The Venice Biennale, which opened in May, is on view through Nov 22 with exhibitions in the Giardini and the Arsenale, featuring 136 artists, 89 participating countries, and 44 collateral events presented by non-profit organizations and exhibited in various locations across Venice. The city’s massive Arsenale (of Venice’s mighty past as controller of the Mediterranean) and spacious Giardini (the park setting for permanent buildings – pavilions of major countries led by host Italy – which has the largest building that it offers up to the Director for his curatorial choices) provide an artistic banquet table, the likes of which are hard to match anywhere in the world. This is art on a grand scale, in grandly scaled interior (Arsenale) and exterior (Giardini) spaces. Not to mention satellite exhibitions in noble and refurbished spaces throughout this haunting city, offering viewers the opportunity to wander around the city, which can only be accessed, by foot or vaporetti (water taxi.)
Several key elements immediately struck me after the first few days’ viewing. First, is the bold and joyful subject of children and motherhood as a central motif in a number of pavilions. The conceptual arena was suddenly blown open so much wider than the predictable, slick, we-are-so-cool-and-removed offerings of so many curatorial events. Second, the Biennale celebrates the work of several septuagenarians, known in their respective countries, but now receiving deserved global attention: The Netherlands’ Herman de Vries, Australia’s Fiona Hall and Joan Jonas of the United States.
Third, this is a great show for American artists participating in Venice. The 56th Venice Biennale awarded the top prize, the Golden Lion, for the best artist in the fair to American Adrian Piper, who at sixty-six, has spent more than four decades making conceptual art works that question race and gender. For the Biennale, Piper devised “The Probable Trust Registry,” a recent work consisting of three sleek, reception-like desks set in front of stark black walls (like at a high-end conference lobby) where staffers invited visitors to sign contracts agreeing to live by one or more of three rules: “I will mean everything I say”; “I will do everything I say I will do”; and “I will always be too expensive to buy.” While the jury praised her work as an invitation to “engage in a life-long performance of personal responsibility,” I moved on quickly, totally disengaged from the work. This sounds like a real downer way to begin an article about a truly meaningful Biennale, but it does reveal the vagaries of taste and varied perceptions we viewers bring to artwork.
In the case of Piper, both perceptions and taste are involved: Piper’s artwork grows out of her shift from studying visual art to getting a degree in philosophy at Harvard University. She is considered a distinguished analytic philosopher, focusing on meta-ethics and Immanuel Kant’s metaphysics. Sol LeWitt’s conceptual works and writings inspired Piper and thus launched her into performance art, photography, drawing and video. She was the only African-American woman artist selected for the groundbreaking exhibitions Concept Art (1969) in Germany and Information (1970) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, stunning early successes. For art lovers who embrace text-based work, she is right up there at the top. For myself, I like a lot more art in my art but I am thrilled that she has been chosen for reasons of her courageous subject matter and unrelenting textual attacks.
During the Golden Lion Awards, American artist Joan Jonas received a special mention for her evocative video and sound installation “They Come to Us Without a Word,” for the United States Pavilion – in what is still the single most scrutinized contemporary art roundup on the planet. In addition to videos playing in each of the five rooms of the United States Pavilion, Jonas also tantalizingly arranged various sculptural forms she utilizes in her videos. Some of these sculptures hung from the ceiling and moved gently in the air currents within the rooms packed with viewers. She also hung rows of facsimile inkjet prints of ink and watercolor paintings on paper that were thematically related to the videos showing in the particular room. One room’s drawings and video theme was “Bees,” another “Fish” and in the center “Mirrors.” The atmosphere was transformative; Jonas has a magical touch: she creates a lot out of a small, white, stage-like space she shoots in or often the natural environs in California where she grew up and lives. The drawings were unnecessary, actually, and created an over packed feel. The walls could have remained serenely empty with focus on the videos and sculptural elements. I have also decided that the United States Pavilion is a hard space to design for. The five sections are too broken up and it is not an overly large space at any rate.
Throughout her career, Jonas has collaborated with a number of artists, including Americans Jason and Alicia Moran. The Morans are featured in two venues in Venice. Performances of Morans’ Work Songs takes place every Thursday through Sunday, from 4:40pm – 5:20pm, in the Arena Theater at the Giardini throughout the run of the Biennale. The Morans’ Work Songs replicate the tempos of work songs sung in prisons, fields, and houses. Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music alumni Andrea Jones and husband Phumzile Sojola performed the work songs for a two-week run and it was pure serendipity to hear them live in the performance space between exhibition rooms of the Italian Pavilion. These public presentations breathed real life into the whole experience of viewing the Biennale, the sounds of actual voices drawing viewers from quiet exhibition rooms into the Arena Theater, the oral human voice being such a potent force. I also draw correlations between song and work, song and oppression, and song and community. We have lost that in America, as ethnic and cultural groups are diluted. “Dancing in the Streets” used to be a common, cultural bonding experience in working-class neighborhoods throughout America’s cities and towns.
In the cavernous nearby Arsenale, Jason Moran presented Staged: Savoy Ballroom 1, 2015. I imagine Moran commissioned a team of specialists to recreate the exquisitely lush, golden stage of the long-gone New York music hall and he equipped it with a piano that would play melancholy songs of a bygone era as viewers walked by. This underscores the remarkable vision in Okwui Enwezor’s directorship of this Biennale –
his expansion of media and ideas. He brings artists, theorists, writers, composers, choreographers, singers, and musicians together with all their varied forms (images, objects, words, movement, actions, lyrics, sound, public performances.) By bringing them together in public spaces, viewers share in acts of looking, listening, responding, engaging and reflecting. The goal is to come away from this Biennale experience with a fuller, more politically-aware experience. I did.
The Work Songs piece was immediately followed by an innovative sound/song/performance, “Daily,” by Germany’s Olaf Nicolai. German bassist Andreas Fischer’s interpretation was moving and riveting, the human voice carrying so much emotion and meaning. “Daily” is based on Nicolai’s interpretations of Luigi Nono’s two-part composition Un volto, del mare / Non consumiamo Marx (1969). The Italian composer incorporated audio recordings of anti-war, student protestors who were forcefully evicted from the premises of the 34th Biennale in 1968. (Political activists occupied some of the national pavilions, turned artworks to face the walls in others, or shrouded them in anti-war banners.) Nicolai has performers who “react in song to the live reading of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital in the Arena. Every few days a performer writes and sings a new song, which he or she records with a smartphone. The recordings are then transmitted digitally into a portable backpack system available to Arena visitors.” (quote from press information). So Fischer performed, dressed comfortably in jeans and wearing the portable backpack system. His stunning bass voice and the audio from the backpack created a marvelous, double-sonic experience. I add this performance to my article to underscore the dynamic nature of the Biennale viewing experience. Being at the right place at the right time (if you weren’t glued to the written guide) provided unexpected pleasures throughout the week. Another example was taking a private boat to abandoned, weedy, overgrown Lazaretto Island, a ten-minute ride from the Grand Canal to view Herman de Vries’ site pieces that further underscored the artist’s commitment to working with nature in nature. If I hadn’t been at The Netherlands’ Pavilion, I wouldn’t have seen the discreet sign-up sheet for a coveted seat on the boat.
Necessary to mention is the Arena Program’s much-publicized event – “Das Kapital Oratorio,” an epic live reading of all three volumes of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, conceived by Enwezor and directed by Isaac Julien. Julien was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2001 for his films “The Long Road to Mazatlán” (1999), and was visiting lecturer at Harvard University’s Schools of Afro-American and Visual Environmental Studies between 1998 and 2002. His film “Ten Thousand Waves” (2010) has been shown in over 15 countries including at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2013/14. Okwui Enwezor saw the 1974 Biennale as a guide to tone and timbre of what a Biennale could be, since the 1974 Biennale was the site of protest against Augusto Pinochet’s coup d’état in Chile. And Enwezor brought in Olaf Nicolai to create “Daily” which used the 1968 anti-war movement actions at that Biennale. So Enwezor saw these volatile times as ripe for an investigation of global Capital and as each day unfolds and we hear today’s news from around the globe, his vision is acutely affirmed.
We’re not done with the Americans in Venice. Chicago’s Kerry James Marshall disses Gerhardt Richter! Right in the Giardini! Marshall has four new paintings in a room to himself, including two surprising abstractions that look to be a response to octogenarian Richter. On one hand are Marshall’s figural tableaux featuring black Americans, and suddenly, there are these acid yellow, hot pink, and lime green bravura, gestural abstractions.
Painter Glenn Ligon is featured with four large works on canvas that hang in their own room within the pavilion “Come Out #12 – 15”. The words ‘come out to show them’ are over-printed repeatedly in black paint, mostly illegible and no competition for Marshall. Ligon also presented an unlit neon sign above the Italian pavilion that is laid over the Italian pavilion sign. The words “blues blood bruise” obliterate the sign, just as his paintings are rendered illegible inside. Ligon matched his bleak signage with a piece by Oscar Murillo, who hung black tarps meant to be flags or pennants at the entrance to the Italian Pavilion, below Ligon’s sign piece, which created a sense of mourning and bleakness, where “All the World’s Futures,” by the 56th Venice Biennale’s director Okwui Enwezor, was clearly in play at the entrance. I find Bruce Nauman’s use of neon for the United States pavilion in 2007 more compelling and overall, Nauman owns neon way more than Ligon does. (As did Mario Merz.) Of course, Bruce Nauman was featured in this Biennale too,( as in almost every Biennale, it seems) with his neon work “Raw War” (1970), and his iconic “Human Nature/Life Death/Knows Doesn’t Know,” (1983.)
More Americans: Robert Smithson’s reconstruction of “Dead Tree,” which was first presented in 1969 at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, along with two important drawings and is the fourth reconstruction of this work. A great treat and surprise was seeing a really early film collaboration with artist and wife of Smithson, Nancy Holt. “Mono Lake” was filmed in 1968 and refreshed by Holt in 2004. It is a modest black and white film documenting their visit to this bizarre and desolate place. Mono Lake is an oasis in the dry Great Basin in California, unpeopled, spooky, black-rocked, pure Smithson.
Smithson was a pioneer of the land art movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, best known for his monumental earthwork from 1970, “Spiral Jetty” in the Great Salt Lake. It is a testament to Enwezor’s careful research to have included these seminal pieces from a significant sculptural duo, Smithson and Holt. Walker Evans was also remembered in the main pavilion. His suite of photographs “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” is iconic and timeless. Terry Adkins haunting sculptures, Sarah Sze’s “The Last Garden and Ellen Gallagher’s new paintings were also included by Enwezor; these artists showing work less bluntly about politics and more about the visual.
American Patricia Cronin participated in a collateral event, which means that in her case, she raised the funds for her installation, “Shrine for Girls,” in the deconsecrated church of San Gallo, near San Marco Square. She assembled piles of clothes to commemorate three groups she calls “secular martyrs”: students kidnapped by Boko Haram in Africa, girls raped and lynched in India, and “fallen” women exploited by the Magdalene Laundries in the United States, Britain and Ireland. These clothing bundles, representing the absence of the persons, were heaped on the altars of Venice’s smallest church. I did not see this work but it looked compelling in photographs. I found “We Must Risk Delight: Twenty Artists from Los Angeles,” featured in the newly-refurbished shipbuilding district to be wanting. It cost Cronin $200,000 to present her work, what with church rental and such, and similarly, donors were acknowledged by the LA group, all of which underscores the hype, the glory, the opportunity and the actual costs associated with and paid for by someone for these exhibition feats. It is fascinating, on some level to find that we can be really captivated by something large, complex and grand, like American Joan Jonas’ engaging videos and sculptural tableaux or the visually stunning “The Key in Hand” in the Japanese Pavilion, with the captivating red yarn cloud above the giant wrecked boat. On the other hand, simple paintings, no real tricks, as in American Kerry James Marshall’s or Britain’s Chris Ofili’s suite of new paintings, hold their own as paint and an interior vision.
–Cynthia M. Kukla is an artist and professor of art currently living in Illinois.