Weather-wise, Tuesday could hardly have been a more idyllic day for the national pavilions clustered in Venice’s Giardini, its public gardens, to open to select visitors as part of the 56th Venice Biennale. It was sunny, the temperature hovered around 70 degrees, and the smell of honeysuckle wafted through the air. But what is on view inside some of the best pavilions here—many more national pavilions are located off-site—paints a very different picture: artists today are struggling, some more aesthetically successfully than others, with how to create meaning in a world that feels chaotic, overwhelming, unjust, and dangerous. In doing so, they are mining the past, and weighing the post-colonial present.
Brazil’s pavilion approaches head-on the possibility of societal transformation, and takes its inspiration from the mass protests in Brazil two years ago and its title, “So much that it doesn’t fit here,” from a poster carried by one of the protesters. A third of the pavilion is taken up by performance artist Berna Reale’s three and a half minute video Americano, from 2013, which follows Reale, outfitted sportily as an Olympic torch bearer, running with a lit torch through a vast prison. As she makes her way down the narrow, dingy aisles, hands shoot out at her through the bars that line it, some holding mirrors that they swivel for a better view of her progress; as she runs across a scraggly yard, a rat trots alongside her for a few paces. In a poignant nighttime shot from outside the prison complex, her lit torch, moving along the rooftop, traces the upper edge of the looming building. Brazil, a country with 274 inmates per 100,000 people—the fourth-largest prison population in the world—is, of course, preparing for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. A wall label lays out Reale’s intentions to contrast the meanings embodied by that famous torch—reason, wisdom, liberty, freedom, human rights—with the grim conditions of imprisonment, particularly this prison, the Santa Izabel complex in Para. But her piece also illuminates the often stark contrast between the public face a country shows to the world during such an international event—usually much superficial sprucing is done—and the aspects of its personality that it would prefer to brush under the rug. It is, in other words, a brave choice for a national pavilion at the Biennale.
In a very different vein, in the British pavilion, veteran sculptor Sarah Lucas, one of the most talented members of the YBA generation, comes out swinging with two large, bright yellow abstract sculptures at the pavilion entrance that bring to mind the phallic sculptures of the late German artist Franz West put through a feminist wringer. Just as tall and phallic as those famous Wests, Lucas’s sculptures have sprouted sagging breast-like appendages and, in parts, seem to be deflating into a wrinkly puddle. With two strong sculptures like this at the entrance to the pavilion—they are the best in her show— she seems to be mocking the whole idea of monumentalism by making it abject, and mordantly funny. Elsewhere in the pavilion, the daffodil-yellow walls of which pick up on those opening sculptures, Lucas is up to her old tricks, with mixed results. Those walls also evoke meringue; Lucas has said she wanted her show to “have the appearance of a dessert. A confection.” Throughout the space, life-size, naturalistically rendered plaster figures of the human body from the waist down sprawl across tables, a washing machine, a toilet, and an arrangement of Spam tins. (Most of these everyday items, repurposed as sculptural bases, come from her home and studio.) Each figure has a cigarette, a favorite material of Lucas’s, sprouting from its behind. What this pavilion proves about Lucas’s work is the extent to which formal rigor and—strange to say it with work like this—beauty have always been present alongside the spunkiness and punk elements of her project. In one gallery, she has created Eames chair sculptures by casting the bases in bronze and using concrete in place of the fabric portion. They are vaguely surreal, and marvelous to look at. Perched on and around them are her black cat sculptures, eerie, semi-abstract things that appear as though they are melting. Looking at them, I thought of someone pulling the plug on Jeff Koons’s famous rabbit.
Nearby, in the French pavilion, Céleste Boursier-Mougenot has rigged up three trees to move in and around the pavilion on their own, through a complex system that utilizes signals from the sap flow within the trees and also generates a buzzing sound in the pavilion. The pavilion itself contains one of these trees and, around the margins, soft, foam-like benches where visitors can sit and ponder the roving tree. The roof of the pavilion is open to the elements. It’s one of those projects that is perhaps too ambitious for its own good. The pavilion’s curator, Emma Lavigne of Centre Pompidou Metz, explained to me that originally the plan was for the trees to be able to move down the Giardini’s central alleyway, but this turned out not to be feasible. And the German pavilion across the way wasn’t too keen on the trees coming too near. As a result, the two mobile trees outside have a rather small area in which to circulate. Still, the idea behind the pavilion is an intriguing one. It’s called “Revolution,” and depends on the “rev” or “reve,” at the beginning of the word: those foam seats are meant to provide you with a meditative space in dream up a plan for true revolution.
In Israel’s pavilion, Tsibi Geva has embedded a mass of his belongings—a washing machine, plastic tubs, ladders, cooking pots, an electric space heater, a hose—within the walls of the pavilion, behind glass so that they appear as a newly revealed layer, a display common to archaeological museums. It’s a reference to Israel’s tradition of the boydem (the Hebrew word for attic), a storage space used for the purpose of holding on to things that, in reality, they will never again use. When they left Europe, many of Israel’s Jews came with many things that they never again used, but continued to store. Geva is playing with the underlying psychological concept here: what cultural memories do people hold onto when they cross borders, and why do they hold onto them if they no longer serve a real purpose? His concern with political and social instability continues on the pavilion’s outer wall, which is lined with used black tires, a common sight in riots and uprisings in Israel, particularly during the Intifada.
A similar impulse to organize cultural memory in the manner of a museum is in evidence in Fiona Hall’s display in the brand new Australian pavilion, a black box by architects Denton Corker Marshall that is the first 21st-century building in the Giardini and was inaugurated yesterday with a traditional “smoking ceremony” by indigenous musicians from Australia (and an appearance by Cate Blanchett). Hall has dimmed the lights, and made the space into a sort of museum of the present. There are tall vitrines filled with things like a sculpture of a kalashnikov made of bread and masks made from torn-up military uniforms; the walls are lined with clocks assembled from various discarded materials. The title of the installation, “Wrong Way Time,” says it all: as the clocks lining the walls remind us, time is passing, and the world is going the wrong way.
In his brilliant display in the Danish pavilion, the Vietnamese-Danish artist Danh Vo stays true to his practice, mixing various culture’s aesthetic histories. It’s the subtlest, most elegant in the entire Giardini. Vo told me he took two months to set up his pavilion, moving the pieces—branches from Brazil set atop furniture by Danish modernist Finn Juhl; a fragment of a 2nd-century A.D. Roman marble torso in an old Carnation Milk crate; an armless, worm-eaten wooden figure of crucified Christ mounted atop Gothic lettering on a window; a 17th-century cherub head cut with a diamond cutter to fit into a Johnny Walker whiskey box—ever so slightly to find the best placement, and taking his weekends off to ponder the results, and it shows: one piece is positioned so that a slant of light comes through a skylight at such an angle as to be, from all views, compositionally impeccable. Largely a reflection on Catholicism, his pavilion is truly a meditative space, a space that seems to breathe different air from the rest of the Giardini. That it is sure to be one of the most popular pavilions this week is something of a dilemma: it will be a shame, and a reduction of its effect, to see it crowded with visitors.
But there are three pieces in the Giardini that resonated with me throughout yesterday and into today. Taken together, they go some ways toward providing a multidimensional, nuanced answer to the questions of, to riff on the title Gauguin famously gave to one of his largest paintings, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? In different ways, these works explore shared histories, protest and resistance, and the attempt to understand a place’s vexed history, the better to rage against its present. In other words: knowing where we were, the better to see where we are going.
Joan Jonas’s American pavilion, “They Come to Us Without a Word,” isn’t a home run, but for the 79-year-old artist it is certainly a victory lap. I largely agree with The Boston Globe’s Sebastian Smee that over the course of her estimable career as a pioneering video and performance artist, raw pieces like 1972’s Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy have occasionally given way to more jumbled works. The works in the American pavilion, videos populated largely by children and featuring references to nature, and to ghost stories and folk tales, have a jumbled quality: it’s sometimes tough to find a through-line. And yet, spending time in Jonas’s pavilion—her work has always taken its time—is rewarding. Throughout the galleries are vitrines containing rocks and shells collected in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. In the nature imagery here, both in drawings and in the videos—bees, fish—there is a powerful message about the extent to which humans’ stories have emerged from the natural world, and remain embedded in it. One can extrapolate from that a powerful message—whispered, rather than preached—about the importance of preserving the environment, and what will be lost if we fail to do so. And there are passages that, to use an overused phrase that happens to be appropriate here, are pure poetry. One of these occurs in the pavilion’s penultimate gallery, where a multilayered video is accompanied by strange, evocative music, as well as two voices, a man’s and a woman’s, that alternate to tell the story of a mysterious supernatural light that some people saw and some didn’t. “He was scared,” the woman’s voice says, “because he saw the light.”
Light is the subject—or one of them, anyhow—of Hito Steyerl’s absorbing video installation, The Factory of the Sun, in the German pavilion. Here, light “is deep entertainment and destruction.” Steyerl’s piece, which seasons an imagined nightmarish, apocalyptic scenario with more than a dash of very dark humor, is one division (the “Motion Capture Studio”) of a group exhibition that has turned the pavilion into a labyrinth-like “Fabrik,” the German word for factory. (Other parts of “Fabrik,” like Olaf Nicolai’s installation in which actors on the pavilion roof become visible only when they throw boomerangs off of it, are less impactful: like Boursier-Mougenot’s mobile trees for the French pavilion, Nicolai’s piece seemed ambitiously conceived but not entirely successfully executed, more stunt than artwork.) Accessible down a set of stairs—the whole space smells of fresh building materials—Steyerl’s area is a large, windowless, subterranean-seeming room, a theater setting in which the seats are reclining deck chairs scattered throughout the space. The room is darkened, save for a blue grid on the floor, walls and ceiling, that, in its hint of extending infinitely, is evocative of The Matrix. Facing the deck chairs is a giant screen on which appears a video that shuttles between the virtual world and real life, playing with references to video games, the internet, an NSA listening station in Berlin, and 24-hour news channels. The story here, told in fits and starts, is of a computer game—though one that, we are told in voiceovers and in lettering on the screen, “is not a game, it is reality”—in which human movements are turned into light, which is then somehow commodified. Deutsche Bank drones are killing protestors—at one point a man playing a Deutsche Bank rep justifies these actions by halfheartedly explaining that terrorists “hide behind” the protestors, and saying “I speak, you listen to me. This is democracy. This is how it works”—and a young man’s dancing in his basement in Canada is transformed, via its dissemination on the internet, into a team of popular Japanese animated characters and, ultimately, into a form of protest. Interspersed throughout this fictional narrative is a historical one: the story of the narrator Julia, who is the game’s programmer (her twin brother is that amateur basement dancer). Her parents, she tells us in a voiceover, emigrated from Russia to Israel, fleeing political persecution. Steyerl’s work here is a cousin of Ryan Trecartin’s—it has some of the same manic energy and interest in digital-technology-as-destiny—but its overall pacing is different. It bombards you, but also takes its time. One segment, when a dancer is killed by a Deutsche Bank drone, is downright jarring. Like the best science-fiction, it achieves poignance by providing an exaggeration of current realities.
Those current realities are to be found in the Belgian pavilion. Group shows aren’t always successful in the national pavilions, but this is another place where, this time around, it works. The artist Vincent Meessen and the curator Katerina Gregos invited eight international artists to use Europe’s colonial history in Africa—key here is Belgium’s vexed colonization of Congo, and its aftermath—as a jumping-off point. The standout work is the pavilion’s centerpiece, Meessen’s new three-channel digital video installation One.Two.Three. It opens with the Congolese Situationist Joseph M’Belolo Ya M’Piku calling Meessen from Kinshasa, to ask if he’s listened to the song M’Belolo has just completed. In fact, it is a reworking of a song that M’Belolo composed back in May ’68, as a member of the Situationist International. For the remainder of the film, M’Belolo describes his new rendition of the song, which deals with the legacy of the Situationists, whose actions were far more wide ranging, socially and politically, than that of most protest-oriented art projects. In Kinshasa, M’Belolo tells us, the spirit of ’68 lives on. This is conveyed powerfully by the imagery here of rioters in the streets pushed back by police—at around the same time that M’Belolo rediscovered his old song, there were uprisings just outside the doors of the Un Deux Trois jazz club—imagery that, for Americans, will perhaps bring to mind the recent unrest in Baltimore, especially given Adam Pendleton’s flag that fronts the Belgian pavilion, which reads “Black Lives,” a truncated version of the current rallying cry in response to police violence in the US, “Black Lives Matter.”
Meessen’s film follows young female musicians as they walk through the corridors of Un Deux Trois, getting their guitars in tune to play M’Belolo’s song. These shots are intercut with shots of those Kinshasa protests where, we are told, attacked demonstrators with chlorine grenades. “History is made in reverse; the past is becoming,” M’Belolo says. “Belgium had colonized Congo, but capitalism colonized Belgium.” In his song, he uses the language Kikongo, instead of the Mobutu-enforced language of Limbala. He talks about failed revolutions, unfinished theories, radicalism, and protests during the colonial era. “We didn’t just try to understand society,” he explains. “We tried to transform it.” He talks about increasing the participation of women in society, and the continued possibility of revolution, and finding ways to live better lives. Among the film’s concluding shots are ones of him in a recording studio, layering his vocals into the song: “Ah, my comrades, march upright”; “When you are not your own master you are a slave”; “Be it in America—on fire—in Asia—on fire—in Africa—on fire.” He says all the world’s struggles are against the same enemy: power. As to how to handle that enemy: “burn them at the stake.”
Okwui Enwezor, the artistic director of this year’s Venice Biennale, has titled his Biennale “All the World’s Futures.” Meessen’s film reminds us that those futures are tied up in all the world’s pasts.