Review: "Viva Arte Viva!" reflections on the 57th Venice Biennale

For three weeks the HAYP Pop Up Gallery team was in Venice on the occasion of the Venice International Art Biennale.  As exhibitors, we curated a site-specific installation called “NOR DADA” by artist Gayane Yerkanyan, and a performance called “By(r)0n1k” by Aram Atamian.  Outside of our own projects, we had the privilege to explore and absorb the overwhelming amount of art on display for the 57th Venice International Art Biennale. Here are some observations on the biennale, the overall curation, and some reoccurring themes.

***

photocredits: Standard.co.uk

photocredits: Standard.co.uk

Overwhelming. Breathtaking. Inconvenient. Gloriously majestic. Venice is everything you imagine it to be, and more. Winding alleyways, ornate facades, white stone bridges, a cross between east and west- a collision of cliches that are simply, true. 

For seven months of the year, that is from May until November, the city of Venice is animated with exhibitions, performance, site-specific installations, and of course, hundreds of thousands of tourists hungry to explore the city and all it has to offer within (and beyond) the context of the Venice Art Biennale.Despite recent criticism of the biennale’s increasingly commercialized artistic content, curator Christine Macel’s interpretation for the 2017 edition is sincere, reflective, and skillfully makes room for different perspectives and practices within a critical global context. 

Viva Arte Viva is an exclamation, a passionate outcry for art and the state of the artist. Viva Arte Viva is a Biennale designed with artists, by artists, and for artists, about the forms they propose, the questions they ask, the practices they develop and the ways of life they choose.
                                        - Christine Macel.

Macel’s statement is utopic, but also self-aware and playful. “After all, art may not have changed the world, but it remains the field where it can be reinvented” she states. Rather than propose a general theme for the biennale, Macel offers a trajectory of nine “trans-pavilions”, or rather sub-communions of artists, with the aim to generate connections and resonances amongst artists while also showing multiplicity in art practice. While Macel’s approach has been criticized for being simplistic, offering breadth but little depth, the exhibition flows harmoniously and represents a diverse group of artists in terms of nationality, artistic practice, as well as age as Macel makes connections with significant but lesser known artists from the movements of the 60’s and 70’s. The pavilions include: The Pavilion of Artists and Books; Pavilion of Joys and Fears; Pavilion of the Common; Pavilion of the Earth; Pavilion of Traditions; Pavilion of Shamans; The Dionysian Pavilion; Pavilion of Colours; Pavilion of Time and Infinity. 

As trans-national pavilions, Macel aims to make a “semantic nod [that] addresses the often debated relevance of the national pavilions…”. Though, I think it’s interesting to note that although the exhibited artists are ethnically diverse, the majority of them are currently living and working in Berlin. And while this of course speaks to the artistic vibrance of the city of Berlin today, it also goes to show that we are still operating within traditional Western paradigms of legitimacy and consensus.

Having said that, the exhibition curated at Arsenale was one of our favourite parts of the biennale, leaving us inspired and optimistic (“viva arte viva!”, long live art!), and surpassing many of the national pavilions on view at the Giardini in terms of quality of artistic content. 

Reoccurring themes throughout the biennale: 

I. Displaced individuals: Immigration & the Refugee Crisis

While Arsenale is imbued with a positive, euphoric energy, many of the national pavilions reflect a sense of anxiety representative of the current political landscape. No doubt the most prevalent theme throughout the works on display concerns immigration and the refugee crisis, globalization, and issues of cultural appropriation within the post-colonial context.  

In the South African pavilion, video installations by Mohau Modisaken and Candice Breitz confront historic and contemporary narratives of trauma in an attempt to humanize refugee populations and draw parallels on shared experiences of marginalization. 

The most awkward engagement (if that’s the right word) with the refugee crisis was the Green Light project showcased at the Giardini’s Central Pavilion. Iceland artist Olafur Eliasson’s light sculptures hover over a workshop space where refugees make smaller, commercialized versions of the same lamp for sale to support refugee-aid NGO’s. Placed in the Pavilion of Artists and Books (dedicated to the mind and workspace of the artist), perhaps the display intends to examine creative process and collaboration? But in the words of Telegraph Art Critic, Mark Hudson, “That we’re still watching the exotic “other” as an exhibit isn’t I’m sure the aim of the exercise, but it certainly feels like that”. 

"Green Light Workshop" by artist Olafur Eliasson at the Giardini's central exhibition space. Venice Biennale 2017. Photocredits: Damir Zizic, 2017, [available] olafureliasson.net

"Green Light Workshop" by artist Olafur Eliasson at the Giardini's central exhibition space. Venice Biennale 2017. Photocredits: Damir Zizic, 2017, [available] olafureliasson.net

This brings about the time-old question of the relevance of art in the face of global crises, and how attempts to validate art as a means for empathy and exchange can be, to say the least, clumsy.

Lisa Reihana, “in Pursuit of Venus [infected]” at the New Zealand Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2017. Courtesy of the New Zealand Pavilion.

Lisa Reihana, “in Pursuit of Venus [infected]” at the New Zealand Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2017. Courtesy of the New Zealand Pavilion.

Also giving a voice to the historically voiceless, Lisa Reihana of the New Zealand pavilion questions old narratives by proposing an imagined past that plays on colonial representations of the indigenous. Reihana reconsiders the French scenic wallpaper, “Les Sauvages de la Mers Pacifique” (1804-1805) from the Pacific perspective, with the intention to “recast a more complex story of the European fabrication”. But the construction felt naive and just as artificially simplistic as the original work, and though that’s part of the joke, if felt a little “so what?”. The title of the cinematic centrepiece, “in Pursuit of Venus [infected]” seemed more provocative than the work itself. Nevertheless, it is significant that national pavilions are using the biennale platform as a space to confront, question, and re-examine their histories.

The Diaspora Pavilion challenged the national framework altogether, a reoccurring critique in the Biennale’s recent history. Nineteen UK-based, ethnically diverse, artists highlight the relevance and complexity of diaspora today. As pavilion director Caroline Douglas notes, the project directly questions and protests national hierarchies which are reflected in the structure of the biennale itself:

The established world order is mirrored by who is inside the Giardini – the old nations making exhibitions in distinctive, permanent pavilions maintained by their state – and those countries that came later to this world stage and rent spaces elsewhere in the city every two years.
— Caroline Douglas, ContemporaryArtSociety.org

II. The sound of form and the form of sound

Distancing ourselves from the political, another motif that filters throughout the works of the biennale is that of the shape of sound.  Maybe it reflects a general concern for translation and for a common language, or perhaps instead it shows a renewed interest in materiality in the post-internet world. Regardless, an interest in the shapes and traces of sound appears throughout the biennale. Here are some examples of works that we liked:

In Kader Attia’s (France/Algeria) “Narrative Vibrations”, vintage concert recordings of Algerian female pop superstars are translated into electromagnetic waves that make grains of couscous vibrate in geometric patterns. 

The Mexican Pavilion is entirely dedicated to one artist, Carlos Morales, who’s installation “Life in the folds” abstracts the alphabet into figural form and then into sound.

Carlos Morales, “Life in the folds” at Mexican Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2017. Photo credit: Venice documentation project.

Carlos Morales, “Life in the folds” at Mexican Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2017. Photo credit: Venice documentation project.

Morales invents a new script that appears in a cryptic news journal for the visitor to take home, as well as on a series of graphic prints recalling musical score. The forms translate into 3D as handheld whistles displayed on tables like archeological artifacts. Their tribal, flute-like sounds vary in pitch, and can be heard live during the occasional performance, as well as in the anxious soundtrack of the featured black and white video on display. Carlos Morales is searching for a common ground of communication, one that lies somewhere “in the folds”, or rather, in between things: symbols, pages of a book, a mask or “membrane in between conflicting contexts” says the artist. 

In Marcos Avila Forero and Nevin Aladag’s works, the artists explore the sounds of their environments and the relationship of form and place. Forero’s “Atrato” shows a group of Afro-Colombians standing waste-deep in a river “playing the water”. The film shows the process of re-learning a lost Colombian tradition that the artist found was also common to the Congo. The percussionists are mesmerizing and the film represents both a heritage project as well as an exploration in sound, movement, and form. In “Traces”, Turkish-born and Berlin-based artist Nevin Aladag playfully records the sounds of everyday objects within the urban context. He records sounds that are emitted by the city itself and rhythmically synchronises them in a three-channel installation to create an urban symphony. 

Barbara Palomino Ruiz, “Cross Patterns: Paths to be able to return”, Personal Structures, Venice Biennale 2017. Photo credits courtesy of the artist.

Barbara Palomino Ruiz, “Cross Patterns: Paths to be able to return”, Personal Structures, Venice Biennale 2017. Photo credits courtesy of the artist.

In a neighboring room to our HAYP installation at the European Cultural Centre is an installation by Colombian artist Barbara Palomino Ruiz.  A mechanical construction draws Kené patterns, a tradition from the Shipibo-Konibo indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon, that are believed to hold Shamanistic secrets. Ruiz’s installation synchronizes mechanical and digital media through a programmed, motorized mechanism that translates Shamanistic song into patterning. Thanks to a neighboring microphone, the viewer can interact with the sound and change the course of the drawing.

Anri Sala, “all of a tremble (Encounter I)” at Arsenale, Venice Biennale 2017. Photo credits: Anna Gargarian.

In Anri Sala’s work, "all of a tremble (Encounter I)", a carillons fixed to a wall slowly rotates, emitting an eery sound as its patterned surface plucks the teeth of a steel comb. A closer look reveals that the wallpaper patterns are the same as those adorning the cylinder’s surface, bringing new meaning to the saying “if walls could talk”… 

Xavier Veilhan “Studio Venezia” at French Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2017 . Photo: © Giacomo Cosua

Xavier Veilhan “Studio Venezia” at French Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2017 . Photo: © Giacomo Cosua

Although the French pavilion was one of our least favorite national pavilions, it’s worth a mention within the context of a shared interest in sound and form. Artist Xavier Veilhan transformed the pavilion space into a high-tech recording studio and invited over 100 musicians to perform, collaborate, and record music together over the course of the biennale. The performance schedule is not shared with the public, and so the visitor may stumble upon an empty studio. The intention is to create a spontaneous environment, but from the visitor’s perspective, the result is exclusionary and anti-climactic. Stumbling upon an empty studio brings more attention to the amount of money poured into the space’s reconstruction rather than on the collaborative spirit of creativity. The daunting architecture, although exquisitely constructed, announces formality more than sponteneity. 

III. New languages, formulas and typographies:

Perhaps because our own installation is focused on typographic deconstruction, our radar picked up on several calligraphic installations throughout the biennale. Relating somewhat to the previous theme on sound, there was a general interest in finding a common language, a new system for communication.     

As described earlier, Carlos Morales’ deconstructs the alphabet into new shapes, form, and sound at the Mexican Pavilion (see above for more info).

In “Formas Escapandose del Marco” (Shapes escaping from the frame) at the Venezuelan pavilion, artist Juan Calzadilla explores the boundaries between frame and content in poetry through amorphic calligraphy. By merging script and imagery into one, twisted bodies both illustrate the letters of the poem as well as the narrative they communicate. 

 

In Brigitte Kowanz’s neon works at the Austrian pavilion, the artist combines words and light to expand picture and thought into space. Playing with reflective surfaces, Kowanz creates a pictorial continuum, in which the reflection echoes into an infinite depth of space. In a dada-like way, the repetition deconstructs the word from its context as the artist "analyses the play of language as a cultural and social game" (Kowanz.com). 

Gayane Yerkanyan’s site-specific installation, “NOR DADA”, deconstructs Armenian and Roman typography as a way to explore new meaning in form. For Gayane, deconstruction is a metaphor for the displaced individual within an increasingly mobile and globalized context. The relationship between form and movement is accentuated in her “video-selfies”, which explore the movement of the body within a strict frame and color-palette, collaging together disjointed parajanovian images, while also commenting on the vanity of “selfie” culture and our obsession with the external gaze.


While the Venice Biennale is sometimes called the “Olympics of the artworld”, as a critique to the competitiveness and nationalist discourse that emerge, it nevertheless remains a stimulating platform for international exchange. Its imperfect structure mirrors the flawed system within which it operates, and if anything, provides a basis for discussion and questioning that, one can always hope, will translate to the macro level.

by Anna Gargarian,
Curator HAYP Pop Up Gallery