Impressions of Venice

‘Germany was a clear winner: most people loved it, some people loved to hate it. To me it could have been a Parisian fashion show.’

Germany was a clear winner: most people loved it, some people loved to hate it. To me it could have been a parisian fashion show. White, androgynous models wearing sneakers and synthetic clothes (practical gear or Balenciaga?), banging their heads to the inaudible sound of death metal played in slow motion.
The several hour long performance is staged in something between a hospital or mental institution and a German mansion built for the neu-reich. Marble, steel and glass.
What gives depth to Anne Imhof’s work Faust is her uncompromising execution: The models perform below, atop and inside the pavilion, whilst functioning simultaneously as “body, sculpture, and commodity” all the while the viewer finds herself in the midst of various “constructions of power and powerlessness, capriciousness and violence, resistance and freedom”, guarded by the dogs of the house.

Everything is part of the performance: the door(wo)men who greeted you with authority, the traces of painting on the walls, the S&M toys left in the corner, the eggshells and yolk smeared across the floor and the dogs surveilling the perimeter.
The several month long scenario felt to me like a modern fashion show. I instantly loved the pavilion, I felt aesthetically at home and was ready to buy into Imhof’s world. Which is exactly what the pavilion’s achilles heel is in my eyes – it felt like a very clever commercial by a clever fashion brand. Of course what I see in the pavilion ultimately reflects back on me as a viewer and apparently I see everything as a construction of power expressed through economic- and cultural relations. I loved Faust and I hated that I did. Talk about an internal split – (and German politics for that sake).

My favourite pavilion was to be found almost at the end of the Arsenale: the Italian Pavilion curated by Cecilia Alemani. The art work by Roberto Cuoghi Imitazione di Cristo[Imitation of Christ], 2017 felt like a welcomed punch in the stomach:
In his work Cuoghi “explores the transformative properties of materials and the fluid definition of identity (…) transforming the basilica-like space of the Arsenale into a factory for churning out devotional figures inspired by the Imitation of Christ, an ascetic medieval text that the artist reinterprets from the standpoint of what he calls a “new technological materialism.”
In other words Cuoghi’s built a massive factory producing endless figures of Christ in organic material, which are sent through stages of decomposition. The figurines are rotting inside a spatial structure of plastic bubbles lined by small chapels of peace and disintegration. The viewer is confronted with the beautiful patterns of life-giving death and dissolving body of Christ, who again and again lives through stages of decay. The pieces leaves the audience uncomfortably unsettled, yet deeply intrigued – watching and smelling bodies being eaten by time is like watching a car crash in slow motion, it doesn’t feel right, but you cannot help but be utterly fascinated. And in the name of art you can even take pictures without a hint of shame. Once Christ was brought down by time, counter-moral curiosity wins over most of us.

That being said, with a catholic country like Italy as the commissioner of this piece, there probably are many references only Italians can truly appreciate. Which to me is the ingredient to a successful pavilion (and what I do like about the German pavilion) – those who didn’t try to impress or encompass the many, and those who understood that you need to take a bold position to stand out in the sheer masses of art on display in Venice were the winners in my eyes, contrary to the Giardini exhibition by Christine Macel (apart from the very noteworthy works by Belgian Edith Dekyndt, Russian Irina Korina and French Pauline Curnier Jardin).

Everything is part of the performance: the door(wo)men who greeted you with authority, the traces of painting on the walls, the S&M toys left in the corner,

If you are not relevant to the viewer right then and there, you’ve already lost. Either captivate, annoy, or intrigue your audience before they hurry to the next pavilion. The pieces that stayed with me were either the ones surprising or the ones developing over time.The ones that honed your eyes might have made it to instagram. Like the beautiful Korean pavilion where the contemporary eye was met with oldschool nostalgia and endless Instagrammable plateaus. But the ones that made an impact were pavilions like the German by Anne Imhof, the French pavilion designed by Xavier Veilhan, the Italian pavilion curated by Cecilia Alemani, or the Finnish pavilion with works by Erkka Nissinen and Nathaniel Mellors curated by Xander Karskens. It’s those pavilions that make you want to come back in 6 months time, when they are fully developed and ready to be dismantled.

In the end you cannot help but attend the Biennale without seeing it as a reflection of time and international positions – of countries, of politics, of economies, and of the people in power in their respective countries: The ones who lead the boards and commission the respective pavilions and ultimately who will see and gain from the increased recognition and price of artists involved.

The world and Venice might be sinking but art is one of the last strongholds bringing together many very different worlds across political and economic positions. Like in the good old days. Viva Arte Viva.