This year‘s Venice Biennale witnessed a shift which went largely unnoticed, as is so often the case for genuine upheavals: a shift away from provocative, critical, conceptually sophisticated and aesthetically accomplished commentaries on reality and towards the creation of spaces serving as a stage for a distinctive, other reality not in an escapist way, but as a challenge to reality as it actually exists.
The German pavilion, dedicated to the theatre director, artist and activist Christoph Schlingensief, was the best example. Eine Kirche der Angst vor dem Fremden in mir (A church of fear of the alien within, 2008), the central work in the show, was just such a space. Schlingensief died of cancer last summer before completing his concept for the pavilion, and curator Susanne Gaensheimer decided to stick closely to what he had already produced. Working with the artists widow and closest collaborator Aino Laberenz, she filled the pavilions main room with a reconstruction of the stage set designed for Schlingensiefs production of the same name at the 2008 Ruhrtriennale, based on the church in Oberhausen where he was baptized (and buried). This centrepiece was flanked by a cinema showing an overview of Schlingensiefs films and a presentation of his plans for an opera village in Africa.
A sacred space? Yes, and very much in Schlingensiefs spirit. With his organization Church of Fear, he had already staged a pole-sitting contest at the 2003 Venice Biennale with seven participants competing for the title of Modern Pillar Saint. At the time, the insurgence of these ascetic figures into an art world which, for all its criticism of consumerism, has little taste for austerity or renunciation, was met with embarrassed silence. This time, too, many outraged voices were heard at first, though they soon quietened down, especially when the German pavilion was awarded the Golden Lion. In a way, Schlingensief resembled a medieval court jester, permitted to tell the king even the most unpleasant truths in the more palatable form of foolery. Today, however, few seem receptive to these truths, allowing themselves instead to be distracted by his pranks. For his truth could shake up one of todays biggest taboos: the question of the sacred. The film images of a dead hare eaten away by maggots shown in this reconstructed church were oppressive. And yet, among all the photographs from Schlingensiefs childhood, in the references to Fluxus and Joseph Beuys, and also in the light entering the space through the windows, there was something capable of providing a reason to carry on. Something formerly understood as the sacred.
To avoid any misunderstandings here: for Schlingensief, it certainly was not about to quote Jean-Luc Nancy reviving religion, not even the one that Kant wanted to hold within the limits of reason alone. Instead, his aim was to open mere reason up to the limitlessness that constitutes its truth, as Nancy continues in his book Déconstruction du christianisme : Tome 1, La Déclosion (Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, 2005/8). Searching the history of modern art for the most radical challenge to this limitlessness, one quickly comes to the Surrealists. And in their probing of limits, the films by Schlingensief shown in Venice could be understood as a continuation of Surrealist film.
The film The Garden (1968) by the Czech filmmaker Jan vankmajer, featured in the group show Speech Matters in the Danish pavilion, also works within this tradition. And there was also a surreal quality to the suspended labyrinth installed by Markus Schinwald in the Austrian pavilion. If there was one thing linking the major national pavilions at this Biennale, it was this fondness for the labyrinthine. As well as the Austrian, Swiss and Polish pavilions, this applied to Mike Nelsons British and Christian Boltanskis French pavilions. Perhaps this trend, too, indicates a shift, pointing to a readiness to embark on convoluted paths that change direction and whose outcome is uncertain. In Schinwalds installation, as in Schlingensiefs church, the visitors became active participants, recoiling from the enigmatic 19th-century-style portraits with disfiguring prostheses hung in the twists and turns of the maze, or feeling anxiety in the cramped passages, at the mercy of an absurd reality also evoked by the artist in his film Orient (2011). There was no escape, but one was not trapped a conclusion that could also be reached in the face of the death in Schlingensiefs pavilion. The Swiss pavilion, totally transformed by Thomas Hirschhorn using a great deal of duct tape and tinfoil, was about resisting the destructive and seductive aspects of violence. How this was to be done was revealed by an inscription: Resistance is the Application of Politics of Resistance. In other words: resistance as applied art.
Active resistance was also the explicit theme of the Polish pavilion, where the Israeli-born artist Yael Bartana showed three films in a space divided by cleverly installed glass walls under the title …and Europe will be stunned: Mary Koszmary (Nightmares, 2007), Mur i Wie?a (Wall and Tower, 2009) and Zamach (Assassination, 2011). This trilogy, whose final part was shown here for the first time, functions as both fiction and documentary: fiction in that it evokes the return of Polish Jews to Poland, documentary in that it uses performance to create a reality that is then captured in moving images. For Bartana has created a political movement of her own, the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland or JRMiP. We see speeches by the movements founder, the construction of a kibbutz in Warsaw and, in the final part, the founders funeral following his assassination all in pictures whose aesthetic is borrowed from glowingly optimistic socialist propaganda. Fiction becomes reality here, but without being either compelling, moralizing or didactic, since an element of parody repeatedly shines through. Who knows: perhaps this approach is now the only way to deal with such deadly serious topics as anti-Semitism. And to appeal for participation: every visitor to the pavilion was asked to join the movement…
Participation was also addressed in the Mexican pavilion, where Melanie Smith showed works including her video Aztec Stadium. Malleable Deed (2010). The British-born artist who lives in Mexico City gathered together around 3,000 young people in the gigantic Aztec Stadium. Positioned in the stands and equipped with coloured placards, they formed more or less coordinated mosaics of pictures from art history. At the end, on the grass pitch, they succeed in arranging themselves into a pink square on a white ground, an icon of Modernism. In impressive images, aesthetic claims to exactitude collide with the boundless energy of the young people.
Resisting established aesthetic codes was also the goal of Vittorio Sgarbi, who was responsible for the Italian pavilion. He wanted to tear art free from the dictates of appointed officials and thus asked a long list of Italian cultural figures including director Bernardo Bertolucci, writer Dario Fo and philosopher Giorgio Agamben to name their favourite artists. The result was deeply shocking not because it was kitschy or academic, but because most of the works on show could be harnessed to the cause of provocation. A show of unutterably dull art as a declaration of war on an international art scene, interpreted by Sgarbi as a mafia: the more aggressive and obscene, the better. If any further proof were needed, this pavilion clearly documented the match made in heaven between provocation, deployed so extensively by earlier avant-gardes, and the puerile appetite of todays mass media for scandal and sensation.
Which leaves ILLUMInations, the main exhibition curated by Bice Curiger. It opened with three pictures by Tintoretto (151894). In his theatricality, passion and ambiguity, the Venetian Renaissance master has much in common with Schlingensief but not so much with the other artists selected by Curiger. A gulf opened up between Tintoretto and Schlingensief on the one side and the many aesthetically and conceptually lightweight works that surrounded them at the Biennale. And as always, when such chasms yawned, interesting tensions were generated. But wherever calculation and control dominated, tedium loomed large.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell