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Volcano Extravaganza 2017 / Naples, Stromboli

At a summer home tucked a stone’s throw away from the island’s humble center, Stromboli, Roberto Rossellini’s masterpiece, is projected every night, regardless of how many people show up to watch. The venue is the very same location where the radiant Ingrid Bergman stayed during the film’s production — the love nest where she would allegedly meet with Rossellini for late-night rendezvous.

Perhaps this daily ritual keeps the memory of the film alive — a film that massively iconized a vivid Strombolian imagination. As Gilles Deleuze theorizes in Difference and Repetition (Columbia University Press, New York, 1994), it is the act of repetition that reveals the core essence of the subject at hand. It also generates difference whereby every iteration produces a different experience for the subject that bears witness to it: on the one hand, a fixed structure given by the soundness of essence; on the other, the mobility of subjective interpretation.

This discussion around Rossellini’s film could be extended to Volcano Extravaganza 2017, the summertime contemporary arts festival organized by Fiorucci Art Trust. Curated by director Milovan Farronato, the festival has been colonizing the dreamy Aeolian island for seven years now. In partnership with UK music enterprise The Vinyl Factory, the 2017 edition made its way to Naples, too.

This year’s “artistic leader” Eddie Peake presents “a constellation of performative acts” under the rubric “I Polpi” (The Octopuses), which collectively explore the body, its limits and its excesses; in addition to performances it includes site-specific murals in the Fiorucci Art Trust Stromboli location.

Peake, a British artist who graduated from the Royal Academy, explores themes of sexuality, language and self-portraiture. Less frequently, he focuses on reenactment and repetition (and therefore difference) — concepts that, by destructuring the notion of “variations on a theme,” make up the backbone of “I Polpi.”

In music, a variation on a theme is a relatively simple structure based on a melody presented in its original form and then successively reconsidered through variations. In “I Polpi,” Peake applies this strategy to his new performance To Corpse. In theater slang, “to corpse” means to involuntarily break character by hysterically laughing. He appropriates the term by making it the title of a series of five performances in which five dancers interpret his choreography for twenty minutes or so. The choreography itself is the weft, or at least the fixed motif across all five acts. The warp is much more complex; Peake invites musicians, artists and poets to propose their own drastically altered interpretations. The space, too, transforms each time across the astonishing backdrops of Naples and Stromboli.

July 13, 2017

Animals (a reenactment of the 2012 performance Touch) is the first performance, a thirty-minute, five-on-a-side soccer game set in The Morra Foundation’s courtyard. With the exception of cleats and socks, the players are nude and play head to head on a makeshift court. The initial eroticism of the active male musculature is quickly desensitized and transformed into a candid nudity, similar to that found in a locker room. The light just before dusk warmly kisses this unconventional stadium as the audience wildly boos and cheers — a scene that is a nod to an Italian stereotype. The game is a tie, 7-7.

July 14, 2017

Variation 1 of To Corpse unfolds with electronic musician Actress in the courtyard of the Naples museum MADRE. Five dancers squeezed into white bodysuits perform an alien choreography that evokes sex, clandestine desire, violent impulses, hatred, infatuation and love. Actress’s music supplies a cosmic dimension.

The second variation takes place hours later in the picturesque setting of San Giuseppe delle Scalze, an abandoned (yet not deconsecrated) church from the seventeenth century. An ethereal atmosphere is amplified by Gwilym Gold’s mystical music. The performers, dressed entirely in black and sporting white Reeboks, evoke priests born of some profane religion. Their spontaneous Dionysian gestures transcend space.

The third episode is performed during sunset at Solfatara, a shallow volcanic crater where jets of sulfurous steam are lauded for their miraculous healing properties. Poet Holly Pester accompanies the choreography with an absurd tale about an affective disease that torments with distance and solitude. “I’m tired, I’ve lost the revolution,” she repeats in resignation.

July 15, 2017

The rhythm relaxes on the SNAV ferry bound to Stromboli with the 2005 performance Fox, a work created by Peake and Sam Hacking during their time at the Slade School of Fine Arts. A performer dressed in a fox suit is positioned in front of the boat’s bar. A second performer joins in, liberating the first performer from the mask and taking on the role of the fervent fox. The second performer then gives the first performer his clothes via a stuffy swap that takes place inside the costume. Finally dressed, the first performer can now remove the fox mask while dressed in the borrowed clothes. This act is repeated four times in total.

Next, a 2016 performance by Peake and dancer Emma Fisher, titled The Megaphone Duet, is staged on the Scari pier in Stromboli. Dressed in a black bodysuit, Fisher attempts to dance under the guidance of Peake’s stern gaze until Peake takes the microphone and interjects: “I love to watch you perform, move and dance. Do you love me?” In response, Fisher approaches him and hysterically screams, “No fucking way.” She proceeds to slap Peake in the face and then quickly embrace him. A power dynamic is evident, like the relationship between master and student — or perhaps a case of Stockholm Syndrome.

July 16, 2017

Peake’s bodies are pervaded by a reforming frenzy and a violent frailty. The epidermal surface is the site of clash and reconciliation, of internal and external conflict. The experience of each variation is fully shaped by the music and the spirit of the setting.

Variation 4 of To Corpse is held at Club Megà in Stromboli around midnight. Evan Ifekoya and Victoria Sin’s music accompany the five performers, who are now completely nude and covered in shimmering gold powder. The performance is vigorous, alternating between erotic moments and thematic undertones of vice and excess — a stark contrast to the next performance.

The fifth and final variation is set on the shoreline. There is no music this time; the only audible rhythm is the island’s soundscape. Waves lapping at the shore caress the silent choreography. The dancers’ figures are silhouetted by the dawn sky, bringing the performance to a silent, static coda marked by the closing curtain of a oncoming storm.

by Giulia Gregnanin

(Translated from Italian by Bana Bissat)
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Learning from Athens Documenta 14 / Kassel

Is Greece a metaphor? Two months after the opening of Documenta 14 in Athens, the Kassel edition followed with the still-unanswered question of what we learn, have learned, are learning from Athens. It figures a lossy, allegorical Greece: a field in which critical narratives about global dispossession, austerity, migration, historical democracy, historical fascism and cultural production might alternately be thought through and acted out.

In a recent interview in art-agenda, former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis noted the exhibition’s simultaneity with the liquidation of Greek national assets (“fourteen regional airports, extremely lucrative ones as Santorini, Mykonos, and so on”) in a sale to the German-state-owned Fraport. One can imagine that the revenue these airports generate, which previously might have been directed to the Greek public services rendered moribund under austerity, now contribute to the wealth of the German state, whose funds, in turn, have brought Documenta to Athens.

What does it mean for a lender to learn from a debtor? In a 2016 issue of C Magazine (in a text unrelated to the exhibition), Candice Hopkins, one of Documenta 14’s team of curators, considers the relationship between learning and power: “‘Pedagogy’ stems from the Greek, paidagōgos, which denotes ‘a slave who accompanied a child to school.’ Perhaps paidagōgos implies learning from the dispossessed (although clearly those doing the teaching had little choice in the matter).”

What one expects an exhibition to do — and what collusions with instruments of repressive power one accepts as normal in the name of discourse — likely depends on what one understands an exhibition’s value to be. Some see an inherent value in exhibitions and their making, while others don’t. Documenta 14’s most visually iconic work, Marta Minujín’s Parthenon of Books (2017), is a re-creation of a monumental work originally erected in Buenos Aires in 1983: a to-scale replica of the Parthenon, rendered in metal scaffolding and filled with books. The Buenos Aires version used banned books excavated from the storage of the just-deposed Argentinian military junta; the Kassel version uses books banned in other contexts. Facing it to the north is Banu Cennetoğlu’s BEINGSAFEISSCARY (2017), a text installation whose title replaces the name of the Fridericianum on the building’s facade, reproducing its distinctive lettering; the phrase is borrowed from Athens graffiti. Facing the Parthenon of Books to the south is a temporary Polizei station marked with Documenta signage. Though “being safe is scary” reads, in an art context, as a platitude about the threat of hegemonic culture, the presence of Documenta-branded art cops brought to mind unintended resonances between the repressive state, the politics of public safety, and contemporary art’s structural relationship to the verboten (both real and imagined).

My own learning at Documenta began among the works of Lorenza Böttner, whose paintings, drawings and photographs are presented in the Neue Galerie alongside archival materials documenting the armless transgender artist’s life and practice, which seems to have otherwise had few public presentations following her death in 1994. A framed photograph documents one of Lorenza’s public performances of painting: standing on the sidewalk, she uses her feet to paint a canvas in front of a few onlookers, marrying the aesthetic figuration of the painting with the labor of its making, a political act insofar as the fact of Lorenza’s body itself is political. Other works trade in the malleability of gender and its markers: in a few series of black-and-white portraits, Lorenza’s face and hair are subject to transformations in style, fluidly borrowing from the masculine, the feminine, the elaborate and the peculiar. In a drawing on paper, Lorenza’s body is rendered in two vertical halves, split along the gender binary, with each side styled differently. The central piece in the small installation dedicated to Lorenza’s work is a large painting dated 1985, in which Lorenza, seated, cradles a baby in her lap, feeding it with a bottle she holds in the crook of her neck. Alongside Lorenza’s self-imaging of a disabled, gender-nonconforming body as vital, autonomous, expressive and erotic, this central portrait of the artist as a vision of care and social reproduction reads like the freedom to choose what one’s body means.

Installed in one of the exhibition’s glass pavilions on Kurt-Schumacher-Strasse, Vivian Suter’s Nysiros (Vivian’s Bed) (2016–17) stages hanging sheets of painted, unstretched canvas, a surfeit of colorful, ordinary pleasures. A central wooden bed within the installation is made up with sheets of painted canvas, with additional paintings stacked underneath. Vivian’s Bed reminds me of that of Jean Rhys: the British-Caribbean writer who, near to the end of her life, poor and obscure and sick with alcoholism in the British countryside, lived with what would make up the manuscript to her best-known novel, Wild Sargasso Sea (1966), in a pile under her bed. The image of the genius female invalid — and its attendant fluidity between waking, sleeping and working — is one that forgoes the preciousness (and the implicit gendered and classed stratifications) of distancing cultural production from the domestic and that, for all its other sadnesses, seems to bear a measure of private freedom.

The possibility of private freedom also figures in Rosalind Nashashibi’s video Vivian’s Garden (2017), of which Vivian Suter herself is the subject. On view in the Naturkundemuseum, it’s a short, affective portrait of Suter and her ninety-five-year-old mother, Elisabeth Wild, and the house they share in Panajachel, Guatemala. Nashashibi catalogues routine intimacies, adjacent to art practice, in the course of Suter and Wild’s days. Suter scratches paint over canvas, carries a framed panel through the jungle. In a wheelchair, Wild makes collages from paper and magazine clippings. They discuss Suter’s former husband: “You changed your life, you got rid of your husband”; “He was scary”; “He changed several times.” Nashashibi soundtracks the video’s end with a pop song, Sébastien Tellier’s L’amour et la violence (2008), and there’s a pleasure in both how incongruously cheesy it is while nonetheless making the story feel big. At Neue Galerie, a room is dedicated to a selection of Wild’s small, framed paper collages — architectural, graphic, poppy and bright.

These moments were, for me, among Documenta’s best. Other works bear mentioning: Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens’s Ecosex Walking Tour, which invited participants to take part in a commitment ceremony to the earth, and to visit the planetary clitoris, conveniently located in Kassel; Pope.L’s Whispering Campaign (2016–17), whose materials are listed as “Nation, people, sentiment, language, time”; Miriam Cahn’s wondrous, violent dreamscape nudes; and Gordon Hookey’s MURRILAND! (2016), a monumental history painting, rich with literary slippages, narrating the violent colonial foundation of the Australian state. It’s difficult to see these works subsumed into a project in which Greece is positioned as a nebulous other, to which anything — and especially any kind of marginalized identity — might be compared. On a bad day I would say that trafficking in inadequate metaphors is not a failure of the art system but rather its most reliable work, of which this year’s Documenta is an ordinary example. From Athens, we might learn that everything is either the same or it is different.

by Tess Edmonson

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Fuori Biennale / 57th Venice Biennale

Hanging from the vestibule of the Central Pavilion, and disrupting the white rationality of the entry colonnade, is Sam Gilliam’s Yves Klein Blue (2015). Its soft and colorful draping adorns a cheerfully carefree biennial, devoted to a Eurocentric joie de vivre.

Indeed, according to Christine Macel, art is a space that allows an escape from the present political turmoil, to reflect on the self and restart from the subject (a notion the curator defines as “neo-humanism”). “Viva Arte Viva” declares the defeat of art as an engine of transformation, offering instead a retreat into an autopoietic imaginative universe. To mark the border between interior and exterior and to underline the division between political and artistic realms are Gilliam’s polychrome banners. The flag represents a rejection of the present and a reaction to the past — more precisely, to Okwui Enwezor’s biennale and to Oscar Murillo’s black flags, which in 2015 were located in the same position as Gilliam’s work. But can a signal flag completely exclude today’s injuries, tragedies and emergencies? Is it enough to furl the previous standard and put an end to a discourse regarding, in this case, art as a tool for an ideal, for tangible regeneration?

In Laguna there are several examples of exhibitions able to capture the uninterrupted process of contestation and renegotiation. “Space Force Construction” is presented by V-A-C Foundation — a Moscow-based foundation opened in 2009 by Leonid Mikhelson, dedicated to the promotion and study of Russian art — in their new Venetian space at Palazzo delle Zattere. The exhibition deals elegantly with the relationship between political ideals and artistic utopias, proposing a dialogue between a hundred works of the Bolshevik period and others by contemporary artists including Wolfgang Tillmans, Tania Bruguera, Barbara Kruger, Cao Fei, Christian Nyampeta, and Irina Korina. The setup plays with scenography, reenacting historical installations (El Lissitzky’s Room for Constructive Art, 1926) or works never realized (Gustav Klutsis’s Design for Loudspeaker from 1922, preserved in a series of drawings by the artist) in a masterful balance between reality and fiction.

Another show that exploits the theatrical apparatus is Fondazione Prada’s “The Boat is Leaking. The Captain Lied” at Ca’ Corner della Regina. The exhibition questions the very condition of the image, taken to its limit, to a place where reality and deception blur. Artist Thomas Demand, director Alexander Kluge and set designer Anna Viebrock pool their expertise, crafts and visions into a total work of art: an expanded carillon that drives the viewer into a labyrinthine reflection on our era of post-truth media.

Macel has repeatedly described “Viva Arte Viva” as a hymn to creation. The curator’s balanced, harmonious tune and clean musicality tend not to correspond with today’s distortion and asynchrony — as the collateral events by Samson Young for Hong Kong and James Richards for Wales demonstrate. In his site-specific “Songs for a Disaster Relief” project, Young appropriates a number of hit singles created for charity, redeploying and distorting them to describe the absurdity of a pop culture unable to get to the root of the issues it purports to address. Richards offers an immersive experience: a reflection on an inner landscape accessed by rites of initiation, here via a sampling of sounds for the spaces of the church of Santa Maria Ausiliatrice.

Shirin Neshat’s film Roja (2016) uses an alter ego to conjure surrealistic visions of the fear of the other and the desire to reattach to one’s homeland. This may be the most powerful work in her exhibition at Museo Correr, one of a larger constellation of monographic shows in Venice that includes the Italians Alighiero Boetti, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Ettore Sottsass, Marzia Migliora and Yuri Ancarani, as well as Marina Abramović, Pierre Huyghe and Philip Guston.

The exhibitions of Boetti and Sottsass are distinguished by the elegance of their settings (reflecting the collaboration with Fondazione Cini), while the shows by Migliora and Ancarani at Palazzo Ca’ Rezzonico and Café Florian respectively testify to the vitality of a mid-career Italian generation whose practices and areas of research are being constantly redefined.

The Philip Guston retrospective at Gallerie dell’Accademia frames the artist’s production within the literary and poetic milieu that surrounded him: from Lawrence, Yeats and Eliot to Stevens and Montale.

Palazzo Fortuny’s exhibition “Intuition” shares the Macellian discourse of the artist-shaman for whom creation is an uncontrollable act. The show is ambitious for the sheer number of artists included and the complexity of the installation; it presents works with a primigenial strength, such as Gilles Delmas and Damien Jalet’s video The Ferryman (Le passeur des lieux) (2016). Unfortunately the pieces are not always integrated within the whole, partly due to the building’s storied stratification.

Returning to Gilliam’s banners, their presence had the effect of highlighting the distance between the anesthetizing veneer of the biennale and the genuinely reformational spirit of the external exhibitions. This latter tendency is especially marked in the interventions proposed by countries whose freedoms are restricted, and by communities seeking independence or international recognition. A case in point is Taiwan, whose exhibition “Doing Time” at Palazzo delle Prigioni presents a small sampling of work by Tehching Hsieh, an artist whose envelope-pushing One Year Performances are always framed by a set of strictly self-imposed rules. Likewise, the project for the Native American pavilion, titled “Indian Water,” is conceived by artists Nicholas Galanin and Oscar Tuazon as a platform for cooperation and dialogue. Over the summer, the pavilion is due to host debates on the subjects of environmental catastrophe, seawater decontamination and global pollution — issues whose gravity has been magnified by Trump’s anti-environmental policies.

Taking a final step inside the Iraqi pavilion at Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti, part of the official circuit of national pavilions, one feels ambivalence regarding history –– reunion and rupture, reverence and iconoclasm. Ancient artifacts, saved from looting at the Iraqi National Museum, and recent works, are displayed in showcases, reiterating both a distance between the work of art and the flow of life and the requirement for protection of the artistic object. At the end of the hall one encounters Untitled, Mosul, Iraq, 31 Oct 2016 (2017) by Francis Alÿs. This video, shot in the city of Mosul, films a hand that soaks a brush in a palette of ocher, earth and beige colors. With quick and determined gestures the artist tries to portray the Kurdish Peshmerga and the tanks that appear in the background. At a certain point the hand grabs a rag, scrapes off the painting and the action starts from the beginning.

It seems that the faceless author attempts to render an image both attuned to the situation and infinitely failing. This is because the world cannot be fixed in one form; but that does not mean, as Alÿs asserts, the artist can stop bearing witness.

by Giulia Gregnanin

(Translated from Italian by Alex Estorick)
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Art Athina / Athens

By the second day, the octopus had begun to stink. Exhibiters were grumbling. It lay rotting on the floor, hooked up to a car battery, sweating into the carpet — the work of American artist Tony Hope, shown in the booth of Ashes/Ashes. I was told the piece was meant to suggest the resuscitation of the creature, which, as attested to by the deepening stench, was surely a joke.

Really it would seem the young American sought to dramatize the nightmare of austerity and the doomed fable of reanimation in Greece with a staple of taverna cuisine. By day three, they had swapped the creature out for a fresh one.

Those of us who traveled from abroad to the twenty-second edition of Art Athina, the art fair founded by the Hellenic Art Galleries Association, inevitably read the event against the backdrop of the ongoing Greek crisis, even if that took the form of inert caricature, a dead cephalopod. Much as art fairs are designed to operate in a convention center bubble — a non-place where you are always spitting distance from New York, London, Berlin, Dubai — the Faliro Sports Pavilion Arena doesn’t hide the markings of its history so easily. Built to host taekwondo at the 2004 Olympics — Greece won silver in both men’s heavyweight and women’s middleweight — it has more recently been used for Syriza rallies and to house Syrian refugees. The stadium is part of a vast complex erected for the games, which now bears a distinctly neglected feeling — a contemporary ruin by the port of Piraeus. Lacerations and fixes make a patchwork of the temporary fencing around the grounds. I’m told that the government forbade any changes, improvements or even painting inside. The retractable stadium seating, stacked high against the walls, loomed over the booths, huge swaths of thinning dark cloth blacked out the windows, and small signs of entropy were everywhere.

The history of Art Athina itself was, in a way, inescapable as well. Founded in 1993, the fair has been marked by periodic scandal and corruption and has undergone a number of changes in direction. This year is the latest reboot, with a new director, Stamatia Dimitrakopoulos, brought in just three months before the opening and charged with, among other things, attracting more international participation to the fair, which has generally been exclusively Greek in focus. I learned that this is the fourth such peripeteia, in a section called Survey, a fascinating thumbnail exhibition documenting the institutional history of Art Athina through ephemera, newspaper clippings and a selection of works that had appeared in earlier editions. It posed the question of how to tell this history when faced with years of mismanagement and the failure to preserve materials and documentation. Among the works on display was Eva Stefani’s video installation National Anthem (2007), which combines pornographic images with the Greek national anthem, and which was confiscated from the fair in 2007 and led to the arrest of the director.

Across the rest of the curated parallel program you could trace a set of themes — distance and locality, Greece and the world. There was a tribute to Greek artist Jannis Kounellis, a key figure in Arte Povera who died earlier this year, focusing on his 1994 exhibition on a cargo ship in the port of Piraeus. It featured Heinz-Peter Schwerfel’s film Frammenti di un diario (1996), which follows Kounellis around Europe, folding his travels and the exhibition in the harbor into a kind of fictional diary. A video section, curated by Alexander Burenkov, presented a selection of works dealing with surveillance, precarity and interconnectivity, installed in a replica of Edward Snowden’s hotel room at the Mira Hong Kong. All of this was up on a large balcony overlooking the stadium floor.

Below, the game was, to state the obvious, one of sales. I heard rumors of who did well and who did not, but I wasn’t keeping score. The key dynamic that emerged as you moved down the rows of booths was one that grew out of this latest revision to Art Athina, the efforts to transform it from provincial art fair to something a little more global. Greek galleries predominated, rounded out by a handful from elsewhere in Europe and the United States. I was unfamiliar with nearly all of the work shown in the Greek booths, and it ran the gamut from lovely to kitsch. Painter Sofia Stevi’s booth with the Breeder offered an exhilarating moment in the sometimes-stifling arena, and AD Gallery had up a beautiful piece from Bia Davou’s Serial Structures 2 (1981), colorful threads woven vertically into a narrow strip of unstretched canvas, a craft translation of the rhythms of The Odyssey. Fascinating in its own way, however, was to see the work from some of the other Greek galleries, stuff that doesn’t conform to any of the familiar concerns, forms and figures of contemporary art — that is, truly local art — put in dialogue with the shipped-in booths, as in Shana Moulton at Galerie Gregor Staiger and Sophia Al Maria at the Third Line. Lingering over all of this was a question: not whether Art Athina might succeed in becoming a global art fair, nor whether that would, in turn, compromise something of its distinctively Greek character, but rather whether this has all come too late. You hear from gallerists how the fair circuit is becoming increasingly unsustainable; the model is in crisis. We might have another dead octopus on our hands.

by Eli Diner

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Viva Arte Viva / 57th Venice Biennale

At the Sterling Pavilion I find a copy of Representations of the Intellectual by Edward W. Said (Vintage Books, New York, 1996). It’s one of the volumes chosen by Frances Stark for Unpacking My Library, a parallel project within the “Viva Arte Viva” exhibition for which curator Christine Macel has invited participating artists to share their “favorite readings” with Biennale visitors.

Representations collects the talks given by Said on BBC Radio, in 1993, as part of the prestigious “Reith Lectures” series. It’s an impassioned examination of the public role of the intellectual, understood as outsider, “dilettante,” contester: what distinguishes the role, according to Said, “is a spirit in opposition, rather than in accommodation”; a spirit “that grips me, because the romance, the interest, the challenge of intellectual life is to be found in dissent against the status quo at a time when the struggle on behalf of underrepresented and disadvantaged groups seems so unfairly weighted against them” (p. xvii). From a remote shelf in the “Viva Arte Viva” library, the slightly more than one hundred pages of Representations offer themselves to me like an objection to a show that, setting aside the facts of the world in order to rediscover the most genuine expressions of human creativity, presents art as a contemplative, emotional and, at least, therapeutic activity; yet, at the same time, it presents it as a nonprogrammatic and disengaged activity, seemingly discarding that which Said identifies as “the vocation of the intellectual” and therefore of the artist: “maintaining a state of constant alertness” with respect to the exercise of power (p. 23). Prompted instead by the notion of the Latin otium — according to the press release, the interval “of laborious inertia and of the work of the spirit” in which the artwork is born — “Viva Arte Viva” flattens its contents into innocuous displays of isolation and evasion. The vitality of art, which, personally, I have always discerned in the possibility of giving space to feelings of misalignment and antagonism, takes on pastel hues and is consumed in the festivity of the kermesse. (On the other hand, the inoffensiveness of “Viva Arte Viva” justifies the response, bordering on collective hysteria, provoked by a project such as Anne Imhof’s for the German Pavilion, in whose narrative of defiance against institutional power the visitor searching in art for a form of dissent exorcizes precisely his own libido).

A big show that eschews any sense of the epic inevitably compromises itself. Such is the case with “Viva Arte Viva,” in which the works shown are rarely dramatic and, though neatly organized, attend one another without an engaging syntax, without a climax. The installation by Liliana Porter, El hombre con el hacha y otras situaciones breves (The Man with the Ax and Other Brief Situations, 2013) — a diorama in which the figurine of a man holding a hatchet seems responsible for an apocalyptic landscape that pours forth, a crescendo of waste that culminates in a real, eviscerated piano — is not only an exception that proves the rule, but, presented in one of the last rooms of the Arsenale, seems like a sarcastic metaphor for what this show is not. The vehemence that permeates Porter’s installation is largely missing in Macel’s exhibition.

Instead, “Viva Arte Viva” unfolds through idyllic representations. On the one hand, there is otium, the inactivity that stands as the prerogative of artistic activity. Mladen Stilinović’s photographic series Artist at Work (1978), in which Stilinović depicts himself serenely asleep in his bed, is echoed by a group of works by Franz West, among them photographs showing West languishing on one of his chaise longues; a drawing and collage by Frances Stark, Behold Man! (2013), in which Stark depicts herself chilling on her sofa, surrounded by a picture gallery displaying her own visual references; and an installation by Yelena Vorobyeva and Viktor Vorobyev, The Artist is Asleep (1996), a reconstruction of a domestic bedroom environment in which an individual appears asleep. During my visit to “Viva Arte Viva,” I even encountered Dawn Kasper, whose contribution consists of having relocated her studio to within the show for the entirety of its duration, sleeping on a cot.

Now, every worker has the unquestionable right to rest. But in “Viva Arte Viva,” unproductiveness does not affirm itself as a counterproject to the logics of productivism — logics from which artistic work is obviously not exempt; and the inertia of doing appears more like the artist’s privilege, an attitude rooted in her lifestyle. (In the Central Pavilion, surrounded by all these artists at rest, the only ones “busy” are the young refugees assembling the Green Light lamps in Olafur Eliasson’s workshop; meanwhile Eliasson’s paternalistic project necessarily ends up insinuating a disparity founded on the exploitation of the workforce, ironically in the same room where Marx’s Capital was read out loud two years ago.)

At the other extreme of the exhibition’s thematic parabola lies transcendence. A project of emancipating the work of art from facile materialistic readings is needed and warranted; but Macel’s exploration of metaphysics in art doesn’t go much further than presenting nonnarrative and hieratic works. Indeed, suspension is the most frequent “figuration” here: in Broken Fall (organic) (1971) by Bas Jan Ader, the artist is suspended over a canal; in Law of Situation (1971/2017) by Kishio Suga, ten flat stones lie suspended on the surface of a body of water; in The Worldly Cave (2017) by Zhou Tao, groups of individuals are suspended in limbo-environments between dream and reality. There are many more similar examples. But the mesmerizing power of these works is short-circuited: Jan Ader soon falls into the canal beneath him; Suga’s stones rest on a visible fiberglass platform; and Zhou’s surreal spaces are clearly ruins of industrial civilization. Contrary to the curator’s metaphysical aspirations, for me, these works resist spirituality by falling back on reminders that physics, as well as equally pervasive and concrete powers, are at work in artists’ practices.

Even in the realm of direct action, which “Viva Arte Viva” does tangentially consider, Macel chooses gestures that are underwritten by an ambition to redefine an ideal of collectivity alongside others that are instead more acupunctural “practices of everyday life,” the latter foiling the former. This happens, for example, in the second room in the Arsenal, in which Lee Mingwei’s action The Mending Project (2009–15) is placed alongside photographs documenting Maria Laii’s collective action Legarsi alla montagna (Tying Oneself to the Mountain, 1981). In The Mending Project, Mingwei or one of his assistants offers to mend articles of worn clothing given to them by visitors, using colored thread from the dozens of spools hanging on the walls around the work table; eventually, they store the repaired items in the exhibition space. In Legarsi, Lai used a ribbon to “tie” together the houses (and the families) of her native Sardinian village of Ulassai, and in turn tie Ulassai to the mountain that overhangs it. Both of these works are rituals for exorcizing individualism, first of all on a micropolitical level; ça va sans dire that the challenge Lai throws at her community — to think itself as a holistic organism, fused with the landscape in which it is immersed — betrays a “vocation” much broader in scope. By virtue of this vocation, and despite being symbolic and anti-monumental, Legarsi emerges as “grandiose”; yet the proximity of Mingwei’s bid to “tie” visitors’ clothes to the exhibition space, in what feels like merely another participatory art-cum-stitching project, annihilates Lai’s gesture.

In Legarsi, Lai demonstrates what the artist can and must be: to say it once again with Said, “a crusty, eloquent, fantastically courageous and angry individual for whom no worldly power is too big and imposing to be criticized and pointedly taken to task” (p. 8). Unfortunately, in “Viva Arte Viva,” her voice — and the voices of several other committed artists — is undermined by a system of loose associations. If these facilitate the visitor’s approach to the conceptual and formal strategies employed by artists, they suffocate artists’ promptness in responding to historical and political circumstances — the challenge of every intellectual life.

by Michele D’Aurizio

(Translated from Italian by Tijana Mamula)
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Report /

National Pavilions / 57th Venice Biennale

“Art is not the way to change the world, not the place to change the world, otherwise we would know it.” Artistic director Christine Macel’s soothing words of realartistik on the opening morning of the Biennale served to problematize the experience of the real pavilions as much as her “Trans-Pavilions” that demarcate the space and punctuate the course of the International Exhibition.

Given the bluntly political nature of the national pavilions, the question this year was whether they would cultivate the guise of apolitical safe spaces, approximating narratives of sanitization and disengagement, or perhaps worse, pseudo-engagement.

Yet a number nurture positions of canny ambivalence appropriate to this strange island of nations. Anne Imhof’s turbulent appropriation of the German pavilion –– modified by transparent false flooring and occupied by her team of performing sculpture-antagonists –– situates its perpetual trail of visitors in an uncomfortable role-relay between subject and object, hunter and hunted. Entitled Faust, and guarded by a pair of caged Dobermans whose periodic dashes back into the pavilion uncannily replicate the looping rhythm of the internal performance, this five-hour Gesamtkunstwerk trades in irony for a biting critique of consumer culture. With jarring flashes of branded leisurewear interrupting their largely black garb, the performers are simultaneously implicated as hipster-specters perpetuating the system –– the pillars of a neoclassical institution. At a time when irony has become the cloak of choice for extremist ideologies, Imhof’s glare is laser-sighted.

Geta Brătescu’s own treatment of Faust (1981–2), a “mental studio” of thirty-one works on paper, is part of a formidable retrospective at the Romanian pavilion. Ranging effortlessly across media, Brătescu assimilates and reorients modernist visual strategies while addressing female subjectivity. Her 1978 film The Studio, whose tripartite structure –– Sleep, Waking, and Play –– narrates her from object to active subject, accords with a Biennale “by artists, and for artists.” By contrast, Xavier Veilhan’s French pavilion is avowedly relational. Titled, Studio Venezia, this free-form recording studio-cum-market square embraces accident by encouraging musical experiment. By turns underwhelming and overwhelming, the space serves here as a neutral zone seemingly unencumbered by the normal institutional levers, and a working prototype for further incarnations in Lisbon and Buenos Aires.

Alberto Giacometti forever refused to represent his native Switzerland at the Biennale, opting instead to present his sculpted Women of Venice at the French pavilion in 1956. In Flora, a documentary film installation by artist couple Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler, the Swiss pavilion becomes the site for a historical reconstruction of Giacometti’s early biography, specifically his relationship with American artist Flora Mayo. Via moving footage of Mayo’s son’s recollections, the extent of Giacometti’s emotional and artistic bond with Mayo –– practically eliminated from art history –– becomes clear, and is further annunciated in Bust, a reproduction of her destroyed portrait of Giacometti, known previously only from a photograph.

A different kind of historical reexamination occupies the Finnish pavilion. Situating visitors alongside animatronic sculptures conversing in space and on video, Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen’s The Aalto Natives imagines a pair of Messiah-types from the future returning to debate and critique a Finland they once created. In a tone of disarming absurdism, Geb and Atum provide penetrating political observations on our time of historically irrational decision-making; just as, in a paean to porousness, Phyllida Barlow’s folly spills out of the British pavilion with a lightness belying its bulbous concrete forms. Mark Bradford develops a comparable language for the United States pavilion. Seeking to avoid what he calls “Instagram perfection,” his monumental paintings and sculptures share a willful obtrusiveness that shows up “the culture industry and the gray economy” for what it is. While, over at the Chinese pavilion, Tang Nannan’s mesmerizing video seascapes in monochrome slow the pulse, soon to freeze in Dirk Braeckman’s ashen-hued photographs at the Belgian pavilion. Veiling his subjects: figures and landscapes, Braeckman scours our digital reality for the analogue truth.

Having experienced life in Mongolia when it was a Soviet satellite, as well as its recent history of extreme globalization and resource exploitation, Chimeddorj Shagdarjar’s contribution to the Mongolia pavilion is an ensemble of sixty bronze cranes, titled Bird (2016). Based on the image of a crowd of young Mongolian men and women lining up for visas, his splicing of the bird’s trudging legs with the form of a bent-barreled sniper rifle juxtaposes the seasonal movement of cranes across Asia with the paradox of a landlocked nation rooted in nomadism. Coupled with Raped (2016), a video by his compatriot Bolortuvshin Jargalsaikhan in which she asks: “Why are we raping mother nature?…It feels like parts of my body are falling apart,” the Mongolia pavilion defines a Biennale in which transhumance analogizes disembodied times.

The Tunisian pavilion addresses the plight of migrants entering Europe head on. Comprising three kiosks located around the city, visitors are offered the chance to obtain a “Freesa,” a document notionally allowing universal free movement, but in practice designed to elevate a narrative of historic tragedy to one about the aspirations of migrants themselves, including those manning these very kiosks. Next to this, grandiloquent press releases describing how “visitors as performers experience both settledness and nomadism, containment and exclusion, mobility and immobility” (describing the otherwise exceptional Erwin Wurm at the Austrian pavilion) are difficult to stomach, though they reflect a tendency in Western art speak to catastrophize so as to legitimize works of art. Of course the opposite of this tendency is the demand for palatability in the digestion of the unpalatable. And it is this syndrome that Candice Breitz addresses in her six-screen video installation at the South African pavilion, entitled Love Story. Offered the choice between hearing the same harrowing stories from the immigrants themselves or by Hollywood actors on a big screen, we are forced to face up to our own willed detachment.

Other pavilions unpick these threads more obliquely. The Greek pavilion reframes Aeschylus’s Suppliant Women, specifically the dilemma between saving the foreigner and preserving the native, as an experiment relayed on a series of monitors. Forced to decide between allowing one cell population to interact with a second, foreign population, or to isolate the latter and condemn it to extinction, this collision of cultures is left unresolved. By contrast, Gal Weinstein’s Sun Stand Still at the Israel pavilion fully embraces biohazard through a combination of eclectic materials –– metallic wool, felt, pillow stuffing, coffee, and mold –– that together transforms the space into a Petri dish whose unnatural funk is a statement of Western decay as disconcerting as it is beguiling.

According to the Neapolitan philosopher and anthropologist Ernesto de Martino, only magic can resolve this crisis and reconcile our presence in the world. If so, Roberto Cuoghi’s factory of imitation Christs at the Italian pavilion exudes a black magic indeed. And while Adelita Husni-Bey’s tarot reading next door begs us not to despair, Giorgio Andreotta Calò’s basilica of silence prays we reflect.

by Alex Estorick

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