What you will find here, in the next few days, will be my comments on the 57th Venice Biennale curated by Christine Macel and aiming at addressing the issue of humanism when nobody seems to give a shit about it. In her own words: ‘The exhibition is intended as an experience, an extrovert movement from the self to the other, towards a common space beyond the defined dimensions and onwards to the idea of a potential neo-humanism. This movement of the self towards the unknown, where experience and speculation are at the forefront is in and of itself a response to a conservative environment, defying bias, distrust and indifference’.
This year’s title is a rather kitsch motto: ‘VIVA ARTE VIVA’ which, as Macel puts it, aims at ‘conveying a positive and prospective energy’ to all of us. But, beware Macel! There is a fine line between this Cold-Playesque motivational energy and sheer denial. I am saying this because the show intends to ‘tackle’ (sic) humanism in a context of ‘a conservative environment of bias, distrust and indifference’. That is why the Biennale offers a selection of artists which are a part of the international contemporary art system which, as we all know with the Gagosian, Lissons and David Zwirmers of the world, functions as an allegory of the financial world which, at the same time, is the main reason for the perpetuation of that ‘conservative environment of bias, distrust and indifference’ that the show seems to condemn. In other words, Macel starts her opening text on very fragile grounds and in this context the motivational allure of her ‘VIVA ARTE VIVA’ risks coming across as cynical.
I arrived yesterday and only had the opportunity to see the main two Pavilions housed in the Central Pavilion in the Giardini. The main one, which I will explore now is the Pavilion of Artists and Books which, according to the Chief Curator, ‘reveals the exhibition’s premise, a dialectic that involves the whole contemporary society, beyond the artist himself’. Having said this, this Pavilion is dedicated to art as a profession which, contrary to what Macel suggests, excludes society at large. It truly doesn’t come as a surprise that the word chosen to trigger the exhibition is that of practice, a word that I particularly dislike and have been appropriated by Mindfulness fans and Yoga teachers all around the world. Articulated upon the opposition between the Plinian (the Elder) (Ancient) Roman notion of ‘otium’ and ‘negotium’, the exhibition seems to claim that ‘staying in bed’ does not equate ‘being lazy’ from an artistic point of view and Macel is right about this but as we all know it is not what it means but how it is visually presented so let’s get started.
Upon arrival there is a cute hipsterish guy ‘jammin’’ with a drum. He is clearly lounging and ‘being creative’ in his own space although being the landing area for those entering the show, this is not HIS space. A couple of days ago, when I was in Siena teaching one of my in situ Renaissance courses at the Santa Maria della Scala Hospital in front of the Duomo, my students and I saw a conservator working on an altarpiece. She was at the top end of the room and looked like a performer that was there for us to see. One of my unsurprisingly humorous students said: ‘I am sure she is an actor paid to pretend she is doing that’. Well, it took me a couple of days to run into the (un)real thing. The problem with the entrance hall of the Central Pavilion is the way it was carefully carelessly arranged with shelves, boxes, stationery and a lot of electricity cables. It surprises the visitor but the surprise lasts only a few moments until he realises that this is a pose and, as firstly Baldassare Castiglione and more recently Michael Fried have suggested, theatricality is the worst enemy of art.
I believe that the main problem here is that Christine Macel tried to put together a hipsterish party of sorts instead of staging an installation where the viewer could, at least for a microsecond, suspend his disbelief. Far from serious the Pavilion starts with an excuse for a photo to be taken and sent to our friends via Instagram and, at this point, one starts to ask one self whether it makes any sense in today’s world to bring (art) objects into one town once every two years when the only thing that seems to matter to all us is to have an experience to simulate happiness in front of friends and family to convince ourselves and them that we are happy when actually we are a long way from there. Next post… The Pavilion of Books and Artists. I promise. J A T