Ve­nice Bi­en­na­le Lacks Re­le­van­ce


VE­NICE — Ti­ming isn’t ever­y­thing, but it’s a lot. If the bland, soft-power 2017 Ve­nice Bi­en­na­le, cal­led “Vi­va Ar­te Vi­va,” had ar­ri­ved a few ye­ars ago, it might ha­ve ma­de sen­se. But co­m­ing post-Br­ex­it and pos­tTrump, it feels out of sync with the po­li­ti­cal mo­ment, and not strong en­ough to de­fi­ne a mo­ment of its own. This is par­ti­cu­lar­ly disap­poin­ting as the main show has pro­mi­sing fea­tures. It is not a gathe­ring of mar­ket-vet­ted stars. Most of the 120 ar­tists will be un­fa­mi­li­ar to even the most as­si­du­ous art world tra­ve­lers. The eth­nic spre­ad is wi­de; the gen­der ba­lan­ce, even. Re­fres­hingly, much of the art sub­sti­tu­tes touch and tex­tu­re for di­gi­tal gloss.

Yet the show doe­sn’t ri­se. The­ma­tic ten­si­on and cri­ti­cal dri­ve are mis­sing. The work has be­en di­vi­ded in­to two vast spaces — in the Gi­ar­di­ni and the Ar­sena­le — and ni­ne sec­tions with New Age-y tit­les: Pa­vi­li­on of Joys and Fe­ars, Pa­vi­li­on of the Earth, Pa­vi­li­on of Ti­me and In­fi­ni­ty, etc. The who­le thing even kicks off, in the Gi­ar­di­ni, with images of ar­tists nap­ping in their stu­di­os.

The po­int being ma­de is about down­ti­me as dream­t­i­me, a mo­de of pas­si­ve-re­sis­tant crea­ti­vi­ty in an era of fran­tic, art fair- di­rec­ted pro­duc­tion. But the nod­ding- off image rein­forces a se­cond rea­li­ty: the cur­rent mar­ket-add­led main­stream art world re­al­ly is, po­li­ti­cal­ly, out of it. And a lot of the work being pro­du­ced ba­re­ly ra­tes a se­cond look.

The­re are ex­cep­ti­ons in the Gi­ar­di­ni, the park that hosts so­me 30 na­tio­nal pa­vi­li­ons. Two ve­te­ran Af­ri­can-Ame­ri­can ar­tists look strong: Sen­ga Nen­gu­di, with her stret­ched-fa­bric sculp­tu­res, and McAr­thur Bi­ni­on, with his au­to­bio­gra­phi­cal ab­strac­tion. (He paints on co­pies of his 1946 Mis­sis­sip­pi birth cer­ti­fi­ca­te.)

The in­stal­la­ti­on at the Ar­sena­le, a for­mer me­di­eval shi­p­y­ard, is mo­re per­sua­si­ve, thanks to a con­cen­tra­ti­on of fi­ber-ba­sed work by Leo­nor An­tu­nes (Por­tu­gal), Pe­trit Ha­li­laj (Ko­so­vo), Ab­dou­laye Ko­na­te (Ma­li), Ma­ria Lai (Sar­di­nia) and Franz Er­hard Walt­her (Ger­ma­ny).

The ex­hi­bit runs in­to trou­ble in the Pa­vi­li­on of Sha­mans, which has as its cen­ter­pie­ce a lar­ge open-wea­ve, tent­li­ke en­clo­sure by the Bra­zi­li­an ar­tist Er­nes­to Ne­to. Vie­wers are wel­co­me to hang out but at the Bi­en­na­le ope­ning, it was oc­cu­p­ied main­ly by ce­re­mo­ni­al­ly dres­sed Ama­zo­ni­an In­dians brought by Mr. Ne­to to per­form re­li­gious ri­tu­als.

Their pre­sence was dis­con­cer­ting. It re­vi­ved the “pri­mi­ti­vism” de­ba­te of the last 30 ye­ars, its terms un­ch­an­ged: We in the West con­ti­nue to im­port the Other for our plea­su­re, whi­le re­mai­ning com­pli­cit in a glo­bal eco­no­my that is de­s­troy­ing the Other’s world.

On­ly one ma­jor pie­ce ma­kes an ef­fort to bridge the art-life di­vi­de through what is now known as “so­ci­al prac­tice,” and that is the tra­ve­ling pro­ject cal­led “Gre­en Light — An Ar­tis­tic Work­shop,” un­der the di­rec­tion of the ar­tist Olaf­ur Eli­as­son. At the Ar­sena­le, Zad Moul­t­a­ka’s sound-and-light apo­ca­lyp­se in the Le­ba­non Pa­vi­li­on, with a bom­ber fu­sel­age at its cen­ter, is so­me­thing to see, as is Ro­ber­to Cuo­ghi’s se­xy sculp­tu­ral mor­tua­ry at the Ita­li­an Pa­vi­li­on, or­ga­ni­zed by Ce­ci­lia Ale­ma­ni. Ot­her­wi­se, so­me of the bet­ter na­tio­nal pre­sen­ta­ti­ons are tu­cked away in pa­laz­zos, church­es, apart­ments and gar­dens across town. They can be hard to find — I’ve spent half a day loo­king for a sing­le pa­vi­li­on — but so­me are worth the hunt.

The Bi­en­na­le al­so has what it calls “col­la­te­ral events,” of­ten or­ga­ni­zed by pri­va­te foun­da­ti­ons or com­mer­ci­al gal­le­ries. The Swiss-ba­sed Hau­ser & Wirth Gal­le­ry has de­li­ve­r­ed a coup — the the­ma­tic sur­vey lo­an show “Phi­lip Gus­ton and the Po­ets,” which not on­ly pres­ents that Ame­ri­can ar­tist in sover­eign form, but al­so enshri­nes him in the Va­ti­can of Ve­ne­ti­an pain­ting, the Gal­le­rie dell’Ac­ca­de­mia.

One must-see ex­hi­bit, on­ly be­cau­se a lot of peop­le seem to be see­ing it, is the dou­ble-bar­re­led roll­out of new sculp­tu­re by Da­mi­en Hirst, pre­sen­ted by the François Pi­n­ault Foun­da­ti­on at the Pa­laz­zo Gras­si and Pun­ta del­la Do­ga­na.

Tit­led “Tre­a­su­res From the Wreck of the Un­be­lieva­ble,” this show of most­ly bron­ze sculp­tu­re is bil­led as a cache of an­ci­ent ob­jects that sank in the In­dian Oce­an 2,000 ye­ars ago and was fi­nal­ly hau­led up in 2008. The work ran­ges from teen­sy to su­per­si­ze (one pie­ce is th­ree sto­ries tall), and re­veals an un­ex­pec­ted de­gree of mul­ti­cul­tu­ra­lism in images that go bey­ond stan­dard Greek nu­des to in­clu­de Ha­t­hor, Ka­li, Quetz­al­coatl, the Bud­dha and Mi­ckey Mou­se.

I don’t ha­ve much to say about “Tre­a­su­res of the Wreck” ex­cept that it’s the­re; that so­me peop­le ca­re; and that it’s ir­re­le­vant to any­thing I know about that mat­ters.

An art show that feels off po­int for our trou­bled world.


Ex­hi­bits in Ve­nice in­clu­de ‘‘Es­ca­la­de Bey­ond Chro­ma­tic Lands’’ by Shei­la Hicks and ‘‘Imita­zio­ne di Chris­to,’’ far right, by Ro­ber­to Cuo­ghi.

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