PRINT September 2017


Liliana Porter, El hombre con el hacha y otras situaciones breves, Venecia 2017 (Man with Ax and Other Brief Situations, Venice 2017) (detail), mixed media. Installation view, Arsenale, Venice. From “Viva Arte Viva: Pavilion of Time and Infinity.” Photo: Chandra Glick.

EVERYONE I SPOKE TO at the opening of “Viva Arte Viva,” the centerpiece of the Fifty-Seventh Venice Biennale, was unambiguously assertive in their condemnation. So boring! So apolitical! So neo-primitivist! So anthropological! So male (65 percent) and so white (57 percent)! And let’s not even get started on all those themed pavilions: “Time and Infinity”? “Artists and Books”? And did you read the wall texts? Embarrassing!

Some of these comments were warranted, but their vehemence was disconcerting, because I found curator Christine Macel’s Biennale far from offensive; I’d even say enjoyable. The artistic selections, if less diverse than one would hope for in 2017, are solid and largely laudable. The show manages to avoid the reek of blue-chip gallery money that increasingly hovers around Venice, which is no mean feat. The installation as a whole is more digestible than Massimiliano Gioni’s “The Encyclopedic Palace” in 2013 (a deluge of outsider artists exhibiting exorbitant quantities of minutiae) and more airy and optimistic than Okwui Enwezor’s “All the World’s Futures” in 2015 (a somber parade of heavy hitters in a cramped architectural schema).

Of course, clarity and navigability have never been the highest priorities in radical curating. But they do make a show more graspable—which is especially welcome when the surrounding Biennale includes eighty-three national pavilions, twenty-three collateral events, and the perpetual noise of social media, hot takes, and insta-opinions. Macel’s decision to give the work room to breathe, rather than cramming as much as possible into every square inch, shows a rare confidence in art’s ability to speak for itself. The trade-off is that it’s difficult tolet the work talk and to articulate an intellectual framework that speaks to the state of the world. Macel has never been a particularly theoretical or political curator—she excels at well-paced installation, reinforced by visual continuities and formal echoes that weave works together via motifs and rhythms. Her exhibition is at its strongest when these connections ripple sensuously through the show, rather than determining the framework of each section. In the Arsenale, for example, thread becomes a beguiling, er, thread: from Maria Lai’s stitched books opposite Lee Mingwei’s Mending Project, 2009/2017, to the dialogue between Francis Upritchard’s mannequins and Cynthia Gutiérrez’s sculptures, via numerous textile works that culminate in Judith Scott’s fiber bundles and Sheila Hicks’s protuberant mounds of brilliantly colored wool. Another subtheme is self-reflexivity about Venice itself—from Nicolás García Uriburu’s project to temporarily tint the Grand Canal bright green (Green Venice, 1968) to a stunning miniretrospective of Raymond Hains, which includes torn posters for the Thirty-Third Biennale of 1966.

This spectatorial wieldinessis not a trivial accomplishment. Visitors are able to see the entire exhibition, give time to each work of art, and discuss what they’ve seen—because they’ve all been exposed to the same thing. This goes against the prevalent trend among biennial and quinquennial curators to produce exhibitions that are simply unmanageable, either temporally (weeks if not months of video art) or spatially (forty-seven venues in Athens!). Such gestures, while replicating contemporary conditions of information overload, have consequences for the public sphere; in short, they exacerbate its fragmentation. To produce an exhibition that can actually be attended to and fully seen within a day and a half—without panic or FOMO—is an unusually generous act.

David Medalla, A Stitch in Time (detail), 1968/2017, fabric, cotton reels, needles, and audience contributions. Installation view, Arsenale, Venice. From “Viva Arte Viva: Pavilion of the Common.” Photo: Chandra Glick.

So let’s proceed to the organizing rubrics. The title “Viva Arte Viva” posits the platitude that art is at the center of life. Macel splits her exhibition into thematic “trans-pavilions,” two of which are in the Giardini (“Pavilion of Artists and Books” and “Pavilion of Joys and Fears”), with the remaining seven (“Pavilion of the Common,” “Pavilion of the Earth,” “Pavilion of Traditions,” “Pavilion of Shamans,” “Dionysian Pavilion,” “Pavilion of Colors,” and “Pavilion of Time and Infinity”) filling the Arsenale. Shamans, earth, tradition, Dionysus . . . You start to get a sense of where the neo-primitivism critique comes from. Macel herself characterizes these pavilions as umbrellas for gathering together “families of artists.”

One striking thing about these artistic families is that they’re on the older side; only thirteen of the artists were born after 1980.Among the work of the latter, Firenze Lai’s modest, elegiac paintings of distended figures in quietly disconcerting situations (e.g., passing through airport security, getting a migraine) and Marcos Ávila Forero’s video of Afro-Colombians waist-deep in a river, percussively slapping the water’s surface (Atrato, 2014) leave an impression, but, beyond that, contributions from this cohort are largely unremarkable. Meanwhile, strong works by artists in their sixties or older are almost too numerous to mention. The first section of the Arsenale, the “Pavilion of the Common,” opens in spartan fashion with the pairing of Juan Downey’s 1979 video installation The Circle of Fires (a chronicle of the artist’s interactions with Yanomami Indians in the Amazon) and Rasheed Araeen’s Zero to Infinity in Venice, 2016–17 (a colorful, interactive riff on First Structure, his skeletal Minimalist box of 1966–67). The rest of the Arsenale includes classic pieces like OHO Group’s “Summer Projects,” 1969; Bonnie Ora Sherk’s Crossroads Community (The Farm), 1974–80; and three works from Franz Erhard Walther’s “Wandformationen”(Wall Formations), 1979–86. There are also memorable contributions from the more or less recently departed, e.g., John Latham (1921–2006), whose assemblages of violently repurposed publications hang from the walls and ceiling in the “Pavilion of Artists and Books,” and Kananginak Pootoogook (1935–2010, the first First Nations artist to show at Venice), with an appealing display of his austere drawings depicting everyday Inuit life.

Another noteworthy characteristic of the Biennale is the surprisingly high number of participatory, performative, and socially engaged works, which still remains somewhat unusual at Venice. Even more unexpectedly, this work is well installed and visually rich—as opposed to its usual presentation as underwhelming photo documentation that just hammers home the fact that you had to be there (but weren’t). In some cases, in this show, there is a chance to be there, even if such reanimation inevitably underscores the many differences between original and iteration. I wasn’t able to attend revered choreographer Anna Halprin’s Planetary Dance, 1980/2017, but Instagram shows me that many others did and apparently gave their all to this fusion of aerobics and ritualistic prayer. The Japanese collective THE PLAY has re-created their IE: THE PLAY HAVE A HOUSE, on which they lived and sailed for five days in 1972, offering performances in a small peak-roofed structure similar to the one used on their voyage thirty-five years ago. The most telling reactivation is David Medalla’s A Stitch in Time, 1968/2017, a large swoop of linen suspended from the ceiling and reaching down to waist height. Above it hang reels of brightly colored thread, and the audience is invited to embroider the fabric. Images of the work’s London debut show a slowly accumulating graffiti of collective patterning by a cluster of focused participants. In 2017, by contrast, people just quickly secure their business cards to the fabric and move on. Meditative craft skills have been replaced by slapdash self-promotion.

These socially engaged works from the ’60s and ’70s are updated with a handful of contemporary relational projects. Viewers can drop off torn clothes at Lee Mingwei’s Mending Project, where he will fix them in glaringly nonmatching thread while engaging you in conversation. In the rotunda of the Central Pavilion, Dawn Kasper, who has committed to being on-site for the run of the show, has installed a studio setup that includes musical instruments, sofas, and several trestle tables of gear (The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars, 2017). A program called Open Table extends the participatory motif, offering visitors the chance to sit down and lunch with an artist in the Biennale.

All of these projects are more convivial than discomfiting. Only two, both by biennial favorites of the ’90s, occasion some controversy. In the Central Pavilion, Olafur Eliasson’s Green light—an artistic workshop, 2016–,produces wooden geodesic constructions, partially dyed green, each incorporating a small bulb and functioning as a lamp. They sell for €250 ($291) a pop, the proceeds going to NGOs helping with the refugee crisis. Like Eliasson’s Little Sun, 2012–, a portable solar lamp for people without access to electricity in Africa, Green light is a social business model that adapts the artist’s design interests to a good cause. The kicker—at least for most of the people I spoke to during the opening—is that the workshop is staffed by refugees (though members of the public are also invited to participate). Due to a condition set by the local government, the refugees can’t be paid, but in lieu of wages are offered job training, legal advice, language classes, and other services. On the whole, visitors seemed to be more concerned about the objectification of refugees than about their exploitation as workers. I have to say that whenever I visited the space, it felt more like a workshop than the “human zoo” that offended a number of my professional colleagues. I spoke to two refugees who told me that it didn’t feel like work (“it’s more fun”), that the hours were lax, and that, since workers had leeway to vary the design, the task of constructing the lamps remained relatively interesting. But it must be assumed that most viewers won’t engage in conversation with the fabricators—it feels awkward to interrupt someone at work—and the setup seems designed more to promote sales than to give any specific insight into the refugee experience.

Ernesto Neto’s collaboration with the Huni Kuin of Brazil and Peru forms the second tricky flash point. Neto has worked with indigenous peoples for several years; in April, he published a book of exchanges with thirty-two Huni Kuin communities. His work in “Viva Arte Viva,” A Sacred Place, 2017, is located at the central point of the Corderie, in the “Pavilion of Shamans.” The artist has installed a large orange woven-mesh tent that evokes the Huni Kuin Cupixawa, a place for ceremonies and meetings. During the opening days, Neto offered viewers what was billed as an “Encounter with the Huni Kuin”—an unfortunate phraseology redolent of ethnographic safaris. Even though the installation featured a huge wall text explaining the collaboration and included numerous publications, such as the compendium of plant-based medicine Una isĩ kayawa, little could be done to prevent the interface between the Huni Kuin (in full traditional regalia) and their kitten-heeled, iPhone-wielding visitors from appearing comically disconnected—not least when the former initiated a procession line enthusiastically trailed by the latter. This was followed by a stilted presentation in which the Huni Kuin (via Neto as translator) explained the passing of a recent law in Brazil that would lead to further deforestation of the Amazon. Macel’s decision to foreground the art and knowledge of the indigenous is welcome, especially at a moment when the environment is faced with catastrophic destruction, and when global stability is threatened by the insatiable greed of thuggish plutocrats. But in Neto’s work, as with Eliasson’s workshop, more could have been done to stage this encounter in a way that diminished the ethnographic angle—for example, by inviting the Huni Kuin to lead dedicated workshops during the summer rather than displaying them as a drive-by during the opening.

It’s not uninteresting that Neto and Eliasson, who continue to plow their lucrative furrows making signature installations, now feel the need to foreground the social implications of their work in collaborations with actual constituencies. Again, the problem is not the inclusion of refugees or indigenous peoples per se. It’s the sense of being back in the 1990s paradigm of the ethnographic turn and those endless debates over the artist as patronizing benefactor. Haven’t we moved on from that? The current decade offers more complex paradigms for do-gooding artist and marginalized other—as seen, for example, in the prickly work of Renzo Martens, which, whatever you think of it, does include a reflection on the artist’s own role and that of art-world institutions. On top of that, the past few years of intense debate about cultural appropriation have transformed our understanding of the politics of representation. We may give Halprin’s Planetary Dance a pass because it’s “historical,” but if it were made this year by a thirty-five year-old, it would probably be denounced as cultural appropriation. In short, the kind of naive utopianism that infuses all three projects today comes across as decidedly retro.A more direct engagement with contemporary politics might have helped to balance these projects—but this was in conspicuously short supply. (According to my count, the only work with overtly partisan content is Charles Atlas’s Tyranny of Consciousness, 2017, a five-channel video of Florida sunsets accompanied by the musings of scabrous drag queen Lady Bunny.)

But given that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, there is also something to be said for zooming out from granular political immediacies and considering the bigger picture. At rare moments, “Viva Arte Viva” prompts us to do just that. Liliana Porter’s El hombre con el hacha y otras situaciones breves, Venecia 2017 (Man with Ax and Other Brief Situations, Venice 2017), for example, installed near the end of the Arsenale, offers a panorama of miniature tableaux in which human life and labor are laid out in scenes that are at once touching, trivial, and sublime: A man smashes junk into tiny smithereens; a woman rakes a vast sweep of red particles; another sits alone knitting an ocean. Or take Shimabuku’s video of snow monkeys encountering snow for the first time since having been removed from their natural habitats years earlier, or his poignant Oldest and Newest Tools of Human Beings, 2016, a display of four prehistoric flints sitting next to four models of the iPhone, each paired by size and color as technological soulmates spanning millennia. These works bring the archaeological and the Anthropocene into dialogue and they trigger the thought that humanity, if it survives climate change, will be fast on its way back to the flint. Pondering the Biennale through this end of the telescope conduces a certain detachment and melancholy, making the vitriol directed at Macel’s exhibition seem all the more overblown.For the general audience visiting Venice between May and November, “Viva Arte Viva” is a perfectly strong survey of work largely overlooked by art history and (for the most part) by the market. Those of us seeking more dynamic and catalyzing responses to the end of the world will just have to await the next Biennale.

The Fifty-Seventh Venice Biennale is on view through November 26.

Claire Bishop is a professor in the Ph.D. program in art history at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York.