At the start of “The Encyclopedic Palace,” Massimiliano Gioni’s fantastic voyage into the creative recesses of the human mind, the curator provides two guiding spirits—better put, spirit guides—for the journey ahead. Both are early-20th-century European intellectuals who built their careers on dreams.
This mesmerizing main exhibition of the 55th Venice Biennale begins in the Giardini’s Central Pavilion with Carl Jung, the Swiss psychotherapist, making his first appearance in an international art show. His cosmological illuminations, created between 1914 and ’30, record visions Jung achieved through what he called “active imagination”—a process that helped inspire his concept of the collective unconscious.
Around the bend, André Breton, the French poet and frontman for the Surrealists, observes the scene with eyes wide shut. His white-plaster face cast, made by René Iché around 1950, only looks like a death mask (Breton was still alive). Later, as “Palace” wends its way through the Arsenale, the writer re-materializes—as his own mummified corpse—in The Trick Brain (2012), Ed Atkins’s paean to Breton’s collections of art and ethnographic objects.
More than Duchamp, more than Picasso, more than Beuys or Bruce Nauman, Breton—who famously favored imagination over sanity in his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto—is the pervasive ghost in this installation. Naturally he haunts the bonafide Surrealist, Dorothea Tanning, who plumbed her unconscious to envision those snake-tailed women beside a stairway to nowhere in The Truth About Comets (1945), and surrealist descendants like Jakub Julian Ziółkowski, a young Polish painter who has a Boschian way with eyes.
But Breton’s rapturous spirit is everywhere—in Pawel Althamer’s alien army; in Otto Piene’s light ballet; in Xul Solar’s mystical, pan-language card game. These, and many other familiar names, cohabit the Palace with assorted shamans, crypto-scientists, paranormalists, apocalyptic visionaries, outsiders, and inmates (of both jails and asylums), along with others who have channeled voices, spiritual and divine, into visual imagery. In this show, the medium really is the message.
Defiantly and counterintuitively, Gioni has made an exhibition about how we channel images that basically ignores social media (just don’t try Instagramming Tino Sehgal’s Golden Lion-winning “situation”)—along with television, Hollywood, and popular culture in general. Yet it’s a show teenagers can love. It’s full of weird, alluring objects that invite contemplation, without telling you what to think—or so it seems. Deviously, Gioni weaves hints, homages, and double entendres into his inexorable progression of works by more than 150 artists from 37 countries, presented as a kind of museum of the human imagination.
So Genesis is here, via R. Crumb, and primordial forms by Roberto Cuoghi and Phyllida Barlow, which evolve into Hans Josephsohn’s brass Golems, which then culminate in elegiac monoliths by Richard Serra and James Lee Byars. Hilma af Klint’s alchemical abstractions converse—spiritually—with Indian Tantric paintings. Along the way we see Imran Qureshi’s post-post-Mughal miniatures, J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere’s photographs of elaborate hairstyles in Nigeria, and a colonial-era Catholic church that Danh Vo brought from Vietnam. Distinctions like Western and tribal, High art and outsider, don’t resonate in this Palace. We may have our differences, but we all share an unconscious.
With 43 artists who are no longer (physically, at least) with us, clearly the Palace is not intended to be a survey of the current art scene—though, judging from the rest of the Biennale, it certainly reflects it. Enchanted forests, hybrid creatures, and large predatory birds abound.
It’s a Biennale of magical mystery tours: Sarah Sze’s explosive yet contained, seemingly intergalactic assemblage, stretching to infinity in the United States pavilion (and beyond); and Katrín Sigurdardóttir’s architectural funhouse in Iceland’s Palazzo Zenobio. For Angola’s entry, Edson Chagas staged an ingenious tour of Luanda in Palazzo Cini, with prints stacked for the taking. And in the Bahamas pavilion, Tavares Strachan explores polarizing facts about Arctic exploration.
There are magic carpet rides: Rudolf Stingel’s wall-to-floor romp in the Palazzo Grassi; Farid Rasulov’s ornamental-textile implosion for Azerbaijan. (The monstrous William Morris, busy trashing a yacht in English Magic, Jeremy Deller’s bittersweet portrait of his homeland for the British pavilion, would surely approve.) For Mexico, in the former Church of San Lorenzo, Ariel Guzik works a different magic with Cordiox, his ingenious device transforming structure into sound.
With 88 national pavilions (including 10 newcomers), and 47 collateral events, real estate can be a challenge. For Chile, Alfredo Jaar offers a multimedia contraption that repeatedly sinks the Giardini—home to the Biennale’s original 28 pavilions—making way for a new world order, at least as far as this fair is concerned. But every three minutes, the gardens rise again.
In the Irish pavilion, Richard Mosse’s stunning multimedia installation documents his experience infiltrating armed rebel groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Shot in discontinued military surveillance film that turns the footage a rose color, the piece is a heartrending tour de force.
Mostly, though, it’s a small world after all. Welcome to Iraq gets homey with couches and tea. Lebanon has Akram Zaatari’s stirring multimedia piece reflecting on the story of an Israeli pilot who refused to drop a bomb on a school. France (Anri Sala) and Germany (Ai Weiwei, Romuald Karmakar, Santu Mofokeng, Dayanita Singh) exchange pavilion buildings. “Global pluralism” prevails in “Prima Materia,” a sampling of François Pinault’s holdings at the Punta della Dogana that intermingles Japanese Mono-ha and Italian arte povera, among other things, in a search for essence. James Lee Byars (always a ghost in Venice) says it all in a fabulous golden shrine, adorned with a huge ball of rope.
A notable encounter, of historic proportions, unfolds in the must-see Manet show at the Ducal Palace, where the artist’s Olympia (1863) communes on a wall with her serene, voluptuous predecessor, Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538).
Across the lagoon, at San Giorgio Maggiore, Marc Quinn responds with another defiant female nude, Breath (2012). The enormous inflatable sculpture depicting a pregnant Alison Lapper, a paraplegic who kept her baby despite the challenges, is part of Quinn’s show at Fondazione Giorgio Cini.
Back in the Palace, Austrian nonagenarian Maria Lassnig is poised to hijack the conversation, whether she’s invited or not, in her nude self-portraits.
While in the “anatomical theater” that Cindy Sherman curated for Gioni mid-Arsenale, Ariel II (2011), John DeAndrea’s hyperrealist nude, seems more concerned with snubbing Paul McCarthy’s demented muppet. With its de-domesticated dollies (Jimmie Durham, John Outterbridge, Laurie Simmons and Allan McCollum), sinister Morton Bartletts, and Linda Fregni Nagler‘s found photos of now-long-dead children, this section is like Disney’s Small World boat ride as envisioned by Hans Bellmer, who of course is here, too.
Elsewhere, at Prada Foundation, in the 18th-century Ca’ Corner della Regina, Germano Celant (with Rem Koolhaas and Thomas Demand) has restaged “When Attitudes Become Form,” Harald Szeemann’s seminal show at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1969. An apotheosis of Process art that united post-Minimalist, Conceptual, Land art, and more, “Attitudes” seems just about antithetical to the spiritual vibe of Palace. Except, maybe, the curatorial fixation that led Celant, a protégé of Szeemann, to reassemble the entire show, including its Modernist architecture—a gesture he likened to creating a readymade by mounting a bicycle wheel on a stool.
In Bern, crowds formed to protest “Attitudes.” At its Venice opening, crowds formed to see it. On the second floor, I waited in line at the base of some stairs leading up to a door. When my turn came, I stood on my toes to peer into a hole, Étant donnés–style. Then a guard appeared to say there was no art there, despite what it looked like.
Or was there? Maybe someone at the Prada had channeled Dorothea Tanning.
“The Encyclopedic Palace” runs through November 24. Check dates for individual shows.
Images on home page, clockwise from top left: Ed Atkins, The Trick Brain (detail), 2012, HD video still. Encyclopedic Palace. Courtesy the Artist and Cabinet, London; Enrico Baj, Ma petite (detail), 1961, mixed media on canvas. Encyclopedic Palace. Courtesy Fondazione Marconi, Archivio Baj; Carl Jung, page from The Red Book (detail), 1914-30, paper, ink, tempera, gold paint, red leather binding. Encyclopedic Palace. Courtesy the Foundation of the Work of C.G. Jung; Detail of poster for “Supernatural,” pavilion for People’s Republic of Bangladesh; Yüksel Arslan, Arture 385, Man XXVI: Hallucinations (detail), 1988, pigments, earth, pencil, and ink on paper. Encyclopedic Palace. Courtesy the Artist and Seli Arslan; Marc Quinn, Catman (black) (detail), 2010, White Bianco P marble with Black Belgian marble inlay, Carrara marble and stainless steel whiskers. Fondazione Cini. Photo: Roger Wooldridge. Courtesy White Cube.