2017 Venice Biennale

Signs of the Times: Post-Truth, Untruth, and Superficial Deception in Venice’s Pavilions and Palazzi

If you remain haunted by the phrase “alternative facts,” here is a suggested itinerary for you at the 57th Venice Biennale.

Let’s start with the Ukraine pavilion, which contains the work of Boris Mikhailov. Mikhailov has a special relationship with television. He was born in 1938, the same year TV broadcasting started in the USSR. To make the photographs he is showing, he futzed with his television’s satellite connection while watching parliamentary proceedings to distort the images, then photographed the screen. What resulted is a bunch of talking heads transformed into the stuff of horror movies: spliced and diced, a series of grotesques.

Looking at these images is made considerably more paranoid, and creepier, through the addition of a soundtrack by the Sviter art group and Ivan Svitlychnyi, a weird rhythm produced by drum machines and synthesizers.

As intriguing as Mikhailov’s photographs is the book put together with the younger German photographer Juergen Teller. Teller took photos of Mikhailov sitting on his couch, making the series. In an ordinary-looking living room (bookshelves, Persian rug) Mikhailov’s wife, Vita, fiddles with the satellite control on the back of the TV, Mikhailov sits before it, one hand on his camera. “The series,” Lilia Kudelia, assistant curator at Dallas Contemporary (her colleague Peter Doroshenko is the pavilion’s curator), writes in an introductory essay, “is a product of hyper-reality, or the world of post-truth.”

A short walk through the Canareggio district to Scotland’s pavilion takes you from post-truth to untruth. In Rachel MacLean’s video, Spite Your Face, Untruth is a fragrance peddled by Pinocchio, here called Pic. Pic, recently transformed from beggar boy to golden boy–his skin appears gold-plated–acquires a credit card from a Gepetto-like figure who works in retail. In exchange for this credit card, he agrees to be the spokesperson for Untruth. Meanwhile, Pic is in possession of the only spritzer of Truth, a very different fragrance, and one that can magically heal the wounds his credit card use causes to his body. (If this sounds bizarre and convoluted, it is.) Like the original Pinocchio, Pic’s nose grows with every lie he tells. (Unlike the original, he masturbates by stroking his nose.) Pic’s Untruth eventually catches up with him, but before it does, we get several scenes that could be out of today’s front page, or yesterday’s political press conference: Pic, in salesperson/politician mode, says “The facts aren’t known. The media won’t report them.” He bashes special interests, then promises that “today you will get the truth.” His product is “not a lie, it’s just untruth.” (He might just as well has said “alternative facts.”)

At one point, Pic emerges from a building and is swarmed by paparazzi and adoring women. He’s asked by a reporter what he wears to bed, and he confides that he wears “nothing but a drop of Untruth.” It’s perhaps worth pointing out that this is almost word for word what Marilyn Monroe once said about Chanel Number Five.

From the Scottish Pavilion, it’s a short vaporetto ride to the Prada Foundation’s Venice location, where curator Udo Kittelman has put together a fascinating and mind-bending exhibition that cuts to the heart of our post-truth (or untruth, or fake news, or alternative facts or whatever you want to call it) era.

The artists—Thomas Demand along with set designer Anna Viebrock and Alexander Kluge—were equal collaborators in organizing the exhibition, which takes its title, “The Boat Is Leaking. The Captain Lied.,” from the classic Leonard Cohen song “Everybody Knows.” The song, a true classic, is playing in one of the first galleries: “Everybody knows that the boat is leaking / Everybody knows that the captain lied / Everybody got this broken feeling / Like their father or their dog just died.” It’s worth noting that other lyrics include “Everybody knows the fight was fixed / The poor stay poor, the rich get rich,” making Cohen’s composition practically the theme song for income inequality.
The artists started out with a reproduction of a painting by the Italian 19th-century artist Angelo Morbelli, sent by Demand to the other two. What resulted is as mise en abyme of photographs that look like reality but are actually akin to stage sets, accompanied by actual stage sets, some of which are derived from paintings. Both things are interspersed with Kluge’s films.

Kittelman writes in his catalogue essay, “[T]he palazzzo can be said to be transformed here into a place where the constant make-up tricks and glossing-over efforts of our hypermodern age, all for the purpose of quick and superficial deception, are peeled off, layer by layer, like the skin of an onion.”

So. If you are looking for a Venice itinerary perfect for after reading about, for instance, FBI director James Comey’s recent firing, have at it. You’re welcome.

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