Published  05/07/2013

Outside In: 55th Venice Biennale

Outside In: 55th Venice Biennale

1 June–24 November 2013


In the alleyways of Venice, street vendors are touting a new product – a globule of goo, which when thrown at the pavement splatters into a seemingly irreconcilable fried egg shape, but over the course of five seconds, reforms itself into a perfect sphere. It’s something of a metaphor for the force of descent on the city of a mass of art every two years.

Presiding curator Massimiliano Gioni has appropriated a capacious theme for the international exhibition from a little-known figure. Marino Auriti was driven out of Italy by the rise of fascism, and made a new life in middle age in Pennsylvania, in the small town of Kennett Square – known for its abundance of mushrooms and not much else. Auriti pegged away as a car mechanic, but on retirement set to constructing his magnum opus, an architectural model with the glorious title Il Enciclopedico Palazzo del Mondo (The Encyclopaedic Palace of the World). In a six-page manifesto accompanying the design, Auriti wrote: “This building is an entirely new concept in museums designed to hold all the works of man in whatever field, discoveries made and those which may follow, […] everything from the wheel to the satellite.” How to possibly hold all the works of man? Make it big. At 11 feet high, the model’s 1:200 scale would translate to half a mile high, which at the time, if the project had got off the ground, would have been the tallest building in the world. Auriti’s dream location was the heart of government, Washington. Never realised, the gigantic object sat in storage for decades.

Now the curator’s doll’s house, it’s the first thing visitors see in the Arsenale, and from here Gioni unpacks a personal encyclopaedia of contemporary art across the Arsenale and Central Pavilion. Auriti lavished detail on the exterior of his model – he used clear celluloid for the hundreds of tiny windows around the seven circular tiers; the base is demarcated by a classical colonnade whose columns are made from hair combs. The encircling wall is lined with photographs of towering hairstyles to rival Auriti’s finicky finger work. JD Okhai Ojeikene has been documenting women’s hairstyles in Nigeria since the 1960s. Each photo shows a single woman, from whom plaited and knotted forms twist from the scalp, in medusa-like contortions. Imagination and individuality is expressed through explosions, loops, cones and handlebars of hair around the skull. It’s one of many nifty curatorial links throughout this enormous exhibition, which encourages us to loop connections between works, walk in circles and even read the labels.

Auriti left the contents of this palace – “all the works of man” – unimagined, apart from the assumption that the quantity of physical objects could be housed by a big enough building. Just a decade later, the future looked very different. Filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek was imagining a computer-driven future, where images counted, not things. In his 1966 manifesto for the “Movie-Dromes”, he wrote, “it is imperative that we [the world’s artists] invent a new world language, that we invent a non-verbal international picture-language”. VanDerBeek’s dream was for audio-visual centres to be established all over the world and on the hemispherical interior of each dome, streams of images would be projected. Imagery would be shared between the Movie-Dromes, a global resource, but each palace roof would reflect the concerns of the local community. A recreation of this imagined YouTube has animation filtering over a curved screen, with images flashing up in a random collage at different directions, different sizes, overlapping but always in silence – sculpture from the ancient world, hot girls, family photos, abstract patters, news footage, comic skits from black and white movies.

VanDerBeek was a clairvoyant for the Internet age. If 90 per cent of all data ever produced has been generated in the past two years (so I heard on Twitter), taking up the baton for the younger generation is Ryan Trecartin, 32. His videos channel the mad energy of user-created content, and he normally posts them online, returning them to the stuff they were formed from, like a golem. Us viewers in the Arsenale are beckoned into dim movie zones created by Trecartin’s long-time collaborator Lizzie Fitch, complete with chairs or foam, chicken wire or drapes, and always headphones. In five videos, a posse of friends and actors move through different TV show genres, screaming sound bites and catchphrases; there’s wigs, night-vision, footage from Trecartin’s high school years. Trecartin explores how the multitude of exploitative TV shows and new ways of viewing online not only mediate the way we look at each other and share imagery, but impacts on our behaviour. It’s all rather thrilling.

If Trecartin places the viewer in the eye of the storm, Simon Denny observes changing technology with sobriety. Analogue Broadcasting Hardware Compression (2013) is a memorial to defunct technology and to the aspirations that once went with it. His starting point was the switchover from analogue to digital in London in 2012. Apart from a couple of gaps used by radar and emergency services, five terrestrial channels took up all the analogue space; more efficient digital compression techniques now allow for the abundance of game shows, chat shows, reality TV and scripted reality, such as Trecartin feeds on. Denny printed images of Channel 4’s old transmitters – messy stacks of wires, steel casings, buttons – onto canvases, which are lined up in two rows on either side of a steel framework to create an empty form. Inside the hollow, where the magic would have happened, Denny exorcises the ghost in the machine by depositing five old television sets at an even spacing, each of which has been crushed to an increasing degree. It’s a modernist tableau of the five stages of television sets, mimicking not only the digital impetus towards taking up less space, but also consumer desire for ever thinner devices.

Fischli & Weiss’s funny world of clay, Plötzlich diese Übersicht (Suddenly This Overview, 1980–2012) is the highpoint of the Central Pavilion. More than 100 moments in history, ideas, types and observations, small and large, are thumbed in clay and presented, unfired, each on its own plinth. Titles identify the Disney comic characters from the Scrooge McDuck universe, the Beagle Boys at work; Mick Jagger and Brian Jones going home satisfied after composing I Can't get no Satisfaction; Herr and Frau Einstein tucked up in twin beds shortly after the conception of their son, “the genius Albert”; a mouse by an electric socket. It’s like walking into God’s workshop.

Under the encyclopaedic edict, Gioni extends the usual prescription for a contemporary art exhibition and brings in curiosities. There’s the world viewed from a hot air balloon by 19th-century pioneer of aerial photography, Eduard Spelterini – crisp and ordered. There are spiky terracotta beasts, each with a knobby folkloric demeanor, made by 25-year-old Shinichi Sawada, who has severe autism. There are textile pieces made in a psychiatric hospital in Rio: after proclaiming he could see God, one Arthur Bispro do Rosario was locked on a ward, where he stitched tapestries in preparation for judgement day using any scraps of fabric that he could get his hands on. The biggest crowds though were for the sexy bits in the Central Pavilion. In Japan in the 1970s Kohei Yoshiyuki made a study of the micro-culture of couples and groups making out at night in a Tokyo park – and the perverts who sought them out in the dark. In Russia in the 1970s, teenager Evgenij Kozlov was living at close quarters in a communal flat – fuel for erotic fantasies that he let rip in hundreds of private drawings. In The Leningrad Album (1972) they are up to some very rude things – sometimes in ice skates, often no knickers. These strong-legged women might appeal to Robert Crumb – also represented in the exhibition by his brilliant cartoon strip of the Book of Genesis (2009). But Crumb’s drawings were designed to be presented as a book, so to separate and frame the pages, hang them in a long line around a circular wall is something of a travesty, encouraging you to walk past them rather than go in for a close reading.

At times the Wunderkammer presentation errs on the repetitive, and this is due to the tendency to present in bulk. Eccentrics are represented generously but perhaps too generously – it’s as if outsider artists are to be validated by sheer quantity. There are Shaker drawings, Alistair Crowley’s tarot designs, tribal drawings collected by ethnologists in the Solomon Islands – lots – a Swiss healer’s drawings on graph paper – so many – even more examples of drawings on handkerchiefs by Mexican prisoners – enough!

The outsider element of the international exhibition is pursued with vim, but from a certain angle it can seem to be more about the largesse of the curator’s vision and less the visual experience. At the height of the opening week, a party was given in honour of Massimiliano Gioni by luxury fashion brand Trussardi – an event not adhering to the curatorial policy of inclusivity. Special guests were delivered to a 13th century warehouse in the Arsenale complex that had been fitted out with carpets and imitation chesterfields. They were welcomed with a menu of gifts that had been produced by an astonishing roll call of serious (insider) artists. Hunt for Golden Lion winner Tino Seghal’s “living sculpture”, guests were urged, while Martin Creed performed a “song-cum-serenade to Beatrice Trussardi, the company’s Chief Executive, “to kick off this amazing evening”. Trays of chocolates were handed round piled with cheap chocolates – a work by Darren Almond. And at the end of the night, guests could take away “a special souvenir for the art addicted”: a cheap plastic key ring with a picture of Gioni on one side and Beatrice on the other – a work by Tacita Dean.

Moving out from Gioni’s exhibition, a flip through the encyclopaedia of participating countries this year reveals many notes on inclusion. Richard Mosse tried to surmount the limitations of photojournalism by spending a year on the inside of the Democratic Republic of Congo, embedded within armed rebel groups. He shot the resulting film The Enclave with incredibly scarce infrared 16mm film, normally used by the military for night vision, and which in daylight turns all greens red. Multiple screens are dispersed throughout the darkened interior of the Irish Pavilion, offering no single viewpoint. One might show a bumpy track dropping into cavernous – cerise – valleys; children hold scythes; dead bodies lie in grass pink as candyfloss; a mint green river snakes ahead; figures run down paths into a camp for the internally displaced. The soundtrack by Ben Frost is the unifying factor, incorporating the boom of gunshots, cries and insect chirrups within a weft of ambient noise.

Portugal – usually a pavilion that’s off the beaten track – is this time docked right on the edge of the Giardini. Artist Joana Vaconselos had a decommissioned ferry, originating from Hamburg, tugged through the Mediterranean from Lisbon to Venice. After its long EU journey, its exterior was covered in typical Portuguese blue and white tiles showing a Lisbon panorama – an answer to the Venetian skyline. The hold has been transformed into a fuzzy blue womb of crochet and fairy lights, with padded walls and giant pompoms hanging from above. Over the course of the opening week, this friendly port of call was up against distasteful neighbours. A growing number of super-shiny yachts also moored by the Giardini, with cordons demarcating carpeted areas of the quay as not-for-public-use. These yachts are not only symbolically atrocious but are to blame for gross environmental damage. Were but their passengers to venture off the carpets and into the British Pavilion… There they would have difficulty not noticing a huge mural of 19th century designer and socialist William Morris, hurling Roman Abramovich’s super yacht – an eyesore at the last Biennale – into the Venetian Lagoon. This was one of the proselytizing elements in Jeremy Deller’s vision of “English Magic”, turning the tables on abusers of power. In the central film, a Range Rover comes to a grizzly end in the wreckage yard under the talons of a JCB crusher. It’s an uplifting sequence: the wreckage is spun around in mid-air like a disco ball to the sounds of a steel banding playing the dance classic “Voodoo Ray”. Your seat: the compressed body of that very Chelsea Tractor. One of the quieter rooms in the pavilion shows drawings by British prisoners, the ultimate insiders – many of whom are former soldiers, who served in Afghanistan or Iraq. There’s a drawing of former Prime Minister Tony Blair alongside a sketch of soldiers smoking crack in the barracks; drawings that are naïve only in style.

The art takeover that happens in the opening week of the Biennale means the real outsiders are the Venetian residents. They are invoked by Pawel Althamer’s ghoulish installation, Venetians (2013) in the Arsenale. Althamer made plaster casts of local people’s faces, which were then cast in grey plastic, leaving the bodies to be loosely formed from ribbons of the same plastic, drooped and knotted to suggest a perished silhouette. Meet the people themselves in perhaps the most unlikely of palaces, on the doorstep of the Arsenale. Around midday every day, something delicious wafts from the ground floor windows of a building on Campo della Tana – and since the door is open, visitors may find out for themselves that this is a soup kitchen, providing lunch then a bed for the night for around fifty of Venice’s homeless. The man behind the idea, architect Andrea Montesi, has worked at four editions of the Biennale, but only came across the charity in 2011. “I began to know the people living there,” Andrea says, “and I saw that for the residents, the Biennale was a problem because they were completely excluded from the event.” Working with Parisian collective Studio Public and Slow Food Venezia they organised Tana Liberi Tutti (Tana free for all), a complete renovation project and event programme. Guests made new furniture (a yellow refectory, an altarpiece made from tree trunks for the chapel), documented their progress with photography workshops and enjoyed traditional Venetian recipes cooked by slow food chef Galdino Zara during the opening week. On the Saturday evening, anyone could bring vegetables and take part in a giant – encyclopaedic – spring soup.

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