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Venice Dispatch

Highlights from the Biennale

Looking back on the Biennale. Photo credit: John Kellerman/Alamy Stock Photo

In Allan's Intro

Even if you haven’t seen the Venice Biennale by now, you’ve probably heard a lot about it. The overwhelming response within the art world has been negative and, having just left Venice myself, it was clear that the whole event—which we still look to as a barometer of what matters most in art today—didn’t have much of a pulse. 

There were some highlights, of course. In the Central Pavilion,”Viva Arte Viva” (until 26 November), Kiki Smith’s ethereal installation of drawings, paintings and sculptures on glass stood out, as did the art of the often overlooked John Latham (even if it wasn’t the strongest selection of his work).

Exhibition view, Geta Brătescu, “Apparitions”, Romanian Pavilion, La Biennale di Venezia 2017. Photo credit: Jens Ziehe

I loved some of the national pavilions, especially the mini-survey of works on paper by Geta Brătescu in the Romanian Pavilion entitled “Geta Brătescu—Apparitions” (few artists have been able to sustain such a wide range of artistic exploration that nonetheless feels unified by a singular sensibility and inquisitiveness). I admired Mark Bradford’s presentation in the USA Pavilion, “Tomorrow is Another Day“, especially the video in the last room.  

Installation view, Mark Bradford, “Tomorrow Is Another Day”, U.S. Pavilion, La Biennale di Venezia (2017). Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo credit: Joshua White

But, that was kind of it, except for Sharon Lockhart’s project “Little Review” in the Polish Pavilion. Though, to be fair, Canada, Germany, Korea and Japan were closed due to a fallen tree (it must have been a big one). 

(On the work of Phyllida Barlow, “folly” in the British Pavilion: how can someone work on such a large scale and have so little impact?)

A few issues ago, I asked the question whether sweeping curatorial behemoths such as the Biennale have outlived their usefulness. For now, the answer appears to be yes.

We seem to be in a moment in which art seems atomized. And yet, while I wished my pulse had raced more because of the Biennale, I do appreciate that without these kinds of big shows, certain artists would be threatened with almost total obscurity. 

While the presentation in the Arsenale has been much maligned, to me it was a well orchestrated progression through many of the more gently tuned, poetic voices in art of the past 40 years, particularly pertaining to such themes as experiences, habitation, humanity, sexuality and the planet.

I was struck by the number of women artists in the Arsenale—35% of the total, which felt like a larger presence than other biennales or major international exhibitions (except those directly addressing the achievements of women in art). This felt like a positive development. 

There were many wonderful – and uncommonly inviting – videos on show in the Arsenale.  Chief amongst them were works by Juan Downey, Anna Halprin, Antoni Miralda, Charles Atlas, and Marcos Ávila Forero.

Marcos Ávila Forero, still from Atrato (2014). Courtesy the artist and the Dohyang Lee Gallery

Lady Bunny’s performance in Charles Atlas’s video was a great, spirited high point in an otherwise introspective exhibition. (Lady Bunny is the first drag performer to transcend the kitsch of the idiom since Divine and John Kelly as Joni Mitchell.)

There were many other artists whose work looked strong at the Arsenale, particularly in terms of how their positioning was orchestrated into a well choreographed whole (thank you, Lynn Zelevansky, for putting those words in my mouth). But, while several artists had great presence in the curatorial storytelling of the exhibition, few (if any) stood out as “great artists.”

Beyond the Biennale proper, the “Space Force Construction” (a clunky name for a poetic show) was an engaging and curatorially articulate exhibition at the V-A-C Foundation (until 25 August).

The “Philip Guston and the Poets” exhibition at the Gallerie dell’Accademia (until 3 September) wasn’t as much of a showstopper as people had said, but there was plenty of great painting to see. It was a pleasure to lose oneself in the profound existential turmoil of the painter and his paint.

Mark Tobey, Lines of the City (1945) © 2017 Mark Tobey/Seattle Art Museum, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Mark Tobey: Threading Light“, at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (until 10 September) was a crisp, rich dive into the work of one of those gently poetic voices of periods past.

And yet, the strongest response I had to contemporary art in Venice was emphatically negative, at the exhibitions of Damien Hirst at the Palazzo Grassi and the Dogana, “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” (until 3 December). I am not sure if I am craving true fantasy or am unwilling to fake reality. I found the massive sculptures and elaborate fiction built around them completely unconvincing. The bronze doesn’t look like bronze; the elaborate fusions of “historical” fragments and rainbow colored crustaceans that have clung to them are far less dazzling than the baubles in Attilio Codognato’s exquisite shop. 

Damien Hirst, Demon with Bowl (Exhibition Enlargement)
from “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” at the Palazzo Grassi, Venice, Italy (2017). Photo credit: Mirco Toniolo/AGF/Rex/Shutterstock

Hirst is great at spectacle, but he is not a very good sculptor. The exhibition made many references to the work of Jeff Koons, who has brought meaning to sculptural signifiers of commodification. But, whereas Jeff is a believer, it feels as though Damien is manufacturing the emperor’s new gold. It felt more like I was at The Venetian in Las Vegas, rather than Venice.

Having said this, I caution myself with one of the most important epiphanies about art I ever had.  Early in my career I viewed an exhibition of work by Gilbert & George at Sonnabend Gallery. I was so outraged by the social depravity of that particular body of work, as I saw it, that I told everyone I ran into how offensive it was. But, as I repeated my tirade, I realized that the passion the work had brought out in me was of course a characteristic of great art.  All of a sudden, a light bulb went on in my head. The reasons I was complaining about the work were the same reasons that it was a powerful, cogent representation of the societal mood of that moment.

Yet, back at the Hirst show, I found no art—and not even convincing craft—as though we were being dared to take it all seriously. I began to wonder if the grim reality of the collapse of suspension of disbelief I experienced was not indeed Hirst’s point: art no longer exists. Was this show perhaps not simply cynical—but shrewdly, intelligently so?

I’m not sure, but I’ll give it a chance, (even if I don’t care to look at these objects again—which may be the longer term answer). I’m remaining a believer in art, even if it may currently be taking a pause.

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