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The Intensity and Quality of the National Pavilions Casts a Shadow over the Central Exhibition

Jaan Elken (2/2017)

Report by Jaan Elken on this year's Venice Biennale.


10. V–26. XI 2017
Giardini, Arsenale, City of Venice
86 national pavilions
120 artists from 51 countries invited to take part in the central exhibition "VIVA ARTE VIVA"

The 57th International Venice Art Biennale is curated by Christine Macel – the fourth female curator in the history of the biennale. As the principal curator at the Pompidou Centre since 2000, Macel has curated exhibitions for the likes of Sophie Calle, Nan Goldin, Gabriel Orozco and others. In 2013, here in Venice, she curated the French national exhibition, while physically in the German pavilion during the pavilion swap, presenting the grand video installation project by Albanian artist Anri Sala, which was based on the interpretation of classical music. We can only suspect that perhaps the choice of curator by the director and other powers behind the biennale was part of an interest in less political and cringe-worthy content. The masculine, openly political and powerful confluence of visions of the future from Okwui Enwezori in 2015 will probably be remembered for many years for its uncompromising nature and sporadic madness.

The slogan of this year's biennale, curated by Macel, is "VIVA ARTE VIVA" (LONG-LIVE LIVING ART). A poetic appeal at a time when crises that shock the entire world, political instability and the arc of accumulating contradictions have once again brought us dangerously close to armed conflict, where Europe is facing possible future scenarios, which cast doubt on the survival of the welfare society. In some sense, the hanging of the "art flag", in this case the blue-red-yellow flag-like works of the veteran American abstract expressionist painter Sam Gilliam, directly on the facade of the Central Pavilion, Giardini, as a symbolic surrender is a sympathetic step. Indeed, no artist on any level of the art pyramid ever solves any societal problems – yes, at best, they use reality as a material, regarding the weaker with greater or lesser empathy, converting blood, sweat and tears into a cathartically shocking art experience. The central exhibition, according to a very close reading of the accompanying text, is notionally divided into nine subchapters, which are not distinguishable enough, in my opinion, as you walk around the central exhibition at the Giardini and Arsenale. This is the first time in my 20-year experience as a visitor to the biennale that the intensity and quality of the national pavilions casts a shadow over the central exhibition.


The curator's mottos

Macel has involved 120 artists from 51 countries, only 103 of the invited artists had previous biennale experience, and perhaps only Anri Sala, whose minimalist wall with sound barrel's matrix had been placed in the traditions section of the exhibition for some reason, and Ernesto Neto, whose giant net-like textile weave was in the centre of Arsenale, could consider themselves stars. A multitude of similar artistic styles, replacing artistic quality with completely different selection criteria (for instance, outsider art was also included), as well as a questionable thematic categorisation based on slogan-like phrases may have collectively been the reason why the groups of work in textile and other soft materials in the centre of Arsenale melded together into a "wallpaper". In the combined uniform mass, the work of Sala and Neto lost their extraordinary quality.

Consequently, the exhibition was more reminiscent of a third world handicraft festival. After the dissolution of the feminist or ethno-cultural discourse, all that were left were decorative piles of material, the reasoning behind the creation of the works and the focus had become blurred. For instance, the Irish pavilion would have better suited as the shaman section (what a strange sub-section!), where Jesse Jones had created a very attractive, space-specific multimedia program presented on multiple screens and transparent curtains, all centred around a million-year old lady and the existing Irish ban on abortion.

Based on the choices of the curator "VIVA CURATORE VIVA" (LONG-LIVE LIVING CURATOR) may have been more adequate as an exhibition slogan because the curator's choices have strongly coloured the basic impression of this year's biennale. One of the sub-sections at the Giardini is indeed "Artists and Books". This rather wide subject brought variations of (artist)-books to the halls of the Giardini; there were publications as part of almost every second installation. Books were promoted as the subjects of paintings by Chinese artist Liu Ye. The British conceptualist John Latham had used books as assemblage elements, adding them physically to the structure of his paintings. Maybe ten years ago, when sawing through, cutting and burning books was fashionable in contemporary art, such a scene caused a moral jolt. Not anymore. There was also an ornamental wall of empty audio cassettes by Maha Malluh of Saudi Arabia at the Arsenale, reminiscent of Erki Kasemets. Today, the fate of outdated data carriers, including books, is as scrap or raw material for art games.

While the keyword "book" was obvious in the works and in the presentation, once again, the preference of the curator came into play. The documentation of the 1970s conceptual performance project by Mladen Stilinovi─ç (1947–2016, Serbia/Croatia) of the artist as an idler and useless sleeper, chosen as the opening piece, contrasted, as such, with the spry and industrious Western career-artist. A similar direction was amplified by many motifs featuring a bed. For example, Franz West and Jelena Vorobjova and Viktor Vorobjov were represented by environmental installations that reconstructed the corner of a room, which also included a bed. The subject was continued in the graphic work "Behold Man!" (2013) by Frances Stark. Reality simulation also rules at the domed hall, one of the most impressive exhibition spaces at the Giardini, because Dawn Kasper has been invited to live there for six months, with her sleeping and working space as well as her personal musical instruments and record collection (vinyl records in the age of streaming!).

In terms of activus accounting, the abundance of artists with Eastern European backgrounds should be mentioned. Some of them are already men of the underworld; for example, Tibor Hajas (1946–1980, Hungary), whose work is part of the permanent exhibition at the Ludwig Museum in Budapest. As an avant-garde pioneer of body art and art photography, the documentation of his performances deserves a special mention at the biennale. Also, the truly masterful large-format graffiti drawings by Ciprian Mure┼čani (Romania), born in 1977, which bring real drawing back into the public focus – masterful, figurative and sensitive. No "filling the space" with freehand hatching or dotting, which leans towards automatism. Obviously, the cultural experience of the curator includes Eastern Europe, and that's a positive change.


Refugee crisis

The general sense is that the soft, safe, almost with round sanded edges and calmly developing central exhibition designed by curator Macel, is mostly untroubled by the events of the world. That said, one common subject does permeate here and there, also in the national pavilions, and that is refugees and migration.

Under the auspices of Olafur Eliasson's (Denmark/Iceland) Berlin studio, a workshop style handicraft area with almost 40 participants (from Nigeria, Zambia, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, China) has been set up in the main hall of the Giardini, where symbolically named "green lights" are made – hexagonal handicraft lamps made using wooden sticks and a green LED-bulb at the heart. More directly, without the similar actionism of emergency work, the theme was described by Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng at the South African pavilion, where a room full of people sat in front of refugee stories acted out by two A-grade Hollywood film stars, while there was a gaping void in front of small monitors that conveyed the stories of "real" refugees. (Which was exactly what was meant to be proven!) It is important how a message is conveyed and by whom. Especially now – in the post-truth age (this repeated ad nauseum fashionable phrase was reiterated in various contexts this year).



Olafur Eliasson Green

Olafur Eliasson
Green Light – An Artistic Workshop
Exhibition view at the Pavilion of Artists and Books at the Venice Biennale
Photo by Jaan Elken
Courtesy of the artist and La Biennale di Venezia



Moving on, the Tunisian pavilion (anonymous artist) comprised of fictitious border checkpoints situated here and there in the city and in the area of the biennale, where visitors were issued with fake passports, which seemingly guaranteed (using fingerprints as identification) the owner visa-free movement across borders. In the "Earth" section of Arsenale, Charles Atlas' video-installation on multiple huge screens with scenes of sunsets told a soppy "we-are-the-world"-style story of responsibility and tolerance when it comes to standing up for the future of our planet, until the identity of the speaker was revealed – it was a rocking drag queen with a huge Dolly Parton style wig, which noticeably changed the context for a large proportion of the audience, as you'd expect.

Art and life were brought together to a critical point at the central exhibition, so that once again the need to define art rises to the forefront of the discussion. Could the intensity of the experience and the visual enjoyment be one of its distinctions? The central exhibition didn't offer this.


Winner of the Golden Lion

The German pavilion, winner of the Golden Lion, has already proven, who knows how many times, that Germany possesses the potential to be the centre of Europe, not only economically, but also intellectually. The curator of the pavilion, Susanne Pfeffer justified her choice of Anne Imhof, born 1987, by how the dispersed choreographic etudes staged by the artist using androgynous models, collectively titled "Faust", symbolise the weight carried by people nowadays, the objectification of bodies and over exploitation, be it by the media or by the pharmaceutical industry. On the opening day, Imhof seriously initiated the encircling of the pavilion, which once again proved that the queue is a sign of quality on press days.



Anne Imhof "Faust"

Anne Imhof
Exhibition view at the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale
Photo by Jaan Elken
Courtesy of the artist and German Pavilion



The pavilion, surrounded by a metal net (in which it wasn't difficult to recognise the analogy of Germany as the destination country in the refugee crisis), had received a new and fragile glass floor over the whole area of the building, which rose almost a metre from the real floor and limited the number of journalists and the chosen ones of the art world allowed into the pavilion in shifts. This ended up largely dividing the models under the glass floor performing etudes inspired by contemporary choreography (on the first weekend open to the public they climbed on the cornices of the roof and performed in other such ways). Strange props in side-rooms intensified ambivalent associations between subjects from Kristallnacht (and other key tragic events in the history of Germany in the 20th century) and the current refugee crisis, and did this in a way that inspired hope that contemporary art still possesses an apparatus and the competence to tackle subjects important to people, and that which is done in the format of contemporary art is not only covered by accessories of an interior design shop or the products offered at art fairs. The public behaved as if programmed as it voluntarily barged its way onto the glass floor, becoming part of the planned performance.


National pavilions

For many years now, the United Kingdom has brought artists to the biennale who don't awaken a surplus of enthusiasm – the selected British participants this year could be compared to sending Engelbert Humperdinck and Cliff Richards – having passed their "best before date" – to the Eurovision song contest. And I wouldn't stress the artist's age at this point, in fact the opposite; for example, the black and white objects, paintings and graphic works by the 1970s Polish informalist and conceptualist Ryszard Winiarski (1936–2006) had a very contemporary feel to them at the artist's satellite project in Venice.

At least in 2015 Sarah Lucas, one of the less original installation artists among the sculptors of the Young British Artists (yBa) group, managed to organise a cornered, wonky space in the British pavilion (although the objects themselves depicted worn-out quotations). On the other hand, the cement, fibreglass and painted plywood installations of 73-year-old Phyllida Barlow, which tightly packed this year's pavilion like a B-grade amusement park and also spilled outside in the form of fake rocks erected on poles, left a worn-out impression. Just think what Anselm Kiefer could do, working with the same colour scheme and pretty much the same materials! (Although, even his aesthetic is far from the current fashion.)

Denmark demolished the non-structural walls of their pavilion and allowed a flourishing flora to take root – in itself, a repeat magician's trick in the context of the biennale (if we remember the "smashed in" shop-windows of the Scandinavian pavilion in 2015). Canada had also "demolished" their pavilion this year and amid charred ruins, which transformed day-by-day, the Middle-East was crowned by a canonical working fountain covered in ornamental patterned tiles.

The thinly veiled ironic mural calling for people to join the fight for peace, "Peace on Earth!" (2017; by Gyula Várnai – already 1956, the year of the artist's birth, is important!) at the Hungarian pavilion was interesting, as was the massive amount of medals arranged on the wall in rainbow-coloured stripes, which apart from Hungary's own medals, comprised Red propaganda and agitation-material from the Soviet Union. The installation based on ethnographic material at the Mongolian pavilion, was very similar to that exhibited at the Azerbaijan pavilion, an old veteran at the biennale, who, as in the Eurovision, buys in its know-how in Venice. If you have something to pay with, why not, because the Azerbaijan pavilion had the largest advertising standard in the city, covering the entire facade of the reconstructed church. Financed by Azerbaijan, an exhibition of 55 large format black and white portraits taken in Azerbaijan by the famous Iranian-American artist Shirin Neshat was organised at the Correr Museum. If memory serves, this country was still part of Iran, then Persia, at the beginning of the 19th century.

Mark Bradford participating at the US pavilion presented colourful murals choreographed into proper abstracts created in the trash-aesthetic style, which, for instance, in the rotund area of the pavilion created associations with the classical architecture of the pavilion and sporadically took on sculptural form. One of my favourite pavilions! The Israeli exhibition was also strong, as always, in which polyester clouds helped create a sense of a total installation, in which the floor of the pavilion started to seem like the surface of the Earth from above.

On the other hand, the Russian pavilion was not as strong as it usually is. On the top floor, Grisha Bruskin's (born 1945, lives in Russia and the USA) white architectonics and installations, derived from the attributes of Russian state power and constructivist art offered an experience, as they were presented some on the floor, and some on pedestals next to the wall. The multiplied video-image, which every-now-and-then moved across the white architectonics, was unexpectedly refreshing, as was the background sound. On the bottom floor of the pavilion, fragments of human bodies were exhibited in a new-classicist style, which forced itself out of fronton-like forms and slid into effusive salon-art (Andrei Blokhin, born 1987, lives in Russia and France; Georgi Kuznetsov, born 1985, lives in Russia and France).

Befitting of a country at war, Ukraine has presented socially motivated art at the last few biennales. At the Ukrainian pavilion, the digital print series of the Ukrainian parliament, by Boris Mikhailov (born in 1985) depicted today's well-paid professional politicians in the style of the pixel-graphics of the television-screen in a vague abstract-expressionist style. Even more indicative was the fax machine exhibited at the Pinchuk Art Centre's Future Generation Art Prize exhibition, which registered the fallen and injured Ukrainian soldiers in East Ukraine in real time on a long-long paper-tape. You experienced a jolt, when the fax machine suddenly started working while you were in the room with the Open Group fax machine, because once again someone was added to the list of the fallen! These art projects made contact between the biennale and the real world outside and the offices of highly paid art officials; however, this was lacking in the central project of the biennale "VIVA ARTE VIVA".

Although, at the Italian pavilion in 2015, which on the whole didn't consist of bad choices (William Kentridge (Republic of South Africa) was represented as a visitor among many others, as a connecting link the painter and assemblage artist Nicola Samori, working under patronage of the Catholic Church), the selection back then and as a whole was still incomprehensible. This year's Italian exhibition in Arsenale was based on an immersive state of mind and consisted of large-scale exhibitions by just three artists, connected by a slogan from the magical world inherent to the Harry Potter generation, il mondo magico. The exhibition forces you to ask – how adequate is the viewer's perception – because in the dim light of the space there is a life-sized crucifix production line making artefacts and holy relics, but it is exactly as a production line that this manufacture of half-decayed, deconstructed fragments of bodies is presented.

The presence of good Italian figurative art was supported by a row of satellite projects across the city, including a very informative and interesting exhibition of Michelangelo Pistoletto on San Giorgio Maggiore Island. On the same island, an excellent retrospective was exhibited of the legendary designer Ettore Sottsass (1917–2007) focusing only on glass. Considering the tourism trade is the only real industry in Venice, Venice's very own pavilion was organised at the back of the Giardini, but in comparison, it fell far behind the very strong presence of Italy at this year's biennale.

Such a concentration of national resources at this year's biennale has given cause to accuse the stronger national pavilions of a creeping fascism, which is obviously an exaggeration. Rather, the totalitarian countries, such as the People's Republic of China, have approached things in a more playful manner this time, presenting silk embroidery and folk handicraft.


Bad boy Damien Hirst

If anything blurred the vibrant impression of this year's biennale, then one possible disruption would be Damien Hirst. The "discovery" of a fictitious shipwreck in the coastal waters of West Africa and the treasures "found" on the seabed filled two private museums in Venice, the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana (François Pinault Foundation), for exactly the period of the biennale – hundreds of large-scale marble and bronze sculptures (many reaching through many floors), as well as 21 rooms full of smaller objects.

For the production of the collection, hundreds if not thousands of contracted artists and masters of classical modelling with perfect skills were roped in from Asia. Mixing cultures and eras, the Disneyland-sized attraction offers "nerve-tingling" videos from the "mining" of the treasures to their installation in the museum space. The exhibition is also not without a Mickey Mouse and Pluto covered in a forest of coral. Apart from recording the icons of pop-culture in marble and bronze, the larger religions and stylistic periods (from Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and Rome, South and Central America to modernism) have also contributed to Hirst's work. The whole collection seems to be as if from the future, after the end of our civilisation on Earth. Hopefully, of course, Hirst and Pinault know that to a casual visitor from beside the canal, not up-to-date with contemporary art, this nut may be a little too hard to crack.

Although, to someone knowledgeable as to Hirst's previous work, having seen this mega-exhibition may leave them haunted by a harsh feeling of emptiness – much like the meeting of matter and anti-matter in our space time, which is not recommended, even in laboratory conditions. Additionally, Jason deCaires Taylor has come up with something rather similar at the Grenada pavilion, although the dimensions of his underwater sculpture park, opened in 2006, are not comparable to the current colossi of Hirst. And who knows how ideas travel because as with Andy Warhol in his time, Hirst is always being accused of "borrowing" ideas.


The Estonian Pavilion

Did the Berlin-based artist Katja Novitskova exhibiting at the Estonian pavilion meet expectations? Certainly! Firstly, because she agreed to represent Estonia. Novitskova's career is on the rise. On the basis of her semiotics education at Tartu University, and after studying art in Lübeck and Amsterdam, she has built her art bubble, mixing sci-fi and micro and macro experiences, more grounded in the virtual world than in reality, but when an image of Lasnamäe flickered past on the slide projected backdrop of semi-transparent compiled future machines, it unexpectedly created a warm feeling. Of course, Novitskova is a good find for Estonian art officials, because such an international success story in the ministerial reports and funding applications – and so what, if it's a success story created independently by the artist while living abroad – is a strong argument to justify the effectiveness of their work.

But if we were to look at the attitude of this year's biennale, it would also have been absolutely fitting to send the volunteer cleanup campaign "Let's Do It!" to Venice. There were many less colourful movements and social media based non-profit projects presented at the central exhibition at Arsenale – with poor-quality archive videos and documentations. The Ministry of Culture of Estonia should quickly wangle us a new location for the national pavilion, though – after climbing up a very narrow uneven stone staircase to the upper floor, the viewer is confronted by only apartment-sized rooms, which have been reconstructed into exhibition spaces like a cluster-gallery. The golden rule of real estate also applies in Venice – location and once again location is key!


Jaan Elken is a painter, lecturer, curator and an art critic.

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