57th Venice Biennale: Giardini Part 1

The first in our series of reports from the Venice Biennale: the best of the National Pavilions in the Giardini

BY Harry Thorne in Critic's Guides | 10 MAY 17

Finally, he takes his knee off her back, which frees up her right arm. As he removes his palm from the side of her face, her cheek comes up from the glass floor. Her body unravels and she slides forward onto her knees. She looks up and catches my eye. We stare at one another for one second, two seconds, three seconds – for too long. I look away, I look back, but she has moved on to the figure to my right. For one second, two seconds, three seconds – for too long.

Anne Imhof’s Faust occupies the entirety of the German Pavilion – low to high, inside to out. The floor is raised on a glass platform, while a safety harness-equipped mezzanine rings the central space and glass partitions act as temporary walls to herd the cattle. It feels sterile, cleansed of anything that came before. Accordingly, the two side-rooms are rigged with heavy sinks, the kind you might find in a surgery or a morgue – or a slaughterhouse. Outside, two guard dogs stalk a fenced perimeter.

For the next seven months (at undetermined intervals), this parlour will house Imhof’s motley crew of dancers, models, and friends, all dressed in black, battered sportswear. Today, they stand in formation, bodies locked, and stare through an uneasy audience. To the left, someone squats on a platform, perched and ready to spring; to the right, a body is shirtless and sprawled, writhing in the throes of something dark. Set against a schizoid soundtrack of dance music, choral lines and gritty recordings of cars, the troupe wrestle in slow motion; melt into rough embraces; march in unison through an assembled crowd that seems surplus to requirements.

Anne Imhof, Faust, 2017, performance documentation, German Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Nadine Fraczkowski

To experience Faust is to be tense, vigilant, and conscious that you are an intruder. It is to watch a rebellious faction run through their drills and feel that, somehow, it is you who they are rebelling against. But don’t take it personally: this is Imhof’s shtick. As Susanne Pfeffer notes in her accompanying essay: ‘Only by forming an association of bodies, only by occupying space, can resistance take hold’. For Imhof, this collective radicalism is how we might one day break away from a repressive, commoditizing, defining form of capitalism that, in a Faustian sense, trades in a non-existent currency. (For our fated doctor, said currency was his malcontent soul). And therein lies the tension: you’re either in, or you’re out. You’re either part of the solution, or you’re part of the problem. Make your own decision, but keep the following in mind: the English translation of Faust is ‘fist’.

Faust gets a second outing at the Romanian Pavilion for ‘Apparitions’, a large-scale presentation of works by Geta Brătescu. ‘Faust’ (1981), a series of 31 drawings, tempera works and collages on paper, is Brătescu’s visual (re)interpretation of Goethe’s morality tragedy, one that reworks the storyline and ushers the female figures of Margaret and Helen to centre stage. Repeatedly, the forms of Brătescu’s protagonists combine and converge, their features reduced to nothing but outlines and blocks and their bodies laid on top of one another – within one another. It is a process of melting and melding that acknowledges the female anatomy as an overlooked point of origin, one that pays tribute to what the artist calls ‘the rudimentary and form-generating figures of Goethe’s Mothers’.

The generative potential of art is celebrated elsewhere in Brătescu’s presentation. Women (2007), for instance, comprises a collage of 200 drawings of the titular subject, each of which was composed while the artist’s eyes were closed – an ode to the forms and figures that creative thinking can draw out of the darkness. Legs in the Morning (2009), a series of five muted photographs, the title of which does its subject matter justice, heralds the possibility of locating beauty within life’s most mundane moments, while Alterity (2002-11), a square of nine photographic self-portraits, demonstrates with deft simplicity the multiple perspectives that art can not only accommodate, but engender. In the centre-left shot, Brătescu looks at the camera and covers her right eye. In the central shot, she covers her left eye. In the right shot, she covers both.

Keep that word ‘generative’ in mind while we discuss the work of Mark Bradford – artist, co-founder of New York non-profit Art + Practice, and this year’s US representative. As part of his involvement in the biennale, Bradford has established Process Collettivo, a six-year project established in collaboration with Rio Terà dei Pensieri Social Cooperative (RTdP), a Venice-based cooperative that provides work placements for those who have passed through Venice’s prison system. The collaboration will see the establishment of a new resource centre, while both parties will also work towards raising awareness of the existing RTdP workshops – amongst other things, the collective teaches those within its programme how to print fair trade t-shirts, maintain allotments, and produce bags from recycled materials.

Geta Brătescu, Alterity, 2002-11, series of nine photographs. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Aurora Kiraly

A number of these philosophies are carried into Bradford’s presentation at the US Pavilion, ‘Tomorrow Is Another Day’. In the first room we are greeted by Spoiled Foot (2016), a hulking abscess of old, large-format commercially-printed posters that hangs from the ceiling as if ripe to burst. Bradford has blasted the posters with a pressure hose, leaving them faded and pock-marked, but if you edge your way around the colossal cyst (it’s a tight squeeze) you might be able to make out a word or two: ‘Immigration’ was all I could spot.

Seen here in 2017, what might this work represent? That the capitalist centre is reaching its breaking (bursting) point? That it is forcing increasing numbers to retreat to the outskirts? Perhaps it is more affirming. Maybe, as this bulbous form threatens to burst, we should consider the power that can be located within the so-called ‘rough’ of the disenfranchised? A number of additional works support of this final claim. In the next room, the snakey black and yellow loops of Medusa (2016) rise from the depths of the neoclassical architecture, its poisonous colours bleeding into the next room, where Saturn Returns (2013-17) spreads like a virus across the interior of a dome. The exhibition’s closing film, Niagara (2005) depicts Melvin, Bradford’s former neighbour, walking away from the camera, on loop, not going far. In yellow shorts and a white tanktop, Melvin struts with flamboyance and pomp into the distance, fully at home amidst the daytime traffic, drifting litter and peeling posters.

In the Polish Pavilion, Sharon Lockhart aims to give voice to the young women who have passed through a socio-therapy centre for severely at-risk youths in Poland. In part, the exhibition – the culmination of an on-going project – takes its lead from Mały Przegląd (Little Review), a supplement of the Warsaw newspaper Nasz Przegląd that was written by young people, for young people, between 1926 and 1939. In four large-scale photographs, young women sit cross-legged and carefully flick through the pages of a fragile, yellowed edition, as if communicating with those who came before. On a plinth sit a stack of reproductions of the October 1926 edition. An article called ‘To My Future Readers!’, and a manifesto of sorts, reads: ‘The paper will consider all of the matters concerning students and schools. And it will be edited in such a way that it will defend children. The paper will make sure that everything happens FAIRLY.’

In a new film, titled Little Review, one of the most touching inclusions at the Giardini, five of Lockhart’s girls line up against a black backdrop, each repeating a simple dance move over and over and over. One on the right does the robot; one on the left pops a hip; one in the middle points a finger to the sky. Moving in untidy synchronicity, the girls begin to utter, each waiting their turn to repeat their single word. ‘Trashed.’ ‘Hate.’ ‘Love.’ ‘Hope.’ The round continues in this fashion until the words, like the dance moves, somehow come apart at the seams and lose all meaning – semiotic dissolution via simple repetition. What remains is the girls, and nothing else, their words wrung out and left as nothing but vocal expressions of self. It is a scene without context, without content, one in which nothing matters bar the girls themselves.

Erkka Nissinen and Nathaniel Mellors, The Aalto Natives, 2017, production still. Courtesy: the artists

Breakdown and dislocation abound at the Finnish Pavilion, but this particular breakdown comes with a madcap twist. The Aalto Natives, a raucous immersive project developed in collaboration between Erkka Nissinen and Nathaniel Mellors, re-imagines Finnish society through the eyes of Geb (a talking egg) and Atum (a man with a box for a head, obviously), two terraforming god-figures who return to the land that they created millions of years prior and attempt to get a handle on the culture that has developed in their absence. As we piggyback on Geb and Atum’s fact-finding mission, we meet a puppet psychologist, an eye-eating snake, and an escaping testicle, and much more, but there is sense in the senseless, as there so often is. With their hallucinatory dream-sequence, Mellors and Nissinen reframe concepts such as religion and cultural production and reveal the ludicrous principles upon which they are based. We, holed up in the Pavilion, scribbling away, don’t escape unscathed. Atum picks up a VR head-set: ‘What’s this?’ A bobble-headed businessman replies: ‘It’s our way for you to see New Finland without going outside. […] We never go outside. Not anymore.’

When it was first announced, Christine Marcel’s ‘Viva Arte Viva’, a show about the worth of art as art, met with some scepticism. Roused once again were the abiding anxieties of an art world that feels under greater pressure than ever to validate itself in a non-art context, and questions were posed as to whether the biennale was doing enough. Why, in a period of such instability and inequality, should the artist be moved to the centre of the picture? And why, when so many find themselves stateless, disenfranchised, should we be celebrating at all? With its diverse, energetic, experimental assemblage of Pavilions, the Giardini answers these questions boldly, and then some. It stumbles, of course, as any assemblage of 29 National Pavilions is prone to do, but for the most part it champions an art that can sustain and resolve; that can interrogate and wildly entertain. It champions an art that can bring us together in body and mind as a singular, cohesive unit, one that is far stronger than the individual can ever hope to be. Viva Arte Viva, indeed.

Check back to frieze.com for daily reports from the 57th Venice Biennale.

Main image: Anne Imhof, Faust, 2017, performance documentation, German Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Nadine Fraczkowski

Harry Thorne is a writer and editor based in London, UK.