The Pavilion of Artists and Books is, without any doubt, this Biennale’s main curatorial statement and aims at discussing the place of the artist in today’s society. Taking place at the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, these artists’ works coalesce around the idea of ‘artistic practice’ as a professional one. To inject gravitas into these works and, probably, to insert contemporary artists into a several thousand years’ long art history, Chief Curator, Christine Macel felt compelled to link the Ancient Roman notion of ‘otium’ (firstly coined by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History where he linked the idea of retreating to a Villa with that of creating enough space and time to cultivate oneself in nature) with that of ‘creativity’. Although she states very clearly that ‘otium’ does not equate ‘idleness’, the visual evidence says otherwise.
It does not come as a surprise, then, that the show opens with Franz West’s Otium (1998) which is a videocassette tape covered with papier maché on a signed wooden base, all this on a plinth. In the film, screened in the following room, the artist appears in the lotus position levitating in front of an invisible audience with whom he discusses very simple concepts in complex terms. In the next room there is a 1973 photo by Friedl Kubelka of West, lying beneath a wall with his early drawings. At this point, the viewer is led to visually associate ‘having a rest’ with ‘being creative’. Franz West’s works are compelling and can hold themselves through their wit precisely because he never seems to take himself too seriously and proof of that are the pastel colours chosen and the humorous stance (with laughter included) that he adopts in his recorded performances. But this is not the case with the work of the younger artists placed nearby by Macel.
Almost mirroring the aforementioned photograph, we find a painted inkjet print by Frances Stark titled ‘Behold Man!’ (2013) where the artist is shown on a sofa, allegedly, alluding to Ingres’ Turkish Bath (whatever!). All through the exhibition, under the badge with the name of the artist and the work’s title there are bilingual explanations of the work by the chief curator which are not only badly written but quickly prove to be misleading in a way that contradicts the ‘professional’ goals of the show. The tone of the aforementioned text is as follows: ‘Frances Stark has since the 1990’s developed a personal style full of humour and frankness. She tackles private issues like her sex life, her neuroses as well maternity’ (sic). Worryingly, by saying this, Macel is unconsciously separating the private from the public spheres. She makes us feel that instead of allowing us to have a look into the artist’s moments of private self absortion without showing us that it is her job to do that, she is making the artist comes across as if she is deciding to pose (as a person with a life) in front of us. There is an inversion of priorities here and, at this point, I am struggling to understand what is the point of art for Christine Macel (and this artist, in particular). Is it an opportunity to fill a position from where value is automatically created (just because her jobtitle is that of ‘artist’)? If what I am shown are people sleeping, what is the point of me wasting my time and money here?
Well, the following pieces are just bad. Katherine Nuñez and Issay Rodriguez’s ‘In Between the Lines 2.0’, according to the explanatory text: ‘show how there is still a place for disused practices in contemporary life’. Seriously? A number of useless products are carelessly placed on shelves and from that we are asked to believe that this junk ‘is invested with symbolic value drawing on the current Zeitgeist’. At this point, the show insults the viewer’s intelligence by being pompous and silly but that silliness is conveyed thorugh the work and also through Macel’s explanations.
Next there is an artist bed by Yelena Vorobyeva and Viktor Vorobyev (‘The Artist is Asleep’, 1996) that does not seem to acknowledge Tracy Emin’s seminal work on this topic which shockingly is not here. At this point, the visual evidence diverted the discussion from ‘otium’ to laziness without even trying to be ironic about it. In front of our very eyes, the artist studio has been transformed into a bed and his ethos into a succession of pretentious lies.
But let’s remember that this Pavilion is not only dedicated to artists but also to…books! Besides, Christine Macel has invited the artists both in this exhibition and in the National Pavilions to host their Tavola Aperte (Open Tables) where they can discuss further the explanations of their work. It is as if discourse has displaced the visual evidence that artists are supposed to provide. If anything, artists and curators love to blah blah blah in VIVA ARTE VIVA but when silence is required, the images do not say very much. Similarly, Christine Macel’s pompose project titled ‘Unpacking My Library’, allegedly, inspired by Walter Benjamin’s essay published in 1931 ‘allows the artists to compile a list of their favourite books. This is both a way to get to know the artists better and a source of inspiration for the public’ (sic). This book will be ‘available’ at the Stirling Pavilion and one cannot but ask oneself what’s the point of this messy approach to books.
Well, in John Latham and Geng Jianyi’s room, they use books as physical material for a series of objects which are hung from walls, ceilings and displayed in minimalistic vitrines. It is with Abdullah Al Saadi’s Diaries that books and the artistic profession seem to collapse with a clinical display of tins filled with texts which, according to the explanatory text: ‘comprise 150 notebooks containing aphorisms and meditations, artistic projects and sketches written on rolls in homage to the discovery, in 1847, of the Dead Sea Scrolls’. Am I out of place if I politely ask myself: WTF? Unmoved, curator Christine Macel says: ‘Like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the artist’s journals evoke a memory that has not disappeared and becomes eternal’. I insist…WTF?
Next is the place of the literal and Macel, who has committed to show us visual proof of the problem of ‘artists’ and books decides to groundbreakingly include (of course, I am being ironic) paintings of books. Thus we have Liu Ye’s ‘Books on books’ (2007) which are charming mediocre trompl’oeils that find too much inspiration in Ed Ruscha analogous series.
In the next room, there is Ciprian Mureśan from Rumania and his self-explanatory ‘All Images from a Book on Tretyakov gallery’ and ‘All images from a Book of Giotto’ (2015). But why are we talking about books? Is Macel exploring the link between word and image? If that is the case, her explanatory texts are not doing her any favours.
Taus Makhacheva’s Tightrope (2015) video of a tightroper carrying 61 art works copied from a Dagestani museum between two mountain pics from open air to a black structure reminiscent of a black storage is next. Instead of (as the curator writes) ‘exploring the tensions between tradition and modernity, local and global pre-soviet and post-soviet times’, this choreography (?) comes across as an allegory of the fragility of show which is as pointless as handling art between two peaks. And if of pointlessness we are talking about, Philippe Parreño’s post-minimalist Cloud Oktas (2017) has no room in the curating script and belongs to a different show. Although it is interesting, I felt like I was in a different show.
From there we get to a room with works by Raymond Hains including three supermarket trolleys with computer monitors. This is the first time that the issue of the book is being questioned in today’s world without forcing the viewer to accept its materiality as enough justification. But it is far too late to be able to bring some sense into it all. Macel has asked far too much from the viewer and he wants to leave.
After that, everything goes downwards and the experience starts becoming annoying when we find a rather uninformed mega-installation by Hassan Sharif titled ‘Hassan Sharif Studio’ (Supermarket). In a way, it mirrors Hains’ Duchampian and Pop deployment of ready mades reflecting on the way art objects get commodified and allegedly put that ‘victim’ called artist in a compromised position.
At this point, it must be remembered that Christine Macel conceived this year’s Biennale as a book unfolding in 9 chapters. This first one places the issue of language at the very core of the exhibition not from the point of view of the relationship between text and image which might take us to the Ancient Roman discussion of ‘Ut Pictura Poesis’ or to Greek ‘ekphrasis’ but instead reduces text (and books) to the position of the explanatory device needed to understand the allegories that those ‘professional practitioners’ called ‘artists’ placed there for us to decode. It does not come as a surprise that preparing those text is the job of that self perpetuating bureaucracy called ‘curators’. J A T