This afternoon, I was at a modest coffee shop around the corner from my rented pad in Venice and saw everyone reading the same daily paper. On the cover was a big blown-up picture of a work in the Biennale, a Christ figure installed on the wall to resemble the Crucifixion—a work from the home team, the Italian Pavilion, was front page news.
As it happened I was heading to the Italian Pavilion, as I had plans to chat with Cecilia Alemani, who curated this year’s pavilion—always the Biennale’s biggest—by cutting the focus to just three artists, down from last year’s 14 (the space, one of the former armories that populate the Arsenale complex, could easily host work by dozens). She went with the trio of Giorgio Andreotta Calò, Roberto Cuoghi, and Adelita Husni-Bey. All three are Italian and were born in the 1970s or 1980s, but apart from that they operate on different levels.
“Oh but I did nothing, it was all the work of the artists!” Alemani said in her typical chipper tone, talking quickly while standing in the corner of the first room of the pavilion. Regardless, she’s had a busy last few weeks—in addition to work on the Biennale, she’s maintained a bunch of projects on a certain tourist-mobbed elevated Chelsea walkway in her position as director and chief curator of High Line Art, and oversaw the annual May highlight that is Frieze Projects at Frieze New York.
(“Frieze feels like it was a month ago,” Alemani said, and then we both winced when we realized the opening of Frieze was just a week ago.)
We started to discuss the first work, an expansive project by Cuoghi, Imitation of Christ (2017), in which Jesus after Jesus is cast by assistants working the molds and kilns, before getting laid out on their backs by twos in little plastic bubbles. Then they are left to disintegrate until they have fallen apart, the body shattered into different parts—thus resembling the shriveled-up relics that the crusaders set off after so long ago.
Though the work was an ingenious spectacle, and its byproducts quite gorgeous, it occurred to me that the pious Catholics here in Italy might take offense when they see the Jesus Factory in their country’s pavilion.
“I don’t think he means to be blasphemous,” Alemani said. “This work comes out of the investigation of the historical figure of the Christ—no one knows what he looked like, and that’s why you have 200 years of art history trying to depict him. This shows multiplication of his body as a man, and then nature comes in and alters it.”
Next was a video work by Husni-Bey (the youngest of the three artists) called The Reading / La Saduta (2017). It mostly consists of footage of a meeting in New York—referred to in the text as “Mannahatta (Lenape territory, known as Manhattan, New York)”—where young students are given a stack of Tarot cards designed by the artist during her time protesting the construction of a pipeline near the Standing Rock Reservation. They are then asked to ask how the word and diagram on the card relates to the world’s problems as they see them, and how they related to our age of information and late capitalism. The kids were baldly inquisitive, even if one girl admitted that the world’s problems “are not something that affects me when I go get a soda at the bodega.”
Alemani said that, despite the escapism that can come from embracing the mystical and otherworldly, she wanted one artist who trades somewhat in the occult (in this case, the Tarot cards) but who can also ground the exhibition in the atrocities of modern living.
“Her work seen from the outside might seem the least magical, but she was the key element between these two other installations because she shows us how magic can also change the world, and respond to current events,” Alemani said. “She really takes inspiration from the importance of Standing Rock.”
And then the last part of the Italian Pavilion is Andreotta Calò’s Senza titolo (La fine del mundo) (2017) and it goes down in another gigantic hanger. At first it seemed evident that there was a line to endure before I could see the work, and this line wound around the scaffolding that was holding it up. But I was actually looking at the work itself: the scaffolding is supposed to represent a forest, and the architecture mimics a five-aisle church.
“When we look at that scaffolding,” Alemani said, “it reminds me of the earthquakes that hit our country recently, and the scaffolding is the thing that’s holding these small villages up.”
(The scaffolding may also remind some New Yorkers of a more benign menace than earthquakes: construction sites in gentrifying neighborhoods.)
The ticket here, though, is upstairs. It’s best to go in blind, so I won’t away the secrets (magicians never do), but prepare to be quite disoriented as you try to figure out what is happening, what is solid and what is ether, what is there and what is not. You won’t believe your eyes.
“It’s a mirage,” Alemani said. “It’s realer than real.”