At an event that aims to bring international artists together yet separates by nationality, it is no wonder that the troubles, frustrations and questions around today’s politics crept into the 2017 Venice Biennale. Brexit, Trump and the unforgivable number of humanitarian crises across the world were constantly referenced, probed and called into question – some subtly and some deliberately loud. Art has always had such a role, but the depth and visual wit at the hand of some of the world’s most talented artists at a particularly fractious time was admirable; a sobering but welcome undertone to the art that will be enjoyed by so many across the next seven months. Here are some highlights I enjoyed...
Housed in a small but beautiful house on the Grand Canal, the Pavilion of Humanity is an exploration into this power and potential of art. Two artists – Michal Cole (b. Israel) and Ekin Onat (b. Turkey) – visualise the anger and emotion felt by many in a selection of provocative and clever artworks. Cole begins by covering an entire room with gentlemen’s ties – sewn meticulously together by women, these flashes of corporate, class and money-driven masculinity line the walls, ceiling and floor, covering every surface and object; they engulf the central and ostentatious light fitting, the skull and books on the shelves and the wall mounted horns and rifle. The room is decked out as a gentlemen’s club, suffocating in the uniform of its users, including two Donald Trump ties, that serve to swaddle the rifle. The room is soft and dampening of the outside world, yet this lulling is uncanny in its strangeness and with each clashing design the room becomes lewd and leery; a poignant comment on gender and power in business and politics.
Opposite Top Gun is Cole’s Domestic Goddess, a dark kitchen with the only light soft and inviting from the inside of several pots and pans. Looking in, we are confronted by a face framed by the circle of domesticity – eyes wide, its mouth begins to scream. Onat’s face upstairs is equally harrowing, as she confronts us silently and powerfully on screen, a voiceover reading the many atrocities committed by the Turkish police force across her pained expression. Alongside – and live during the opening – Onat appears dressed head to toe in the all-black armour of the Turkish police, taking each defensively brutal item off one by one. In the bathroom, the mythological figure Sisyphus is dressed as a 50s housewife endlessly mopping the Venetian waters from a boat – the never-ending task.
Almost directly opposite, is the National Pavilion of Iraq – only the third that the Ruya Foundation have commissioned. Poignantly entitled Archaic – referencing the state of Iraqi institutions, bureaucracy and dilapidated cultural provision, the country’s archaeological richness, and the Western view of its war-torn land – it presents eight Iraqi artists alongside 40 ancient Iraqi artefacts. Many of the artefacts have never been shown outside of Iraq and their collective exhibition is significant; some were recently returned to the Iraq Museum via Interpol from other countries, while others have recently been re-salvaged from war-induced looting. The weight of these journeys – their colonial removal and brutal theft during a time of conflict – together with their importance in the telling of human history – some date as far back as 6,100 BC – provide a fitting beginning for the exhibition. The contemporary works follow, spread across old-fashioned vitrines – a deliberate decision for the theme – and range across all media. Luay Fadhil’s film The Scribe shows a man’s recurring visits to a scribe, who traditionally set up make-shift desks outside public buildings to draw up official documents. However, instead of requesting any document, this daily visitor implores the scribe to re-connect him with his recently deceased wife through scripture. Fadhil’s work is not only tragic but a reminder that Iraq was the birthplace of writing and the still-important role such ‘archaic’ traditions still provide. It is no surprise that journeys also creep into the Diaspora Pavilion, presented by the International Curators Forum and University of the Arts London. Small boats are suspended across its ground floor, confronting our entry through an alluring curtain of glittering gold. The palatial rooms upstairs are filled with great plinths of collected statues, film works that encompass both rooms and small corners – played on small screens in boxes and books – and sculptural works that spread to the floor and the furniture. The work of the 12 UK-based emerging artists is encompassing and powerful, with Yinka Shonibare’s The British Library – shelves full of books wrapped in Dutch wax batik textiles with the names of British first and second generation immigrants in gold along their spines – a fitting finale.
Inside the Giardini itself, artworks rebel against their traditional and often grandiose spaces. Phyllida Barlow is playful with her oxymoronic crumbling material to the commanding walls of the British Pavilion’s architecture. Scrunched paper, card, tape and concrete-like balls shrink and grow across the different rooms – as well as falling out of the Pavilion itself – creating an unbound scale that is both amusing and boldly transformative. A giant cardboard box empties luminous pink wooden legs overhead; grey concrete-polystyrene is piled high and sausaged together into a wall-mounted grate; and colour is bright in painterly pastels that cling to walls and hang as themselves across an over-sized clothes-horse. Shapes are almost familiar – an enlarged toilet roll, great wall-mounted spikes – yet their non-conformation is part of their ‘folly’, the title of Barlow’s newly commissioned work.
Next door, the German Pavilion’s front door is blocked with a voyeuristic window, a teaser for the glass floor that serves as a visitor’s platform inside. Covering the entire pavilion, Anne Imhof’s transparent underworld is created beneath, with on-going performances taking place under your feet, up the walls and even on top of the Pavilion outside, the gates of which are guarded by two Dobermans. The performers – hard, beautiful and dressed in a uniform of sportswear, mostly black – slide in and around visitors, drawing on walls, playing with various ‘apparatus’ left in corners – sling-shots and metal pellets – and lighting lines of fire; you can feel the hell-inducing heat rise through your feet from below. Tantalizing the audience, they lie entwined with one another, leaving breath-marks on the glass, your window into their world.
In the Alvar Aalto Pavilion of Finland UK born Nathaniel Mellors collaborates with Finnish Erkka Nissinen to create an animated sculptural and film installation that sees two god-like figures Geb – a giant rotating egg – and Atum – a chatty cardboard box head (Geb’s son) – look down upon the Finnish world they have created. Through witty conversation, song and visually illustrating their discussion – each have a projector on their head, from which comes the narrative film sequences – Mellors and Nissinen are able to make compelling points on society and its digression through their theatre of the absurd. They are not the only ones to use imaginative film and narrative so potently – in Scotland + Venice, Rachel Maclean presents her new work Spite Your Face. In the hushed atmosphere of the beautiful Chiesa di Santa Caterina, Maclean’s funny, clever and, at times, grim film tells the twisted tale of a new Pinocchio (PIC), whose telling of lies is entwined with the glittering world of wealth, advertising and exclusivity. In an ingeniously circular film – it rolls ominously with no beginning or end – PIC is given a bottle of ‘truth’ after praying to the Madonna (through an iPad that only grants wishes after monetary offerings) to help him grow up to be a rich man. With only a limited amount of ‘truth’ and the lure of celebrity and get-rich-quick through a manipulatively verbose salesman, PIC is talked into ‘untruth’, given a credit card – which sears his arm like a razor every time he uses it – and grows an ever-glistening, golden and phallic nose. Maclean brilliantly plays each of the three characters herself – PIC, the salesman and the Italian speaking Madonna – with the script a comic and cutting critique of the abject failures of our society, religion and politics.
Metaphor is also used in the Greek Pavilion, in a bizarre but brilliant work by George Drivas, the “Laboratory of Dilemmas”. Screens line a raised walkway around the edge of the Pavilion, showing snippets of a ‘real’ documentary of a 1960s scientific experiment around hepatitis and liver cells. The documentary was never finished, coming to an abrupt and unexplained end, as new ‘immigrant’ cells are discovered growing alongside the ‘natives’ in the petri dishes. Below the screens is a labyrinth of black walls and audio, from which snippets of the debate around the experiment’s failure and whether to expunge the new cells or support them are played. Never sure where the real and the imagined ends, the language used is all too familiar to that of our own discussions around immigration. Inspired by Aeschylus’ theatre play Iketides (Suppliant Women), which poses a dilemma between saving the Foreigner and maintaining the safety of the Native, Drivas’ work is masterful in its playful confusion and deliberate boundary-playing.
Happily, there is also a sense of freedom to the Biennale Pavilions, with artists treating their celebrated and exclusive exhibition space like a studio, inviting us in. Mark Bradford famously built a life-sized shell of the US Pavilion in his studio, while the Romanian Pavilion deliberately invites us into Geta Brătescu’s mind and working space, in a small retrospective of her rich media-spanning work, exploring the role of the studio and her reflection on female subjectivity.
In the Italian Pavilion Roberto Cuoghi makes work live as if in his studio, molding life-sized wax sculptures – inspired by the Imitation of Christ – before leaving them in a series of vacuum plastic pods across the room to decay in different stages. He then dries, salts or oven-bakes these ‘bodies’, either mounting them whole on the wall as an alter, or in Frankenstein-like abstracted body parts on metal trays. It is a strange and intriguing exercise, that sees the exhibition evolve with time, harnessing the power of repetition and the themes of decomposition, decay and regeneration.
Alongside the Pavilions and Palazzos of the Biennale, truly great exhibitions stand out. Chris Ofili’s Poolside Magic at Victoria Miro is a new series of illustrative works on paper, in which watery colour is bewitched into conjuring a Diana-like character bathing and those of her faithful servants. Clouds of steam from offerings swell into genie-like apparitions; colour deepens and dilutes magically; and Ofili’s nudes are voluptuous and decadent.
At the Accademia, Philip Guston and the Poets presents an inspiring collection of work by the eminent Canadian-born painter, grouped by the writers that inspired him, D. H. Lawrence, W. B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Eugenio Montale and T. S. Eliot. The exhibition is a fleshy enveloping in Guston’s painterly world, where bold pink strokes evoke abstracted body parts and objects, while his rarely-shown drawings – the “poem pictures” – imagine the longings of him and the crowd he happened to be with at the time. The works are often tinged with a yearning or questioning abstractedness – perhaps one of the key links to the poets’ words that line the walls – as well as a vulnerable and likable humour. In bed, two figures are two bundles, their faces barely visible, though their long eyelashes fold over the covers in exaggerated sleep; long, swollen-jointed fingers grow into cigarettes in a clump of transformation; finally, a single head, on the dark difference of black, meditates alongside Eliot’s musings on death (East Coker, T.S.E, 1979).
With too much to see in one visit, these are only highlights of an abundance of art that has much to contribute to our current reading of the world. With most shows and the Biennale running until November, get to Venice if you can!
Sophie Hill, Nunnery Gallery Co-Director