exhibition that supports the cult of curating subjects. It’s nine “trans-pavilions” take as a point of departure the idea that art making requires the mediation of a curator in order to make sense of niche publics concerned with discursive subjects. History? Check. Gentrification and urbanization? Double check. Identity politics, oppression, and trauma? Triple check. 

According to Macel, the 57th Venice Biennal refracts around “a dialectic that involves the whole of contemporary society, beyond the artist himself, and addresses the organization of society and its values.” Note the use of the gendered phrase “beyond the artist himself,” where the exhibition has become a “dialectic that involves the whole of contemporary society.” It is worth repeating because it strikes to the heart of the state of contemporary art today, where curator-centric shows have become commonplace. Within this scenario, the artist is qualified to a researcher, sometimes even without authorship, displayed for the sole purpose of proving the point of the curator. Within these schematics, artists are no longer expected to produce compelling works, but rather to present ongoing research based projects such as books, texts, or spaces like studios where knowledge or artworks—ideally—are collectively produced. The reason collectives have so much sway within curator authored mega-shows is because they enable the curator to show a semblance of sympathy towards the commons, without actually participating in them. Inherently, curating is undemocratic, rife with nepotism and dogmatisms, basically the opposite of collective schematics curators try to invoke by including the work of artists working within groups.

Take for example Olafur Eliasson’s “Green Light: An Artistic Workshop” (2017), presented in the Giardini in the International Pavilion curated by Macel. The project is abhorrent. It involves the instrumentalization of the labor of refugees who live in and around Mestre, an area on the mainland directly outside of Venice, where around 60 refugees arrive daily to Eliasson’s makeshift studio to assemble green lights that are sold to the public at €300 each. According to Eliasson, “[Green light] is a pragmatic response and a cultural strategy,” he says. The Berlin-based, Danish-Icelandic artist suggests that the project could be scaled-up and act as a model in which to help refugees across Europe. “I would love to say to Angela Merkel: ‘Here is a model.’”

Olafur Eliasson, “The Green Light Workshop,” (2017), courtesy Design Boom

The project underscores everything that is wrong with the art world and the inability of curators (and artists acting as curators) to involve subjects within their work. By instrumentalizing refugees and including them without authorship, the project by Eliasson is emblematic of the art world’s complete disdain for horizontally engaged work. It contributes to the cult of the curator and the cult of the artist acting as curator. Associatively, Eliasson’s work simply uses refugees as the material substance of a work that subjugates them, literally using them as volunteers in which to fabricate his asinine and ugly lights. The resulting works take the form a zero-hours contract, a migrant Ikea workshop encased within the space of contemporary art. Few projects or artworks have offended me more in the last four Biennales.

Installation View, Tunisian Pavilion, “The Absence of Paths,” 2017, courtesy Six Pillars

Of the more interesting works in the Biennale were those that attempted to thwart the very idea of the nation-state. In the Tunisian Pavilion, for example, visitors were issued “travel documents” in the country’s first Biennale project in more than 50 years. The project focuses on migration and freedom of movement but does so in a way that does not reduce it to a mere subject. Instead, the Pavilion uses the space of art to issue travel documents at three locations spread throughout the city. The document itself is produced by a company that makes official travel documentation, which are issued from an historic outdoor checkpoint formerly used by the Navy to control access to the Arsenale shipyard; as well as a 19th-century municipal center on the crossing of Via Garibaldi; and a central issuing centre in the Sale d’Armi building. The document is offered as a way of scaling back the narratives of nationalism in favour of a free and no-border movement. According to Lina Lazaar, an ex-employee of Sotheby’s, who is curating the initiative called “The Absence of Paths,” the “Tunisian pavilion is forgoing the cloak of nationalism in favor of a more global and humanistic narrative. What is fascinating is that this is the only place and time where people can move freely from nation to nation.”

Altered states were a recurring subject in this year’s Biennale. In the Danish Pavilion, for example, a work entitled “Influenza. Theatre of Glowing Darkness” (2017) by artist Kirstine Roepstorff deconstructs the idea of life from the perspective of death. The project invites visitors to assemble in a pitch black room the artist has outfitted with seats and an audio installation. In it, the project asks viewers to consider the relationship between light and dark, life and death, and sound and silence. It formulates around a dialogue between a fictitious female character who has died and left her family behind. In the moments immediately after her untimely demise, she is coached by an unidentified protagonist who beckons her to consider darkness as part and parcel of life. The recently deceased woman initially resists, crying out angrily that she misses her children. The 20-minute installation is heartbreaking, but evokes an emotional response few other works in the Biennale are able to elicit. It ignores spectacle in favor of a work that stimulates a metaphysical response, creating questions around life and death and whether or not death signals a new beginning. The project is one of the strongest in the Biennale, creating a meditative space that allows the viewer to detach from the spectacle of works assembled outside. It’s almost like a chamber for sensory deprivation, albeit one that contains an audio element that requires time and patience, something that is typically amiss in large-scale Biennales such as Venice.

Anne Imhof, Faust, 2017, courtesy of Vogue

The Golden Lion for the best Pavilion was this year awarded to Anne Imhof, who enacted a rather boring performance in the German Pavilion entitled “Faust” (2017). The work builds on the artist’s performative trajectory involving fashion models who have been cast as performers underneath a plexiglass surface created specifically for the project. Though I’m lukewarm about Imhof’s work (having seen an earlier project of hers called “Angst II” (2017) at the Hamburger Bahnhof), the awarding of the Golden Lion to this work I found quite tasteless. The performance evokes the ghost of Tino Sehgal, but does so in a way that conflates performance to a fashion show without the slightest concern for the structures in which performance art has dealt with over the past several decades. According to the press release accompanying Imhof’s project, “In a society that conceives guilt not in religious terms but as a matter of individual responsibility, that considers ill health not as divine punishment but as a personal failure, the body becomes capital and money the measure of all things. The body is a consumer item, handed over to the vagaries of the free market. Market rationality decides whether a body is worthy of protection.” On a surface level, Imhof’s work attempts to engage with a trajectory of performance that critiques political and economic structures around the body. However, it does so at a surface level that offers nothing more than a rehashing of old discourses distilled and recycled from Judith Butler. Instead, the work simply conforms to dominant structures of spectacle and body image. The project is not emancipatory or the slightest bit empathetic to egalitarian or to social issues, instead it simply conforms to elements of body objectification and shaming that encroach upon its commodification in advertising and marketing, and rather than conquering or circumventing them, Imhof’s work contributes to the spectacle of performance and its appropriation by fashion types attempting to infiltrate the art world at large. It is nothing more than fashion masquerading as art, and a crude example of performance art’s commodification within it. In a sense, the project is diametrically opposed to elements of performance that invite empathy and hospitality, which instead, carves out a niche within the trajectory of performance that moves towards a sense of elitism perpetrated by the fashion world.  Within 5-minutes of the entering the space of Imhof’s work, where the young, thin, beautiful bodies—adorned in normcore outfits and Adidas jumpsuits—confont the viewer with an anxiety-inducing spectacle that condenses into monochrome and unapproachable gradients of performance’s commodification by fashion. Ultimately, the work leaves viewers feeling alienated, like being denied entry at Berghain. It elicits the aesthetics of privileged white angst, hardly worthy of the Golden Lion, rather quite the opposite: more likely destined for the trash bin of art history, rather than posterity. 

Altered states were on view in other works that utilized performance in multimedia landscapes much more successfully. In the work of Jeremy Shaw’s “Liminals” (2017), for example, the artist worked with acclaimed choreographer Justin Francis Kennedy in a piece that literally opened up a space for new elements of psychedelic culture. The work testifies to a future state where elements of euphoria and mind-altering drugs parallel the movements of performers, overlaid with narration that describes a future society in the year 2033. The project fractures along movements Kennedy choreographs masterfully to the substances described in the narration of the video. It is among the strongest and most profound works in the Arsenale, creating in a sense the perception of how altered states may impact future societies and the role of the psychedelic experience in engendering new forms of empathy and understanding. The work yields to a trajectory within performance art that amalgamates perfectly to the video format, in effect creating a prismic feeling at the intersection of media, performance, dance, and choreography. Towards the end of the nearly 20-minute video, the screen retracts into crystallized elements of color that blend and disturb the smooth black and white imagery leading up. The performers undertake movements I saw inspired by surrealist and psychedelic imagery, evoking a post-human world where parallel experiences and altered states collapse in on one another, creating compelling new worlds which hitherto have only been imagined in sci-fi films. 

Jeremy Shaw, “Liminals,” 2017, courtesy of the artist

If the 57th Venice Biennale has so far demonstrated anything, it is that the world’s largest contemporary art platform has become just another curator authored mega show. The current progenitors of this model–the Hans Ulrich Obrist’s and Christine Macel’s–have done little to insert meaningful political dialogue into methods of art making. Instead, they have precipitated, and in making cases knowingly instrumentalized, art for the sake of gaining cultural capital. And with this, we have only ourselves to blame. By remaining complacent to art and its usurpation by curators acting with neoliberal interests, we have lost the ability to support any sort of autonomous art. This inherent lack of criticality in curator authored mega-shows beckons towards forms of self-censorship by artists subject to the shifting whims of curators acting within public relational paradigms who maintain totalitarian power over the art world at large. Accordingly, if we see the 57th Venice Biennale as the standard to which all other exhibitions of contemporary art are held, it follows that the age of the super-curator has fully arrived, much to the detriment—indeed perhaps to the genocide—of artists everywhere.

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