Venice Biennale 2013 – Part 1: The Giardini

Taking Marino Auriti’s Encyclopedic Palace as its theme and title, this year’s Venice Biennale presents us with 88 national participations in 76 pavilions scattered throughout the ‘Floating City’, including several new participations like the Holy See. This Encyclopedic Palace – a model of which can be seen in the Arsenale – is an imaginary 136-story museum that was meant to house all worldly knowledge, accumulating the discoveries of the human race to fashion an image of the world’s rich and infinite variety. In other words, a monumental cabinet of curiosities situated in the heart of Washington D.C. Sadly, these plans were never carried out. The International Art Exhibition, now in its 55th year, brings together contemporary artworks with historical artefacts and found objects, bridging the gap between the past and the present.

The main spectacle begins in the Central Pavilion, located in the luscious greenery of the Giardini. A soiled path lined by trees leads up to its grand, white, colonnaded exterior. In great bold letters, the front of the building imposes on us the words ‘La Biennale.’ Let the fun begin – 28 rooms of it.

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The entrance. Own photograph.

The exhibition opens with Carl Jung’s The Red Book, a leather-bound book compiling over 16 years of the psychologist’s visions and personal cosmology. The transcriptions take the form of an illuminated manuscript, reproductions of which are exhibited around the room, underneath a spectacular painted dome. This work alone embodies the themes of the Central Pavilion’s exhibition. It dives straight into the realms of the spiritual, surrealist and alternate. It is an attempt at representing the invisible in a visual medium. Lastly, it takes the form of a book, a universal symbol of knowledge, power and status, bringing together thousands of years of traditional iconography. The invention of a system of writing, consequently creating the first ‘books’, was revolutionary in itself and worthy of celebration.

As I ventured into the next room, an audience gathered in contemplative silence to the sweet chanting of Tino Sehgal’s This Progress. The performance piece consists of a dance and chant between two individuals – as if one were charming a snake – mimicking the transmission and receiving of knowledge. This ambient piece responds beautifully to the chalk and pastel drawings adorning the walls of the same room by the spiritual leader and polymath Rudolf Steiner, recording scientific theories and metaphysical cosmology.

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Tino Sehgal’s performance piece with Rudolf Steiner’s drawings in the background. Own photograph.

Visions play a special part in this exhibition since their extremely personal nature allude to the idea of alternate universes, in this case the artist’s own spiritualism, like The Red Book. Tarot card paintings by Aleister Crowley and Frieda Harris attempted to redefine the traditional tarot deck, incorporating Crowley’s personal symbolism with Harris’s own Art-Deco-like style into each card. Another set of paintings, intricate and magnificent in their design, were painted by Augustin Lesage. According to Lesage, these paintings were a form of automatic writing, “like working without working.” He claimed that the voices of spirits, including that of Leonardo da Vinci, guided his hand in creating these works, filled with Christian icons and symbols that recall Gothic altarpieces. In another room, Carl Andre’s Passport takes us through the artist’s thought processes, mixing found objects and appropriated images with photocopies of his and Lord Byron’s passport.

Hinting on both the spiritual and the earthly realms is the portrayal of the danse macabre, imposed monumentally on one side of Jean-Frédéric Schnyder’s Apocalypso tapestry, reimagined as if it were a burlesque performance. In Maria Lassnig’s painting, the artist dances with Death itself, her body rendered like she experiences it, creating her so-called ‘body-awareness paintings.’ Amongst the exhibited memento mori, none is more powerful than James Lee Byars’s two gilded marble stelae. The Figure of the Interrogative Philosophy and The Figure of the Question of Death both stand as unanswerable concepts within human existence – the inevitability of death included – and their somewhat ancient forms hint at just how aged they are.

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Jean-Frédéric Schnyder, Apocalypso, 1976-78. Own photograph.

The recurrence of found objects in Shinro Ohtake’s Scrapbooks brings us back down to our earthly realm of existence. Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser bring us 387 model houses, found in a junk shop and created by the Austrian insurance clerk Peter Fritz. Richard Serra’s minimalist Pasolini sculptures subtly fill a room lined with seascapes, while Eva Kotátková’s Asylum installation uses an ‘archaeological’ approach to explore institutions and disciplinary systems from the perspective of the patients held within them. Worthy of note are the stocking sculptures of London-based Sarah Lucas which fill the Sculpture Garden designed by Carlo Scarpa. Rendered like bronzes, their biomorphic forms act as a peaceful microcosm, shimmering in the Venetian daylight and hovering between the borders of Heaven and Earth.

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The sculptures of Sarah Lucas in the Sculpture Garden. Own photograph.

Being more or less a Surrealist exhibition, the prominence of erotic art was quite inevitable. The Leningrad Album presents a sample of over 250 ink drawings by the young Evgenij Kozlov, produced between the ages of 12 and 18. These hilariously explicit drawings represent the artist’s adolescent fantasies, the cast of girls being his next door neighbours whom he was well-acquainted with through his mother. Voyeurism is explored in the photographs of Kohei Yoshiyuki on the opposing wall.

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Evgenij Kozlov, The Leningrad Album, 1972. Own photograph.

Film installations make quite an appearance throughout the entire Biennale, especially in the national pavilions which I will speak of later. The Central Pavilion exhibition gives us six film pieces, including Tacita Dean’s The Friar’s Doodle where the camera moves across an intricate drawing made by a young friar, revealing only fragments and never in its entirety. Two films stood out to me the most, the first being Artur Żmikewski’s Blindly which documented blind adults making paintings. Pope Gregory the Great once said “Painting can do for the illiterate what reading cannot.” The same applies here except the blind are thrown into the challenge of rendering what they cannot see – they were told to paint a self-portrait, followed by a landscape. As a result, we are presented with a kind of performance art that records the progress of projecting the perspective and inner beauty of each individual. The other film is Corona by Victor Alimpiev. Two female protagonists plaintively sing in unison, appearing as if they were prophets or oracles. However, it is immediately noticeable that they are singing different words since one is using the present tense, the other in the future tense. Just like the artworks in the exhibition link the past with the present, this plaintive song links the present with the future but with a human tension expressed in the fearful and joyous lyrics.

This first part of the Biennale is a lovely dialogue between the earthly and the spiritual. It exploits our dreams and fantasies, challenges our perceptions, and reminds us of the beauty of human existence. In other words, it is an exploration of the mind, diving deep into the psychology of our ‘inner world.’

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Sorry, they have a really funky café! Own photograph.

The Venice Biennale runs until 24th November 2013 at the Giardini-Arsenale, Venezia, www.labiennale.org.

Click HERE for Part 2.

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