We are gathering in this city on water for an international exhibition of contemporary art that reflects what the world is today. The opening week of the Biennale is a frenzy of social activities and art, the one night where the water rises and Venice is flooded, known as acqua alto adding to the drama and intensity to this gathering. This year’s international exhibition in Venice, called Viva Arte Viva, is curated by Christine Macel. In her curatorial statement, Macel talks about how “Viva Arte Viva is an exclamation, a passionate outcry for art and the state of the artist. Viva Arte Viva is a Biennale designed with the artists, by the artists, and for the artists. It deals with the forms they propose, the questions they pose, the practices they develop, and the ways of life they choose.” This makes sense in a world that is so deeply divided and, after the previous two biennales, the approach promised to be refreshing.
For a bit of context, unlike Okwui Enzwor’s 2015 show entitled All the World’s Future, which was all the more “real” and even, at moments, bleak or morose, and Gioni’s Encyclopedic Palace, which was an imaginary encyclopedia of the world the year before and was, at times, a bit heavy handed and academic, Viva Arte Viva felt alive. That really was the point of it all: to bring beauty and life back, to focus on the artist.
Unfortunately, however, the exhibition within nine trans-national pavilions (that’s right, they transcend nations and borders and arranged by “concepts” and ideas) often lapsed into cliché and, rather than putting the emphasis back on the artist, seemed to focus more on these “themes”.
The pavilions, spread throughout the Arsenale and the Giardini’s International Pavilion, such as the Pavilion of Joys and Fears, to the Pavilion of Colors, to the Pavilion of Shamanism, were like chapters in a fairy tale. So what we were faced with was artwork that was already boxed into these –isms, which seemed contradictory to the opening brief from Macel.
David Medalla, A Stitch in Time
In the first pavilion in the Arsenale, called the Pavilion of the Common, which focused on community, we were confronted with so much textile work; interestingly, A Stitch in Time by David Medalla really did bring everyone together to make their own artistic contribution to a hammock. This is an artist who is about engagement and finding a community, and the hammock piece complemented Medalla’s larger installation and performance in the Giardini.
There were a number of notable moments during the opening. We enjoyed Charles Atlas’ sunset and countdown video, which featured the voice of Lady Bunny on a loop. It was moving, transient, and aroused different, yet memorable, emotions; the work garnered Atlas a special mention at this year’s exhibition. The installation by Gabriel Orozco did well in positioning items of value from Japan along beams from an old Japanese structure. This is Orozco, an expert on commentary regarding the ways in which cultures affect each other, the notion of value across borders. Guan Xiao's video installation David was often hilarious but so telling of our Millenial age.
Gabriel Orozco, Visible Labor
Guan Xiao, David
Kader Attia’s flying couscous and singing lady was a moment to remember too: a commentary on Tunisia and a particular way of life, but perhaps one that is no longer prevalent. Attia, himself an immigrant, is fully integrated in France, where he lives in Paris with his family. The show raises questions, such as those concerning immigration; however, in the selections and themes of Macel’s Biennale, such topics did not feel well discussed, and seemed more like afterthoughts. When commentary was made about post-colonialism or immigration, it seemed to miss the point: the folksy statues and sculptures felt like relics of the past—more decorative than declarative.
Olafur Eliasson’s Greenlight Project in the International Pavilion in the Giardini stood out for its social intention, but was criticized for the ethics of recruiting immigrants to work on the light structures for sale to visitors in the center of the International Pavilion. We don’t think that there was a moment of cynicism that informed the decision to go ahead with the project: it was a good-intentioned project, to highlight the dilemma and issue of immigration by creating a green-light, but within the confines of the International Pavilion perhaps it could not fully become what it intended to be.
Other projects worthy of note included an imaginative, well-made animation by the young American artist Rachel Rose, highlighting all the concerns we have with nature, urbanism, and the like; Cerith Wyn Evn’s video next to Agneieszka Polka’s; and the Korean artist Kim Sung Hwan installation and video, all of which were great moments.
Then the were the textiles. The textiles works of Franz Erhard Walther were stunning and memorable (Walther won the Golden Lion for the best artist in the central show). But there really was so much that, at moments, it felt like a folk fair. Sheila Hicks’ knitting kit was enormous, stunning —and IG worthy—but one wonders what really was the point.
Franz Erhard Walther
While there were some great moments and great works, the way that they were put together in the way that it was, the highlights felt few and far between. We didn’t walk away feeling much except, oh that was nice. Craft is a wonderful thing, and bringing together themes that create unity and cohesion are too, but when the artists and art seem to get lost in these folds, the result is a bit of letdown. Art that lives should be more than this; maybe the acqua alta really was more dramatic and memorable than the international exhibition.