Politics, Performance, and People Watching: Favorite Pavilions in Venice Biennale 2017

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Giardini Pavillions in Venice: Photo Essay by Cara Ober, Kelly Zimmerman, and Sherri Fisher

Whether art critics have loved or hated the 2017 Venice Biennale, you can’t argue that it’s one of the world’s oldest and most important international art exhibitions. In addition to the main curated exhibition by Christine Macel, the heart of the festival is the national pavilions, with more than eighty countries participating with their best artists for the Golden Lion Award.

The Giardini, or gardens, at the east end of Venice have been home for the Biennale since 1895. The district had once included four churches and three convents in the Napoleonic era, but was converted to host the Central Pavilion and an additional twenty-nine national pavilions, which were built by participating countries at various time periods.

Several pavilions in the Gardens were designed and built by famous architects. For example, the US Pavilion is a Palladian-style structure built in 1930 by the then well-known architects William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich. Built in 1934, the Austrian Pavilion was one of the very last works of Josef Hoffmann, a leading figure in the “Secession” movement.

Although Germany’s Anne Imhoff won the Golden Lion this year, our team definitely had favorites among the international pavilions – including Great Britain, Finland, Korea, and the US. In no particular order, here are our top picks for 2017 pavilions.

Chillin’ with the golden lion in the Giardini. No big deal.

And below – apparently this is how the art arrives at the Giardini.

Austria boasted a giant truck on its side out in front – daring visitors to climb up into it, like a giant jungle gym for adults. This playful, interactive attitude carried through the entire pavilion, where visitors could pose on absurd everyday objects for extended lengths of time and stick their body parts through holes in a camper.

AUSTRIA: Brigitte Kowanz and Erwin Wurm
Commissioner/Curator: Christa Steinle

“What links Wurm and Kowanz is the relation of pictures and sculptures to architecture. Kowanz’s light installations re-defined public space and architecture in an intangible way while Wurm turned sculpture into architecture in his famous paraphrases of houses ranging from Narrow House to House Attack. Again and again, the Austrian Pavilion has become the object of architectural metamorphoses, an object of artistic and architectural reflexions. The two artists selected by me showed in their works that each of them is able to give a new impetus to this tradition and to provide artistically convincing surprises in a specific way. Kowanz and Wurm work at the forefront of international vanguard movements as they expanded both the pictorial and sculptural medium towards architecture and the participation of the audience.” – Press statement of Christa Steinle, Austrian Commissioner 2017

Germany’s pavilion had an S&M flavor with black-clad performance artists (and guard dogs) doing mundane things and featuring the theme of ‘Faust.’ Although it reminded me of Dieter from Sprockets and was decidedly pretentious, this project was a powerful commentary on history and politics, with visitors watching performers in all sorts of spaces, including under a glass floor.

GERMANY: Anne Imhof **Winner of the Golden Lion Award**
Commissioner: ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) on behalf of the Federal Foreign Office. Curator: Susanne Pfeffer.

Excerpt from the project statement: “The contemporary biopolitical body is no longer a onedimensional surface on which power, the law, control, and punishment are inscribed. Rather, it is a dense interior, a site for both life and political control exerted by means of exchange and communication mechanisms. A new subject arises that is both hormonal and powerfully networked across media. The sound of compositions resonates, specifically created for each of the performers’ voices. At first, they are scattered across the room, eventually coming together as part of a technological network of mobile phones and building into a formidable solipsistic choir. Aimless individuality persists even as it clusters into groups. They may sing together, but their song is of the I.

The dog in the kennel, the dog and its master, the dog and its companion — these pairings are evidence of how cultural change has altered power relations. They are a symbol of the changing constructions of nature: Where there used to be a dualism between nature and culture, the world now presents itself as a kennel.

In a society that conceives guilt not in religious terms but as a matter of individual responsibility, that considers ill health not as divine punishment but as a personal failure, the body becomes capital and money the measure of all things. The body is a consumer item, handed over to the vagaries of the free market. Market rationality decides whether a body is worthy of protection — or whether it falls within the remit of a necropolitics. Capitalism brings the reign of money to its highest stage. Like in Goethe’s play Faust, we trade something that does not exist. The soul does not exist, the products of the financial sector do not exist and yet — or because of all this the system functions. Only by forming an association of bodies, only by occupying space can resistance take hold. 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.”

Great Britain was a favorite. folly, a solo project by Phyllida Barlow is a pleasure from start to finish – from the wonky, Dr. Seuss-esque sculptural balls and ‘trees’ out front to the larger than life cartoon-esque yet geological seeming sculpture inside. The entire space is used and the viewer feels magically transported and shrunk down, into a world of colorful textures and materials that feel familiar yet sublime.

GREAT BRITAIN: Phyllida Barlow: folly
Commissioner: Emma Dexter. Curators: Harriet Cooper, Delphine Allier. Venue: Giardini

Curatorial Statement: “British artist Phyllida Barlow’s ambitious installation for the British Pavilion, folly, playfully challenges audiences to explore their own understanding of sculpture.

Barlow’s sculptures inhabit the entire Pavilion, reaching up to the roof and even spilling outside. In the central gallery, she encourages us to take on the role of explorer, picking our way around a sculptural labyrinth of densely-packed towering columns.

The word folly has several meanings and the exhibition also explores dualities, such as fun and foreboding. Brightly coloured baubles jostle joyfully, yet these bulging forms also have a sinister quality as they press towards visitors and dominate the space. Sculptures resembling chairs on a fairground ride allude to festivity yet their folded forms imply decay and desolation.

Barlow enjoys juxtaposing familiar objects with abstract sculptural forms – a gnarled anvil sits on dismembered pianos in piano/anvil and the cast concrete holedhoarding outside the Pavilion resembles a billboard, surrounded by abandoned debris shaped like shoes, tyres and placards. The dark grey used in these sculptures, reminiscent of the urban environment, is offset by bold colours, with pinks, reds and oranges punctuating the works.

Barlow challenges the limits and possibilities of cheap, everyday materials, such as timber, concrete and fabric. Her bold installation feels monumentally vast but the sculptures remain grounded by a distinctly human presence evident in their creation.”

Moataz Mohamed Nasr Eldin of Egypt presents a sculptural facade that suggests a historic temple with a dramatic film inside. The audience tended to linger for long intervals of time watching the screen, rather than quickly filtering in and out.

EGYPT: The Mountain
Commissioner/Exhibitor: Moataz Mohamed Nasr Eldin. Curator: Ministry of Culture.

From C&: The artist for this year’s Egyptian pavilion at the Venice Biennale is Moataz Nasr. In his exhibition he will explore the theme This too shall pass.

In his work, The Mountain, he explores the facts and the fears of contemporary village-life in Egypt. The Egyptian Pavilion, for the occasion has been transformed. The visitors can expect to be completely absorbed in a complex light play, and to be embraced by a multisensory installation and the large scale film projection telling the story of this imagined village.

Moataz Nasr is a contemporary Egyptian artist from Cairo whose work encompasses installations, video, sculpture and painting. While studying economics in Alexandria, he entered his work in a competition organized by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and winning made is entry into the Egyptian art scene. Since then, his art has been on show all around the globe.

Finland was super weird and crazy. Talking eggs and muppet-like videos abounded. I liked it.

FINLAND (Pavilion Alvar Aalto): The Aalto Natives: Erkka Nissinen and Nathaniel Mellors.
Commissioner: Raija Koli, Frame Contemporary Art Finland. Curator: Xander Karskens.

Pavilion of Finland at the 57th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia: The Aalto Natives by Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen

Pavilion of Finland presents The Aalto Natives, a collaboration between artists Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen at the 57th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Individually known for their irreverent and often comedic story-driven work, Mellors and Nissinen focus on various clichés surrounding Finnish history and national identity for The Aalto Natives.

Conflating ideas and tropes from archaeology, anthropology and science fiction, the work re-imagines Finnish society through the eyes of two messianic outsider figures, Geb and Atum, who are represented by talking animatronic puppets.

The story presents Geb and Atum as terraforming higher beings, who re-visit the Finland they have created millions of years earlier, and who try to make sense of the culture that has developed in the meantime. They are engaged in a dialogue in which they introduce a series of video vignettes on Finnish creation mythology, contemporary Finnish society and their vision for the future of Finland.

Within this narrative framework, Mellors and Nissinen playfully critique religion and the nature of human existence, to reveal the systemic flaws at the heart of cultures dominated by rationalism and the fetishization of progress.

DAY 1 #bienale2017 #finland🇫🇮 #Neanderthal #encinoman #eggtakesover #dickbacon #finlandisweird

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Korea was hands-down my favorite pavilion. Sorry, America. That neon tiger! This pavilion was simultaneously a nightclub and motel featuring pole dancing, with a disco blaring “Ring My Bell” inside. Thoughtful clock installations inside mapped the lives of individuals (names on each clock) and also, there were zines. What more could I ask for?

KOREA (Republic of): Counterbalance: The Stone and the Mountain: Works by Cody Choi, Lee Wan. Commissioner: Arts Council Korea. Curator: Daehyung Lee. 

Curator’s Statement: “(Stone : Mountain) = (Memory of an Individual : History) = (Individual : Society) = (Korea : Asia) = (Asia : World) = (Stone : Mountain)

Ultimately, the Korean Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale strives to answer the following question: How do individual stories relate to national histories? How might our understanding of this dynamic in the Korean context apply to the rest of the world and shed some light on the future?

The exhibition is structured around three geographical frames—Korea, Asia, and the world—and three generations of Koreans. Mr. K, represents the first generation, Cody Choi the second, and Lee Wan the third. The pavilion’s works aim to inspire the imagination and trigger the empathy of diverse audiences.”

Guess which pavilion had the BEST WIFI??? You got it. Russia had not one but TWO free wifi channels for guests. I hung out in the Russian pavilion for a half hour catching up on IG and emails, when the rest of Venice had zilch.

This project was a stunning, over the top success, with hordes of small, immaculate ceramic sculptures bearing arms and brandishing weapons that said, “Made in the USA.” Video was projected over the sculpture in intervals, distracting from the fine details of the sculpture but also making them more dramatic. You had to descend a dark, spiral staircase to the basement to see the rest of the exhibit, for which you had to download a special app (nope!) to see secret, rainbow-hued figures interacting with the embedded wall reliefs and murals.

RUSSIA: “Theatrum Orbis:” Grisha Bruskin, Recycle Group, Sasha Pirogova. Curator: Semyon Mikhailovsky

Curatorial Statement: Theatrum Orbis, a new exhibition conceived and created for the Russian Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale, features artists Grisha Bruskin, Recycle Group and Sasha Pirogova alongside contemporary Russian composers. The exhibition title – translated as ‘Theatre of the World’ – takes its name from Abraham Ortelius’ atlas published in Antwerp in 1570. Marking an epoch in the history of cartography, it was the first modern atlas to unite knowledge and experience across science and culture accumulated during the Age of Discovery.

Theatrical in its concept and form, the exhibition includes sculpture, installation, video and sound across three emotively connected parts. Visitors follow a narrative throughout the pavilion, first encountering Bruskin’s installation of figurative white sculptures; then, on descending the stairs and passing through a labyrinth, further rooms contain works by Recycle Group and Pirogova. While Bruskin represents a long-established generation of

Russian artists, Recycle Group and Pirogova come from a new post-digital era engaged with technology. Music and sound plays a very important role in the exhibition, with specially written scores by Dimitri Kourdlianski, Peter Aidu and Konstantin Dudakov-Kashuro. For the first time sound is not constrained by the walls of the pavilion, but is taken out into the Giardini, establishing a dialogue with the viewer through Dmitri Kourliandski’s sound performance “Commedia delle arti”.

Part 2: Blocked Content

Artists: Recycle Group

Co-Curator: Ekaterina Shcherbakova

In Blocked Content, Recycle Group create an absurdist image of artificial intelligence as an authority on ethical standards to play with the phenomenon of virtual reality and social media. In an exploration of immortality in contemporary society, ‘saints’ of the web are granted eternal life and ‘sinners’ – including spammers, virus retailers and fake-celebrities – are punished. An epiphany about life and death in the virtual realm, the installation takes inspiration from Dante’s 9th Circle of Hell. Featuring scenes of Hell, the installation shows profiles frozen in a vacuum, without likes and reposts and unable to return to life, only fully visible through a virtual reality app that will be downloaded to visitors’ mobile devices.

Many of the ceramic sculptures bearing weapons say “Made in the USA.” This was hard to see when videos were projected at times, over top of the sculptural installations.

Serbia had nice paintings and clever text based art. What’s not to like?

SERBIA (Republic of): Enclavia – Painting, a Consequence of This Kind of Life
Commissioner: Slobodan Nakarada. Curator: Nikola Šuica. Exhibitors: Vladislav Šcepanovic,
Milena Dragicevic, Dragan Zdravkovic. Venue: Giardini

Curatorial Statement:  The exhibition Enclavia at the Pavilion of the Republic of Serbia at the 57th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia offers piercing painterly in-depth forays stemming from personal intuitions on the volatility of the current era. Gathered around the title of this year’s Biennale (Viva Arte Viva), these three diverging personal expressions underscore a new strength of experience demonstrated by painters Vladislav Šćepanović, Milena Dragicevic, and Dragan Zdravković.

Three artists, each in his/her own right, display an awareness-laden approach in creating an image caught in the tight-spots of existence, encumbered by global transitional processes in economy and society, controlled wars and excessive migrations, the nature ever on a brink of a catastrophe, and distorted uses of historical memory. The domain of vitality in the productive effectiveness of the scenery is exemplified by the work of two painters permanently residing in Serbia (Vladislav Šćepanović and Dragan Zdravković), or the artist with the global experience of living in diaspora (Milena Dragicevic). A focused selection of their works under the title Enclavia portrays the positions of the authors whose approaches constitute a challenging testimonial of the changes in the 21st century that are already underway. For the authors in the Serbian Pavilion, through the subtitle “Painting, a Consequence of This Kind of Life”, in its vision and self-determination the act of painting is a reflection of a strong mental and sensational stand against media and consumerist force that anesthetize the crave toward conquering the spaces of freedom.

Vladislav Šćepanović incorporates in his works various aspects of photography, video, digital zoom, advertising banner, testifying to dysfunctional control or conceptual elusiveness. Milena Dragicevic produces an amalgamation of parts of the material civilization in the works included for the past fifteen years in relevant anthologies of contemporary art of painting. The sceneries painted by Dragan Zdravković are a crystallization of inner world, technologically advanced interiors control, and insight into secretive systems.

The exhibition is purposefully entitled Enclavia, since it is a continuation of the tension of general geopolitical standpoints, and it is situated at the original pavilion, founded by the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the place which has decades long history of presenting selected art from the Yugoslav socialist federation. The paintings by these authors transform the rectangular space of the Pavilion of the Republic of Serbia, as a structural exposition of political, situational and existential circumstances of our time.

America is a shit show right now and we all know it. Our president is a buffoon and our history corrupted by centuries of white lies. We need artists to take a stand and Mark Bradford rose to the challenge. His Tomorrow is Another Day offered a significantly better version of the USA than the one we are currently experiencing.  Lines were long to enter and this often dark and sometimes playful exhibit did not disappoint.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Mark Bradford’s “Tomorrow Is Another Day”

Commissioners: Christopher Bedford, Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director, The Baltimore Museum of Art, and Adjunct Professor of the Practice in Fine Arts, Brandeis University. Curators: Christopher Bedford and Katy Siegel, Senior Programming and Research Curator, The Baltimore Museum of Art.

Official Statement: Mark Bradford’s exhibition for the U.S. Pavilion at the Biennale Arte 2017 is born out of his longtime commitment to the inherently social nature of the material world we all inhabit. For Bradford, abstraction is not opposed to content; it embodies it. His selection of ordinary materials represents the hair salon, Home Depot, and the streets of Los Angeles—both the culture industry and the grey economy.  Bradford renews the traditions of abstract and materialist painting, demonstrating that freedom from socially prescribed representation is profoundly meaningful in the hands of a black artist.

Bradford’s longtime social and intellectual interests will be present in the Pavilion, most notably in his concern for marginalized people, both their vulnerability and their resiliency, and the cyclical threat and hope of American unfulfilled social promise. Coming at a moment of terrible uncertainty, Tomorrow is Another Day is a narrative of ruin, violence, agency, and possibility, a story of ambition and belief in art’s capacity to engage us all in urgent and profound conversations, and even action.

Following its debut in Venice, Mark Bradford: Tomorrow Is Another Day will be on view at The Baltimore Museum of Art from September 2018 through January 2019.

Read Cara’s review of the US Pavilion for Hyperallergic here.

Venezuela, please get a website! This project by Luis Carlos Calzadilla Pérez was gorgeous and playful. I loved the way the 3D drawings interacted with closed and open spaces, with the light and air of the Giardini. The artist (who closely resembled Bob Dylan in the film Masked and Anonymous) was present, and adorable, just hanging out in the pavilion. But seriously? Having nothing online to document and follow up with? Venezuela is badass.

VENEZUELA (Bolivarian Republic of): “Formas escapándose del marco”: Juan Alberto Calzadilla Álvarez
Commissioner: Luis Carlos Calzadilla Pérez, Curator: Morella Jurado Capecchi.

People seemed to like Canada’s spraying fountain and sculpture. That’s all I’m saying.

CANADA: Geoffrey Farmer’s “A way out of the mirror”
Commissioner: National Gallery of Canada. Curators: Kitty Scott; Carol and Morton Rapp Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of Ontario.

Curatorial Statement: “Geoffrey Farmer is an artist known for his laboriously crafted projects of epic proportions combining theatrical techniques with historically sourced material. Farmer was born in 1967 in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he continues to live and work. He attended the San Francisco Art Institute in 1990–91 and the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in 1992. Over his twenty-year career, his installations have been shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions around the world at venues including the Louvre in Paris, the Tate Modern in London, dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany, the Migros Museum für Gegenwartkunst in Zurich, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and the National Gallery of Canada. For his exhibition at the 57th International Art Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia, Farmer will install A way out of the mirror in the Canada Pavilion and its beautiful Giardini gardens.”

It was curious to see an American representing Poland. Sharon Lockhart collaborated with Polish youth, researched a historic Jewish newspaper, and created publications, photos, and films with them.  The project felt collaborative rather than exploitative and it was gorgeous.

POLAND: Sharon Lockhart. Little Review
Commissioner: Hanna Wroblewska. Curator: Barbara Piwowarska. Venue: Giardini

Statement: “Sharon Lockhart (b. 1964) is an American artist living and working in Los Angeles and Poland. Lockhart works with communities to make films and photographs that are both visually compelling and socially engaged through collaborations that unfold over long periods of time. Created with young women from the Youth Sociotherapy Center in Rudzienko, Poland, her project Little Review comprises translations, a new film and series of photographs, as well as educational workshops. Little Review draws its inspiration from the work of Janusz Korczak (1878-1942), the Polish-Jewish educator, orphanage-director, and children’s rights advocate. Similar to Korczak, Lockhart’s goal is to provide a forum for children’s voices — both past and present.

The eponymous Little Review (Mały Przegląd) was a newspaper written by children and teenagers and published as a weekly supplement to the Jewish daily Our Review (Nasz Przegląd) from 1926 to 1939. Created and originally edited by Korczak, the Little Review gave voice to young people’s opinions on politics and everyday life.

The new photographs in the exhibition — introspective and careful studies — portray two young women from Rudzienko reading the Little Review in the National Library in Warsaw, where the newspaper has been conserved. Framing an encounter across nearly a hundred years of history, the photographs reflect on the gaps, linkages, and subtexts between past and present.”

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