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VIVA ARTE VIVA. There were more than a few voices intoning during the opening days – in their strolls through the Giardini to the Arsenale or queuing for some pavilion or other – the eloquent title of the 57th Venice Biennale curated by Christine Macel, curator in chief of the Pompidou in Paris. Almost all of them – above all the Spanish speakers – did so with a more than a touch of humour, as the title calls for it. Beyond the generalised commentary, the intention of the French curator with the biennale – and its much trumpeted titled – was to return the artist to the centre of the whole creative process, and to propitiate almost a sort of celebration of the artistic within life. According to her own words, “Viva Art Viva is an exclamation, a passionate outcry for art and the state of the artist. Viva Art Viva is a Biennale designed with artists, by artists and for artists”.
Still leaving out of the game a large part of the public with this affirmation, Macel points to a commemoration of the artistic fact, placing the emphasis on human nature, in the understanding art “bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human”, positioning it as the final solution to all the ills that beset us in our times. Similar assertions confirm that this biennale, despite some of the subjects it touches upon, once again places the human at the centre of everything, and ART (yes, with capital letters) as our salvation, distancing itself from any interdisciplinary position or any endeavour to overcome the reining anthropocentrism. And of course, marking a huge distance from previous editions that placed the complexities of the artistic fact or the difficulties of contemporary socio-politics as the central question, and with Documenta 14, which it coincides with these days.
With this idea as the central axis, the exhibition divides into nine chapters or Trans-Pavilions, as the curator calls them: overly generic, stagnant thematic divisions that organise a totally antagonistic pathway through the two sites. In the central pavilion of the Giardini, which holds the Pavilion of Artists and Books and the Pavilion of Joys and Fears, the discourse is chaotic and fragmented, focussing on individual presentations in an architecture far more suited to another type of narrative that facilitates intersecting dialogues. Questions relative to the figure of the artist, her position and place of creation, are dealt with here, placing the emphasis on the studio or the working space and its relation with knowledge.
There are resounding failures, like the project by Olafur Eliasson, which, in the mode of reception, places at a workshop space at the centre of the exhibition. A space which, from a stance of excessively naïve superiority, invites refugees and other collectives to construct artefacts. Good disembarkations, like the work of the Canadian Hajra Waheed and her delicate paintings, collages and small scale photographs; or seminal works deployed in places where they don’t seem comfortable, like the mythic Artist at work (1977), which reflects Mladen Stilinović resting in his studio, which despite wanting to mark the rhythm of a large part of the show, are left displaced.
In the Arsenale, on the other hand, the pathway is totally directional, with too many marked divisions between the chapters that tackle a wide range of elementary and hackneyed subjects that contribute little, above all because of the way they are dealt with. The Common, the Earth, the Traditions, the Shamans or the Colours are a few of them that are simply illustrated with a series of works by artists from different generations and geographies, installed more or less successfully. The pathway starts with El círculo de fuego (1979), an excellent work by Juan Downey made up of various monitors in a circle. It could have been a good start, its blunt sobriety marking the rhythm and the proposals of the exhibition, but it is accompanied by an installation by Rasheed Araeen that does it no favours. The exhibition is amiable and easy to visit, with momentary highs, like the passage from the Common to the Earth and to the Traditions, with formidable works like the installation of the Turk Yorgos Sapountzis; the video Atrato (2014) by the Columbian Marcos Avila Forero; the display by Franz Erhard Walther (this year Golden Lion’s prize for the best artist); the shoes converted into receptacles where vegetation grows by Michel Blazy; or the works by the Japanese artist Shimabuku that touch, with humour, on the relation between humanity, nature and technology.
Advancing towards the Traditions what stands out are the sculptures by the Mexican Cynthia Gutierrez that mix the bases of classical columns made with Mexican stone with traditional textiles, question memory and identity, or the reflections on musical folklore by Anri Sala. But from there, the rhythm declines, entering into the shamanic chapter, which starts with the problematic installation by Ernesto Neto that generates a space for the celebration of rituals, activated at different moments by a group of native Brazilians, that sins with its excessive exoticisation, ending up as a chill-out for exhausted visitors. The way the works are shown, excessively museographical , contrasts with their nature, originating – once again, and once too many times- this vision of the white man fascinated by alterity.
In general, obvious and direct relations are momentarily established that leave practically no room for the imagination, and which go weaving in the exhibition route dialogues between the works. Everything is tied up, well tied up, and the spectator just has to stroll tranquilly, passing from one big theme to another until reaching the last one: the colours. On leaving, a feeling of déjà-vu. Despite the presence of some very good works, the experience ends up being ineffective, with regard to what it wants to recount as much as in the way it is done.
The exhibition is completed with some interventions in the Giardino delle Vergini that are well worth the stroll. In a small medieval tower we can see the mythical fallen tree by Bas Jan Ader, and at the end of the route, in a delicate garden, a series of subtle and singular sculptures by Erika Verzutti.
But as one already knows, the central exhibition is not everything in Venice. Paradoxically, at a time in which the idea of the state-nation urgently needs to be overcome and blurred, the national pavilions continue to be essential and the comparisons – and the competition- between them continue to be the order of the day. A lot has already been said about the German pavilion by Anne Imhof, and her intense choreography. Despite all the controversy, it’s well worth a visit, even more so if one is lucky enough to coincide with the performance. I also wouldn’t miss Cevdet Erek in the Turkish pavilion; the subtle exhibition by Polys Peslikas with a few guests in Cyprus’ pavilion; the extraordinary work by Francis Alys in that of Iraq; and, finally, a worthy Italian pavilion, which curated by Cecilia Alemagni approaches the legacy of the anthropologist Ernesto de Martino delving into the magical and the irrational, with the disturbing work by Andreotta Calò, a great video-installation by Adelita Husni-Bey and the spectacular and subtle installation by Roberto Cuoghi.
And here, alluding to the nature of the state, there was also, Uneix-te – Join Us by Jordi Colomer, the proposal of the Spanish pavilion curated this year by the director of the CA2M, Manuel Segade. The project itself realised over the last five months – another possible comparison is the time each country has to produce its pavilion … – makes an apology for nomadism as a collective action, displaying an enormous quantity of videos mounted on sculptural-grandstands that one observes sitting on the opposing grandstand. The title invites us to unite with the idea of movement as a way of thinking about the social imaginary and although the complicated architecture doesn’t work in favour of the video format, the solution functions on a spatial level and invites one to traverse and pause at different fragments. The touch of both the artist and curator are evident.
The disturbing proposal by Cinthia Marcelle in the Brazilian pavilion focuses on the national question from a different place. The floor is made up of a metallic latticework, into which white stones of different sizes have been fitted – similar to those accumulated outside the entrance – that add an organic element that contrasts with the modern geometric architecture. Inside, a screen leaning against the wall shows an intriguing image of men camped on a roof, a situation in tension halfway between a shipwreck and a rebellion. The installation functions, the experience is disturbing, and Marcelle draws a masterly blunt and subtle portrait of the chaos that dominates Brazil, evoking the atmosphere of a failed nation.
And continuing with the complexity of the national question, undoubtedly one of the most outstanding proposals of this biennale is La vida en los pliegues, a project Carlos Amorales realizesfor the Mexican pavilion, curated by Pablo León de la Barra. Amorales creates a complex world out of abstract forms, forms that are the origin of distinct elements of the project: a series of encoded texts and poems written in situ, a score the sounds of which will be interpreted by an ensemble of ocarinas, and the film La aldea maldita. The artist himself affirms that the film “talks of a State that isn’t strong, that is dissolving, of a State that isn’t there, that doesn’t impart justice to everyone” And it seemed important to focus this metaphor in the Nation Pavilion. To say ‘yes we are a country, but our State, where is it”? An encoded alphabet that generates a formal but undecipherable language, created out of abstract forms, is the base material of the project. The pavilion looks after every detail, from the delicate tabled where the ocarinas are placed to the simplicity of the drawing-scores laid out on the walls. On entering one intuits the sound of an incomprehensible language, and when the performs enter into action, grabbing different ocarinas, playing them while reading the scores, it becomes impossible to stop listening to them, letting yourself be taken away by this incomprehensible, perturbing sound, by this ungovernable beauty that you don’t quite understand. I couldn’t resist returning various times to listen to this invented language. Perhaps when all is said this is what it’s about: once and for all giving ourselves the opportunity to not understand and accept that we don’t know everything. To accept the need to invent new forms which surpass the failed nation, the absent state, and the hermetic frontier. To trust, of course, once again the capacity of the human being as a creative genius doesn’t seem a suitable path. Why not blur the lines, once and for all. Imagine new modes of collective living, where humanity is just one more fragment of an infinite and elusive totality to transform this absurd present.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)