la Biennale di Venezia

The experience of walking into Massimiliano Gioni’s Palazzo Enciclopedico at the Giardini can be described in the words of one of its exhibitors: ‘Imagine you could turn a man inside out like a glove. He would not stay the way we see him now, he would expand across the universe.’ Rudolf Steiner’s words contextualise his Blackboard Drawings (the visual remains of lectures given in Europe last century, as a means to make visible the workings of the universe) one of the works selected by Gioni in his attempt to bring together a sense of encapsulation of the world’s knowledge as a feast to the eye and a celebration of the experience of vision. For some it felt like a museum, perhaps detached from real life. Room after room of carefully selected objects of various origins, some of them the work of artists, others, scientists, mystics, visionaries, dead or alive. Each piece created with an intention existing in a parallel universe to the world of contemporary art. Not the highest selling, or a suggestion list for collectors, in fact, the message apparent throughout the show turns the international art (fair) world on its head, making it seem farcical, a nonsensical, disconnected series of financial transactions. But is this exhibition full of visionaries, in itself also disconnected from the world we live in today?

The fact that Gioni’s curatorial work, largely speaking, cannot be bought opens up the question again and again, ‘what is art for? What is ultimately, the relationship between art and reality?’

Unsurprisingly, we find this question addressed directly in quite a few of the national pavilions. Amid the collapse of familiar structures: money, religion, governments. We are all asking ourselves these questions in a global sense and the thinking of the artist seems to throw some light onto ways in which to understand this.

In the Greek Pavilion, Stefanos Tsivopoulos’ History Zero is seen by the artist as a chance to revitalise our vision of the future. He takes us on a journey where money becomes an empty ‘value’ acquiring a new meaning in each new context. He introduces the piece with an extensive wall display with text describing various examples used around the world as alternative non-monetary exchange systems; Beer Money, Freecycle and the Zero Rupee Note, set the context to his three-part film in which the relationship between what we have and what we lack is put into question.

The Georgian Pavilion’s Kamikaze Loggia designed by Gio Sumbadze incorporating collaborations by The Bouillon Group, Nikoloz Lutidze, Gela Patashuri, Ei Arakawa, Sergei Tscherepnin and Thea Djordjadze, is another look at the resourcefulness of a nation. In a self-initiated architectural environment – a traditional Georgian structure, the kamikaze loggia (a makeshift extension of a building) has been constructed to house the main part of the exhibition. It is a tree house style terrace from where we view the various performances at canal level. The exhibition as a whole integrates informality and a sense of healthy irreverence – a sort of humorous rebellion against doctrines and larger systems. One of the performers, The Bouillon Group, creates an aerobics class based on postures and movements taken from world religions. The performers repeat the sequence over and over, until one by one, they each stop with exhaustion. The exhibition makes the point that we no longer want to be told what to do by a larger systemic order; we prefer to work it out ourselves.

Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmus echo this message in the Romanian Pavilion with An Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale. A choreographed piece in which informally dressed performers carefully re-create works previously exhibited in Venice. The casual aspect of their appearance and disposition seems to bring the piece closer to the viewer. The artworks have become part of us as our shared history, represented by human bodies. The distance between the work and us is completely narrowed down to the minimum. The liberating aspect of this piece is that it seems to do without the object, the performer, and the museum. The concentration, effort, and presence of the artists are all that is needed. In its simplicity this piece becomes a critique of the monumentality of the art institution and its separation from what is inherently human.

Back in Gioni’s show, this year’s Golden Lion winner, Tino Sehgal also links up with a performative piece in which singing (humming sounds and beatboxing) combined with movement, take place on the floor, kneeling. Sehgal’s words: “The 20th century is self confident to the point of producing masters who know everything and make everything work, our century is not like that anymore, we don’t control everything but we now take care of each other. Kneeling on the floor brings us back in connection to other forms of nature, to stones, we assume a posture of gratitude.” The intimacy created by the performers, who improvise their actions within a framework given by Sehgal, is strengthened by the magical disparity of their styles. Like different worlds attempting to come together with each beat, the effect is trance-like. It makes visible the complexity and intensity released in the simple act of meeting each other.

Alfredo Jaar’s Venezia, Venezia, in the Chilean Pavilion, is a large tank of Venice water in a darkened room. Nothing seems to happen apart from the slight flickering of the surface, a few small bubbles, the light reflected. We look at our own image on the surface in this dreamy atmosphere when suddenly a complete detailed model of the Giardini emerges from the water. It remains for a few moments and then is submerged again completely. This is reminiscent of J. G. Ballard’s, The Drowned World, a story set in an imagined future when the full force of the world’s environmental apocalypse has already happened. Heat, humidity, and water take over rendering the world’s wealth and heritage obsolete. The gesture of the water flooding the main site of the Biennale at a time when the collapse of the global systems and the environment feels imminent, reminds me that at the end of the day, art has nothing to do with the crazy hype of names and money, nor with the celebrity culture but everything to do with one another as people and the sometimes pointless and obsessive nature of our collective attempts to figuring out strategies for survival.