The Venice Biennale is often called the Olympics of art. If it is indeed such a contest, it is a completely unfair one. The allocation of the national exhibition venues is based on old colonial power relations, financial prowess and sheer coincidence. Nevertheless, the placement and character of the so called «pavilions» forms much of one’s experience of the art. Having to write a critique on these terms is not just difficult; to a certain degree it also entails reproducing those same power relations.
The least a critic can do in this situation is to try to see as many exhibitions by the less privileged nations as s/he possibly can. These exhibitions are found in various locations amidst the islands of Venice, and finding them can involve real challenges. The best part of making such a tour is the fact that it reveals the idea of national representation and cultural power in their rawest, crudest form.
This also means that cultural-political agendas can be lathered rather thickly onto many of the exhibitions. For example, the Azerbaijan pavilion is dominated by slick new technology and aestheticized installations based on traditional musical instruments. “This is a culture of living together mostly in harmony and equality,” states the curator. The Syrian pavilion shows the exhibition Everyone Admires Palmyra’s Greatness, and most of the works show fragments of the ancient ruined city and/or feature the name of the city in their titles. It all has the feel of made-to-order work.
In other pavilions, art manages to co-exist with curatorial and political agendas in a productive way. The Iraqi pavilion was produced by the Ruya Foundation, which has the objective of promoting culture in Iraq “at a time when other focus areas take priority”. Where the money comes from is hard to say. The exhibition Archaic is installed in blue display cases in a former library in the Cavalli-Franchetti palazzo in the heart of Venice, and is certainly one of the most interesting shows at this year’s biennial.
Anchored in a selection of historic objects from the Iraqi national museum, Archaic also involves eight Iraqi artists and Francis Alÿs from Belgium. The result is a straightforward, yet complex treatment of Iraq’s history and present day. Sakar Sleman shows the land art project Untitled (Land Art) from 2014, originally a white, circle-shaped form, 17 metres across, located on a mountainside near the town of Sulaimania in Kurdistan. At the pavilion the work is displayed in the form of a model in a display case and in the form of sketches. Luay Fadhil shows the film Scribe about a man – whom we must assume is illiterate – who visits a scribe every day in order to dictate a letter to his recently deceased wife. Sherko Abbas shows a film based on footage recorded by his sister while playing a concert in Washington as a member of the National Orchestra of Iraq in 2003, just a few months after the USA invaded her native country. The film and the accompanying display case, which includes the artist’s sister’s travel document, are permeated by a reflective melancholy. Francis Alÿs’s contribution is similarly humble and fragile. It includes a video showing him relentlessly attempting to paint the colour of desert sand onto a canvas which he holds up to a camera that is directed towards a group of military tanks. He also shows a series of small, unassuming paintings of soldiers painted as white, negative silhouettes. These were created while he was following a group of Kurdish soldiers during the liberation of Mosul. In other words, the project inscribes itself in a long-established tradition of having artists accompany military units. The work is subtly positioned between the artistic and the political.
Taking part in the Venice Biennial for the first time, Antigua and Barbuda present a solo show on the island of Giudecca, featuring the relatively unknown artist Frank Walter (1926–2009). It is quite a revelation. Walter was the first coloured man on Barbuda to run a sugar plantation; he went on a ten-year Grand Tour of Europe, called himself “Seventh Prince of the West Indies, Lord of Follies and the Ding-Ding Nook” and lived out the last thirty years of his life in a simple shack in his native country, surrounded by talismanic figures and paintings of abstract, figurative motifs. These works are often naïve, never boring. His works possess a simple elegance and a sense of lived life that many of the contemporary presentations at this biennial lack.
A similar sense of depth and substance can be found at the Romanian pavilion. It presents Greta Bratescu, also born in 1926, and who has been a key artist figure in Romania since the 1960s. The exhibition consists of a rich selection of drawings, paintings and conceptual works – refreshingly presented without making any references to periods pre- and post the 1989 revolution.
Back in Giardini
As many will no doubt be aware, the Romanian pavilion is located in Giardini, and this takes us back to the main area of the biennial. The advantage of having visited other pavilions first is the fact that you have honed your awareness regarding national representations, seeing with keener, active eyes. The ideal among the privileged nations is clearly to present art on its own terms, political agendas receding into the background. Of course such agendas are present nevertheless – if nothing else, then in the very form of this privilege: being able to present art on its own terms. And in the form of resources. Some of the pavilions in Venice are so costly that they are quite out of reach for smaller nations and for artists who are not backed by very powerful galleries.
This once again places the critic in something of a dilemma as s/he admires the German, British and French pavilions – the most costly and ambitious of them all. However, something else sets the Western pavilions apart in 2017, here at the tail end of the art-historical epoch we now call «the contemporary». In many of the national pavilions, all the requirements concerning «placeless», «post-medial» and «post-national» contemporary art are fulfilled. But the same time it seems as if much contemporary art has become a rigid form, as if it is no longer active or has no agency any more.
Take, for example, the Australian pavilion, featuring Tracey Moffatt’s staged narratives about Aboriginals. This is photo art and video art that has become ossified, frozen in a museum format. The same holds true of Erwin Wurm’s one-minute sculptures at the Austrian pavilion, where everyday objects such as chairs, stools and benches encourage visitors to take up a static position for one minute, thereby becoming part of the work. This is a narrative about the sculptural object and participatory art that describes itself and its own situation. It is not art that opens itself up to the precarious present.
One variant of ‘contemporary’ exhaustion concerns the excessive pavilions, the ones where the artist obviously felt that the pavilion should be a Gesamtkunstwerk, presumably in an attempt to comply with the idea of the biennial as spectacle. The Italian pavilion is an example of the worst kind of such excess, featuring two huge installations: A kind of bio-edifice for the production of figures of Christ, and scaffolding that holds up a pool which mirrors the building’s roof construction. The French pavilion, the Russian pavilion, the Czech and Slovakian pavilion all suffer under the same kind of imperative.
The pavilion as a ruin has been a recurring motif in Venice ever since Hans Haacke hacked up the floors of the German pavilion in 1993. This year, the USA, Canada and Denmark are the ones who let nature take over.
In the American pavilion Mark Bradford has restricted his staged decay to the centre of the structure – the rest of the pavilion is a fully functional exhibition venue for his large, abstract paintings, which seem to have little connection with the realities of American life in 2017. The Canadian pavilion shows the exhibition A way out of the mirror by Geoffrey Farmer. The pavilion has been demolished, building materials lie scattered all over the place, and water spouts from a tiled fountain. The connection between this and a range of anecdotes (the artist’s grandfather in a collision with a train in 1955, Alan Ginsberg in Washington Square Park in 1966, the artist himself at San Francisco Art Institute in 1991) seems vague at first, but the exhibition grows on you, and eventually it enters into a subtle, interesting dialogue with the history, place and observer.
Five Nordic pavilions
Kirstine Roepstorff has divided the Danish pavilion in two. In one section she has created an indoor garden where she also presents a monumental textile work depicting a group of figures in a metaphysical landscape, de Chirico-style. The esoteric feel continues into the second part of the pavilion, where visitors are treated to a light-based spectacle with a soundtrack about daring to venture out into the unknown.
Insofar as it makes sense to compare the Nordic presentations, the temperaments expressed in the Finnish and Icelandic contributions can be said to be virtual opposites of the Danish approach.
Both pavilions employ a farcical, laddish sense of humour. In the Finnish pavilion, Dutch artist Nataniel Mellors and Finnish artist Erkka Nissinen present a deliberately amateurish video and figure installation that tells the story of a father/son relationship that is equal parts an origin myth and an apocalyptic narrative. The humorous aspects of the work are redeeming, but the story is simultaneously pompous and silly. Also, the idea that the whole world will become like Finland is, well, simply not very interesting.
Egill Sæbjörnsson’s project Out of Control in Venice is also characterized by a fundamental silliness. Here we meet two trolls who are visiting Venice, eating the tourists. Visitors to the pavilion can sit at small café tables in a three-storeyed structure behind huge projection walls. As you sit here, you look out at the trolls. A farting sound is heard. “Did you fart?” asks one of the trolls. “Yes, I always get windy when I eat Americans – they’re so full of sugar,” replies the other. The trolls are on social media, such as Tinder, where they meet even more people for them to eat. Not as funny as the Finnish contribution, but equally silly.
The joint Nordic pavilion operates on a whole other level than the three other Nordic pavilions. To put it bluntly: where Roepstorff, Mellors, Nissinen and Sæbjörnsson escape into the esoteric and/or farcical, the six artists from Norway, Sweden and Denmark stand firmly planted in our contemporary times with their observations regarding media, technology and sociality. Or, more accurately, they stand in the midst of the ongoing historisation of our day and age. The acute sense that the epoch we know as the ‘contemporary’ is transitioning into something else must be the reason why art, architecture and technology from the 1960s is reinterpreted today – and, importantly, the reason why the ways in which we read it is an object of study in itself.
Faith in the exhibition format
Curator Mats Stjernstedt gave this exhibition the title Mirrored, which is intended to direct us away from the concept of national characteristics towards a “placeless place”. Emphasis is placed on how borders can be crossed and how they dissolve, says Stjernstedt in the catalogue. An almost provocatively vague description, but the basic premise of the exhibition is in fact based equally much, if not more, on something else: the timeline through history created by the artist’s generational affiliations. Siri Aurdal was born in the 1930s, Charlotte Johannesson in the 1940s, Pasi Myllymäki in the 1950s, Mika Taanila in the 1960s, Nina Canell in the 1970s and Jumana Manna in the 1980s. This historical concept continues in the exhibition itself, which is about viewing the present from different temporal perspectives.
Jumana Manna’s work Government Quarter Study from 2014 consists of her own casts of three columns from the 1958 government quarter in Oslo, presented alongside four macro-photographs of bodily fluids taken by the British artist Mark Boyle in 1978. Boyle’s black-and-white photographs of urine, tears, blood and sweat represent physical, visceral reactions to the shockwaves created by Anders Behring Breivik’s fatal bombing on 22 July 2011 and the desolate ruins it left behind. However, the cast of the columns feel most poignantly present, contemporary, in their relative anonymity. They are eerily tactile and eerily like the original columns in Oslo, and they represent the closest thing to an effective memento mori created by any artist at this year’s Venice biennial.
Two more sculptors are also featured in the exhibition: Siri Aurdal and Nina Canell. Like Manna, both of these artists present cylindrical shapes: Aurdal has made lengthwise cuts into her modular play sculptures made out of reinforced fiberglass, while Canell has cut her appropriated underwater cables crosswise. The formal similarities form a contrast to the social differences between these three: Manna’s monuments are reminders of death, Aurdal’s sculptures are created with games and play in mind, while Canell’s readymades represent the hidden aspects of digital culture. Columns, cylinders, tubes – these shapes were all created in order to conduct energy along. But in this exhibition the flow of energy has been interrupted, causing the objects to appear as frozen moments, containers of time.
The exhibition is full of frozen moments of this kind. This makes it conservative in the best sense of the term, for Stjernstedt has genuine confidence in exhibitions as medium and in the art object in itself. With such confidence you don’t need to tear down the pavilion. Charlotte Johannesson’s digital images from the early 1980s and Mika Taanila’s cut-up books about film fit into Stjernstedt’s vision of an exhibition that reflects time in different ways: Johannesson’s naïve pixelated pictures reflect the resolution available on an Apple II computer (239 x 191 pixels), featuring motifs from the imagination and from popular culture: A pin-up, a Native American, Joseph Beuys, David Bowie et cetera. The images have been made using a severely restricted formal language that has barely even been shown in art contexts before, but now, in 2017, such imagery takes on new depth and significance because we can now all see that they were created at the beginning of a cultural revolution. Taanila’s books give the artist greater power. As we all know, cinematic art is created in the editing room, and here Taanila transfers that magic back to the medium of paper. More than this, he transfers it to publication history, to the many publications that have some kind of connection with film culture. The result is a number of tiny, sublime collages, narratives about images and desire. They make you wish that someone would turn down the volume and insulate this room so that you could spend some time alone with these books, undisturbed by the noise from the rest of the biennial.
Pasi Myllymäki’s short Super 8 films also have some of this concentrated magic, albeit in a rather more surreal register. If Taanila is one of the aesthetic highlights of the biennial, Myllymäki represents an unexpected highlight within the documentary genre with the film 3000 autoa from 1980: three-thousand freeze frames shown in just two and a half minutes, all of them depicting the fronts of parked cars; a laconic, sober portrait of the Social Democratic consumer society known as the Nordic countries.
Politics are transformed in art
Paradoxically, the historic exhibition in the Nordic pavilion feels more contemporary than most of the other national pavilions. If indeed the idea of the contemporary is still a valid concept today. Even so, the one pavilion to pin down our present with greatest force is the German one. Here Anne Imhof presents the installation Faust, and suddenly it seems as if all worries concerning national pavilions are gone. This pavilion is truly a Gesamtkunstwerk, and it is truly pretentious, but in a liberating manner: A dog kennel has been installed in front of the pavilion, as a kind of warning of what is to come. Inside, the building is fitted with glass floors and glass walls that continue through all the rooms. The result is a compound atmosphere: cool, dramatic and realistic. However, the threat staged by the onset of the performance element is quite subdued: groups of actors move through the rooms, up on the walls and underneath the floors in stylized patterns as if they were symbols, substitutes for real life. Everyone is dressed in black street wear, mixing with the audience in a way that turns the entire pavilion, even the whole biennial into a stage. It’s a simple, yet powerful drama, speculative and realistic at the same time. It feels contemporary and political without talking about globalization, social media or capitalism. Instead, the human body and one’s posse of friends are presented as the stage of human dramas of our time. If biopolitics are about state control of our bodies and health, Imhof’s Faust says that this policy is absorbed and transformed in art, perhaps even that the power to resist resides in each of us.