57th Venice Biennale
Julie Ewington on the 57th Venice Biennale
Each Venice Biennale is different: this keeps us coming back every two years, for the feast-of-too-much-art, the slogging itineraries, the avalanche of brochures, the mobs of artists, gallerists, critics, poseurs and art lovers. It is gargantuan, exhausting, exasperating, occasionally even exhilarating. Here the international art world is compressed into one spotlit hothouse, plonked in an overwhelmed water-gated community with temporarily converged interests. But 2017 is even darker and more troubled than recent years. What is the role of art in the confronting situations the world faces today?
On the evidence of this year’s Biennale, contemporary art is good, bad, vulgar, humanitarian (genuine and fake), irrelevant. The inimitable serendipity makes Venice rewarding: you never know what to expect, or from whom. Venice has a peculiar set-up, with three types of exhibitions sitting uneasily alongside one another, yet I now find this eccentric concatenation peculiarly productive.
First there are more than 80 official national pavilions, found in the Giardini (the city’s public gardens, with the first exhibition pavilion dating from the late 19th century), in rented venues in the nearby Arsenale (once the headquarters of the Venetian navy) and across the city. The original idea behind the first Biennale, in 1895, was that each nation would field its finest artists. Then, increasingly influential since World War One, there is the main curated exhibition, which is located at both the Giardini and the Arsenale. This year it is the cheesily titled Viva Arte Viva, curated by the
Centre Pompidou’s Christine Macel. And then there is a plethora of collateral exhibitions, ranging from splendid museum productions to one-handers (large and small) by artists from every corner of the globe. In a nutshell: national statements and/or aspirations; one extremely big-picture proposition; and all the rest, whether solo shows or collaborative projects such as Diaspora Pavilion at the Palazzo Pisani S Marina, a deliberate counter to the national (sometimes nationalist) cast of the official event.
The curious melange of ambitions is even more pungent in 2017, with many national pavilions presenting fascinating counter-nationalist propositions. This Biennale marks the complex tensions between the idea of the national and the fluid, even ungovernable, movements of peoples and ideas across borders and locations. In Finland’s pavilion, Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen are frankly hilarious about the supposed perfection of the Finnish state, in an enthralling hour-long romp of videos and animatronic sculptures. In the Greek pavilion, reconfigured into a complex multi-level design, George Drivas’ video installation sees a cast led by Charlotte Rampling debate the ethics of introducing a group of foreign cells into their scientific research; in the nearby Egyptian pavilion, Moataz Nasr offers another allegory in the ostensibly traditional tale of a young woman who challenges the monstrous tyrant terrorising her village.
Tracey Moffatt’s exhibition, MY HORIZON, in the Australian pavilion, is at the heart of these broad crossnational exchanges. And not before time, given Moffatt’s international prominence over the past two decades. She is the first Aboriginal artist to exhibit solo as Australia’s representative, following Trevor Nickolls and Rover Thomas in 1990 and the group show Fluent by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Yvonne Koolmatrie and Judy Watson in 1997. Moffatt has risen to the occasion with entirely new works: two photo series and two videos.
One video, The White Ghosts Sailed In, is a poignant spoof purporting to show Aboriginal filmmakers recording the First Fleet arriving in 1788, while Vigil, in Moffatt’s familiar mash-up style, shows a succession of horrified Hollywood actors appearing to watch the foundering of a boat full of asylum seekers off Christmas Island in December 2010. It’s brutally efficient in its deliberate disjunctions.
The photo series Body Remembers is staying with me. The figure of a woman, Moffatt herself in a traditional housemaid’s costume, turns away from the camera in ten large exquisitely manipulated photographs that are bleached, sepia-toned, ample, commanding. Sometimes posed outside the ruins of a bleak homestead in a barren landscape, sometimes inside what seem to be rooms remembered from another time, before the house was abandoned, the woman expresses through her gestures, even through her attenuated shadows, that this is a haunting of sorts. We see that she is living in a remote region, but is it her own country? There are subtle implications of dispossession and constraint, no straightforward narrative, but a dreamscape of ineradicable grief. Moffatt taps into a deep vein of sorrow and of anger. This is very fine work.
More broadly, Moffatt’s MY HORIZON is a signally important achievement. In these new works, including the other photo series, Passage, set evocatively in a port, she is linking two key justice issues in Australia, the question of Indigenous rights and the refugee crisis, and putting them on record in this international cultural arena. From an Aboriginal perspective, this is especially generous as well as authoritative. MY HORIZON is seen to be anyone’s, everyone’s, in a world where crossing borders and seas is not only usual and unavoidable but in many instances a desperate necessity. In case visitors miss the point, Vigil flickers constantly on the pavilion’s two exterior screens, with defining images from Australia’s refugee crisis visible across the exhibition site; and Moffatt’s exhibition tote, with “Refugee Rights” inscribed on one side and