Inaugurated in 1895 with the first international presentation in 1897, la Biennale di Venezia is the oldest and in my opinion, still the most prestigeous of the contemporary international exhibitions of visual art. Venice celebrates the 120th anniversary of the first Exhibition (1895).Venice is an erotic city, steeped in cultural, and military history and it retains its magic and mystery in the twenty-first century. You still can only get around on foot or by water taxi. You still get lost on the winding narrow streets and laugh with another small group who have made the same wrong turn one-half minute before you have. It keeps us human. No wonder thousands flock to the Biennale every two years.
Before arriving in Venice in late May, I reviewed the mainstream press’ reaction to Artistic Director Okwui Enwezor’s vision of “All the World’s Futures,” his title for the fifty-sixth presentation of the Biennale.
One critic saw the work on view as shadowy and political, “haunted by the spectre of international conflict” to which I thought, “Hey! Someone is paying attention to the news since the Arab Spring and rise of ISIL, not to mention the countinued blowback since the U.S. invaded Iraq. Should we pretend everyone shops on Rodeo Drive and skiis at Gstaad? Should we pretend no one is afraid to travel to (pick a number) countries that had depended on tourism to help their troubled economies and currently are at war, are war zones, have millions of refugees flooding its borders or has taken hostages routinely?”
So artists are responding to the escalating global violence and reflecting, sometimes with tender nostalgia, the safer ways of the past. Enwezor’s “All the World’s Futures” acutely reflects our times, along with opening up the venue to include performance and interdiscipinary events to a much greater degree than I have ever seen before. Oh there’s fun too, joyful art works, even the usual soft core porn, usually found in the British Pavillion (imagine!): Tracy Emin in 2007 and Sarah Lucas in 2015. Naughty, naughty British girls they are.
For those of us who love painting, there was plenty to see along with lots of technology such as the French Pavilion’s moving tree (huge and fascinating for about five minutes) and surprisingly, a lot of small, thoughtful art works, usually hung salon-style, or lush, complex book-arts and ephemera in vitrines. The pace varies, so you don’t experience overload.
The first thing I noticed and applaud is the presence of children and motherhood in major pavilions. Since we are all born and mothers give birth and nurse children, it always amazes me that artists usually ignore this subject since about the late Baroque era. Nursing mothers were boldly featured in a video “I Give You My Word” in the Venezualian Pavilion. The mothers wore masks and came on stage clothed, each holding her child. Each removed her shirt and began nursing her child. After the children were nursed, the mothers put on their shirts and carried their babies offstage. The press referred to Simon Bolivar politics in play, but I say, “Wow. No words can describe this, forget politics.” The Japanese Pavilion featured “How Did I come into the World?” which featured a bank of four smallish video screens of children being interviewed after they were asked how they were born. It is as poignant as its children subjects were wildly imaginative and humorous. The room was continuously packed. Another nod to Japan was Shiota’s “The Key in Hand” an exquisite installation of a huge, luscious red yarn entanglement hung from the ceiling, holding individual keys of every possible kind that were gathered from all over the world. This looked like a huge, red dream cloud from outside the doors of the Japanese Pavilion. A huge old wooden boat rested below, as if moored or shipwrecked. The artist explained that keys connect us and boats carry people and time. Biennale staff revealed this to be the most popular exhibition in the Giardini.
All the permanent pavilions are located in the Giardini, the Biennale Park by the sea. Most visitors come here first, since each country has its curator or curatorial team presenting its country’s best. Satellite exhibitions take place throughout the city at palaces of long-dead doges and at defunct shipbuilding warehouses. Everything is worth seeing. Even bad exhibits, such as “We Must Risk Delight: Twenty Artists from Los Angeles” featured in the shipbuilding district. We were sucked in, and the near-amateur quality of the art work drove us out. But it caused us to walk to a previously abandoned area, once an active shipbuilding area. We were constantly reminded of Venice’s naval dominance in the Mediterranean, viewing exhibitions in wonderfully-refurbished halls with vaulting ceilings.
Speaking of abandoned areas, a high point of my five days in Venice was taking a private boat to the abandoned island of Lazzaretto. The Netherlands’ Pavilion presented its long-revered nature-based artist Herman de Vries who had a beautiful presentation exclusively using plants: an enormous rosebud circle on the floor which perfumed the room, clusters of natural grasses framed – nature as art. One wall included a grid of all-natural colored swaths or brushstrokes made from earths and minerals he found from various sites throughout the world. This was a careful, naturalist’s dream. De Vries is saying to us, “Just look under your feet!”
So as part of this idyllic vision, de Vries visited Venice ahead of time to find a natural place to create new work for the Biennale. The abandoned Lazzaretto Island is a ten-minute private boat ride from the Giardini, for which you could sign up for the scant twenty spots per day. De Vries created three small, on-site installations using marble with text that spoke to the use of the island as a place where those struck with the Plague were sent before they died. The site had huge abandoned buildings which housed dying plague victims hundreds of years ago. Grasses, weeds, flowers and vines overran the small island. De Vries’ three marrble-text installations are fitting here.
From nature to nostalgia, another poignant venue was the Greek Pavilion which featured Maria Papadimitriou’s Why Look at Animals? AGRIMIKÁ, a video of an actor narrating the memoir of a key furrier in the Greek city of Volos. It was a captivating video, where the artist filmed the aging furrier in his humble, now-defunct fur shop as he commented on the struggles of common Greeks like himslef, sent from home at an early age to learn the furrier’s trade. This shop was also recreated in the space of the Greek Pavilion and you could walk through the dark, shabby space, such as one does walking through a preserved historic home. This pavilion also was full of viewers drawn in to the tenderness and frustration of a tradesman who lost out to global competition and the decline of consumer interest in fine furs. It was also a metaphor for the current situation in Greece.
Another hit, deservedly, was Fiona Hall’s “Wrong Way Time” at the Australian Pavilion. Hall is a seventy-something artist, like Herman de Vries of the Netherlands and Joan Jonas who presented in the American Pavilion. Bravo for the individual country curators who selected mature artists who richly deserved Biennale recognition! All three have aesthetic concerns in common, tied to nature and the use of natural materials. On a continuum, de Vries appears the least political of the three and Hall the most overtly political. She covers issues concerning indigeneous peoples’ rights, colonialism/post-colonial politics and finance and a deep committment for the environment.
Like de Vries, she painstakingly collects natural specimens, in her case, pieces of driftwood then fashioned into large wall reliefs. Man-made specimens are in play as well, from paper currency from numerous countries – all featuring boats – upon which she paints a plant form indigenous to that country. She presents her concern about colonial control of many Pan-Asian countries, especially island countries (hence the boat reference) and of the decline of plant species of rare and fragile ecosystems within island communities as global expansion via tourism and industries diminishes fragile ecosystems. Hall’s work is known in Australia and has justly received a huge boost owing to her lavish, if packed, installation at the Biennale.
I will cover the third septuagenarian Joan Jonas who represented the United States, upcoming in Part Two: Americans in Venice.
Some salient information on the Biennale is in order. The total area designated for exhibition space is 46,000 square meters for indoor and outdoor areas, about 495,000 square feet. There are eighty-nine nations participating, twenty-nine at the Giardini, thirty-one at the nearby Arsenale, twenty-nine in the city of Venice and forty-four collateral events in the city presented by non-profit organizations and admitted by the curator. It is Mecca for art lovers. Get to the next one in 2017.