The art world is certainly not in a depression. While large numbers of young people in Europe don’t know whether they have a future, business with contemporary art is flourishing. Thanks to exports of contemporary art products to China, Russia, Latin America and the Gulf, the art market machine is running full speed. So it’s hardly surprising that business operations at the 55th Art Biennale in Venice are blasting ahead. Meaning that once again the Biennale is so large, so confusing, so rich, so poor, so smart, so stupid and so appealing that it’s nigh impossible to get all the things you encounter here or that happen in the name of art like a gusty shower of rain to stack up. You constantly get the feeling you’ve missed something, this or that pavilion, overlooked this or that show in some lane or palazzo, not noticed the ultimate artwork that you’ve spent so long hunting for. And you can get annoyed by the madding crowd that even gets thrilled by the explanatory signs, by films that run for some undefined period of time, by excessive opinions on the state of things, and any amount of ideas cribbed from art history. The Biennale is not a power station, more like a power guzzler.
The event as all-in package
This, too, is an image of contemporary art. While the visitors behave and stand in the line outside in the rain for an hour or two, collectors, curators, trustees and museum directors simply get whisked past them and into the pavilions and exhibitions. What counts is status. In the early morning a ten-minute head-start for the preferred groups suffices in order to buzz them through the Arsenale, for example, where parts of the central show on “Il Palazzo Enciclopedico” are on display, and view things in fast-forward mode – something for which the museum visitor would normally require at least a day to absorb. All that counts with such Venetian preview tourism is to be part of it. Ever since contemporary art started booming, image production and the market started really burning gas, and mega-events such as the Venice Biennale get flooded by ever increasing numbers of visitors even on preview days, what has become ever more apparent is that feudal structures definitely prevail again in the world of art. The event triumphs as an all-inclusive package, its radiance outshining all else, meaning art from the outset becomes some journalistic commentary that wherever you look adds yet another highly visualized opinion to an awfully opaque world. If nothing happens, then soon there’ll be pre-previews before there’s even anything to view.
In 2013, again it’s a few exceptions that confirm the rule. Yet rarely did so many art lovers, critics and cognoscenti get so annoyed by how an event can gobble up art as if this were its obvious purpose. Ever since contemporary art has simply bobbed along in the wash of the mainstream culture industry, suddenly a few are once again talking about the end of art – without seriously believing anything may actually change.
Aren’t we all donkeys dancing in paradise?
Only at first sight does Mathias Poledna, whom Jasper Sharp, Commissioner of the Austrian Pavilion, chose for this year’s Biennale, confirm this trend towards harmless entertainment. If you only briefly stick your head through the door (given the crowds packing up behind you, you can be forgiven your haste) you will see a nice little animated film à la Disney and probably believe that Poledna, who has lived in Los Angeles since 2000, is closing ranks with Hollywood. Careful. However harmless the 35mm color film (it’s about 3 minutes long) seems, there’s more than one trick in its tail.
“Imitation of Life” was produced using the timeworn, work-intensive method of making animated films by hand, reminiscent in texture and style of the heyday of the US cartoon film industry of the 1930s and 1940s; during and after the Great Depression it morphed from a simple entertainment medium into one with a rich and differentiated visual language. For Poledna’s short film, more than 5,000 hand-drawn sketches, layouts, drawings, water-colored backgrounds and ink drawings on foil were produced in collaboration with the animation departments of various film studios in Los Angeles, specifically Disney itself. The soundtrack is no less elaborate. It links a specially composed score with a new arrangement of a popular 1930s song by Arthur Freed and Herb Nacio Brown – and is performed by a large orchestra in the 1930s style on an ancient “scoring stage” at the Warner Brothers Studios in Los Angeles. Thus “Imitation of Life” looks as if it really were out of a Disney can.
Depression needs entertainment
It’s not just “depression” that comes to mind when perusing the art, but also the relationship of European avant-garde art to US mass culture, the emigration of European artists in the 1930s and the enjoyment of such harmless sweet entertainment gets suffused by ambivalence. If you read up and find out that Walt Disney first screened his first feature-length animated movie “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” in 1938 at the Venice Film Festival and only bagged a special mention, while Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia” got gold, you soon realize that among other things Poledna’s film sheds light on precisely this epoch. Moreover, in the summer of 1938 the Austrian Pavilion was closed down and the Austrian artists were henceforth presented in the German Pavilion as participants from the Eastern March.
I’ve got a feelin’ you’re foolin’
The film centers on a newly developed cartoon figure and a simple, albeit thought-provoking story. A small donkey in a sailor’s uniform is woken by a bird and asked what he is doing here in this paradise of a forest. The donkey, however, has no idea how he got there and starts dancing and singing: “I’ve got a feelin’ you’re foolin’ / I’ve got a feelin’ you’re havin’ fun / I’ll get a go by when you are done / Foolin’ with me / I’ve got a feelin’ you’re foolin’ / I’ve got a notion it’s make believe / I think you’re laughin’ right up your sleeve / Foolin’ with me, / Life is worth living while you are giving / Moments of paradise.”
The donkey is a lovable figure banished to a paradise that is nothing but fake. He just as little gets an answer to how he got there and whether someone is simply having fun at his expense as do we asses of the entertainment industry, who are simply delighted at the dancing and singing in the nice forests of that world. At the end the nice little donkey simply step dances off screen. Poledna offers us perfect entertainment, and yet suddenly there’s a tear running through it. What the donkey doesn’t know: Wonderland is everywhere, life is nowhere. However entertaining it may seem, it is deadly serious.
I’ll give you my pavilion, you give me yours
The pavilion-swap by Germany and France evaporated into so much politically correct hot air as did the works Commissioner Susanne Gaensheimer showed in the French rooms, by non-German artists Ai Weiwei, Romuald Kamakar, Santu Mofukeng and Dayanta Singh. By contrast, the piece by Albanian-French artist Anri Sala (who lives in Berlin) chosen by French curator Christine Macel for the German Pavilion is a highly complex and pathos-driven film project called “Ravel Ravel Unravel”.
Anri Sala’s piece prompted especially long lines during preview time. And if you thought you could avoid them by walking up the little hill to the pavilion the moment the Giardini opened in the morning, you would have found yourself in a race in which there were many faster sprinters. The exhibition title derives from two pieces, each of which consists of two films: “Ravel Ravel” and “Unravel”. Both are based on the “Piano Concerto for the Left Hand” that Maurice Ravel composed in 1929 for pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in World War I. In “Ravel Ravel” you hear two different interpretations of the piece by two pianists, while the camera follows their left hands, at times also bringing the unused right hand into view. Both play the same concert. However, because they play at different speeds, the one sometimes gets ahead, and there are echoes, overlaps, and phases of harmony. In “Unravel” a DJane then tries to synchronize the two versions.
The whole thing is not only highly technically elaborate and perfectly staged, but with the allusions to many of the acoustic and visual differences and correspondences, to the two sides of the brain and not least to the artists’ hands, it is not without a certain pathos. Pianist Paul Wittgenstein was one of the brothers of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and commissioned the concerto, then revising it to fit his own ideas. When Ravel traveled to Vienna to hear the concerto premiere he couldn’t believe his ears. A dispute arose, one of the most famous in music history, in the course of which Ravel declared: “Performers are slaves”.
Bird of prey bags Range Rover
The ride is rockier in the British Pavilion. There, Jeremy Deller has banged a few attacks on the trade on the wall. The pavilion’s central wall boasts an image of an eagle grabbing a Range Rover and bearing it aloft as if it were a rabbit. Next door, Deller is even more explicit. Here a man with a large beard grabs a luxury yacht and hurls it into the sea.
The accompanying leaflet provides the relevant stories: The bird is a circus cyaneus, one of the rarest birds of prey in Great Britain. In 2007 a naturalist and two other persons watched aghast as a pair of the birds were shot in the air over Sandringham Estate. The only people out hunting that day were Prince Harry and his mate William van Cutsem. The police investigated the matter, but the dead birds were never found and no proceedings followed. The painting shows one of the birds wreaking its revenge on a Range Rover driving by.
Revenge with William Morris
The second story is also swiftly told: In June 2011 Roman Abramovich’s yacht “Luna” set anchor directly off-shore from the Giardini. It blocked many people’s view and a security fence round the pier also restricted access to the promenade for inhabitants, tourists and Biennale visitors alike. This so enraged William Morris, Victorian artist and socialist, that, although long since dead, he returned as a giant and hurled the yacht into the lagoon.
Deller tells and illustrates this and other stories, and links them up in a video in which alongside the birds and the Range Rover we also see a version of Stonehenge he created as a bouncy castle. He is, or so he himself says, not an artist who dreams up installations meant to function as large metaphors commenting on world events. He likes things more direct, more journalistic. We personally witnessed the “Luna” at anchor like some fierce warning (see News & Stories June 8, 2011). And the fact that Deller now embeds it in a small parable on the ire of the dead social reformer, whose marvelous patterns (and printing blocks) he presents as well, means there can be no doubting that he considers our self-satisfied contemporary world to be an attack on history. In an interview with “Süddeutsche Zeitung” he responded to the question whether collectors such as Abramovich would view his mural by saying: “It’s an opportunity to let them know that not everyone thinks they’re great. They should also note the small vouchers I hung in one of the side rooms. They were issued in the early days of market capitalism to enable state-owned companies to become the private property of the Russians. They had absolutely no experience with capitalism and it was easy for a few people to seize control of the country, of industry, to take power. People were blackmailed because of these vouchers, they disappeared, were murdered. Those colorful chits are marred by history, they come from a war zone.”
Russian golden shower
While some may consider Deller’s approach direct, it does have the advantage of putting its finger on things, and also of reminding us in an amusing way that not everyone believes what the big-time collectors and princes tell us and the art world. In the Russian Pavilion, by contrast, Vadim Zakharov has sadly opted for one of those big gestures that Deller consciously seeks to avoid. Only women are allowed to enter the lower floor of the pavilion, where gold coins in a currency called “Danae” rain down from above – on the obverse of which the words “Trust, Unity, Freedom and Love” are stamped. In Greek mythology Danae was the name of the daughter of King Akrisios of Argos and Eurydike, whom Zeus approached in the guise of golden rain. The son she bore him was Perseus, whose life she later saved with the Gorgon’s head. Upstairs, where you can kneel down before the golden rain and pray to the god of art or of justice, neither is there a need for more refined criticism nor does the piece get better.
If you prefer things a little more indirect, just a murmur rather than blatancy, then head for the Belgian Pavilion, where Berlinde de Bruyckere has placed a huge brittle tree (it is bandaged here and there) in darkness – ostensibly, or so the press release states, it’s a synthesis of the themes addressed hitherto in her oeuvre, such as “life and death; Eros and Thanatos; strength and vulnerability; oppression and protection; desire and suffering; desolation and unification”.
Welcome to the Kamikaze Loggia
Anyone finding (rightly or wrongly) all of this all too artistic, too bombastic, too banal or simply over-hyped, should head for the Danish Pavilion or the “Kamikaze Loggia”, as the newly established Georgian Pavilion at the end of the Arsenale grounds calls itself. The wooden house and its staircase hang like an illegal informal settlement over the former naval exit from the harbor. Inside, not only is light shed on urban life in Tbilisi between “Façadism” and “Singapoisation”, but the artists from the Bouillon Group (Thea Djordjadze, Nikoloz Lutidze, Gela Patashuri and Gio Sumbadze) poke fun at many other Georgian idiosyncrasies, until you laugh even at utterly absurd and tragic occurrences. Possibly this is the only way to bring criticism to bear in a world that has morphed into Absurdistan, and not just in a country whose inhabitants call it an Italy gone Marxist.
The Danish place is not only a veritable construction site, walled up, torn open, but also a place to change directions, a play of confusion and dislocation. Because even if, in the films Jesper Just screens inside, it looks as if you’re in Paris, you’re actually only in a replica of that city in a suburb of Hangzhou. A man runs through this stage-set city, and a flight of stairs, complete with palisade, simply ends in wasteland. Nothing’s right, everything both real and fake. Wonderland is everywhere. We simply have long since ceased to know where we are.
Read in Part 2 all about the “Palazzo Enciclopedico”, the central exhibition at the 55th Biennale di Venezia.