Venice Biennale 2017

Stefano Pirovano

Are you discovering or being discovered by contemporary art?

The edition number 57 of the Venice Bienniale of contemporary art has been opened here in Venice since last Tuesday morning, when a very selected group of authorities, collectors, museum directors and journalists were allowed to enter the exhibition. Then Wednesday came, and a wider selection of Ar(t)lantis’ citizens, plus the Venice Biennale card holders – the 250 euros Ar(t)latis visa available for those who have no accreditation -, were also welcomed. That day it was still easy to navigate the exhibition, but not at the point of being able to take pictures without people inside. Long queue of visitors at Anne Imhof‘s installation and performance at the pavilion of Germany. Thursday. Opening day was also on invitation only, but by noon the Arsenale was packed. You could hardly enjoy small and medium scale pieces, while big installations were turned into silent backgrounds by the flock of visitors. Big success, compliments to Venice Biennale’s meta-curator, Paolo Baratta, and to the institution’s staff. The queue for entering the German pavilion and attend the artist’s most wanted version of Goethe’s masterpiece, the Faust, was impressive. She will win the Golden Lion.

On day four’s early morning, after having seen tons of art and art people, and likely still feeling guilty for the many pieces you certainly missed along the way, you would be ready to share some thoughts regarding that unique art experience.

Point one: is the Venice Biennale still about discovering artists and positions or rather about being discovered by their dealers? Apparently Ar(t)lantis is still expanding, both in terms of population and by production of artworks. Art fairs are asserting that, the Biennial is confirming, and that is a good news. Nevertheless, one of the key elements of contemporary art DNA is discovering (and learning), and you know that it is very hard to make discoveries in a supermarket. It was reassuring to see all these people around, sharing positive ideas and hopes about the future – yes, viva arte viva! -, but it’s so reassuring that it would be a capital sin to betray them. Hence, the Biennale is definitely the proper place for celebrating established artists yet to be recognized by the large audience – as the Syrian painter Marwan or the 96 year-old artist Anna Halprin -, but at some point of this edition you may feel the lack of some good youngster. Christine Macel invited 120 artists, 103 of those had never been at the Biennale before but the curated exhibition’s outcome definitely seems more risk averse than experimental this year.

Nevertheless, Macel’s idea of dividing her show into nine trans-pavilions is definitely a winner one. We must say that we were a bit skeptical about it, but while navigating the exhibition we realized that it gives some effective conceptual categories which may be helpful also outside this context – for instance, at an art fair. The naming has been brilliant.

We also very much appreciated The art workshop welcoming visitors at the entrance of the International pavilion at the Giardini. Olafur Eliasson proved once again his uncanny ability to deal with large scale multi layered projects and social awareness. And it’s so far the best Bienniale’s first line that we remember. It doesn’t only address at refugees and asylum seekers, that is to say people who need other people solidarity and social culture, but it also put the viewers into the shoes of the artist, who has to make his ‘green light’ existing.

Moreover, this room opens the door to one of this Bienniale’s main topic, which is a return of artists to the use of their hands and practical skills. A second-artist workshop is on exhibition at the Italian pavilion – the best so far in years, also thanks to the dramatic two-floor installation by Giorgio Andreotta Calò – which despite being titled ‘The end of the world’ doesn’t look that pessimistic. Roberto Cuoghi staged the making of devotional sculptures, with assistants and artisans making the pieces in a fully equipped laboratory. Furthermore, one of nine Macel’ trans pavilions is dedicated to Traditions, and it’s where seven magnetic Fancis Upritchard spiritual personalities are on show. Other main artists with high technical skills represented at the Arsenale are, for instance, Maria Lai, Ernesto Neto, Leonor Antunes, Huguette Caland, Adboulye Konaté. As we were writing in a recent article dedicated to Kristof Kintera, these days artists are renewing their faith in the making of art and traditional art medium such as bronze, ceramics, or glasses. It seems that the plethora of Duchamp’ descendants went finally out fashion, and this fact leads to a couple of thoughts. The first one is that at this juncture contemporary art is a European matter (thanks French electorate for voting Macron), and also many insiders have noticed the lack of American art people this year in Venice, especially those with big yachts. Documenta in Kassel and Athens, Skulptur Projekte in Münster, and Art Basel are going to follow up with the Biennale, while the main art event that is going to take place in the US is the next Armory show (April 2018). The second thought is that this coming back to traditional art medium and skills may be an effect of the growing influence of Far East and African emerging countries on the contemporary art area. These cultures are traditionally more interested in handcrafted pieces and local classical art than the US, which doesn’t have this kind of background.

In this regards, we would mention the African Art in Venice Forum. Held in the city centre, at a top location such as the Monaco Hotel, this two-days brilliant panel curated by Neri Torcello, Azu Nwagbogu and Azza Satti hosted art personalities such as collector Sindika Dokolo, Jochen Zeitz, founder of the recently opened Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Ingrid Masondo, curator at the South African National Gallery, and Emmanuel Iduma, curator of the pavilion of Nigeria, at its first participation at the Venice Biennale. As Mr Dokolo pointed out, African art is nothing new. It was there also four years ago, when the pavilion of Angola won the Gold Lion, and in 2015, when the Biennale had its first African-born curator, Okwui Enwezor; and it was there 20 years ago too, when artists such as El Anatsui were already at work shaping the cultural identity of their country. But as a matter of fact the presence on the international arena of the art from the Continent was weaker than today. A dedicated article will follow, meanwhile keep an eye on the Modern and Contemporary African art auction that is going to take place next Tuesday at Sotheby’s.

October 6, 2017