Viva Arte Viva: The Venice Biennale in an Anxious Age

“After all, art may not have changed the world, but it remains the field where it can be reinvented.” —Christine Macel, Biennale Art 2017: Viva Arte Viva1

There is an enormous and perhaps naïve expectation that mega-scale art exhibitions will illuminate our global reality. In this regard, the Venice Biennale is always widely anticipated. But such an exhibition will inevitably disappoint, revealing more about the person whose taste and intention are driving the curatorial agenda than about the state of the world.

Equally problematic for the curator is that she or he must develop an organizing principle for the exhibition some years before it is actually mounted. Given the speed at which events unfold, it is almost impossible to be as timely as one would wish. Could anyone have anticipated such a derailed U.S. presidency, Brexit, the scale and tragedy of mass migration, the exponential increase in terror threats, accelerated climate change, or its accompanying anxieties? Added to this complexity is the format of the Biennale itself. The curator controls the content of the Central Pavilion and the Arsenale but has no control over the 36 national pavilions in the Giardina or the other 50 national pavilions in the surrounding vicinity. Nonetheless, the work in all of these pavilions cumulatively contributes to the overall experience of what is called La Biennale.

Without full knowledge of what the world would be like in 2017, Christine Macel, the curator of this year’s 57th International Venice Biennale, chose the very optimistic and elusive concept “Viva Arte Viva,” which, she explains, “is an exclamation, a passionate outcry for art and the state of the artist.” As Macel describes it, “Viva Arte Viva is a Biennale designed with artists, by artists and for artists, about the forms they propose, the questions they ask, the practices they develop and the ways of life they choose.”2

The exhibition, we are told, is a “journey” that “unfolds over the course of nine chapters, or families of artists.” Macel calls these “chapters” Trans-Pavilions. They are designed to be “transnational” but also transgenerational, bringing together artists from various places of origin, with ages ranging from 25 to 97. Of the 120 artists shown, 103 have never before exhibited in the Venice Biennale and will be unknown to many visitors. Perhaps most significant to Macel’s framework is that the exhibition “is intended as an experience, an extrovert movement from the self to the other, towards a common space beyond the defined dimensions, and onwards to the idea of a potential neo-humanism.”3

Her goal is not just to call attention to the objects but also to the nature of artists’ lives. “The decision to become an artist,” Macel writes, “in and of itself, requires taking a stance in society, one that is today broadly popular and widely acknowledged, but is perceived nevertheless as an act of calling into question work and its by-product money—as the absolute value in the modern world.”4

As Macel explains, although the artist produces work for commercialization, within the studio the “modes of production… include an alternative within which the need for inactivity or rather non-productive action, for mind wandering and research remain paramount. This position inevitably has consequences on the way in which free time is perceived by society: it is no longer a time to be spent or even consumed, but a time for oneself.”5

Reflecting on that idea, Macel opens her exhibition in the Central Pavilion with images of artists lounging, sleeping, and perhaps dreaming—artists engaged in utilizing unstructured time in their beds but also in the studio space for thought and production. Mladen Stilinović’s Artist at Work, Franz West’s Asleep, Dawn Kasper’s The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars, and Rachel Rose’s film, Lake Valley, are examples of works that explore the complexity of dreams and the centrality of process.

This privileging of the artist’s values and practice recalls Hannah Arendt’s distinction between laborers and workers. According to Arendt, laborers have no choice but to labor in a never-ending process of production and consumption without opportunity for originality or creativity. Workers, on the other hand, have the potential to create original concepts, and their work allows for dreamtime, leisure time, and playtime, within which workers can imagine the world anew. “The artist,” Arendt writes, is the “only worker left in a laboring society.”6

This emphasis on the making of things and its effect on human experience is the strength of the show but also its weakness.

Macel attempts to get at the state of the world through examining the, at first, internalized and then externalized processes that artists engage in as they reimagine their experience of the world and give it form. Explorations of the unconscious and of hidden aspirations are central to Macel’s mission. Artists reveal their thought processes through materiality, metaphor, color, texture, play, and abstraction. They choose form and scale to affect the unconscious, to overstate and to understate and often to disarm. So we should not be surprised when we turn a corner in the Pavilion of Time and Infinity and encounter Liliana Porter’s installation, El hombre con un hacha y otros situaciones brevas—a narrative of rage, disorder, lost history, and turbulence orchestrated (it would seem) by a male miniature protagonist wielding an ax and destroying his world.

Macel’s framing of art’s relationship to society in an indirect and often playful way stands in distinct contrast to Okwui Enwezor’s uncompromisingly political 2015 Biennale, All the World’s Futures, in which Enwezor exhibited artists who addressed contemporary issues head-on. That Biennale’s audience was captive to an unrelenting narrative confronting the problematic state of the world––postcolonialism, racism, sexism, the abuses of capitalism––in each corner of the Arsenale and the Central Pavilion. Performances included readings of Das Kapital. Enwezor received a great deal of criticism for his stridency. Artnet News described his Biennale as “the most morose, joyless, and ugly biennale in living memory,” which, “in the name of global action and social change, beats the visitor up with political theory rather than giving us the pleasures and stimulation of great art.”7

This year’s Biennale leads us on a meandering—and often seductive—“journey” with many detours. But the concern for the state of the world is never overt enough either to alienate or to satisfy the need for revelation as to where we might go from here. As a result, it has generated much frustration. Barbara Casavecchia writes in Art Agenda that “the curator avoids tackling distressing universal subjects like politics, populism, racism, or identity, preferring instead to group 120 individual positions in accordance to vague, conservative, and elementary (school) categories such as earth, traditions, colors, time, the common, books, joys and fears.”8

In the London Evening Standard, Matthew Collings described much of the show as “awfully lightweight.”9

New York Times critic Holland Cotter likewise experiences the show as bland, unconvincing, and strangely untimely. The Pavilion of Shamans particularly distressed him. At the opening, the space was populated by Amazonian Indians playing indigenous instruments in a performance of religious rituals. Cotter found the musicians’ presence “disconcerting,” a reprisal of the “primitivism” debate about the West’s complicity in a global economy that imports “the Other for our pleasure” while destroying the “Other’s world.” “True to this Biennale’s frustratingly muted politics,” Cotter continues, “no curatorial statement appears acknowledging these issues.”10

It is as if Macel has skipped over the contemporary art world’s decades-long conversations about postcolonialism, gender, difference, and so forth. Rather she intends to reflect on a theory of “neo-humanism” through artistic practice. To this end, she has created a series of conceptual pavilions in which the demarcations are indistinct and the terminology romantic, vague, and, at times, retro in its archetypal universality, neither illuminating the present nor moving us forward. In the Pavilion of the Shamans, dedicated to those who “subscribe to the definition of the artist as shaman,” Macel hopes to create “a new dimension at a time when the need for care and spirituality is greater than ever”; the Dionysian Pavilion is a “hymn to sexuality and inebriation” and “celebrates the female body”; the Pavilion of Time and Infinity is designed to ask, “What form would a metaphysical approach to art take?”11

A more deliberate attempt to define neo-humanism might have led Macel to examine what it actually means to be an artist in the world today, when the life of so many artists in troubled societies is unbearable, repressed, and even life-threatening and where the stakes for the survival of the species and the planet are under increasing duress. In this Robotic Age, when the concept of the “human” demands much more examination, as we create a hybrid race of machines that will leave the species without work, Macel might have asked, What will this talk of leisure and reflection come to mean when humans are replaced in the workforce and leisure is all we have to occupy our time? What will define humanness if the millions who have lost their homes to climate change and mass migration can never establish them again? Artists live in this world as citizens and have a great deal to contribute to debates around such questions, but these questions, which might have moved this exhibition, with its emphasis on artists, meaningfully into the present, are not addressed.

At a time when the threat of autocratic rule, so dependent on the simplification of complex issues and nostalgia for the past, casts shadows on many parts of the world, Macel precariously chooses to leave contradictions vague and unexamined. In presenting the eighth pavilion, for example, she writes, “the Pavilion of Colours can be described as the ‘fireworks’ at the end of the journey through the Arsenale, where all the questions presented in the preceding pavilions come together to provide what might be described almost as an ‘out of self’ experience prior to the final chapter.” There is no doubt that Sheila Hicks’s Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands is a glorious event––a wall of brilliance and texture. But, when disarmed by such vibrancy, do we actually come to transcend ourselves and find revitalized comradeship with others?12

In spite of these abstractions, there is much that surprises and excites in this Biennale––the love of process; the passion for craft, skill, and materiality; the gorgeousness that offers relief from the world. For this we are grateful. But the exhibition is lacking in urgency.

Many will suffer or already are suffering from an inflicted “worldlessness,” to use Hannah Arendt’s phrase (a state of being that she, as a historically displaced person, well understood).13

Macel goes back to find artists like the fabulous Anna Halprin and her Planetary Dance or David Medalla and his A Stitch in Time—artists and work that tries to heal and create communality. But she does not then go forward to those contemporary artists who are also deeply engaged in the public sphere and who, collaborating with scientists, technologists, futurists, sociologists, urbanists, climate change experts, and diverse societal networks, are trying to create a more sane and communal sense of the world, while also developing new knowledge across disciplinary barriers.

This liminal space of possibility––this crossing of bodies of knowledge––could help articulate a future role for artists in society. But artists working with such new methodologies are not clearly in the forefront of Macel’s project, and when they are presented (as Olafur Elliason and his Green Light: An Artistic Workshop), they remain isolated and inadequately contextualized.

To truly explore her idea of a “potential neo-humanism” related to artistic practice, Macel might have framed a greater part of this exhibition around those artists who are helping our species understand that we must become the caretakers of the earth and of each other, now, before it is too late.

  1. Christine Macel, introduction to Biennale Arte 2017: Viva Arte Viva, Short Guide (Venice, Italy: Marsilio Editori, 2017), 39.
  2. Macel, Biennale Arte 2017: Viva Arte Viva, 38.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 126­–127.
  7. Benjamin Genocchio, “Okwui Enwezor’s 56th Venice Biennale is Morose, Joyless, and Ugly,” Artnet News, May 8, 2015, https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/okwui-enwezor-56th-venice-biennale-by-benjamin-genocchio-295434.
  8. Barbara Casavecchia, “57th Venice Biennale ‘Viva Arte Viva,’” Art Agenda, May 13, 2017, http://www.art-agenda.com/reviews/57th-venice-biennale-viva-arte-viva/.
  9. Matthew Collings, “Venice Biennale 2017: The Verdict on the 57th Edition of the World’s Biggest Art Event,” London Evening Standard, Friday, May 12, 2017, http://www.standard.co.uk/goingout/arts/venice-biennale-2017-the-verdict-on-the-57th-edition-of-the-worlds-biggest-art-event-a3537376.html.
  10. Holland Cotter, “Biennale: Whose Reflection Do You See?” New York Times, May 22, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/22/arts/design/venice-biennale-whose-reflection-do-you-see.html.
  11. Macel, Biennale Arte 2017: Viva Arte Viva, 42.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Arendt, The Human Condition, 54.

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