Notes on 58th Venice Biennale - Part IIVenice Biennale, despite all the criticism, maintains the distinction of being one of the worlds 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.
By Beral MADRA
Have you read Part I - if you haven´t, first go to: Part I
I visited some neighbor countries and some others from Far East and Far South. The Pavilion of Iraq presented in Ca'del Luca, comprising of two exhibitions, is the ongoing mission of Tamara Chalaby, who with her Ruya Foundation continues to support artists living in Iraq.
This time, in one of the rooms of this palace we are confronted with a direct interpretation of war and fatherland narrative of the artist Serwan Baran, who draws upon his own military experience. A huge expressionist figurative painting entitled The Last Supper, adjusted to the entire wall of the room, shows soldiers killed on their last supper. The Last General is the sculpture counterpart of the painting, showing a deceased general in full uniform and medals in a coffin.
'The Last Supper' Serwan Baran, Fatherland, Pavilion of Iraq, Ruya Foundation, ©Photo: Haupt & Binder
The Last General, installation view at the Iraq Pavilion. 2019 ©Photography Boris Kirpotin, May 2019 Venice, Italy. www.kirpotin.gr
The second exhibition, entitled Heartbreak is a group show curated by Paolo Colombo, presenting a series of romantic or nostalgic objects. Both exhibitions once again are trying to tell the well-known realities, but cannot escape there is no point in repeating all this feeling.
'Heartbreak' Ruya Foundation, taken from the Exhibition Catalogue published on the occasion of the exhibition at Venice Biennale, 2019. Curated by Tamara Chalabi and Paolo Colombo
The Pavilion of Egypt with its computer technology, satellite, neon loaded massive golden sphinx sculptures may have fascinated the tourist profile of the Biennale visitor. However, for the experts of preview days these works were a perfect example of Kitsch, as described in Gillo Dorfles’ widely-read book. This work was conceived by three artists, one of them being the curator. With a most tolerant approach, we can say that they wanted to conceal their dissident staatments behind a playful installation that reflects the relationship or contrast between historical heritage and technology. Under the un-democratic conditions of their country they may be exploiting once again their historical heritage as a surface of attraction to disguise the graveness of today's surveillance system.
Khnum Across Times Witness, Egypt, Curator; Ahmed Chiha, ©La Biennale di Venezia 2017
In the Pavilion of Greece, three artists, Panos Charalambous, Zafos Xagoraris and Eva Stefani journey into their socio-cultural past to revive the cultural memory and related micro-stories. In A Wild Eagle Was Standing Proud, Charalambous invites the viewer to walk on a glass surface and to listen to the silenced voices that he has collected since 1970. Eva Stefani’s experimental documentary titled Anaglyphs, confronts the viewer with deceptively common stories that are actually true. “The Concession” is an installation of Zafos Xagoraris that shows the Pavilion in 1948, when Peggy Guggenheim was offered to present her collection. All these works are produced with a purpose and commitment to the common memory, but still too calm to reflect the uncanny meaning of “interesting times” specialy within the complexity of Greece's position in the current socio-political environment of the Mediterranean.
Panos Charalambous, "A Wild Eagle Was Standing Proud", 2018–19, Courtesy of the artist
A slightly far neighbor, but one of the most protagonist nation towards the refugee reality, Austria, confessed that for the first time in its history a woman artist could have a solo exhibition in its Pavillion. Renate Bertlmann, a leading feminist artist and a pioneer of performance art since the 1990s utilized the entire walls of the Pavilion with graphic and design panels, depicting multifarious proclamations of the sex industry, eroticism and soft-pornography. She highlighted her explanatory pictorial statement with a field of red glass roses (manufactured in Murano) attached to sharp spears, expressly evoking the vagina-penis conflict. One cannot interpret her installation only as a feminist manifesto. It makes a distinct reference to the industry of erotica, pornography and hidden sexual perversities. The field of red roses is covering the hypocrisy of high ethics of today’s European culture.
Renate Bertlmann, Discordo Ergo Sum, knife-rose field, installation view, Austrian Pavilion, Venice Art Biennale 2019. Photo © Riccardo Bianchini / Inexhibit
Since the 56th Venice Biennale, when late Okwui Enwezor had discreetly criticized the Biennale’s Eurocentric history of excluding “the other” nations, and invited some wide-ranging selection of artists from the African Nations, the viewer expects to see hitherto absent nations. This time another group of first-time countries such as Ghana, Madagascar, Malaysia and Pakistan presented their select contemporary art productions. After its first presence in 2011, India came back again on the stage too.
The Ghana Pavilion in Arsenale welcomes the viewer with a monumental curved labyrinth painted in dark soil color. The pavilion presents the black and white photographs of 80 year old Felicia Abban, Selasi Awusi Sosu’s Glass Factory II, John Akomfrah’s three-channel installation The Elephant in the Room—Four Nocturnes (2019), and the Turner Prize nominated painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye's paintings. To see El Anatsui's monumental and scintillating wall made of discarded material with yellow and green bottle-caps, printing plates and copper wire is no surprise. We have seen his work for the first time in Okwui Enwezor’s Biennale and in 2009 he was awarded by Prince Claus Foundation. Ibrahim Mahama’s work follows this found material and environmental friendly concept with a massive wall cabinet and its counterpart chest of drawers titled, A Straight Line Through the Carcass of History 1649 (2016–2019). What makes this pavilion attractive is not only its content based on survey and poetic interpretation, reflecting the traces and influences of tradition, modernity, and neo-capitalism, but also its genuineness, its loyalty to the aesthetic history of installations.
El Anatsui, Yaw Berko, 2019, aluminum printing plates, bottle tops, and copper wires.
Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: David Levene.
India marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, by inviting artists who follow the nonviolence concepts and peaceful vision of Gandhi. Under the poetic title Our Time for a Future Caring, the video installation by Jitish Kallat reveals a dramatic detail of 20th century. The letter of Gandhi to Hitler written just before the outbreak of the Second World War begins with the sentence “Friends have been asking me to write to you for the sake of humanity…” Concerning the rise of extreme right in EU countries, a very timely recall of the near past. All the other installations such as Atul Dodiya’s, Broken Branches (2002), a nostalgic curiosity cabinet filled with photographs, artificial limbs, tools, found objects and billboard paintings from his hometown in Porbandar, the birthplace of the Mahatma, and GR Iranna's spell binding wall installation made of hundreds of padukas (wooden footwear) commemorates Ghandi's social concepts and propagates the effectiveness of non-violence. Shilpa Gupta was invited by Ralph Rugoff to Giardini International pavilion.
Installation view of the India Pavilion, “Our Time for a Future Caring,” featuring GR Iranna, Naavu (We Together), 2012, at the 58th Venice Biennale, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
When I visited the pavilion of Russia, I thought, this theatrical production would be interesting for the public in Turkey that can only classify Russia in the touristic pattern and current political paradigm. In fact, as Turkey's current intense political and economic relations with Russia is highlighted with 2019 Russia-Turkey Cultural Rrelations, Hermitage Museum could also organize a similar cabinet of figurative historical curiosities in Istanbul; box-office gains is guaranteed. The complex content of this cabinet is produced by three creative persons: director Mikhail Piotrovsky, artist and set designer Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai, and film director Alexander Sokurov on the subject of Hermitage masterpieces. In the two storey main pavilion space, the exhibition starts with a stunning installation by Sokurov presenting the painting The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt, as the title of the exhibition Lc. 15: 11-32 also shows. The mysterious dark red atmosphere with several figurative sculptures documentary film, and animation, painting and sculpture is the creation of Alexander Shishkin inspired by the "Flemish school". A very successful display of art-historical heritage for a festival or museum fair; however it is difficult to understand its relation to the concept of the biennale. The museum content might be interesting for the past interesting times; fortunately, today's interesting works are masterly produced by many renown artists of Russia.
‘Lc 15: 11-32’, an installation by film director Alexander Sokurov at Russia’s national pavilion ©Mikhail Vilchuk
As in every Biennale there are a series of works which we can only acknowledge that they are intentionally produced to evoke a kind of breathtaking Hollywood sensation, simply to satisfy the pleasure of the Biennale’s society of spectacle. These kinds of works always infiltrate into this attractive art arena. I don’t want to mention the absurd cow-carousel Do Real Things Happen in Moments of Rationality? by Nabuqi, in the Giardini's extremely loaded international pavilion where going through the crammed maze of white cubes where it was not possible to distinguish one work from the other. Or the Iceland Pavilion in Guidecca, by Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir / Shoplifter, entitled Chromo Sapiens, a cave made of multi-colored synthetic hair proposed as a sensory walkway for the individual to explore its chromo-sapiens feature.
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. The worn-out truth is that biennials, ambitiously organized by state and city administrations, private sector groups or independent art groups have inevitably a corporate and art market alliance in their structure. Discovered also as a tool for populist interest, with their concepts and titles adapted to the current trends of discourse, with their pre-set artists lists, excess of advertisement and promotion, collector, gallery, dealer sovereignty, biennial exhibitions became the circus of culture industry as exquisitely described by Adorno in 1940s. In order to gain a relative independence and sovereignty, biennials should be supported by public money and create an open platform for visual and critical thinking. Even if biennials are organized with the vision of promoting the artists and art productions, art-experts as well as informing and illuminating the public, the current infrastructure is not promoting this vision. This kind of task can be realized only by theoretically, artistically and politically committed art-professionals and not with those who represent the business-side of matters, i.e., the board members, managers and public relation administrators. What makes biennials more significant at the moment is the global state of affairs, cynically defined as post-truth. The Biennale invites artists from five continents who stubbornly produce works for the quest of truth, an indispensable reason for making art.
BERAL MADRA, JUNE 2019