Venice Biennale 2013 – Part 2: The Arsenale

Click HERE for Part 1.

The Arsenale side of the Biennale charts a progression from natural forms to the manifestation of the digital age. Welcoming us to the 16 room exhibition is Auriti’s Encyclopedic Palace, standing boldly in the centre of the room, almost exerting its glory like the White House does in D.C. In the next room is Roberto Cuoghi’s totemic Belinda, a large-scale sculpture depicting microbial life forms. As a result it is both a macrocosm and a microcosm, but its primitive form recalls the civilisations of the past.

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Marino Auriti, The Encyclopedic Palace of the World, ca. 1950s. Own photograph.

Figuration begins to emerge from the sculptures of Hans Josephsohn where half-moulded classical forms signify the beginnings of the modern artistic mind, surrounded by Surrealist drawings by Yüksel Arslan, photorealistic trees by Patrick Van Caeckenbergh, and large abstract paintings by Daniel Hesidence. Walk past several film pieces and globular, asteroid-like structures greet us from the ceiling, crafted by Phyllida Barlow, turning scrap materials into obtrusive objects representing the better side of everyday rubbish. Behind the room’s first makeshift wall lies a set of pin-up girl-inspired photographs, juxtaposed against glazed ceramics and paintings that appear as if they could be vicious cousins to Georgia O’Keefe’s creations. Organic, natural forms are at play here, but so are man-made structures seen in Danh Vo’s imported colonial-era Catholic church from Vietnam.

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Jessica Jackson Hutchins’ ceramic armchair with Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s paintings in the background. Own photograph.

The following room recalls the Book of Genesis in the form of a comic strip. Arranged chronologically around the room and along a central column, the black-and-white graphic novel illustrates each passage of the Bible story with exceptional detail. However, the artist R. Crumb also made the decision to uncensor the more explicit sections, unveiling the sex, the violence, and the vague. Hidden within the column are the terrifying clay creations of Shinichi Sawada, an artist I mentioned in the Wellcome Collection’s Souzou exhibition. This room focuses on the act of creation, both physically and mentally. Sawada’s creations belong to a category known as ‘outsider art’ where the artist is usually out of touch with the external world, therefore being primarily influenced by the artist’s creative inner world.

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R. Crumb, The Book of Genesis, 2009. Own photograph.

Walking through two rooms that tie themselves with the realms of the spiritual and the humanist we find ourselves surrounded by a colony of life-sized human sculptures, their grey ribbons of plastic evoking half-formed bits of muscle. Entitled Venetians, Pawel Althamer attempts to carry out the idea that the body is only a vehicle for the soul. As the sculptural flesh appears to decay, revealing the skeletal structure underneath, the expressions on each of these figures are as clear as day. Somewhere in the crowd a middle-aged man lifts up his arm to embrace that of a beautiful young woman. They smile as if it was love at first sight. Perhaps they are a married couple. Or maybe it is a father reaching out to his loving daughter. The serenity of this installation is simply astounding. Despite the obvious drunkenness of a man lying on the floor beside one of the pillars, his closed eyelids (which apply to all the sculptures) really gives the impression of an uncanny society, where by being dead you are also alive.

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Pawel Althamer, Venetians, 2013. Own photograph.

The 10th room in the Arsenale, curated by Cindy Sherman herself, is potentially the most abundant in terms of artwork by different artists – one might say it is a mini-exhibition in itself. Most of the pieces are figurative, starting with Paul McCarthy’s Children’s Anatomical Educational Figure whose satirical grin haunts us as its internal organs seep out from within a vertical slit in the centre of his body, while personifying the childlike curiosity of human nature. A glass case holds a vast quantity of Victorian baby photographs, from daguerreotypes to carte-de-visites. Another case shows a handful of photographic albums from Sherman’s own collection with the photographs of Norbert Ghisoland displayed above. The latter two are an exploration of identity. In Ghisoland’s images, children are dressed in attire to reflect the roles of their parents. The younger they are, the more they appear disproportioned, appearing almost like dolls or constructed mannequins. As for the albums, they are everyday photographs of male transvestites in a New York bungalow known as “Casa Susanna.” On weekends, the house was an opportunity for men to embrace their more feminine side without being judged by society and the external world. It was a haven for transvestites to see their conflicting side as normality. In other words, it was a secret world like that of a spy, not quite a cult, but a meeting place where dressing up as the opposite sex is a societal norm.

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Photographic album from the collection of Cindy Sherman, ca. 1960s. Own photograph.

I honestly don’t know what to say of this room other than it touches on many important issues about society and the way it is perceived. There were strikingly erotic and animalistic drawings – freakishly by Hans Bellmer – and supremely idealistic photographs of lifelike shop mannequins, touched up as if they were actual models. But as disturbing as some of these images were, the hardest to face were the sculptures of Rosemarie Trockel’s Living Means to Appreciate Your Mother Nude and Günter Weseler’s Fly Me to the Moon. Despite being two independent artworks, the fact that they are placed in the same vitrine meant that they were supposed to be seen as one, referred to as Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos. In the former, an adolescent girl lies on a carpeted floor browsing photographic slides. In the latter, a baby doll is cuddled beneath a soft blanket, fast asleep, with a fly perched below his left eyelid. For me, it touched me as being a representation of nostalgia, regret, and neglect. It reminded me of the various cases of teenage pregnancy often introduced in the media. The act of looking at photographic slides could be the adolescent’s way of reminiscing about her previous years, regretting the mistakes she made.

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Detail: Rosemarie Trockel and Günter Weseler, Fly Me to the Moon, 2011. Own photograph.

The following room presents four film pieces by Ryan Trecartin, shown individually in separate cosy installations. The films deal with the sadistic side of reality television. Participants in the films are humiliated in various forms by a motley cast of actors. Covered with splashes of paint, they take on varying personas, with males being effeminate and females appearing rather aggressive. Within the set, the actors seem to have no concept of morality, which is probably due to the virtual barrier set up between the outside world and that of the film studio. Where a sense of morality is minimised, the primordial nature of human beings begin to succumb, and aggression and violence comes along with it.

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One of the installations showing Ryan Trecartin’s films. Own photograph.

Finally, the rise of the digital age. In the corner of the Arsenale is a giant panoramic screen projected with images of all sorts. Entitled Movie Mural, Stan VanDerBeek’s collage of images acts as a universal language of the digital age. Since text-based media takes time to consolidate, visual imagery provides easy, quickfire consumption of information in our busy daily lives. “One look is worth a thousand words,” according to a December 1921 article in Printer’s Ink and I believe that is also why children prefer picture books and comics to pictureless novels: they’re easier to understand!

Turn the corner and we find ourselves immersed in a lovely light performance by Otto Piene in a very dark room. Appropriately called Lichtballett [Light Ballets], these light-hearted shifts of illumination present a very calming environment. Whereas a disco ball is often associated with loud club music, the one presented here reflects and shifts the white light slowly, acting like a child’s mobile to entice them into dreamy sleep. However, hidden behind a dark curtain is a film about a nightmarish entity: the da Vinci Surgical System.

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One of Otto Piene’s Lichtballett pieces. Own photograph.

Da Vinci dramatizes the repetitive, ritualistic actions of doctors performing surgery using this machine. As a result of this, the doctor appears not to be in control of the machine but instead the machine being in control of him. As soon as his hands insert themselves into the console’s hand controllers, the machine seems to take over, acting like a ‘symbiote’ in science-fiction terms. The artist Yuri Ancarani wanted to hint at our reliance on technology, suggesting a distant future where robots might overtake human society. Sounds very I, Robot, doesn’t it? Even the multifunctional robotic arms remind me of the T-X from Terminator 3. As absurd as it seems, it’s actually not that improbable. We are already attempting to develop artificial intelligence, incorporating them into our everyday devices – think about Apple’s Siri system – and they start to form part of our daily routine. Many ‘machines taking over the world’ movies are rooted with a fundamental concept: machines require data. Now think about the one thing that the majority of the world uses daily and collects data on a regular basis. That’s right: the Internet. Sorry folks, the apocalypse has already begun!

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Yuri Ancarani, Da Vinci, 2012. Own photograph.

Concluding this exhibition is the late Walter De Maria’s Apollo’s Ecstasy, an installation consisting of over 20 bronze poles arranged in parallel on the floor of the Arsenale. This minimalist work attempts to balance the potentially infinite sequence of the rods with their rigidly defined forms. It is an extremely mathematical piece where the limited appears unlimited, like the constant ‘remix’ of artworks being created each year for the Biennale.

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Walter De Maria, Apollo’s Ecstasy, 1990. Own photograph.

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

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