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Massimiliano Gioni’s remarkable and exhaustive exhibition, The Encyclopedic Palace, is not only the centerpiece of the 55th Venice Biennale, now underway, but also outshines the national pavilions in the Giardini and other sites around the city. Such a circumstance rarely occurs. Lately, the Bienniale exhibitions have had big, general themes that have allowed their curators to make eclectic displays studded with the usual suspects: shows that are gathered art-fair style, rather than curated. Breaking that pattern, Gioni, the 39-year-old associate director and director of exhibitions for the New Museum in New York, has developed a cogent curatorial thesis and delivered it in a brilliant exhibition that is filled with surprises, provocations and many artists whose names you probably will never have heard, along with some who are well known or among the current stars.
It is the kind of show, crisscrossed by recurring themes and resonating visual rhymes, which should be seen several times. This one resists the run-through: Gioni’s address to his subject, like his subject itself, is large and embracing. It includes art and artifacts, trained and self-taught artists, insiders and outsiders, comics and mystics, artists living and dead, and a show within a show, curated by Cindy Sherman. A counterbalance to Wikipedia and the immateriality of the Internet, it appears to be a career’s worth of interests supported by formidable attention and research.
Gioni describes the exhibition as a “temporary museum” of images. It is one that shows us not only a multitude of ways in which we might represent knowledge, but also the avenues by which we seek to know and represent the world and ourselves within it. In a profound way, this is a show about the human thirst for knowledge that can never be quenched because it addresses the mystery of life, upon which the two concluding works of the exhibition—Dieter Roth’s exquisitely detailed, diaristic Solo Scenes (1998), made during the last year of his life, and Bruce Nauman’s abstractly existential Raw materials with continuous shift-MMMM (1991)—appear in their own ways to dwell.
More than 150 artists from 38 countries are in the Bienniale exhibition at the Central Pavilion and Arsenale, while artists from 88 countries occupy the national pavilions in the Giardini and city, along with those represented in the 47 collateral events. These include Ai Weiwei’s S.A.C.R.E.D. (2013), an installation in the Church of Sant’Antonin, which features six large iron boxes containing dioramas that show how the Chinese dissident passed 81 days in prison under the constant surveillance of two guards; and Lawrence Weiner’s The Grace of a Gesture (2013), a text that appears in 10 languages from Italian to Chinese on five vaporetti that carry it through the Grand Canal to the Giardini and beyond. It would take days to see everything the Bienniale has on offer. And, now, coincident with this oldest of the international art fairs, Venice is awash in art that extends well beyond its aegis.
Manet, Return to Venice, in which Titian’s Venus d’Urbino (1538) can be seen beside a work it inspired—the French painter’s scandalous Olympia (1867)—is stopping at the Palazzo Ducale on Piazza San Marco. British sculptor Anthony Caro is across the square in a mini-retrospective of 30 works at Museo Correr: The Sonnabend Collection—a tribute to the groundbreaking art dealer Ileana Sonnabend, who opened her first gallery in Paris in 1962—is at the Ca Pesaro. The legendary Swiss curator Harald Szeemann’s revolutionary exhibition When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013 has been reconstructed at the Ca’ Corner della Regina, the Fondazione Prada’s Venetian exhibition space. Robert Motherwell, incarnated as a young artist using collage to find his artistic vocabulary, is on show at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. The Punta della Dogana plays host to Prima Materia, an exhibition drawn from the Pinault Collection that sheds new light on two seemingly separate avant-garde movements of the 1960s: Italian Arte Povera and Japanese Mono-ha.
The most stunning of the concurrent exhibitions, however, is Rudolf Stingel at the Palazzo Grassi, the other exhibition space operated by the Francois Pinault Foundation. Stingel, who divides his time between New York and his Tyrolean hometown, Merano, Italy, is the first artist to be handed the run of the entire palazzo. For it he has created what might be his most spectacular carpeted, architectural installation, by covering the floors and walls of the atrium and both upper floors with pile carpet printed with the enlarged photographic image of an antique Oriental carpet. Printed in colour, Stingel’s rug was inspired by the famous carpets in Freud’s office/treatment room. It is the surface upon which he has hung his paintings: two large paintings of photographs of himself and his friend, the artist Franz West; silver abstractions; and smaller paintings of black-and-white photographs of carved wooden medieval sculpture.. Within the 5,000 square metres of the installation, a viewer is engulfed by a colour-filled, tactile, patterned space that is punctuated by the intense focal points made by the monochrome paintings, which either pull the eye into their deeper illusionistic spaces or deflect it with reflected light.
Each of these aspects of the installation refers in some way to the photographic, and to the conflation of painting and photography, as well as to Stingel’s preoccupations with the relationships of space, time, architecture and painting, and to the conflation of painting and carpet. In the Palazzo Grassi, the pattern he uses—similar to that of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Indian Agra carpets—also brings together East and West, in the juxtaposition of the floral patterns of Islamic art and medieval Christian saints.
Artists in the Bienniale’s national pavilions come from all points of the compass, and the number of countries represented expands biannually. Photographer Edson Changas won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation for Angola, one of 10 countries appearing in Venice for the first time, with Luanda: Encyclopedic City, an installation of take-away digital photographs stacked on pallets in the Palazzo Cini, amidst fifteenth-century Florentine paintings and antique furniture. However, many viewers felt the best effort was Jeremy Deller’s English Magic (2013): a complex, cohesive nine-part installation at the British pavilion, which—through wall paintings, videos, prison drawings, objects and a few well-made fictions— dissects recent British history and culture, with an eye that is not unloving, but is comically satirical and sharply critical, nonetheless.
Mathias Poledna’s Imitation of Life, a three-minute, handmade film animation in the Austrian pavilion, with a dancing donkey in a sailor suit as the main character, appears at first only to redo 1930s Disney. But disquiet lurks under the surface of familiarity, as the donkey, which has Gene Kelly moves, sings, “I have a feeling you’re fooling, fooling with me.” The donkey, who might stand in for the viewer in this animated imitation of life, seems to think he’s the one being fooled. Is he an Everyman, a stand-in for a Bienniale-goer? The self-reflective work, which includes drawings and technical sheets that display the labour-intensive nature of handmade animated film production, conjures up the theoretical idea that Capitalism, like film, is a dream, then springs the trap. The medium with the message at the Romanian pavilion, which has focused on engaging conceptual work in the past few Bienniales, is five live artists who embody works from past Bienniales in An Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale (2013): figurative painting, Daniel Buren’s stripes, Maurizio Cattelan’s meteorite-felled pope. Their performance dematerializes the art and turns it into action through necessarily ridiculous mimes.
France and Germany swapped pavilions for this Bienniale, breaking down its nation-based structure and celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty on Franco-German friendship. Germany hosts four artists at the French pavilion—Ai Wei Wei, Romuald Karmakar, Santu Mofokeng and Dayanita Singh—only one of whom is German, while the French present Albanian artist Anri Sala’s Ravel Ravel Unravel (2013), in which pianists Louis Lortie and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, and DJ Chloe, perform on video in an installation work about repetition and difference at the German pavilion. Also among the standout works at national pavilions are Vadim Zakharov’s provocative and blackly satirical Danae, (2013) at the Russian pavilion, in which the Greek myth of a princess impregnated by Zeus with a shower of gold is updated to mirror lust and greed in contemporary society; and Sarah Sze’s Triple Point (2013), in which the artist fills the galleries of the United States pavilion, with a delicate, detailed and minutely realized microcosm that is additionally beguiling for the way it spills out wildly into the courtyard at the building’s Neoclassical entrance. And all the while Sze retains the feeling that the pavilion was the lab or studio for the making of this site-specific work,
Among the outdoor installations and performances by artists in The Encyclopedic Palace, not to be missed is Ragnar Kjartansson’s S.S. Hangover, a traditional Icelandic fishing boat, which is dressed up as a Viking ship and carries a crew of brass musicians who play a melancholy song as the boat arrives and departs, again and again, at adjacent sixteenth-century docks behind the Arsenale. It is not hard to imagine this as a scenario that plays out the phrases, “My ship is coming in,” and “My ship has sailed,” as Kjartansson’s mournful music laments Europe’s economic boom and collapse, which severely affected Iceland.
A Bienniale-year’s largesse, which is bracketed by Jung, whose Red Book begins The Encyclopedic Palace, and Freud, whose carpets inspired Rudolf Stingel, and contains two illustrated versions of the first book of the Bible—one commissioned by the Holy See, and one drawn by R. Crumb—is unusual, to say the least. This Bienniale, on view through Nov. 24, is definitely one to see.
Nancy Tousley, winner of a 2011 Governor-General's Award in Media and Visual Arts, is a senior art writer, critic and independent curator based in Calgary.
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