San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A report and slideshow from the Venice Biennale

By Filippo Tattoni-Marcozzi | Special to The Tico Times

VENICE, Italy – Against a backdrop of sunshine and showers, the 55th Biennale di Venezia opened triumphantly with a multicultural bazaar of National Pavilions, collateral events and grand exhibitions, amidst the usual tourbillion of dinners and cocktail parties to celebrate the most important gathering of contemporary art in the world.

Venice comes to life during this period and in every corner of its sensational maze of canals, palazzos, churches, museums and hidden courtyards, you can experience what is believed will represent the most current and prominent display of mankind’s intelligent expressions. Even more so this year, as the theme set by the curator, Massimiliano Gioni, refers to the exhibitions as a cumulative effort at creating a sort of “Encyclopaedic Palace.”

The main exhibition, divided between the spaces at Arsenale and Giardini, attempts at creating a wunderkammer of artists’ aspirations, spiritual inclinations and creative sensibilities, all directed at their eternal struggle as depictors of the mystery of the role of humanity. It is in this context that Gioni offers us rooms filled with a sort of ethnographical survey of artistic knowledge and utopias.

The model of the “Palazzo Enciclopedico del Mondo,” conceived by Marino Auriti in the 1950s as a museum to showcase the entire range of humanity’s achievements, from the wheel to the satellite and from ancient artifacts to vanguard art, sets the tone for the journey. It is in this context that we navigate through photographs of elaborate African hairstyles by the Nigerian Okhai Ojeikere; ceramic figurines painstakly conceived by the Japanese Shinichi Sawada, who is affected by a grave form of autism; lush and densely patterned tapestries by the Senegalese Papa Ibra Tall; and the bright, synthetic costumes captured by Phyllis Galembo’s photographs, depicting the playful ritual of masquerades and dressing up around the world.

Spiritualism and the supernatural are key in the canvasses of Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, as is the fragility of the human body in the sculptures of “Venetians” by the Polish Pawel Althamaer, and also in the elaborate glittering Voodoo banners by unknown Caribbean artists.

Enigmatic depictions of obscure rituals and myths also seem to inform the patterned tapestries by Enrico David and the small doll-like sculptures by John Outterbridge. Extremely philosophical but equally mathematical is the codification of spiritual experience and metaphysical knowledge in the chalk drawings on black paper by Rudolf Steiner, while voyeurism into the mystery of human relationships are obsessions for Russian photographer Nikolay Bakharev in his black and white intimate family pictures and portraits of lovers and for Kohei Yoshiyuki in his stolen shots using an infrared camera at night in a park while capturing sexual disinhibition of occasional lovers.

Female identity is the main interest running throughout the treads and sinuous lines of the works by both the Romanian Geta Bratescu and the Italian Marisa Mertz; two of the most influential of their generation, and in an emotional ceremony Mertz was awarded a lifetime achievement Golden Lion by the jury. Yes a jury, because although it seems that art should be impossible to judge, the Biennale is in fact a contest.

National Pavilions compete to interpret the theme and showcase the most intriguing, best-curated, original and/or exciting show. The winner was this year a first timer: The Pavilion of Angola. In the extraordinary setting of 18th century Palazzo Cini, the Angolan curators conceived an extremely elegant and engaging installation where piles of prints depicting non-descriptive spots of the capital Luanda were neatly organised on the floor. Since years of war has left the city with no soul nor clear identity, the audience was invited to propose a new one by selecting the images they most wanted to keep and arranging them in their own folder compiling their own interpretation of the future Luanda.

Another first time hit is the Pavilion of The Holy See inspired by the biblical story of Genesis. Three artists attempted the visual representation of the three central themes: Creation with the poetic interactive videos by Studio Azzurro allowed viewers to engage directly with the personal stories of ordinary people by touching the screens; De-Creation with the large black and white photographs of discarded architectures by Josef Koudelka; and Re-Creation with the ‘frozen iced paintings’ and ‘dust paintings’ by Lawrence Carroll. Extremely well-curated also is the Italian Pavilion. An ideal journey trough Italian contemporary identities, history and landscapes, real and imaginary, exploring the complexity and layers trough the sublime photographs of an entire generation of artists like Luigi Ghirri, Mimmo Jodice, Gabriele Basilico and Olivo Barbieri who described the vacuum and the alienation of humanity in post war Italian landscapes.

Similarly beautiful is the Spanish Pavilion with a large sculptural installation occupying the entire interior of the 1922 building interacting with its architecture. It consists of mounds of different construction materials, rabbles of sawdust, bricks, shattered glass and rocks organically conquering the rigid space and making it visually impossible to penetrate it.

Costa Rica’s second year was well perceived. The installation at Ca’ Bonvicini saw four artists in four separate rooms, although with no apparent correlation between themselves the artists all commented on the limitations and at times juxtaposition between democracy, geography and dreams. Priscilla Monge’s room was the most successful with an installation of school desks facing the large window on the canal. On the marble tops of each desk she carved enigmatic phrases resonating like oracles left for posterity, but also new mottos meant to inspire a different kind of education.

But the Biennale is not only about Pavilions; some of the best exhibitions can also be enjoyed in the major art spaces around the city. Francois Pinault returned to the Punta della Dogana bringing another group of sensational works from his personal collection. An amazing installation by Rudolf Stingel at Palazzo Grassi is a must see where an oversized kilim carpet engulfs the entirety of the space, floor to ceiling, dwarfing the viewer and allowing a magical journey through new spaces.

Sublime also ‘Fragile’ at Fondazione Cini curated by Mario Codognato, displaying the creations of some of the most interesting artists who used glass with diverse and contrasting intentions from Duchamp to Penone, Beuys to Hirst. Once again the exhibition curated by Axel Vervoordt at Palazzo Fortuny is a masterpiece of museography. Bringing together Tapies’ canvases of his last 20 years together with works from his personal collection he gives us a glimpse of the personal world and inspiration trough the eyes of the master himself.

A perfect excuse to cross the Atlantic: the 55th Venice Biennale runs until 24 November 2013.


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