The 57th edition of the Venice Biennale which opened in May this year drew crowds rushing in from around the world for a glimpse of the world’s most sought after art event. Most were taken aback by the works of 120 artists spread over the Giardini and Arsenale and 45 other shows across the city, turning Venice into a massive gallery. The Biennales’ Artistic Director, Christine Macel, also chief curator of the Pompidou Centre, Paris has chosen Viva Arte Viva (Long live living art) as her central theme, which seeks to turn the last two biennales’ over-defined and over-purposeful art into something less individualistic and more poetic.
As a result, a walk through the circuitous main pavilion at the Giardini or the labrynthine Arsenale often led to works by indigenous people, marginalised women (particularly older women), and those engaging with ecology and climate change. Weaving, knitting, knotting and even macrame as immersive art which engaged with the ‘other’ seemed the order of the day.
It was unsurprising that the German pavilion, heavily-guarded and allowing only a few people at a time, won the Golden Lion for the best national presentation. Anne Imhof’s Faust uses painting, sculpture, installation and performance to confront the brute reality of our times. Visitors look down from a brilliantly-lit glass floor at creeping humans performing below, with their androgynous black gear and gestural work only heightening the drama of the moment. The audience is split into predator /victim binaries with echoes of Nazi times, as Dobermans stand guard in metal cages.
It set the tone for what was to follow. African-American artist Mark Bradford’s Tomorrow is Another Day reveals his concern for the intense uncertainty circling the state of affairs in the world and particularly the US today. Blackish-purple works made with commercial hair dye, redolent with melancholy, speak of slavery and the migration crisis, while a Medusa radiates in the centre of the room. In the Pavilion’s rotunda, Bradford creates the atmosphere of a grand archaeological ruin. “This a Jeffersonian-type space, something you see in state capitols,” he said, pointing to its central dome. “I wanted it to feel like a ruin, like we went into a government building and started shaking the rotunda till the plaster peeled. Our rage made the plaster fall off the walls,” said Bradford, who refers to his pavilion as The White House. Being black and gay as well a liberal and progressive thinker, he no longer feels represented by his own government.
The Australia pavilion has aboriginal artist Tracey Moffatt negotiate a haunting poetic journey from nothingness to being. According to Moffat, “There are times in life when we all can see what’s ‘coming over the horizon’ and this is when we make a move. Or we do nothing and just wait for whatever it is to arrive.” Her Body Remembers, a desolate, sensual suite of 10 photographs tells the story of a maid returning to a ruin wearing a 1950s, lace-trimmed dress, a white apron and Victorian mourning earrings. With Moffatt herself dressed as the maid, audiences get a glimpse of her inner turmoil as she caresses a wall, look dolefully out of a window or are poised on the edge of a shadow. Is she recalling her employment or mourning the passage of time?
Moffatt grew up in foster care in a 1960s working class suburb in Brisbane. She was taken from her birth parents as a baby, following the Government’s policy of giving aboriginal children a ‘proper’ education and training.
Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti, refused, during his life, to be exhibited at his national pavilion at Venice having considered himself an international citizen. In 1956, he presented his elongated, sculptural group Women of Venice in the pavilion of his adopted country France. Ironically enough, the Swiss pavilions exhibiton this year titled Women of Venice has a slow film with an 81-year-old man telling the story of his mother Flora Mayo, who collaborated with Giacometti in her youth. She scarcely merits a mention in his biography although they worked closely and had a passionate affair. The film laments her wasted talent and her impoverished existence. In the courtyard, Carol Bove, referencing Giacometti, erects coiled poles with layered associations.
Ms. Macel’s curatorial note emphasises that the exhibition favours artists who want to change the world rather than seek the star system created by the art market. A 30-minute walk, however, brings us to Damien Hirst’s blockbuster Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable where works made from precious metals are being sold for between $500,000 and $5million. Gigantic, mythical, coral-encrusted shapes risen from the ocean, treasures from a 2000-year-old shipwreck, a vessel built by Amotan, a freed slave, which was recovered in 2008.
Crowds milled around the Pinault museums as a gigantic, beheaded demon rose from the central courtyard of the museum. A looming Kali engages a Hydra in battle, although the former bears little resemblance to the deity save for the multiple arms.
Whatever happened to South Asian representation after the euphoria of last year’s Indo-Pak collaboration My East is your West? Indian origin artist Rina Banerjee’s fusion of fabric and fantasy at the Arsenale was done with her trademark wit and humour and Rashid Araeen, the well-known, London-based Pakistani artist of Third Text fame transformed the space into minimalist forms. Shezad Dawood, born to a Pakistani mother and an Indian father caused a stir at the collateral shows with his presentation, Leviathan, where issues of marine welfare, climate change and migration will become a ten-part marathon.
India, however, was conspicuous by its absence, an indication of gross negligence on the part of the country of art and the well-being of culture. The Biennale continues until November 26th.
The writer is an art historian and independent curator based in Delhi. She is the author of several books including Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life (2006)
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