The main show of the Venice Biennale provides a useful template with which to consider large-scale exhibition strategies and gauge one’s own expectations. Should a show such as this, which provides an anchor within the Biennale’s multitudinous national pavilions, be a survey of current artistic production, as was its last iteration, curated by Bice Curiger? Should it deliver a thematic narrative? Should it respond to current political events, or showcase new discoveries? In his exhibition, Il Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace), curator Massimiliano Gioni moved the focus away from current artistic trends to the margins: to deceased artists, hobbyists, enthusiasts, or so-called ‘outsider’ artists. Despite this divergence in emphasis, however, the show Gioni delivered was a model of contemporary exhibition making: a slick, precisely installed show with little left to chance.
The exhibition borrows its title from retired car mechanic Marino Auriti’s model of an ‘Encyclopedic Palace’ (Enciclopedico Palazzo del Mondo, c.1950), a Tatlin-esque Tower designed to contain the entire canon of all worldy knowledge. Its creator had envisaged it built on the National Mall in Washington D.C. Though this vision never came to pass, the model is installed like the exhibition’s masthead in the first room of the Arsenale, surrounded by an extraordinary series of black and white photographs, started by J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere in the 1960s and spanning nearly 40 years, documenting elaborate, sculptural hairstyles of Nigerian women. This powerful start, setting the tone for what was to follow, was paralleled in the Central Pavilion, in the Giardini, with the display of Carl Jung’s original Red Book (c.1914–30) – a bound volume 16 years in the making full of drawings illustrating the pyschotherapist’s own personal cosmology – and Austrian philosopher and mysticist Rudolf Steiner’s blackboard drawings which accompanied his prolific lectures in the early 1900s. An unexpected and intriguing visual foil was provided by proto-cybernetic figurative sculptures by Walter Pichler, and performers engaged in a to-and-fro of percussive human-made sounds – guided by an opaque system known only to themselves and the artist responsible, Tino Sehgal. Systems of thought – whether private, ideological, philosophical or pedagogical – quickly emerged as an underlying theme throughout both parts of the exhibition; tightly controlled display techniques bound it together. A bespoke architecture of walls and self-contained rooms articulated the Arsenale’s endless-seeming corridor-like hall and established a uniform pace. Within this, the works (none of the unpredictable artist’s commissions that characterized last year’s chaotic but vibrant dOCUMENTA (13)) were arranged in striking combinations, for example: Robert Crumb’s cartoon version of the book of Genesis together with autistic Shinichi Sawada’s tribal-looking masks and figures in the Arsenale; Ron Nagle’s bizarre ceramic table-top sculptures together with anonymous proto-abstract tantric drawings; or Emma Kunz’s telepathic diagrams with Augustin Lesage’s manic spiritual symmetries in the Giardini.
Amidst the variety of makers and objects, certain themes returned like drum beats: the individual and the cosmos, the brain and the world, and how the former tries to make sense of the latter. Given these basic poles, there were two clear tendencies: a preponderance of figurative sculpture (Paweł Althamer, Matthew Monahan, Cathy Wilkes, Vlassis Caniaris) and self-determined systems of comprehension or communication (Hilma af Klint, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, Channa Horwitz). Across more than 100 years of production that the show spanned, a sense of atemporality and commonality of purpose through the decades emerged that had little to do with current areas of political or cultural debate. With so many examples of work from beyond the ‘mainstream’, biography, detailed in articulate wall texts, prevailed over particular historical or cultural contexts.
The relentlessness of new discoveries in the Central Pavilion became rather wearying (though it did have a conversely invigorating effect on more familiar works like those by Sarah Lucas, Richard Serra or Enrico David). The Arsenale, meanwhile, dealt less with the cerebral and more with material realities. Camille Henrot’s video Grosse Fatigue (2013), appearing early on, utilized the familiar image of the computer screen with multiple open windows to riveting effect – as if this were now our horizon or the common landscape. Further along, Danh Vo’s colonial era church relics imported from Vietnam (Hoang Ly church, Thai Binh Province, Vietnam, 2013), Sharon Hayes’ interview with young women in an all-women’s college in Massachusetts exploring gender and sexuality (Ricerche: three, 2013), and graphic photographs of food by Michael Schmidt (Lebensmittel, 2006–10) proposed contrasting ideologies that define the texture of our daily surroundings.
Cindy Sherman’s kernel-like show-within-a-show was a curiosity cabinet of sex, death and dysfunctional domesticity, with photo albums of transvestites at home (from Sherman’s own collection), creepy babies courtesy of Rosemarie Trockel, invisible mothers in photographs collected by Linda Fregni Nagler, and impossible, erotic anatomies by Pierre Molinier and Hans Bellmer. This hinge allowed for a fast forward, via Ryan Trecartin’s immersive video environments, to our current digital, ‘bodiless’ era, and the question: what happens to material now? As a post-Internet coda (presaged at the start of the exhibition by Henrot’s computer-screen landscape), it was full of hybrid materialities by younger artists such as Alice Channer, Simon Denny and Helen Marten, with Mark Leckey acting as a generational lynchpin with his display and elucidation of uncanny transformations of objects through technology. This highway of hyper-connectivity had its conclusion at the end of the Arsenale’s main hall with Stan VanDerBeek’s 1968 tour-de-force Movie Mural (1968) in which 18 of the artist’s films are projected simultaneously in a visual cacophony. The rooms which followed in the side wing, showcasing the exhibition’s ostensible godfathers: Dieter Roth, Walter de Maria, Bruce Nauman, seemed rather unnecessary. An unfortunate trailing off to an otherwise tight and cohesive show that could have happily ended with the bang of VanDerBeek.
The effect of the exhibition’s cross-generational, cross-occupational overview was a temporal loosening which released its contemporary components from the (market-dominated) context of the here and now. Though many rising stars were included (Marten, Denny, Ed Atkins) their work was articulated as part of a broader narrative not specific to this moment. By framing the Internet in terms of the encyclopedia, meanwhile, Gioni emphasized the continuity of human needs and desires, despite technological change. Seeing, thinking and making remain the means through which the individual can make sense of the whole. As such, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, in the upstairs room of the Central Pavilion, were chief orators of the exhibition’s thesis. Their work Plötzlich diese Übersicht (Suddenly this Overview, 1981/2006) is a collection of more than 200 unfired clay sculptures, which model a hilarious and moving micro and macro view of history, the everyday, language, thought, philosophy and creativity – an attempt to make sense of the individual’s place in the world. The banality and causality of our lives is laid out before our eyes. Prioritizing the recurrent over the urgent, Gioni’s exhibition makes a claim for the encyclopedic overview as a perennial, if impossible, human desire. And with an infectious enthusiasm it claims art itself as the means by which to try and reach it.