Marino Auriti's "Il Palazzo Encyclopedico del Mondo, (ca.1950s), surrounded by photographs by J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere
Spread between the Central Pavilion at the Giardini and part of the Arsenale, the exhibition curated by Masimiliano Gioni displays, as expected, contemporary art in all shapes and sizes, but also a good array of books, gems, found objects, ex-votos and other relics, ritual paintings and anything that may contribute to collectively define the idea of universal knowledge.
After a previous rehearsal on the subject for the Gwangju Biennial in 2010, Gioni culminates his concept with “Il Palazzo Encyclopedico”, a show of gargantuous magnitude including over 150 names that combines biennial regulars with some less canonical artists and creators of very different kinds, spanning a periodicity of over one century, thus keeping an eye in our times while also going back into the past to try to comprehend and systematize knowledge in retrospective.
In spite both shows share curatorial themes and strategies, each has a very different atmosphere. However both of them reproduce the same structural pattern: they open up with a “cult piece” that kind of sets the line for the narrative to follow.
While in the Central Pavilion that will be the hyper-musealized copy of Carl Jung's Red Book (staged in a vitrine, reaching high levels of venerabilty), in the venue at the Arsenale the visitor can find the inspirational piece for the whole exhibition, Marino Auriti's maquette of the Encyclopedic Palace, a work from the collection of the American Folk Art Museum in New York.
At the Arsenale, the narrative of the exhibition is intended to follow a progression from natural to artificial forms, and it is also in this section of the exhibition where the “younger” artists can be found.
A good example of that is Camille Henrot, awarded last Saturday with the Silver Lion for a promising young artist. In her Grosse Fatigue, the French artist combines footage from the Smithsonian archives with her own clips in an attempt to encapsulate a video-theory of the universe in the times of the internet. Henrot's work is in many levels exciting: the succession of images and the spoken word have got a catchy rhythm, a flow (the rap of the universe?), while it also embodies to perfection the topic of the exhibition.
But even in “the era of the internet”, there is still a certain nostalgia that haunts us and makes us romanticize older and almost obsolete formats.
João Maria Gusmão & Pedro Paiva videoworks shown in original format in 18mm projectors
Other remarkable video contributions would include Farocki's Transmission, a really good one that deserves a detained watch. Of course, this applies to plenty more videos, like Aurélien Froment's, displayed along with Jos de Guyter and Haabl Thys' in a perfect dialogue of theatrical madness...
Sharon Hayes's own Comizi d'Amore has received a special mention by the jury of the Biennale. Inspired by the aforementioned film by Pasolini, this documentary is part of an ongoing project of interviews in which the artist addresses a series of confrontational questions to -in this case- students from an all-women's college in New England. It is indeed a reflection on the body, but mainly a compilation of assorted opinions mirroring different reflections on the sexual, psychic and political personas of the people in the group.
The subject of this Biennale easily leans toward fetishization sometimes, as seen in the film by Ed Atkins “The thick brain”. Portraying Breton's microcosm through found footage from his apartment that was used by the French government to document his capital before being sold it arbitrary lots, this work is a reflection on the loss of potential, and also on the notion of the imaginary museum; as of all the objects that would never be put together again for the general public. And it feels highly voyeuristic and perverse, like admiring a corpse.
These and other videoworks especially catched my attention in this exhibit, but there were of course other media involved: like Robert Crumb's huge circular installation of comic book pages, cute imaginary animals by art brut artist Shinichi Sawada, Yüksel Arslan's compendium of body and geopolitical anatomies, or Matt Mullican's large scale painting installation; resembling a meta-maze (a maze within the maze of Venice), containing “Learning from that person's work “and “Models of the cosmology”.
All in all, there is a balanced sense of media, from sculpture, painting, photography to video (digital and analogue), even performance... coexisting different disciplines and time periods in perfect equilibrium.
The show in itself is a compendium of obsessions on collecting and the desire to collect; to accumulate, to know and clasify, thus resulting in an exhibition of the artist's personal cosmologies and taxonomies. A good example of this is Berlin-based artist Michael Schmidt, sporting a compulsive sense for classification as also seen in i.e. at the Czechoslovakian Pavilion at the Giardini.
Pawel Althamer sculptural staging of Venetians doesn't feel extremely exciting, but it serves as a good anteroom for Cindy Sherman's “anathomical theater”, a section full of delirious puppetesque creepiness and dissection galore, with contributions by Paul Mc Carthy, John de Andrea, George Crudo, Hans Bellmer, Rosemarie Trockel, Haitian vodou practicioners, and a personal favorite: Linda Fregni Nagler's collection of “Hidden Mothers”.
Sherman's curatorial endeavours have somewhat contributed to make this a bit of a freak show that left me expecting shrinking heads or something of the sort, but figures such as Eugene von Bruenchenhein appeared to me as a great discovery. Picture this: Lee Miller meets Bettie Page meets Sylvia Plath in the portraits he made of his wife. Also Karl Schenker's pictures were one of the best surprises, but altogether it felt a bit too much of a bizarre cabinet of strictly “what Cindy Sherman likes / would do”. However, sans shrinking heads, the show reached expectations and had something to add because of all these lesser known artists and unaware art practitioners that reached some visibility here.
In a way, the overall exhibition reminds a bit of the visual material about the planet earth that the NASA used to send to space. As in Stan van der Beek video multi-projection, a film collage that, albeit dating back from the sixties, feels like the ultimate time capsule in this show. A piece that would have been a grand finale, but the show continues with yet another epic piece by Walter de Maria full of potential for closure, but that doesn't happen yet, in the adjacent rooms there are still some video installations by Bruce Nauman, a moving one by an elderly Dieter Roth and yet another work that explicitly gets into the core of things, in the most literal of the senses: Da Vinci is a video piece by Yuri Ancarani documenting internal surgery.
And mingling with national representations, there are some other works spread out throughout the Giardino delle Vergini that still belong to the Encyclopedic Palace: John Bock's whimsical performance and installation and Hito Steyerl's genius educational .mov on invisibility certainly deserve a especial mention (alas, what an orgy of chroma keying and wit!).
If there is something I really appreciate about the show at the Arsenale is its clarity, conveyed by a strict sense of linereality in the installation design, which is clearly built from an architectonic point of view. While being equally varied and interesting, the Central Pavilion at the Giardini feels significantly more confusing to navigate, nevertheless resembling the intrincated minds of some of the creators behind the works exhibited in it. At times, this predominant sense of confusion makes the visitor think that they are entering the same room as in a loop, or as if they were sleepwalking or in a nightmare.
The compedium of obsessions displayed at the Arsenale gets way more serious in the Central Pavilion. The exhibition starts off in a dimly lit hexagonal room displaying the other key piece for the main curatorial theme, Carl Jung's Red Book. Surrounding the here sacralized piece, some images from the book depicting the dreams of his patients provide some context and anticipate all the obscure reveries that we are about to explore as we continue throughout the following rooms.
While it is clear that The Encyclopedic Palace keeps on stressing the idea of amassing knowledge in this part of the show, it gets also deeper into the realms of imagination, and severely more focused in the internal images; the projections of landscapes generated in the human mind.
Rudolf Steiner's blackboards and performance by Golden Lion winner Tino Sehgal
Cabinets of curiosities, anthroposophy, esoterism, surrealism and outsider art predominate in this section, but also that thing for taxonomies can be immediately spotted in works such as Levi Fisher Ames' attempt to Noah's ark or Roger Callois' collection of geodesic rocks. As opposite to all the videos from the Arsenale, here we can find mainly object-based works that require great attention to detail, as Hilma af Klint's paintings, Domenico Gnoli's images full of poetic surrealism or the more recent miniatures by Imran Qureshi.
Tacita Dean's work, albeit being projection-based, is also exhaustively detailed and requires detained observation, as if we were contemplating microscopical images.
Shinro Ohtake's scrapbooks in vitrines
The exhibition space in the Central Pavilion paradoxically feels a bit too antiseptic in comparison with the architectonic scenery at the Arsenale, but its chaotic order and the rather insane nature of most of the works serve as a good counterpoint to this effect.
This part of the exhibition also feels timewise more historical, featuring pictures of the tarot by Aleister Crowley and Frieda Harris or paintings by Xul Solar, as well as works of same mystical nature such as Emma Kunz's drawings, realized with a sidereal pendulum. At times, this array of cosmological / mental driven art can remind of collections from mental institutions such as the Sammlung Prinzhorn in Heidelberg, as there are moments of lucidity mixed with episodes of pure darkness, reproducing the minds of those patients in a mental institution. However, while being in the midst of this confussion, Thierry De Cordier's hyperrealistic paintings of dark storms on the sea came as a soothing balsam, while also portraying an unaffordable sea of knowledge, out of our reach and comprehension.
Awarded with Golden Lions for their life-time achievements, Maria Lassnig (depicted) and Marisa Merz are shown together in a room combining colourful craziness and obscure delicacy contributing to create an atmosphere of what it sometimes feels like a feverish dream that alternatively evolves from a slightly disturbing naiveté to a more macabre mood.
KP Brehmer, Oliver Croy & Oliver Elser, Achilles Rizzoli, Jack Whiten
Gioni's palace in the kingdom of the Venice Biennale perfectly embodies the idea that Auriti's proposal was unrealizable, a pure utopia, and as he publicly recognizes in interviews, it is doomed to fail in the purpose of gathering all universal knowledge. But being aware of that, he manages nonetheless to curate a haunting show that as in a cold-sweat pearled nightmare, leaves the visitor half spooked, half dizzy and confused, but still makes you wish to see more.