Our culture is sick. This may not have been quite so glaringly apparent when Christine Macel conceived of her Venice Biennale – she, like most of us, no doubt had a very different vision of the shape that our political landscape would take, before it went into a rightward-leaning tailspin – but it was impossible to deny by the time she hung the show. This put Macel in a bad spot: the Biennale demands a sweeping cultural diagnosis and her symptomatology turned out to be sorely lacking. It’s like a doctor who has spent a year toiling over a battery of tests discovering too late that the reason their patient isn’t walking is because they have no legs. Given this disadvantage, it is unsurprising that the show falls short of its mark. But claiming that it is merely a victim of timing would be to let Macel off too easily, as the show has flaws that are coded into its DNA.
The first hint of these comes from the title of the Biennale, ‘Viva Arte Viva’ (Long Live Art, Long May it Live), which has a kind of Pollyannaish vibe that demands it be read with exclamation points. Some of this enthusiasm is well earned: of the 120 artists on view, 103 of them have never shown in Venice before and most of the artists fall into the 40-60 age range; the gender balance, though, clocks in at only 35 percent women. But this overall tone of gee-whiz optimism sullies much of the exhibition, particularly in the larger of its two venues, the Arsenale.
At the entrance to this rambling monster of a space, Macel clarifies her intentions. The two main pavilions, somewhat confusingly, are divided into nine sub-pavilions, which develop the show’s themes: ‘Artists and Books’ and ‘Joys and Fears’ (both of which are in the Central Pavilion); and ‘the Common’, ‘the Earth’, ‘Traditions’, ‘Shamans’, the ‘Dionysian Pavilion’, ‘Colours’, and ‘Time and Infinity’, all of which are located in the Arsenale. ‘Viva Arte Viva’, says Macel in the opening wall text, is ‘a biennale designed with artists, by artists and for artists, about the forms they propose, the questions they ask, the practices they develop, and the ways of life they choose.’ Further, she asserts, ‘in a world full of conflicts and shocks, art bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human, at a time when humanism is precisely jeopardized.’ Somewhat generic, but so far, so good. However, the Arsenale’s opening gallery swiftly undermines this soaring rhetoric.
This is where previous Biennale curators have opted for splashy, exhibition-defining show pieces: Okwui Enwezor with a pairing of shouty Bruce Nauman neons and menacing machete bouquets by Adel Abdessemed, and Massimiliano Gioni with the towering model of Marino Auriti’s imaginary museum that gave his exhibition its title, paired with photographs of sculptural Nigerian hairstyles by J.D. Okhai Ojeikere. (I worked on this exhibition as both an advisor and a catalogue writer.) Macel takes the opposite tack, eschewing both art world stardom and visual pizazz, by presenting The Circle of Fires (1979), by the Chilean filmmaker Juan Downey and Zero to Infinity in Venice (2016–17), an updated version of a sculpture from 1968 by the artist and writer Rasheed Araeen, founder of the influential journal Third Text. Downey’s work is a circle of video monitors that screen various daily rituals of the Yanomami people. It was filmed by members of the tribe itself, which, at the time of its making, gave new meaning to the anthropological term ‘participant observer’. Araeen’s work is a series of colourful cubes, which, in a similar clouding of the roles of producer and participant, the art-going public is asked to rearrange into whatever configuration they see fit. On paper, this might sound like a noble opening salvo in a world where spectacle tends to win out over substance. However, the room feels underwhelming and out of touch with the tenor of both our political and artistic moment, making walking into it feel akin to opening the wrong present on your birthday. 1960s and ’70s era interactive minimalism and ethnographic video art? You shouldn’t have! Really.
The overbearing presence of the 1960s and ’70s doesn’t diminish. Firstly, there is a smattering of historical works, some of which are among the venue’s most memorable. These include Huguette Caland’s delicate drawings of female genitalia from the 1970s, Franz Erhard Walther’s slouchy, colourful interactive sculptures and wall works (which won him the Golden Lion), and documentation of the overlooked Slovenian collective OHO, who created deeply imaginative performance and ephemeral installation work concerning humankind’s entanglement with nature before bowing out of the art world and starting their own commune in the mid-1970s. Secondly, there is a host of contemporary works that emphasize the crafty, the communal and the amorphously spiritual. These are often less successful. The sculptures and works on paper that make up Gabriel Orozco’s ‘Visible Labor’ (2015) series – for which the artist overlaid his signature quartered circles on pictures of intricate wood joinery – are ostensibly a tribute to Japanese craft traditions, but come as across as a self-branding exercise. Lee Mingwei’s The Mending Project (2009–17) is a mawkish performance that involves visitors giving torn garments to the artist or his assistant, who then engages them in conversation while he repairs them. Finally, there is Ernesto Neto’s trendily ayahuasca-themed installation, Um Sagrado Lugar (A Sacred Place, 2017), which opens the ‘Pavilion of Shamans’ and invites visitors to sit inside a hand-made mesh tent and create their own drum circle. During the opening Neto invited indigenous people from the Huni Kuin tribe to perform rituals in the space and interact with attendees but, minus the mind-bending effects of the tribe’s sacrament, the whole affair felt like a feeble pastiche of the shamanic ceremonies to which it seeks to pay homage – the spiritual equivalent of watching a cooking show instead of eating real food.
However, for the purposes of this review, the relative strength of the works in the exhibition is not the principle issue. The Arsenale includes notable presentations by a number of artists in various media – Giorgio Griffa, Kananginak Pootoogook, Judith Scott, Jeremy Shaw and Francis Upritchard amongst others – but the impact of their work is blunted by Macel’s overall curatorial conceit. She has cherry-picked the rosier aspects of the countercultural moment while largely avoiding its thornier bits: war, discrimination, sociopolitical strife, madness, death. It’s all free love, no Vietnam.
Macel makes a point to underscore her position at the entrance of the Central Pavilion, the exhibition’s second venue in the Giardini. On the building’s façade, she has hung an exuberant, rainbow-coloured bolt of canvas by Sam Gilliam – Yves Klein Blue (2016) – which, as I am not the first to observe, serves as a pointed rejoinder to the funereal banners of Oscar Murillo that Enwezor hung in the same position during his dour, raging previous 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. Ironically, though, given this cheerful opener, it is inside the pavilion where some darkness creeps into the show – and it’s welcome. Stirring figurative works by the Syrian painter Marwan (again from the 1960s and ’70s) vibrate with anxiety and alienation, perhaps provoked by the artist’s self-imposed exile in Germany. In some ways, they recall the late Maria Lassnig’s psychologically fraught self-portraits and Frank Auerbach’s tortured neo-expressionism, while Senga Nengudi’s brawny, tough-minded sculptures from the 1970s to 2017 – made from stretched pantyhose and machine parts – give Sarah Lucas a run for her money. New works from the promising young Chinese painter Firenze Lai, which feature awkward figures with outsized limbs, are both tender and menacing, and a tripped-out animation by the protean video artist Rachel Rose succeeds in overpowering its clichéd subject matter – our species’ callous disregard for nature and the ravages of suburban sprawl – with the sheer force of its visual inventiveness. Macel also scores points for this venue’s opening gambit, a series of photographic self portraits by the artist Mladen Stillnović entitled ‘The Artist at Work’ (1978), which depict him contentedly lolling on his bed.
But these notes of complexity are not enough to carry the show. Too much of the work here is insubstantial. But, perhaps most importantly, it is too sincere. Though the reflected light of the counterculture enraptures the show, it neglects to remember one of the era’s key conceptual innovations: the put-on. A form of provocation pioneered in North America by the likes of Timothy Leary and the Yippies (whose antics gained them the moniker ‘Groucho Marxists’), the put-on was an acknowledgment that sometimes the best response to an absurd world is absurdity itself. It also, crucially, was the result of the realization that winking at an audience is more effective than shouting at them or holding their hands. The right wing learned this from the counterculture. It is what gave us bloviating showmen like Boris Johnson, Alex Jones and Donald Trump, whose followers no longer expect sincerity or even truthfulness, as long as their rhetoric ‘feels’ right, and allows them to anoint themselves as part of a self-selecting club of those in the know. If Macel had wanted to make a real case for the relevance of the counterculture, she might have been wise to consider the efficacy of this stance.
Main image: Lee Mingwei, The Mending Project (detail), 2009–17, installation view, Arsenale, 57th Venice Biennale, Venice. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Italo Rondinella