Sydney Morning Herald Column

Venice Biennale 2013: The Encylopaedic Palace

Published June 8, 2013
Vadim Zakharov, Danaë, Installation view, Russian Pavilion

Every Venice Biennale is a talk fest – a place for the beautiful people of the art world to exchange opinions and business cards at endless parties. Unfortunately most of the talk is of a very tawdry nature:
“I just loved the Ruritanian pavilion!”
“Oh yeah, I loved it too!”  And so on, ad infinitum.
This year something unusual happened – the golden ones were not always in perfect agreement. Director, Massimiliano Gioni’s theme for this Biennale, Il Palazzo Encyclopedico (the Encyclopaedic Palace) may sound cryptic enough to please everybody, but the effect of the show was polarising.
While most of the art to be seen in Venice comes from the chosen representatives of different nations, the tone is set by the large thematic exhibition housed in the central pavilion in the Giardini and the cavernous Arsenale. Every year the national participation gets bigger, and now includes 88 countries and territories. The first-timers at this year’s Biennale are Angola, Bahamas, Bahrain, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Kuwait, the Maldives, Paraguay, Tuvalu and the Holy See (!)

This riotous assembly spills out of the Giardini, where the leading nations have their pavilions, and invades every second palazzo on the island. This year there are also 47 privately organised shows featuring artists from around the world.
As you can tell from the statistics there is not much chance of seeing more than a fraction of the Biennale during the 3-4 days set aside for the preview. Gioni’s exhibition, which features 150 artists from 38 countries, is the one ‘must-see’ event, which makes it the major focus of scrutiny and debate.
As previously mentioned, in earlier Biennales this debate had a luke-warm character. This year the show has broken free of the mainstream and caused some tempests.
Leading the attack were Gioni’s fellow Über curators and a phalanx of leading international art dealers, yet their ranks had been infiltrated by many who warmly appreciated the curator’s vision. Personally, I thought it was the liveliest, most stimulating Biennale since Jean Clair’s effort of 1995.

The show takes its name from a fantasy project by Marino Auriti, an Italian migrant to the United States, who filed a design with the US Patents office in 1955 for a museum of all earthly knowledge. Auriti imagined a building of 136 storeys, 700 metres in height, that would occupy 16 blocks in Washington DC. Oddly enough the idea never caught on with the politicians (they obviously didn’t have a Clive Palmer). The first thing one sees upon entering the Arsenale is the detailed model Auriti built in his Pennsylvania garage.
Auriti was a dreamer but also deserves to be called an artist. Is this eccentric scheme so very different from Do Ho Suh’s proposal, in the current Auckland Triennial, for a bridge connecting New York and Seoul? The difference is that Do Ho Suh is an internationally recognised artist who knows his bridge is science fiction, while Auriti was a poor chump who saw his museum as a practical option.
In this comparison one finds the most contentious issue of the Biennale. One school of thought believes art is a sophisticated activity undertaken by highly skilled professionals. The contrary view is that art can be made by anyone, anywhere, for any reason. By this standard the only criterion for ‘good’ or ‘real’ art is the power to capture the viewer’s imagination.
Gioni has offended the sophisticates by filling his exhibition with the works of Outsiders, folk artists and mystics. To his detractors such people do not deserve to share the walls of the art institutions with the great masters of our time. They are distinctly un-clubbable.

It doesn’t require much insight to discern the inherent snobbery in this view, especially when we realise that greatness in contemporary art is being defined by commercial galleries such as Gagosian and White Cube with the assistance of high-profile collectors and tame curators. The argument becomes even shakier when we consider that a renowned artist such as Joseph Beuys, and a legendary curator such as Harald Szeemann were advocates for a radically expanded view of art. Only posthumously can they be shanghaied by the snobs.
A strange twist is that it is OK for professional artists to copy the Outsiders and borrow from them. The genuine article is to be avoided but the rip-off installed in the temple of art – as if an offensive concept is made more acceptable by passing through other hands, like those prized coffee beans extracted from the droppings of civet cats.
The real finesse of Gioni’s selection lies in his ability to achieve a balance between mainstream artists and Outsiders. There are a lot of well-known artists in this show, but also Italian ex-voto images from the 16th century, Haitian Voodoo flags, Shaker drawings and Tantric paintings. Among the non-professional artists we find blackboard scribbles by Rudolf Steiner; Satanist pictures by Aleister Crowley and Frieda Harris; and even C.G. Jung’s Red Book – a suite of small paintings that occupied the famous psychoanalyst for 16 years.

There are inspired, off-beat choices such as Robert Crumb’s illustrations for the Book of Genesis, and a huge collection of squeezed clay sculptures by the Swiss artists, Fischli and Weiss. There is homemade pornography by Russian teenager, Evgenji Kozlov; powerful, dark paintings of the sea by Thierry de Cordier; and architectural fantasies of the spirit world by Augustin Lesage.
The show is carefully designed, with key pieces such as Jung’s Red Book acting as introductions for a surprising range of work. One never knows what’s coming next, but there’s a constant sense of anticipation. Gioni’s show seemed even better after seeing the most recent installment of French billionaire, Francois Pinault’s collection at the Punt della Dogana, which was a model of dull, clinical fashion-following.
The only thing missing from Gioni’s show is an Australian artist. In this would-be encyclopaedia of all knowledge we do not rate a mention.
Allowing for this unfortunate blip Australia is well represented at this year’s Biennale. Apart from Simryn Gill in the Australian pavilion, expatriate artist, Lawrence Carroll gets to exhibit with the Holy See. In a show called Personal Structures, at Palazzo Bembo, there are works by Sally Gabori, Yhonnie Scarce, Dale Frank, Selby Ginn, and a whole room full of sculptures by Sam Jinks. This is the second version of this exhibition, after a successful debut in the previous 2011 Biennale, and it is almost impossible to imagine what the Dutch curators were thinking. It’s a ‘good, bad & ugly’ affair, although it’s amazing for them to have chosen paintings by 91-year-old Sally Gabori, and a figure sculpture by young Melbourne artist, Selby Ginn, who doesn’t even have a dealer.

A few weeks ago, Simryn Gill’s Here Art Grows on Trees, was only a fearfully abstract proposition at an Australia Council press conference. A discussion between the artist and AGNSW director, Michael Brand, produced barely enough material for a tweet, let alone an article.
It’s always best to approach such events with diminished expectations and it transpires that Gill’s installation is a success – in a strange, unobtrusive way. Her masterstroke was to remove part of the roof, opening the building to the elements. During the next few months a series of large white panels covered in a collage of tiny words torn from the pages of books, will gradually begin to decay under the impact of sun and rain.
An ephemeral work may be appropriate in light of the fact that the Philip Cox–designed pavilion will be demolished at the end of the show. The other part of Gill’s installation features large aerial photographs of open-cut mines, and natural formations that resemble mines. It may be seen as a meditation on another ephemeral phenomenon – the resources boom.
Gill’s show was anything but spectacular, but it held up well in a disappointing year for the national pavilions. The French and Germans had swapped buildings and filled both of them with artists who were neither French nor German, including the ubiquitous Ai Weiwei, the art world’s walking headline. I didn’t get to study either display, as I declined the option of waiting in a queue for more than an hour, let alone two queues at an hour each.

The Russian pavilion is usually worth a look, and Vadim Zakharov produced a witty installation that conflated Danae’s legendary shower of gold with those typically Russian topics: greed and corruption. Only women were allowed into the bottom floor, where they were issued with umbrellas as protection from an intermittent shower of gold coins.
Arguably the best work in any of the national pavilions was by Belgian artist, Berlinde De Bruyckere. Her Kreupelhout (Cripplewood) was a sculpture of a single, gnarled tree trunk lying on its side, with the bonus of a catalogue essay by J.M. Coetzee. It’s not possible to convey the dark, sinister presence of this behemoth in words alone. Perhaps that’s why this Biennale required the participation of the Holy See. Who knows what evil has to be exorcised when so many artists, curators and collectors converge on this slowly sinking city.
The 55th Venice Biennale: The Encyclopedic Palace, June 1 – 24 November, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 8, 2013