Sunday, 10 November 2013

Venice Day 4 - La Biennale: Arsenale

After a busy three days, today was dedicated to visiting the other big destination of La Biennale - the Arsenale - and to catch the few other pavilions and collateral exhibitions that I hadn't gotten round to.

Arsenale - main exhibition

Once again this was about the theme of the Encyclopaedic palace as with the Giardini along the idea of Marino Auriti's dream to construct a building housing all the world's knowledge. This obviously never went anywhere but a model of the concept was on display.

Perhaps it's all the great art that I've seen in the last couple of days but I have a few things to get off my chest that sparked a mini-rant in my head - so here goes with all the things I didn't like about this exhibition.

The theme of the Encyclopaedic palace is a good foundation but the foray into outsider art and art that dares to be different is an unwise decision. There's nothing wrong with outsider art and I actually liked the recent Hayward Gallery and Wellcome Collection exhibitions on this subject.

But it has its place as an interesting and different perspective to art, surely if we're looking at a palace to include the world's knowledge then it would be best served by all forms of art, not just those on the fringes like we see in this exhibition.

The labelling is atrocious and falls foul of the PR folly of throwing art speak at people to confuse them and focussing all on the artists ideas rather than what's in front of us. I often skipped the first two thirds of the text to get to the bottom. People should be told the very basics about the work first, and then if they want to know more then there should be text about the artist - not the other way round.

My final criticism isn't just reserved for the Biennale, creating and curating art are two very different things and very few people can do both. Here Cindy Sherman is given a space to curate. I like Sherman's work but she's simply filled the space with artists who create work like hers - that's not curation it's simply a statement of how self centred many artists have to be and how this narrows their vision.

That's my rant over and despite there being many average works on display, there were some that caught my eye.

Eliot Porter has taken great photographs of birds caught in flight especially one of an arctic tern, one of the videos by Joao Maria Gusmai and Pedro Paiva was trippy with polygonal fruit hovering above a table - reminiscent of very early video games. Jessica Jackson Hutchins has created some searing abstract paintings that glow and draw you in.

One of my favourites were the dystopian landscapes created by Jakub Julian Ziolkowski that are like something out of War of the Worlds. The earth is covered with blood and flesh, as bodies writhe and a demon in the sky vomits out flies.

Robert Crumb has converted the fifty chapters of Genesis into a graphic novel. It is immense and clearly a labour of love but is particularly pertinent in today's visual culture.

Pawel Althamer's Venetians created from grey plastic are interesting, they aren't fully formed but appear to be in any discomfort. I read it as a commentary on how the tourism industry that is so strong in this city has diluted the idea of what it means to be a true Venetian.

The last highlight was a video work that shows the revolutionary Da Vinci medical robot being operated for an endoscopic surgery. At times it can seem quite brutal as it tears through membranes, yet subtle when it is suturing or pulling away diseased tissue. There is a great moment when it is cauterising tissue right next to the heart but the use of music to ratchet up the tension felt too movie-esque and was unnecessary.

The two other parts involved a quarry and a team of divers to show that choreography is important to all works of life but one section was long enough and I would be surprised if anyone had the patience to sit through all of it. Don't get me (re)started on what's wrong with video art.

Arsenale - pavilions

This left it to the pavilions to save this site for me and it started off a little ropey. It's momentous for the Vatican to be there but their opening volley was quite tame and Argentina's obsession with Eva Peron is so strong they seem intent on forcing it on the rest of the world via art as well.

Step forward the United Arab Emirates to save the day - quite brilliant. Mohammad Kazem has created an immersive 360 experience of what it is to be lost at sea. You stand in the centre and a wraparound screen shows water rocking back and forth to the point that you feel you are at sea - even after you step on to 'dry land' I still had my sea legs and felt the motion for a few minutes afterwards. UAE is a small country next to the sea so the work felt particularly pertinent.

South Africa was understandably all about race but the work that stood out the most was the two fighting figures by Wim Botha made entirely out of carved books. Though knowledge is a good thing it reminded me that it has been used to suppress others from Columbus using knowledge to outwit the American natives to the bible being used to justify slavery - something that will inevitably resonate with a country with the apartheid era still on their minds.

Alfredo Jaar (Chile) has created what appears to be a pool of murky water, but stare into the pool and something starts to appear. Over time a model of the other Biennale venue - Giardini - appears out of the water. It reminded me of the very notion of conceptual art. At first you see nothing and then it suddenly dawns on you what it is before your eyes.

Kosovo's contribution is simply a cave made from tree branches by Petrit Halilaj. As I walked through there are a few holes looking out to the white wall beyond and suddenly the 'cave' seemed safer than what's outside.

Bahrain's star was Waheeda Malullah for her photographers of a burka clad individual wandering through a tunnel towards the light or scaring off pigeons - a reminder that there is still a person within the burka no different to any other.

Indonesia was a visual assault full of surreal imagery yet with a south east asian feel to it. A scene is only visible through gaps in the wall for you to use your imagination to decide what's going on, yet when you finally see it fully it's even more bizarre than you first thought. While an army of what looks like chess pieces stands guard like a miniature terra cotta army.

Latvia's crowd pleaser is a full tree swinging back and forth from the ceiling while the next door Italo-American pavilion is a colourful feast for the eyes. Juliana Stein has photographed multi-coloured soap bars in a sink and plates of coloured powder sit in the middle of the pavilion. A surreal video also features artist Jhafos Quintero shadow boxing against his own shadow.

The Bahamas pavilion focusses on the North Pole and artist Tavares Strachan has created great animal drawings based on co-ordinates and an impressive yet delicate glass blown skeleton and cardiovascular system.

Italy's pavilion is unsurprisingly huge but is largely bland. Massimo Bartoloni has created an interesting stairs made of rubble but the delicate nature of the work means the queue isn't worth the wait.

China also has a large pavilion but my sole pick is a video by Miao Xiaochun called out of nothing where flying multi-coloured blocks come together to form a human body in a balletic video.

Outside Arsenale

I was lucky to visit on the weekend as there is a free boat service across the dock to the exhibitions on the other side. It doesn't operate during the week and the walk would've been a very long way round.

Even so, two exhibitions were closed but there were some good ones here. Breath is a an exhibition by Shirazeh Houshiary that features an exhibit similar to the Ka'aba in Mecca. It's a large black container that generates the sound of prayers in Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. It's a simple message of how we're all the same but executed very well.

There is another exhibition held by Azerbaijan and the surrounding nations, which is very odd considering that Azerbaijan has its own pavilion and a very good one at that.

Taus Makhacheva has created a great ritual dance video on top of an ancient abandoned settlement in Dagestan and once again Rashid Alakbarov shines, this time with a message spelled out using text from all languages local to this part of Central Asia.

Back near the centre of Venice I mopped up the final few visits. The great title of This is not a Taiwan pavilion promised much but didn't deliver while the best work in an exhibition called Grand Canal was a video work.

A man walks a thousand miles through China and as the video follows him we're encouraged to feel the experience by watching while walking on a treadmill. A simple idea that made me wonder why it's never been done before.

That's it for my Biennale reporting. Tomorrow I'm at the San Marco piazza and all the surrounding sights. Will write that up plus a quick summary of Biennale, so stay tuned.

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