Alison Bartley and the Venice Biennale 2017

16 May 2017

A biennale — whether Venice or Sydney — is hard work: intense, demanding, stimulating, expansive, exciting and also fun. With so much to look at and not enough time to give everything enough time, it’s a matter of allowing some works to seduce you and ignoring others. Here’s some of what caught my eye.

Greece has produced an intriguing pavilion in the Giardini — Laboratory of Dilemmas by George Drivas — that explores the challenges of morally complex decision-making. A video narrative, built around the ethical dilemmas in a scientific experiment with hepatitis cells, is situated in a two-story installation above a dimly lit physical labyrinth, which spatially reinforces the sense of disorientation when no clear path is evident.

It’s almost a metaphor for the Biennale experience for first-timers like me, except that in Venice you do ultimately find your way.

While there are exhibits all over the city, many national pavilions and the curated show take place in the Giardini and Arsenale. The Giardini, with its purpose-built national pavilions is gorgeous and gives you room to breathe under the trees between exhibitions. The curated show, in both sites, is more confused in its layout with distinctions between sections not so evident.

For a New Zealander, Lisa Reihana’s work Emissaries is an obvious starting point. New Zealand is in the Arsenale for the first time and the new improved version of the work, first shown at Auckland Art Gallery, looks great in the old shipyard shed. While it is the only work that I saw dealing with post-colonial issues, it does engage the performative in a way that is very of the moment and prevalent across the Biennale. The scale of Reihana’s research and vision in recording so many vignettes that touch on history is impressive, and what is so fresh is the sense of the duality of perspective represented.

Just past the New Zealand pavilion, at the far end of the Arsenale is the Italian pavilion. Roberto Cuoghi’s work here is one of the stranger pieces in the show — ascetic figures from Renaissance paintings are transformed via 3D printers into figures and bodily components, which are laid out in some strange underground laboratory or mausoleum.

The sense of the mysterious and magical resonates with the themes of the curated exhibition Viva Arte Viva, which positions artists as having a special role in the world to effect change and address complex political, social and environment issues through creative, intuitive, less rational modes of expression.

Similarly, in the ‘bewitching’ Irish installation by Jesse Jones (curated by Kiwi expat Tessa Giblin) on the other side of New Zealand, a large white witch dances and chants a feminist challenge to the patriarchal links of church and state.

Alienation is the theme of the not-to-missed German pavilion. Ann Imhof’s Faust, a stark white pavilion with raised clear glass floors in which degendered figures are trapped in a dystopian hell are seen to sing, dance, fight, butcher bird carcasses, and gaze with empty eyes at spectators.

Other compelling works include the South African presentation by Candice Beitz in which Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore have been employed to ‘channel’ the true life stories of migrants forced to flee their homes. It’s disconcerting having these familiar faces tell these harrowing stories — you wonder why the actual migrants don’t speak directly but perversely the strategy seems to enhance empathy for the migrant experience.

Migration is a theme in Tracey Moffat’s work in the Australian dramatic sculptural black pavilion in the Giardinni. In one video, historical images of white film stars looking out of a window with horrified expressions are intercut with images of boats full of refugees. My Horizon, with two films and two bodies of photographs asks questions about what we see and believe and plays in the space between history and fiction.

That space is at the heart of the most talked about and polarising show in Venice — Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable (you can read more about my thoughts on this on our Facebook page).

It’s impossible to leave Venice unsatisfied. While offerings by Ernesto Neto, Olafur Eliasson and Lee Mingwei invite diverse forms of active participation, ultimately carving a path through the vastness requires active engagement by every individual visitor.


Images (L–R): Roberto Cuoghi installation / Ann Imhof's performative installation in the German pavillion / Olafur Eliasson's Green light: An artistic workshop — a fundraising campaign for refugees