Venice Vernissage: A world divided

Rosamund West | 16 May 2017

The opening week of the Venice Biennale offers a contradictory reflection of the troubled world of 2017, both within and without the official exhibitions programme

If 2015’s edition of the Venice Biennale represented a cry of global pain, breaking down the monied walls of the art world and forcing it to confront the humanitarian and environmental crises unfolding at this point in history, there is momentary hope that the 2017 edition will provide a clear path through the chaos in the form of socially engaged, activist projects.

Olafur Eliasson’s presence at the core of the Giardini’s Venice pavilion tantalisingly suggests that – his Green Light project brings a living workshop into the heart of the Biennale, staffed by refugees who have been trained to build the triangle-based green light forms which are used to build larger modular pieces, or sold for a minimum donation of €250 which will go towards NGOs working with migrants. An auditorium within the space is designed to facilitate an exchange of knowledge around migration, citizenship, statelessness, while also offering a daily language school for practical skill development. The work will evolve throughout the six months of the Biennale, both physically and psychically, as the works produced and knowledge exchanged continue to grow. 

Alongside this sits an intriguing printed wallpaper based on the office doodles of one Edi Rama, Prime Minister of Albania, leader of its Socialist party and a formally trained artist who continues his practice alongside his official duties. He has spearheaded the development of contemporary art in his country, suggesting a sort of kinship with Eliasson in terms of using creativity as a tool for social change.

This activist beginning is shortlived, however. As the Biennale unfolds it presents a picture of tension and conflict which is much more ambiguous, at times returning to art for art’s sake in defiance of current affairs, at times taking a more meditative approach, at times presenting something that is downright sinister. It is 2017, after all; the mega-wealthy’s global influence has never been more apparent and pretending art is going to fix everything would be at best naïve. Venice is as it always is – a mind boggling mix of the spectacular and the profound, and everything in between. 

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For the Canada presentation, A Way Out Of The Mirror, Geoffrey Farmer has ripped apart the pavilion, breaking down the walls, the roof, placing a surging geyser at its the centre. A text on the back wall, a raw stream of consciousness, spins between guilt, blame, atonement, family and world history: ‘All souls, all living, all gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes, the fishes, the brutes, all nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages, all identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe, all lives and deaths, all of the past, present and future.’

In the British pavilion, Phyllida Barlow continues her late career resurgence with folly. Her unapologetic focus on cheap materials, constructing monumental pieces from cardboard, plaster, scrim, is in itself a subversion in an event so synonymous with the gilded commercial world of the art collector. The vast towering pieces fill the space of the pavilion, creating enormous and hilarious challenges for an audience hellbent on Instagramming everything they see. Viewers bend and sway, trying in vain to perfectly frame the works in their totality. Her materials create a playful dissonance – a vast grey boulder suspended from a girder, swaying gently, feels incredibly weighty until the realisation dawns that it is in fact made of polystyrene.

In the Ireland pavilion in the Arsenale is Jesse JonesTremble Tremble, a name derived from the 1970s Italian wages for domestic work movement, where the women chanted ‘Tremble, tremble, the witches have returned.’ It is an immersive, theatrical installation combining sound, film, sculpture beneath two diaphanous curtains upon which are printed two enormous arms alluding to the first sight of birth. The curtains are drawn through the space punctuating the film, adding a performative physicality to the experience. Jones explores ideas of witchcraft and the judiciary, a protest against the multi-generational abuse and control of the female body and a proposition of a new, matriarchal system.

Outside the main hubs of Arsenale and Giardini individual nations pop up in palazzos, churches, and former schools. Zimbabwe’s Dana Whabira presents Black Sunlight, a sound and light piece which explores the colonial tool of mistranslation. An archival instructional recording plays, ostensibly teaching the listener how to speak Shona. A simultaneous projection betrays the lies in the RP translation, a deliberate subversion which shuts down communication and weakens the colonised. 

Rachel Maclean's Spite Your Face, Scotland's representation for 2017, tells a grotesque fairytale, a twist on Pinnochio with dark contemporary undertones of the seductive power of fame and gold. The artist has scripted a masterfully looped narrative, where the main protagonist Pic is rendered trapped in an endlessly repeating cycle of rise and fall, fame and ignominy, poverty and gilded privilege. Contemporary parallels to a careless, lying despot are clear, and the work represents a rare moment of contemporary societal commentary. 

In a collateral event beside the Accademia bridge, the Iraq pavilion pairs ancient artefacts rescued from Baghdad with contemporary artists documenting and exploring the country’s devastating present. The ancient pieces are astonishing, a reminder of how much we currently lose in this age of mass destruction. The contemporary work communicates visceral pain, from documentary photography of the horrors of migration amid a crumbling state, to a video work dealing with the daily reality of individual grief in a war ravaged nation.

Outwith the Biennale itself interesting things happen; a two-day conference on African Art in the Hotel Monaco offers a fascinating snapshot of the various emerging markets and scenes. South Africa’s Beathur Mgoza Baker discusses work which shares skills and promotes creativity as a healing tool on an individual level.

Kenyan activist artist Longinos Nagila talks about his practice, works which question the existence of democracy in his country (Democracy My Piss) as he and his compatriots are obliged to queue up every five years to watch the same powers inevitably hold sway through whatever means. Another piece, 2015’s Without Prejudice, juxtaposes imagery taken from fashion advertising with archival colonial footage of Africans. The two are inextricably linked, from Nagila’s first experience of Africans in Europe when he came across the ubiquitous migrant bag sellers outside Roma Termini.

This event offers a new context – outside the Hotel Monaco the street is lined with designer boutiques and the mega wealthy, a disconcerting contrast to the discussions of granular activism, social change and post-colonial discourse happening within. On the banks of the Grand Canal migrants continue to punt their designer knock-offs to a rotating cast of cruise liner day-trippers. 

The contrast is magnified still further in billionaire Francois Pinault’s Dogana and Palazzo Grassi galleries where businessman Damien Hirst’s latest commodities exhibition takes place simultaneously to the Biennale. The Wreck of the Unbelievable is stomach-churningly extravagant (estimated at £50 million to produce) and typically divisive. This time he’s added in cultural appropriation for good measure, as artist Victor Ehikhamenor was prompted to publically denounce his lightly attributed usage of the ancient Nigerian brass work Head of Ife.

Art News lists a few of the people who are collecting the pieces which start at the $1.4million price point. It’s a snapshot of the individuals who drive the high end of the commercial art market, the mega wealthy who live a life of mega yachts, tax havens and hoarding Warhols numbering in the hundreds. This is the dichotomy of Venice, and a useful counterpoint to the hopeful explosions happening around the official pavilions – don’t forget who really runs the (art) world.