Venice Biennial 2013: Recent articles + images (September 2013)

I’ve always been amazed by the scale of the projects at the Venice Biennale. Even moreso I have been impressed by the remarkable range of works that one never sees in Southern California museums. Several Chinese artists are exploding onto the scene with astonishing projects that involve the use of the most advanced technologies. For may of the artists at Venice, it is as if there was a call for each artist to not merely create a work of art, but to create a total reality, or total and complete universe in each and all of the elements were unearthed and provided a platform for others to engage and experience. The other aspect that really draws my attention is how Venice is not merely looking for the most recent in art, but in art that needs to be given a greater presence in the art world. So many artists are reaching the world stage through Venice, many of whom have passed away half a century ago or more. There works rise in this new context, and allows one to see the eternal in the everyday, in the days that are now long gone and forgotten. Yet the art is real, physical, sensual, palpable, rewarding, honest, and true. It needs no interpreter. It can been see as being from its own time, yet it clearly is speaking to us today, as if there were no such animal as time, there is only existence for each of us at a given immearsureable period of eternity. So here what follows is my second collection of images and texts on this most stellar exhibition, ripe with art historical art and that which will soon be inducted into the canon.

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles.

to some of my work visit


venice art biennale: miao xiaochun at the chinese pavilion

venice art biennale: miao xiaochun at the chinese pavilion

original content
venice art biennale: miao xiaochun at the chinese pavilion

venice art biennale: miao xiaochun at the chinese pavilion
image © designboom

the china pavilion at the 55th international art exhibition in venice explores the theme of ‘transfiguration’,
with particular focus on bridging the gap between life and art, the transformation of life to art,
of the commonplace to artworks or art performance, of non-art to art. seven chinese artists explore this notion of change
through different mediums and subjects–extending from heavenly perspectives.

through his digital art practice, miao xiaochun  is committed to re-creating our visual knowledge, overlapping depictions of familiar
sacred images from art history (noah’s ark, the last judgement, the pieta etc.) with intercultural elements and references
to develop his transfigured art world, dealing with our conception of religious works in the context of contemporary existence..

the last judgement in cyberspace

image © designboom

‘the last judgement in cyberspace’ is the chinese artist’s interpretation of michaelangelo’s ‘the last judgement’ (1536-1541)
on the ceiling of the sistine chapel in rome, whereby miao has reproduced the expressive imagery of the original detailed and sacred work,
as a mere greyscale depiction, digital and devoid of any expressive personality. a commentary on how things are portrayed in mainstream media,
which has caused us to become desensitized to our surroundings.

‘disillusion’ projected on the wall of the chinese pavilion

image © designboom

‘disillusion’ depicts sacred imagery from noah’s ark, to the pieta
video © designboom

installation view of miao xiaochun’s work at the chinese pavilion
image © designboom

image © designboom
video © designboom

‘out of notion – public enemy’, 2012 is based on the crucifixion of st. peter who was hung upside down
oil on canvas
400 x 400 cm
image © designboom

detail of out of notion – public enemy
image © designboom

miao xiaochun
portrait © designboom


china pavilion credits:

supporter: ministry of culture of the people’s republic of china
commissioner: china arts & entertainment group (caeg)
organizer: china international exhibition company

curator: wang chunchen
participants: he yunchang, hu yaolin, miao xiaochun, shu yong, tong hongsheng, wang qingsong, zhang xiaotao



Venice Biennale 2013: The Encyclopedic Palace, Central Pavilion and Arsenale, review

Alastair Sooke finds the centrepiece exhibition of this year’s Venice Biennale bursting with energy and ideas.

5 out of 5 stars

Image 1 of 3
Ghoulish: Polish artist Pawel Althamer’s installation ‘Venetians’ at the 2013 Venice Biennale

“It can be bloody tiring walking around an art gallery,” said the conceptual artist Jeremy Deller during the opening of his exhibition at the British Pavilion in Venice. “I feel knackered after 30 minutes.” Spending time in the city this summer, then, may just wear him out.

With such a cornucopia of contemporary art on display, the Venice Biennale offers an overwhelming – and sometimes enervating – experience. This year, 88 countries are participating, including several first-timers, such as the Bahamas, the Maldives, and the Holy See. Most of the action takes place within the Giardini, where countries stage competing exhibitions in national pavilions. In addition, there are also almost 50 “collateral events” – official ancillary exhibitions dotted around town.

The centrepiece of every Biennale, though, is a specially curated exhibition housed across two sites: in the Central Pavilion in the Giardini parkland, as well as a dramatic strip of warehouses in the Arsenale, the site of the city’s former shipyards and armouries. The idea is that this mammoth exhibition takes the temperature of contemporary art today. “Sometimes you just stomp through,” says the British artist Steve McQueen, who is showing a slide-based installation in the Arsenale. “But this year, the exhibition looks great – it really holds you.”

He’s right. The Encyclopedic Palace, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, a young director from the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, and featuring work by more than 150 artists from 38 countries, is a triumph. Instead of a sprawling, unstructured hodgepodge, we find an intelligent, well-argued proposition, which suggests that contemporary art is setting off in new directions. Walking through it isn’t enervating at all, but energising and exciting.

The show takes its title from the name of an imaginary museum dreamed up by Marino Auriti, an Italian émigré who spent his retirement creating a painstaking architectural model of a 700m-tall Encyclopedic Palace of the World, which he hoped would be built in Washington DC. His vision was never realised, but, for Gioni, who places Auriti’s model at the entrance to the Arsenale, it is testament to a particular model of human creativity: idiosyncratic, obsessive, and motivated by the same desire to catalogue the world around us that led aristocratic collectors to keep cabinets of curiosities in centuries gone by.



Review // The 55th Biennale di Venezia

Central Pavilion La Biennale; photo: G. ZucchiattiCentral Pavilion La Biennale; photo: G. Zucchiatti, courtesy by la Biennale di Venezia

Article by Jeni Fulton; Saturday, Jun. 08, 2013

The curator of the 55th Biennale di Venezia, Massimiliano Gioni, is a fan of the clear line. As he announced, “Art is a form of looking at the world, not just decorative objects”, and the Biennale in the guise of The Encyclopedic Palace served as his definition of the world. Self-taught artist Marino Auriti designed a museum in 1955 to house all human knowledge, and its model is the first thing you see when entering the Arsenale. Gioni’s Biennale is a paean to alternative systems of knowledge, a gauntlet thrown down to rationality and the hegemony of disembodied systems. This results in a cacophony of voices and positions, ranging from the voices of patients from a mental hospital (as in Eva Kotatkova’s installation) to Hilma af Klint’s abstractions– themselves an outcome of her Theosophist practices which emphasise the role of the subconscious.

Hilma af Klint, installation view at Giardini; photo by Francesco Galli, courtesy by la Biennale di VeneziaHilma af Klint, installation view at Giardini; photo by Francesco Galli, courtesy by la Biennale di Venezia

Shinichi Sawada - "Untitled" (2006-2007); photo by Francesco Galli, courtesy by la Biennale di Venezia Shinichi Sawada – “Untitled” (2006-2007); photo by Francesco Galli, courtesy by la Biennale di Venezia

Nowhere does Gioni shy away from his curatorial premise: the central pavilion at the Giardinale opens with Carl Gustav Jung’s Red Book, an illustrated meditation on the role of fantasies and dreams, leading straight into an enormous central room where Rudolf Steiner’s (the founder of Theosphy) blackboard drawings dominate. Gioni then leads us through to the exhibition’s low point–Alastair Crawley’s tarot cards. It is at this point that the exhibition starts to stutter. Rather than being a display of individual viewpoints and attempts to make sense of the world, it becomes clear that his bug-bear is the rationale itself. Opposing Theodor Adorno’s Theses Against Occultism, he ponders the question: what does it mean if we are all media, and the brain is the first medium? While earlier artists experimented with Spiritism and possession, today we are possessed by digital media. What is to be made of our obsession with images, and their effect on our imagination? Using outsider art or practitioners such as Jung whose central occupation is not art-making, he showcases art made with ‘very basic means’ (‘you can make an artwork with nothing, just time,’ he notes, and there are no shiny steel sculptures here) and that focuses on dreams and the imagination. You are either germane to this neo-Romanticist position or not, but there is no escaping the relentless narrative in the Giardini. In this, he brings to mind the work of another Über-curator, Harald Szeeman, whose exhibition When Attitudes Become Form is being restaged by Germano Celant at the Prada Foundation over the period of the biennale.

Peter Fischli and David Weiss - "Plötzlich diese Übersicht" (1981), Unfired clay, approx. 180 sculptures; photo by Francesco Galli, courtesy by la Biennale di Venezia  Peter Fischli and David Weiss – “Plötzlich diese Übersicht” (1981), Unfired clay, approx. 180 sculptures; photo by Francesco Galli, courtesy by la Biennale di Venezia

Nevertheless there are some very strong artworks. Personal favourites included Shinro Ohtake’s scrapbooks, accumulated over a period of thirty years, which scream with colour and a personal aesthetic, Fischli and Weiss’ Und Plötzlich diese Übersicht, an arrangement of more than 100 unfired clay ‘situations’, such as the Einsteins lying in post-coital satisfaction after conceiving Albert. Eva Kotatkova’s installation, made with the help of patients from a psychiatric hospital near Prague was a lyrical paean to outsider art. I also liked Carl Andre’s personal notebooks, which revealed a new perspective on his otherwise tight minimalism. Thierry de Cordier’s large-scale paintings of a tumultuous sea form the end-point to the Giardini, recalling 18th Century naval portraits.

Camille Henrot "Grosse Fatigue" (2013), video installation (color, sound); photo by Francesco Galli, courtesy by la Biennale di Venezia Camille Henrot “Grosse Fatigue” (2013), video installation (color, sound); photo by Francesco Galli, courtesy by la Biennale di Venezia

Ryan Trecartin - "Not yet titled" (2013), 4 HD videos; photo by Francesco Galli, courtesy by la Biennale di Venezia Ryan Trecartin – “Not yet titled” (2013), 4 HD videos; photo by Francesco Galli, courtesy by la Biennale di Venezia

The Arsenale is an altogether stronger proposal–perhaps because here the insistence lies less on systems and more on individual narratives. The standout piece for me (and many others, given that she won a Silver Lion for her contribution) was Camille Henrot Grosse Fatigue, an infectious video piece featuring various creation myths, situated next to the Darwinistic narrative, made during her residency at the Smithsonian. The video takes the form of a series of palimpsestic images, set to a hip hop track narrating the stories. Danh Vo also shows his impish side: he has transported a 19th Century Vietnamese Church to Venice and has erected it in the Arsenale. Accompanying this is a stolen stretcher for a Caravaggio painting. Further on, Cindy Sherman has curated an exhibition of ‘alternative’ images of the body, including photographs of transvestites going about their daily business in suburban New York, Paul McCarthy’s grotesque statues and found photographs of small children and infants.

Outsider art, beginning with Auriti, plays a key role in Gioni’s examination of the manifestations of obsession and fixation on knowledge. A gallery houses small terracotta fantasy creatures, halfway between the animator Hayao Miyazaki’s monsters and hedgehogs, by autism-sufferer Shinichi Sawada.

Ryan Trecartin’s four video installation, Not yet titled (2013) has characters of indeterminate sex who look like avatars come to life rollicking in pools, lip-synching, dancing in post-modern opulescence. The Arsenale, taken as a whole, was a richly rewarding experience, the muted colours of most installations and clean lighting a welcome change from the brash, the oversaturated and the visual excesses of much recent art.

Danh Vo, installation view; photo by Francesco Galli, courtesy by la Biennale di Venezia Danh Vo, installation view; photo by Francesco Galli, courtesy by la Biennale di Venezia

Stand-out pavilions included Wales, which featured a meander through a fake observatory, workshop, and finally a very graphic, lush video installation by Bedwyr Williams (The Starry Messenger) in which, at some points, Williams covered himself in tiles, and a tongue was seen licking the boot of a dominatrix in extreme close up. England featured a video and installations by Jeremy Deller (English Magic). The most interesting pieces were drawings made by prisoners, former soldiers, of the day-to-day of the Afghan and Iraqi wars. William Morris tipped Roman Abramovich’s yacht into the bay of Venice, and Deller generally provided some playfully snarky political British art.

Many pavilions focussed on immersive experiences which had the tendency to slide into kitsch. Portugal’s Joana Vasconcelos had taken a working ship, sailed it from Lisbon to Venice and installed a Disney-esque grotto of fairytale lights. Similarly, Shary Boyle’s glittering sculptures and diorama in the Canadian Pavillion provided a somewhat ephemeral experience. An installation by Belgium’s Berlinde De Bruyckere of a resin tree trunk, wrapped in cloths, was somber and poignant.

Joana Vasconcelos, Portugal Pavilion; photo: Jeni FultonJoana Vasconcelos, Portugal Pavilion; photo: Jeni Fulton

Notable mentions: Montenegro for their beautifully installed, twinkling pavilion (Irena Lagator Pejovic), Luxemburg’s Catherine Lorent for fusing electric guitars with large works on paper and grand pianos, and the Central Asian Pavilions lovely Kyrgyzi videos of the countryside.

Perhaps its best to finish in the words of Gioni himself: ‘We need to look within ourselves to change world around us, and this is an exhibition about dreams, and imagination.’


Additional Information

“Il Palazzo Enciclopedico”
Exhibition: Jun. 01 – Nov. 24, 2013


Jeni Fulton is a writer focusing in and on the international Berlin art scene. She is currently working on her PhD thesis in contemporary art theory. Having taken her MA in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, she now lives and works in Berlin.



ART & CULTURE > EXHIBITION > Venice Biennale: What I can’t wait to see Date posted: 28th May 2013

Venice Biennale:
What I can’t wait to see

Venice Biennale 2013 Contemporary Art

Tomorrow I am heading to the press opening day for the Venice Biennale that will run through to November 24th, and here is what I just cannot wait to see.

It’s going to be an exciting Biennale the one directed by Massimiliano Gioni, the youngest curator of Venice Biennale ever. Named “Palazzo Enciclopedico”, Encyclopedia Palace, after Marino Auriti, self-made architect and artist that in 1955 patented in United States his plan for the Palazzo Enciclopedico. He was 65 year old when he realized that the space needed to contain everything that men invented in history had to be 700 meters high, 136 floors and 16 blocks in Washington. This Biennale includes a space of 100,000 square meters and tries to come as close as possible to the idea of Auriti, although he imagined the space as a ziqqurat, a Babel Tower developed vertically, while Gioni planned the space horizontally, like a labyrinth.

Venice Biennale 2013 Contemporary Art

And a labyrinth is kind of what I expect mainly from this Biennale. I want to get lost. I want to be surprised. And it looks like it’s going to happen. I am looking forward to visiting the Holy See Pavilion, a new entry, with artists like Josef Koudelka, one of my favorite photographers ever. Ivory Coast is an interesting new entry, too, with artists like Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, a philospher, poet and illustrator who founded a new religion.

Venice Biennale 2013 Contemporary Art

It’s Paraguay’s first time, too, featuring Pedro Barrail, incredible landscape-architecture artist, as well as Felix Toranzos, an amazing illustrator and architect, and Diana Rossi, Daniel Milessi.  A good year to join the other nations, a moment in time that – because of the crisis – pushes people to ask themselves more questions. Usually, artists’ replies to these questions are the most beautiful art.

Venice Biennale 2013 Contemporary Art

Having a brief look at the veterans of Biennale it’s impossible for me not to bet on Italia Pavilion this year, hosted by curator Pietromarchi who is the Director of MAXXI, the contemporary art Museum of Rome. Young artists will exhibit in it, as well as big names. I expect much especially from Marcello Maloberti, Marco Tirelli e Sislej Xhafa (this last one represented by Galleria Continua, one of my favorite galleries in the world- it is affiliated with San Gimignano (Italy), Beijing (China) and Le Moulin (France).

Venice Biennale 2013 Contemporary Art

Also exhibiting will be Luigi Ghirri, a landmark in Contemporary Art.

Venice Biennale 2013 Contemporary Art

I expect great things from Great Britain, too, with Jeremy Deller, a conceptual video and installation artist who won the Turner Prize in 2004.

A collateral event organized in the Giudecca area features the most famous works by Ai Weiwei (Germany Pavilion), the number one dissident artist from China, probably one of the most ground-breaking contemporary artist on Earth.

One of my favorite contemporary artists, though, is to be found in the Chilean Pavilion: Alfredo Jaar. It is actually very reductive to call him “artist”. He is a filmmaker, a philosopher, a journalist. I am sure he will surprise me with some ground-breaking project that will bring the attention on society-politic (like with the Rwanda project he did (1994 – 2000).

Venice Biennale 2013 Contemporary Art

I can’t wait to see the Russian Pavilion featuring Vadim Zakharov, an installation artist who is engaging and provocative. I also hope Arab Emirates don’t let me down as I have many expectations: this year they present Walking on Water by Mohammed Kazem, one of the most inspiring artists lately who is addressing geographical and political issues of the territories he belongs to.

Venice Biennale 2013 Contemporary Art

I also love the works by Anri Sala, an Albanian contemporary artist whose primary medium is video and so I am looking forward the France Pavilion he belongs to.

More than anything I hope that this Biennale will bring a breath of fresh air to Italy and the world and will remind people that man is capable of wonderful things, just like Auriti believed.

55th International Art Exhibition

The Encyclopedic Palace

1.6 – 24.11



ART & CULTURE > EXHIBITION > What I loved about Venice Biennale 2013 Date posted: 2nd June 2013

What I loved about Venice Biennale 2013

Venice Biennale 2103 the best of contemporary art

There is a lot to say and a lot to see at this International Exhibition of Venice 2013. Here is what Swide loved and why.

It has been an intense 3 day preview for the press, but it was worth it. Massimiliano Gioni announced an Encyclopedic Biennale, a Wunderkammer of contemporary art, and so it was.

The essence of this Biennale starts from what was the most difficult loan of all – as Gioni himself said – The Red Book by Carl Gustav Jung at Giardini Biennale. Experiencing hallucinations since a young age, this is the visual journal he kept for over 16 years since 1913, self-inducing visions he would interpret as premonitions. In a round, dark room with frescoes this work is displayed for the first time to a vast public, while before was shared only with the few relatives of Jung, the most famous psychiatrist of the 20th Century along with Freud. The Red Book or Liber Novus, so called for its red leather cover, looks like a medieval manuscript, beautifully decorated with colors that describe the visions – and their explanations -in every single detail. Jung would later say that this work would influence all his theories and ideas.

Such a complex, primordial work is a strong statement for the Biennale: an invitation to keep your mind open and alert.
The International Pavilion where visitors are welcomed this way is a labyrinth of ideas and inspirations through different media, from painting to performance. I was struck by the works of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, with delicate and yet strong ballerina figures. Thierry De Cordier depicts a dark, stormy sea that makes it impossible not to feel engaged, almost hearing the noise of the waves while looking at his paintings.

United States strikes a chord – in the literal sense-  thanks to Sarah Sze who transforms the Pavilion from 1930 by Delano & Aldrich in a disorienting adventure through architecture and abstraction.

Venice Biennale 2013 US Pavilion

Japan – special mention Award – focuses on human interaction with Koki Tanaka, his works inspired by the Earthquake of 11 March 2011: clever, engaging projects have you looking at daily things (like tea) in a whole different way.

Great Britain’s Jeremy Deller is a big pop frame England that at the same time mirrors difficult times through music (very interesting the parallel between David Bowie’s tour photographs and testimony of tragic contemporary events to the tour).

Germany’s Pavilion was one of the most interesting to me: welcomed to a huge installation by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident artist, the visitor has to go through a gigantic room filled with tens of hanging stools, always present in Chinese’s houses. South African, Germany and India artists are protagonists too through videos and photography, which witness the internationality of the Country.

Imitation of Life is a clever work by Mathias Poledna – Austria Pavilion – a video cartoon old style in colors 35mm with a soundtrack of a whole orchestra recorded in LA. A triumph of beauty from the past makes so that the audience claps at the end of the short movie – the only time I have witnessed that at the Biennale, which says something about coming back to “artisanal” art today.

Venice Biennale 2013 Austria Pavilion

Another incredible achievement is the one of Alfredo Jaar, who once again succeeds in being politically engaging: a lightbox with a photo of Lucio Fontana visiting his tumbledown studio right after WWII introduces the visitors to the second space of the exhibit leading to a 5×5 meters tank filled with water containing a perfectly reproduced scale model of Giardini Biennale that re-emerges and sinks again.

Egypt focuses on the human figure and its interaction with nature in a beautiful encounter between modern materials and ancient shapes.

Greece Pavilion is a breathe of fresh air with Stefanos Tsivopoulos, succeeding in crossing a thorough research on money exchange and a sociological focus on Alzheimer’s disease.

The Israel Pavilion is the most disturbing one – in a good way – with a work by Gilad Ratman, The Workshop, featuring a multi-media space (with wooden stands, clay portraits, microphones, sound mixer kit) where the artists digged underground and emerged at the center of the Ground floor (a reference to smuggling tunnels between Palestine and Egypt?)

Terike Haapoja at the Nordic Pavilion presents an interactive Nature in “Falling Trees”, with “breathing” bushes and water installations.

Wifredo Díaz Valdéz works at the Uruguay Pavilion with wooden objects and studies their mechanism by disassembling them and showing the inside-out of the artifacts to the public in an effort to focus on their meanings.

Venice Biennale 2013 Uruguay Pavilion

Russia Pavilion through the mythological figure of Danae discusses the role of men and women and the greediness of this society.

The Venezia Pavilion shelters one of the best works on display, revisiting old textile Venetian tradition – through Venetian and Oriental artists. The highlight? A red threaded body portrait of a woman by Yiqing Yin, ghostly hanging in the middle of the room.


At the Arsenale space we are taken in a whimsical, completely different space than Giardini: here, the space collects different works by different artists in a constant aim to surprise and inspire the visitors, between old media and new ones.

The video work by Sharon Hayes on gay adolescents sexuality wins a special mention at this Biennale not by chance, documenting with irony and sensibility their world.

Cindy Sherman’s album collection collected in flea markets coexists with the melting, elastic, haunting creatures by Jim Shaw and the iper-realistic painted bronze by John DeAndrea.  

The Arab Emirates Pavilion becomes an open sea thanks to Mohammed Kazem, a work characterized by the use of GPS. The installation mirrors a personal experience, when he got lost in the sea for over half an hour.

It’s a beautiful work the one of South Africa, especially the one by Wim Botha who uses African Encyclopedias to create three dimensional portraits – a way to use the past to create new ideas.

Venice 2013 contemporary art

The Holy See overcomes every expectation: it’s a stunning work the one of the three artists involved in the representation of the Genesis. Studio Azzurro (which includes the interactive installations of three artists) depicts the Creation, Josef Koudelka the De-Creation and Lawrence Carrol the Re-Creation. Josef Koudelka’s stunning black and white photography mirrors de-Creation through big frames that look like they just fell from the wall.

Venice Biennale 2013 Josef Koudelka

China’s remake of Last Judgment by Michelangelo stands tall in front of me: The Last Judgment in Cyberspace is the virtual digitalized version by Miao Xiaochun. Differently from Michelangelo, though, he uses the same figure for all the 400 protagonists, pointing out the identity’s issues in the digital world, in a dialogue that connects China with the western world through history and the present.

The concept of past and present is to be found also in the work of Nicola Costantino at Argentina Pavilion, through a re-interpretation of Eva Peron’s life with video and abstract installations, the ice melting on a table under warm lamps as a reminder of the sound of the rain on Eva’s funeral day.

Italy’s Pavilion is organized in a constant dialogue between the artists, using all sorts of site-specific installations and performances.

Venice Biennale 2013 Italy Pavilion

An interesting aspect to me was that very few artists used smells and perfumes. Sounds, images, photography, dance and tactile experiences are big protagonists
in this International Exhibition but this aspect was almost never addressed, and yet is one that – at least for me – is fundamental to recall emotions and memories.

Certainly this is a Biennale of struggles, of resistance, which mirrors our times: a time in which there are more questions than answers, and this has been – in my personal opinion – the approach of most artists: a serious work of introspection and criticism towards today’s society and at the same time a willingness to encourage rebirth and to celebrate human’s genius. Quite an ambitious aim, very well accomplished at this Venice Biennale 2013.

55th International Art Exhibition

The Encyclopedic Palace

1.6 – 24.11



Review of the Venice Biennale 2013

Various Artists at Venice, Italy

By Sue Williamson
01 June – 24 November. 0 Comment(s)

Ai Wei Wei 'Sacred'

Ai Wei Wei ‘Sacred’, 2013. Mixed media (detail) .

In the beginning was a man called Marino Auriti, an Italian who immigrated to the United States in the 1920s, where he ran an autobody shop and a framing business. On his retirement in the 1950s, he began his magnum opus: an extraordinarily detailed architectural model of a museum he envisaged taking up the space of six city blocks on the Mall in Washington DC.

Auriti called his model the Encyclopaedic Palace of the World, and he conceived it as containing every aspect of the achievements of the human race from the most ancient to the very latest. Auriti’s Palace lay buried in storage for decades. However, in 2013, it has been resurrected to become the keynote piece and provide the theme for fellow countryman artistic director Massimiliano Gioni’s 55th Venice Biennale, entitled ‘Il Palazzo Enciclopedico / The Encyclopedic Palace’.

Marino Auriti 'Encyclopedic Palace of the World'

Marino Auriti ‘Encyclopedic Palace of the World’ , Mixed Media,

Located in the centre of the first space of the Arsenale as one enters, Auriti’s remarkable model, with its little cypress trees and his national flag giving an Italianate touch to the structure, remains in memory as one traverses what might have been the different galleries in Auriti’s palace. Says Gioni: ‘Today, as we grapple with a flood of information, such attempts to structure knowledge into all-inclusive systems seem even more necessary and even more desperate’.

But Gioni has done his best. It must be said that this is the most tightlycurated Venice Biennale that I have visited, with a smooth thematic flow from the Arsenale, to the main Biennale pavilion in the Giardini. ‘It’s like a museum show, rather than a biennale’, was one curator’s comment. Meaning? The usual practice for biennale directors is to set a rather general theme, select a few key pieces to illustrate this focus, and from then on, select whichever work in the world seems newest and most exciting, most often work by well-established artists from the top commercial galleries.

Not so for Gioni. By and large ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ is noteworthy for the number of unknown, or outsider, artists he has included – artists who have worked away for years in relative obscurity, carving little collections of wooden animals, or making seemingly inept drawings on a particular subject. (An American artist who attended Gioni’s walkabout told me that he had said that he included bad, as well as, good work, so long as it fitted with his chosen theme of the slow and careful accumulation of a particular area of knowledge.)

This spotlight on the unheralded peripheries of the contemporary art world and on outsider practitioners of obsessive creation was also apparent on Carolyn Christov Bakargiev’s Documenta 13 in Kassel last year.  One recalls, for instance, the 400 postcard-sized paintings of different varieties of apples by one Korbinian Aigner, a Bavarian pastor incarcerated for his anti-Nazi sermons.

Richard Mosse 'Enclave'

Richard Mosse ‘Enclave’ 2013, Video Detail,

But back to Venice. Of the international names, Robert Crumb’s 207-page work, titled The Book of Genesis, is quite remarkable. These are the original drawings published by the American cartoonist as a graphic novel in 2009, and Crumb fans might find themselves disappointed that the master of perversity, as he says himself, ‘resist[ed] the temptation to go all-out Crumb on us and exaggerate the sordidness, the primitivism and the outright strangeness’ of the biblical text. He has handled the story straight – every word of it. Hung at eye-level inside a circular space and round a circular column in the centre of the space, the pages took over four years to complete. Not surprising, considering the minute detail and meticulous crosshatching in every frame.

Elsewhere in the Arsenale there is one truly awful room full of stiffly articulated, plastic swathed, battleship grey sculptures by Pawel Althamer called Venetians with facial masks cast from, wait for it, actual citizens of Venice. These are the kind of figures one might expect to see at an art supply store promoting sculpture materials for hobbyists. Hurry through it and on to Cindy Sherman’s space.

Invited to curate a subsection of the Arsenale, Sherman left her own work out of it, putting together an ‘imaginary museum of the human body in art and imagination’. Works by such names as Charles Ray and Paul McCarthy are included, but there are also contributions by a number of unknowns, showing a quirky sensibility (funny but highly expressive little pink high heel shoes in one small painting for instance) that make her area one of the highlights. Photo albums from the seventies (spiral bindings, adhesive pages) show transvestites posing domestically in suburban settings. In her subtle consideration of the way in which other artists use costume and masks, one sees reflections of Sherman’s own shape-shifting self-portraits.

Let us leave the Arsenale, then, and move on. The Golden Lion for best artist was awarded to Tino Sehgal, one of the stars of last year’s Documenta 13. There Sehgal filled a lightless room with chanting, moving performers for his audience, admitted one by one, to negotiate – an experience which aroused the senses in a nervous, exciting way. One had to be brave to move boldly into the heaving, pitch-dark space. In Venice, three performers sat in a triangle on the floor in the main exhibition space in the Giardini, facing each other, and humming and beatboxing – producing percussive sounds with their voices. In the large, well-lit space they were just one work amongst many, attracting only cursory attention from the passing crowds. Sehgal’s citation read: ‘for the excellence and innovation that his practice has brought opening the field of artistic disciplines’.

It is clear then, that the award was given for Sehgal’s work over the past few years rather than for his work at Venice, and perhaps this is as it should be – perhaps not. If I had been invited to award a Golden Lion based on work shown at the Biennale (or over the last few years as well, for that matter), it would have gone to Ai Wei Wei. The Chinese dissident artist, who was not, of course, physically present, as he is not allowed to leave China, was represented in three different spaces. In the French pavilion (curated by the Germans, they swopped pavilions this year) was Bang, an installation of suspended stools, hand made by Chinese artisans. Here, Ai was showing alongside other artists, including the veteran South African photographer Santu Mofokeng.

Ai Wei Wei 'Straight'

Ai Wei Wei ‘Straight’ , Rebar rods,

At the Zuecca Project Space on Giudecca was Ai’s Straight, a profound installation of 150 tons of rebar, the steel rods used to reinforce concrete in building construction. These rebars had been recovered from buildings which collapsed in the Chinese earthquake of 2008, killing more than 5000 school children. Accompanying the sombre installation, in which the rods have been stacked across the length and breadth of a large hall to suggest a bleak landscape, is a video. The Chinese authorities refused to investigate the reasons why the shoddily built school buildings collapsed – the stink of state corruption hung over the whole disaster – so Ai Wei Wei instituted his own inquiry. In the video, investigators show just how badly built and makeshift the structures were. One outcome of this inquiry was the eventual making of Straight. Twisted and buckled rods recovered from the ruins were beaten straight by artisans, each rod needing about 200 hammer knocks to restore it to its original form. Thus, a hushed-up government scandal has been translated into art, and will live on in memory.

Ai Wei Wei was also, of course, famously jailed for his activities, and at the Church of Sant’ Antoin, six steel containers allow visitors to peep through small windows at poignant small scale models of Ai as prisoner, confined to a small bedroom and grungy bathroom, closely accompanied by two straight-backed Chinese soldiers even as he sits on the toilet.

And that brings us to the second Golden Lion, awarded for best national pavilion. This went to Angola, and the citation read: ‘Golden Lion for Best National Participation to Angola for the curators and artist who together reflect on the irreconcilability and complexity of site’. The irreconcilability and complexity of site? What about artistic excellence?

For its first appearance at Venice (if we disregard Simon Njami and Fernando Alvim’s presentation of works from the Sindika Dokolo Collection three Venices ago) Angola was offered the Palazzo Cini, the gorgeous home of an Italian industrialist with a stunning collection of paintings and china and other objets d’art. Into this palazzo, then, came the Angolans. The exhibition was in two parts. On one floor, a show entitled ‘Angola em Movimento’ was a series of post-1991 paintings and sculptures drawn from the collection of insurance company ENSA, and it must be said, artistically, a very mixed grouping.

On the lower floor was what one imagines must have been the justification for the award: a series of wooden pallets stacked high with alluring photographic posters of Luandan buildings and urban details: a tube leading down from a green shuttered window into a black bottle on the street, for instance. Found, not taken, was the title of Edson Chagas’ series, and in fact, one could take the posters if one wished, and have them rolled inside a handsome red cover sheet to carry off.

Some of the pavilions to look out for include the Belgian, where J.M. Coetzee curated the show of Berlinde de Bruyckere, who refers to herself as a ‘nature and culture artist’. De Bruyckere has filled the darkened space with a massive fallen tree, and treated parts of the surface with wax and pigments to look like flayed flesh. Some limbs are bandaged. The haunting installation is called Kreupelhout/Cripple Wood, and in his brief curatorial statement, Coetzee writes: ‘The cripple wood tree that cannot straighten itself, that grows bent, at a crouch, from whose limbs we cut crutches for those who can only creep; a tree of knotted limbs, gnarled, snarled. The cripplewood tree grows out of the buried past into our clean present, pushing its knotted diners up through the grate/gate behind which we had shut it.’ Ah, J.M., no other curatorial statement cut so deep.

Robert Crumb 'The Book of Genesis' (detail)

Robert Crumb ‘The Book of Genesis’ (detail) , Ink on paper,

Visit, too, the Danish pavilion with Jasper Just’s brilliantly bleak video installation of new settlements in China which aspire to a look of Parisian architecture, and also the Romanian pavilion, where young performers act out key works from past biennales.
And the Irish, where Richard Mosse is showing Enclave, a multi-media installation. Here, Mosse, using infrared film which turns the green Congolese hills into nightmarish magenta, follows rebel soldiers as they move around and inflict mayhem onto the villages of eastern Congo – engrossing and chilling. Once again, the role of the documentary photographer in situations of war is brought into difficult question.

Finally, we come to the participation of South Africa. Although Gioni’s curatorial assistant Dan Leers visited South Africa in mid 2012 in search of biennale material, no South Africans made it on to the main show. Just as well then, that our Department of Arts & Culture got its act together, even if it was so late in the day that to actually get a show of South African work to Venice was a real scramble. The curatorship was advertised at shockingly short notice, and was subsequently awarded to the National Arts Festival as organisers and Brenton Maart as curator.

The location is much better than at the last Biennale – as one exits the main Arsenale show and turns left, one can ascend an escalator and be brought right up into the space. Maart entitled his show ‘Imaginary Fact: Contemporary South African Art and the Archive’, and his focus is on the processes in which artists ‘in very different and vibrant ways, draw on the archived record in order to make sense of our worlds today.’ (The full catalogue is available online at the comprehensive Maart’s theme resonated well with the overall focus of the Biennale.


Joanne Bloch
Hoard 2013, Clay, paint,
Installation View


Fourteen visual artists (full disclosure: I am one of them) were invited to Venice: too many for the 250 square metre space. (There were also three performance artists, none of whom performed during the opening week: Nelisiwe Xaba, Athi Patra Ruga and Donna Kukama). However, despite the somewhat crowded feeling of the exhibition, Maart, assisted by logistics expert Bie Venter, has mounted a bright, cohesive show.

The 200 black and white photos of Zanele Muholi’s Faces and Phases, portraits of black lesbians, fills one wall as a grid, and the unblinking gaze of this commanding army of marginalized women held the attention of many. The work which seemed to attract most passing photographers was Wim Botha’s much admired Study for the Epic Mundane – a study of two deconstructed figures carved from books (donated by Clarkes Bookshop) bolted together and suspended in midair. Study was made specifically for the Venice show, and in style reverted to the artist’s 2001 breakthrough sculpture of Christ on the cross, Commune: suspension of disbelief carved from bibles. For those familiar with Botha’s recent, looser work incorporating Styrofoam hotwired into soaring, ethereal shapes and fluorescent tubing, Study seemed a little over-determined.

Penny Siopis’ powerful video Obscure White Messenger, the strange tale based on a psychiatric investigation into a political assassination, suffered by being projected in a small, walkthrough space. Joanne Bloch’s engaging Hoard, sourced from objects in private and public collections, roughly modeled in clay and painted gold, was appropriately displayed on sloping purple velvet covered shelves in a glass display case set in the wall. David Koloane’s The Journey envisages the last journey of Steve Biko in a series of dark, mixed media drawings, and Sam Nhlengethwa’s Glimpses of the Fifties and Sixties are fine and evocative mixed media collages drawn from various sources, including the artist’s own collection of family photographs, reflecting the sorrows and joys of the way life was in those turbulent apartheid years. Johannes Phokela shows three brushy oil sketches from his Collar series and Cameron Platter ‘s The Good Shepard Presents Dr Bomboka is one of his witty, outsize neo-linocuts (actually rendered in pencil crayon on paper) which plays on contemporary aspirations as revealed through popular culture.

Also on the exhibition is Philip Miller’s cantata Rewind. Composed around the testimonies and trials of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Miller originally presented it in venues around the world with a full choir, but for Venice, extracts from the REwind soundtrack could be heard on headphones. This track was accompanied by a series of videos on plasma screens created by Gerhard and Maja Marx. These videos, animated from text, photographs and images taken from the press, did not attempt to exactly illustrate what was being heard, but their stuttering pace successfully conveyed an atmosphere of disruption and pathos, the space between expectation and delivery. The other sound work, James Webb’s Children of the Revolution, was also a rewrite of a kind – the artist transcribed the popular song into a new, South African version. It played over a loudspeaker in one corner of the exhibition every hour on the hour.

My work was For Thirty Years Next to his Heart, a 1990 work in which 49 pages of one man’s passbook (the ‘dompas’) were set in a seven by seven grid: one man’s life seen through the eyes of officialdom. Finally, there was Andrew Putter’s Native Work – the artist’s take on the life-time work of ethnographic photographer Duggan-Cronin, and his problematical, highly constructed, striking photographs of ‘tribal’ South Africans.  Drawing on that mixed heritage, Putter photographed 15 contemporary South Africans in traditional dress, then invited his subjects to pose again in their own choice of clothing, making it clear that it should not be possible to reduce anyone to a stereotype.

Regrettably, during opening week at least, there were no handouts or wall text notes or even a curatorial statement on the wall to provide a framework for the various works on ‘Imaginary Fact’. Such texts are essential aids for viewing in the clamorous setting of the Biennale, particularly for a show such as this, where understanding the context is critical. Viewers, deprived of any background information and unsure of the artistic concept, simply move on to the next.

That said, one felt that Maart and his team, even if in their enthusiasm they included too much work, presented to the world a shaded and strong exhibition which reflected well on the state of contemporary art in South Africa. Now that a 20 year lease has been signed by the Department of Arts and Culture for the exhibition space, one hopes one can look forward to an extended curatorial process, in which fewer, or even one, artist is given sufficient time to properly consider the assignment. Let’s raise a glass to 2015.



Reviews Web Exclusive

Vision Quest: Exploring the Venice Biennale

A channel-changing exhibition about imagination headlines a convergence of art from 88 countries

At the start of “The Encyclopedic Palace,” Massimiliano Gioni’s fantastic voyage into the creative recesses of the human mind, the curator provides two guiding spirits—better put, spirit guides—for the journey ahead. Both are early-20th-century European intellectuals who built their careers on dreams.

Carl Jung, page from The Red Book, 1914-30, paper, ink, tempera, gold paint, red leather binding. Encyclopedic Palace. COURTESY THE FOUNDATION OF THE WORK OF C.G. JUNG.

Carl Jung, page from The Red Book, 1914-30, paper, ink, tempera, gold paint, red leather binding. Encyclopedic Palace.


This mesmerizing main exhibition of the 55th Venice Biennale begins in the Giardini’s Central Pavilion with Carl Jung, the Swiss psychotherapist, making his first appearance in an international art show. His cosmological illuminations, created between 1914 and ’30, record visions Jung achieved through what he called “active imagination”—a process that helped inspire his concept of the collective unconscious.

René Iché, Mask of Breton, ca.1950, plaster. Encyclopedic Palace. COURTESY COLLECTION MARTIN DU LOUVRE, PARIS.

René Iché, Mask of Breton, ca.1950, plaster. Encyclopedic Palace.


Around the bend, André Breton, the French poet and frontman for the Surrealists, observes the scene with eyes wide shut. His white-plaster face cast, made by René Iché around 1950, only looks like a death mask (Breton was still alive). Later, as “Palace” wends its way through the Arsenale, the writer re-materializes—as his own mummified corpse—in The Trick Brain (2012), Ed Atkins’s paean to Breton’s collections of art and ethnographic objects.

More than Duchamp, more than Picasso, more than Beuys or Bruce Nauman, Breton—who famously favored imagination over sanity in his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto—is the pervasive ghost in this installation. Naturally he haunts the bonafide Surrealist, Dorothea Tanning, who plumbed her unconscious to envision those snake-tailed women beside a stairway to nowhere in The Truth About Comets (1945), and surrealist descendants like Jakub Julian Ziółkowski, a young Polish painter who has a Boschian way with eyes.

Dorothea Tanning, The Truth About Comets, 1945, oil on canvas. Encyclopedic palace. COURTESY KENT FINE ART.

Dorothea Tanning, The Truth About Comets, 1945, oil on canvas. Encyclopedic Palace.


But Breton’s rapturous spirit is everywhere—in Pawel Althamer’s alien army; in Otto Piene’s light ballet; in Xul Solar’s mystical, pan-language card game. These, and many other familiar names, cohabit the Palace with assorted shamans, crypto-scientists, paranormalists, apocalyptic visionaries, outsiders, and inmates (of both jails and asylums), along with others who have channeled voices, spiritual and divine, into visual imagery. In this show, the medium really is the message.

Defiantly and counterintuitively, Gioni has made an exhibition about how we channel images that basically ignores social media (just don’t try Instagramming Tino Sehgal’s Golden Lion-winning “situation”)—along with television, Hollywood, and popular culture in general. Yet it’s a show teenagers can love. It’s full of weird, alluring objects that invite contemplation, without telling you what to think—or so it seems. Deviously, Gioni weaves hints, homages, and double entendres into his inexorable progression of works by more than 150 artists from 37 countries, presented as a kind of museum of the human imagination.

Anonymous (Sanganer), Tantric painting, Shiva linga, 2004, unspecified paint on found paper. Encyclopedic Palace. COURTESY FEATURE INC.

Anonymous (Sanganer), Tantric painting, Shiva linga, 2004, unspecified paint on found paper. Encyclopedic Palace.



Hilma af Klint, The Dove, No. 13, 1915, oil on canvas. Encyclopedic Palace.


So Genesis is here, via R. Crumb, and primordial forms by Roberto Cuoghi and Phyllida Barlow, which evolve into Hans Josephsohn’s brass Golems, which then culminate in elegiac monoliths by Richard Serra and James Lee Byars. Hilma af Klint’s alchemical abstractions converse—spiritually—with Indian Tantric paintings. Along the way we see Imran Qureshi’s post-post-Mughal miniatures, J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere’s photographs of elaborate hairstyles in Nigeria, and a colonial-era Catholic church that Danh Vo brought from Vietnam. Distinctions like Western and tribal, High art and outsider, don’t resonate in this Palace. We may have our differences, but we all share an unconscious.

With 43 artists who are no longer (physically, at least) with us, clearly the Palace is not intended to be a survey of the current art scene—though, judging from the rest of the Biennale, it certainly reflects it. Enchanted forests, hybrid creatures, and large predatory birds abound.

Sarah Sze, Triple Point (Planetarium), 2013, salt, water, stone, string, projector, video, pendulum, mixed media. United States pavilion. PHOTO: TOM POWEL IMAGING. ©SARAH SZE, COURTESY THE ARTIST, TANYA BONAKDAR GALLERY, NEW YORK, AND VICTORIA MIRO GALLERY, LONDON.

Sarah Sze, Triple Point (Planetarium), 2013, salt, water, stone, string, projector, video, pendulum, mixed media. United States pavilion.


It’s a Biennale of magical mystery tours: Sarah Sze’s explosive yet contained, seemingly intergalactic assemblage, stretching to infinity in the United States pavilion (and beyond); and Katrín Sigurdardóttir’s architectural funhouse in Iceland’s Palazzo Zenobio. For Angola’s entry, Edson Chagas staged an ingenious tour of Luanda in Palazzo Cini, with prints stacked for the taking. And in the Bahamas pavilion, Tavares Strachan explores polarizing facts about Arctic exploration.

There are magic carpet rides: Rudolf Stingel’s wall-to-floor romp in the Palazzo Grassi; Farid Rasulov’s ornamental-textile implosion for Azerbaijan. (The monstrous William Morris, busy trashing a yacht in English Magic, Jeremy Deller’s bittersweet portrait of his homeland for the British pavilion, would surely approve.) For Mexico, in the former Church of  San Lorenzo, Ariel Guzik works a different magic with Cordiox, his ingenious device transforming structure into sound.

Farid Rasulov, Carpet interior, 2013, steel frame, handmade carpet, wood panels and furniture covered with carpet printed on textile. Azerbaijan pavilion. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND HEYDAR ALIYEV FOUNDATION.

Farid Rasulov, Carpet interior, 2013, steel frame, handmade carpet, wood panels and furniture covered with carpet printed on textile. Azerbaijan pavilion.


With 88 national pavilions (including 10 newcomers), and 47 collateral events, real estate can be a challenge. For Chile, Alfredo Jaar offers a multimedia contraption that repeatedly sinks the Giardini—home to the Biennale’s original 28 pavilions—making way for a new world order, at least as far as this fair is concerned. But every three minutes, the gardens rise again.

In the Irish pavilion, Richard Mosse’s stunning multimedia installation documents his experience infiltrating armed rebel groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Shot in discontinued military surveillance film that turns the footage a rose color, the piece is a heartrending tour de force.

Richard Mosse, Safe From Harm, North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012, digital C-print. Ireland pavilion. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY.

Richard Mosse, Safe From Harm, North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012, digital C-print. Ireland pavilion.


Mostly, though, it’s a small world after all. Welcome to Iraq gets homey with couches and tea. Lebanon has Akram Zaatari’s stirring multimedia piece reflecting on the story of an Israeli pilot who refused to drop a bomb on a school. France (Anri Sala) and Germany (Ai WeiweiRomuald Karmakar, Santu Mofokeng, Dayanita Singh) exchange pavilion buildings. “Global pluralism” prevails in “Prima Materia,” a sampling of François Pinault’s holdings at the Punta della Dogana that intermingles Japanese Mono-ha and Italian arte povera, among other things, in a search for essence. James Lee Byars (always a ghost in Venice) says it all in a fabulous golden shrine, adorned with a huge ball of rope.

A notable encounter, of historic proportions, unfolds in the must-see Manet show at the Ducal Palace, where the artist’s Olympia (1863) communes on a wall with her serene, voluptuous predecessor, Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538).

Marc Quinn, Breath, 2012, double layer polyester and high capacity air pumps. COURTESY MARC QUINN STUDIO.

Marc Quinn, Breath, 2012, double-layer polyester and high capacity air pumps.


Across the lagoon, at San Giorgio Maggiore, Marc Quinn responds with another defiant female nude, Breath (2012). The enormous inflatable sculpture depicting a pregnant Alison Lapper, a paraplegic who kept her baby despite the challenges, is part of Quinn’s show at Fondazione Giorgio Cini.

Maria Lassnig, Du oder Ich (You or Me), 2005, oil on canvas. Encyclopedic Palace. COURTESY FRIEDRICH CHRISTIAN FLICK COLLECTION.

Maria Lassnig, Du oder Ich (You or Me), 2005, oil on canvas. Encyclopedic Palace.


Back in the Palace, Austrian nonagenarian Maria Lassnig is poised to hijack the conversation, whether she’s invited or not, in her nude self-portraits.

John Outterbridge, Déjà vu-Do, Ethnic Heritage Series, 1979-92, mixed media. Encyclopedic Palace. COURTESY TILTON GALLERY, NEW YORK.

John Outterbridge, Déjà vu-Do, Ethnic Heritage Series, 1979-92, mixed media. Encyclopedic Palace.


While in the “anatomical theater” that Cindy Sherman curated for Gioni mid-Arsenale, Ariel II (2011), John DeAndrea’s hyperrealist nude, seems more concerned with snubbing Paul McCarthy’s demented muppet. With its de-domesticated dollies (Jimmie Durham, John Outterbridge, Laurie Simmons and Allan McCollum), sinister Morton Bartletts, and Linda Fregni Nagler‘s found photos of now-long-dead children, this section is like Disney’s Small World boat ride as envisioned by Hans Bellmer, who of course is here, too.

Elsewhere, at Prada Foundation, in the 18th-century Ca’ Corner della Regina, Germano Celant (with Rem Koolhaas and Thomas Demand) has restaged “When Attitudes Become Form,” Harald Szeemann’s seminal show at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1969. An apotheosis of Process art that united post-Minimalist, Conceptual, Land art, and more, “Attitudes” seems just about antithetical to the spiritual vibe of Palace. Except, maybe, the curatorial fixation that led Celant, a protégé of Szeemann, to reassemble the entire show, including its Modernist architecture—a gesture he likened to creating a readymade by mounting a bicycle wheel on a stool.

In Bern, crowds formed to protest “Attitudes.” At its Venice opening, crowds formed to see it. On the second floor, I waited in line at the base of some stairs leading up to a door. When my turn came, I stood on my toes to peer into a hole, Étant donnés–style. Then a guard appeared to say there was no art there, despite what it looked like.

Or was there? Maybe someone at the Prada had channeled Dorothea Tanning.

“The Encyclopedic Palace” runs through November 24. Check dates for individual shows.

Venice Review_slider_630Images on home page, clockwise from top left: Ed Atkins, The Trick Brain (detail), 2012, HD video still. Encyclopedic Palace. Courtesy the Artist and Cabinet, London; Enrico Baj, Ma petite (detail), 1961, mixed media on canvas. Encyclopedic Palace. Courtesy Fondazione Marconi, Archivio Baj; Carl Jung, page from The Red Book (detail), 1914-30, paper, ink, tempera, gold paint, red leather binding. Encyclopedic Palace. Courtesy the Foundation of the Work of C.G. Jung; Detail of poster for “Supernatural,” pavilion for People’s Republic of Bangladesh; Yüksel Arslan, Arture 385, Man XXVI: Hallucinations (detail), 1988, pigments, earth, pencil, and ink on paper. Encyclopedic Palace. Courtesy the Artist and Seli Arslan; Marc Quinn, Catman (black) (detail), 2010, White Bianco P marble with Black Belgian marble inlay, Carrara marble and stainless steel whiskers. Fondazione Cini. Photo: Roger Wooldridge. Courtesy White Cube.

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Contemporary art

The artistic solution

The main theme at the Venice Biennale is: how did the world get into such a mess?

THE world’s biggest art festival, the Venice Biennale, has never been just about art. In 1930 Italy’s Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, saw the Biennale’s potential as a propaganda showcase and ran it from his office. He regarded the event as such a success that four years later he took Hitler on a personal tour. Since the second world war state involvement has been more arm’s length. The British pavilion, for example, is run by the British Council and the State Department delegates responsibility for the American pavilion to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, which is based in Venice.

This year many of the artists selected to fill their national pavilions are again taking the pulse of their own nations. Ten countries are new participants, including Bosnia and Herzegovina (after a ten-year break), the Bahamas, Angola (which carried off the prize for best pavilion), Tuvalu and the Holy See. The Vatican has used its first appearance to “rebuild relations between art and faith”, in the words of Cardinal Ravasi, the telegenic prelate who is overseeing the project.

Its three galleries have been turned over to the creation of the world, though anyone expecting images of the Almighty will be disappointed. The high point is “a sensory journey where the audience is involved in a dialogue that encompasses a crossing of temporal experience”. This is Biennale-speak for an interactive video. In “Creation” by Studio Azzurro, an Italian art collective, the viewer can stretch out a hand in the manner of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and touch a figure on a film being screened on the surrounding walls. The pavilion, which also includes photographs of disintegrating landscapes by a Czech artist, Josef Koudelka, is regarded as a success for its dogma-lite approach.

The Iraqi pavilion, in Venice for the second time only, won plaudits for pluck. Jonathan Watkins, its curator, travelled to Baghdad, Basra, Babylon and Kurdistan in an armoured car visiting more than 100 artists before selecting 11 to take part. This is art made against all odds. There is cardboard furniture and a bench that looks like a Chinese bronze, but which has been created from parts of a bicycle. The pavilion has transformed the stately rooms of the Venetian mansion, Ca’ Dandolo, on the Grand Canal into a cosy hospitality suite with sofas, low tables piled with books, and a kitchen that serves mint tea.

The euro-zone countries’ pavilions reflect common anxieties. Money, or lack of it, is a major preoccupation. In the Spanish pavilion Lara Almarcegui has placed a vast mound of rubble that reaches up to the ceiling; Stefanos Tsivopoulos in the Greek pavilion has created a wall of text about alternative currencies and a three-part film in which a woman makes bouquets of flowers out of euro notes. The Romanians are on such a tight budget that the walls in their pavilion are completely bare. Instead, five people use only their bodies to “enact” artworks that have featured at past Biennales.

The Germans are not the only pavilion to want to stress how open they are to international co-operation and exploring cultural boundaries. But these concepts have special resonance among Germans because, as one attendant said, “Everyone hates us.” Germany has swapped pavilions with France (a nod to the anniversary of the 1963 Treaty of Friendship signed by Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer). But the only artist present who could qualify as a German is Romuald Karmakar, a French passport holder born in Wiesbaden. The others are China’s Ai Weiwei, Santu Mofokeng from South Africa and Dayanita Singh from India.

The French pavilion has not returned the compliment. Its chosen artist is Anri Sala, a Franco-Albanian, who is showing a sophisticated but ultimately unmoving film about musicians interpreting a piece by Maurice Ravel.

In the British pavilion Jeremy Deller, a Turner prize-winning conceptual artist, is having a rant.“We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold” depicts William Morris, a radical Victorian artist and designer, as a superhero rising from the Venice lagoon to crush the yacht of Roman Abramovich, a London-based oligarch. Another room is dominated by a painting of a giant hen harrier carrying a Range Rover in its claws (pictured), an allusion to an incident when two hen harriers, a protected species, were allegedly shot from the royal Sandringham estate. Prince Harry and a friend were accused of being involved, but both denied any knowledge of the affair. Undeterred, Mr Deller pursues the idea in a film showing a Range Rover being repeatedly pounded by the claw of a crushing machine. Subtle this is not.

By contrast, Sarah Sze, in the American pavilion, has looked outside her backyard. Her installation consists of worlds (globe-shaped in case you do not get the point) made out of everyday household objects such as tins of paint, espresso cups, lamps and napkins. The result is ingenious and visually compelling, though in an environment where art has to shout to gain attention her message about sustainable ecosystems goes unheard.

The Russian pavilion drives its point home. Vadim Zakharov’s “Danae”, based on the Greek myth in which Zeus seduces Danae disguised as a golden shower, is about at least three of the seven deadly sins: greed, lust and envy. Here, a man sits on a high beam eating nuts, while a stream of golden coins rains down from a shower head onto the floor below. If you are female, and thus eligible for the attentions of Zeus, you are allowed to watch the money pouring down on your head from beneath a see-through umbrella. An attendant then requires you to fill a bucket with the coins to keep both the economy—and corruption—flowing.

Alongside the pavilions is the main show. Often a disappointment, this year it is the highlight of the festival. “The Encyclopedic Palace”, curated by Massimiliano Gioni of the New Museum in New York, is about how people order all the information that bombards them. Alongside some well-known names, Mr Gioni has included works made by self-trained artists from the periphery of society, such as asylum inmates and autistics. Shinichi Sawada, who barely speaks, has a gallery dedicated to his deeply sinister clay animals. His work—and the show as a whole—offers something different: art that is genuinely surprising.

Visual Art

Being Beaten About the Mind and Eyes

The 55th Venice Biennale Is a High-Speed Train Very Focused on a Destination, and Prone to Crashing

Being Beaten About the Mind and Eyes

David Quigg

DEATH BY TRAIN The replica, with actual clothes from workers living around the world.

A drawing by Gamlet Zinkovsky at the Ukraine pavilion.
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Portaits inside matchboxes, by Gamlet Zinkovsky.
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The Vietnamese artist Danh Vo imported the skeleton of an entire actual Catholic church from Vietnam to Venice. This fabric is faded around where it held hangings for all those years.
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American ceramicist Ron Nagle’s little sculptures gathered inside a glass case, like another universe.
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Austrian artist Maria Lassnig’s self-portrait.
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Old art (saint) and new art (poster pile) in the Palazzo Cini, hosting the Angolan artist Edson Chagas.
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Portland-based artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins’s ceramic-infested furniture in Venice.

You only get lost in Venice, Italy, if you have an idea of where you want to go. If you attempt focus. At this, Venice will rise up against you. Let’s say your desired destination is this one restaurant named after assassins, or this other one where the politicians hang out and the fishes are prepared in the Venetian style. Or maybe your destination is this exhibition by Chinese artists that includes a full-scale replica of the high-speed commuter train that crashed and killed hundreds of people not long ago, with laundry lines of actual workers’ clothes dangling above the train replica—not to be confused with that other exhibition by Chinese artists that includes so many artists that looking at it would be like trying to picture the whole of China at once inside your head, so why try.

Instead of whatever destination you have in mind, you will end up inside an old palace along a canal in which young Saudi artists are making jokes about passing for Mexicans while visiting the United States to avoid being apprehended as terrorists. Or you’ll turn a corner, go up a flight of stairs decorated for a dead duke, and come upon Manet’s sensational 1863 painting Olympia (hey, that is supposed to be in Paris, where it lives) hung next to Titian’s sensational 1538 painting Venus d’Urbino (hey, that is supposed to be in Florence, where it lives). Is anything in the world not in Venice during biennale season? Being in Venice during biennale season is like being an infant convinced that what is not in view is gone forever and must be immediately mourned, and yet still not needing to mourn.

It’s funny in an enjoyably doomed way, then, that this 55th edition of the Venice Biennale—lasting through November 24—is obsessed with focus, focused on obsession. There is one enormous central exhibition featuring artists from all over, this year organized by a curator named Massimiliano Gioni. He chose as his title The Encyclopedic Palace, which would suggest comprehensiveness, but rather his premise in selecting individual artists seems to be that they are people who have drilled very far down in their core sampling of whatever tiny piece of the universe they love. This involves artists who have cared more about their subject than about being artists.

They include Shakers and Haitian practitioners of voodoo, Catholics who make vows with objects rather than words, and mystic abstract philosopher painters who also happened to be women. Also, social outsiders drawing in soot and spit, or working in the medium of whatever obscenity means at that moment. Tantrics, eccentrics. Or they are artists with formal training who practice devotion to color and paint, or repetition, or YouTube. They are believers in something, all. The something is just not necessarily Art.

It’s nice—sometimes nice-looking and sometimes good-feeling. It’s both in art by Hilma af Klint, James Castle, Patrick Van Caeckenbergh, Robert Gober (dollhouses!), Jessica Jackson Hutchins (go, PDX!), Maria Lassnig, Sharon Hayes, Ron Nagle. Oh Ron Nagle, Ron Nagle, Ron Nagle, I have a crush on everything you make and want to cradle it. Seattle artists who would fit right in: Jeffry Mitchell, Matthew Offenbacher, Dawn Cerny, Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, Sherry Markovitz, Matt Browning, Sol Hashemi. I’ve made my lists short, the better to google with.

One also feels, by turns, in The Encyclopedic Palace, that one more tantric repetitive quilted pile of obsessively arranged bits of aged found objects assembled into folksy vehicles or cosmic swirls or miniature houses, and someone might take a match to the whole damn thing. Maybe you. Sometimes one catches the rancid scent of “outsider-ish-looking inside art (there’s more and more of this around),” as critic Holland Cotter put it.

Simple gestures mean more amid this noise, expense. Monument to a Monument is the exhibition sponsored by the Ukraine. It contains tiny portraits in matchboxes and sketches of one stray thought each by Gamlet Zinkovsky (one stray thought: “There is no dinner”). Actual big and heavy monuments appear only in flux, being demolished and rebuilt in video by Mykola Ridnyi or hovering spectrally in a holograph by Zhanna Kadyrova. An old man in a bunker—a former spy?—teaches a boy to load a weapon rapidly; to the man’s dismay, the boy does not need the skill. The feeling is of a memorial being conducted underground.

Mary McCarthy starts her classic Venice travelogue by admitting that everything has already been said about Venice and yet no one can stop saying it. It’s a place of gluttonous layering, a light-footed endless processional you see when new biennale art is shown in a place with old art already on its walls. The old art doesn’t get taken down; it stays. Sometimes the lights on it are turned off, so it’s there in shadow. Or the priceless Botticelli paintings and porcelain sculptures stay right where they are in the Palazzo Cini, the usual light fully on them, while they’re joined by stacks of posters on the floors by the Angolan artist Edson Chagas. You can take a poster for two euros. Each poster is a photograph of debris arranged and shot on the streets of Angola’s capital. You can see how popular each poster is by how low the stacks have gotten. Why is a single abandoned sneaker something people want to take home with them so much more than a wooden stool left in a mess of green vines like a barrette in a great head of hair? I took home the vines (plus two others, six euros total).

The last best thing I’ll describe is the Romanian pavilion. (Other greats: Britain, Lebanon, and the Chinese show involving the commuter train, which is called Mind-Beating.) Nothing is inside the Romanian pavilion except five performers. They’ve picked a list of artworks from past Venice Biennales. They re-create these artworks by acting them out. I saw them perform Santiago Sierra’s 2003 installation; Sierra blocked the entrance to his Spanish pavilion to anyone who didn’t have a Spanish passport. The Romanians stood in a row across the entrance to their building. A man came by and wanted in. “Only if you have a Romanian passport,” they said. He did not, and left. That bit of history reinterpreted, they disassembled the line and moved on to the next. recommended


wang qingsong: china pavilion at the venice art biennale 2013

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wang qingsong: china pavilion at the venice art biennale 2013

wang qingsong: china pavilion at the venice art biennale 2013
above: ‘temporary ward’ by wang qingsong (2008)
180 x 300cm

beijing-based artist wang qingsong, one of three artists exhibiting at the china pavilion of the venice art biennale 2013, creates elaborate staged photographs overflowing with people and objects in incisive detail. born at the beginning of the cultural revolution, qingsong has watched china’s transformation from a traditional society to one struggling with rapid urbanization and westernization, and his work is highly critical of consumerism and the influence that capitalism has had not only on economy but culture and society as well.

this year’s china pavilion explores the idea of ‘transfiguration’ in response to the overall theme of the 55th international art exhibition, ‘the encyclopedic palace’ where all human knowledge can be collected and absorbed. in fact the curatorial team for china selected the phrase ‘变位 (roughly, ‘changing tastes’) for its pavilion, focusing on bridging the gap between past and present cultural values, as well as that between life and art.

wang qingsong’s photographs are technically astonishing: despite occupying significant depth, every detail seems to be in perfect focus throughout the image. displayed at the china pavilion as large prints, each mounted along the outer wall of a central cubic form, the three photographs became a kind of triptych investigating the sites and values of education and culture in contemporary society. ‘follow him’ in particular serves on its own as a theoretical ‘encyclopedic palace’, where a lone scholar tries futilely to take in all of the knowledge that mankind has accumulated.

the photograph above, ‘temporary ward’, was filmed in an experimental theatre in newcastle, connecting the idea of wellness to society’s cultural and intellectual needs. in the theatre, qingsong reflect, visitors find temporary relief for their minds, an idea he represents visually with a sprawling triage ward of accident victims and sick patients.

‘temporary ward’ by wang qingsong (2008) at the china pavilion, venice art biennale 2013
the photograph details a triage room (actually a theatre) filled with people suffering from all kinds of injuries and illness

closer view of ‘temporary ward’ by wang qingsong (2008)
on exhibition at the china national pavilion, venice art biennale 2013

‘take a look at the urban people’s life. we dine at mcdonald’s, KFC, and pizza hut. we drink cola, starbucks’ coffe and lipton tea. we live in roman fantasy, lincoln park, vancouver forest and east provence. we drive benz, BMW and lamborghini. all these western consumer products ‘modernize’ this originally agricultural country. however such life in high fashion is so ridiculous, contradictory and crazy. the chinese traditions and elite culture fail to have energy and vigor, deserving to be trashed. this is the contemporary china in its massive scale.’
– wang qingsong, in his artist statement

‘follow me’ by wang qingsong (2013)
on exhibition at the china national pavilion, venice art biennale 2013
180 x 300 cm

the newest of the works, ‘follow me’, is a statement on contemporary education systems. a large classroom is filled with exhausted students, mountains of books stacked on their desks alongside large bottles of coca-cola. the walls are covered in posters written in chinese and english; some are questions– ‘why are babies born?’ or ‘why do we yawn?’– but others are pivotal statements of contemporary education, to which a question mark is added: ‘study well?’, ‘education is crucial?’, ‘progress everyday?’. as in many of his works qingsong himself makes an appearance, here as the only alert student in the room, fueled by intravenous liquids.

the artist makes an appearance in his ‘follow me’ photograph
on exhibition at the china national pavilion, venice art biennale 2013

‘follow me’, closer view of the schoolroom walls

‘follow him’ by wang qingsong (2010)
on exhibition at the china national pavilion, venice art biennale 2013
130 x 300 cm

set in a sprawling academic’s library, ‘follow him’ reflects on the breadth of human consciousness. even if the solitary person pictured were to succeed in reading each of the thousands of books that surround him, he would be privy to only a tiny sliver of the whole of human knowledge. don’t miss the funny close-up on a disguised qing wangsong in the gallery below.

‘follow him’ presents the futile task of a solitary academic trying desperately to absorb the knowledge mankind has accrued

in the stunning wall-scale photo at the 2013  venice art biennale, the title on every bookspine is visible,
juxtaposing contemporary western artists (for example damien hirst at left) and chinese ones (like liu bolin, at right),
amidst books on geology, art history, software, and other themes, traditional objects, knick-knacks, and cola bottles

wang qingsong china pavilion venice biennale 2013 designboom
temporary ward (2008), full view
wang qingsong china pavilion venice biennale 2013 designboom
closer view of temporary ward
on exhibition at the china national pavilion, venice art biennale 2013
wang qingsong china pavilion venice biennale 2013 designboom
follow me (2013), full view
wang qingsong china pavilion venice biennale 2013 designboom
incredible details such as the title of every book is clearly visible throughout the photograph
wang qingsong china pavilion venice biennale 2013 designboom
closer view of another wall, covered with posters and painted text
wang qingsong china pavilion venice biennale 2013 designboom
follow him (2010), full view
wang qingsong china pavilion venice biennale 2013 designboom
wang qingsong appears in his photograph as a lone scholar
wang qingsong china pavilion venice biennale 2013 designboom
follow him, detail view
wang qingsong china pavilion venice biennale 2013 designboom
follow him, detail view


< > A Good Day for Cyclists, British Pavilion 2013,  Jeremy Deller at the Venice Biennale
A Good Day for Cyclists, British Pavilion 2013, Jeremy Deller at the Venice BiennalePicture: British Council / Cristiano Corte

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