la Biennale di Venezia

Massimiliano Gioni’s exhibition for the Giardini’s central pavilion and Arsenale buildings takes as its starting point the utopian dream of establishing an all encompassing, universal knowledge. Artists, mystics, philosophers and outsiders on the margins of society are all included in the show as representatives of “The idea of an individual who tries unaided to find his path in the world”, a central connecting thread which binds a varied collection of works, objects and images together. Gioni’s exhibition brilliantly spans three centuries of art practice, thinking and making with over 150 individuals from around the world, intelligently mimicking both the wider Biennale’s sprawling international structure and the central tenets of human development – the need to understand, measure and gain control of the world, the things that are in it and our experience of them.

The Encyclopedic Palace takes its title from a work by self taught Italian-American artist Marino Auriti. His absurdly ambitious and gloriously idiosyncratic vision is represented in the exhibition by a model of his proposed museum of everything in the world. Conceived and even patented in the 1950’s, Auriti dreamed of building a 700 metre tall building, covering 16 blocks of Washington DC that would contain an exhibit for every human achievement, object and idea. An amateur artist, craftsman and part-time picture framer, he painstakingly produced his Encyclopedic Palace of the World model from wood, glass and plastic in his garage workshop over a period of years. Despite genuine efforts Auriti’s utopian vision was never realised, but moving forward almost 60 years, this model provides the physical and conceptual opening entry in Gioni’s own encyclopedia.

After a brief morning exploring some of the national pavilions of the Giardini, I find myself entering the exhibition at the wrong end of the expansive, industrial scale Arsenale buildings. I must admit that a cloud of scepticism hovers above me as I contemplate Gioni’s proposition of an, albeit imaginary, taxonomy of the universe as exhibition and my wrong-footed entry is perhaps a small gesture of defiance. Together with this ambitiously scaled and detailed exhibition, 88 participating counties are each hosting their own national pavilion, along with 47 official collateral events and more than 100 fringe exhibitions taking place across the island. For a Venice amateur the whole biennale looms large as an intimidating wave of diverse ideas and visions and I’m feeling like it might be impossible for anything to break through and make a real impact.

First, I pass through Walter De Maria’s geometrically beautiful large-scale installation of his 1990 work Apollo’s Ecstasy, into a smaller room containing two film installations by Bruce Nauman and Dieter Roth. Both rooms are serious, melancholy and there is an instant sense that these artists feel the strong pull of gravity. I feel the weight of human experience immediately and I’ve hardly started on the exhibition, though I suppose the 10 large, solid brass tubes laid across the floor are the final thing the curator intended me to see. Emanating from Nauman’s three screen installation a low ‘mmmmm’ sound permeates the room, seeming at first human and with time more industrial, mechanical, as I watch the artist’s head revolve around the screen endlessly, in absurd fashion. Against the opposite wall, a large bank of tv monitors display an archive of surveillance footage showing Roth, privately and quietly going about his business in his studio and home. The small screens all flicker and blur satisfyingly until my eye finally focuses on a single one and the artist is shown, eating a meal at a desk in his studio. I feel I’ve glimpsed an arbitrary non-moment in the artist’s life, so I look at the other screens. There he is again, talking on the phone. In another the artist shows himself sleeping in his bed, while neighbouring screens reveal him concentrated and at work, scribbling in a book, painting, thinking. Nothing leaps out of the mundane, but I’m transfixed.

It’s not until I read that Solo Scenes was made in 1998, that I realise this is a diary of Roth’s final year and these screens flicker with a new emotional resonance. Both artists in this room have turned the camera upon themselves – for Nauman it is a tool to blur and overwhelm our senses – the absurd repetition at work here acts to emphasise the insurmountable enormity of the world – for Roth this same yearning feeling is made palpable by the unbiased, pseudo-scientific documentation of his final weeks, days and hours by video camera.

As I pass into the next room I’m acutely aware that any sense of deliberate curatorial sequence appears diminished in reverse and I’m clearly swimming upstream. I understand that greater consideration than is usual has been given to the arrangement and division of the rooms, so as to create a maze-like experience, that although linear and deliberate forces the viewer “to move around, to go right and left, to get lost.” (Gioni). I certainly feel lost as I wonder another room, dense with collections of drawings, paintings and images by several artists, together with found objects – dolls, mannequins and puppets. This large and sprawling collection turns out to be a curated selection by Cindy Sherman, which Gioni cites as a “microcosm reflecting the Biennale’s entire structure”. This exhibition within an exhibition certainly draws upon central stands of the curatorial position – the artist as collector, diviner, archiver, outsider, but I’m overwhelmed by this mass and find that I can’t appreciate any single element. This is a long and detailed entry in Gioni’s encyclopedia that I just haven’t got the time for.

Still moving backwards, and I pass through more dense spaces, containing work that demands to be read, demands the viewer’s attention and asks them to commit to the detail of the work. The encyclopaedic analogy is crystal clear and I’m looking at a million microcosmic worlds. I’m feeling something like claustrophobia. Pawel Althamer offers another installation featuring a collection of objects – life-size, ghostly, melting Venetian figures occupy a room solemnly. Matt Mullican presents a labyrinthine structure of large cotton sheets hanging with collaged series of drawings, lists, numbers, that I’m drawn through in dizzying fashion. R. Crumb’s pages from The Book of Genesis take us off in another direction entirely, revealing a darkly amusing vision, through his illustrated and re-imagined version of the entire biblical text. Again it’s too much to take it all in, but Gioni reminds me here that religious practice sits parallel to science and art in our pursuit of universal understanding.

There are other moments of delicacy and poignant clarity that leap off the page. Chana Horwitz’s visually complex, systematic works on graph paper present a stunningly rigorous attempt at mapping existence. Horwitz delivers abstract images that clearly recall the language of the mathematical diagram through a self invented system called Sonakinatography. Here time, sound, motion and experience are distilled into colourful arcs and lines that seem to trace hidden order – a version of order only made possible through the artist’s design. On an adjacent wall a group of almost entirely achromatic white rectangles hover quietly. Prabhavathi Meppayil’s gessoed panels embedded with copper wire reference a minimalist painting tradition, but their means of production reflect a broader connection with craftsmanship and ritual, emanating from her families’ longstanding gold-smithing business in Bangalore. This work represents the meeting of generations of meditative craft with a unique and sublime vision of the world.

In the penultimate room of the Arsenale I come across a group of delicate works on paper that really hold my attention. Lin Xue’s immensely detailed drawings remind me of Victorian botanical studies but they also look like strange imagined landscapes. There is an urgency in these drawings, clearly made quickly using a sharpened piece of bamboo dipped in ink. Odd, familiar shapes and doodled textures appear and meet new forms to create a fantasy dream-like mass. They are peculiarly un-worldly images but they also speak directly of the dynamic unseen forces that we know to exist and which quietly shape the world around us.

Just as I’m beginning to reach saturation point and I begin to feel exhibition fatigue overcome me, Marino Auriti’s incredible Palace model looms in front of me and I’ve finally reached the beginning. The model is a real spectacle. Conceptually it’s a grand idea that stands as shorthand for the utopian desire at the heart of this exhibition, but as an object it extends this analogy even further into the physical world and with its painstaking detail, a sense of the microcosmic and the macrocosmic blend into one. I leave the Arsenale a little overwhelmed but with a growing sense of what Gioni is trying to achieve and ponder again my choice to tackle the exhibition in reverse.

The next morning, I arrive back at the giardini and head straight for the central pavilion and the second part of The Encyclopedic Palace­. Walking into the first room, I’m presented with a large installation of the work of influential psychotherapist Carl Jung. At the centre of the room is a glass cabinet containing The Red Book, a large bound document produced by Jung over a 16 year period. Some of the pages from within the book are reproduced and hung on the walls of this grand room, showing some of the wild fantasies and dreams that Jung sort to illustrate and archive for his own future reference. It’s a brave move to present Jung and this body of work with such prominence in the central pavilion but it is also telling of Gioni’s intention that ‘non-artists’ play a key role in our understanding of this exhibition. In adjacent rooms I find works by Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher who sought to bring a level of scientific understanding to religious practice, drawings by spiritual healer Emma Kunz, created as elements in a diving ritual and the supernatural, occult visions of painter Hilma Af Klint. The contribution by each of these reflects the engaging and multifarious view Gioni presents of the individual “finding his path in the world”. These works and images are not indented as art, but in the context of this exhibition all can be read as personal mythologies – visions of the world beyond the objects that inhabit it. There are multiple examples of works here in the central pavilion – the Shaker Gift Drawings, Aleister Crowley and Frieda Harris’ Tarot inspired paintings or the Anonymous Tantric Paintings – that carry the same powerful message that it is human instinct to grapple with our place within the universe, regardless of the label we attach to the activity.

One of the most visually arresting moments in the show is Roger Caillois’ mesmerising collection of rare stone specimens. Placed on lightboxes, the beautiful patterns and colours this natural phenomena display reference Caillois belief in a “Universal Syntax”, an aesthetic language, which while including art, extends way beyond to encompass an underlying visual code of which humans contribute only a small part. With this work Caillois, and so Gioni, manage to position art with the wider scheme of the quest for universal beauty and logic.

Just as with Dieter Roth’s screens of domestic surveillance, it is the personal collection or taxonomic enquiry which provides the mode of production for many artists in the exhibition. In many cases a strict systematic approach is employed as a means of liberating themselves from subjectivity – for Columbian artist, Jose Antonio Suarez Londono a kind of freedom is afforded through the limitations he places upon his working process. For the central pavilion, a large cabinet has been installed, containing hundreds of small drawings of a uniform size. Each is made in a single day in response to an entry in Franz Kafka’s diaries, a process which continued until each entry was matched with a drawing. Through this process a new archive is formed which acts as dialogue between both language and artistic vision.

The best moment along the journey of this exhibition came as I left a large room containing many of Shinro Ohtake’s complex and feverishly produced scrapbooks to discover Suddenly This Overview byPeter Fischli and David Weiss upstairs. Dozens of plinths display a series of un-fired clay sculptures which sharply and humorously document real and imagined moments in history. One titled Mr and Mrs Einstein shortly after the conception of their son, the genius Albert Einstein, shows a post-coital cartoon-like couple under the bed covers. Another group of small clay objects simply reveals Things in my pocket, while others show Popular Opposites:Good and Bad and Possible and Impossible. Playful, funny and profound, this survey, begun in 1981, is clearly not finished but surely it never could be and perhaps that is the point. All of a sudden I realise that returning feeling of Claustrophobia I experienced whilst viewing Ohtake’s dense books was part of the plan. The low-key wit and wisdom of Fischli and Weiss allowed me to see the impossibility of establishing a universal understanding. Just as with Gioni’s exhibition, its just not possible to take it all in.

There are peaks and troughs in this exhibition. High points where the singularity of a vision makes itself present and glides above the background noise, the immense detail we are presented with – Roth’s detached self portrait, Cailois stones and Auriti’s Palace, to mention just a few. There are low points where the sheer volume of exhibits included wears down your ability to absorb it, make sense of it. But this attention to detail and determined effort to guide the viewer in non linear, non chronological journey from one extreme to another is where the success of the exhibition is. I may have begun to walk this journey in reverse, but the consistent strength of curation in positioning artists and works to form new connections, is all pervading. The deliberate injection of works which operate at different paces kept me engaged and questioning throughout, despite bouts of fatigue. Ultimately, it is the overwhelming nature of the total exhibit which reveals the impossibility of creating a museum of the world, whilst ruminating on the idea that we should never stop trying.