‘All the world’s futures’. A visit at the 56th Venice Biennale. Part I.
In an interview with the German cultural magazine ‘Monopol’, Okwui Enwezor – the Nigeria-born curator of the 56th Venice Biennale (International Art Exhibition, taking place from 9th of May to 22nd of November 2015) – explains his vision regarding ‘All the World’s Futures’.
The title given to the exhibition is a reflection on the state of things, marked by fragility and uncertainty. Enwezor explains that in the last twenty years there has been a significant migration of goods, people and ideas and greater contacts between ‘social processes, communities and populations’. This art exhibition becomes a way to think about ‘debris and residue, a gathering place of nations and their ideals, where utopia dies and ideals fail’.
As I started my visit of this incredible art exhibition, it was immediately quite clear to me that the theme was well represented and expressed by the artists, in subtle and various ways. Oftentimes, a sense of hope emerged from the ‘debris’, thankfully. The 136 participants called to contribute to the Biennale are established artists as well as newcomers. During this major art event, the city becomes ‘a dancing place’ as Okwui Enwezor defines it, with 90 pavilions, 45 collateral events plus many more that are not officially listed, and museums organizing special exhibitions in town.
I regretted that I was not able to visit ALL pavilions and take part in the collateral events. But for once, my three intense days in this unique city were spent strictly off the beaten track. I avoided the crowds and the typical landmarks of Venice in order to dedicate my time to a full-immersion into art.
Not counting the collateral events, and other pavilions dislocated in different areas of the city, the Biennale takes place in the beautiful ‘Giardini’ (defined by the curator as ‘Garden of Disorder’) and at the ‘Arsenale’. This is a huge complex of former shipyards and armories, responsible for the bulk of the Venetian Republic‘s naval power and whose construction originally dates back to the XII century.
Art is, in my opinion, a very personal experience, and modern art probably even more so. Therefore, I would like to briefly describe the pavilions that have stricken me most during my visit.
The Italian Pavilion, called ‘Codice Italia’ is located at the Arsenale. It is a voyage across Italy’s contemporary art, where these highly symbolic works share a common genetic background and links with existing iconographic material. Each art piece is like a manifesto and it is connected with another artwork created in the past, referred to as ‘Archive of Memory’. At the Italian Pavilion, the Italian artists gain autonomy, as each work has been organized in separate ‘rooms’. Every space hosts one piece of art and one ‘Archive of Memory’.
My favourite art piece is ‘Untitled’ by Claudio Parmiggiani, representing monumentality and fragility through an anchor suspended and stranded above countless fragments of a mirror. The anchor seems to epitomize the abyss of a shipwreck that has just happened, the violation of balance. The chosen ‘Archive of Memory’ is, for this piece, a work subject to countless interpretations: the engraving by Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I (1514).
Unlike the Italian area, the artists representing the other countries developed a single and definite theme within their pavilion. The effect is quite remarkable, as the works are showcased in an enclosed and specifically dedicated area. The external architecture, or the external space, is sometimes part of the same artworks.
This is the case of the French Pavilion. While approaching it, one notices from a distance two real ‘walking trees’, moving slowly outdoors. The effect is that of a ‘vision’. Inside the art space, an installation by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot called ‘rêvolutions’ displays another majestic Scotch pine. This reverses the interior/exterior relationship, creating an open-air theatre. The trees are a link between the natural and the technological world, and a representation of animist perception. With this art installation, the artist wants to recreate a sense of marvel and wonder, typical of the Italian Mannerist gardens. Inside the pavilion, visitors lie down on ‘les marches’, padded steps that are also an artwork, to enjoy the sense of air, light and greenery. While resting in this very pleasant environment, one is taken by reverie and reflection regarding the ever-changing environment.
Another pavilion where the external space constitutes a whole with the internal one is the Israel Pavilion. ‘Archeology of the Present’ features the work of Tsibi Geva, a prominent Israeli artist. The building is entirely covered with more than a thousand used black tires (coming from Israel), all tied together to create a grid that acts as a protective layer. Abandoned, found, recycled elements, together with paintings and sculptural elements, are all cluttered inside the building. They raise the question of locality, immigration, anxiety and instability. All these are fragments of a home that once was: an unrealized dream about identity. The many openings, gaps and holes that are part of this artwork allow our gaze to glance, while our body cannot pass through. Blockage and discomfort find expression in this space, together with lyricism and poetic moments transmitted by the abstract paintings.
The Russian Pavilion is located inside a beautiful ‘house’ and it presents Irina Nakova’s ‘The Green Pavilion’. Every room of this house is painted in a different hue. Welcoming us, a futuristic pilot in the form of a huge head, wearing helmet, mask and goggles. Very eye-catching is the room painted with brushes of revolutionary red and perestroika green. A glass roof lets the green of the trees and the light come in and plays with the chosen colours. This is the only reference to the two epochs of Russia’s history, where abstract art becomes the vehicle of social aspirations.
I found the USA Pavilion quite a magical, oneiric space, filled with voices, images, sculptural elements, drawings. Joan Jonas ‘They Come to Us without a Word’ evokes the fragility of nature in a rapidly changing situation. Each room represents a creature (bees, fish), an object (mirror), a force (wind) or a place (homeroom). While exploring these areas, one can hear fragments of ghost stories – sourced from the oral tradition of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada – in the background. The videos, representing children, were shot during a series of workshops that the artist held with them. Mirrors from Murano and old Venetian crystal beads hanging from a suspended structure intertwine with sound and lighting, children, animal or landscape’s images, and contribute to create a unique, dreamlike and unforgettable sensorial experience.
From this bizarre space to another very creative area: ‘Canadassimo’, by BGL art collective, the Canadian Pavilion. We access the space noticing scaffolding outside the building and this leads us to think that it is still under installation. We then enter a ‘convenience store’, totally resembling a real Canadian shop selling household essentials. From there, we access a more orderly living space, probably the preserve of a recycling enthusiast. Finally, we find ourselves in a colourful, cluttered studio, full of any kind of objects and in particular of tin cans covered in drips of paint. The overview is fantastic, with this unique mix of colours and materials. This weird area takes us to an outdoor balcony, overlooking the Giardini. Canadassimo has been almost entirely constructed out of recycled materials and objects. In a system dominated by productivity, profit and excess, this art installation is a response to all economic imperatives. In this space, unproductivity reigns, and we are led to rediscover recycling, transforming, reusing of materials and respect for nature.
I enclose some pictures I have taken and that refer to the pavilions I have been talking about. They are necessary to ‘travel’ within this brief introduction, although absolutely not sufficient to obtain a full and personal impression of these artworks that represent all the world’s futures, each one in its own way. I will be back, in my next article, introducing a few other pavilions that I really enjoyed visiting ( including my favourite one) and that lead me to ponder upon the world’s fragility, and the power of art (and words) as the possible key not only to beauty, but also to the re-discovery of our most secret, inner self.