The Biennale: Part 2 – Inspired by Humanism

As well as the national pavilions at the Biennale, the overall curator organises pavilions showing the work of individual artists. This year’s theme is Arte Viva Arte inspired apparently by ‘the kind of humanism that celebrates mankind’s ability to avoid, through art, being dominated by the powers that govern world affairs…’ Well, that provides a lot of scope for just about anything.

Here is my selection of work that I enjoyed.

First, Michelangelo Pistoletto – yes, he’s still alive and making new work! His show is in the church of S. Giorgio Maggiore, worth a visit in its own right. (You can go up the campanile from where there are the best views over Venice.) In the nave of the church is an installation Suspended Perimeter–Love Indifference, 1975–2017 – a circle of suspended curved mirrors, with small gaps between, so you can slip into the central space. The outer sides display slogans inviting us to celebrate difference. Once inside the reflections bouncing back and forth between the mirrors are quite disorientating and it is bizarrely difficult to see what is reflection and what isn’t; even the gaps between the mirrors get lost, so you can’t tell what is inside the circle and what isn’t. And of course there is also the fun of being able to see yourself from lots of different angles at once. When there are several people in the space, you become a crowd.

In a corridor leading to the sacristy, Pistoletto had installed mirror-polished aluminium sheets with printed images of people in Cuba. These created the sense that the people were in the space with you. In Tre Generazioni below it’s the girl turning round to look at you that makes the connection. (In case you are wondering why I’m not in the mirror, the scale of the images meant that I was able to take the photo while concealing myself behind the right hand figure.) It leaves you wondering who they are and what they are doing.

171010 Biennale 67 Pistoletto Tre Generazioni for web

Meanwhile, back at the Arsenale, as well as the national pavilions there were most of the Arte Viva Arte pavilions jam-packed with work by over 100 artists. And things that could have been art work but weren’t. This is, it turned out, just a crane!

171012 Biennale 82 crane at Arsenal for web

Sometimes I think I shouldn’t read the artist’s statement but I can’t help myself. The text about this work, WeltLinie, by Alicja Kwade says ‘the sculptures are meant to found a new metaphysical order’. I enjoyed the complex and overlapping viewpoints and scenes created by the mirrors/windows/gaps but I don’t think I found that new metaphysical order.

171012 Biennale 84 Alicja Kwade WeltenLinie for web

At first I wasn’t taken with Liliana Porter’s El hombre con el hacha y otras situaciones breves but this really repaid careful viewing. Again the question of scale is critical, but this time it’s the miniature size that’s important: the figures are less than 2 inches high. In their miniature world full of debris and shattered objects, their actions and tasks are abstracted from reality. We do begin to wonder what they are really doing.

In the next room we were back to the vast scale of a bright colourful fibre installation by Sheila Hicks and this black and white piece by Takesada Matsutani, Venice Stream, which you might see as a drawing. There is a long sweep of canvas covered in dense graphite marks; a zinc basin within which is a white canvas with a wooden sphere balanced on it. Above the sphere hangs a bag filled with water and Sumi ink. At the opening of the show, Matsutani pierced the bag, allowing the ink to drip down onto the sphere, splashing onto the white canvas. This flow creates a new drawing on the sphere and on the canvas, one that in it’s organic form contrasts with the obsessive and controlled graphite surface.

171012 Biennale 93 Takesada Matsutani Venice Stream for web

The French artist Michel Blazy also used uncontrolled dripping to create a work during the Biennale. Apparently his practice often involves using organic materials which change and develop in the course of a show. Here he glued together a pile of tourist leaflets about Venice – and I do love a pile of papers glued into a stack – and then dripped water on it from the ceiling, creating a landscape of erosion, strata and rock pools. The connection to the precarious position of Venice – dependent on and yet completely vulnerable to its waterborne location – is obvious.

171012 Biennale 109 Michel Blazy Acqua Alta for web

I was introduced to the varied work of Albanian artist Anri Sala some years ago by a Danish artist friend, Ana Maria Torres. Here he created an installation All of a tremble (Encounter 1) 2017 looking at ‘the sculptural properties of sound’, combining drawing and a music box. He made hand-drawn wallpaper in two designs and then created a music box with two rollers that transform the drawn motifs into sound. I don’t fully understand how this works but I can say that there was a distinct difference in the two tunes that did feel as though it corresponded in some way to the visual differences between the two designs.

I discovered the work of Maria Lai, an Italian artist, now dead, who worked with textiles, weaving and text. This piece Lenzuolo 1991 refers to writing but cannot be read, an idea that interests me greatly. I have made book and textile pieces using writing-that-isn’t-real-writing and it continues to astonish me how determined viewers are to ‘read’ the unreadable. Work like this also raises the question of how to say the unsayable or perhaps remember what is almost forgotten.

And finally, not in the Arsenale, but in the Iraqi pavilion in the Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti, were a series of works by Francis Alÿs, made in response to a visit to battlegrounds in Iraq. They reminded me of a kind of ghost of pieces I saw at a show of his work in London in 2016: those were tourist postcards blacked out apart from sources of light. In fact, I commented that ‘the whole show seems to me to be about darkness and light, what is shown or revealed and what is hidden or secret.’ These small paintings – about 6×4 inches – are like blown out photographs or perhaps even negatives. They also remind me of some World War 1 imagery, perhaps linking the reality of wars across the centuries: in the end they all come down to the same thing.

Looking through this post now, I can see that most of what attracted me links to  existing interests of mine, which is perhaps inevitable. The fact that there is so much on show does mean that other work which you wouldn’t necessarily set out to see can also grab you. But there is so much going on that your brain has to impose some kind of filter.

So there it is: My First Biennale. A great roller-coaster ride, a good excuse if you need one to visit Venice again, and lots of inspiration.


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