A space, a pavilion, a nation: Viva Arte Viva – On the contradictory logics of pavilions, collateral events and the people at the 57th Biennale di Venezia.

  • 16.05.2017

While outside the dogs keep barking, the subject lies inside, overwhelmed by himself. It couldn’t be more German, wrote Boris Pofalla. The scene is awe-inspiring: anti-riot wire fences and thick layers of glass cover the facade of the fascist-era German Pavilion. A five-hour-long performance disperses the audience in the pouring gestures performers endow in cold-blooded acts of [self-]representation. Young, strong Dobermans run around and against the fences, while the performer Eliza Douglas lays beneath the glass stage where everyone stands, provoking everyone’s tears while singing in her lowest tone, a song full of sorrow.

It is perfect: every movement allows the audience to experience sublimation of its loose references; Anne Imhof's work allows itself to be, for a moment, everything. It is a manifestation, a sad opera, an obscure ritual, a sculptural set, a genderless life, temporal transgression, perfectionism at its best. FAUST. Its title reveals a subjective allegory for the history of German culture, and the vivid transition of Imhof's oeuvre from trend to canon.

Pavilions for nations

'Every other Pavilion at this Biennale seems weakened by Imhof's‘, said gallerist Harry Lybke. His statement is convincing. With Franz Erhard Walther, Imhof already won the Golden Lion, converging the artwork’s definability and composition through its viewers' presence. Hassan Khan won the silver lion with an ephemeral piece using disproportionate sounds which evoke interior scenes in a public space. The artworks establishing the vanguard are far more evanescent with the opening of the 57th Biennale di Venezia.

Yet, what about the rest of the pavilions? Erwin Wurm places an upright truck as a the terrace at the entrance of the Austrian Pavilion. Candice Breitz lets Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore tell the testimonies of refugees on their journey to Europe in a seven-hour video installation at the South African Pavilion. Cevdet Erek builds bridges for thousands of digital sounds which constitute the environments of tourist cities for the Turkish Pavilion. Carlos Amorales creates a new abecedary for words and music for Mexico, printed in a newspaper and orchestral scores. Cinthia Marcelle makes a construction site out of the Brazilian Pavilion, inclining the floor made of welded grating so that pebbles get caught in it, like a collection of stuff found at the beach. Her work is squeezed into the grid of the Giardini – without saying much, one recognizes a beautifully elaborate comment on the genealogy of foreign pavilions.

The rest keeps a cursory relationship to the Biennale's context.

The French built a concert hall, within their own pavilion. The Peruvians commissioned Juan Javier Salazar print a tapestry with the wall pattern of an Incan temple. Dirk Braeckman shows a traditional exhibition of over- and underexposed photographs, led by his love for printing techniques at the Belgian Pavilion. Phyllida Barlow's concrete and cardboard forest at the British Pavilion looks like everything and nothing, as if she didn't know what to want. The Russian, Spanish, Greek, Egyptian, and Danish Pavilions are better left unmentioned.

Sharon Lockhart invites teenagers to re-activate the spirit of the former Jewish youth newspaper Little Review in relation to politics today at the Polish Pavilion. For Australia, Tracey Moffat creates a weird, heroic storyline for asylum-seeking people; Nathaniel Mellors collaborates with Erkka Nissinen to narrate the origin of the world at the Finnish Pavilion. The result is hilarious: ’The Aalto Natives’, is an absurdist and humorous version of how God created Finland (ignoring the rest of nations, ha, ha!), presented as an international political satire screened through a multichannel projection. This circles the pavilion around a giant egg, whose eyes move like the lost gaze of the public. Also hilarious, and almost stealing Imhof's ghost-tech show, are Egill Sæbjörnsson’s huge trolls – Ugh and Boogar – fictional entities who have been a part of his life for a decade. Iceland and its artist had no fear of ridicule, making it one of the Biennial's strongest pavilions of 2017.

Pavilions for people

The off-sites pavilions are not only national ones. The Breakfast Pavilion, organized by Marco Campardo, Lorenzo Mason (M–L–XL) and Luca Lo Pinto, invited artists Anna Sophie Berger, Olaf Nicolai and Nicole Wermers to merge the world of art and design into a happening, overthrowing the usual boundaries of each discipline. This wasn’t the only counter proposal to the traditional Biennale model. The Research Pavilion reflected on how artistic research methods can refresh aesthetic, scientific and political interpretations in the contemporary world. The Ghost Pavilion (apologies for the self-quotation) chooses a published format to provide alternatives to the missing Latin American Pavilions in the Arsenale, which were formerly organized by the IILA (Instituto Italo Latino Americano).

The Welsh Pavilion presents James Richards' considerations on how to materialize the presence of death in an impecable exhibition called ‚Music for the Gift‘. His interest here surpasses the possibility of embodying meaning. Instead, through fragments, he creates countless layers of footage, soundtracks, and archives that achieve a certain kind of agitating intimacy. The Antarctic Pavilion presents the documentation of the first Antarctic Biennale, which took place in a hot-house surrounded by a frozen realm – without mobile phones, internet, or an audience. The Otto-Bar from the group Super+ created a democratic roof-top bar with Spritz and Bavarian beer, modelled on the surviving topography of the boazn, a democratic drinking hole in Bavaria that remains open 24 hours a day. All of these pavilions create a front of paradigm-shifting pleas for a nationless Biennial.

A space, a pavilion, a nation: the paradoxical relation between the present and the history of a cult that repeats itself every two years is still legitimatised through its continual revisionism. The Arsenale and Giardini; the outer pavilions; the expensive parties; the chaotic way Vaporettos transport masses of people through the Canale Grande; the overwhelming offer of side projects, gatherings and networking events: all these things represent Venice's ungraspable experience that still nobody wants to miss.

Yet, how can the definition of art be challenged in the Biennale's chaos and the quotidian social media feeds provoke? And why are Christine Macel’s main pavilions received as a rather naive and simplistic curatorial frame, in spite of her persistence in presenting a humanist appeal for embracing art?

Pavilions for artists

Viva Arte Viva: A name for a Biennale that instead of delivering universal claims, suggests to return the arts to its homeopathic potential. The medicinal comparison serves to understand art as an alternative practice, only effective individually. 'Like Cures Like‘ – the Biennale expects us to assume that art can somehow 'cure‘ the imbalances between emotional and intellectual needs. This edition encourages the visitors to engage in completing its healing capacity by focusing attention to the arts’ remotest unit: the artists themselves.

Lee Mingwei at the 'Pavilion of Commons' chooses to let the work be dependent on the other's participation, putting himself in the middle of the action. 'The Mending Project‘ invites visitors to bring their damaged textiles which he repairs for them. It takes on an emotional value, not marked by the colorful threads hanging on the walls or to the pile of clothing the people leave at his table until the end of the Biennale. Lee’s mending not only celebrates repair as the actual moment where the artwork is activated, but also the conversation produced between artist and visitor. He bares himself to the visitor who hears what he wants to tell: the mending is a commemoration to the friends he lost on September 11th in New York. We burst into tears. Somehow confused, we thank each other for what just experienced, while everyone watches.

No strings attached. Like Lee Mingwei, Rashed Areen, or Dawn Kasper prefer their work to be liberated from any formal compromise, letting their audience decide what is taken from the means they offer. Mladen Stilinovic is the face of Viva Arte Viva’s at the entrance of the Biennale pavilion, which is to show the most honest picture of each artist’s capacities and aspirations. Stilinovic shows himself tired on his bed, staged in the manner of an artist's self portrait in his studio.

A Biennale for the artists, by the artists? The meticulously grounded structure for the corridors of the Arsenale and the main building of the Giardini suggest rather the opposite: It unfolds the role of the artists but it also gets lost in books; in joys and fears; in the common; on the earth; in traditions; in shamans; in the dionysiac, in colors; in time and infinity. Christine Macel could have worked more intimately with the artists, letting them curate the rooms for her, instead of pressing the works within curatorial arrangements nobody seems to connect to.

The realms mentioned are supposed to produce the clarity (otherwise lacking) as a stance against the world’s complexities, or even more urgently, to provide a basis for the redefinition of the artists’ role within societies. The concentration of the realms as chapters restricts the artworks to functioning only under the premises of the Biennale, reaching no further than the gardens and palazzos of Venice.

Christine Macel’ nine trans-pavilions comprise topics that broach the figure of the artists into alternative roles or activities, pursuing an open definition of art practices. It intends to problematize different things without being theoretical. Something that is, in many ways, contradictory.

If art has to be recognized again as the last resource of freedom, individualism and uprising, this show lost its chance to prove it so. Participation and exchange remain marginal in many of the national commissions for the Biennale, while the institutional show glows in its delicate majesty, decorating the venues with works that stand not only for themselves, but stuck in the impossibility of exchange with the others. Macel strains to harden the relationship of the artworks to her interests, scattered throughout these chapters. It is as bourgeois as the show at the Fondazione Prada, as hegemonic as the parallel exhibition 'Philip Guston and the Poets’ at the Accademia, sponsored by Hauser & Wirth. Even if the Guston show wonderfully stretches his paintings into an extended exchange between words and images, it is clearly dependent on the financial hierarchies that decide what enters the program of the Venice Biennale, and what doesn't. Yet a fundamental difference between them should be made clear between Viva Art Viva’s main proposal and what happens around it.

The 57th Venice Biennale should be assessed for what it has pursued – namely, to blur the threshold between the pavilions, the people, and the city itself. These are three contradictory aspects within the curatorial frame Christine Macel gave Venice and its Biennale, which critiques have so far classified severely as a weak exhibition, light in its content, importunately celebrative, and highly questionable in its principles.

This is a Biennale that differs from past editions, achieving a huge contrast to Enwezor’s heavily academic, almost apocalyptic frame; and to Massimiliano Gioni’s encyclopedic, bolder parcours. The chapters demand from the visitor some sort of unusual emotionality, but retain an institutional sobriety for the hanging and display of artworks. The wall texts are perfect: understandable, friendly, informative, yet lacking any kind of humor. The immaculacy of the short guide is recognizable while going through the rooms, as the catalogue follows, to a hair, the order of the exhibition.

Tavola Aperta remains the democratic counterpart of the strictly institutional proposal for the Biennale. As a casual lunch, the format allows the artists to hold a conversation beyond the exhibition space. Squid paella on a cardboard plate, served with fruits and drinks. The invited guests are not only artists in Macel’s nuclear exhibition, but also those presenting their work in national pavilions and collateral events. Tavola Aperta demands an exit from the pavilion model to a more emancipated way of approaching art. With this open table, Macel means to raise other questions not necessarily focused on formal aspects. She consequently intends to enable conversations beyond art's parameters.The question of whether this helps art to posiition itself as an alternative solution to the world's other issues remains unanswered.

*Proof-read by JL Murtaugh.**