Notes on 58th Venice Biennale - Part I

Venice Biennale, despite all the criticism, maintains the distinction of being one of the world’s most interesting art events. Its sustainability, its guarantee as a platform for free expression, its immediate responsiveness to the benefits of globalisation, its combination of high culture and populist tourism in a balanced way, always created a model, imitated by many other biennials.
Notes on 58th Venice Biennale - Part I
Star of the show… Swallowed Sun (Monstrance and Volute), 2019 by Martin Puryear outside the US pavilion in Venice. Photograph: Andrea Merola/EPA

By Beral MADRA

Truth alone will endure, all the rest will be swept away before the tide of time. (1)

The official presentation of the concept of this biennale, May You Live in Interesting Times, needs to be decoded. It creates the desired effect, only after one learns that it is a Chinese curse. Neviile Chamberlain's brother Austen Chamberlain, in 1930, explains it during a speech. He was one of the prominent citizens of the European nations, responsible of the approaching catastrophes. This curse realized its wish for the whole world, during the world war that ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and remains valid in its highly charged and evocative meaning. The 58th Venice Biennale presents this as a proposition, which can be revisited and explored once again through art, even if art, according to curator Ralph Rugoff does “not exercise its forces in the domain of politics.” However, invoking the idea asserted by both  Leonardo da Vinci and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, that everything connects with everything else,” Rugoff recognizes that artworks have the potential to “open people’s eyes to previously unconsidered ways of being in the world and thus change their view of that world.”
During the pre-visit days in Venice Biennale, I gained a sense that instrumentalized yet tenacious artworks skillfully demonstrate today's driving conflict between truth and post-truth. Walking through the artworks that reveal the crisis and dilemma strongly or the artworks that are more timid or decorative, the viewer can change their view of the world, or just continue to think devil may care. In this context of  the function of art works revealing the dilemmas and casting spell on the people, I would like to revisit some prescient formulations from Guy Debord’s 1967 book: In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles… Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation. (2)

Sun & Sea (Marina), Pavilion of Lithuania, Golden Lion winner – Venice Art Biennale 2019

In particular, the two spectacular works caught general attention: the live-beach-scene at the pavilion of the Golden Lion winner Lithuania and the massive boat which sank on the night of 18 April 2015 between Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa (the provocative Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel installation). Despite the fact that the beach scene with its operatic content focused on ecological disasters rather than on human tragedy and ethical issues, these works revealed a reality that people (so-called refugees, exiles, emigrants) vanished in the blue and eternal Mediterranean, on which sunny shores tourists  from advanced welfare societies are spending their holidays. Even though these works are not paintings, for the viewing pleasure of the art-lover, they repeat the Modernist- Romantic meaning and aesthetics of Edgar Degas’ Beach Scene (1876-7), or Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Bathers at Moritzburg (1909–26) or Theodore Gerricaoult’s The Raft of Medusa (1816)—the latter was painstakingly re-produced as a video by Adad Hannah in 2009.

‘Appalling conjunction’: the arrival in Venice of Swiss artist Christoph Büchel’s Barca Nostra, his artwork using the fishing boat that sank off Lampedusa in 2015 with more than 800 migrants onboard. Photograph: Andrea Merola/EPA

Despite the widely-agreed argument that “art cannot alleviate the tragic fate of displaced people across the globe (whose numbers now represent almost one percent of the world’s entire population),” art mainly strives to interrupt the festive atmosphere of the Biennale. Indeed, even the content and privileged Biennale visitor was invited to witness this catastrophic event—and with it, all the ongoing tragedies that refugees are exposed to— as they are enjoying their morning espresso in the café in front of the doomed boat (transported to Arsenale with great effort). Will they ask, I wondered, the transportion cost of this installation? Later it was disclosed by a jounalist. Or viewing the people sunbathing in the artificial beach by leaning on the iron railing of the former fire building, some other questions arise: Will these people resist and oppose the regressive refugee politics of their countries? Will they think about the drowned people on the Mediterranean while they are enjoying the sun? Practical questions about this installation are also interesting: Will these performers be bathing until the chilly days of November? Or is this going to be video-taped and presented as a short-term performance, evidently losing its realism? Menawhile, the budget of this installation was not enough to cover the expenses of 6 months.

Unfortunately, during the opening days of the Biennale, 65 migrants have died after their boat capsized in the Mediterranean off the coast of Tunisia. Viewing these works in this particular context, reminded me of Kalliopi Lemos, who, as early as 2005, and long before the global awareness of this catastrophe was raised to current levels, has collected some abandoned wooden vessels from Greek islands and made an installation in Eleusis. Since then she repeated this installation in different forms, in Turkey, Germany, France, UK.

Both works, the beach and the boat, may create an increased awareness, but in fact this sense of awareness is overruled by the passivity of the viewer; as the works are masterfully filtered through the forms, concepts, objectives, and aesthetics of contemporary art.  The info-capitalistic socio-cultural environment of the Biennale shelthers the viewer from the impact of the unimaginable disaster.  Yes, in these two works, and in many other, the artists' intention is once again to explain and to make people aware of the ongoing, unsolved refugee crisis; a well-considered act and evidently a criticism of EU refugee policy. Yet, the spectacle quality of these works also serve as neo-capitalism’s mechanism of presenting the disaster as a staged happening, or as a happening that happens to other people.

The next “how could this happen!” effect was experienced in front of the shut down and deserted Venezuela Pavillion—a pavilion that I made a point of visiting since I first started my Venice Biennale involvement in 1991. We know that the rules of the biennale, giving the individual national pavilions the autonomy and independence. Yet, the other rule is to be able use a pavilion which is decided not to be used. As a gesture of solidarity, the administration of the Bienniale could have proposed to invite an NGO from Venezuela to represent their art scene or even organized a small project.

Installation view of We, Elsewhere. Photos: Poyraz Tutuncu. 

Pavilion of Turkey at the Venice Biennale - İnci Eviner: We, Elsewhere / Installation view of We, Elsewhere. Photos: Poyraz Tutuncu

One of the Mediterranean countries that suffer under the prevailing war conditions in Middle-East, and markedly going through political, economic and social "very interesting times", is indeed Turkey. The Pavilion of Turkey presented Inci Eviner’s corpus of work, consisting of videos and metal sculptures adjusted to the enormous scale of the space with an architectural walk-way. Inci Eviner's work is based on her surrealistic drawings that either dissect the individual unconscious or reflect the predictable activity of humankind within the obligations of neo-capitalism and its weird order of things.

Installation view of We, Elsewhere. Photos: Poyraz Tutuncu

Pavilion of Turkey at the Venice Biennale - İnci Eviner: We, Elsewhere / Installation view of We, Elsewhere. Photos: Poyraz Tutuncu

These fundamentally familiar figures, based on her surrealistic drawings, are transformed into separate video screenings that are installed into the architectural construction, greeting the viewer with her unexpected figurative appearances. However Eviner has also produced three dimensional works that again refer to Freudian interpretations, such as the gynecology chair in her 1997 participation in Modernities & Memories Exhibition or a strange stretcher like metal bed, and the castrated metal chairs as presented in this exhibition. The features of the figures in Eviner's videos have rather rebellious characteristics; unpredictable attitudes towards common tasks. These figures and the psycho-pathological furniture have the intention to re-cover and re-member a lost society, but the rationality and functionality of the architectural structure was incongruent with the psycho-pathological concept of Eviner's work and didn’t work well with the known features of installation art. It was possibly designed to fit the massive space, and was strongly reminiscent of Cevdet Erek’s installation for the 57th Biennale. Looking from the current realities in Turkey that adversely effect the international visibility of younger generation artists, this enormous space should be used for wisely curated group shows rather than solo shows.

© Photo: Haupt & Binder

Pavilion of Turkey at the Venice Biennale - Halil Altındere "Space Refugee" 2016 Installation ©Photo: Haupt & Binder

The other artist from Turkey in Venice Biennale, invited by Ralph Rugoff, is Halil Altındere, displaying two works. Space Refugee in the main pavilion in the Giardini is a video work depicting the life of an astronaut, a Syrian refugee who defected to Turkey.

Photo: Haupt & Binder

Pavilion of Turkey at the Venice Biennale - Halil Altındere "Neverland" 2019 Installation ©Photo: Haupt & Binder

Neverland in the garden of the Arsenale is an architectural irony in its form and concept; a façade, a replica of a Greek-temple like most of the pavilions in Giardini. Both works, the mind-stopping narration in the video and the false-monumentality of façade resonated strongly with Turkey’s current socio-political impasses and adversities as well as the global ones; an ingenious approach to the ongoing warfare between the political and economic powers, ruthlessly irrespective to the human tragedy and related massacres.



2. https://genius.com/Guy-debord-the-society-of-the-spectacle-chapter-1-the-culmination-of-separation-annotated

Notes on 58th Venice Biennale - Part II


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