How naïve can we really afford to be?
How naïve can we really afford to be?
by Federica Bueti
In times when even the most critical art is accused of complicity with predominant power structures, strengthening the figure of the artist as creator of alternate worlds sounds like a productive strategy. Federica Bueti on how a laudable approach went wrong.
What is most striking about the 57th edition of the Venice Biennale is its naïve approach, which spans from the title, “Viva Arte Viva”, to the curatorial concept, to many of the works in the show. In the face of so many negative sentiments about art’s complicity with capitalism, one might think that curator Christine Macel’s positive attitude towards art’s potential to imagine a different present is to be appreciated. Maybe faith in art and artists is exactly what we need in a present where falling back on cynicism is both fashionable and too easy. The problem, however, is that Macel’s “passionate outcry”, as she herself describes her approach, is lopsided. It flattens even the most political of artistic gestures and seems blind to its own pitfalls.
The main exhibition is divided into nine thematic chapters – or, as Macel calls them, “pavilions” – with names that seem to have been taken from a new-age self-help manual: “The Pavilion of Joy and Fear”, “The Pavilion of Time and Infinity”, the “Dionysian Pavilion”, and so on. The curator explains that each pavilion is “discursive and at times paradoxical, with detours that mirror the world’s complexity, a multiplicity of approaches and a wide variety of practices.”
What this amounts to is that each chapter contains a little bit of everything, which doesn’t actually make for a good starting point for addressing complexity.
In the Central Pavilion, the exhibition opens with the late Mladen Stilinović’s iconic piece Artist at Work (1978). The photographs show him sleeping in his bed. This is a key part of “The Pavilion of Artists”, which, we are told, examines “the way [artists] create art, between idleness and action, otium and negotium.” If Stilinović here represents the idler, Olafur Eliasson is the man of action. For The Green Light — an artistic workshop (2017), the artist asked a group of asylum seekers to volunteer to build lamps in collaboration with visitors. The sale of the lamps will fund legal and psychological support. During the opening, I attended an event in which Eliasson and two Italian lawyers explained their project while everybody else listened in silence. Eliasson must have had the best of intentions, but it is hard to believe he did not see the problems with putting asylum seekers on display like this.
The show continues with works as diverse as Kiki Smith’s delicate ink-on-paper Girls with Wood (2009), which deals with representations of sex and identity; Agnieszka Polska’s beautiful video Sensitization to Colours (2009), which marks the artist’s attempt at reconstructing a performance of the same title by Polish artist Włodzimierz Borowski in Poznań’s Galeria Od Nowa in 1968; and Hassan Sharif’s colourful installation Hassan Sharif Studio (Supermarket) (1990–2016), which presents three decades of the artist’s work on a system of supermarket-like shelves. Even if the loose connections among works are deliberate, the sheer quantity and at times negligent installation— with, for example, large works placed in narrow corridors— refuses to admit that different works need different spatial conditions to unfold their character.
In the Arsenale, the situation does not get any better. Here the individual works are granted more space, but the curator’s attempt to group artists thematically is problematic. For instance, the “Pavilion of Shamans” presents the work of artists who seem to have been inspired by Sufism, Buddhism, and different indigenous religious practices – a spiritual turn, as the curator describes it, “characterised by concern for others and meditation.” But what is the connection between the two, if any exists? And, more important, who are those “others”? Ernesto Neto’s Um Sagrado Lugar [A Sacred Place] (2017) is a huge tent made from translucent gold fabric. It is, we learn, inspired by a shabono, a ritual place where the ayahuasca ceremonies are usually performed by Huni Kuin, indigenous people from Brazil and Peru. Inside the tent, the audience can meet members of the tribe, dressed in traditional feathered costumes. From time to time they emerge and perform ritual dances. Again, the intention to facilitate a form of cultural encounter may be worthy, but the display of tribal culture instead resembles a spectacle of ethnicity reminiscent of nineteenth-century colonialist entertainment.
Ironically, the works that stand out do so by virtue of the fact that they are not consumed by the curatorial framework.
There is, for example, a substantial body of work by little-known artist Maria Lai (1919–2013), who produced stunning works with everyday materials such as yarn, terracotta, paper, and bread. Her fabric piece Geografia [Geography](1992) charts the order and chaos of the cosmos with coloured threads. Cleanly sewn geometric shapes, longitudes and latitudes are offset by loose threads that hang down in tangled webs. In Lai’s performance Legarsi alla montagna [To be tied to the mountain] (1981), meanwhile, the social itself is the canvas on which patterns are drawn, as people from Lai’s native village of Ulassai tie themselves to each other and to their surroundings with one long blue ribbon. And in the garden of the Arsenale, Hassan Khan’s Composition for a Public Park (2013-17) is surprisingly powerful. As one walks down the path, more and more sonic elements are progressively added until a symphony of disjointed voices, sounds and noise hits you with the full force of an orchestra, and a voice articulates what sounds like a political statement.
Such works make clear how much power there is, after all, in artistic subtlety and complexity. So it is unfortunate that the curatorial framework and largely careless mise-en-scène lacks these qualities. Macel might have deliberately decided to go for a simple celebration of art and humanism, but I kept turning back to the question: how naïve can we really afford to be today?
FEDERICA BUETI is a writer based in Berlin. She is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of ...ment.