Under the Gaze of Emperors
It’s a birdcage. It’s a bird’s nest. It’s a bird.
It’s the headdress Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons wore during her guerrilla action last week in Piazza San Marco, where, accompanied by musicians from Cuba, she performed an Afro-Cuban folkloric song, the Abakua.
Then she made her way to the National Archeological Museum, where she changed—mostly—into attire more appropriate for the opening of her native country’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Featuring works by artists from Cuba (Sandra Ramos, Tonel) and elsewhere (Hermann Nitsch, Gilberto Zorio), among others, the pavilion has “occupied” the museum’s collections of classical statues and precious stones.
In one gallery, ancient emperors gaze upon a flock of birdcages, by Campos-Pons and collaborator Neil Leonard. Each contains a tiny video telling stories of survival, dreams, and sometimes wishes fulfilled. The headdress fits in perfectly.
Take His Prints, Please
Lots of artists have work in palazzos, but few with the artistic firepower of the building that was provided to Edson Chagas, a photojournalist who is representing Angola. For its first Biennale appearance, the country was offered the Palazzo Cini, former residence of Vittorio Cini, an Italian industrialist who amassed a stunning assortment of paintings attributed to Pontormo, Taddeo Gaddi, and Bernardo Daddi, to name a few. The palazzo, on the Dorsoduro near the Guggenheim, had been closed to the public for the last two decades; Fondazione Giorgio Cini, its owner, agreed to reopen the home to the public this summer as the Angola pavilion.
For Chagas, the catch was that he wasn’t allowed to move—or install—anything. The structure (which he didn’t see until he arrived for the opening) is too fragile. So he used paper. Printing large, limited editions of his staged photos of humble objects on the streets of Luanda, he placed piles of them on crates, providing red folders so the public could collect all 23 pictures.
The concept was that the show would be over when the editions of 4,000 ran out.
Now that the pavilion has won the Golden Lion prize for Best National Participation, that will happen sooner than he expected.
Thinking Outside the Box
Iraq’s pavilion is a 16th-century structure new to the Biennale, but the mood is intentionally contemporary. The title is “Welcome to Iraq,” and the décor, including couches, comics, and tea service, celebrates a “make-do” creativity imposed from necessity. Eleven artists are represented, including Hashim Taeeh, who collaborates with the artist Yaseen Wami in a team called WAMI, producing cardboard furnishings intended to clash with the gilded esthetic popular at home. Here he poses with some of his masks that playfully riff on the tribal, global, folk, and modern.
Not Just a Masquerade
There are lots more masks in the Arsenale, where in the midst of Massimiliano Gioni’s “Encyclopedic Palace,” guest curator Cindy Sherman has created an “imaginary museum” of the human body in art and imagination. New York artist Phyllis Galembo, a Biennale first-timer, brought her photos of the Winneba Fancy Dress Festival in Ghana. The African tradition, which parodies one that Europeans created, shows that indigenous culture is an open-ended concept.
Marc Quinn does the walk-through in the large survey of his work, curated by Germano Celant, in another branch of the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, this one on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Outside, on the promenade, are some of his latest obsessions, giant seashells cast in bronze. On the plaza next to the famous church he’s poised Breath, an inflatable version of Alison Lapper Pregnant, his famous sculpture of an artist born without arms. The piece, 36 feet high, can be seen from far across the lagoon. It’s the one work from the Biennale no one can miss.
The Boating Party
Ragnar Kjartansson took a break while his “performative kinetic sound-sculpture,” a repurposed 1934 fishing boat from Reykjavík, plied the waters of the Gaggiandre, the docking area of the 16th-century shipyards at the end of the Arsenale. The Icelandic artist got the idea for the vessel, the S.S. Hangover, from a bar in a 1935 Hollywood film, Remember Last Night? Aboard, a brass sextet plays a haunting melody composed by Kjartan Sveinsson.
Friends and Neighbors
Ornament is big at this year’s Biennale, and there is lots of it in “Love Me, Love Me Not,” a show of works by artists from Azerbaijan and its neighbors just beyond the shipyards. The exhibition, featuring Shoja Azari from Iran and Kutluğ Ataman from Turkey, among many others, was produced and supported by Yarat, a Baku nonprofit devoted to contemporary-art initiatives. Its founder, Aida Mahmudova, is represented by her sculpture Recycled, made of metal window grates and stainless steel.
Power of Resistance
In the Turkish pavilion, in the Arsenale, Ali Kazma is showing his film Resistance, a multi-screen installation exploring ways people overcome the limitations of the human body, through practices like cryonics, weightlifting or tattooing. Resistance also includes scenes from MAMMAS, a film for the Sundance Channel written and directed by Isabella Rossellini, who portrays animal mothers including a spider, a cuckoo, and a wasp to demonstrate the power of the maternal instinct.
Ai Weiwei has work in three different venues in Venice. But China’s government didn’t let him travel to the opening, so he sent a team of mini-versions of himself. For the Church of Sant’Antonin, in the Castello district, he created six metal containers, each about 5 feet high. Each contains a diorama depicting key moments in life under the “high-proximity surveillance” the artist endured during the 81 days he spent in prison in 2011.