2017 Venice Biennale

At the Venice Biennale, Worlds of Sound, from the Enigmatic to the Violent


The amount of art currently on view in Venice for the Biennale is so unfathomably vast that there’s no real way to measure this, but it does feel like there is an unusually large amount of sound art and musical work being presented, both in the main show, “Viva Arte Viva” and the various national pavilions and collateral shows—and many of those pieces are thrilling, by turns violent, alluring, and filled with surprises.

In the French pavilion in the Giardini, as I mentioned earlier, Xavier Veilhan has created a high-tech performance space and is planning to host more than 100 musicians from around the world in the coming months. Opera was being performed on opening day. A few feet away, in the German pavilion, Anne Imhof is filling that grand space with moody but roughly elegant noise to accompany an enchanting (in a disturbing way) dance piece and installation that involves dogs, fire, and an elevated floor.

But that is just the beginning. Over in the Arsenale, the gigantic second space of the Biennale, Christine Macel, the curator of “Viva Arte Viva,” has tucked a multichannel piece by the Hassan Khan into a quiet stretch of park, which slices the green space into three aural sections that you can discern as you move through it. There are strings, mizmars, a voice, brass, a piano, and maybe more. Melodies and musical systems overlap, come together, and compete. It’s great. Have a listen above.

Inside the Arsenale, Macel has placed a tough-looking music box (it could be a medieval weapon) on a wall with peculiar metal figures mounted on it. As it spins, it shoots off arrays of notes that are a touch discordant but still sensical, as if a trained musician is strumming or plucking at an instrument, trying to invent or conjure a new scale—a ghost in the machine. On the wallpaper behind the box, Anri Sala has used the device to print wallpaper, so you can read the notation for the device as it plays.

Around 1,000 tiny ceramic ocarinas are arranged on tables in the Mexican pavilion, which this year features an elaborate project by Carlos Amorales called “Life in the Folds.” Each instrument is based on a letter from a 74-character alphabet of the artist’s own creation. A video shows musicians performing to a puppet show about a family arriving in a new land and being attacked, the music growing explosive and violent as the action transpires. Inside the pavilion when I visited, a musician was wielding an ocarina, letting out long drones and then gliding amongst notes, as if letting out a warning.

In the Santa Maria Ausiliatrice, which is located not far from the entrance to the Arsenale, James Richards has taken over the Santa Maria Ausiliatrice church for the Welsh pavilion and in the main area installed a six-channel audio, a glitchy, spare piece that includes bits of strings and vocals irregularly interspersed with rough scrapes—operating on its own opaque, disjunctive logic, its quick bursts of noise seem to spotlight various parts of the space in quick succession, making you see it with fresh eyes. (A quick note: there’s also a captivating video in a back room, made by Richards with Steve Reinke, about the actor Albrecht Becker, who was imprisoned by the Nazis.)

And the Welsh show, it’s worth noting, is just a few minutes from the water (and the S. Pietro di Castello vaporetto stop), where you can hear gentle waves lapping and brushing against the stones of Venice.

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