“Viva Arte Viva is a Biennale designed with artists, by artists and for artists”, writes Christine Macel, curator of the 57th edition of the Venice Biennial, in a programmatic statement which can be read against Documenta 14 and other exhibitions where a curatorial bravado risks overshadowing the artistic content. Macel instead views her biennial as a passionate outcry for Art and Artists, and has made an exhibition that emphasizes strong visual expression, craft-based techniques – above all textile – as well as different forms of ritual and ceremony.
This means that art is placed at a safe distance from the humanitarian disasters and political nightmares that marked Okwui Enwezor’s biennial in 2015. Additionally, the emphasis on older, archaic techniques gives the impression that this year’s biennial not only seeks to withdraw from the present, but actually move beyond the modern concept of art with its traditional genres and hierarchies.
Yet, in an interview in Artforum in May, Macel draws parallels between this year’s biennial and Enwezor’s. Indeed, she has sought to retain the notion of art’s autonomy from the social division between productive and unproductive labour. Artists present an exception through their ability to revolt the very order of production: the artist is someone who can work without working, who can be ”idle yet remain productive” , who can take part in the common life by withdrawing to the studio or even through just “being lazy”.
Another way of articulating Macel’s idea is to say that art is that which is made by artists, not something determined by its political, social and economical conditions. In this sense, she radically differs from Enwezor. Both establish a distance to the present by incorporating the past into their exhibitions in different ways. While Enwezor’s biennial offered a strong argument for the necessity of understanding today’s political situation in light of colonial history, Macel’s to a certain degree proceeds in the opposite direction: art’s most pressing issue today, its response to the disasters of the present, is not to turn to the past in order to grasp the contemporary as part of a historical development, but to see beyond the present and unfold a new understanding of the “individual”.
In other words, for Macel, art’s utopian element is not about anticipating future catastrophes, but articulating new ways for individuals to enter into meaningful social communities; communities not necessarily inscribed into the forms of economical exploitation and social domination that limit our possibilities in the present.
The entire exhibition is divided into nine chapters, confusingly also called pavilions. It begins at the Central Pavilion in Giardini with “The Pavilion of Artists and Books”, and ends with “The Pavilion of Time and Infinity”, remotely placed at the far end of Arsenale. Between these stations, a narrative about Humanity unfolds, beginning in art’s interior spaces – in the studios where the artists work, dream and read – and moving toward the point in time when we are all bound to turn into dust and disappear. It is a tale that is both ambitious and humble, depending on the point of view.
Macel’s argument about the artist is introduced at the Central Pavilion, where documentation of Mladen Stilinovic’s The Artist at Work has been placed on a seperate wall in the middle of the first room. The images show Stilinovic sleeping, expressing his position that the production-orientedart of the West is doomed for ruin. Instead, the future belongs to “lazy” Eastern European artists. On the other side of the wall the young American artist Dawn Kasper has made a work consisting of simply moving her studio into the gallery over the course of the exhibition. It appears that she, too, produces nothing much. Here are tables, shelves and musical instruments that during my visit were played by a few youngsters . Next to Kasper’s work hangs a series of works by Franz West – a divan, an image of the artist sleeping – that also point to idleness, inactivity and withdrawal as intrinsic to the artistic process.
The decisive operation, however, takes place in the next room where Macel has moved away from the notion of withdrawal, instead making room for a workshop by Olafur Eliasson. For Green Lamp Project, Eliasson has hired asylum-seekers to assemble lamps that visitors can purchase for 250 euro. The room is cluttered with shelves, work tables, people working and others looking at them. The men are given employment and are paid in kind (language courses, legal assistance, etc), while the proceeds are donated to organizations working for immigrant rights.
How should this be understood? Perhaps more than any other artist, Eliasson embodies the cultural and political ideal of the artist as a creative entrepreneur, which, of course, opposes the notion of a radical refusal by artists to accept the preconditions of contemporary society.
Possibly the idea of Green Lamp Project is to extend the utopia of the artist to everyone – in line with the motto that everyone is an artist – but this would to disregard the social inequality that offers some, and not others, the opportunity to exit production. What separates the young men participating in the workshop from Eliasson himself is obviously that they, as asylum-seekers, are refused many of the basic rights of citizens. The refusal to work would in their case probably only mean being replaced. Accordingly they are not artists, but bodies on display, exposed to social oppression.
I suppose one might argue that Eliasson, on the contrary, places social inequality at the center of the exhibition, thereby demonstrating how his own autonomy as an artist presupposes the manual labour of others. The migrants stand in contrast to the art audience which is free to travel where it pleases, and perhaps the project to some extent contributes to improving the situation of the participants.
The problem is that very few elements of Macel’s biennial support such a reading. The artistic role that appears throughout the exhibition is neither about radical withdrawal and the refusal to work, nor about social engagement. What we see is actually, to a large extent, quite the opposite.
At the Central Pavilion the following galleries are based on the book as form, and then move into a more existential theme. Here are paintings of books, sculptural objects made of books and artist’s books by artists such as John Latham, Liue Ye and Abdullah Al Saadi, among others. These works are then succeeded by, among other things, large scale portraits by exiled Syrian artist Marwan (1934–2016); enlarged and angst-ridden pencil drawings by Kiki Smith, as well as a group of paintings by the young artist Firenze Lai, whose recurrent motif is people in a state of estrangement and resignation.
Several of these works possess a depth of feeling befitting the theme, “The Pavilion of Joys and Fears”. Particularly striking is the gallery with African-American artist McArthur Binion’s large paintings, in which documents from the artist’s life – address books, birth certificates, etc. – have been inserted into various grid-like formations painted in a grey scale reminiscent of Morandi’s still lifes. My sense is that Binion after many years of work has actually contributed to regenerating the self-portrait as form, while additionally carving out a place in the American, minimalistic post-war tradition. His paintings seem to contain something of life’s complexity, expressed through simple, everyday means.
On the other hand, Macel’s selection and conceptual framing appears too limited in relation to her wish to thematize the artists’ work. Painting portraits is, after all, not based on a very radical understanding of the role of the artist, and all the book-objects feel rather like a way of avoiding the uncomfortable curatorial decisions that would likely have become necessary, had the ideas of radical withdrawal and unproductivity been pushed to their limit.
An exception is Hungarian artist Tibor Hajas, whose black and white photographs express a desperation undoubtedly related to the country’s oppressive communist regime during the 70s and 80s. The images show the artist alone in a closed space, and convey both a sense of entrapment and the desire to break out of a painful situation. In Haja’s work withdrawal becomes a method for expressing alternative viewpoints on life subjected to social and political oppression.
With its extensive corridor galleries, Arsenale is a better space for Macel’s plan of different pavilions. The exhibition opens with a collection of works demonstrating how artists can render new or radically different ways of being together with others. The first room is installed sparsely, with a documentary film from the Amazon by Juan Downey (1940–1993), and an installation of colourful, interactive cubes by Rasheed Araeen. Macel has created an open arrangement of the works, and often there is no clear delineation between the different pavilions. Wandering through Arsenale is like moving in and out of a conversation that grows and deepens with time spent in the galleries.
Past the initial room, the exhibition opens up onto a large hall where a sequence of video cubes have been built in the middle, surrounded by large-scale textile installations. Two works by Lee Mingwei and David Medalla respectively set the tone by, among other things, offering visitors the opportunity to have their clothes decoratively repaired, giving the space a sense of generosity and community.
More profound are the works by Marai Lai (1919–2013), consisting of embroidered books and maps placed in vitrines and on the walls. The first thing one sees going in is a work by Lai consisting of white sheets hung just below the ceiling that incorporate text fragments confering a sense of everyday poetry and adventure: «l’immenso s’imbarca nell’isola // Se il cielo fosse in terra l’avrebbero rinchiuso pure» etc. [«the immense embarks on the island // if the sky were on the ground, they would have locked it up as well»].
Playing inside the video cubes is documentation of different collective actions by American choreographer Anna Halprin, young French artist Marcos Ávila Forero as well as Antoni Miralda / Joan Rabascall / Dorothée Selz / Jaume Xifra who in the 1960s and 70s organised “ceremonials” where hundreds of masked people took part in color-coded processions and meals. In Ávila Forero’s work a traditional way of drumming on water is restored to a group of Afro-Colombians, who in a joint action use the surface of the water in the historically charged Atrato River as their medium and instrument.
All these works show how the existential dimension of art is not necessarily about withdrawal or working in the studio, but can just as well be about participating in collective, spiritual or healing communities. This continues in the “The Pavilion of Traditions”, which can be viewed as asserting the ability of folk art to create a sense of belonging over time. Among other works, Spanish textile artist Teresa Lanceta presents her meticulously woven and sewn textiles, which are rooted in a profound understanding of traditional Moroccan handicraft. An installation by Michele Cacciofera, consisting of old tables, textiles and ceramic objects, bring together folktales and weaving techniques from Sardinia.
A recurring motif in Macel’s exhibition is how the art of weaving and the book are ways of storing knowledge. The artist becomes someone who establishes a distance to the present, demonstrating an alternative to contemporary techno-capitalism which forces us to be constantly active during the parts of the day formerly dedicated to rest, sleep or meaningful social relations. There is something of weaving’s slow rhythm to this part of the exhibition, bringing us back to historical traditions of everyday reverie. In the pavilion’s second gallery there is a large scale installation by Leonor Antunes, consisting of transparent draperies hanging from the ceiling, dividing the room and inticing us to linger in its heightened, contemplative atmosphere.
Here is an idea that art and life should tie into one another like parts of the same cyclic process, which appears to have influenced the second part – “Pavilion of the Earth” – although here the exhibition once again loses some of its cogency. The point of the collective actions documented and shown in the initial galleries is that they are concrete operations performed by artists. Anna Halprin’s ceremony to “heal the mountain” outside San Francisco, which was ravaged by serial killer in 1981, is a way of bringing people together. In this sense, it is no less real or material than the textiles by Marai Lai in the same room. Certainly, this is what makes them convincing as works of art.
Yet, this is not quite the case in “The Pavilion of the Earth”. This part begins with a video installation by Charles Atlas which is unexpectedly rewarding and energizing if one stays to see the entire film. This is followed by documentation of various historical land art projects, such as Nicolás García Uriburus work for which he dyed a canal in Venice green in 1968, followed by a room with large scale installations by younger artists such as Thu Van Tran, Michel Blazy and Julian Charriére.
These works point toward different historical or geological processes. Thu Van Tran’s work is based on rubber extraction in Vietnam. What is shown are different “spectacular documents” – cast tree trunks and imprints of different medicinal plants – but without any actual material connection between the traces and narratives referred to by the work. Something similar could be said about Charriére’s installation of pillars made from lithium, somewhat reminiscent of commercial interior decorations. There are also more convincing documentary works in this part of the exhibition. Like Marie Voignier’s film based on an interview with an old outback guide, which gives a grotesque image of the violence and exploitation running through the colonial era straight into our time.
The idea of artists proposing an alternative to production takes a more interesting turn in “The Pavilion of the Shamans”, with its claim of positioning art in direct contact with the everlasting cycles of life and death. Unfortunately, this part begins with a monumental installation by Ernesto Neto, who has flown in people of the Brasilian Huni Kuin tribe to take part in the exhibition. Through traditional rituals they are supposed to assist visitors ”to imagine a necessary transformation of society”. This grand gesture is approximate to the work of Eliasson in the Central Pavilion, where the critical idea of withdrawal instead opens for new (or not so new) forms of social domination. In a context devoted to other rhythms and ways of life than those prescribed by the logic of late capitalism, the figure of the entrepeneurial-nomadic artist is unwittingly laid bare as depleted, if not politically regressive.
After the following ”Dionysian Pavilion”, described as a ”celebration of female sexuality”, the long journey through Arsenale is concluded by ”The Pavilion for Colour”, where the most spectacular work is an enormous installation of oversized balls of yarn by textile artist Sheila Hicks. This is followed by “The Pavilion of Time and Infinity”, in part taking place in a number of old storehouses at the very far end of Arsenale. Here, the expressions are tempered and emptied of colour. In a dark room, Belgian artist Edit Dekyn exhibits a man with a broom collecting dust into a perfect square.
Several of these works are memorable, yet ultimately expose the merely partial fulfillment of the exhibition’s promise. Macel moves toward the fringes of the contemporary, toward mystical rituals and ancient practices, and toward sleep, which Jonathan Crary has described as the last outpost yet to be integrated into the system of digital capitalism that wants us active at all hours. Indeed, toward the end of the exhibition there are non-professional artists – such as autistic Dan Miller and Judith Scott (1943–2005), who was born with Down Syndrome – whose strong expressions through painting and textile appear driven soley by internal impulse. Yet their works would have needed more highlighting to have a real impact on the exhibition.
Macel’s vision is about a human art exceeding individual social and political determinations. This is a crucial ambition, since there is not, as some would have it, a contradiction between a historical and material understanding of art, and the notion that it can surpass the original conditions of its production. It is, after all, the human expression that draws us to art of different cultures and historical epochs. But this exterior of contemporary art would have required a more coherent social, political and historical representation in the exhibition. Furthermore, the consequences of radical withdrawal and refusal to work are never fully realized, which in the end, renders Macel’s biennial unconvincing as a critical assertion of art’s contemporary predicament.