What I loved at the Venice Art Biennale this year, with the understanding that I probably missed more than I saw (including the Angolan Pavilion, which won the festival’s highest award for a country participation, the Golden Lion):
- The American pavilion installation by Sarah Sze and the Spanish Pavilion by Lara Almacegui, about which I wrote last week.
- The Polish Pavilion: This country seems to be consistently producing the strongest Biennale entries, year after year. This time, Konrad Smolenski installed two bells on rockers. Each hour, these deliberately crudely cast behemoths ring, filling the space with a clanging that is almost unbearable, as if you are high in one of those bell towers whose sounds wakes most people up in Venice each morning. Then, after the bells have tolled, their sounds well up around you, emanating from two banks of speaker that define the space and frame the objects. The noise gets more and more distorted and deep, washing over you and making your innards rumble. The piece has the foreboding of an earthquake and the excitement of a rock concert, though I am not sure what it means.
- Next door, the Romanian pavilion offers even less than sounds and reverberation. In place of objects, actors describe and act out—with limited and halting gestures—notable works of art that have been shown at the Biennale. This “virtual history," by artists Alexandra Pirici and Manual Pelmus, makes the real things seem so much more beautiful and powerful than they ever were. Out of nothing, the actors create a virtual presence that seems much more powerful than most of the hard-working displays that make up this year’s Biennale—even more so than the winner of the Golden Lion for individual artist, the otherwise amazing Tino Seghal.
- The Russian Pavilion, by contrast, was almost baroque. In a comment on that country’s obsession with money (hardly unique to them), Vadim Sahkarov opened up a whole between the ground and second floor (something future Commissioners should think of keeping). Viewers walk up to a balustrade, lean on velvet cushions as if in a church—and a shower of gold coins passes by. Down below, women (only women) are allowed to carry umbrellas into the space to stand under the showering coins. They are then encouraged to collect the pieces, return them to a bucket in an adjacent room, and watch as a man—poised above another, more roughly cut hole—hauls the bucket up to fill a conveyor belt that brings the coins back up to the roof. I have never seen the space better activated, and rarely witnessed a more concise statement on the cycle of production and consumption.
- Outside of the Biennale’s official portion, the New Zealand pavilion presented the work of Bill Culbert, an artist who has moved from paintings and drawings to making sculptures in which fluorescent lights gather in carpets; inhabit odd angles; or penetrate chairs, cupboards, and other objects of everyday use. The work brings a sense of illuminating modernity to the ancient palazzo in which it appeared.
- I also liked the work of Wifredo Diaz Valdez, who takes apart chairs and cupboards into delicate collages that reveal the constituent parts of those things. He presents in the Uruguay Pavilion.
- I missed Ai Wei Wei’s six, half-size dioramas, in which he re-created his life in a prison cell, but I did love the collection of steel reinforcing rods, harvested from buildings destroyed by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (which galvanized Ai’s activism). They lie in a fixed wave, their different patterns and lengths offering a solid counterpoint to the fluid of the canals all around, reminding viewers what was missing or not properly attached in too many of the buildings that fell down.
- The Fondazione Prada recreated Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form, an exhibition that the curator Harald Szeemann presented in Bern in 1969. It seems an odd thing to do, but curator Germano Celant and set designer (in this case) Rem Koolhaas evoke the rough way in which the exhibition reacted against its setting in the Ca’Correr palace. It does also have the advantage of bringing together work that countered the rise of plastic economy in the postwar boom with messy, ugly, and viscerally expressive material.
No great messages, but a whole lot of expressive nothing that serves to make us look and see with greater attention and clarity. That is more than I could wish for anywhere.