Negotiating anxiety / Venice Biennale trip September 2015
It's 11.20 in the morning and we arrive to Venice's Marco Polo Airport. After being awake for I don't remember how many hours, it seems that the wait was worthwhile. 56th Venice Biennale is waiting for a group of art students who are meant to discover the wonders of the “biggest art event in the world”. We get to take the bus that will bring us to the core of the city, but from that very specific location somehow one barely manages to get a glimpse of what is going to happen deep inside.
The city is crowded and the rambling streets make it difficult to believe that we could ever find either Giardini, Arsenale, or the pavilions. The mesmerising buildings, the channels, the constant flow of impossible forms of architecture, which seem to be just about to fall down or collapse, bringing to mind John Ruskin's words.
“[...] We take pleasure, or should take pleasure, in architectural construction altogether as the manifestation of an admirable human intelligence; it is not the strength, not the size, not the finish of the work which we are to venerate: rocks are always stronger, mountains always larger, all natural objects more finished; but it is the intelligence and resolution of man in overcoming physical difficulty which are to be the source of our pleasure and subject of our praise.”1
The beauty of the city itself and its strong physical presence might blind the visitors and distract from the fact that there is an outstanding event which poses to describe the current state of things, so to speak, and also to address what is to come. Does it, though?
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The unmentionable number of works listed for the venue have the ability to overwhelm any curious observer. The huge amount of stimuli, mostly visual and auditive, distract from the capacity of discerning and contemplating with detail any of the works. Is it possible to capture the beholder's attention when there is a constant competition for being the chosen one and, what is more, when the visitors are already either checking their phones or photographing every piece with the hope of checking the images when they go home (which, of course, never happens)?
After a long morning of watching videos, looking at paintings, observing sculptures, and escaping from complex projects which demand a long reading I happen to enter a dark room where there's a 3-channel, HD video installation. Making use of what he calls “recycling aesthetic”, John Akomfrah presents a work titled Vertigo Sea 2, 2015. The artist enlists this approach in combining archival material with newly-shot footage3 (inspired by Moby Dick (1851) from Herman Melvile and Nation (1988) from Heathcote Williams). We could say that it is a collage of moving images that poses the forlorn relationship between the natural environment and humans. The spectator cannot evade the power of the content presented and remain indifferent from the drama of the images screened. This work descends into old material from the whale industry and aground bodies on the beach. Human and whale corpses, romantic and sublime images from the 19th century, explorers in search of the unknown; Akomfrah’s film is a pained lyric to a passing world.
John Akomfrah. Vertigo sea, 2015.
The visual impact created by this work made it very difficult to digest any other one. It turned out to be nearly impossible to observe other works with attention due to the shock experienced with this video installation. However, after a couple of hours of recovering, I ended up in the Uruguayan pavilion. The almost similarly outside and inside white cube which hosts the headquarters of this South American country and welcomes visitors with a row of bows whose arrows are embodied by pencils.
Marco Maggi. Global Myopia II (Pencil & Paper), 2015.
Afterwards, you access a room that contains the minimal and abstract work of Marco Maggi titled Global Myopia II (Pencil & Paper). His piece which suggests, yet again, a critique of the current state of things. His project for this edition proposes an installation made out of white self-adhesive paper on white walls.
At first glance, when one eneters the space, it is impossible to see anything. Despite this, if the curious and patient observer becomes closer he/she will manage to find out the astonishing miniature universe created by the artist: a portable set of pieces formed by 10,000 elements, a colony of tiny pieces of paper. He redefines myopia as the extraordinary ability to see from a very close distance, rather than viewing it as a defect. Nearsightedness allows one to focus carefully on invisible details, it challenges the acceleration and the abuse of long distance relationships, which is characteristic of our era. 4 The bows and the arrows from the entrance state an act of violence and point to the wall that veils the apparently invisible work that is behind it. The tiny pieces of paper scatter and connect on the walls like networks; spread-out constellations that traveled from Uruguay to Venice in a suitcase, as a zip file that was uncompressed at its arrival.
Marco Maggi. Global Myopia II (Pencil & Paper), 2015.
Is it possible to establish a parallelism between those two projects? We have, on the one hand, an audiovisual proposal which engages the viewer like the media do: simultaneous and impressive images with a strong and powerful sound. On the other hand, we have a quiet and almost invisible installation made by the artist manually and using one of the most ancient materials: paper. Both artists put forward topics which might be uncomfortable: animal and human trade and the destructive potential of human desires of conquest; the present blindness or misunderstanding of the positive aspects of myopia and the obscure origin of the coded information.
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The trip goes on, though the visit to the Biennale has just started. Sound, images, light sculptures... Arsenale receives us with open arms. Nevertheless, the endlessly long building turns the visit into a killingly tiring experience given the dimensions and amount of information presented. When I was just about to give up for the day, even though I had seen some interesting works, I glance at a man that is doing something inside a fenced area. Who is he and what is he doing? It's Ernesto Ballesteros, the Argentinian artist performing his work: Indoor flights. This performance has forced him to be there from the opening of the biennale and will keep him there until its closure. His work consists of flying model aeroplanes. That's it!
I stop in front of this work and contemplate the artist for around 30 min. Trapped by the beauty of the aeroplane flight and by the calm transmitted by the artist I can't help but get lost in the repetitive and sequential movement. To make the spectator reflect on the severity of what is invisible, the practicality of what is slow and the strength of what is subtle, he chooses to be present physically and fly the models.
Ballesteros believes that an action taken by an artist has another dimension -another kind of energy- founded in the maker's conviction or intention: “like a shaman, the artist emits just the right amount of energy to amaze us with something that we know to be much deeper and more powerful than what we see,” something that ”has its roots in the visible, but that operates on a superior, subtle scale where words are unnecessary and the eye does not settle on any one thing in particular.” 5
Ernesto Ballesteros. Indoor flights, 2015.
After this poetic, but also questionable statement from the artist, one might think of the transcendence of art and it's power to change things. Can a simple action turn a person's life upside down? How evident and firm can the consequences of a performative action be? Let's compare this work with the proposal of Mika Rottenberg, called NoNoseKnows. Her video installations are usually built as fictional histories that reflect on how value can be extracted from human body.
In the case of Rottenberg's latest work, rows of Chinese women are using tools like knitting needles to insert tiny pieces of severed mussel tissue into the mantles of living freshwater mussels, which will transform these cannibalised irritants into cultured pearls; a large woman sits in a flower-filled office beneath the production floor; a girl above turns a hand crank, making a fan spin in the world below, wafting scent into the large woman’s nose, which grows long and red. The denouement comes when the woman sneezes explosively, causing steaming plates of Chinese food and pasta to burst from her inflamed schnoz, which seems to provide the pearl workers’ sole nourishment; the process repeats, maybe endlessly.6
Mika Rottenberg. NoNoseKnows, 2015.
Similar to Ballesteros', Rottenberg's work proposes a sequence and a repetitive pattern. In this case, a repetition that might not be a choice, but a routine that is forced. The sarcastic, humorous, but also dramatic reality pictured by this artist, also Argentinian, by the way, contrasts with the voluntary retreat stared in by Ballesteros. And here comes the question. Are both works similarly political? If we understand politic as Rancière does we could strongly affirm that they are. He says that politics is the struggle of an unrecognised party for equal recognition in the established order. Aesthetics are bound up in this battle, Rancière argues, because the battle takes place over the image of society -- what is permissible to say or to show.7
Firstly, we have a denunciation of labor rights, and besides that, I would say that there is also a report of the natural and “animal” trade in favour of the market. Secondly, we have a volunteer act of meditation that puts up resistance to the aptitude in vogue. And, what is more, if we go back to the other works I mentioned above, could we find the same kind of statements? I mean, different “parties” that are equally demanding recognition and questioning what we consider as the stablished order... I would say so.
In reference to what Paolo Barata says on the Foreword dedicated in the Biennale's catalogue we could “... investigate how the tensions of the outside world act on the sensitives and vital and expressive energies of artists, on their desires and their “inner song”.”8 The pieces I selected for analysis for this text are rooted, or seem so, in Barata´s words. “We are now negotiating an “age of anxiety””, he says.
The 56th edition of the Biennale stands up as a starting point of where we are and what is to come; the current state of things and the appearance of things. How do we integrate the discourse of these artists who, through different media show realities, past, present and fictional (possible future?) lay the cards on the table? Can we expect hope, change or improvement? I guess that this is what is to be seen.
To put what I am saying in a nutshell, I will finish by quoting Jean-Marc Poinsot who sets out, with regard to large exhibitions. “The inherent stakes of art, its consciousness, economy and symbolic value are present in each manifestation whose text is, in a sense, composed of multiple discourses which cannot be simultaneously understood except with an ideological or mythical reading.”9
1 RUSKIN, J. (1851). The stones of Venice. Volume 1 - The foundations. Boston, D. Estes & Co., 1989. Page 52.
2 Vertigo Sea is a Smoking Dogs Film Production supported by Sharjah Art Foundation; BBC Natural History Unit; British Film Institute; Arts Council of England; Baltic Arts Centre, Sweden; Bildmuseet, Sweden; Swedish Arts Council; Tyneside Cinema Gallery.
3 VV. AA. (2015) 56th International Art Exhibition. All the world’s future. Page 102.
4 VV. AA. (2015). Page 137.
5 VV. AA. (2015). Page 232.
6 Venice Biennale Features Mika Rottenberg’s ‘NoNoseKnows’. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/13/arts/design/venice-biennale-features-m.... Visited 11.10.15.
7 DAVIS, B. (2006). Rancière for dummies. http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/books/davis/davis8-17-06.asp. Visited: 11.10.15
8 VV. AA. (2015). Page 16.
9 POINSOT, J.M. “Large exhibitions. A sketch of a typology” in: VV:AA. Thinking about Exhibitions (1996). Routledge, London, 1996. Pages 63-64.