Venice Biennale 2017 – Viva Arte Viva

May 19, 2017
Damien Hirst played the role of Godzilla in this year's Biennale
Damien Hirst played the role of Godzilla in this year's Biennale

Ask people to name the most romantic city in the world, and Venice is usually at the top of the list – but there are dissenters. D.H. Lawrence said Venice was green, slippery and abhorrent, and he didn’t even have to contend with the crowds in the Giardini and Arsenale during the opening days of the Venice Biennale.

Every time I find myself standing for an hour in front of a national pavilion waiting to see who-knows-what, I incline a little more towards Lawrence’s opinion. Although maybe not the green and slippery bits.

It’s universally agreed that queues are a blight and a pestilence, yet every year they seem to get longer. If I were director of the Biennale I’d ban any exhibition that required a queue, but countries are currently being rewarded for inflicting misery on hapless viewers.

This year the Golden Lion for Best National Participation went to Germany, for Anne Imhof’s Faust, a work that was abhorrent in so many ways I’d need another column to cover all the angles. The queue was such that I felt lucky to have waited only 57 minutes. Upon entering, the art was largely invisible.

A false floor of glass had been placed over the real floor, creating a narrow enclosure in which a group of “dancers” undertook various banal actions during a five-hour period. Every new movement sent viewers stampeding to the relevant part of the room. For most of the time the majority of the audience could see nothing at all. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who resented being treated like a laboratory rat, but the psychology of the queue ensures that after having waited for hours to get into the pavilion, viewers will linger in order to justify the time they wasted. In the process they waste even more time.

Anne Imhof's Faust - an award-winning viewing experience

Anne Imhof’s Faust – an award-winning viewing experience

The first reviews of this excruciating, pretentious non-spectacle made it sound like a life-changing experience. This testifies to another psychological phenomenon: expose a group of arty people to something boring and incomprehensible and they’ll swear it was magnificent.

Even the press release for Faust is abhorrent: “Only by forming an association of bodies, only by occupying space can resistance take hold,” it croons. “Dualistic conceptions and the frontier between subject and object of capitalism disintegrate…” Und so weiter!

As the buzz of admiration went viral it became inevitable that Germany would pick up the gong, and Anne Imhof be anointed as the Next Big Thing. It was depressing to realise how many people have a masochistic desire to suffer for someone else’s art.

Despite its upbeat subtitle – Viva Arte Viva – the 57th Biennale will go down in history as a lump of mediocrity suspended between poles of earnestness and silliness. This year’s curator was Christine Macel, of the Centre Pompidou, and her grand scheme was to make a Biennale “designed with artists, by artists and for artists”. This sounded like a better plan than making a Biennale with plumbers or parking meter attendants or dentists, but it seemed to disguise the fact that Madame Macel was the one doing the choosing.

To further complicate matters she divided the show into nine “chapters” or “Trans-pavilions”. The first was the Pavilion of Artists and Books, the last, the Pavilion of Time and Infinity. By now you probably get the idea: another Biennale with a seemingly random selection of artists veiled in specious rhetoric. A classic combo.

It wasn’t easy to follow the logic that could select 120 international artists and come up with barely a hit. There was very little painting to be seen, and this is almost always the sign of a poor show. The curator who can’t deal with painting, or believes that painting is adequately represented by Raymond Hains’s copies of old Biennale posters, doesn’t inspire confidence.

The best things in this year’s Biennale lay outside the specially curated central exhibition, in the satellite shows held in museums, and the national pavilions of the 85 countries that came to the party.

For me, nothing was better than Philip Guston and the Poets at the Accademia, an electrifying survey that related the American artist’s paintings to the work of D.H.Lawrence, Wallace Stevens, W.B.Yeats, T.S.Eliot and Eugenio Montale. The connections were loose, but Guston’s works, from both abstract and figurative periods, felt like the antidote to Macel’s curatorial masterplan.

Philip Guston, The Line (1978)

Philip Guston, The Line (1978)

In terms of sheer spectacle, the popular crowd-pleaser was Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, which filled both the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana with fake artefacts allegedly retrieved from the bottom of the ocean, in a conceit worthy of Jonathan Swift.

Hirst seems to have begun with the idea of making close facsimilies of ancient bric-a-brac including statues, swords, coins, bowls and vases, but soon veered into the realms of parody. Encrusted in painted moulds of coral and barnacles, one could find Goofy, Mickey Mouse, the Elephant Man, and a scene from Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book. Among bronze and marble statues of unknown gods and royalty, one recognised figures such as Yo-landi from rap group, Die Antwoord, and Pharrell Williams as a Pharoah.

The scale – and expense – of this exercise was overwhelming, but by the time one had wandered wide-eyed through several rooms of the stuff, it began to feel like the apotheosis of the tourist gift shop. The aesthetic was closer to that of a Hollywood superhero flick than an art gallery, with Hirst as executive producer.

Would you like that Medusa head in bronze or crystal..?

Would you like that Medusa head in bronze or crystal..?

One wonders whether the incipient megalomania of Treasures’ will alienate viewers who have already grown tired of this artist’s relentless commercialism. It’s likely that Hirst’s impersonation of Cecil B. DeMille encouraged Biennale visitors to think more favourably of Anne Imhof’s anti-entertainment in the German pavilion.

Hirst was out-of-step with a Biennale in which a majority of exhibits seemed to be concerned with global political problems, generating a large volume of work that was morally admirable and artistically deplorable.

The general ambience might be measured by the number of people displaying the showbag from the Australian Pavilion, which had “indigenous rights” written on one side, and “refugee rights” on the other. It’s fortunate that the Australia Council doesn’t depend on Peter Dutton for their funding.

Although Tracey Moffatt’s My Horizon paid homage to an entire raft of issues her two new photo-sequences had the visual allure of fashion photography. It’s an ironic tactic meant to make us think about the squalid truths of racism and dispossession that lie behind the false glamour, but it’s easier to swallow political messages when they are so beautifully wrapped.

Moffatt’s taste for high stylisation and tongue-in-cheek humour may have won her friends in Venice, but it took her in the opposite direction to the obsessive bleakness that won the Golden Lion. Moffatt was too much of a natural comedian in a mileu hankering for a doom-laden philosopher.

Tracey Moffatt, maid in Australia

Tracey Moffatt, maid in Australia

There were plenty of other Australian artists showing their work in Venice. A contingent in the group exhibition, Personal Structures, included Reko Rennie, Juan Ford, Chen Ping and Angela Tiatia. Meanwhile, the indefatigable Andrew Rogers drew an impressive crowd when he showed a series of bronze and stainless steel sculptures, titled We Are, at Palazzo Mora. He even got Gerard Vaughan, director of the National Gallery of Australia to make the opening address.

Andrew Rogers, We Are, Palazzo Mora

Andrew Rogers, We Are, Palazzo Mora

As this overview can’t hope to mention more than a fraction of the work on display in Venice, I’ll resort to a few special mentions. Firstly, for the Swiss Pavilion, for a film by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler on Giacometti’s American mistress, Flora Mayo, partly narrated by the sculptor’s illegitimate son, now in his 80s. It seems likely that Giacometti never knew about the child who would trace his mother’s descent from mid-western wealth and privilege to Parisian Bohemia to a low rent apartment in L.A.

There seemed to be universal agreement on the merits of Geta Bratescu in the Romanian pavilion. At the age of 91, Bratescu has a long and varied career behind her, and much of it seemed to be crammed into this exhibition, which incorporated drawing, prints, textiles, photographs, film and performance documentation, in a range of abstract and figurative styles. In terms of the display it might have been better to focus more narrowly, but – as we saw with Fiona Hall in 2015 – when you’ve been waiting a long time, the temptation is to cram it all in.

The two installations in the Arsenale that stood out from the tepid flow, were those of Bernardo Oyarzún from Chile, and Lisa Reihana of New Zealand. The latter showed 1,500 wooden masks suspended on thin metal rods, clustered together in the centre of the gallery. They were the work of 40 members of the Mapuche community, where the artist was born. Around the walls 6,906 Mapuche names flashed by on an LED screen – the entire piece being a powerful demonstration of indigenous defiance and survival.

Bernardo Oyarzún, Werken, 2017

Bernardo Oyarzún, Werken, 2017

Reihana’s work engaged with indigenous identity in another medium. Pursuit of Venus (infected) (2015-17) was a 26-metre video projection that animated a famous piece of Neo-classical wallpaper, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, (which may be seen in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, among other places). In Reihana’s version we no longer have a celebration of Captain Cook, but a more complex, witty and even-handed interaction between the “savages” and the civilisers.

Further plaudits for two outlandish shaggy dog stories – George Drivas’s Laboratory of Dilemmas, in the Greek pavilion; and The Aalto Natives, by Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen, in the Finnish pavilion. Where the former posed as a documentary portrait of a revolutionary biologist, the latter was an extended spoof on the Finnish condition.

There was also a lot to like about Mark Bradford’s work in the United States pavilion, where the political messages never detracted from a series of highly tactile abstract paintings and sculptural installations. The Russians too, made an impact, with three dynamic presentations, the most compelling being Grisha Bruskin’s white, model-like sculptures – reflections on political power in the form of reliefs and teeming dioramas.

With the world in a state of political confusion it was inevitable that this year’s Biennale would rehearse the age-old dilemma as to whether art has the capacity to change our lives or is fated to merely reflect them. At the very least we might expect artists to provide a message of hope, a vision of transcendent beauty, or a sense of humour in an anxious age. It’s too easy to mistake bleakness for profundity when what we really want is to be transported, like Alice, to the other side of the mirror.

The 57th Venice Biennale: Viva Arte Viva
13 May – 26 November

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 20 May, 2017