PRINT September 2013

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh

Dieter Roth, Solo Szenen (Solo Scenes), 1997–98, 131 video monitors, media players, shelving. Installation view, Arsenale, Venice, 2013. From “The Encyclopedic Palace.” Photo: Kate Lacey. © Dieter Roth Estate.

WHEN THE GERMAN PSYCHIATRIST Hans Prinzhorn published his Bildnerei der Geisteskranken, or Artistry of the Mentally Ill, in 1922, the ethics of his project were undoubtedly progressive: In light of Freud’s new theories, he sought to communicate to a broader public that the private articulations in painting, drawing, and writing of innumerable psychic disorders—from mere neuroses to dementia—merited far more attention and recognition than they had previously been granted. But Prinzhorn was hardly proposing a new aesthetic, certainly not one akin to that of the Surrealists, who three years later would claim the practices of mental patients as further evidence of the universally liberating forces of the unconscious (even if those “liberated” remained incarcerated in the asylum). When Massimiliano Gioni, the curator of this year’s Fifty-Fifth Venice Biennale, selected a large number of artists from the inexhaustible pool of the socially disempowered, the habitually disordered, and the behaviorally de-skilled and presented them either as some mythical countermodel to current artistic practices or as the advance guard of a project to recuperate the forgotten and the overlooked, the discursive parameters changed dramatically.

Gioni’s curated exhibition, divided between two venues, occasioned two grand entrances: Crossing the threshold of the Arsenale, one was confronted with a large-scale architectural fantasy by Italian-American auto mechanic and outsider architect Marino Auriti (whose elaborate construction has rightfully been preserved by the American Folk Art Museum in New York). More a gigantic pigeon coop or wedding cake than a specimen of utopian architecture (it bears not the faintest resemblance to such modern monuments to collectivity as Tatlin’s upward spiral or Brancusi’s Endless Column at Târgu Jiu), Auriti’s tower is decorated at all four corners with gold domes (one for each season)—hybrids of those topping the Parisian Panthéon and St. Peter’s or St. Paul’s. The mechanic’s bureaucratic phantasmagoria enacted weekend delusions of gathering all the knowledge and inventions of the world into his twenty-three-hundred-foot-high storage bin, and the name he gave it lent Gioni’s exhibition its ambitious title: “The Encyclopedic Palace.”

The exhibition’s other grand—indeed even grander—portal, the entrance to the Central Pavilion, which has traditionally hosted the Biennale’s general theme show, funneled us through an installation of thirty-eight high-resolution reproductions of pages from Carl Jung’s famous, if until recently unseen, Red Book. (Left unfinished in 1930, it was published for the first time, in facsimile edition, in 2009 by W. W. Norton.) The original tome, an illuminated manuscript meticulously copied out in Jung’s own ornate calligraphy and hand-bound in red leather, was exhibited in a glass shrine in the center of the domed vestibule, making one mourn the absence of Maurizio Cattelan’s faux pigeons from the Biennale’s previous iteration. Moving on, one passed a plaster life mask of André Breton, framed by the French sculptor René Iché circa 1950 in a Parisian Deco construction, only to find oneself in a massive chamber displaying the so-called drawings of Rudolf Steiner. After this triad of Jung, Breton, and Steiner, it dawned on some of us, at least, that we were not exactly entering an encyclopedia of contemporary artistic practices, let alone one of current knowledge production (and who would harbor such delusions of universalism anyway?). Rather, we found ourselves in a curator’s idiosyncratic Wunderkammer, which gamely attempts to shuffle the epistemological deck of art in the present.

Gioni’s either charmingly naive or cunningly disingenuous strategies try to revitalize a myth of universally accessible creativity at the very moment when globally accelerated technological and economic pressures erase even its last vestiges in the cultural formations of the collective and the subject. His invocation of that myth also serves to mask the art world’s complicity in its own undoing, resulting from its twinned addictions to speculation and spectacle, and its instrumentalization of art as investment—and, increasingly, as vehicle for money laundering. In reality, Gioni’s palace should have been called “entropic” rather than “encyclopedic.”

And if the re-mythification of artistic production is indeed one latent item on the agenda (the treatment of global art-world fatigue with exoticism and infotainment being another), it comes as no surprise that the exhibition for the most part excluded those current artistic endeavors that define art as a social sphere of specialized forms of knowledge and dialogues that are themselves the result of historically specific linguistic and formal interventions within a highly developed system of individual and collective reading competences, incessantly shifting on a spectrum ranging from the mnemonic to the critical, from utopian idealism to pragmatic resistance.

View of “The Encyclopedic Palace,” 2013, Arsenale, Venice. Works by Hans Josephsohn, 1951–2007.

Fortunately, there were some great exceptions to the rule. And it was in these instances of conceptual friction between the exhibition’s program and actual artistic phenomena, when the presence of exceptional works of art (by Marisa Merz, Dieter Roth, Bruce Nauman, and Richard Serra, for example) and real discoveries (such as the work of the late Channa Horwitz or of Prabhavathi Meppayil) collided with the meretricious contributions of so many amateurish operators, that the spectator was suddenly reawakened to the essential functions and capacities of actual art. Though one desperately sought to traverse the Steiner space as quickly as possible to avoid eye contact with the massive accumulations of philosophical and artistic dilettantism, the unexpected presence of two or three people variously sitting,kneeling, or lying on the floor (performing Tino Sehgal’s untitled and undocumented work), humming, singing, scatting, and beat-boxing, abruptly arrested one’s movement—and attention.

A Golden Lion was rightfully awarded to Sehgal for his contribution, which we might classify as a work of sculpture, if only to bring out through such an act of conventionalization the work’s truly radical dimensions and deliver it from the instantly neutralizing category of performance. Sehgal’s work—not always as rigorously condensed as it was in this case—generated a deeply dialectical (il)legibility. Beguiling spectators into nearly reflexive, opposing reactions within seconds, the work shifted the viewer’s response from utter revulsion at the deeply inscribed registers of industrially produced rhythmic beats posing as instantiations of bodily joy and somatic liberation, to an actual experience of immediacy of both interaction and communication between vocal performer and dancer (if one can still call gyrations of seated performers “dancing”). This oppositional structure becomes particularly intense if one happens to enter at a moment when the male performer is delivering the full register of his beat-box seductions to a female participant seemingly succumbing to the male phonetic apparatus. Yet the game suddenly reverses when the female performer starts her own scat, her singsong humming and beat-boxing rapidly lulling the male protagonist into a semitrance, the “authenticity” or “falsity” of which is impossible to ascertain (as had been the case with the female performer’s “seduction”). And it is precisely this perpetual slippage and reversal of call-and-response in the citation of jazz and hip-hop tropes that reveals Sehgal’s work to be nothing less than an anticipation of truly dialogical relations in contemporary culture, of the performative alternations between authorial voices and auditory responses insisting on the historically inevitable equivalence between artistic and spectatorial forms of production and reception.

If Sehgal provided a grand exception at the beginning of the Central Pavilion show, a brilliant juxtaposition of Nauman and Roth—two artistic patriarchs of the last forty years—provided an equally grand, if mournful, end of the Arsenale’s half of “The Encyclopedic Palace.” These latter works focus on the locus classicus of the artist laboring in the studio, thus manifestly countering the mythical conception of eccentric creativity otherwise sustained throughout the exhibition. In Nauman’s video projection (Raw Material with Continuous Shift—MMMM, 1991), the artist’s head, in suspended inversion, rotates at a vertiginous rate, compulsively humming as though performing some enforced, almost mechanical meditation, perhaps in order to reach elevated production under the pressures of insatiable spectatorial prurience. Roth, by contrast, subjected himself to an almost totalitarian video surveillance system for what would prove to be the final year of his life (Solo Szenen [Solo Scenes], 1997­–98). The artist’s productive and less productive activities (from tinkering in the studio and writing at his desk to showering and other choice bathroom intimacies), recorded from morning to midnight, are all offered up for endless inspection on 131 video monitors, providing startling evidence that the artist’s everyday life—that is, the actual conditions of artistic creativity—are as permeated by alienated labor, loss, and painful drudgery as anybody else’s.

There are, of course, other moments in the show when one finds oneself utterly surprised by Gioni’s discoveries, not all of them unheard of (the extraordinary work by Hilma af Klint, for example, had been shown at New York’s Drawing Center many years before her recent retrospective at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet). But the encounter with the statuary of Hans Josephsohn is a breathtaking reminder of yet another of the grand figures that have been obscured too long by the modernist canon. The same holds true for Gioni’s inclusion of the French polymath Roger Caillois’s cabinet of rare petrifications. Yet even this theoretically and historically provocative display took on a different subtext when viewed in light of the exhibition’s generally conservative agenda, which serves to anchor the aesthetic in natural, desubjectified, asocial, and ahistorical processes rather than as linguistic, social, and political conventions deeply intertwined with, yet fundamentally opposed to, ideological formations.

Stones from Roger Caillois’s collection. Installation view, Central Pavilion, Venice, 2013. From “The Encyclopedic Palace.” Photo: Francesco Galli.

BEYOND THOSE EXTRAORDINARY MOMENTS of “TheEncyclopedic Palace,” there are real attainments to be found this year at the Biennale, within the multitude of national pavilions in the Giardini and throughout Venice. Perhaps the greatest surprise has been the work of Sarah Sze, who brings the investigations that have long sustained her practice to bear on a new context—that of the neoclassical entablatures and galleries of the US pavilion. If in recent Biennales the US pavilion has typically staged career-climaxing shows of luminaries such as Nauman, Ed Ruscha, and Robert Gober, Sze seizes the occasion—rarely afforded a young artist—to dismantle a whole gamut of prevailing definitions of sculpture. Triple Point, 2013, as her installation as a whole is titled, dislodges the classic conviction, forged in the 1960s, that sculpture, mass, and gravity are coterminous (and the truly striking gravitas of Richard Serra’s two-part homage, Pasolini, 1985, which dignifies a gallery in the Central Pavilion, seems to confirm this received wisdom all the more, inasmuch as one encounters the black steel blocks with a sigh of reactionary relief: A substantial work of art has emerged after all in this desert of frail eccentricities!).

By contrast, Sze’s Stones of Venice are all fake and lightweight, modeled out of photographically printed Tyvek, simulating the most traditional of all sculptural and architectural materials at the very moment when 3-D printing is promising to build not just our sculpture but also our houses. Accelerating this sense of a definitive loss not only of the utilitarian dimensions of objects but even of their groundedness in matter, structure, and process, Sze disseminated spatial and material dissolutions that make the worn-out term “installation” seem quaint in its avowal of residual authorial intention. Sculpture according to Sze now seems to be the result of ceaseless proliferations, lacking any evident criteria of selection, generating flows of utterly incompatible but inextricably intertwined objects, materials, processes, and surfaces, tracing the innumerable, indiscernible, incessantly altered object relationships that structure our lives.

In the genealogy of sculpture, Sze’s work occupies a new position and expands those practices that took the cumulative structures of capitalist object amassment as a formative principle—from Arman’s Le Plein and Claes Oldenburg’s The Store in the early 1960s to Thomas Hirschhorn’s work of the late ’80s. But unlike these accumulations, which depended on a presumed correlation between the readymade and the commodity, Sze’s scenes deploy grotesque constellations of found and living objects (e.g., cacti) unassimilable to capital and organized instead according to the logic of various universally available codes such as scientific models. At the same time, her expansive spatial webs call up the strategies developed by sculptors who had traced the subject’s movements phenomenologically. Since the mid- to late ’60s, one type of sculpture had guided its spectators with linear demarcations (as in the work of Fred Sandback or Gego, for example), whereas concerns with volume and mass still defined Minimalist sculpture. This opposition was ultimately enacted in Eva Hesse’s and Lygia Clark’s respective practices, where the body’s increasingly precarious presence and its eventual disappearance allegorized the shift from perception to conceptualization. Sze has reflected on all of these precursors, yet their modernist purity and progressivity is relativized in each of her citational instantiations by the incessant process of devalorization and exchangeability under the universal rule of spectacle.

Nobody, however, seems to have had more of an impact on Sze than the late Dieter Roth, still underrecognized in the US. To a greater extent than any artist of his generation, Roth had expunged processes of authorial decision from his megalomaniacal accumulations of objects and processes of everyday life (such as his gigantic Gartenskulptur, 1968–69, in Berlin). Yet in Sze’s work the dialectics of intentionality and deauthorization materializes in very different configurations. Rather than fully succumb to the seemingly overwhelming permeation of the phenomenological world by mad manufacture and mere passive accumulation, Sze still foregrounds mental activities of perceptual and cognitive order (classificatory categories and typologies, for example) as operative counterforces.

At the same time, Sze’s inimitable lightness of touch (as opposed to Roth’s almost tragic embrace of daily chaos) produces a semiological divertimento. Eschewing the intensified fetishization of object experience that characterizes post-Pop sculpture from Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst to Rachel Harrison while at the same time rejecting spectacularization as monumental legitimation of the commodity regime, Sze makes the governing derangement, if not the traumatic conditions of experiencing objects, materials, and spatial relations under the dispensation of totalitarian spectacle, her actual point of departure for critical inspection.

Sarah Sze, Triple Point, 2013, mixed media. Installation view, US pavilion, Venice, 2013. Photo: Kate Lacey.

Nothing could be further from Sze’s advanced displays of semiological dematerialization than Berlinde De Bruyckere’s contribution to the Belgian pavilion, Kreupelhout (Cripplewood), 2012–13, curated by no less an eminence than South African novelist and Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee. Yet De Bruyckere’s work equally destabilizes all recent doxai of sculpture, operating as a massive trompe l’oeil of a fragment from nature. A giant tree trunk lies in state in the (unnecessarily) darkened pavilion, like a fractured and bandaged prehistoric corpse, or medieval royalty entombed in a cathedral. Kreupelhout’s illusionistically deceptive wax-and-paint simulations of trunk, stems, bark, and branches, all ruptured and broken, and ostentatiously bandaged in places, are the embodiment of the spectacularized uncanny par excellence. And while perhaps insufficiently honest about its indebtedness to Giuseppe Penone (who has given us numerous meditations on the arboretum as academy of artistic authenticity over the past forty years, conceiving sculptures derived from the actual growth patterns of trees), De Bruyckere’s deeply medieval vision, violently conservative if not provocatively reactionary in its emphasis on illusion, figuration, and artisanal skills, resonates deeply. It stands as an unforgettable, elegiac image of the depth and enormity of the ecological destruction we have wrought, the consequences of which apparently cannot, at this point, be pictured other than in prehistoric figurations. At the same time, De Bruyckere is challenging us to consider a major question: If an aesthetic return to order offers itself at this historical juncture as a (false) remedy for cultural problems that instead require political answers, does her return to artisanal forms of production, with its attendant horrors of mimetic realism bordering on the grotesque, signal the full extent of the epistemological violence and cognitive loss that this seemingly inevitable sacrifice of the more enlightened forms of recent artistic practice entails?

“English Magic,” Jeremy Deller’s orchestration of the British pavilion, inhabits the exact middle ground between the extremes of Sze’s semiological operetta in the grand tradition of Jacques Offenbach and De Bruyckere’s spectacularized nightmare.Undoubtedly, Deller’s project poses some of the crucial questions on many spectators’ minds. To what extent can nation-state ideology (and the pavilions erected in its name) still legitimize cultural production under the current conditions of globalization? (The British Council’s demand that posters and a banner bearing the slogan PRINCE HARRY KILLS ME be excluded from Deller’s installation—to which the artist acceded—gave him and us a taste of the extent to which it does.) Second, and possibly more important: Can works of art still instigate rational and critical speech acts (based on models of modernist Enlightenment culture) by generating a relative legibility for a broad audience? The media multiplicity of Deller’s installation—reminiscent of the occasionally overbearing pedagogies of Hans Haacke’s work or, more recently, Thomas Hirschhorn’s—while engaging during the visit itself, soon fades in one’s memory into an incongruent and multifarious constellation of elements and objects, image types and genres: extensive video footage, both found and artist-authored; photo-documentation; wall painting; banners; textile samples from the William Morris archive; extensive textual information; sculptural objects; a crushed Range Rover to sit on, with a flash of César; a charmingly derisive and refreshing tearoom; a collection of drawings by prison inmates; and so on. The last element is the most striking in Deller’s installation, since many of these drawings and commentaries were made by British veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now in jail, responding to the political situation in the UK during the regime of Tony Blair. Due to the political specificity of their artworks’ content and of their social exclusion as prisoners, these testimonies of outsider artists of a different kind perhaps accrued a greater significance—and impact—in the context of Gioni’s exhibition, in which the outsider was, to the contrary, celebrated as a mythically free and productive subject. In Deller’s work, inmates do not appear as “creative subjects” but as politically astute and critically aware citizens, in various conditions of distress and state-ordered and -authorized traumatization.

If “English Magic,” in all its extraordinary complexity, seems unable to retain its initial impact, it ultimately cuts to the most important issues surrounding artistic practice and reception today. Can an artistic countersphere of critical rationality, as Deller constructed it, rightfully assume that the spectator will be able to grasp these critical counterpositions in such a way that an encounter with the work might initiate agency and activism, or will such a work’s impact remain restricted to the merely self-congratulatory experience of an exceptional moment of spectatorial interaction?Can artistic practices still hold on to some of the communicative principles of Enlightenment culture when the institutions and discursive conditions within which art appears insist on extreme forms of irrationality and the destruction of communication? Or will these practices therefore have to mimetically assimilate themselves to the virulent irrationality governing everyday life under late-capitalist spectacle culture?

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh is the Andrew W. Mellon professor of modern art at Harvard University.