The 57th Venice Biennale 2017: Getting to the Art of the Matter

Jun 7, 2017

© Barbara Hoffman, 2017
Barbara T. Hoffman is a preeminent international art lawyer with an undergraduate degree in art history. She has been a passionate follower of the contemporary art scene for years and a regular attendee at the Venice Biennale since the early 1980's. She has written frequently on law, art and politics for a variety of publications and is a member of the International Association of Art Critics as well as the attorney for AICA USA. She serves on the Board of Performa, the visual Performance Biennale.

Viva Arte Viva

When I tell my art world friends I have just returned from the press openings of the Venice Biennale, the question almost inevitably asked is, what is it like? Is it worth a visit.

My initial response is, of course, influenced by the big thematic exhibition in the Giardini, more specifically the Central Pavilion, and the Arsenale. This is the International Art Exhibition, whose curator is selected by La Biennale de Venezia. Christine Macel, Pompidou Museum, was selected as the curator of the 2017 Biennale.

Since 1895 when the first Art Biennale was held, the promoters – La Biennale di Venezia – have stood at the forefront of research and promotion of new contemporary art trends, organizing exhibitions and research in allied sectors including Music (1930), Cinema (1932), Theatre (1934), Architecture (1980) and Dance (1999).

Paolo Barrata, President of la Biennale di Venezia, describing the three previous Biennales, stated: “Curiger, Gioni, Enwezor, a trilogy in a sense - three chapters in a research process engaged by la Biennale di Venezia to explore the benchmarks that can help us formulate aesthetic judgments on contemporary art, a “critical” question following the demise of the avant-gardes and “non-art”." Paolo Baratta introduces this year’s edition with these words, recalling that “Bice Curiger brought us the theme of perception, of ILLUMInation or light as an autonomous and revitalizing element, and Massimiliano Gioni was interested in observing the phenomenon of artistic creation from within, and turned his attention to the inner impulses that drive mankind and the artist to create images and bring representations to life.”

The 56th International Art Exhibit, organized by its first African curator, Nigerian Okwui Enwezor, was politics pure and simple, inspired by "the relationship between art and the development of the human, social, and political world, as external forces and phenomena loom large over it", it aimed to "investigate how the tensions of the outside world act on the sensitivities and the vital and expressive energies of artists, on their desires and their inner song." Enwezor's All the World's Futures was described by one critic as "an assault course of videos about global starvation, industrial pollution and the atrocious conditions of garment workers in developing countries." Inspired by Marxism, All the World's Futures was explicitly critical of capitalism and consumerism and the state of anxiety generated by its social, political, economic, and environmental consequences.

Speaking of the 57th International Art Exhibition, Barrata states: "This is an Exhibition inspired by humanism. This type of humanism is neither focused on an artistic ideal to follow nor is it characterized by the celebration of mankind as beings who can dominate their surroundings. If anything, this humanism, through art, celebrates mankind's ability to avoid being dominated by the powers of governing world affairs. These powers, if left to their own devices, can greatly affect the human dimension, in a detrimental sense."

Christine Macel states: "…the title Viva Arte Viva immediately sets the tone of this Biennale: an exhibition which, even if it addresses complex political and social issues, has its own particular energy and dynamism. I chose it to inspire a lively interest in the public: Viva is a celebratory exclamation but also an expression of exuberance, and so it encourages a feeling of engagement with the exhibition…Today in a world full of conflicts and shocks, artist bear witness to the most precious part of what makes us human. Art is the ultimate ground for reflection, individual expression freedom and for fundamental questions…It stands as an unequivocal alternative to individualism and indifference…Viva Arte Viva is…a passionate outcry for art and the state of the artist…a Bienniale designed with artists by artists and for artists."

The Art Exhibitions of Viva Arte Viva unfold over the course of nine chapters or families of artists, beginning with two introductory realms in the Central Pavilion, followed by another seven across the Arsenale.

Macel states that this series of pavilions invites visitors "into an experiential journey from interiority to infinity." Viva starts from the figure of the artist to more spiritual questions. It is like a novel in progress: "In other rooms of this journey, I wanted to explore some subjects in much more depth, who through their work could offer a new point of view."

A sharp contrast to All the World's Futures, Macel's Viva Arte Viva has been correctly criticized for its lack of addressing the contemporary political, social and economic issues of today with a direct, compelling and passionate collective reimagining of a future. Viva Arte Viva falls far short of its ambitions, and is infinitely less interesting and relevant than the three immediately prior International Exhibitions.

I could not agree more with Holland Cotter's general comment in his May 29 New York Times Review of the Venice Biennale, that Viva lacked relevance to the issues of today, and that the "current market-addled mainstream art world really is, politically out of it": "particularly Macel's exhibition is perversely out of sync with the times." It is not only that it lacks any real coherence, but too often the approach of inclusion and participation is simple. Macel claims that, "Viva offers a route that moulds the artist' works and a context that favors access and understanding, generating connections, resonances and thoughts." The artist centered view in a more global context seems short on empathy for the problems the general public is likely to consider relevant to their day to day existence.

I was not engaged in this journey. Perhaps the failure of Macel's journey is that it is a "novel". This is not the time for fiction, but for engagement with and resistance to the stark realities of the existing political, economic and social structures of "now". Macel's curatorial exercise lacks any obvious underlying political or aesthetic philosophical undergirding, which is why it lacks currency. Macel opines that “Art in itself helps us to navigate in these times; its very existence is a resistance in itself.” Fortunately, many of us, including the curators of other pavilions, disagree.

From among the 120 invited artists from 51 countries, there are many gems. Macel has obviously worked tirelessly to bring artists from around the world working in all media and from all generations. It is indeed a global selection in a variety of styles, media, and materials. A quick walk-through of the Central Pavilion and Arsenale is worth the effort.

Starting with the Pavilion of Artists and Books, the Exhibition purports to reveal its premise: a dialectic that it claims, involves the whole of contemporary society, beyond the artist himself, and addresses the organization of society and its values. Macel succeeds less in this aspect than in her intent to focus on the artist, the questions they ask, the practices they develop and the ways of life they chose. She states that the ideal introduction to the journey is the Pavilion of Artists and Books. Here it is for the spectator to ask what it means to be an artist today. McArthur Binion, an American artist based in Chicago, is interviewed in the Pavilion of Artists and Books discussing his paintings on view and his process of creation.


The National Pavilions
The Biennale is more than the International Art Exhibition. The Venice Biennale also includes 86 National Participations in the historic Pavilions at the Giardini, at the Arsenale and in the historic city center of Venice. Three countries are participating for the first time: Antigua and Barbuda, Kiribati, and Nigeria. While I did not have occasion to visit the first two, I was privileged to attend the performance and press openings of Nigeria.

As in the past, the very notion of a national pavilion has always provoked a response in one or more national pavilions. In this Biennale, themes of the impact of globalization, personal identity, national identity, and politics are also evident. In many respects, the National Pavilions selected below, address more explicitly the political, economic, cultural and social issues and more directly address the role of the engaged artist and contemporary art in changing the world. If the International Art Exhibit of Macel fails in its intention to engage and be relevant, the pavilions below are well worth the journey.


The German Pavilion, Curated by Susanne Pfeffer, Artist Anne Imhof

German artist Anne Imhof's Faust is a strong counterpoint to the Macel exhibition in almost every respect. My experience of this pavilion on three different occasions made it my pick to win the Golden Lion for Best National Participation, and it did. It will be featured in an article by me in Sculpture Magazine, June 2017. Susanne Pfeffer, the curator, explains, "Suddenly, we find ourselves in the midst of various constructions of power and powerlessness, consciousness and violence, resistance and freedom. Outside, and territory are ones own, dogs guard the house…On the balustrades and fences, underground and on the roof, the performers conquer and occupy the room, the house, the pavilion, the institution, the state."


Counterbalance: The Stone & The Mountain
The Korean Pavilion, Artist Lee Wan, interview with Lee Daehyung, Curator.


Cinema Olanda
The Dutch Pavilion, Artist Wendelien van Oldenborgh, interview with Lucy Cotter, Curator.

Featuring three filmic works, Cinema Olanda operates in the cracks between the projected image of the Netherlands as a transparent avant-garde country and its reality today as a complex and rapidly transforming social, cultural and political space. The works shed light on underexposed aspects of the Netherlands' recent history.


My Horizon
The Australian Pavilion, Curated by Natalie King, Artist Tracey Moffatt.

"There are times in life when we can all see what is 'coming over the horizon' and this is when we make a move. Or we do nothing and just wait for whatever is to arrive…The Asylum-seeking storyline is not a new story…people throughout history and across cultures have always escaped and crossed borders to seek new lives."


Vigil was inspired by a news story about a boat carrying asylum-seekers which crashed on the Christmas Island shoreline back in 2010, killing about fifty people. Moffatt states: "It is a tragedy that has haunted me since, as do many news stories. We can never fathom the desperation of the people who got onto that awful boat and crossed the horizon and tried to make it to some sort of freedom in Australia. The smashing of that rotten wooden boat is symbolic of how borders around the world are disintegrating. The old world is out, the new world is coming in and borders cannot stay closed. Human beings, in their desperation, will always find a way 'in'; they always have. In Vigil, I juxtapose images of white movie stars gazing out of windows at dark-skinned people arriving on boats."

Tracey Moffatt, Vigil, (2017) (video by the author)
In Ghost Ship, Moffatt creates an alternative narrative of aboriginal history to challenge the colonial narrative.


Tremble Tremble
The Pavilion of Ireland, Curated by Tessa Giblin, Artist Jesse Jones

"I am excited to rise to this challenge and create an exhibition that will stimulate debate on issues of urgent political and social relevance in Ireland and across the world," Jones is known for her practice that focuses on the embedded political and social history within everyday life. She is interested in the moments when this hidden history comes to the surface, such as the demonstration or strike. Tremble, Tremble was inspired by the death of a young Indian doctor living in Ireland who died when she was not able to get a life saving abortion. Her death sparked a women’s protest movement to amend the Irish Constitution to give a woman control of her body. Its title is inspired by the 1970s Italian wages for housework movement, during which women chanted “Tremate, tremate, le streghe sono tornate! (Tremble, tremble, the witches have returned!)”.



The Iraq Pavilion, curated by Tamara Chalabi and Paolo Colombo, Commissioned by The Ruya Foundation

"The exhibition, 'Archaic', shows the work of eight Modern and contemporary Iraqi artists in dialogue with 40 ancient Iraqi artefacts drawn from the Iraq Museum and spanning six millennia, from the Neolithic Age to the Parthian Period. Most of these objects have never previously left Iraq, excluding a few that were recently recovered after the 2003 lootings of the Museum.

Ali Arkady is a photographer and filmmaker and became a photojournalist in 2010. Ali's work fills the void left behind by decades of dictatorship and censorship that stopped Iraqi culture from developing a modern voice. In the catalog essay, Ed Kashi states, "Iraq's history is ancient, in some cases representing the beginnings of Western civilization to agriculture, culture, science, poetry and art – the dictatorship set. Violence and meddling of outsiders in modern times have shunted this history aside "as a Syrian composer recently said, "in the Arab world the concept of citizenship does not exist. We are not citizens but consumers that are conceived by dictatorship". After a crisis to control of vast areas of northern Iraq in 2014, Arkady began recording regularly from the frontline. He was embedded with the Iraqi security forces in the recent operations to expel Isis from Mosul. In 2015 and 2016 he led a UNHCR community project, teaching photography to Yazidi women in Iraq refugee camps.

The exhibition is also accompanied by a new commission by internationally acclaimed Belgian-born artist Francis Alӱs on the subject of war and the artist. "In February 2016 Alӱs undertook a trip to Iraq facilitated by the Ruya Foundation in which he visited refugee camps in the north of the country. He followed this with an extroardinary visit in November 2016 to the Mosul front line in the company of a Kurdish batallion, during the Liberation of Mosul offensive."

Alӱs states: "There is something particular about these times we live in, it comes with a new expectation of the artist's role. When the structure of a society collapses, when politicians and the media have lost credit, the terror invades daily life, society turns towards culture in pursuit of answers. Maybe not answers but a different - more sincere? - way of looking at things. And that is quite a responsibility! I don't think artists are insincere, but they too have an agenda, they have their own subjective view of facts…The artist as "witness"? One thing is to mirror the society we live in, another is to portray it. When does witnessing become denouncing, when does denouncing become accusing?"


How About Now?

The Nigerian Pavilion, Curated by Adenrele Sonariwo and Emmanual Iduma, Artists Victor Ehikhamenor, Peju Alatise, and Qudus Onikeku

The three installations of How About Now? "all deal, in some form, with the notion of time and the impulse to shape cultural and national identity outside of the colonialist narrative that the country has long been forced into." Two renowned visual artists – Victor Ehikhamenor and Peju Alatise – and celebrated performance artist, Qudus Onikeku, have been selected to showcase their unique works centered on the theme ‘How About NOW?’

The curator has stated that "Transporting us across centuries, each artist addresses a different facet of Nigerian history, seeking to situate themselves in the present, in a 'now' that captures and corrects history, and which looks to use artistic expression to guide the future -- a future of volition, where identity is shaped rather than forced." Their work seeks to use the narrative of the present to interrogate the minefield of societal consciousness in addressing aspects of identity and belonging as it relates to and confronts the Nigerian past.

According to Ade  Adekola, one of the members of the Nigerian Pavilion: “The concept of time, and our drive to hold it to NOW, in this brave new present, cannot be viewed without the notion of the rate at which change occurs. The very notion which adds dimension to NOW is captured in a wonderful word which signals unfolding – Prescience. The Nigerian pavilion stands as a mark of ‘Prescience’, calling all to attention, and to witness the Nowness of Nigerian experience, in all its poignant unfolding forms, as best encountered through artists at work in the country today.”

Peju Alatise's "Flying Girls" is a moving sculptural and sound work that presents the crisis of young Nigerian girls being rented out by their families to wealthier families for years at a time for domestic help. "The sing-song voice of children chanting plays in the background…The work is one of several that [Alatise] is creating based on scenes from her novel Flying Girls, which follows Sim, a young girl who is rented out to a family for five years to clean, cook, and care for their children, who are not much younger than she is. Each night, Sim flies to a fantastical alternate universe, where she can chase shadows, rest on the moon, and fly to the sky with her friend-- where she can be a child." Alatise presents the viewer with the prescience of these young women being "transported to a world of possibility, where history can be reclaimed, where young girls get second chances."



The New Zealand Pavilion, artist Lisa Reihana

In Pursuit of Venus [infected], 2015–17,  is the cinematic centrepiece of exhibition Lisa Reihana: Emissaries.

Lisa Reihana in the New Zealand Pavilion also calls into question colonial narratives and histories. "The vast panoramic video is a filmic reimagining of the Neoclassical French scenic wallpaper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, 1804—1805, also known as ‘Captain Cook’s voyages’.

In Neoclassical France, entrepreneur Joseph Dufour used the latest printing innovations to commercially produce the sophisticated twenty-panel scenic wallpaper. Mirroring a widespread fascination with the Pacific voyages undertaken by Captain Cook, de Bougainville and de la Perouse, its exotic themes referenced popular illustrations of that time.

Two centuries later, Reihana employs twenty-first century audio-visual technologies to animate the wallpaper with real and invented narratives in a cultural endeavor of reclamation and reimagining. The artist re-casts this original European fabrication of the Pacific to suggest a more complex story.

The expansive video panorama is populated by characters drawn from across Aotearoa New Zealand, the Pacific and Europe to create a compelling and mesmerizing experience. Reihana intensifies the death of Cook in Hawai’i as the dramatic moment of rupture. This and other narratives play out within a looping visual and sonic world where time is cyclical. This temporal and spatial dimensionality can be linked to Tā-Vā, the Pacific theory of time and space."


Lost in Tngri

The Mongolian Pavilion

""Lost in Tngri" ("Lost in Heaven") is an exhibition by five Mongolian artists: Ch.Chimeddorj, O.Enkhtaivan, J.Bolortuvshin, G.Munkhboldor, Ts.Davaajargal. It is about the frailty of human nature and its effect upon society and the environment." Curator Yo.Dalkh-Ochir, speaking about the work, states: "Across Asia the crane is a symbol of happiness and eternal youth. The birds arrive in Mongolia for the summer and suddenly disappear, returning to Africa for the winter. They are resourceful in what they eat, changing their diet according to what's available. Chimeddorj's I'm Bird introduces more complex associations, by combining their form and silhouete with that of a gun. The idea came to mind when the artist saw "a teeming crowd of young Mongolians in front of the Korean Embassy in Ulaanbaatar; they were standing in line to get visas to work in Korea." This work with its ranks of birds, a sub group of reptiles and the last living examples of dinosaurs, mixes unsettling associations of history, strife, exodus and foreboding. Chimeddorj is questioning where modern goals lead us and to what extend the restless quest for new worlds destroys the old ones."


Collateral Events and Museum Exhibitions


Venice has a number of temporary exhibitions well worth a visit even if you are not otherwise Biennale tempted, not to mention the vast treasures of Venice itself.


Intuition at the Palazzo Fortuny

To coincide with the 2017 Venice Art Biennale, Axel Vervoordt and Daniela Ferretti, Director of the Palazzo Fortuny, will present their sixth and last exhibition: Intuition. Organised by the Axel & May Vervoordt Foundation and the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, the exhibition explores how intuition has, in some form, shaped art across geographies, cultures and generations. It brings together historic, modern and contemporary works related to the concept of intuition, dreams, telepathy, paranormal fantasy, meditation, creative power, hypnosis and inspiration.

Vervoordt describes Intuition as the ability to acquire knowledge without proof, evidence, or conscious reasoning: a feeling that guides a person to act in a certain way without fully understanding why. This acclaimed series at the Palazzo Fortuny co-curated by Axel Vervoordt and Daniela Ferretti began with Artempo (2007), In-finitum (2009), TRA (2011), Tàpies. Lo Sguardo dell’artista (2013) and Proportio (2015).

Artempo, "Where Time Becomes Art” was the first large exhibition Axel Vervoordt curated which gained worldwide acclaim. Artempo examined the relationship between art, time and the power of display, representing a breadth of cultures and periods and featuring over 300 objects ranging from rare archaeological materials to contemporary installations. The work of over 80 artists included Francis Bacon, Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana, Alberto Giacometti, James Turrell, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol. It began a new way of curating and looking at works of art and objects as works of art. It was a milestone in curating with its blend of centuries, artistic insights and ideas, conversations amongst artists and objects and works of art. The curator's vision paired with extraordinary connoisseurship, provided powerful objects and works of art which communicated to the viewer without text or wall label.

Each of the curated thematic exhibitions which followed met this high standard. There is a lesson ere as to why Macel’s curatorial effort may fail, where Vervoordt's has gathered praise. Intuition begins here with the creator. As a concept it is artist centered and about art. That is the beginning of the curatorial journey. It is not the end.

A wonderful exhibit at the Gallerie dell' Academia, Philip Guston and the Poets, not only explores Philip Guston’s paintings to draw parallels between the essential humanist themes of his work with the language and ideas of the poets that he loved – Eliot, Yates, Wallace Stevens, but it also reveals the surprisingly profound importance of Italian painting on an artist usually regarded as quintessentially American.

It is especially appropriate that Guston’s Venetian debut is taking place in the Accademia which was apparently one of his favorite places.


Mark Tobey Threading Light; Mystical Symbolism at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection

One of the foremost American artists to emerge from the 1940s, a decade that saw the rise of abstract expressionism, Mark Tobey (1890–1976) is recognized as a vanguard figure whose “white-writing” anticipated the formal innovations of New York School artists such as Jackson Pollock. This unique form of abstraction was the synthesis of the artist’s experiences living in Seattle and New York, his extensive trips to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Kyoto, and Europe, and his conversion to the Bahá'í faith.

As curator Debra Bricker Balken explains, “Within this mix of sources, Tobey was able to skirt a specific debt to cubism—unlike his modernist peers—by fusing elements of like formal languages into compositions that are both astonishingly radical and beautiful.” As the New York School emerged in the aftermath of World War II, Tobey was only marginally integrated into the movement because he was averse to the cultural nationalism and “American-ness” of the rhetoric imposed on its paintings. Unlike the brasher, more aggressive pictorial statements of Jackson Pollock and others, Tobey’s quiet, inward-directed work could not easily be folded into the new critical discourse intent on the formulation of a national identity for American art. On this aspect, note that Alberto Giacometti refused to represent Switzerland, in a pavilion built by his brother in 1952 because he believed in globalism. This year, the Swiss pavilion pays homage to him with a work based on a group of plaster figures entitled the "Femmes de Venise” which he finally consented to display in the French pavillon in 1956."


Vik Muniz: Afterglow, Pictures of Ruins at the Palazzo Cini

"The artist's sources of inspiration for this work, especially conceived for Palazzo Cini, are the exhibition Rediscovered Masterpieces from the Vittorio Cini Collection (2016) and some of the masterpieces in the collection by great artists such as Francesco Guardi, Dosso Dossi and Canaletto."


Damien Hirst: Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable at the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana

Contrary to many critics and art world friends, I was not at all sorry to have seen Hirst's spectacle and extravaganza, although Palazzo Grassi sufficed. Is it perhaps because I am a member of the prestigious Explorers Club and involved in actual underwater explorations that I found some meaning, not only in the feigned air of discovery, but in the possibility that Hirst's trajectory from submerging a shark in formaldehyde to discovery of a world of commodities in a wreck underwater, held more meaning than apparent at the surface level. If we dive deeper, is this Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle (1967), with (or without) its indictment of capitalist consumer culture. Debord was a founding member of the Situationist International (1957-1972, a group of avant-garde artists and political theorists united by their opposition to advanced capitalism. The spectacle is the inverted image of society in which relations between commodities have supplanted relations between people, in which "passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity". "The spectacle is not a collection of images," Debord writes, "rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images."

Damien Hirst, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable (2017)

Get your plane ticket and visit Venice before November 26th!


Barbara Hoffman

Barbara T. Hoffman is recognized internationally and nationally as one of the preeminent art, intellectual property, and cultural heritage lawyers. With more than forty years of practice in every aspect of the field, Hoffman has been acknowledged by her peers with leadership positions in the New York City Bar Association and International Bar Association, elected to Super Lawyers, Best Lawyers...

read more