- Venice Biennale
- South West England
Drawing All The World’s Future in Venice by Tania Kovats
I needed to make a filter for writing something about Venice. Going to the Venice Biennale for the opening few days is like being given tickets to the Olympics. It’s not often that sporting analogies work for art but here it is, an optimistic global event, a gathering on a momentous scale; and a moment where the world’s hierarchies are made explicit. Events are ranked as either central or peripheral, with the artist as the star athlete, national champions, backed by coaches, sponsors and support entourage. Then there is everyone else, the fans, herding around from event to event enjoying the spectacle, the socialising, and the magic of the event. You can’t possibly see everything, but the whole world is there – and this time it’s the world and all its future.
Drawing is my selected sport to follow. I had imagined it would most likely be a somewhat obscure and poorly attended event, peripheral, with a limited specialist following and easy to get a ticket to see. I was wrong. It turns out that globally drawing is stronger, more dynamic, relevant and critically imperative than ever before. The amount of drawing present throughout the Biennale asserted the primary significance of a mark made by hand. It kept negotiating the inevitable exhaustion of being overloaded with complex and unfamiliar artworks of great scale and complexity, and asserting the freshness and simple humility rarely found at global gatherings such as this, that so often aspire to the bombastic grand statement. This was a Biennale where the peripheral took centre stage; surprisingly the men’s 100-metre sprint was not the main event. I have tried to select a cluster of things that I saw, and for one reason or another continue to see, even though it is weeks later, just as some things stick and continue in the after burn of art.
A wall of four Robert Smithson drawings, so often reproduced and therefore mediated in print, but I had never seen them before as actual drawings, pencil on paper and framed on a wall. They were bigger than I realised, not notebook entries, but made up of large expressive blunt pencil lines. It is like an electric shock to see works that now seem to have always been there, works that have defined things for me and given me permission to make my own work, imagine impossible things and make them possible, imagine futures. The drawing ‘Floating Island – Barge to Travel Around Manhattan Island’ 1971 had been folded. You never appreciate this in reproduction, but this large sheet of paper has at some point been folded in half and half again, as if this there was a time where this drawing wasn’t as important as it is. The drawings ‘The Hypothetical Continent of Lemuria’ 1969 and ‘The Island Project’ 1970, are both rendered in heavy pencil line, over worked, clumsy and obsessional, drawn like a teenager urgently trying to describe a fantasy vision informed by a complete invented logic or world picture, an anti-aesthetic, a drawing language learnt from handing in high school geography projects rather than the momentous conceptual leaps they represent and completely wonderful to see in all their awkward geeky brilliance.
On the opposite wall, five framed works on exposed sun print paper by the Swedish artist Runo Lagmarsino, achieve an intensely beautiful blue that is both made by and describes Mediterranean sun and Mediterranean water. A deceptively simple abstraction that communicates complex issues that charge the work in a way that activates the subversive and the seductive. The Mediterranean is the liquid border between Europe and Africa and the Middle East where last year alone 170,000 people, mainly form Libya, Palestine, Eritrea, Somalia and Syria, got onto ill suited boats to make a perilous, illegal, and potentially fatal, crossing to Europe. These images of shipwrecked desperate immigration are what we see regularly in the media and hundreds have died making the journey. The blue of these drawings are both vertiginously beautiful and terrible.
Rirkrit Tiravanija ‘100 Protest Drawings’ are a large wall presentation of one hundred small-framed works on paper. The drawings are all images of protest taken form the International Herald Tribune, commissioned by Rirkrit and made by Thai artists. As images, these demonstrations and protest events may seem more closely associated with how we think of the 1960’s, but Rikrit’s simple presentation of drawings asserts the relevance of mass demonstration to now. The translation from photojournalist depictions of political protest to simple photorealistic drawing is another act of democratization – drawing is perhaps the most democratic and immediate of art forms, pencil on paper somehow radicalised in its resistance to complexity or technology or high material value. This work references the historical role of the artist as witness to events. In our world saturated by the digital image, the image of protest is often delivered via phones and screens; these ephemeral forever-uploading images of conflict have been turned by Rirkrit into simple fixed documents of political aspiration. They present a question around the commonality of collective action, or at least how we visualise political protest, and in themselves make an act of resistance to power, oppression and global capital.
On a large rectangular blackboard are words hand written in white chalk repeatedly like lines that have to be written in punishment and learnt, ‘Everything will be taken away’. Words that are trying to look the same each time they are written but point more to the inevitable fluctuation in the cursive gesture of the hand, and connecting the written word to the drawn line and the physical presence of the artist. This is one of several works by the American artist Adrian Piper. ‘Once you have taken everything away from a man, he is no longer in your power. He is free’ is the Alexander Solzhenitsyn quote that was the starting point for these works by Piper who started her ‘Everything’ series in 2003. These words have been drawn on to mirrors, bodies, and sandwich boards – and for Venice, as well as the blackboard work, the words are scratched onto photographs that have already been rubbed out, overprinted, and reduced. The identities of people erased in a scouring of the image, leaving only the words of the ominous prediction in their place. The people in the images have become their own ghosts, smiling couples, eyeless faces, identities scoured out, intending to have marked a moment in their life with the freeze frame of the camera. Here the marriage of mark, medium and subject are altered by Piper into a perfectly synchronised prediction of absence.
A carpet hung on the wall has some script crudely painted onto it, which you can just make out, confirmed by the work’s title spells out “Also Sprach Allah,” which translates as “Thus Spoke Allah”. This is a work by the Algerian- born artists Adel Abdessemed. A small monitor playing on the floor besides the carpet demonstrates how this drawing was made. A man is cradled in a blanket held by a circle of men who fling him up into the air. Each time he is close enough to the ceiling he makes another mark onto the carpet spelling out the work’s title and the message. This individual is being propelled by the group in a coordinated exertion, a powerful heaving rhythm resulting in an action and assertion which could be slapstick, hysterical, out of control, helpless, but it has a purpose and concentration given that the artist is attempting to spell out the work’s message. The question is posed around understanding the forces that compel us into action.
Richardo Brey is a Cuban artist that presents a large series of black-framed vitrines containing a mixture of drawings, notes, found objects and constructed objects in an alchemical combination that presents the viewer with a mystery of a consciousness. This is work travelling through the connection from one thing to another, along complex lines of connection, a web of scientific thought, history, geography, personal cosmologies, and lines of magic. These sketchbooks are either open at one page, or shown in open concertina forms that stretch out across the vitrine. The more you look at this, the more you find. Brey has collected up every thing, and stirred it into the soup of his imagination. Each cabinet is a dream like vision, creolising the world, mixing things, everything touching everything else, self-fertilising objects and drawings generating a perplexing ecology of consciousness.
The Vietnamese artist Tiffany Chung presented a wall full of small intricate colourful drawings, mostly about twenty centimetres squared, peppered and spotted by coded mark making and delicately graded palettes that appear to be mapping something. When you decode them, these almost decorative works on vellum translate into a cartographic visualisation of human landscapes traumatised by war and disaster. Data is processed and builds up in a visual graphic intensity to indicate the numbers of people displaced or buildings destroyed in these works from ‘The Syria Project’. The grim facts that are the everyday content of the media’s attempts to process the horrors of human conflict are taken to an alluring and confusing aesthetic level that unsettles the viewer. Again, the artist is a witness to the vast scale of human complexity being played out in terrible events of world significance but chooses to try and make sense of these events through the reduction of simple marks on a piece of paper. Chung points our attention again to how war reconfigures the landscapes and cityscapes that we occupy, and places back in the centre of the paper the crisis that all too quickly is relegated to the margins of consciousness.
A set of drawings by the Egyptian artist Inji Aflatoun (1924-1989) was a reminder of drawing’s immediacy. A set of dynamic and vibrant sketches in watercolours, coloured pencil, and ink of scenes from life – ‘A Brick Kiln’, ‘Collecting Orange’, ‘Market in the Village’ as well as ‘Popular Resistance’. With her super energetic flick of the brush or curl of the pen, scenes were drawn from the life lived by this extraordinary woman, a painter and activist, at times imprisoned for her politics, as well as progressing through an impressive international career that included showing her work at the 1952 Venice Biennale.
“They Come to Us Without a Word” is the multi-layered complex of works by the American artist Joan Jonas. This is a work that resists interpretation; soundtracks, films taken at workshops carried out with groups of children, sculptural elements, cinematic glimpses of other times and dreams flowing between silvery rippled Venetian mirrors that seem to reflect you back on yourself the moment you might approach anything like certainty. The walls of each room in the pavilion are covered in beautiful drawings of various animals, a bee or a fish, that create strong graphic motifs, clues even, again reminding the viewer of the simple effect of a mark on paper. Other drawings try to describe the routes bees communicate via. An overwhelmingly female subjectivity turns over and over the location of spirituality in the natural world, but in a way that is humble, exploratory, and still working itself out with you in the room. There is an openness to the form of drawing, somehow it is still communicates even if it is not finished, you can still see it in its state of still becoming, and without wanting anything to be different or more complete; this work relate to that state. This was an experience that I didn’t understand on a logical level whilst I was with the work. But it is the work that continues to haunt me, a flux of imagination, whispered ghost stories, a flowering, and the world’s future tenderly drawn out by a kaleidoscopic and visionary eye.
Venice is a city that floats between states, liquid and solid, east and west, past and present, and makes the perfect frame to consider new worlds and possibilities. All the World’s Futures is an essential map, a cultural navigational tool, and it is clear to see how drawing has an essential role to play in how the map is drawn.