PRINT September 2013

Lynne Cooke

Marino Auriti, Il palazzo enciclopedico del mondo (The Encyclopedic Palace of the World), ca. 1950s, wood, plastic, glass, metal, hair combs, model kit parts. Installation view, Arsenale, Venice, 2013. From “The Encyclopedic Palace.” Photo: Kate Lacey.

CURATOR MASSIMILIANO GIONI’S choice of Il palazzo enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace) as the lodestar for his Biennale exhibition is beguiling and provocative in equal measure. As conceived by Marino Auriti, a self-taught, first-generation Italian-American artist, this imaginary museum was as ambitious as it was unbridled. Aspiring to house the breadth of human knowledge, Auriti designed a thirty-six-story tower that would have risen nearly half a mile into the sky while covering sixteen city blocks in the US capital. But, since he lacked academic or professional credentials of any kind, the former garage mechanic, who sought to patent his project in 1955, would never have secured the sanction of officialdom for a plan well-nigh impossible to construct. From the outset, this quintessential outsider assumed the role of a visionary.

The wooden scale model of Il Palazzo has been installed at the threshold of the Arsenale, one of the two venues hosting the Biennale exhibition. Given that Auriti supplied no concrete guidelines to suggest how the contents of his tower might be identified, assembled, ordered, classified, and presented, Gioni has found inspiration elsewhere—in the lofty triumvirate of André Breton, Carl Jung, and Rudolf Steiner. Embodiments of the crucial roles assigned to imagination, dream, fantasy, and cosmological speculation in Gioni’s exhibition, they dominate the entrance galleries to the Central Pavilion, the Biennale’s second site. Branching out from there are galleries devoted to the works of pedigreed mystics, occultists, and visionaries such as Aleister Crowley, Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz, and Roger Caillois, the last represented by his remarkable collection of geological samples. A miscellany of diverse artifacts orbits this nexus: anonymous Tantric paintings; sketches made by tribal societies in Melanesia collected by the Viennese photographer and ethnologist Hugo Bernatzik; ecstatic drawings created by sundry Shakers as gifts for fellow believers; small carvings of animals both fabulous and familiar made by folk sculptor Levi Fisher Ames, who embellished his menagerie with outlandish narratives during his tent shows in turn-of-the-century rural Wisconsin. Also included are contributions from several autodidacts who obsessively designed architectural models, and with whom Auriti might have felt a close kinship:Augustin Lesage, Achilles Rizzoli, and an obscure Austrian insurance clerk (whose dollhouse-size dwellings were discovered in a junk shop by artist Oliver Croy and are here presented as a work, The 387 Houses of Peter Fritz (1916–1992), Insurance Clerk from Vienna, 1993–2008, by Croy and curator Oliver Elser). Rubbing shoulders with objects that would conventionally be regarded as marginal or otherwise ancillary to mainstream contemporary art are works by some of that world’s most renowned figures—Tacita Dean, Maria Lassnig, Tino Sehgal, Richard Serra, and Dorothea Tanning—and by many others less well known.

The labyrinthine layout of this historic building contributes significantly to Gioni’s aim of establishing networks of relations among artifacts whose common characteristic is “the representation of the invisible”: “The Encyclopedic Palace is a show about seeing with the eyes shut,” he writes. While this stance, emblematized in the closed eyelids of Breton’s cast, serves well those whose vision is manifestly inner-directed, at times it produces strained readings. Consider the suggestive pairing of Serra’s two-part forged sculpture dedicated to Pier Paolo Pasolini with Thierry De Cordier’s series of heaving marine-scapes: Are connections to be discerned in recondite correspondences—by reference to what Jung termed primordial or first images, over and above modes of visceral and phenomenological apprehension? While Gioni’s curatorial strategy productively upends the hierarchies that conventionally classify artists as professionals or mavericks or outliers, it divests the works of all traces of the material and intellectual conditions that originally imbued them with meaning and value. The historicity of ideas is called into question when works made in far-flung locations and vastly different circumstances over the course of more than a century are cast into a timeless present.

It is no surprise, in this regard, that echoes of the Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, sound throughout this section of the exhibition. Devised in early modern Europe to incite wonder, this model for collecting and organizing artifacts of the most rarefied and marvelous kind has become well worn in recent years. In this instance, our capacity to marvel is soon taxed. The bewildering conjunction of entrancing inventiveness, esoteric cosmologies, visionary epiphanies, dark fantasies, enigmatic weirdness, monomaniacal tunnel vision, and much else in like vein threatens to overwhelm visitors, stifling their capacity for affective responses. This may, in fact, be the desired effect, a necessary precondition for what Gioni has claimed is ultimately an anthropological inquiry.

View of “The Encyclopedic Palace,” 2013, Central Pavilion, Venice. Foreground: Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser, The 387 Houses of Peter Fritz (1916–1992), Insurance Clerk from Vienna, 1993–2008. Background, from left: Jack Whitten, 9-11-01, 2006; Achilles Rizzoli, Irwin Peter Sicotte Jr. Symbolically Delineated/The “Sayanpeau,” 1936; Achilles Rizzoli, Alfredo Capobianco and Family Symbolically Sketched/Palazzo Del Capobianco, 1937; Achilles Rizzoli, Mr. and Mrs. Harold Healy Symbolically Sketched First Prize, First Anniversary, 1936. Photo: Kate Lacey.

The show shifts gears at the Arsenale, where an alternative to the protomuseological model of the cabinet of curiosities underpins the presentation: the modern museum. Progeny of the Enlightenment, this template puts rationalized systems—ordering, classifying, analysis, etc.—into the service of knowledge production. An engagement with those conceptual systems has been generative for contemporary art, as evidenced here, for example, by Christopher Williams’s seminal photo-based piece Angola to Vietnam*, 1989, which takes as its point of departure Harvard University’s Ware collection of glass flowers, and proceeds to weave a richly layered complex of references (social, political, and cultural). But more recent works that turn to the archive as resource or tool frequently seem routine, at times even stale. Too often, as seen in Linda Fregni Nagler’s compilation of almost one thousand images of babies being held by indeterminate figures, The Hidden Mother, 2006–13, such works rely narrowly on typological and serial extension.

Yet the problems may not lie with the discursive strategies that subtend the Enlightenment’s paradigm of the modern museum—they may ultimately reside in the museal model itself. Almost a decade ago, in his landmark text “An Archival Impulse,” Hal Foster persuasively argued that a consensus had emerged that “the museum has been ruined as a coherent system in a public space.” Presumably mindful of this debate, Gioni—who conceives his project of making a “temporary museum” as nothing less than a pedagogical undertaking, though not “dry in a German-theme-show kind of way”—turned to a methodology that seems to acknowledge the long relationship between the modern museum and anthropology, a discipline whose mandate from its inception was to find a “scientific” scheme for the display of material artifacts, and whose history in fact cannot be separated from that of the museum. In the Arsenale, he evokes, without necessarily claiming confidence in, the modern museum’s strategies of organization and coherence. In collaboration with architect Annabelle Selldorf, Gioni has transformed the former rope-making factory into an enfilade of luminous galleries. Generously and elegantly hung, these ample white-cube spaces are interspersed with fully provisioned black boxes dedicated to films, videos, sound, and computer-generated works. Following on from loose groupings of exhibits that involve taxonomies and archives is an anatomical theater of bodily images assembled by Cindy Sherman, and a section largely devoted to younger artists (Wade Guyton, Helen Marten, Pamela Rosenkranz, etc.) who deploy contemporary technologies integral to our digital era’s fusion of spectacle, information, and knowledge. A sampling of veteran artists occupy the final spaces: Stan VanDerBeek, Walter De Maria, Otto Piene, Dieter Roth. Albeit in diverse ways, all—with the exception of Bruce Nauman, an inveterate skeptic—tend toward visions, worldly and otherworldy, that are encompassing or synoptic.

Among the show’s standouts are works by Sharon Hayes, Artur Żmijewski, and Fischli & Weiss. Hayes’s disarmingly modest documentary Ricerche: three (Research: three), 2013, records a lively interview with a group of young college women. Over the course of the conversation, the students explore their shifting and often newly won views on gender and sexual relations, and vividly evince the mutual support they anticipate from their peer group for their experiments in self-fashioning and self-definition. Żmijewski’s eighteen-minute video Blindly, 2010, focuses on a handful of adults whom he invited into a studio setting so that he could record them making paintings. Their commentaries on the task at hand are interspersed with remarks on the difficulties they face daily as a consequence of either losing their sight or being blind from birth. As is so often the case in his charged works, Żmijewski turns the camera metaphorically (if not literally) on the spectator, implicating her and rendering problematic any notion of a dispassionate or disinterested spectatorship. Not incidentally, this disquieting work skeptically probes romantic investments in the value of creating “with the eyes shut.” More laconic but no less provocative, Peter Fischli and the late David Weiss’s enthralling ensemble of some 130 small unfired-clay sculptures, Suddenly This Overview, 1981–2012, appears to have been produced by a group of children, naïfs, amateurs, hobbyists, and vernacular craftsmen. The Swiss duo’s comic, banal, sly, skeptical, salacious, familiar, ersatz, and populist images touch on myriad subjects, sayings, beliefs, speculations, prejudices, values, and ideals in apparently arbitrary fashion. Not only multiple hands but multiple minds might have conjured this paean to the ungovernable profusion and vibrancy of the everyday world.

Peter Fischli & David Weiss, Suddenly This Overview (detail), 1981–2012, approx. 130 unfired-clay sculptures, dimensions variable. From “The Encyclopedic Palace.”

Though each can be related to the larger ideas governing Gioni’s project, these three works are still somehow anomalous in this context. Seldom found elsewhere in the show is their level of critical reflexivity, their commitment to collaboratively driven,socially engaged positions, and their timely groundedness in the world at hand. By default if not design, they underline the limitations of a commitment to ways of seeing that are resolutely hermetic, that soft-pedal the potential for knowledge to effect change in the here and now. And, not least, they underline the risk of obscuring the ideological mechanisms that underpin knowledge production of all kinds.

For conceptual as well as practical reasons, Auriti’s visionary model was doomed. Nonetheless, Gioni counterposes it against the failed museal models that are still the mainstay of our institutions today. While acknowledging the impossibility of Auriti’s dream of accumulating all knowledge, he casts his vote in favor of a hermeneutics based on oneiric fantasies, spiritual revelation, and cosmic speculation.

Visitors encountering the wooden model a second time, on exiting the Arsenale, may find that the spell it wove on first viewing has somewhat abated. A specter, another tower of legendary repute, haunts the gallery. Though conceived in a spirit of utopian univocal harmony, the Tower of Babel, as Bruegel revealed in his iconic depiction of 1563, ended in ruins: a polyglot cacophony in which each voice was destined to commune only with itself.

Lynne Cooke is Andrew W. Mellon professor at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.