An experience – 24 hours at the Venice Biennale

What’s a girl to do with only 24 hours at the Venice Biennale? With this event spread over two enormous main sites – the Arsenale and the Giardini – 88 country pavilions and 50 other collateral locations, it’s fair to say I’m spoilt for choice.

November 19, 2013
by Gowri Balasegaram
Shot of Venice with sea and marble, statue is Alison Lapper by Marc Quinn

Shot of Venice with sea and marble, statue is Alison Lapper by Marc Quinn

This is the 55th Contemporary Art Fair to be established, and certainly one of the most revered. Curated by the Italian Massimiliano Giono, 39, this year’s theme The Encyclopedic Palace was based on the model of a tower by Mario Auriti called the Encyclopaedic Palace of the World. A self-taught amateur artist, Auriti conceived his tower as a model for a museum which would house every type of human achievement in the world “from the wheel to the satellite.” Auriti’s 136-storey building was never fully-realised, but Gioni has placed the model at the entrance of the Arsenale to symbolise this year’s concepts of utopian dreams and visions, and attempts to categorise or organise data in an effort to apprehend the world.

Like Auriti, there are many outsider amateur artists to accompany their insider, professional counterparts, as well as works that blur the boundaries between high and low art. In the Arsenale, I was particularly struck by the tapestries. Miniature ships and quirky assemblages by Brazilian artist Arthur Bispo do Rosário, in preparation for Judgement Day. Despite being in an asylum for over five decades, Rosário managed to carve a name for himself in the Rio de Janeiro art world.

Equally fascinating was the cartoonist Robert Crumb’s graphic novel The Book of Genesis, comprising of 207 black and white drawings. These complimented the erotic photographs of self-fashioned hermaphrodite Pierre Molinier, who once famously declared: “I came to earth in order to transform this world into an immense mess.” Not the kind of artist you might associate with the romantic Biennale, but providing great juxtaposition to the traditional Walter da Maria, Tacita Dean, and Albert Oehlen.

The opening exhibit at the Central Pavilion was psychotherapist Carl Gustav Jung’s Red Book. Like nearly every other visitor there, it took me a few moments to realise that the phantasmagorical images documenting Jung’s dreams and visions for over 16 years were actually produced by himself. Other memorable works were Thierry de Cordier’s vivid ink on canvas seascapes, which I mistook for opportunistic photographs. The curious and alluring drawings of the Biennale – by some of the world’s oldest Solomon Islanders – many of whom were using pen and paper for the first time; and Sarah Lucas’s compelling biomorphic forms in bronze. The mood of the pavilion was decidedly surreal and dream-like compared to the obsession-fueled works of the aforementioned Arsenale.

Eventually, the warm temperature, the crowds, my 3am start, and the sheer overload of imagery began to conspire against me. I sat down on the nearest bench, only to be confronted by the sight of two contemporary dancers surveying each other warily, like two wild animals before a skirmish. Their movements were punctuated by sounds alternating between bird-calls, chants and techno-beats. I recognised them as Tino Seghal’s ‘interpreters’, and their performance was an exhilarating call to nature.

My aim was to visit a select number of country pavilions before heading to the latest exhibition ‘Prima Materia’ at the Punta della Dogana owned by the French billionaire François Pinault. The idea of country pavilions seems anachronistic in today’s world, and many artists selected to represent their country often produce works that challenge stereotypes of national identity (more recently, countries have chosen non-nationals to represent them).

A few artists well worth checking out are: France (who exhibited in the German Pavilion) with Anri-Sala’s beautifully produced film installation Ravel Ravel Unravel; Japan, with Koki Tanaka, reflecting on communal action in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake; Greece with Stefanos Tsivipoulous’s three part film about the value of money, one of which included a moving film of an African immigrant scavenging the streets for scrap metal; and Canada, represented by Shary Boyle, whose installation ‘Music for Silence’ explored ideas of silence, isolation and solitude. Also inspiring were Sarah Sze’s intricate installations made of every day materials for the US pavilion, and Jeremy Deller’s exhibition at the UK pavilion, poking fun at the ruling classes and oligarchs, whilst also trying to define the concept of ‘Britishness’.

Finally on the plane, I had a moment to ponder over the last 24 hours. The definition of art, it seems, is forever changing, as is the role of the artist. As we clamber to define it, unpacking its conundrums, or stretching its boundaries in order to determine its limit, it continues to evade us. And although most major (and minor) city nowadays has a biennial, each promising alternative visions, no one gets any clearer to pinning down what is art, or its ever-changing role to society. I finally come to the conclusion that perhaps that’s not the point; it’s fun just to think you could arrive at an answer before anyone else.