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Boomerangs whizz overhead
by Thomas Wagner | 5/19/2015
Nobody wants to annex Venice: Not far from the pavilion of the Ukraine there were troops without insignia. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
I.
Proverbial wisdoms

Since art has become discursive and many artists believe that their works must hinge on a theme that can be read in them readily, without any great effort or additional knowledge, there’s been a rising glut of them: slogans, statements, proverbial wisdoms, perspectivization, performative speech acts, written logos. It’s not always simple to see what this is about in each case and one might be forgiven thinking that often these statements of opinion have the same status as intellectual fast food.
At the 56th Art Biennale in Venice you encounter such slogans wherever you look. They are part of the work or form the work itself, and they refer to different historical, political, geographical and artistic contexts. At the end of the day, most of them have the feel of a roll of thunder about them, a quick jolt to the brain, and then you’re moving on to the next stop. The text of the collective unconscious is incredibly long in art, too. Above the Padiglione Centrale in the Giardini and the inscription “La Biennale” Glenn Ligon elected to write the words “blues blood bruise”. Other slogans read: “Why would you want to know my name?” – “I believe someone with what they now call ID (Intellectual Disability) should become the President of the Republic” – “I will always be too expensive to buy” – “Goya does Yoga Odes” – “Not in My Name” – “Ferguson Is Everywhere” – “He was a terrorist, sort of ...” – “Everything will be taken away” – “We want everything in order not to die of the truth” – “Public Space is where You Encounter a Stranger” – “Hello, today you have day off.” More or less benevolent wishes that seem somehow helpless. Somewhat unintentionally, the promise given in the bizarre store in the Canadian Pavilion – “For a fishing vacation you will never forget.” – morphs into a commentary on the collectors and Biennale hustle.
With cosmopolitan compliments: some proverbs and sentences of the Biennale Arte of the year 2015. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
II.
Marx as white noise

Okwui Enwezor, curator of the central exhibition “All the World’s Futures” at the 56th Biennale, seeks to avoid any uniform thematic terrain being staked out and instead focuses on art and its practices from a variety of angles. But he is not content to capture its political background radiation. And instead opts for a layer of three “filters” that ostensibly are superimposed on one another and consist of a “Garden of Disorder”, “Liveness: On Epic Duration” and “Reading Capital”. Inside the exhibition you hardly notice such filters. Only Karl Marx, whom you definitely notice.
Listening to Karl Marx for half an hour or all ears for a capitalism that no longer exists: “Das Kapital” oratorio organized by Isaac Julien at the Central Pavilion, designed by David Adjaye. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark

For brash old William S. Burroughs language was a virus that came to us from outer space in some distant past. For Enwezor, for all the discursive adages it has simply become some pathos-filled white noise that embraces qua ambience that booming critique of capitalism that he has set out to present to us. Thus, in gobbets of 30 minutes’ duration, someone reads from Karl Marx’s monumental magnum opus, “Capital” – in a large and of course red arena in the central pavilion, design courtesy of architect David Adjaye. In terms of language politics, Marx has been made to toe the line, as the reading simply ignores the German original and sticks to the English translation, which begs the question why here of all places that differences and precision has been abandoned that Enwezor calls on art to display? Especially as for most ears “Das Kapital Oratorio” choreographed by Isaac Julien probably resembles a sequence of whale songs: It sounds good and because it is performed so extensively, it must be important. Yet essentially it is nothing more than a grand, staged symbolic act of helplessness.

“Listen to his words and follow his instructions”: two scenes from Haroun Farocki’s “The Words of the Chairman”, 1967. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark

Haroun Farocki takes a very different approach to words and proverbial wisdoms. On many small monitors, Enwezor’s view into all our futures is reflected in that of the forever critical film maker who died last year, namely a retrospective view that seems strangely distanced in the simultaneity of so many films. In the cabinet next door, however, Farocki’s short film “Die Worte des Vorsitzenden” of 1967 is screened; it was, as we read, greeted at the 1968 teach-ins at the main lecture hall of Berlin’s Free University in part with thunderous applause, in part with ear-splitting denunciatory whistles. Farocki makes the demand, meant to raise the words of Chairman Mao to a completely new level, literally, and the words on paper in the Little Red Book are turned into a paper airplane with a dangerously sharp needle tip. The sceptic behind the camera never let himself be conned by ideologies, however much they were dressed up in frills or in the opulent dresses of postcolonial critique.

III.
Culture of
postcolonial titbits

Although it is surprising at first sight, it is not quite so surprising that putting art in the thrall of politics and its often enough somewhat blunt reduction to (political) information and opinion goes hand in hand with giving it an even more theatrical appearance. Frequently, the lack of artistic quality is offset by a multiplication of the ostensible statement and its stage-like presentation. Not seldom the motto seems to be: A lot helps a lot, and this impacts on space and architecture.
At the Arsenale there are numerous sandbox games for a better world. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark

In the central exhibition this means that a surfeit of works of different types, materials and qualities are on display, presented so close to one another particularly in the Arsenale that they have the feel of mere bits of evidence about them. Almost nothing remains of the expanses and the original soul of the rooms. One swiftly starts to feel that visitors are meant to battle their way through a labyrinthine trade-fair hall full of political statements. Under the perceptual conditions that link video-zapping with a culture of postcolonial titbits, art loses both its own reference to space and its own intrinsic time. With the effect that the viewer finds it very difficult to absorb the symbolic power of individual works. Which is why even those by Bruce Nauman or Monica Bonvicini merely have the feel of simple data sets from Enwezor’s database of critical/political art and the galleries selling them. Rarely has the unification with the art market so perfectly succeeded under the sign of political critique.


IV.
Architecture and staging

In some of the national pavilions what we see is how hall and stage, building and staging, architecture and theater coalesce, in a manner as exciting as it is differentiated. After all, theater, stage and Venice simply go together. In the evening, once the day-trippers and cruise-ship passengers have disappeared, you simply need to walk through the narrow alleys in order to experience something at every corner: Venice is itself a stage. At the end of an alley suddenly someone crops up only to disappear the very next moment. Even when in the morning the Venetians walk their dogs or move freight around on hand-barrows, lugging it step by step over countless bridges, for a moment they step onto a stage. It is almost as if the opposition of theatricality and absorption that art historian Michael Fried introduced into the experience of art were at present returning in many of the pavilions. With a considerably overweighting on the side of the theatrical. Without doubt, viewers like to be enticed by all sorts of effects, be they performances, or narratives or even a matter of (stage) architecture.
The visitor is the show act: Heimo Zobernig and the meticulous improvement of the Austrian Pavilion. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Heimo Zobernig: Viewers take the stage before nature as the set

Let’s start with the Austrian Pavilion which in this regard is the most successful, because Heimo Zobernig consciously addresses the set specificity of any experience of art and plays in situ not only with elements of the building, such as the floor, ceiling, corridors, light, interior, outdoors, but also with the resulting effects.
Zobernig exercises extreme restraint and concentrates on “improving” a given spatial situation. At the same time he manages to allow the viewer to experience the space in a very physical way, meaning with all the senses. The “content” of Zobernig’s intervention is thus made up of both Josef Hoffmann’s and Robert Kramreiter’s Austrian Pavilion (made in 1934) and the presentational setting for art associated with the site and building. Even if one is already familiar with the “Zobernig method”, the result is astonishing: Zobernig has had the floor raised and the ceiling lowered so far that not only the classic round arches have disappeared, but a completely new sense of space has arisen. Anyone entering the building, attracted by the “image” or the natural ambience of the newly-planted “sculpture court” surrounded as if it were a concha, will pass through the building as if on a catwalk. The “exhibition halls” to the left and right, which are now left in the dark, tend to be ignored, or viewers sit down in them and watch the lively to-and-fro on Zobernig’s architectural stage, which the (former) viewers now enliven as if they were actors on a stage. Space, light and the viewers’ field of vision shape our experience of art here and convey a sense of great artistic freedom.
Flashy stage: First there is the store, then art, then the financial system at the Canadian Pavilion curated by the collective BGL. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
BGL: Biere Crunch Gateau

Mit einer theatralischen Auffassung von Raum beschäftigt sich auch das Künstlerkollektiv BGL, gebildet aus Jasmine Bilodeau, Sébastien Giguère und Nicolas Laverdière, im Kanadischen Pavillon. Das Über-Kanada mit dem Titel „Canadissimo“, das sie geschaffen haben und das sie selbst eine „Art materialistischen Wahnsinn“ nennen, erweist sich räumlich und geistig gleichermaßen als Labyrinth und Spiegelkabinett. Der Pavillon selbst in seiner architektonischen Gestalt ist nicht mehr wiederzuerkennen. Wie unsere Phantasie so werden auch Raum und Architektur überwuchert. Zunächst von einem Laden, in dem es typisch kanadische Waren gibt, in dem hier und da aber auch Aufschriften und Bilder auf Verpackungen nur mehr verschwommen wahrgenommen werden können. Hinter dem Raum des Kommerzes beginnt derjenige der Kunst, doch ach, auch er erweist sich als wüstes Sammelsurium. Man betritt einen Ort, an dem stereotype Affen und Indianer aus Ton lagern und wohl auch bemalt werden, auch wenn die gestapelten leeren Farbdosen samt Pinseln mit ihren vielen bunten Farbspuren und -nasen wie das eigentliche Werk in diesem überdrehten Atelier oder in dieser Kunstfabrik wirken.

Damit ist es aber noch nicht genug. Über all dem schwebt ein Erweiterungsbau samt einem, sagen wir, Finanzierungskonzept. Wirft man oben einen Euro ein, bewegt er sich über Rampen und Kanäle wie durch eine Maschine, um am Ende in der Fassade vor dem Atelier zu enden, wo er ein herzförmiges Muster bildet. In der Kurzversion: Kunst folgt auf Kommerz und wird von der Aufmerksamkeit des Publikums gefüttert. Wie immer man das findet, das Environment von BGL zeigt auf lustige und kritische Weise auch, wie theatralisch initiierte Räume bestehende überwuchern und gleichsam erweitern.

Israel as fortress: Tsibi Geva has installed a façade made of old car tires. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Fortification and commemorative space

Using architectural imagery or reenactment, the pavilions of Israel and Greece once again take a different approach that nevertheless has a tendency towards the theatrical. “Archeology of the Present” is how Tsibi Geva has suggestively titled his exhibition and design for the Israeli Pavilion. Crucially, a distinction needs to be made here between exhibiting and reconstructing or redesigning. The reason: While on the inside works are displayed in more or less conventional formats, the most powerful metaphor is the redesigned space itself. A regular grid of more than 1,000 used tires from Israel clads the façade like protective armor. And yet, a glimpse from the inside through the existing windows reveals that this skin of tires is reinforced by a simple concrete wall, which lends the walk-in sculpture the additional dimension of a fortification, which, though protective, seals and immures life inside it. As a built metaphor this piece would also cut a fine figure at any architecture biennial. However, that works by the artist are also on show inside the structure undermines the overall message and has to be taken as making concessions to the art market.
Memory as setting: At the Greek Pavilion Maria Papadimitriou has installed a tanner and taxidermist’s workshop. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark

In the Greek Pavilion, with her piece entitled “Why look at Animals?” in the shop “Agrimiká” Maria Papadimitriou renders the workshop of a tanner and taxidermist as a fragmented spatial image, which she has transferred to Venice from the city of Volos in central Greece. Architecture and space combine into the scenery of a theatrical play about humans and animals, politics and business, art and handicraft, ethics and aesthetics.


Factory architectonics

The essential action is hidden from view. It is taking place above the rooftops. But we shall return to that later. Visitors to the German Pavilion are in for a surprise as soon as they enter, as all the main walkways are sealed off. Instead, a narrow winding staircase on the side takes them up to a newly created exhibition floor, from whence they return via three separate stairwells that culminate in a screening room, in a side wing with a floor installation, and in a central digitized media space. Much can be said about Tobias Zielony’s relationship with photojournalism, about Hito Steyerl’s toxic video game, and about the film and floor sculpture by Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk, and their approaches debated not only from the viewpoint of media theory. That which stands out to the beholder is above all the pavilion’s architecture and its surprising transformation.
Photos on the upper floor: At the German Pavilion, curated by Florian Ebner, there is a factory of images and stories, and architecture again plays a key role. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark

“Factory” as Florian Ebner’s set theme is one thing, the fabrication proper of an overall architectural concept something entirely different. On the way up and down it is the latter that makes for a genuine surprise and captivates the visitor. Especially since in the catalog Ebner begins by interpreting the empty pavilion, referencing the “latent presence of history” innate in it and concluding as follows: “Unlike in any other artistic context this special shell is calling for a response.” And once we learn that the materials used for the installation of last year’s architecture biennial, i.e., Alex Lehnerer’s and Savvas Ciriacidis’ forced amalgamation of the Venice Pavilion and Bonn Chancellor’s Bungalow (see Germany’s Ex-Top Models, News&Stories of June 15, 2014), have been recycled for the interiors, the (in fact rather simple) exhibition architecture suddenly begins to grow also in terms of discourse. The curator’s meticulousness in selecting and presenting the artistic works in Venice and analyzing them on the basis of media theory, however without correlating the place and its architectural determination or forgetting all about the perceptual conditions that will ensure sufficient attention and time is spent, is quite amazing indeed.


Boomerangs whizz overhead

Olaf Nicolai’s piece “GIRO” (which is Italian not only for roundtrip, but also for turnaround, revolution and detour and makes connotations to all of them) is happening on the roof of the German Pavilion. Mind you, the concept itself carries more weight than its in-situ reality. At least at the preview stage the boomerang throwers remained more or less a promise as they were hardly to be seen. Nonetheless, and that is the crucial thing, the work on the roof (as a “place of freedom and experimentation,” as Ebner explains) and above our heads describes a special form of circulating. The roof too is a stage, albeit one that opens up vistas less to the eye and more to the imagination. Olaf Nicolai’s “performative long-term action” – with references made to Slavoj Zizek and a novel by Erri De Luca – stages the mysterious activity of people who spend their time on the roof carving boomerangs only to test right away if they will fly. A boomerang’s flight outlines an innate space, encapsulates with beautiful weightlessness and the constant threat of failure in a kind of meta-space an imaginary movement destined to return to its starting point, which brings together intention and target, hitting and missing.
What happens when states disappear? Ivan Grubanov’s environment at the Serbian Pavilion. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
False Paradises?

The list of more or less theatrical works can be extended by a good few more – and is by no means complete as regards their inherent or reflected ambiguities. Take, for example, Ivan Grubanov’s decidedly theatrical approach in the Serbian Pavilion, which uses gestural colored painting to render the disappearance of nations into a pathetic composition. By contrast, Filip Markiewicz, artist, actor, filmmaker and musician, takes an entirely different approach in the Luxembourg Pavilion, staging a “Paradiso Lussemburgo” that is as relentless as it is contemplative. The “preamble”, a quote by Oscar Wilde, already sets the tone of the piece: “The world is a stage but the play is badly cast.” Which not only conjures associations with the term “tax haven”, but also with Dante or the movie “Cinema Paradiso”, with a karaoke machine and the singing of “Fake Protest Songs”, presenting only one of the many facets of critical reflection on the dramaturgical overkill at work here, in the grand duchy and right before our eyes.
National opera with tenor and goat: a piece of Polish history on a Haitian village square. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark

And while the Polish Pavilion presents an excerpt from C.T. Jasper’s and Joanna Malinovska’s movie “Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01”W” on a giant panorama screen, namely the performance of Polish national opera “Halka” on a village square in Haiti, where descendants of Polish soldiers drafted there to quash a slave revolt in 1802 lived, in the Korean Pavilion Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho’s “The Ways of Folding Space & Flying” conjures up a technological paradise, asking what the future will look like.

National opera with tenor and goat: a piece of Polish history on a Haitian village square. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
One of many futures: tidy, dust-free and a little bit lifeless in the Korean Pavilion. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Fly, boomerang, fly!

Since the German Pavilion is right next to its Korean counterpart, the boomerangs from the roof also fly across the latter. To date there have been no reports of collisions of such different types of flying objects. If one believes good old Ringelnatz and one of his poems, the metaphor of the boomerang nevertheless extends to the oft-overtaxed audience of über-flamboyant mega events: “There once was a boomerang / That was a little bit too long. / The boomerang flew into the air, / Never again to reappear. / The audience stood around for long, / Waiting for that boomerang.” So don’t rush – the Art Biennale runs thru November.


56th Venice Art Biennale
All The World’s Futures
Giardini, Arsenale
Thru November 22
Short guide EUR 18
Catalog EUR 85


READ MORE about the 56th Venice Art Biennale:

> The latest from the image factory: Aspects of a first tour of the Giardini and the Arsenale.

> Woman, dream and mirror: Martial Raysse knows that art, fashion and the critique of political economy need not necessarily always be mutually exclusive.