57th Venice Biennale: the Central Pavilion

First impressions of Christine Macel’s ‘Viva Arte Viva’ in the Central Pavilion

BY Evan Moffitt in Critic's Guides | 11 MAY 17

It’s the Summer of Love in the city of Venice. At least it feels that way in ‘Viva Arte Viva’, the 57th Venice Biennale exhibition curated by Christine Macel, a bright and breezy affair bursting with unbridled optimism. Echoing its title, ‘art for art’s sake’ might be the show’s primary theme, borne out from rural tribes to hippie communes. The typically dark, endless corridor of the Arsenale gleams with lurid colours from dozens of woven textiles, sculptures and installations. Appropriations of indigeneity abound; there is more than one film that highlights an aspect of ritual dance. Contemporary politics, meanwhile, are mostly absent. If the news has got you down lately, this show might be a welcome distraction.

Dawn Kasper, The Sun, The Moon, and The Stars, 2017, mixed media installation, Central Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Francesco Galli  

Compared to Okwui Enwezor’s ‘All the World’s Futures’ in 2015 – a brooding, labyrinthine slog steeped in Marxist discourse – Marcel’s exhibition feels lighthearted, more digestif than heavy secondi piatti. It’s hard not to imagine that some of her choices are a reaction to (and against) Enwezor’s, because an exhibition could hardly feel more opposite.

Let’s start at the beginning, in the Giardini’s main pavilion, its massive Doric columns draped with Sam Gilliam’s brilliantly hued Yves Klein Blue (2017), an unstretched canvas dyed in the spirit of Gilliam’s early works and hung horizontally like bunting. Yves Klein Blue couldn’t be more refreshingly different than the oil-stained burlap rags Oscar Murillo hung like funeral shrouds from the front of the pavilion in 2015. On the opening day, its rich red and blue tones echoed the powdered pigment caked onto the half-naked bodies of performers in David Medalla and Adam Nankervis’s Mondrian Pavilion (2017), continuing their more than 20 years of work inspired by the art of Piet Mondrian.

Liu Ye, Books on books, 2007, oil on canvas, Central Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale

Macel has divided her exhibition up into nine symbolic ‘pavilions’, or thematic groupings that together reveal a thesis in a show whose title suggests none. The Giardini includes two of these: the Pavilion of Artists and Books, and the Pavilion of Joys and Fears. If the latter sounds opaque, most of the others are as well (try to make sense of the Pavilion of Time and Infinity). Instead, what unfolds in the stately octagonal gallery is what I might rename the Pavilion of the Studio (or, the Pavilion as a Studio?): an evocation – and in one case a literal reconstitution – of artists’ studios, as spaces for dialogue, experimentation and play. At the centre of this is Dawn Kasper, the affable New York based installation and performance artist who will be using the Giardini pavilion’s palatial rotunda as her studio for the biennale’s entire, three-month run. Kasper, a talkative musical autodidact, has filled the space with furniture, instruments and art supplies from her own studio in the Bronx, and is inviting neighbouring artists and strangers she meets to collaborate, perform at open mic sessions or simply sit and chat. It’s a marathon restaging of Nomadic Studio Practice Experiment, a performance and residency Kasper completed in 2012 at the Whitney Museum in New York. When I spoke to her, she wasn’t sure what would happen over the course of the summer; the uncertainty is tantalizing, if it also puts the creative process under unusual anthropological scrutiny.

In a small adjacent gallery, Franz West’s Otium (1995) displays the artist’s annotated studio notes, which he recited in a video that plays on a small monitor. West, a typically formal artist, scrutinizes his raw, unrealized ideas as artworks unto themselves, an embrace of one of conceptualism’s central tenets.

Olafur Eliasson’s project, installation view, Central Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale

In the following room, the largest and most open in the building, Olafur Eliasson has asked stateless refugees to volunteer their time (they are legally forbidden to accept pay) to construct ugly, geometric lamps from wooden lathes and green LED lights in collaboration with visitors. The lamps may be purchased for a donation that will fund legal and psychological services for the displaced, and is meant to encourage teamwork and dialogue between people from divergent social backgrounds – though it’s hard to imagine the refugees will benefit as much as their interlocutors. Eliasson’s project is admirably well-intentioned, but it seems selfish to ask the disenfranchised to labour to win over a few errant xenophobes. Volunteer and participant do not share in the same economy of time. Shouldn’t racists work harder to reform than the people they refuse to respect? The installation’s aesthetic is also strangely impersonal, no more intimate than a slick design shop.

Hassan Sharif, Hassan Sharif Studio (Supermarket), 1990–2016, mixed media objects, books, boxes, dimensions variable, installation view, Central Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Andrea Avezzù 

Three decades of sculptures by Hassan Sharif – colourful agglomerations of banal objects with coils of rope, elastic and rubber tubing – sit in the following gallery on shelves that could have been borrowed from the artist’s studio, or a supermarket aisle. As with West and Kasper’s contributions, the studio here appears as a space for the mind to wander, and for free associations to be made.

You won’t find many artists’ books in the Pavilion of Artists and Books, a series of themed galleries next to the Giardini’s library. Instead, there are several wall-mounted assemblages by John Latham, ironically best known for eating a book (Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture), with volumes subsumed in paint and plaster on their surfaces. Liu Ye’s quiet, precise paintings of books, most of them open and devoid of text, accompany a long vitrine filled with Al Saadi’s Diaries (2016), 30 years of diaries kept on small notebook pages by Abdullah Al Saadi, packed in tobacco or sardine tins. (Al Saadi’s is the one work in the section that can actually be read – provided you can read Arabic). In the following room, Ciprian Muresan’s precise graphite drawings of historical book illustrations, overlaid and stripped of their texts, encircle a dustbin stuffed with shredded paper. Macel’s selections oddly privilege the book as a precious object, rather than one intended for active study.

McArthur Binion, ‘DNA’ series, 2014-16, oil paint stick and paper on board, installation view, Central Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Francesco Galli 

The rest of the Giardini pavilion lacks cohesion, though it includes a number of standout works. A beautiful suite of paintings by McArthur Binion, their surfaces pasted with shredded official documents – the artist’s birth certificate and car registration, for example – painted over with a crosshatch of black and grey or bright colours, willfully turn identity into an abstraction, much the way governments do by force of law. Firenze Lai’s portraits of distended, bottom-heavy bodies in mundane but warped spaces have a melancholic quality reminiscent of Edvard Munch; the best of these, Clockwise and Counterclockwise (2013) shows a woman holding two umbrellas running around a silvery tree trunk, the acrylic ground shifting like a whirlpool beneath her oversized orange feet. The show’s most masterful paintings are by the late Syrian artist Marwan, completed between the mid-1960s and his death last year. A chronological hang traces the development of Marwan’s style, from more conventional yet disturbing portraits (a lone figure in bed grasping a pair of tiny shoes, or a man projectile vomiting) to abstract, impasto depictions of faces, as if seen through a jacuzzi jet. An entrancing new film by Rachel Rose – a combination of conventional animation and stop-motion collage – weaves a loose and dreamy tale about a housetrained rabbit wandering from his suburban tract home into the wild behind its garden, where he bears witness to the life cycle of nature. Senga Nengudi, notably the biennale exhibition’s only black female artist, has installed her iconic RSVP sculptures (begun in 1975) – sand-filled nylon stockings stretched in site-specific performances – atop powerful fans, allowing their sagging, bodily forms to float tenuously off the ground. A high note of the pavilion, the work feels like a symbolic apotheosis for an artist now well into her 70s.

Marwan, Untitled, 1964-1992, oil and tempera on canvas, installation view, Central Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Francesco Galli  

The biennale is always an overwhelming production, and I was asked to focus on only one half of the main exhibition; see Dan Fox’s response to the other half, located in the Arsenale, where Macel’s thesis is much clearer and (in this critic’s opinion) her Kumbaya reaches a fever pitch. The curator describes her approach as ‘neo-humanism’, but more often it just feels sentimental, an ineffective response to the current global surge of fascism and intolerance. Collaboration and community are supremely important priorities, but alongside platitudes like ‘joy’ and ‘infinity’, they feel more like buzzwords. Enwezor’s biennial excelled when it examined the stakes of those priorities, and the risks one faces in pursuit of them. Macel’s, on the other hand, seems too eager to please, less considerate of the world’s pricklier problems. The biennale is so often a tragedy of timing that I can’t help but wonder whether Enwezor and Macel’s exhibitions would be more successful if they traded place in time.

In attempting to eschew politics, Macel has ignored the fact that every aesthetic decision is itself a political act, and smooths over the rougher textures of works that might speak to a broader social context if they appeared in a different show. As a result, ‘Viva Arte Viva’ is pretty but lacks depth, like a false calm in the eye of a storm.

Check back tomorrow for reports from the off-site National Pavilions and collateral exhibitions.

Main image: Sam Gilliam, Yves Klein Blue, 2017, installation view, Central Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Francesco Galli 

Evan Moffitt is a writer, editor and critic based in New York, USA.