It’s Only a Step from a Miracle to a Disaster
Visiting the 55th Biennale di Venezia
nations present themselves at this year’s Venice Biennial. Added to
these are over 50 “Eventi Collaterali” and the main exhibition “Palazzo
Enciclopedico,” curated by Massimiliano Gioni. Brigitte Werneburg
braved the art jungle and its retro trends.
||The 55th Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte
2013 in Venice certainly is surprising. It doesn’t look ahead to the
new young promising artists of the 21st century as expected; instead,
it takes stock of the art of the 20th century and its marginal figures
that have been previously for the most part unknown.
He still lingers vaguely in the mind as a 1960s commercial success, but who would have expected to find Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern (1892-1982), of all people, at the Venice Biennale? The Berlin outsider artist shares a room with Levi Fisher Ames
(1843-1923), a farmer’s son from Philadelphia whose beautifully carved
real and invented animals gaze out from their glass cases at
Schröder-Sonnenstern’s bizarre pop-art beauties, erotic creatures that
are half human, half beast. The left-hand path leads to the sculpture
garden, where Sarah Lucas
has translated the raw charm of her stuffed-sock bodies into the
old-masterly gilded sheen of cast bronze. To the right, the figures of
the Austrian architect and sculptor Walter Pichler (1936-2012) are surrounded by the colorful sketches on black ground Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) made to illustrate his lectures.
In Massimiliano Gioni’s Palazzo Enciclopedico,
it’s only one step from a miracle to a disaster. The 39-year-old
curator borrowed the idea of a palace built to contain all the world’s
knowledge from the self-taught artist Marino Auriti
(1891-1980), who wanted to patent it in 1955 and house the archive in a
136-storey skyscraper. The main exhibition in Venice is a retrospective
of 20th-century art with a focus on outsider art. This carries great
charm, but also considerable peril.
Gioni succeeds, for instance, with the unlikely combination of Lucas, an important figure of British sculpture and the Young British Artists,
and 19th and 20th-century Surrealism, which aesthetically revives the
baroque cabinet of wonder—or when Schröder-Sonnenstern, who was
frequently hospitalized for psychiatric reasons, seems to veer
surprisingly close to the pop sensibility of Yellow Submarine.
On the other hand, the confrontation between Steiner and Pichler
doesn’t work at all. The charismatic anthroposophist’s new, visually
coded teachings for humanity have literally nothing whatsoever to do
with Pichler’s investigation of the human form and its shelter. In the
same room, only the performers of Tino Sehgal, who was awarded best artist, fit in. They sing and dance until it becomes a true eurythmical experience.
So what one would really like to do is move things around in Gioni’s Palazzo. Maria Lassnig’s magnificent self-portraits would work better with Richard Serra’s Pasolini blocks in the adjacent room. Marisa Merz,
her current neighbor, would certainly approve; her fragile Arte Povera
pieces look as though they were searching for a place to hide when
Lassnig reaches for her gun. The delicate miniatures of Imran Qureshi, whose celebrated show at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle can currently be seen in Berlin, are also badly hung. They are literally cornered by Eva Kotátková’s table installation, which dominates the room.
head of the Biennale did a much better job in the Arsenale than in the
Giardini with his encyclopedia of the esoteric, ethnographic, and
invented, of systematized insanity and contemporary art. Less motley,
with large installations and sequences of rooms in which the works of
outsiders, gurus, and the heads of sects alternate with those of
well-known names like Dieter Roth, Rosemarie Trockel, and Bruce Nauman, this new perspective on 20th-century art becomes far clearer here, where the rough brick façade is hidden behind white walls.
Following the Senegalese artist Papa Ibra Tall,
born in 1935, who combined western abstraction with figures from
African sagas and myths in his rugs to form psychedelic motifs, is the
no less psychedelic large-screen projection by Stan VanDerBeek (1927-1984), one of the first artists to work with computers. His Movie-Dromes
were intended as collection and distribution stations for communicating
the world’s knowledge using images from every conceivable source—the
universal language of the information age. To a certain extent, his
rotating image collage is a conceptual anticipation of Youtube. Highly
typical for Gioni’s show: the path always leads back to where it came
There are other instances where the Biennale points in
this direction. For France’s presentation, which is in the German
Pavilion this year, Anri Sala bases his work on the pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961) and the composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). The older brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein lost an arm in the First World War, but continued his career in spite of this. In 1929, Ravel composed a piano concert
for him for the left hand. A hand playing Ravel can be seen and heard
on two monumental screens placed one above the other, while two other
screens show the face and hand respectively of a young woman
deconstructing the piece by scratching on a record player. When
Wittgenstein changed the composition at his performance, it led to a
break between the two because Ravel would not tolerate any freedom of
interpretation. Sala’s investigation of interpretation, composition,
and the connection between music, film, and art is complex; it derives
its power chiefly from Ravel’s composition.
Genuinely entertaining based on its own and not a borrowed or referenced power is Jeremy Deller’s English Magic
in the British Pavilion. As is often the case in Deller’s work, his
countrymen have taken part. This time, inmates of Her Majesty’s prisons
Everthorpe, Shotts, and Parc contribute their drawn portraits of
English politicians. Deller also comes up with quite a bit himself.
Furious over Roman Abramovich’s warship against society that goes by the name of yacht and blocked access to the Giardini at the last Biennale, William Morris, socialist and co-founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement, is resurrected from the dead to sink it. Or David Bowie goes on his Ziggy Stardust
tour. But it matters little whether Deller brings an endangered bird of
prey into the picture or presents videos of previous actions—his
dramaturgy flows. One always understands what the work is about.
On the other hand, Vadim Zakharov in the Russian Pavilion, curated by Udo Kittelmann, head of the Berlin Nationalgalerie,
is not all that easy to follow. “Gentlemen, the time has come to
confess our Rudeness, Lust, Narcissism, Demagoguery, Falsehood” etc.
reads the statement on the first floor of the Pavilion, which is
reserved for these very gentlemen. The women have the ground floor and
umbrellas to protect them from the hard gold coins that rain down on
them from above, where the men are in control. They are acting out the
ancient myth of Danae,
or the ancient myth of Russia’s increasingly indebted, penitent,
corrupt soul. But also, perhaps, that of capitalism as an inevitable
fate that everyone falls victim to. In any case, the presentation,
which looks chic enough, comes across as pretty random. Is Vadim
Zakharov, who once co-founded Moscow conceptualism, aware that he
stands to lose his good reputation?
A highlight of the kind in the last Biennial’s Polish Pavilion, when Israeli artist Yael Bartana
called upon the Jews to return to the promised land of Poland, is
nowhere to be found. It’s hardly surprising: particularly not in the Polish Pavilion, where Konrad Smolenski has installed chiming church bells. The artist, who won the 2011 Views Prize awarded by the Deutsche Bank Foundation and the Warsaw Zacheta Gallery,
is aware that it was a hard act to follow. This can be seen in the
cool, austere symmetry of his sound installation, two high black
loudspeaker walls in front of each of which a heavy iron rack holding a
bell is placed. He counters his predecessor’s incendiary theater with
the concentrated force of a tolling bell and its reverberation, during
which time seems to stand still. A clever provocation resulting from a
long-term investigation into music and sound, one that comes across as
perhaps a bit too Catholic in a Polish context.
In the German Pavilion, which occupies the French building this year, Romuald Karmakar navigates the state of the art. Karmakar, along with two short loops he produced for cinekarmakar on Youtube, shows the older works Hamburger Lektionen (Hamburg Lessons) and 8. Mai,
but he presents them in a completely new form—which is his point. In
contrast to Anri Sala, whose rooms in the German Pavilion are dark and
sound-insulated, Karmakar shows his films in the broad daylight of art,
using loudspeakers whose sound can only be heard in front of the
In the game of musical rooms with which Susanne Gaensheimer,
the commissioner of the German Pavilion, wanted to surprise the art
world and symbolically refute nationalism, Karmakar drew the joker card
with the view from his room, which looks onto the Germania Gate
opposite. But Ai Weiwei, Dayanita Singh, and Santu Mofokeng,
the other artists in the Pavilion, profit from Gaensheimer’s exchange
in terms of their presentations, because each of them now has their own
And this space has been necessary, for
instance for Dayanita Singh’s beautiful, quiet, almost imperceptibly
moving images of Mona Ahmed, the eunuch whose life she has been
documenting for the past 20 years. The artist, whose works occupy an
entire floor in the Deutsche Bank Towers
in Frankfurt, speaks of a “portrait that breathes.” She continued her
image research in the official archives of New Delhi, from which she
also created a brilliant presentation at the last Biennale. The
incredible chaos of apparently well ordered files results in marvelous
plastic sculptures and the everyday catastrophe of Indian bureaucracy.
These mountains of files alone would fill the 136 floors of Marino Auriti’s Palazzo Enciclopedico.
In the final analysis, Dayanita Singh’s digital slide projections
reflect the dilemma of this year’s art biennial in Venice: the
overwhelming plenitude of images and stories that have to be waded
through here turns out to be catastrophically huge for anyone seriously
interested in gaining some kind of overview or learning about trends
and emerging artists. So much for Suddenly This Overview!, as Fischli and Weiss titled their group of 200 clay sculptures. Gioni must have had his reasons for installing them in the central pavilion.