One week in May 2017: 40 country pavilions; six collateral events and other pavilions; seven temporary exhibitions, 120km walked, and 10 ice creams (various flavours).
A bank holiday weekend in August:, 14 Arsenale pavilions, seven collateral events, 38km walked, (only) three ice creams and many (tiger) mosquito bites.
2017 Venice Biennale curated by Centre Pompidou Chief Curator, Christine Macel
Viva Arte Viva, the 57th Venice Biennale, is curated by Christine Macel (b.1969), Chief Curator at the Centre Pompidou in Paris since 2000, where she founded the Department of “Création contemporaine et prospective”. For me, the International Art Exhibition in Giardini and Arsenale was just too scholarly. Macel placed artworks to fit each pavilion theme with the thoroughness of a diligent school mistress, I felt.
Macel: too scholarly a curatorial approach in Giardini and Arsenale
“Viva Arte Viva is an Exhibition inspired by humanism” and “designed with artists, by artists and for artists” according to Macel. Politics was largely ignored and there was little dealing with the current political reality or was it an intentional move, voluntarily depicting art as refuge? National participants dealt more with today’s realities, I think. My favourite country pavilions were:
South Africa: Migration and displacement
The South African pavilion, curated by Lucy MacGarry (b. 1981), deals with migration, displacement and integration. I went in May and then broke my one-visit rule per pavilion and returned again in August. The pavilion is in three parts. The first is a poetic three-screen video Passage (2017) by Mohau Modisakeng, exploring the disintegration of African identity within a political transition context.
In the second part (Love Story, 2016), Candice Breitz employs well-known actors, Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin, to tell unheard stories from unknown individuals. In the third part, the real protagonists tell their stories in a silent room (with headsets). I listened with emotion to real life stories including that of a Syrian immigrant to Lebanon and of a gay man in Venezuela. Tears welled when listening to the common story of asylum seekers, recalling my own family’s story in another part of the world.
Austria: One-minute sculptures in the Austrian pavilion
In the Austrian pavilion, Erwin Wurm allowed the Biennale public, under his direction, to become an artwork for 60 seconds in his [installation] ‘Just about virtues and vices in general’. Last year at Tate Modern, Wurm invited the public to make One Minute Sculptures during a viewing of Performing for the Camera. Wurm creates situations and instructions to overcome restrictions of sculpture, limiting its life time to one minute only.
I observed my surroundings, reading the artist’s instructions, at first shy as only a few people were playing the game during the opening week. I was on my own and walked quickly to a small-height white structure and looked down with my sunglasses. While I was a conventional standing sculpture for a minute, others were more adventurous and tried most if not all proposed sculptures.
Iraq: artistic heritage and political reality
Iraq brings to mind armed conflict, war crimes and other violations of human rights. Curators of the Iraqi Pavilion, Tamara Chalabi and Paolo Colombo, judiciously opted to include art dealing with the current political reality along with Iraq’s rich artistic heritage. The exhibition is entitled ‘Archaic’, referring to both an ancient cultural heritage and a fragile contemporary political entity. In my view, the duality is reflected in the confrontation between Iraq’s modern vs. contemporary artists, artistic heritage of the past vs. the current political situation.
Works by Al Said & Selim are of particular interest. They founded the Bagdad Modern Art Group in 1951: a nationalist and anti-colonial art group, interested in the divine, Sufism and abstraction. Belgian artist Francis Alÿs documents the role of artist in war from his visits to Baghdad and refugee camps in northern Iraq.
Korea: the proper time of labour
Usually a biennale hit, the Republic of Korea’s national pavilion curated by Daehyung Lee presents the cross-generation work of Mr K, Cody Choi and Lee Wan. I was touched by the work of Lee Wan in particular. In ‘Proper Time: though the dreams revolve with the moon (2017)’, the artist installed  identical-looking clocks each bearing the name, year of birth, nationality and occupation of an individual. Each clock moves at a different speed according to the amount of time the individual has to work to afford a meal.
Mexico: encrypted freedom of thought
In a project ‘Life in the Folds’ put together with curator Pablo Leon de la Barra, Carlos Amorales invented an encrypted typography for freedom of thought. Amorales’ encrypted alphabet preserves content to evade censorship. Amorales tells us via poems, ceramic instruments and a video using his encrypted alphabet the story of a migrant family: “It’s the story of a lynching – it is the story of a family of immigrants that arrive in a country and everyone starts speaking badly about them and they lynch them…”
Beyond the pavilions, my favourite invited artists familiar to me before the Biennale were Irma Blank on the theme of writing, environmental activist Julien Charriere and Cambodian Sopheap Pich. My new favourite artists that I discovered in Venice were post-war artist John Latham, Cluj-based Ciprian Muresan, figurative Marwan, sculptor Petrit Halijaj, artist of the magical Michele Ciacciofera and Lebanese feminist artist Huguette Caland.
One of the best exhibitions was at the Prada Foundation, ‘The Boat is Leaking. The Captain Lied.’ It was a transmedia exhibition project with Thomas Demand, designer Anna Viebrock and filmmaker Alexander Kluge. A favourite collateral event was Future Generation Art Prize, presented by Victor Pinchuk Foundation, which shows the work of 21 young artists. Another favourite is Intuition at Palazzo Fortuny, presented by the Axel & May Vervoordt Foundation, explores how intuition shaped “art across geographies, cultures and generations”. Also worth visiting was Damien Hirst’s ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ at Palazzo Grassi for the realisation of his grandiose imagination.
I saw around two-thirds of the Biennale and, despite Macel’s presentation feeling too scholarly and safe for me, there is always scope to learn, enjoy and be challenged by each Venice Biennale (2015, 2013). The Biennale is open until 26 November, closed on Mondays, Giardini 10am-6pm, Arsenale 10-6 (Fri-Sat 8pm until 30 Sep).