la Biennale di Venezia

With another wave of protests sweeping across the world, rising social and economic inequalities, ongoing wars, food crises and looming ecological catastrophe, many were expecting this year’s Venice Biennale to somehow respond to these issues. However, Massimiliano Gioni’s Encyclopedic Palace focused instead on strategies of withdrawal into personal imagination and the subconscious, as signaled by Jung’s Red Book shown at the entrance of the Giardini pavilion. Preempting criticism, the curator himself stated: “I might be accused of idealism or cryptofascism, just like Breton and Bataille, because I’m putting on an “intimate” show at a time like this. But there are always those who protest against times like these by creating microcosms as ways of escape or as models for the future”.

The Encyclopedic Palace is, in a way, a site-specific undertaking, if we see the original Biennale format of national pavilions (the first international curated exhibition took place as late as 1998) as a descendant of Great Exhibitions with their encyclopedic pretenses. Taking a direct inspiration from the utopian model of a 136-storey museum created to house all human knowledge by the self-taught Italian-American artist Marino Auriti, the exhibition is however more akin to a giant cabinet of curiosities rather than a serious attempt at taxonomy with the belief in human ability to comprehend the world’s knowledge in its entirety. The Palace’s museological format of thematically arranged rooms, series and vitrines fits into the rich and well-established tradition, and artistic and curatorial strategy, of working with archives and collections. It certainly makes one think how information, objects and images are organized today – walking around the exhibition is like being inside an advanced google search, so vast and comprehensive that even within it, each visitor needs to create their own search, their own narrative.

Throughout the exhibition works by ‘professional’ artists are presented alongside artifacts produced and collected by scientists, philosophers, writers, mystics, enthusiasts, tribal communities, eccentrics and outsider artists, conveying a sense of wonder and presenting creative drive as a universal human pursuit. What you are looking at might not even be art after all, but is emotionally evocative, inspiring and thought-provoking. The categories distinguishing sculptures by a famous international contemporary artist, a collection of stones by the French intellectual Roger Callois or artworks by mental hospital patients or villagers from Southeast Asia become inadequate, their boundaries blurred. Is such mixing of categories emancipatory and democratizing or does it fail to acknowledge the hierarchies existing in the real world? Perhaps it is a bit of both – after all we are mostly looking at creations of white men, many of them dead. However this strategy of using different categories to override others, allows for a shift in perception towards an anthropological one with the focus on art and creativity in general as a form of the production of knowledge, in the world of awe-provoking and odd things that we attempt (and repeatedly fail) to grasp and measure – starting with ourselves.

If we see Gioni’s collection of artifacts and images as James Clifford would understand it – a symbolic act of ‘collecting oneself’, one’s culture and identity – what emerges is a rather fantastical, surreal, hallucinatory or even psychotic image of the world. The Encyclopedic Palace, with its own failure designed into it, appears almost as a perverse criticism of itself and perhaps even a suggestion of return to the pre-Enlightment state of affairs (which the Wunderkammer format also hints at). Maybe what we are dealing with is a proposal of rethinking the foundations of the Western culture with its belief in reason, rationality and measurability and all their equally positive and horrific consequences?

Rather than creating models for the future the artworks in the exhibition appear to be reshuffling and undoing the past and the present and exploring the repressed and the unconscious – maybe the former cannot be done without the others, as we can learn from psychoanalysis? Could this bizzare universe of inner worlds, idiosyncrasies, obsessions and private cosmologies also be understood as attempting to redefine imagination as a political category? If we look at it from this perspective, the exhibition’s focus on the individual ceases to be as inward-looking and apolitical as it appears at first.

However, amongst many others, one central question remains unanswered for me – how about those, for whom an escape into the world of personal mystical searches and hallucinatory visions is simply not an option in the ‘times like these’? And how about those who desperately need a model for living here and now and not in the future – an almost abstract category for someone struggling to survive one day at the time? Maybe withdrawal as a form of protest is a luxury not many can afford – just like art.