BY Francesco Tenaglia in Features | 23 MAR 22
Featured in
Issue 226

Will Performance Triumph in Venice Again?

Francesco Tenaglia speculates on whether performance will have a repeat victory at this year’s Biennale

BY Francesco Tenaglia in Features | 23 MAR 22

‘I’ll come back to see it more calmly in early autumn,’ is the ultimate white lie that, ready to bid farewell to the Venice Biennale, we comfort ourselves with, telling our departing acquaintances and colleagues on vaporetti, trains or planes. The labyrinthine topography of La Serenissima chastises hasty schedules and FOMO dashes. Meanwhile, visitors to the Venice Biennale have nearly doubled in the past two decades, as have probably the number of concomitant independent exhibitions.

Despite this, the Golden Lion-winning national pavilions of the two previous editions both presented durational performances that resonated greatly with the audience, suggesting that live events are a palatable format to focus otherwise dispersed attentions. In 2017, Anne Imhof created a dark puzzle with Faust, rearranging the German Pavilion to stage micro-emotional outbursts by a group of performers that seemed borrowed from fashion-conscious specimens of Berlin nightlife: standing, staring, cat-walking, headbanging, lighting fires, rolling up in hostile or sensual configurations under a transparent double-bottomed floor, at viewer level or on plinths hooked to walls. The result was both a stylized, laser-sharp Bildungsroman of a hyper-mediated generation and an enormous visual device that projected and monumentalized the performers’ self-presentation tactics, gestures and postures as signifiers of ‘edginess’ and ‘authenticity’.

Anne Imhof, Faust, 2017, performance view, German Pavilion, the 57th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: Eliza Douglas; photograph: Nadine Fraczkowski

Two years later, it was the turn of Sun & Sea (Marina) by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė at the Lithuanian Pavilion: on a fake beach, we witnessed the operatic singing – solo or choral – of worried people grappling with the immediate consequences of global warming. In this case, the staging was called an opera-performance, not only because of its musical component, but also because it was scripted, had a predefined duration and was open to replication in other settings. (This has proven to be the case: the production has subsequently toured at various international institutions.) The dramaturgical mechanism is governed by the work’s overhead perspective – the spectator is on a balcony observing the sunbathers below – that renders visually one of the pivotal themes of the work: the difficulty of acquiring a common understanding of our urgent, human-caused, ecological disaster and agreeing on the best course of action.

The rise of the ‘dance exhibition’ during the mid-2000s was identified by Claire Bishop in her essay ‘Black Box, White Cube, Gray Zone’ (2018). The British art historian observes that museums comprise ‘the paradigmatic form of the new gray zones for performance that have evolved out of the historical convergence of experimental theatre’s black box and the gallery’s white cube’. Bishop stresses the link to social media, claiming that the dance exhibition satisfies ‘our desire for embodied presence and community’, while simultaneously being ‘the artistic form that most prompts the desire to capture and circulate digitally our experience’. If this is the case, we are at a moment of broad recognition of an expressive format more interested – so far – in articulating poignant and engaging positions on current debates than in addressing reflexive art-historical concerns or solidifying its grammatical rule books.

Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, Lina Lapelytė, 2019, Sun & Sea (Marina), opera-performance, 58th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Andrej Vasilenko

It’s hard to say to what extent the COVID-19 pandemic might slow this momentum or, alternatively, give greater traction to performance in major international exhibitions in the short term: social-distancing regulations, ease of interpersonal proximity, the changing landscape of travel and logistics are all crucial factors. It is my feeling, however, that the facility with which performance can convey positions on topical issues and the pleasure of immersive presence combined with a renewed sense of freedom not only make it a good fit for the visual-art ecosystem, but also a relevant point of suture between visual art and cultural production in general. And so, as pandemic restrictions ease, and we await the return of the Venice Biennale with cautious optimism, it remains to be seen whether performance will emerge once again victorious.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 226 with the headline ‘New Grey Zones’. For additional coverage of the 59th Venice Biennale, see here.

Main Image: Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, Lina Lapelytė, Sun & Sea (Marina), 2019, opera-performance, 58th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Andrej Vasilenko

Francesco Tenaglia teaches at Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti in Milan, Italy, is co-founder of the exhibition space Sgomento Zurigo in Zurich, Switzerland, and is editor-at-large of upcoming X magazine.