BY Sean Burns in Critic's Guides | 22 APR 22

The 59th Venice Biennale Review: Off-Site Projects

Marlene Dumas triumphs at Palazzo Grassi and Pauline Curnier Jardin upends the Biennale’s exclusivity

BY Sean Burns in Critic's Guides | 22 APR 22

For my second year reviewing the off-site projects in Venice, I begin in a prison. Having briefly decamped from the Arctic circle to the Venetian lagoon, Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) is hosting a preview exhibition, ‘Something Out of It’, which describes the aim of the festival as being to ‘reflect on the production of biennial events’. By attempting to examine the framework of the biennial on a meta-level, LIAF sets itself a difficult remit. The Venice Biennale has a use-value in the mind of the art world that falls, for the most part, outside of itself – in as much as it furnishes galleries, programmes and rosters thereafter.

Versed in the foibles of the biennial format, artist Pauline Curnier Jardin, in tandem with LIAF, has collaborated with the inmates at Casa di Reclusione Femminile, an all-female detention facility located on the island of Giudecca, in a bid to upend hierarchical notions of access. The permanent installation consisting of a set of exuberant blue murals and an unexpectedly clubby film, is intended for the privileged access of the prisoners. Members of the public can gain entry during the preview week by prior arrangement but, of course, this raises an ethical query about the true nature of the installation’s supposed exclusivity. Maybe works of this kind should exist only in rumour.

Pauline Jardin
Pauline Curnier Jardin, Adoration, 2022, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Lofoten International Art Festival and Francesco Urbano Ragazzi

That said, Jardin’s project asks essential questions about an artwork’s responsibility to its surroundings and, crucially in Venice, the communities it serves. I’m not necessarily of the belief that work should always perform a social function or even fill a gap. However, in the context of biennials, where disruptive ideas are often gestured towards but rarely enacted, artists that activate such territory propose counterpoints to the performativity at play elsewhere.

Jardin makes perceptible the shady history of the site, which historically functioned as a convent where women the state considered prostitutes were forced to become nuns. The terms of what constituted ‘prostitution’, the artist told me, seem to be a broad church, including those designated ‘too beautiful’ to be unmarried in the outside world. Once a year, the inmates would hold secular plays in which some performed in male drag. The energy of these moments inspired Jardin’s film, which culminates in a breakdown of authoritarian rules – the inmates’ drawings of dancing nuns gyrate across a psychedelic sky.

Julien Charriere
Julian Charrière, And Beneath It All Flows Liquid Fire, 2019, installation view, ‘Towards No Earthly Pole’, Aargauer Kunsthaus, Switzerland, 2020. Courtesy: © Julian Charrière / VG Bild Kunst, Bonn; photograph: Jens Ziehe

The crumbling opulence of Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello sees the return of Parasol Unit with the group show ‘Uncombed, Unforeseen, Unconstrained’. The standout work is Julian Charrière’s video And Beneath It All Flows Liquid Fire (2019), in which flames engulf a neoclassical fountain to an electronic score that engenders a strange sense of catharsis. In this building, in this context, the idea of the past being set on fire feels profoundly anarchic. Nearby, in the central hall, Rayyane Tabet’s series of metal loops, Steel Ring (2013–ongoing), quietly dissects the marble space – a reminder that minimalism often functions best when rubbing closely against ridiculous maximalism.

In the latest issue of frieze, writer and curator Francesco Tenaglia speculated whether performance would triumph again at this year’s Venice Biennale. The answer to that question amongst off-site projects – notwithstanding Oliver Beer’s performance at Parasol Unit, Little Gods (Chamber Organ) (2022), in which he played pots for 24 hours à la John Cage – is a resounding: ‘No’. Has COVID-19 caused commissioners to hedge their bets on more immediately marketable artworks, or are social distancing measures making it difficult?

Fiona Banner
Fiona Banner aka The Vanity Press, ‘Pranayama Organ’, 2021, installation view, Patronato Salesiano XIII, Venice, 2022. Courtesy: the artist

Fiona Banner’s installation, ‘Pranayama Typhoon’, occupies a school gymnasium at Patronato Salesiano. As with all of the artist’s work, everything is cleverly interconnected for the viewer to decode. The ISBN number of the exhibition’s publication also appears on a small screen in the show, while the painting Capitalist, Capitalist, Capitalist (Ellipsis) (2022), containing rock-sized full-stops in a landscape, hangs on the gym’s basketball hoop. The central video, Pranayama Organ (2021), features two performers dressed as floppy fighter jets jostling on a beach: it’s a flaccid and futile distillation of failed, warmongering masculinity. Banner has been recycling this motif for over a decade: the Typhoon and Falcon jets are heavy signifiers of human ingenuity and destruction. 

Some safe bets shine offsite: Marlene Dumas at Palazzo Grassi is a spectacular meeting of decadence (the palazzo) and depravity (the paintings). Her arch sarcasm is at play amidst the severity of her subject matter. It feels particularly pertinent to see her portrait series ‘Great Men’ (2014): a roll call of gay heroes, including Francis Bacon and James Baldwin, made in response to Russia’s anti-homosexual legislation. Dumas combines allyship with a manner that inflects all her work: unfussy empathy infused with unforced reverence. Her paintings have a similar quality to Bacon’s: they pull back the oppressive veil of polite society to reveal the base sexual carnality that resides just beneath the surface. As curator Caroline Bourgeois told me: ‘Dumas is not afraid to go where the fear is,’ which is a tremendous dictum for young artists to aspire to.

Marlene Dumas
Marlene Dumas, Fingers, 1999. Courtesy: © Marlene Dumas; photograph: Peter Cox

The off-site offer is often a mixed bag, about which it’s impossible to generalize. Projects such as Jardin’s, where the works result from an ongoing collaborative relationship, trouble the notion of impermanence and spectacle that can dog the national pavilions. I’d like to see more artists pushing against these structural edges, working with local people and challenging the idea that the Venice Biennale is just somewhere glamorous to fly into and dash out of. 

For additional coverage of the 59th Venice Biennale, see here.

Main image: Marlene Dumas, Blindfold (detail), 2002. Courtesy: © Marlene Dumas; photograph: Peter Cox

Sean Burns is an artist, writer and assistant editor of frieze based in London, UK. His book Death (2023) is out now from Tate Publishing.