57th Venice Bi­en­nale

Julie Ewing­ton on the 57th Venice Bi­en­nale

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - Julie Ewing­ton

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

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