At the Venice Biennale, contemporary art sinks or swims


VENICE — It’s a bit lost now in the brain fog of time, but in March 2020, one of the first memes of the coronavirus pandemic was born from the waters of this most serene Republic. A fraudster has posted a photo of dolphins supposedly swimming in the Bacino di San Marco and swans sailing on an unpolluted blue Grand Canal. Humans were gone and Venice was a natural paradise! The city that Henry James called his “repertoire of consolations” had been compressed to a shareable size: an aquatic utopia, to be contemplated on a touch screen, as the virus made its way towards us.

The dolphins were a hoax. But the feeling that humanity is the enemy of life and beauty: maybe that part is right, judging by the breathless, confusing and chockablock preview days of the 2022 Venice Biennale. The world’s oldest and most prestigious contemporary art exhibition opens to the public on Saturday after a year’s delay, and the pandemic has done little to reduce the size of the exhibition or the importance of its visitors. Yes, crowds are a little thinner in Venice in mid-April. (I’m not complaining.) Yes, the megayacht quotient has gone down somewhat. (I’m certainly not complaining.) It’s still Venice, though, and the Biennale remains the most combustible mix of creative minds, spectacular wealth, and global culture stumbling toward the future.

For those new to the lagoon, a brief introduction: The Venice Biennale is a two-part spectacle. It includes a main international exhibition – this year is the 59th edition; the first was in 1895 — which takes the temperature of contemporary art, as well as more than 90 pavilions in which nations hold their own exhibitions. Most often these pavilions present personal exhibitions; the pavilion of the United States went this year to the famous sculptor and ceramist Simone Leigh. On top of that, Venice’s many museums time their biggest exhibitions to open during the Biennale, while dealers, foundations and chancellors rent canalside palaces for pop-up exhibitions ranging from museum quality to cash-and-carry.

This year’s main exhibition, curated by Italian-born New Yorker Cecilia Alemani, is a highly argued and often successful exhibition. An overwhelming majority of participants are women, and surrealism, cyborgism, and animal and plant life are key themes. There are some great new paintings in the main exhibit by New Yorkers Amy Sillman and Jacqueline Humphries; the latest works by Kaari Upson, the hugely ambitious Los Angeles artist who died last year; and fascinating historical inclusions of overlooked 20th-century figures, many Italians, all women. I’ll be posting a full review of Alemani’s exhibition next week, but I’ll say this now: her feminist, surrealist, and ecological approach has produced a cohesive and thought-provoking exhibition, one whose optimistic view of emancipation through the imagination is very rare these days.

But the national presentations are the worst collection I’ve seen in 20 years of attending the Biennale: a Nightmare on Garibaldi Street of half-warmed conceptualism, a vapid jokey sculpture, a leaden political pointer and at least a puddle of hugs. genderqueer. Great artists, like Maria Eichhorn, an incisive analyst of art institutions, and the Japanese theater and technology collective Dumb Type, deliver some of the least interesting works of their careers.

Breakout surprises, such as the formidable climate opera “Sun & Sea (Marina)” in the Lithuanian pavilion of the latest edition, are nowhere in evidence. Young artists follow one another. In the pavilions of Serbia and Italy, we encounter distant views of the sky meeting the sea, an evocation of migration and loss. If you’re not “critiquing” or “interrogating” pre-existing material, you’re stuck making fun, empty houses like Denmark’s Uffe Isolotto, who places hyperrealistic sculptures of dead centaurs amid a prickly hay, or the Austrians Jakob Lena Knebl and Ashley Hans Scheirl, whose soft sculptures have a color scheme better suited to “The Price Is Right”. Venice is a city where the present has not lived up to the past for 500 years. This year, the present is really taking a hit.

By my reckoning, only two performers in the national pavilions fully rose to the occasion. One is Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, a Roma artist who has filled the Polish pavilion with a wraparound 12-part tapestry whose images of Roma migration and daily life are cohesive across countless pieces of stitched canvas, cashmere, lace and sackcloth. (Mirga-Tas is the first Roma artist to represent Poland here.) Her boiling scenes of archers and guitarists, activists and porters, have a stentorian grandeur equal to the frescoes all around this town, applied finally to those that are pushed away from European history.

The other is Stan Douglas, the dominant intellect of Vancouver photography and video art, who delves into the cross-border uprisings of 2011 (the Arab Spring, the London riots, Occupy Wall Street) in a shared contribution between the Canadian pavilion and a former salt storage depot. Carefully staged photographic reconstructions of those 2011 rebellions make Occupy and the Arab Spring a story, but it’s a two-screen video, titled “ISDN”, that reveals Douglas’s ability to reconstruct the present via fictitious interventions in the past.

Here we see two grime artists from London and two rappers from Cairo of a related Egyptian style, engaged in a thrilling call and response across borders. But it’s much more than a concert film: Douglas recorded the lyrics and bassline separately at 140 beats per minute, and an algorithm cuts and stitches the British and Egyptian sounds into a perpetually new performance, an imaginary community consisting of music and fiber optic cables.

Among some grim national entries, Leigh’s American Pavilion stands out for its aspiration, production values, and noble demeanor. Inside, new ceramic and bronze works intertwine the motifs of Baga masks, Egyptian funerary statuary and the modernist stylizations of Giacometti and Ernst, who themselves redeployed African (and Oceanian) sculpture. (Leigh’s “Brick House,” the 16-foot bust previously on the High Line in New York, is also here in Venice, in Alemani’s central display.) Outside, Leigh took over the entire pavilion neo-Palladian with a temporary thatched roof, echoing the colonial pavilions of the universal exhibitions of the last century.

Remodeling or obscuring a pavilion’s architecture as a historic indictment has been a reliable approach here since Hans Haacke destroyed the German pavilion in 1993. The art inside still has to work on its own, and Leigh remains most successful in ceramic works such as the large white ‘Jug’, an oversized recreation of a southern-faced jug whose surface she encrusts with enlarged cowries, and ‘Cupboard’, whose stone shell on a large raffia skirt draws on African appropriations of surrealism and the afterlife of the Caribbean.

Leigh’s bronzes are tackier, and her works become more mundane as they become more figurative: “Last Garment,” a candid portrayal of a Jamaican laundress staged in a real pool of water, wins nothing at its average weight or imposing scale. The kind of intercession in history that the Roma tapestries of Mirga-Tas and the transcontinental music of Douglas perform with such vitality occurs here only intermittently, and, as with a black-and-white film that depicts a fire of Burning Man-style joy from one of Leigh’s totem sculptures, the artist must trust his native medium.

Welcome, then, to the most lopsided and unnerving Venice Biennale in recent memory, which came together in the midst of a global pandemic and now opens under the sign of a European ground war. It has never been clearer that the national pavilions are a side show to the Biennale’s central exhibition and that a country-by-country exhibition of new art has been decades past its sell-by date. (Courage to the international jury who had to see each of them and will award the Biennale prizes on Saturday.)

Is it Covid? I wonder if the isolation of those years and the subsumption of our lives locked by digital screens has just erased any last remaining commitment to art as something more than a means of communication. Venice, however, is the city that defined epidemics for the whole world: the word quarantine comes from the Venetian, and the ships of the “40 days” had to come to rest in the lagoon before their crews could disembark. Titian died there of the plague in 1576, while Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” transformed a cholera epidemic into an emblem of social decadence. Now we have FFP2 masks, which are mandatory inside exhibitions; at prosecco time, it’s every respiratory system for itself. A good Venetian lesson is that plagues eventually end. What art comes out of it is another question.

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