ON A DAZZLING SATURDAY AFTERNOON, splashed with resplendent sunshine after too many cool gray days of rain, I slowly picked my way through the hordes of tourists, whether drawn by warmth or light, who had turned out suddenly and in droves to clog the quintessentially Venetian quay that loops around San Marco and runs along the edges of Castello and the Arsenale. At the foot of a bridge leading over to the quieter corners of the Giardini, I stumbled across a woman in a long, pink, ruffled flamenco dress, lying perfectly still, facedown on the ground, surrounded by a fan, a scarf, a strewn bouquet of red carnations, and the torn pages of a totally destroyed book. A few steps on, I found another woman in red shorts, a Maoist cap, and a severely belted army jacket, subjecting herself to some kind of self-torture, perched as she was on what looked like a serrated-edge cutting board that had already dug deep grooves into her knees. A few steps further still, I came across yet another woman in public performance mode, poised like a garden fountain and pulling on the straps of a black bra hooked over a thin white leotard, as a policeman marched comic military circles around her.
Welcome to day one for the masses, the official public opening of the Fifty-Fifth Venice Biennale, when the professionals vanish, the press scatters to see every last thing, and ordinary people cram into the world’s oldest and most prestigious international art event, which, if nothing else, routinely turns this majestically crumbling city into a stage set, a premise, and a pretext for some extraordinary acts of hope, fear, desire, ambition, playfulness, desperation, pain, distress, and urgent political protest.
As it happened, I was looking for precisely the last of those acts. Twenty-four hours had passed since riot police in Istanbul had begun pelting demonstrators with tear gas canisters, water cannons, and plastic bullets. What had started a few days earlier as a peaceful protest against the government’s plans to wreck a public park and replace it with a shopping mall had escalated into a full-blown, nationwide revolt against the socioeconomic policies and increasingly authoritarian tactics of Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former activist who first entered the political fray as the mayor of Istanbul. Erdogan’s disproportionately violent reaction to the tiny tent-city occupation of Gezi Park, which lies just beyond Taksim Square, the nation’s preeminent open forum for dissent and discontent, had shocked the world. At the time, however, Turkey’s local television stations had imposed a total media blackout and were broadcasting cooking shows rather than covering events in real time.
Because the demographic of the protesters overlapped pretty much perfectly with the entirety of Istanbul’s contemporary art scene, factional as it may be, the contingent of Turkish artists, writers, curators, critics, collectors, dealers, and patrons who had traveled to Venice for the Biennale were deeply troubled and extremely upset. About twenty-five of them had gathered the night before at the house of art critic and academic Osman Erden to share news (social media, reports from friends, international press), design banners (many of them courtesy of the artist Qiu Zhijie), write statements, and prepare to make a short, sweet, but nonetheless potent public fuss (with a hundred more friends and colleagues). And so, on June 1, as the Biennale opened its doors, the Istanbul crew—including Ali Kazma and Emre Baykal, artist and curator of Turkey’s national pavilion in the Arsenale, respectively; Defne Ayas, director of Rotterdam’s Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art; curators Başak Senova, Duygu Demir, Ceren Erdem, Adnan Yildiz, Övül Durmuşoğlu, and Beral Madra; former Rampa director Özkan Cangüven; Derya Demir of Galerie NON; Filiz Avunduk of NON-stage and Frieze; HG Masters, ArtAsiaPacific’s Istanbul-based editor at large; Bige Örer, director of the Istanbul Biennial; and Fulya Erdemci, curator of the Istanbul Biennial’s forthcoming edition, which is, not coincidentally, taking up the most prescient of public space–related themes—gathered a hearty band of supporters on Piazza San Marco, then traveled east on foot to the Arsenale and the Giardini, where I found them looking grave but defiant.
“I think it’s a really critical historical moment,” said Örer.
“We stand by our country,” said Ayas. “We stand united against state violence and injustice.”
“Istanbul is rising,” Erdemci declared. What began with the police tearing down trees and burning tents, she added, “has triggered an exponentially growing resistance movement.” She pledged herself to it.
Someone handed me a carefully crafted statement: “As the cultural workers from Turkey attending the Venice Biennale, we draw your attention to these events in condemnation,” it said after a summary. “We call on officials to hear the calls of the citizens and demand that they immediately stop the disproportionate use of force.”
“It’s the first time since the coups of the 1970s that people are out on the streets across Turkey,” Erdem told me. “It’s not only about the trees in the park. It’s about Erdogan’s policies on Syria. It’s about the recent attempt to ban alcohol. It’s about how all of Istanbul has become a construction site.”
“This is probably the one time when the nationality of the pavilion for the Biennale serves a purpose,” said Avunduk, when asked what protesting in Venice would do. “It’s not a small thing. Everywhere now people are protesting. And the fact that it started with trees is a beautiful metaphor for freedom.”
On that note, the group dispersed, as many of its members took to furiously pecking their phones to reschedule flights and make arrangements for returning home early. The most pressing question of the afternoon was quickly becoming: “So do you have an extra gas mask?” With that image in mind, I headed back into the Biennale, wondering what this irruption of hard, real politics would mean for an event that seemed at times rather strained to avoid such contemporaneous conflicts.
To what extent, then, is Massimiliano Gioni’s exhibition, “The Encyclopedic Palace,” a fundamentally apolitical show? Some, and none at all. Certainly, it is streaked with the curator’s devil-may-care attitude about gender balance and geographic spread, and more than a few visitors told me that the show’s emphasis on freaks and eccentrics, its collision of the mentally and politically marginal, and its sometimes questionable conception of Africa made them uneasy, as if the exhibition were the last arrogant gasp of a stubborn colonialist discourse. But as the physical and spatial articulation of what must ultimately be seen as a generous and down-to-earth idea, it is nothing if not distinctive.
The line of thought moving through the Arsenale seems particularly crisp and clear, from the great and noble desire to accumulate and categorize knowledge (starting with Marino Auriti’s eponymous architectural model) to the force of vision and imagination (and occasional madness) that forever breaks out of those efforts (the fabulous one-two punch of Neil Beloufa’s riveting video Kempinski and Steve McQueen’s gorgeous sound tracked slide projection Once Upon a Time) to the anxious and utopic aspects of living with too much information (Camille Henrot, Ryan Trecartin) to the more intimate and vulnerable desire, doubling back on the beginning, to disappear from or within the data grid (palpable in the video works by Bouchra Khalili and Hito Steyerl located at the land’s end of the Arsenale).
Championing outsider artists, leveling the field between precious artworks and talismanic objects, taking art down from its proverbial pedestal—in doing so Gioni skirts the demand to take the aesthetic or political pulse of our time, and yet to a certain, tentative extent, his exhibition brings both of them back to the body. Where is the political edge of this Biennale? It is nowhere to be found in the places one might expect to find it—not in the pavilion of a nation currently tearing itself apart, with 80,000 dead after two years of fighting (as usual, the Syrian pavilion is an insult of second-rate Italian painters and total oblivion); not in the feel-good gestures of the Iraq pavilion (despite its admirable hospitality and the rehabilitation of a tainted political name); definitely not in the predictably expensive installation at the now permanent UAE pavilion, which would not be out of place in a trade show for yachting enthusiasts. Nothing in the national pavilions this time around is as bold (or as productively problematic) as Yael Bartana’s video trilogy for the Polish pavilion in 2011, though Jeremy Deller’s “English Magic” for the British pavilion shows some of the same spirit.
And yet, in the summer of 2013, the mere presence of a body, particularly a woman’s body, still has the power to provoke, destabilize, and explode a given order. No doubt the political edge of this Biennale still lingers in the shock of Maria Lassnig’s portrait of the artist holding a gun to her head, and to you. It flashes fitfully in the clutch of women sitting on the floor of the Central Pavilion, humming for Tino Sehgal, and finds fuller, more ruminative expressions in the performers animating the otherwise empty Romanian pavilion (reenacting a retrospective history of Venice, with actors as breathing archives of the Biennale itself), and in the choreographer Maria Hassabi’s “living sculptures,” whose bodies are draped and stretched across the benches of a sports stadium, brilliantly revealed in the terrific joint pavilion for Cyprus and Lithuania. It is outlined as an absence in Akram Zaatari’s installation for Lebanon’s second-ever national pavilion, where a seat has been left empty, awaiting the arrival of an Israeli fighter pilot who refused to bomb a school thirty years ago. And, weirdly paralleled, it is made all too painfully present in the videos of Meiro Koizumi, in an otherwise terribly installed collateral exhibition for the Future Generation Art Prize, about a kamikaze pilot who didn’t die, and feels ashamed for having lived.
Venice tends to reward a certain clarity of gesture, and the coherence of this year’s jury was especially impressive in that regard, handing out prizes only to those works that were conceptually sound and credibly testing out something new. But the city, in the midst of the severe art spasm it suffers every other year, also revels in spontaneity and chance. The time horizon of Gioni’s exhibition was long enough to make the current Manet exhibition at Palazzo Ducale feel suddenly as fresh and relevant as anything else on that sinking archipelago, and reaffirmed the artist’s status as the midwife of modernity. The chance to see Olympia and a version of Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe in the flesh, as it were, instead of in a book or on a battered art history lecture slide took my breath away. But what moved me most—and nudged me back to the elusive melancholy of “The Encyclopedic Palace” and an unexpected affinity for Dorothea Tanning’s portrait of herself as a fragile figure in front of an expanse of stormy sea—was Manet’s 1880 L’Évasion de Rochefort. Rare, and late, Manet’s painting wrestles a timely, historic event into a dramatic, metaphysical mood. The dark blot on the horizon is ambiguous. Perhaps it pursues Manet’s heroes, who are being tossed around by life and waves in a tiny dinghy. Perhaps it promises their salvation. Whatever the case, like a shadow falling across humanity, it haunts us all.