I have lukewarm feelings on this year’s Venice Biennale, which contains two distinct exhibitions: The Encyclopedic Palace, a 1,000-artwork-plus exhibition curated by Massimiliano Gioni, and dozens of national, pavilion-based exhibitions organized by curators from each country. Despite the slightly confusing fact that the theme of the Biennale as a whole is The Encyclopedic Palace, historically, the two exhibitions don’t have much overlap. This all makes sense, given there’s no tangible reason for pavilion curators to make their artist selections appeal to the Biennale committee. But something different happened this year. It seems there’s something in the air about The Encyclopedic Palace’s “dream of a universal, all-embracing knowledge” to make artists and curators in the national pavilions embrace a similar theme.
That crossover’s the strength of this year’s Biennale, which contains a strong current of otherworldliness. Science fiction and spirituality, in particular, are present in the pavilions as well as Gioni’s exhibition, though the way these themes play out are to entirely different stylistic ends. Grotesque bodies, spiritual abstractions, and dream-inspired doodles populate Gioni’s universe, illustrating many imaginative, personal viewpoints. In contrast to that emotional outpouring, the castles—the national pavilions—house spectacular, large-scale works by just one, or a handful of artists. Overall, these works are less emotional than Gioni’s; even when they’re grounded in science fiction and spirituality, they’re grounded in the concerns of the here-and-now. Simply put, Gioni’s artists tend to live in their head, and the pavilions’ artists, in the world. To see just how these themes play out in the pavilions, I’ve given some explanation to these specific themes, and what they mean for how we view the world through art, below.
From Denmark’s last man standing video installation by Jesper Just to Belgium’s solitary, bandaged tree trunk by Belinda De Bruyckere, the Biennale is full of dying earth sagas. In the Scandinavian pavilion, Terike Haapoja’s techno-accoutrements breathe life into dry, brown leaves, record the heat loss of recently deceased animals, and keep a green landscape alive inside a vitrine.
In all these pavilions, the human trace is minimal. For the most part, we don’t know how these disasters occurred, but they did. This is the world as we know it.
By far the most accomplished pavilion to deal with the natural world in decay is Jesper Just’s Intercourses. Four black-and-white cinematic projections traverse each of the rooms, and the last room contains an indoor garden where plants feed off artificial fuchsia light.
Entry into Just’s strange world-in-decay takes place immediately. The first film shows a solitary, well-dressed man wandering around a barren, overgrown landscape. For most of the film, he’s just walking. Shots that capture his face show it twisted in terror. He is the Omega Man.
Only occasionally are there signs of external life, with scenes cutting to ads of smiling Asian faces and well-lit skyscrapers. We’re in Asia, maybe, or any Chinatown the world over. We really don’t know, not even when we’re shown an Eiffel Tower shooting out from the overgrown fields.
That symbolic failure happens fairly often in science fiction. There’s the well-known scene at the close of Planet of the Apes where a wrecked Statue of Liberty pushes out through the sand. Seeing this large-scale relic of humanity, the astronauts know they haven’t crashed in some far-off land, but a future version of their home planet. Still, they don’t know how they got there, leaving an open-ended plot rife for sequels. It doesn’t seem like Jesper Just’s protagonist knows what he’s doing in this setting, either, and has about as much insight into figuring out the Eiffel Tower’s meaning as those astronauts when they first landed.
External to the film, visitors to the Danish Pavilion can read the press materials, which locate the Eiffel Tower in present-day Hangzou, China. Even knowing that location doesn’t explain the terror or the confusion of this last man standing in an artificial world.
This solitary narrative continues into the other rooms. In other films, no more than two other characters appear—a group of lonely nomads. No people appear in the last film, which zooms in-and-out to the city’s buildings, which are littered with AC units. This is the only time we’re presented with the idea that are residents rather than just survivors in this late. That, or we have clunky, metal relics to prove they were once there.
Spirituality: Creation and Destruction Myths
If the natural world is in decay, then the immaterial may as well be as good a source for inspiration as anything else. Whenever the pavilions took a spiritual turn, it was often on a grand, epic scale. Unlike the personal cosmologies on view in Gioni’s exhibition, spirituality in the pavilions was often related to overarching narratives of creation and destruction, the type found in many religions the world over.
Adding to this impersonal spirituality, there were often no people, or traces thereof, found in the pavilions. As Paddy mentioned in her review of the United States pavilion, Sarah Sze’s Triple Point looks like like an unknown force landed, organized some stuff into piles, and then left— stonehenge, crop circles, or alien abduction. The South Korean pavilion, too, was just as conspicuous in what was absent. It looked like an emptied out cathedral, with the pavilion’s only additions being Kimsooja’s rainbow-tinted windows and reflective surfaces, and a soundproof chamber located in a backroom. Both of these are vague spaces—someone might have been there, but no longer.
It makes sense then, that devoid of people, impersonal spiritual themes would make their way into the pavilions. The British Pavilion’s presentation of Jeremy Deller’s English Magic was the grandest presentation on view of epic creation and destruction myths, and on a national scale.
The exhibition begins with Britain’s prehistoric origins, through the exhibition’s display of handmade weapons on loan from the British Museum. After that origin story there’s really no linear history to be found, just continual creation and destruction. William Morris of the Art and Craft movement wields a modern-day billionaire’s yacht, launching it into the sea. A gargantuan hawk sinks its claws into a Range Rover. This is fantasy, but with a dash of nature, taking revenge on its oppressor.
History, then, is told through the stories of those in power, and it’s often a violent one. The only time the common people get to make art in Deller’s story is through the inclusion of amateur drawings by imprisoned Iraq War veterans. Their drawings include portraits of British politicians and portray wartime violence based on memory. Even personal memories begin to take on issues of national significance. That’s not an uplifting view, to think there might not be much of a place for emotion, subjectivity, and the like, with wars going on. But it’s easy to see how issues of international concern make their way into the pavilions, when they preoccupy our news feeds and conversations. I’m surprised there wasn’t more of it. Maybe that’s where themes like science fiction and spirituality come in; they’re external to art, and can open the door to other talking points about the world-at-large.