On Life, Death, Afterlife & Bare Life_Venice Biennale 2013
^ Dieter Roth, installation.
Any attempt to put together all-embracing knowledge will always fail. Whether it is about launching a capsule to outer space collecting the history/culture/technology of humanity or an encyclopaedia itself. They will always lack the component of spontaneity so inherent in human behaviour that is impossible to archive or register. However, in any compilation of knowledge, we can always extract and read those attempts as approximations to reality or future realities.
The 55th Venice Art Biennale 2013, The Encyclopedic Palace, is one of those attempts to launch a reading of humanity and condense it into a variety of modes of life. Anthropological in its conception, this edition curated by Massimiliano Gioni and his team (Helga Just Christoffersen, Natalie Bell, Roberta Tenconi, Annabelle Selldorf, Ian Sullivan and Chris Wiley) seems to successfully blur the ‘art label’ across different disciplines and practices, creating new visual encounters in imagination between ‘professional artists and amateurs, outsiders and insiders’. This reflects on our current mode of accessing information in a hyper-linked world, through which we follow endless threads of data guided by all powerful google searches.
^ In this regard, my top selection of discoveries providing a relevant spatial component starts with Silver Lion-awarded Camille Henrot and her piece Grosse Fatigue (2013). In her video, we dive into a variety of museums archives, entangled with Wikipedia and youtube interfaces that reflect upon daily routines of existence and eager to know at a single click. The brilliantly developed soundtrack reflects a repetitive mode of ‘street-preaching’ that brings us into quasi-religious belief.
^ On Kohei Yoshiyuki’s The Park photographic series (1971-79), taken with infrared film and a modified flash, we are exposed to a world of voyeurism at night. Hidden behind trees and bushes, the illicit eroticism of couples having sexual encounters in Tokyo, teleports us into the realm of fantasy. Back to a time of a severe clash between traditional understandings of social relationships and unprecedented economic transformations, we take part of a moment of radical change in Japanese history. The park reveals itself as a spatial product of accelerated capitalism.
^ In Viviane Sassen’s photographic work (2005-2012), we also enter into an introverted scene. The images compose static and over-aestheticized human landscapes from Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia or Uganda. Beyond the political clichés of a Dutch photographer working in Africa, where she grew up, we are confronted in her series with human bodies that carefully interact with the everyday spatial elements surrounding them. They configure a biopolitical statement reflecting upon the current state of social affairs and feature highly aesthetic bodies that are deprived of basic civil rights.
^ Following these local ethnographies, the photographic work of Nigerian J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere dating back to the 1960s shows the extremely elaborate constructions of hairstyles, that served as ornamentation either to indicate social position or to connect national and personal autonomy.
^ The work of Vietnamese Danh Vo contrasts with these typological imaginaries created during centuries of colonial and post-colonial history. He imported a catholic church from Vietnam into Venice: structural elements and decorative motifs. The fact of bringing the material rests of an unwanted building back to the cradle of Catholicism embodies the suffering of invaded peoples through the architecture of imperial domination. The shades of the extremely worn-out velvet fabrics displayed in Venice still reveal the presence of religious symbols that used to hang on them.
^ The unique draft for The Shaft of Ascension (1939) imagined by engineer Achilles G. Rizzoli consists of a ‘projected major unit in which Euthanasia is available to those desiring and meriting a pleasant, painless bon voyage from this land.’ Very much in line with Urbonas’ Euthanasia Roller-Coaster, this Art Deco-inspired skyscraper anticipated the desire of designing structures for accomplishing death and the empowerment to decide on human life through a building body.
^ Death encounters nature in the construction of historical Chinese tombs. Kan Xuan’s video documentation of the 207 existing imperial mounds depict landmarks in anodyne landscapes that could either be perceived as hills covered in wild vegetation or human-made monuments encapsulating burials. Under the name Millet Mounds (2012), Xuan establishes a link to the visual resemblance with harvest-time grain piles of such archaeological structures.
^ Physical interaction with memorials is also documented in Harun Farocki’s Transmission (2007). His video illustrates ways in which the living touch, kiss or prostrate, in front of these holy objects around the world. These material connections to communicate with the disappeared in wars or any other violent acts construct the spatial link between two different times.
Concerning the National Pavilions, and regardless of the eternal dilemma on their actual logic in a contemporary world of global modes of production, my selection starts with The Atlas of the Empire hosted by the Italo-Latin American Institute. Not precisely because of the final product of the installation, but rather the attempt of an alternative cartography of Latin America as an emerging territorial order today.
^ The first appearance of the Republic of Kosovo in Venice brings Petrit Halilaj’s exquisite installation of a bird/human-scale nest under the name I’m hungry to keep you close. I want to find the words to resist but in the end there is a locked sphere. The funny thing is that you’re not here, nothing is (2013). As viewers, we are part of the spectacle through which his canaries might be looking at us. We can sometimes hear them singing inside this primitive conception of a shelter. We can also wonder whom the enigmatically hanging clothes belong. Reflecting upon the contemporary political condition of Kosovar society, Halilaj’s earthy structure introduces us into his intimate world of relationships with his mother.
^ Romania’s critique to the Euro-centrism of the Venice Biennale as such consists of An Immaterial Retrospective that re-enacts certain pieces of the history of this international exhibition. Performance in its spatial essence, it leaves the whole pavilion empty to display an anti-grandiose memorial to art history through the viewer’s imagination.
^ Elegantly minimal, the Dutch brought Mark Manders, author of Self-Portrait as a Building (1986). His Venetian Room with Broken Sentence, an extremely delicate installation about the archaeology of his present, includes sometimes-visible sometimes-invisible objects, showing ‘things that don’t necessarily need to be seen’.
Maldives Pavilion, curated by Arab-European art collective Chamber of Public Secrets, participates for the first time, under the title Disappearance as Work in Progress – Approaches to Ecological Romanticism. It is a surprising encounter that features a group show dealing with the understandings of nature/culture and the possibility of the archipelago sinking under water in the future.
^ Spain’s contribution with always engaging Lara Almárcegui’s work and her conception of urbis visualizes the construction materials required to build the pavilion itself in 1922: the exact amounts of stone, glass, sand, bricks… composed by rubble from other demolition sites. Reflecting on current cycles of the useful and the useless within the generation of value, she brilliantly confronts the nature of the pavilion with other demolished structures. This connects to her other video on display A Guide to Sacca San Mattia, the Abandoned Island of Murano, which documents artificial landfills out of waste and debris located in the Venetian lagoon.
^ Kamikaze Loggia configures the Georgian Pavilion. Rather than the fictitious re-enactment of their research, the absolute success of it is to bring to Venice the issue of informal housing extensions in Tbilisi. This subversive practice, very common in post-Soviet urban peripheries, creates living space suspended in the most unexpected forms.
^ The most striking duo this year, the Lithuanian-Cyprus Pavilion Oo, goes into forms of organisation rather than organisation of forms. One of its successes is to camouflage inside an atypical Venetian palazzo, the sports palace: a brutalist concrete structure anchored in the core of the city. Brilliantly curated by Raimundas Malašauskas, one cannot distinguish between the curated and the actual user of the building: subtle performances on the staircase, LED devices leaning against the wall or gymnasts training behind the glass walls. The meticulously choreographed space presents itself as an endless orchestration of movements.
[all images above by deconcrete 2013]