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.