The title Viva Arte Viva calls out for celebration of art. That indeed was Christine Mecel’s intention for this years Venice Biennale. She “is asking us to believe that art is alive, and/or that we should all celebrate the celebration of art. Viva (hail) relates also to ovation (as in “Hail to the Chief”) and liturgical acclamation (like hooray or amen)” (Casavecchia). Mecel opens her statement writing: “Today, faced with a world full of conflicts and shocks, art bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human, at a time when humanism is precisely jeopardized. Art is the ultimate ground for reflection, individual expression, freedom, and for fundamental questions. The role, the voice and the responsibility of the artist are more crucial than ever, within the framework of contemporary debates”. That would have been great if the curator actually followed through with it, rather than avoiding “discussing 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.”(Casavecchia)
The main event was divided into nine chapters: The Pavilion of Artists and Books,The Pavilion of Joys and Fears, The Pavilion of the Common, The Pavilion of the Earth, The Pavilion of Traditions, The Pavilion of Shamans, The Dionysian Pavilion, The Pavilion of Colours and The Pavilion of Time and Infinity. “If these are the components of our world, or rather, those that Macel sees as central concerns of artists, it’s a tentatively optimistic picture that she presents”(Thackara). Each one of these was supposed to feel like “mini-exhibition” perhaps, but to me, it made it made no sense. With the categories being significantly diﬀerent, walking from one to another was confusing, even when there was in fact no physical separation between these.
If the event was anything, it certainly was not reflective of 2017. A subtitle of an artNews article states “Primitivism makes an unexpected return in Christine Macel's therapeutic vision.” This whole phenomenon of simply just bringing in equality for the press, “addressing” Primitivism without creating a discussion around it, is rather exploitative. Perhaps Mecel genuinely thought that bringing racial and gender equality will itself be enough. “It revived the “primitivism” debate of 30 years, its terms unchanged: We in the West continue to import the Other for our pleasure, while remaining complicit in a global economy that is destroying the Other’s world” (Cotter). While it is applaudable, the fact that the majority of the artists she has selected have never exhibited in Venice Biennale, the show lacked a kick, something that would actually make it relevant in any way.
The Pavilion of Shamans (interesting title choice) welcomes its visitors with a large scale tent-like structure, that is open for anyone to go into, read or meditate, “though at the Biennale opening, it was occupied mainly by ceremonially dressed Amazonian Indians brought by Mr. Neto to perform religious rituals.”(Cotter) In Canadian Art, Ryan Rice writes “Neto’s motivations are unclear—except for the space he creates as a ringleader, choreographing spectacle and the fetishization of primitivism by placing six Txanas, all members of the Huni Kuin people, on display as his art under a tent.” He then continues to write that, “any true sense or sign of collaboration in this work was trumped by Neto’s self-serving arrogance, and by the lingering colonial gestures he perpetuated.” Bringing in Indigenous peoples to perform for entertainment is a well- known phenomenon, as seen at the opening of Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, “the Indigenous people were exploited in an attempt to present a narrative of Canada's multiculturalism. 400 Aboriginal youth were invited to participate in the Opening Ceremony but their role was over shined by the rest of the "modern day" Canada presentations” (UBC wiki). One would hope people will learn eventually.
The pavilions in Giardini remained unchanged - dominantly Western. Majority of the non-European pavilions are scattered around the city and hard to find, reviewers barely ever mention any of them. Some are lucky enough to be a part of the show in Arsenale, where they share very little space and crammed together in one section. For instance, Kosovo, Slovenia, Croatia and Georgia are all squeezed into one room. In the essay How White People Became White, Barrett and Roediger discuss the title new immigrant given to Eastern Europeans when arriving to United States in the early 20th century. The Eastern European immigrant in Western society is still not seen equal, they experience abuse, exploitation (EERC). From my personal experience, travelling with an Eastern European passport, out of Eastern Europe and (former) communist countries, within or outside Shengen, is a hassle. To see these countries crammed in a shared room says to me, that they are not considered equal to larger and more developed countries. In fact, all of the national “pavilions” in Arsenale, except the Italian, Chinese and New Zeland pavilions, felt squished together, with no room to breathe in between them. These included South American, African, Middle Eastern and Eastern European countries only.
The issue with pavilions does not stop there. The teepee-resembling Canadian Pavilion, which is located in the main part of Giardini, featured a Geoﬀrey Framer piece. The piece titled A way out of the mirror, resembles ruins of a fountain, and it had water splashing on the visitors, and it did feel good on such a hot August day. In an interview with thestar.com, he starts connecting this piece, that responds to a fatal car crash his grandfather had, to Canada 150 and Canada’s colonial history. But to be completely fair, if Canada really was trying to move beyond its colonial past, they would not have picked a successful white male artist to represent them. However, what I would consider perhaps the most questionable part of the whole event would be the Venice Pavilion, curated by Stefano Zecchi. Its theme was Luxury. While I get the need for a homage to Venetian craftsmanship, all the marble and gold just seemed… excessive.The display of these objects was in a way similar to how museums treat artifacts collected during colonial voyages - separately shown behind glass, except only the most luxuriously looking objects were placed in glass vitrines. Still the national pavilions did a much better job at presenting art that is responding to the contemporary world.
One artist’s participation brought in refugees, asylum seekers and people who are forced migration, to work together on making lamps. The idea of connecting people who are displaced through an artistic workshop, assembling green lights , and oﬀering them language classes seems harmless. Reflecting on the experience I had walking into the workshop after having discussions about the human zoos during World Fairs, I can not help but connect these two. Perhaps the idea of people, who each day worry about being deported back into war-zones, producing 250€ lamps, whether the money goes towards helping or not, it just seems exploitative. Another pavilion working with refugees was the NSK State - four refugees, taking on the roles of oﬃcials were issuing passports. NSK State has been issuing passports for years now, however this time the process was curated by Ahmet Öğüt, who intentionally made it frustrating in order to point out how refugees might feel when applying for visas. (Petersen)
“The use of refugees in the NSK pavilion and the young people in the Tunisian pavilion raises moral questions about turning these individuals into an art spectacle to be gawked at by the Biennale masses.” (Petersen) While employing refugees sure has good intentions, the people who are going to be watching them perform are people with real passports, visas, and enough financial means to aﬀord to come into Venice and pay the not super aﬀordable price of Biennale’s tickets.
However I would like to return to this years theme and curators intentions. The call for celebration of art that takes you away from the world’s problems at the Biennale that started as a tool for political propaganda (Vogel 29), in the year when politics rule everything, clearly did not work out well. Majority of the reviews have little to nothing positive to say, from the confusion that came with the trans-pavilions in Arsenale and Giardini, to the critique of her usage of Shamanism. And perhaps worth mentioning is that the one pavilion that included exclusively artists of colour, the Pavilion of Shamans, was the smallest one, featuring only six artists.
Looking back at the 2015 Biennale curated by Okwui Enwezor, which was bold, responding to the current ongoings around the world and too, had many artists who have never participated in Venice Biennale. Politically and intellectually loaded, perhaps what Mecel was going for this year, was the opposite of that. “The Biennale lamented the conflict, political tyranny and deconstructed capitalism. […] Enwezor showed his definition of how political art can be a tool for social change and a documentation of political conditions without being appropriated as propaganda or through ideological purposes. Most of the times in a very loud manner, Enwezor has been successful with this approach.” (Rodríguez) While Mecel did agree, that the voice of the artist in contemporary debates is more important than ever, she did no actually confirm that with her curatorial practices. What she did was show us beautiful art to look at, but art that did not challenge the viewer in any way. Meanwhile “the artists [during the 56th Biennale] reflected upon topics such as labor, post-colonialism, poverty, racism, injustice, war, violence, social engagement, revolution and broken ideologies and created a complex ecosystem of this world, a challenge that leads to a quite disturbing and brutal exhibition.” (Rodríguez)
Mecel in a conversation with Enwezor says that she does not believe the Venice Biennale should have theme, rather the art being a theme itself. She says she wants every artist to be presented and recognized equally. Although that concept does not at all work out outside the main exhibition, as previously mentioned, the national pavilions are highly political. But perhaps this optimistic and almost naive direction is what the art world needed - to space out and enjoy the exhibition. We can speculate whether that was the right choice or not, majority of the reviews did not think it was successful nor reflective of the state of contemporary art right now. My issues stretch far beyond what Mecel could have done and start with the Biennale itself. I do not agree with her approach to Shamanism, as a way of healing. Healing for who? Sure not the audience in Venice. I do not agree with the exploitation of refugee labour marketed as something else. But maybe it is important to remember the Biennale’s history and under what circumstances it developed - a tool for political propaganda, touristic attraction, first opened in 1895. So in that case, maybe Casavecchia was not wrong to write that “Venice is a 122-year-old cult, celebrated every two years in the same temples (pavilions and palazzos, but also yachts, vaporetti, and bars), with growing numbers of followers and replicas around the world.”
Bibliography and works cited:
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