In a crowded contemporary art world driven by gallery exhibitions, museum shows, art fairs, biennials and auctions are taking place all around the globe, the Venice Biennale generally serves as an excellent point of reference to pause and reflect upon where the art world stands in a context that is always more global and more complex. Bringing together 36 countries and 120 artists, the Biennale provides a rather accurate snapshot of the contemporary art world, highlighting its concerns and priorities. As in previous editions, this 57th Biennale was organised around a theme imagined by Christine Macel, curator at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Under the title Viva Arte Viva, she decided to design a ‘Biennale with artists, by artists and for artists, about the forms they propose, the questions they ask, the practices they develop and the ways of life they choose’. Instead of tediously getting artists and their artwork to fit into a theme, Christine Macel’s idea was to let the art speak for itself with no pre-established restrictions, with the artwork, per se, coming first.
Following the tradition of the Biennale, Christine Macel curated the general section in the Padiglione Venezia and the Arsenale as a group show while the national pavilions remain under the responsibility of each individual country.
Among the national pavilions in the Giardini, Japan presents an excellent exhibition by Takahiro Iwasaki (b 1975). Known for his Reflection Models that reproduce models of historical monuments completed out of Japanese cypress and his Out of Disorder series, which creates modern landscapes that rely on found and used materials, Iwasaki shows this ongoing endeavour at the Biennale. With replicas of shrines, or pagodas, with their floating image coming from the water underneath, Iwasaki takes us to a still very vivid traditional aspect of Japanese society that interacts with contemporary pieces from the Out of Disorder series. Using thread from discarded towels and other plastic material, Iwasaki builds delicate landscapes addressing the issues that come with industrialisation: pollution, frenetic construction affecting an idyllic landscape. His presentation is all the more powerful as the viewer could glimpse the artwork on eye-level from the lower floor to immerse themselves into the Mountains and Sea piece.
The Egyptian Pavilion is surprisingly captivating with the pavilion itself serving as the medium for Moataz Nasr’s video The Mountain. Addressing the issue of fear, as it is experienced by a community in a small village, the video emphasises the importance of centennial traditions and beliefs that without being questioned continue to dictate the way of life of its inhabitants. As Nasr (b 1961) rightly points out, ‘life starts when fear ends’. A quite radical view was the one adopted by the Korean pavilion by taking on the outside features of a pleasure motel. Both selected artists, Cody Choi (b 1961) and Lee Wan (b 1979), have made it a point to illustrate individual stories using the context of Korea’s national history, the Asian continent’s history, as well as comparing this background to the rest of the world. Although the issues brought forward by the artists are most relevant, viewers lacking any proper explanations often faces some difficulties in grasping the general idea behind the artists’s undertaking.
Beyond the Giardini, numerous national participations are to be found in the former shipyards of the Arsenale. The Philippines, a country where an interesting contemporary art scene has come about in recent years, features two artists in The Spectre of Comparison, Lani Maestro (b 1957) and Manuel Ocampo
(b 1965). Based on the novel Noli Me Tangere by Philippino writer Jose Rizal, both artists deal, each in their own way, with the notion of comparison between the Philippines and abroad, which in the eyes of historian Anderson marks the origin of nationalism. Besides installation artist Maestro, Manuel Ocampo’s paintings are in perfect harmony with the pavilion’s theme, looking at various issues ranging from a national to a more global perspective. His paintings do not shy away from confronting the viewer with world issues in a most direct and painterly way. As a steady driving force of the Philippino contemporary art scene, Manuel Ocampo representing the Philippines in the Venice Biennale was long overdue.
It has now been a number of years that China has retained a regular location in the Biennale with its pavilion towards the end of the Arsenale. Entitled Continuum – Generation by Generation, the overall idea of the Chinese pavilion refers to the principle of I Ching, where ‘changes and renewals are the original source of production and reproduction’. The artists Tang Nannan (b 1969), Wu Jian’an (b 1980), Wang Tianwen (b 1949) and Yao Huifen (b 1967) have all taken traditional crafts from China one step further, transposing them into the modern age. Between traditional painting, paper cuts, and mythological sculpture trees, some works are far more successful than others. Wu Jian’an’s paper-cut collages are based on mythical Chinese characters and their multiple colourful layers bring alive endless stories.
Tunisia has established a small shack in conjunction with its leitmotiv The Absence of Paths, based on the participation of the visitors at the Biennale. Relying on a sentence by Rumi (‘I did not come here of my own accord, and I cannot leave that way. Whoever brought me here, will have to take me home’) to raise awareness towards the refugee crisis, the forced displacement of people and all the bureaucracy coming with it, the shack is issuing a ‘universal travel document’ to anyone who requests it. The Tunisian pavilion points towards the issue of migration, an issue nations will have to address globally as a ‘universal travel document’ is presently not available for immigrants from certain countries.
Similar to the Chinese pavilion, Singapore ventures back into history to tell the story of the first Malay King, Daunt Hyang Sri Jayanasa from the 7th century, whose hegemony spread over large sections of today’s Southeast Asia. With a crowd of 20,000 people, he led a sacred pilgrimage for the expansion of Buddhism. With a life-sized imagined ship, artist Zai Kuning (b 1964) resurrects that ancient story while connecting it to the present: with his own singing and drum performance, he draws attention to various Malay cultural traditions that are at risk of getting lost in today’s world.
Turkey features a site-specific installation by Cevdet Erek (b 1974), in the form of a large construction with fences that involves sound, letting the viewer walk into the structure, but it was not open ended. His installation would greatly have benefited from the presence of the artist as many viewers were left not knowing what to refer to or what statement this installation wanted to make.
Compared to its previous participation in 2015, the Indonesian pavilion proves slightly disappointing with 1001 Martian Homes by Tintin Wulia (b 1972) that addresses the idea of virtual homes. The United Arab Emirates’ Rock, Paper, Scissors brought together five artists, Nujoom Alghanem (b 1962), Sara Al Haddad (b. 1988), Vikram Divecha (b 1977), Lantian Xie (b 1988) and Mohamed Yousif (b 1953), all of whom explore the notion of ‘play’, usually the first concept through which children become aware of differences, respect, tolerance and community. By extent, the notion of play is herein brought one level further, questioning, for example, the idea of playfulness in art, its accomplishments and its origins.
Going beyond the Giardini and the Arsenale, other national pavilions are located around town. Just steps from the entrance of the Arsenale, Hong Kong has its pavilion with its promising artist Samson Young (b 1979) creating the installation Songs for Disaster Relief, Hong Kong in Venice. Based on the fashion of ‘charity singles’, artist composer Jason Young beautifully sets up entire rooms, creating various tableaux to revive the plea launched in the 1980s with such songs as We Are the World and Do They Know It’s Christmas becoming powerful means to trigger not only compassion, but also action.
An important performance artist in his own right is Tehching Hsieh (b 1950), who is showing in the Taiwanese Pavilion. Bringing together archival documentation recording his key performances after moving to New York in the early 1970s, the viewer can get an overview of the actual meaning of the pavilion’s main title Doing Time, indeed, the five documented performances each lasted one year, requiring iron discipline when for example clocking a worker’s clock on the hour, every hour, for an entire year or living outdoors without shelter. The accumulation of hundreds of images documenting each performance stands as witness for the monumental action accomplished by the artist based on time. In addition, the exhibition features some photographs of Tehching Hsieh’s earlier work in Taiwan has never previously exhibited. A key figure in the field of performance, he has unquestionably taken the discipline to a new level.
Another interesting pavilion is the Lebanese, located in a huge space that perfectly fits the installation Sun Dark Sun by Zad Moultaka (b 1967), who recreated Samas, the God of Justice in Mesopotamian culture, referring to the Code of Hammurabi, considered the first legal code. Beautifully executed with a sound installation, Sun Dark Sun is a powerful piece that raises many questions about the archaic and technology.
The Thai pavilion focuses on a different vision of Bangkok, bringing together photographs highlighting its glorious past with objects raising the question of their memory, their history and their former owner. Although the city of Bangkok is no longer ‘the city of angels, the great city of immortals, the magnificent city of the nine gems,’ artist Somboon Hormitientong (b 1949) nevertheless emphasises its present human qualities.
Following the award-winning pavilion presented at the 2015 Venice Biennale, there were high expectations for the Armenian pavilion. Bringing together three painters: Miro Persolja (b 1948), Rafael Megall (b 1983), and Jean Boghossian ( 1949) for the 2017 edition, the pavilion clearly is not drawing the crowds that it did in 2015. Mongolia participates in the Biennale with five artists questioning the future of the country that is caught between its traditional past and its economic potential and future, a theme that is somehow also recurrent in the pavilion of Azerbaijan, which emphasises diversity to create global unity. Such is the case in the work of Elvin Nabizade (b 1986), which assembles a variety of local and foreign music instruments to reach perfect harmony. A similar approach can be found in the works of the group Hypnotica, perfectly illustrating the theme set for the pavilion Under One Sun. The art of living together, which is a priority in a country where various cultures need to coexist.
Instead of highlighting a variety of artists, the Iranian pavilion featured the work of just one artist, Bizhan Bassiri (b 1954), through a large-scale installation filling the entire space that aligns numerous bronze sculptures and where he has deployed his technical skills, however, the overall piece does not draw much attention. Iraq on the other hand has come up with a sociologically interesting pavilion mixing ancient pieces from the National Museum of Iraq with modern and contemporary works by Jewad Selim (1919-1961), Shakir Hassan Al Said (1925-2004), Sherko Abbas (b 1978), Sadik Kwaish Alfraji (b 1960), Ali Arkady (b 1982), Luay Fadhil (b 1982), Nadine Hattom (b 1980), Sakar Sleman (b 1979) and Francis Alÿs (b 1959), all of whom explore the existing ties between Iraq’s Archaic (the title of the pavilion) to the present.
As in previous recent editions, Syria again is taking part in the Biennale, this time under the title Everybody Admires Palmyra’s Greatness. Referring to Palmyra’s strategic position at the time of the trade routes between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, and its recent troubled history, the pavilion brings together several artists, some of them from Italy, paying tribute in their own way to the city, as for example, where Angelo Dozio (b 1941) uses close-up photographs of the city’s ruins as a starting point. Similarly, Wong Cheng Pu (b 1960), representing the Macau pavilion, lets his mind wonder from the city through enchanted sceneries and mythology completing various sculptures of beings he encountered in his imagination.
If important centres from the Asian and Islamic art world (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia to name just a few) are not featured with a national representation or pavilion, the main section of Viva Arte Viva, curated by Christine Macel, nevertheless highlights some artists from these parts of the world. Her section brings together some well- established artists, as well as younger ones who had never been part of an international exhibition on this scale.
Following his representation of Taiwan at the Biennale back in 2003, Lee Mingwei (b 1964) makes visitors marvel with his installations, primarily with the one in the Arsenale, The Mending Project, which was first executed in 2009. As customary with Lee Mingwei, the interaction with the audience is an important element of his work with, in this case, the artist sitting at a long table and mending pieces brought in by the viewers. The artist works on clothes requiring alterations with colourful thread that is then placed on the adjacent wall, creating an installation per se. An artist who also emphasises the participation of the audience is David Medalla from the Philippines
(b 1938), with A Stitch in Time, an itinerant project begun by the multi-media artist back in 1968. Visitors are invited to work on the piece, constantly adding new thoughts and directions to the fabric.
If some artists emphasise the participation of the audience, others favour the active participation of their members through ephemeral performances. Such is the case with the collective The Play, founded in Japan in 1967, and still ongoing. Documenting their performances through photographs, one of their pieces is visible with The Play have a House with the reconstruction of a new version of the small house built on a raft used by the collective to sail between Kyoto and Osaka in 1972, which they subsequently destroyed.
Shimabuku (b 1969), also relies on nature in his art, but in a different way from The Play. Fascinated by the environment, Shimabuku searches for poetic meanings in nature or creates experiments such as with ‘The snow monkeys of Texas: do snow monkeys remember snow mountains?’, where monkeys were brought from Japan to Texas in order to investigate their memory. Also looking at nature is the Vietnamese artist Thu Van Tran (b 1979) with a large installation involving paintings, sculpture and film to raise awareness towards the abuse of nature by man through the exploitation of rubber. Of course, the artist indirectly points to the colonial period when France brought the rubber tree to Vietnam. Investigating another aspect of nature is Japanese artist Koki Tanaka (b 1975) through his performance ‘Of walking the unknown’ from 2017, where the artist walked from his home in Kyoto to the nearest nuclear power plant to highlight the uncertainty of our lives, as manmade inventions can potentially lead to disaster.
Coming back to the more traditional medium of painting and drawing are Ashram Touloub, Hao Liang, Sopheap Pich as well as Huguette Caland. Moroccan artist Achraf Touloub (b 1986) is relying on painting to experiment shapes, forms, volume with a heavy texture of oil painting, nylon and gesso. Hao Liang (b 1983), from China, on the other side, further explores his fascination with traditional Chinese painting by completing his version of shan shuei painting with views of Hunan, exemplifying that there are still new possibilities in traditional ink painting. Although Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich (b 1971) is mainly known for his sculptures and paintings using local material such as bamboo, he is also an excellent draftsman with the continuation of his Pulse series that the artist initiated in 2012. Completed by using a stick of bamboo immersed in colour pigments, the magnificent drawings represent a new direction in Pich’s work towards abstraction. The Venice Biennale proves to be a wonderful setting for the work of Huguette Caland (b 1931, Lebanon), an important figure in feminist art and an outstanding draftsman who is mainly known to art insiders. Covering a large span of her career, the pieces on view include works based on thread, mannequins as well as a marvellous series of drawings from the 1990s.
Sculpture and installation are not left behind with challenging works by Rina Banerjee, Yee Sookyung, Younes Rahmoun, Maha Malluh or Kisyhio Suga. Rina Banerjee (b 1963) in India, is a steady presence in the contemporary art scene, and features a new series of works triggering rich narratives through their titles, components and overall realisation. Using fragments of Korean vases to complete her over dimensional sculptures is Yee Sookyung (b 1963, Korea). With Translated Vase, the artist emphasises the diversity of stories featured in her piece bringing a new life and a new meaning to these previously discarded fragments. Younès Rahmoun (b 1975, Morocco) invites the audience to a more meditative piece with Taquiya Nor featuring 77 wool hats placed on a light and arranged on the floor. Based on his research, the piece alludes to the spiritual with various degrees of faith. The Saudi artist Maha Malluh (b 1959) encourages the questioning of the place of women in Saudi society: presenting Food for Thought, she creates a ‘wall painting’ made of discarded audio cassettes compiled by religious leaders giving guidance to women as how they should behave in Saudi society. Without openly asserting her views, Maha Malluh has courageously created a very meaningful piece that is also visually very pleasing. Outside of the Arsenale, Japanese artist Kishio Suga (b 1944) creates a new version of his 1971 original installation Law of Situation that is placed on an invisible walkway of 10 stepping-stones in the water, giving the illusion of the stones floating on the water, which continues the artist’s endeavour of experimentation within nature. Among the pieces to be seen outdoors are installations by Takesada Matsutani (b 1937, Japan), Zhou Tao (b 1976, China), as well as by Hassan Kahn (b 1975, UK) whose Composition for a Public Park was awarded the Silver Lion for a promising young artist. Takesada Matsutani’s major piece Venice Stream is in the Arsenale – an oversized graphite three-dimensional drawing. Part of the drawing was a cotton sack filled with sumi ink dripping on the material placed on the floor and to continue all throughout the duration of the biennale.
The Padiglione Venezia, also curated by Christine Macel, features some wonderful paintings by Marwan, Liu Ye, and Firenze Lai. The work of the late Marwan (1934 Syria-2016 Germany) covers different moments of his career with the human figure and the head remaining at the centre of his practice. Based on the books collected by his parents during the Cultural Revolution, Liu Ye (b 1964, China) uses them as a source of inspiration when painting their cover or pages from the novel. The paintings of book covers or sections from important works in Western literature are beautifully executed, inviting the viewer to ‘step inside’ the novels. Firenze Lai’s paintings span over the past few years (b 1984, Hong Kong) focusing on the human figure. Depicting one or two individuals, the paintings display through their composition and colours a kind of melancholy and loneliness.
Among the striking indoor installations are the ones by Liu Jianhua, Hassan Sharif and Abdullah Al Saadi. Liu Jianhua (b 1962, China) has been working with the medium of porcelain throughout his career, lately shifting from figurative towards abstract sculpture. His Square installation is made of steel plates on the floor with gold-glazed porcelain pools placed on them. The size of the overall installation made the work based on Liu Jianhua’s skills all the more powerful. Following his passing away last year, a large installation paid tribute to the work of Hassan Sharif (1951-2016, United Arab Emirates) with ‘Hassan Sharif Studio’ presenting a multitude of his sculptures from 1986 onwards on shelves, allowing the viewer to immerse themselves in the artist’s studio. Abdullah Al Saadi’s (b 1967) approach is more sociological with the Al Saadi’s Diaries displaying the artist’s journals that he started in 1986. Changing the format of his journals over time, this piece highlights Al Saadi’s observations, sketches, and notes.
If the media of painting, drawing, sculpture and installation is popular this year amongst the artists from the Asian and Islamic world, a few of them work with video and sound such as Guan Xiao (b 1983, China), Kader Attia (b 1970, France), Nevin Aladag (b 1972, Turkey), Hale Tenger (b 1960, Turkey) and Kim Sung Hwan (b 1975, Korea). Among the collateral events of the Venice Biennale worth mentioning, video artist and photographer Shirin Neshat (b 1957, Iran), presents her latest body of works at the Museo Correr: a series of black and white close-up portraits with calligraphy ink referring to the various cultures of Azerbaijan and the video Roja, addressing the issues of home and displacement. Her work remains a continuation of her earlier endeavour with always matching quality.
The initial starting point of the Biennale, Viva Arte Viva, is excellent, as for once the art comes first and is not bound by a general theme. However, it is debatable whether it was worth sub-dividing Viva Arte Viva into smaller sections with nine chapters (the pavilion of artists and books, the pavilion of joys and fears, the pavilion of common, the pavilion of earth, the pavilion of traditions, the pavilion of the shamans, the Dionysian pavilion, the pavilion of colours and the pavilion of time and infinity). Setting primary themes or definitions as fundamental to bring artists together is precisely what Viva Arte Viva is opposing and it ultimately brings unnecessary limitations to the Biennale.
The Biennale nevertheless remains a reliable indicator of the pulsating contemporary art world with numerous artists not seen before propelled to the international stage. It is striking that presently artists from all continents are reflecting through their art on topics affecting us, trying to draw attention to what matters most in our world – namely human existence.
BY OLIVIA SAND