BY Sam Thorne in Reviews | 29 MAY 13

55th Venice Biennale: The Arsenale

The title for Massimiliano Gioni’s Venice Biennale – an exhibition which is mostly wonderful, often magisterial and elegantly provocative – comes from a work by Marino Auriti, Enciclopedico Palazzo del Mondo (c.1950s). A model of this skyscraper is installed in the first room of the Arsenale. The Italian-American artist’s quixotic aim was for the building to house all the knowledge in the world; he estimated that it would cost about $2.5 billion to realize. Unsurprisingly, Auriti never found a backer, though he wrote plenty of letters, and even patented his design. For decades it languished in his garage. In 2003, 23 years after Auriti died, his granddaughters donated the model to the American Folk Art Museum in New York.

BY Sam Thorne in Reviews | 29 MAY 13

Auriti, I should mention, was self-taught. Gioni has stated that his exhibition will question who is on the outside and who is on the inside, juxtaposing the canon with the fringe, confusing the professional with the amateur. But ‘The Encyclopaedic Palace’ is about many other things besides – esoteric collections and vagrant archives, the limits to knowledge, the relationship of images to objects, not to mention a crazed kind of figuration. The success of the exhibition, installed, as it traditionally is, between the Central Pavilion in the Giardini and the Arsenale, is the way in which it choreographs these themes and keeps them in balance.

Francesco Bonami – who organized the sprawling, divisive 2003 edition – suggested recently that Gioni is ‘inaugurating what might be called the anti-Biennale. Not a biennial – that is, an international show organized around some grand theme or recent tendency – but simply a very, very big group exhibition.’ This isn’t exactly the case. Gioni’s aims are in a way grand, and the show does have a theme. But ‘The Encyclopaedic Palace’ does mark a clear shift from the ’90s biennial paradigm, predicated on huge geographic networks. Though the show is of course international in scope, it feels much less so than recent editions, with little work from, say, Africa or the Arab world. Gioni has instead suggested that he’d like to conceive of his exhibition as a temporary museum, rather than a show that ‘captures the supposed zeitgeist’. I wonder what he’s assuming about the shape of the contemporary museum here? Certainly Gioni’s time at the New Museum in New York, where he is associate director, has been characterized by an enthusiasm for zeitgeists. But perhaps seeking recourse in the museum speaks more of the ongoing period of self-questioning in which the biennial has recently been caught. As was stated by the title of a 2009 conference in Bergen: ‘To Biennial or not to Biennial?’

Whatever the case, the model for Gioni’s show is Auriti’s imaginary, impossible vision of a museum, and it is duly filled with libraries and archives: 19th-century Shaker drawings, Roger Caillois’ collection of rocks, Ed Atkins’ excellent film about the archive of André Breton, drawings by Rudolf Steiner, Carl Jung’s Red Book (1914–30), Linda Fregni Nagler’s 1,000 archival photos of babies… It goes on. Many of the 160 artists included aren’t artists so much as idiosyncratic scholars and collectors.

The Arsenale – the stronger half of the exhibition, I think – is episodic, even insistently narrativizing in its form. It tracks a kind of evolutionary process. The beginning, for example, is pointedly about beginnings of different kinds – Stefan Bertalan’s drawings of the life cycle of a sunflower or the whole of R. Crumb’s illustrated Book of Genesis. Indeed, the refrain of a great new film by Camille Henrot is ‘In the beginning…’ These early stages are also filled with animals and evocations of the natural world: Eliot Porter’s exquisite 1950s photos of birds in flight, Christopher Williams’ forensic photos of Harvard’s collection of glass flowers (1989).

Soon after, there is a move towards the human form, first with Pawel Althamer’s casts of Venetians, stumbling and falling apart like a modern-day Burghers of Calais, and then one of the biennale’s many highlights, a show-within-a-show curated by Cindy Sherman. Here there are figures of all shapes and sizes: signature pieces by Charles Ray, Duane Hanson and George Condo, some slightly more surprising inclusions like John Outterbridge and Jimmie Durham, through to Haitian vodou flags and even Sherman’s personal collection of photo albums. It’s quite a coup. After that comes a kind of digital churn, an overload of images, prefaced by a room of typically frenetic Ryan Trecartin videos, which moves through works by younger artists – Simon Denny, Alice Channer, James Richards, Helen Marten – and concludes with Stan VanDerBeek’s wonderful Movie Mural (1968). This section traces what happens when the digital becomes form, and vice-versa; to quote a line from a short film by Mark Leckey, also included here, it’s about ‘things that have one foot in this world and one foot in another’.

I’ll leave it for my colleagues – who’ll be posting regular reports over the next few days – to deal with the second half of ‘The Encyclopaedic Palace’, but it’s certainly where things get more (in the favoured shorthand of biennale visitors) problematic. The focus there is more emphatically on what we could call, without wanting to resort to that problematic word ‘outsiders’, underrepresented visual narratives. Visionaries, enthusiasts, mystics, theosophists – from Hilma af Klint to Morton Bartlett, by way of Aleister Crowley and Rudolf Steiner.

But I want to finish with this. For decades, the ambition to integrate art, non-art, and ethnographic artefacts, the periphery and the fringe, has underscored exhibition-making. You see this from ‘The Family of Man’ at MoMA in 1955 to ‘Magiciens de la terre’ (1989) in Paris and MoMA’s ‘“Primitivism” in 20th-Century Art’ (1984). The vituperative reactions to the latter shows seemed to mean that, for a decade or two, this contested terrain remained little-explored. But in recent years several large-scale exhibitions have, in various ways, dared to reopen those debates. Two good examples would be Anselm Franke’s ‘Animism’ (2011–12) and Owkui Enwezor’s 2012 Paris Triennale (to which Gioni’s biennale certainly owes something in its unlikely pairings). Work from the ‘outside’ – whether that’s by self-taught artists or from the ‘peripheries’ – is increasingly being brought inside. It’s an exciting time. So, what happens next?

Sam Thorne is the director general and CEO of Japan House London.