Report /

National Pavilions / 56th Venice Biennale

The state of the world is mapped out in every direction in Venice. The national pavilions that dot the perimeter of the main exhibition spaces present alternate histories and futures, and offer respite from the dark prognoses and black, inky palette of “All the World’s Futures.”

Against the darkness are scorching crimson highlights, like the blood-red walls bordering the “ARENA,” a theater nested inside the Giardini and designed for the nonstop oration of Das Kapital, Karl Marx’s singular 1867 critique of capitalism, running well over a thousand pages long. Down in the blacked-out cellar of the German Pavilion, Hito Steyerl’s film The Factory of the Sun screens amid a grid-like installation of blue neon rays cast over the entirety of the space in three dimensions. An apt background for the video-game aesthetics of the film, this two-dimensional world slickly assuages alienated users. Looking on, we know that the situation is inevitably rigged, and this position of knowing resignation is explored in the laser-sharp interstices of gold lamé-covered amateur YouTube dance stars; avatar customization options in video-game introductions, providing identity and expression through a series of multiple-choice options; and poseur fiscal and political experts who testify to the neoliberal agenda in staged segments, filmed to be looped on cable news channels. A blaring disco soundtrack is the only suitable transition between the absurd scenes.

After readjusting to sunlight, one enters the relentless margarine interior of the British Pavilion, populated with Sarah Lucas’s partial figures, cement-colored mannequin bottom halves alternately draped over mid-century office furniture and having fun with cigarettes. The cheeky exhibition, titled “I SCREAM DADDIO,” was appropriately inaugurated with a metal band performing on the Pavilion steps. Nearby, the chewing-gum pastels and teenage girl’s bedroom color scheme of Pamela Rosenkranz’s Our Product in the Swiss Pavilion radiate an uneasy sedation. An entry foyer of spearmint green leads into a tepid pink grand space; the undeniable artificiality of both rooms hints at the unsatisfying placation we experience via nonstop consumption, and the attainment of wellness and satisfaction that targeted marketing promises us. Together, triumphs in chemistry, sophisticated engineering and market research hold us in their plastic glaze, suggesting that we are as fluid and malleable as her blush pool of Evian water, silicone and diluted pharmaceutical drugs.

These various manipulations of color and light segue to Turkey’s Pavilion, its new space taken over by Sarkis, the Armenian artist originally from Turkey. Respiro is an airy occupation of the Pavilion anchored by a neon rainbow arching at each end; seven nervous lines of pure pigment are illuminated while a soundtrack by Jacopo Baboni-Schilingi floats through the stained-glass windows. A circle of children’s fingerprints in paint decorates each side of a mirrored wall in the center of the space. Respiro quietly came to life as the centerpiece of a constellation of Sarkis installations in dialogue, as six other institutions, including the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Geneva, opened exhibitions by the artist that act as “messenger sites.” Reaching back millions of years to describe the very first rainbow, what the artist has described as the “the breaking point of light,” the spirited formation was helplessly optimistic and piercingly radiant, a healing gesture on the centennial of the Armenian genocide.

Norway, this year the sole commissioner of the Nordic Pavilion, with its spare, sand-hued Scandinavian design, staged a performance by Camille Norment, an American residing in Oslo. In her subtly arranged Rapture, the artist lead a trio of musicians while playing a glass harmonica. Her cloaked approach delivered a political and interpersonal metaphor: dissonance does not go unnoticed. The oversize window panes lining the pavilion appeared to be shaken and dislocated by the music’s vibrations, their sharp corners fanned out in stacks over the floor and lawn. Next door, the American Pavilion’s film installation by Joan Jonas, They came to us without a word, was enveloped by simple drawings of animals on large white sheets of paper hung neatly on every available wall. Screening tribes of bees buoyed in amber pools of honey and children engaging in theater, the films were supported by pure white cones and hand-shaped spheres, reflected among the elegant chandeliers and mirror panels. The sun-bleached ambience reflects Jonas’s mixture of nostalgia and innocence as embodied by the use of child performers in her films as well as the artist’s shamanistic spiritual wanderings. Given the American Pavilion’s proximity to the dark panels by Oscar Murillo flying half-mast over the main exhibition’s entrance, a contrasting perspective on our collective future is inevitable; the distinction lies in our depth of field.

by Jennifer Piejko

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Twenty-five Years and Counting Andrea Rosen / New York

On the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Andrea Rosen Gallery located in Chelsea, Flash Art talked with the gallerist about her initial motivations and future plans.

The first exhibition at Andrea Rosen Gallery was a 1990 solo show by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. What inspired you to open a gallery?

I wanted to open a relatively significant gallery right away, a neutral space, where it wasn’t about being young and small. It was my way of saying, well, these might be emerging artists or they might not be, but it’s the same playing field. Very shortly after that there was a financial crash, and even though I’m glad I opened the gallery when I did, many others didn’t make it. I was luckily included with the generation just before me, Pat Hearne and Lisa Spellman, who became my peers. It was very clear to me that there was a new, very powerful generation of artists, my generation, and I — although I never thought I’d have a gallery — felt compelled to represent them

How has it been for you as a female gallerist? A lot has changed and continues to change, but I’m wondering if this has been a challenge?

Not until the last few years. I think it’s actually gone the other way. For the longest time it was fantastic to be in an industry where there was real quality, and I think in the last few years the focus of the art world has changed. I don’t feel repressed, so that is something I can’t complain about, but I’ve been more conscious of it.

What has shaped your sensibility?

As a gallerist it’s important to recognize that there are two sides: What is my job in creating history? And what is my responsibility to not be lingering on things that don’t have that capacity? On the other hand, I’ve fully embraced all that has the capacity to change and acknowledge our time, and I would say that is something I learned from Felix Gonzalez-Torres. It’s about understanding that what makes you is not just those big moments. You are made every day by every little thing that happens. At the anniversary party the common reflection was, “Andrea, thank you for reminding us that we are part of an amazing community.” And I really believe that. I literally have tears in my eyes because we are so lucky to be part of this art community. I’m a collaborator and love to work with other gallerists, love to learn from historical dealers and from young, emerging gallerists. Those are dialogs that I care about, and I think it’s my responsibility to sustain the idea that the art world is actually good, meaningful and responsible. It is here to create desire, be a role model for idealism and be subjective while also be able to stand up and have a point of view. I sustain this belief with eyes wide open. Fly that flag.

by Katy Diamond Hamer

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There is a Light that Never Goes Out / Amman

Like many Palestinians, artist Emily Jacir has a conflicted relationship with the notion of “site.” Much of her practice examines site-related loss and hindered site-to-site movement. She fathoms, through installations, interventions, films and objects, what T.J. Demos, in his essay Desire in Diaspora, calls “the impossibility of sitedness.”

Yet the site of Jacir’s most recent show — an extensive survey titled “A star is as far as the eye can see and as near as my eye is to me” — is critical: it provides added depth to an already profound constellation of multi-layered works.

Darat al Funun has been an artistic and cultural locus for artists from the Arab world since its beginnings in 1988. Perched atop one of Amman’s vertiginous hills, it is at once steeped in history yet inspiringly forward-focused. Vestiges of a Roman temple grace its garden, and six historical buildings — each as unique architecturally as their past inhabitants — have housed some of the Middle East’s most stimulating contemporary art exhibitions. The brainchild of artist Suha Shoman, Darat al Funun is both a lifeline for contemporary Arab artists and a proving ground for undiscovered talent.

Artists traveling to or from Palestine pass through Jordan — itself home to a vast Palestinian population — and generally make Darat al Funun an obligatory stop. Jacir was one of these habitual “nomadic” visitors, for whom the site became her “secret bedrock.” She roamed anonymously through its houses in the early 1990s, and shed tears when she finally had a show in the same hallowed spaces in 2006.

Beyond the anecdotal, the Darat endows Jacir’s work with a significance it would not have elsewhere, the most obvious example being the harrowing ex libris (2010–2012). Shot secretly with her cell phone in the bowels of the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem, the work documents the thirty thousand Arabic books wrested from Palestinian homes and institutions by Israel in 1948. Catalogued under the slippery nomenclature “Abandoned Property,” the books teem with life — flyleaf dedications, marginalia, coffee cup stains, wayward scraps of paper, dried flower petals. The clandestinely shot close-ups of the innards of the ownerless tomes are propped on shelves lining the walls of one of the Darat’s galleries, directly below the library, visible through two ceiling-level openings. The hovering presence of books knowingly preserved and intended for public use amplifies the poignancy of Jacir’s mediation on loss. As does the familiarity with these individual stories: many Amman gallery-goers know the families of the dispossessed book-owners; Suha Shoman even recognized her grandfather in an excerpted photo. Interestingly, ex libris makes an unlikely parallel between books and land: both “Abandoned Property” and “Absentee Property” are hinged by illicit seizure and longed-for restitution. Selected flyleaf dedications live as eye-catching murals in the streets surrounding Darat al Funun, further anchoring the link between an unrecoverable loss and a physical, territorial claim.

While Jacir’s impulses seem split between research-heavy undertakings and more immediate, visceral reactions to the Palestinian plight, a sharp, ironic poeticism is woven through much of the work. “A star is as far…” embraces the gamut of Jacir’s artistic approaches: the covert investigation of ex libris and the video Crossing Surda: A record of going to and from work (2002); the excavation in Today, there are four million of us (2002); and the public interventions of Sexy Semite (2000–2002) and XMAS Intervention (1999–2000). Some works, like the rarely seen Everywhere/Nowhere (1999) — an oversized, masking-tape-covered box, similar to those used by movers transferring household possessions, squeezed in a room that can barely contain it — spark multiple questions with an economy of means. Others, like the audio piece Untitled (servees) — a site-specific work at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem from 2008 featuring Arabic taxi drivers shouting the names of destination cities today inaccessible to most Palestinians — are immersive, lingering.

Many years ago, work by Palestinian artists was largely invisible by international standards. Today’s global recognition of mid-career Palestinian artists (Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, Taysir Batniji, Ayreen Anastas and Khalil Rabah spring to mind) points to forces afoot that have, on one hand, prepared the ground for the reception of their work on diaspora and occupation, and, on the other, contributed to their artistic and political engagement. Driven by its mission to support artists and stimulate exchange, Darat al Funun is a regional touchstone, its unique legacy fueling an influence that stretches well beyond the confines of its hilly enclave. While shows like “A star is as far…” (not to mention the depth and integrity of its own collection) should catapult the institution into the international limelight, Darat al Funun remains invisible to the global art world. But like the engaged artists it has hosted throughout its twenty-six years, perseverance is its mantra. Tellingly, a 2010 neon sculpture by James Webb, holding pride of place on the façade of the headquarters, recasts the title of a Smiths tune in blazing homage to the Darat’s resolve. “There is a light that never goes out” (in Arabic text) slices across the Jordanian night sky — a beacon both to those who know Darat al Funun intimately, and those who have yet to discover its vitality.

by Kevin Jones

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Arena /

Holly Herndon’s Platform

“It wasn’t like Snowden happened and then I wrote ‘Home,’” says producer Holly Herndon from her own abode in Los Angeles. She’s just off a flight from a show in Chicago, spending her first night in her new house, on the phone and in her pajamas while being interviewed about her second album, Platform.

“It was just more like a slow burn of realization. I just started to research it more and understand it more — and understand the extent to which it was happening. I think it just finally sank in.” By “it,” the producer — who releases her second full-length through RVNG Intl and 4AD on May 19 — means the culture of spying that the networked world routinely engages in and endures, often without realizing it. Because of global social media and governmental surveillance, the concept of privacy has changed radically over the past couple of decades, and Herndon’s music explores this explicitly. “It’s something that people in music really hate, or are almost allergic to — that if you theorize something, or if you talk about something, it takes away from the emotionality of the thing. It’s like music should just be felt with the heart or in some kind of emotional way, and I think that that’s really odd.” In “Home,” ghostly vocals contemplate surveillance (“I know that you know me / better than I know me”) amid a wash of whirring, racing, scuttling rhythms.

For her latest music video, “Interference,” Herndon and her collaborator-partner Mat Dryhurst worked with progressive graphic design agency Metahaven. It features mostly achromatic tones occasionally punctured by a blank red screen here, a full-color forearm there. The figure of Herndon herself appears from behind a tattered white flag as clattering sonic clusters swirl across cut and glitched vocal samples. A rarely heard word surfaces within the sound and is met with the video’s barely visible text that reads “EVERYWHERE AND NOWHERE.” It’s an equally aesthetic and unsettling experience. “I don’t believe in this strange separation of the soul and the mind,” says Herndon, speaking about what some might perceive as her overthinking of content and the privileged place of ideology in her music. “I think if something’s intellectually interesting then that can make something all the more emotional. I don’t understand this weird separation that music often has, where people get really upset by that idea.”

“Systemic inequality, surveillance states and neo-feudalism” are just some of the heady themes mentioned in the press release for Herndon’s Platform. They are addressed explicitly in track titles like “Unequal,” “DOA” (as in, “distributed autonomous organization”) and the creepy ASMR audio of “Lonely At The Top.” Here, artist and Berlin Community Radio presenter Claire Tolan whispers, “You’re so special, in so many ways,” in a track that’s without sound save for the soothing affirmations of the artist and the rubbing, massaging, salivating foley of bodies in motion. This is just one of several contributions to Platform by other artists working across disciplines, including New York-based composer and performer Colin Self, soprano Amanda DeBoer and Berlin-based Finnish production duo Amnesia Scanner. Herndon wants to be totally open about these contributions, with a transparent attitude that she says is all too rare. “Especially in music, you often have the ‘lone genius’ or the ‘lone icon,’ and it’s actually very rarely accurate. Usually there are a lot of behind-the-scenes people who aren’t being recognized,” Herndon says with a laugh. “So I don’t even know how radically different the process even is. It’s just more about being honest and open about how that process is working; working with people that aren’t necessarily musicians bringing in their ideas to the work.” Those ideas don’t only include Tolan’s work with the perceptual phenomenon of autonomous sensory meridian response on “Lonely at the Top,” but also an eight-channel ambisonic piece with performance artist Cuauhtémoc Peranda in “DOA” and Spencer Longo’s word sculptures in “Locker Leak.” Herndon explains that these contributions have “changed the approach toward lyric writing, or toward conceptual ideas around certain tracks, so I think about it more in those terms. As more a kind of decentralization or something, or a less hierarchical approach.”

Of course, ideas of “decentralized” and “nonhierarchical” structures are central to discussions of the internet, which is at the heart of Herndon’s concerns about global communication and networked technologies. They’re macro-events that have enormous consequences at the micro-level, and it’s a song like “Home” that situates both perspectives squarely within our relationships to our own networked devices. “I was really trying to get to that hyper-personal, almost domestic feeling that you have with your laptop,” Herndon says about “Chorus,” Platform’s lead single released last year. “Then with ‘Home,’ you could see it as break-up song. Where I’m like, ‘How could you do this to me!?’ But of course, we didn’t actually break up. It’s complicated.”

by Steph Kretowicz

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Thematic Hangover

For emerging Southeast Asian art scenes striving for recognition within the international landscape of contemporary art, Venice is obviously a major focal point.

Southeast Asia had little involvement with the Biennale until 2000. Since then, Southeast Asian artists have been gradually invited to participate in the various curated sections, and, for the past decade, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia have had solid representation with their own national pavilions.

At the 2015 Venice Biennale, a number of Southeast Asian national pavilions showcase outstanding artists and curatorial concepts. Yet recent cancelations, decades-long hiatuses and debates over fraught selection processes have revealed complex mechanisms still at play, and bring questions of national representation and cultural diplomacy to the forefront.

For the first time in fifty-one years after its one-time participation in the Biennale’s 32nd edition in 1964, the Philippines returns to Venice. Following a rigorous selection process, art historian Patrick Flores’s project “Tie a String around the World” was chosen by a panel of jurors out of sixteen submissions. Commissioned by the National Commission of Arts and Culture, Flores told Flash Art: “I think the government has realized that a Philippine presence in the global contemporary art scene is a timely response to the robust ecology of the local art world. This is way to offer a platform for that ecology to further thrive elsewhere.”

Developed out of prior research, the installation at Palazzo Mora explores the first film ever made about Genghis Khan — an early 1950s collaboration between Filipino artists Manuel Conde and Carlos Francisco. Flores chose two contemporary artists to work with this premise: Manny Montelibano and Jose Tence Ruiz. “I thought that the former’s video work and the latter’s installations responded well to the theme I was trying to cast,” Flores said. The project both speaks to the country’s current predicament in the South China Sea and offers a broader allegory about world making and the notion of possession. By choosing artists from different periods in history, from the 1950s through to the 1990s, Flores also attempts to introduce viewers to the history of modernity in the Philippines.

Singapore, on the other hand, has taken part in the Biennale since 2001; particularly successful projects include Ming Wong in 2009 and Ho Tzu Nyen in 2011. Singapore was absent from the 55th edition due to its participation being under review by the National Arts Council. There was understandable consternation and a momentary loss of confidence from the Singaporean art community, prompting an open letter, signed by some two hundred arts practitioners, urging that the decision be reconsidered. Singapore is now working toward a long-term lease of a pavilion space at the Venice Biennale. David Teh, a Southeast Asian art specialist and also the director of Future Perfect, commented: “Their system for finding candidate artists doesn’t always yield compelling proposals, and after the recent successes, there was apparently a sense that the field was thin. I’m quite sure that was wrong, and while I can’t speak impartially of course, Charles Lim’s pavilion proves it.” Curated by Shabbir Hussain Mustafa and commissioned by the National Arts Council, the highly anticipated pavilion showcases a culmination of the artist’s ongoing series “SEA STATE,” initiated in 2005. Referencing Land Art of the 1970s, the project traces the geographical contours of Singapore as well as its biophysical, political and psychological position through the visible and invisible lenses of the sea.

Indonesian artist Heri Dono is exhibiting the site-specific project Voyage – Trokomod at the Arsenale. It is only the second time Indonesia has exhibited in the Arsenale. Coming full circle, Heri was also invited to exhibit in the 2003 “Zone of Urgency” exhibition curated by Hou Hanru, making him the first Indonesian artist to take part in the event since Affandi’s participation in 1954. As with many emerging scenes in Venice, it is often the private sector that leads the way, in the absence of government support. Heri Dono’s project is organized for the second time through the private efforts of Restu Imansari Kusumaningrum of Bumi Purnati Indonesia, an independent legal entity that supports the arts. Co-curator Carla Bianpoen said: “For Imansari and the artistic team whose pursuit for culture is of central significance, it has been an uphill struggle. Cultural diplomacy urgently needs a well-planned and formulated national cultural strategy.” A cross between a Trojan horse and an Indonesian Komodo dragon, the Trokomod rejects Western hegemony and speaks to the plurality of contemporary art today. Bianpoen continues: “Metaphorically the ancient-looking giant Trokomod represents a metamorphosis from the depths of memory, rising up as a futuristic submarine within a spirit that surpasses mere pluralism and equality.”

Thailand has taken part in the Biennale every year since 2003, when Apinan Poshyananda introduced the first Thai Pavilion. Following the exhibition of esteemed Thai artists like Arin Rungjang and Wasinburee Supanichvoraparch in 2013, Thailand’s selection of Kamol Tassananchalee this year resulted in major controversy within the Thai art community. While the senior modernist painter has no doubt been a respected artist in the country for many years, he is relatively unknown on the international contemporary art circuit, prompting questions of whether he is a contemporary artist at all and debate over the opaque selection process. It is understood that the system Thailand had for selecting artists, which was linked to their national Silpathorn Awards, was abandoned this year due to bureaucratic in-fighting within the culture ministry. There has been no satisfactory reason for his selection and, unfortunately, almost no promotion of the project.

National pavilions are, of course, instruments of national representation. Yet the question of artist selection is arguably more loaded in Southeast Asia than in Europe or America. David Teh notes: “Let’s not forget that the governments of this region are predominantly still authoritarian. In many Western contexts, contemporary art isn’t primarily a vehicle of the state imagination. In Southeast Asia, though, many contemporary artists are still preoccupied with problems of national identity — partly because these are complex stories that some artists care about, but perhaps more because institutions and the market have developed identitarian product lines that have sold well on the global stage. So there’s a kind of thematic hangover, and it does affect selection for Venice.”

by Lucy Rees

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Review /

Sarah Conaway The Box / Los Angeles

At first glance, the show is unified more by palette and an economy of gesture than by medium.

Nominally a photographer, here Conaway presented not just photographs that assert their status as objects — a strategy that has become her signature — but objects themselves, sculptures cast in bronze. These forms echo those seen elsewhere in the show, provoking a sense of déja vu when one encounters in three dimensions what one previously experienced as images, reduced to two.

Between these two poles are the collages. Some, like Empty Collage I and {Depression} Drawing (all works 2015), have been reduced to a point that feels deliberately painful, evoking both the anxiety inherent to an artwork’s dependence on context and the ephemeral feeling of photographs. What these works share in common with a more pictorial collage like Empty Vessel is the distinct sense of bas-relief. There’s a rawness to the sometimes roughly scissored components of these pieces, or the puncture holes in {Depression} Drawing, which call attention to the dimensionality of the surface.

After Empty Collage I, the first photograph one encounters is Fabric [Shroud], which similarly enters into dialogue with the suggestively homologous subjects of the “Figures” (the series title refers both to a C-print and to a series of bronzes), the vaguely anthropomorphic forms in Mourner [Horizontal] and Mourner [Vertical], and Fabric [Ascetics], among others. It seems that the solid, sculptural forms of the “Figures,” in particular, are what lie concealed under fabric in the “Fabric” series, but the question is deliberately left unresolved, provoking a dilemma of exchange. The visual analogies that arise between works, in the context of Conaway’s spare, tightly controlled vocabulary, finally evoke something like a Saussurian sense of the whole show as a system of differences that gain meaning only at the price of an irrecuperable arbitrariness.

Indeed, language seems not so much the heart of “Empty Vessel” as the vessel itself, through which the exhibition comes to encompass nature and civilization, history and memory, the passage of time and the physical architecture that contains it and sets its tempo. This is evinced by the titles of the works themselves — (Oval) Moon, The Battle [Left Panel] and [Right Panel], the sculptures Archway, Dwelling, and Screen. Yet what is really notable emerges from Conaway’s interest in reduction, which seems to underpin her formal understanding of photography itself. While she’s often compared to Surrealists like Man Ray, the way the works in this show withdraw from the very associative possibilities they suggest leaves the strongest impression and brings Giacometti to mind in particular.

by Jared Baxter

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