Róza El-Hassan:

An Objective Report from the Biennale in Venice

 

 

 

The title of the Biennale is "May You Live In Interesting Times". According to the internet, it is a Chinese curse. The British curator lived for a long time in China. In English it does not sound negative, but an appealing spectacle. (Others said recently google was wrong and it is no curse in Chinese language.) I thought it is old English, May used instead of Shall. The title is enigmatic, unusual, just like the Venice Biennale 2019 itself.

I planned to write an objective report about this year’s Biennale, but then I realised I can not make it. Objectivity is difficult and this is part of the Biennale’s concept.

The super-objective facts, which remained are the following: 229 temporary exhibitions happen in Venice during the summer of 2019. The Biennale opened on the 11th of May, 2019 and will last until November 24. Last time (in 2017) 600 000 visitors were registered, this time it will be for sure more.

Objectivity is difficult, because it is surreal to open 229 good exhibition in such a relatively small city. All this is embedded in the structure of the great renaissance buildings and monuments in Venice. It is like a gigantic effort to map mankind’s culture and state today.

The main location of the Biennale are the national pavilions, and the Central Italian-International Pavilion, with a basic curatorial statement in the Giardini, the old park with the national pavilions. Maybe we should see that first. Others recommend to start with the other part, the Arsenale, and to see also the many Palazzos of the new participating countries’ pavilions.

Parallel to the Biennale the European Union organized exhibitions around the statement of the “Personal Structures - Identities” on many locations.

The "May You Have Interesting Times" - Venice Biennale locations are marked with red on their map, the logo is San Marco’s Lion, while the EU Culture project - “Personal Structures - Identities” is marked with blue the logo is a circle or ring with rainbow spectrum. Both projects take place in many locations, independent projects are marked with, orange and other colours on the map.

So if, you visit Venice this summer, start with the official Venice Biennale, and make a plan. You will need at least four or five days to gain an insight. Not everything can be considered as politically correct. Satires go far beyond correctness. According to the organisers, globalisation and anger about big guilt against humankind are legitimate to swipe away political correctness.

The Biennale brings up all questions of today’s humankind including a prognosis for the future in form of an exhibition. The question arises, if the West mapped the East or the East mapped and spied the West? Who mapped and why? Is it a human, who curated it, or an artificial intelligence? (Robots can analyse 30 000 jpg / minute, content, psychology and all). Who borrowed, who stole ideas and works? And mainly, who stole curatorial concepts, thread, intuition? Who stayed voluntary anonymous and who was silenced by power and the tool of money? Who was silenced by racism? What is still original, what is a copy? What is appropriation-art, simulacrum?

So many shows, hundreds on one spot and all of them on a very high intellectual/artistic and punk level. They touch all relevant questions: war, ecological catastrophe, intelligence of humankind and machines, exploitation of human body and earth resources, cruelty. On the other hand: cosmology and the notion of time. But also spiritual space and symbols.

The question of sniffling, seeing or spying each other (e.g. East-West) is more the a paranoid’s constructing. The early modernists were interested in utopia, the later modernists were very much in the form, since the 90s contemporary art was often about post-colonial politics, a new role of art tends to derive from the notion of is “intuitive design”, that means analysis and creation of truth, objects and prognosis in a world, which became far too complex for the lines of usual rational causalities.

Artistic intuition, dreams and beautiful hallucination are once again the “super fast quantum-robots of knowledge”. It is produced often by people, who hallucinate, who are marginalised or outlawed, mentally ill, priests, activists, super right, super left, religious orthodox people, radical atheists, indigenous or radical neutrals. Vulnerable. They are offered sometimes real protection by influential rulers, but artists and curators start to worry about their democratic rights. Hah, did I promise an objective report?

Artists, curators and fortune tellers offer you to understand what is going on, to bring the chaotic things to a point of observation. Or they offer at least objects of meaningful contemplation. So do the artificial intelligence big data analysts. This explains also the earlier questions of shifting identities and authorship.

The exhibition with many young artists, whose names were unknown, not registered in the art-world, resembles sometimes Facebook profiles. Which name is real, which profile or content is stolen? Which protects authors like anonymous world wide and which ruins others? A young unknown Chinese authors’ name or Facebook profile is not always perceived as real in Europe.

The exhibition program is extended with meetings, talks and lectures during the summer and a special new program, which is the “Biennale of Dancing”. (1). Talks will be held in underground, unknown locations and transmitted via internet.

The Biennale offers amusement, a spectacle and pleasure according to the curator and also in reality. It is worth to visit Venice this summer.

Instead of an interpretations I quote the leaflet of the Venice Biennale.

Antoine Catalla, It’s Over, 2019

Painted canvas, behind the canvas a relief comes up and disappears. The movement is so slow, that the viewer does not see the motion immediately. After a while, when we return to the object, we are surprised, that it is no longer the same, which we remember, it has changed. A painting on canvas does not change. Did our memory fail? Or was time reversed? Is it just a machine, which manipulates the object? Does the object speak about the technical idea of the artists? Or about our circumstances of daily life? Our memory loss? Or about the possibility to reverse time?

John Rafman, Disasters Under The Sun, 2019

On the video we see blue animation figures on a landscape, which looks like moon or mars. They have little individuality, to be exact no individuality. All are the same. No face, no gender. They move individually or in small groups, sometimes they fight each other, other times they swim like in a river, stream or tunnel. The colour is close to Facebook’s and the figures remind me of www.petitions.com’s logo with little blue figures holding demonstration plates. Anybody can start a petition and collect signatures. According to the video the little blue figures are puppets in a big theater, being moved and sent to virtual or real wars, without individual characteristics.

Who are the figures in “Disasters Under the Sun”? Are they virtual actors or real people transformed into animated logos? Are we all like puppet theater actors being moved and sent to virtual wars? Maybe true. But what would happen, if there would be no petitions.com, and other similar websites? Where would we collect signatures for important causes? Where would we raise our voice for human rights? For animal’s rights? For nature? Maybe the work is about a completely different issue and about wars in general and about Facebook.

Arthur Jafa, The White Album, 2019

The white album is a very strange video. People, identities talk to you about racism. They have the ordinary appearance of selfies, also the picture format of the portraits is often the format of the mobile phone: a long vertical image. Then love stories appear, virtual world and animation are entangled, the music is also emotional. Several layers of poetic, but uncanny feature-film and pseudo-documentary of selfies, real headline footage about racist crimes and found footage of security cams overlap in the video.

Empty frame - in-between the works and images: The two works “Disaster Under The Sun" and "White Album" are exhibited in neighbouring rooms, a new meaning is generated in-between the elements of the exhibition.

We can say in general, that this exhibition introduces new ways of curating. The curatorial board took the freedom to repeat some artists’ work dispersed in the spaces, the artists of the central Pavillon exhibit more then one art-work, they were asked to contribute to statement A and statement B as well.

Again and again there is a game of simulacrum and anonymity on the whole show. One artist, two identities, two faces, often two completely different works.

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Can’t help Myself, 2016

We see a robot in a huge white glass cage. The robot is black and two times bigger than a human. It is turning round and wiping some quite disgusting red fluid, but it has several functions, it does not repeat always the same movement. The fluid looks like blood, but it can be also only red paint. Only colour and red would be our association. According to the text the artist taught the robot 12 functions, “ass shaking” is among them. The huge black robot with one arm is one of the main elements of the biennale and often photographed. I have the concern, that creating images of such uncanny dark narratives might create memes in our minds, and be part of a virtual war in our soul and mind.

Frida Orupabo, Untitled Works, 2019

The artist places collages on the wall, close to the installation “Can’t help myself”. Blackbirds and a black woman’s portrait. Again the motive of a puppet, made of different body parts, lightly entangled or on an other collage she forms even a swastika.

The exact meaning of the black woman as blackbird or swastika remains unclear. It is a hint to nazi ideology. The other work in the space, “Can’t help Myself”, the uncanny huge robot has also the colours black on white background and surrounded with red. The nazi flag.

We see in the space around it, body-parts and lots of blood or red colour. Is it like scream? Take care! Something terrible happens. A horrible nazi machine, a killing machine is at work?

Or is it the self-portrait of the victims? An ultimate political ugliness of victims?

I don t get the point. The point of blackness. The satanists? The shaman? The African black? The Jew? The Nazi? The killer? And again the shaman? The shaman, the healer? But also the witch? Hitler was allied to forces of the darkness - said the title of a Hungarian right-wing book. But then I did not buy the book… I forgot the source. What is darkness? The ultimate experiments on human?

And why do African victims travel in one boat with the darkness of the shaman? Why are the shaman and satan mentioned together? And those who create modern inquisition? Hunting the shaman, they say it is the satan and the bitch-witch? And torturing him or her. Stealing her thoughts, her dreams, emotions, her knowledge.

In my reading the exhibition is more about the shaman, not negative - but still it opens a door to the irrational and therefore to non-democratic practices and injustice.

I prefer Herbert A. Simon’s notion of “intuitive design” to describe my artistic practice, because this is related to a bright rational mind. The same author created with others also the notion of artificial mind or intelligence.

The objective report about the Biennial seems to be impossible. I can not decode it.

Basically the best is to see the show and to think about the meaning. I can not take full responsibility for the interpretation.

Close to Frida Orubabo’s work there is another piece, a wall and barbed wire, but the wall is broken, opened. In a room we see the Western Radio station, “Free Europe”. Is it a remake from the times before the Fall of the Wall in 1989, when Radio Free Europe broadcasted programs to Europe behind the Iron curtain? Or is this radio a metaphor for a real transmitter? Something that happens today? Can the visitor catch the signs if he or she is fine-tuned?

The density of overlapping layers in the exhibition is enormous and great intellectual construction, but the visitor can see it also as a surface and enjoy the spectacle of a contemporary art biennial.

Georg Condo, Facebook, 2017-2018, a large scale expressionist painting, red, white and black. The red dominates. This is close to the previous works.

Apichatpong Weerasethaluk, Mr. Electrica ( For Ray Bradbury), 2014

These works appear in several points of the Biennale. Is it a photo? Lyric abstract? Painting? They are very sophisticated abstract images presented behind glass. Mentally or digitally generated traces of colour. We can not exactly define what it is. What is the meaning of the title? Is it a landscape? Or a fully abstract space? Or particles being traced? The colours show a strong motion, movement, even explosion? What is happening on this image? What is the message? (People in Asia used to ask me always very directly about contemporary art: what is the message of this work? Therefore I dare to ask the same question here.)

We can say in general, that many works in the show break the usual notion of modernism. Or did our perception of the phenomenons might have changed a bit since early modernism? One of the basic statements and messages of modernism is that formal equality with form and materials of the art object. For example Donald Judd said that the object is exactly what we see: form and material, it is not a metaphor.

The artist from Thailand is originally a film-maker. His work is about notions of reality, fantasy and hallucination. He talks on a very poetical, lyric way. The material/media is very different (Weerasethaluk does not use painting, but photo and film - still it is a late example of the movement, which known as lyric abstract.

Still, there is a reason to look closer, it can be also something else: Ray Bradbury was a science fiction novelist, the author of “Fahrenheit 451” (first published in 1953). 451 is the temperature where printed books burn and are destroyed to leave space for TV and digital media, total brainwash, manipulation. Ethnic cleansing of minorities and free-thinkers.

The fire on the picture can be also Bradbury’s fire of burning books, houses, people and reality. In the utopian vision of Bradbury’s famous science-fiction novel both: our memories and perception of reality are totally faked. Our minds and lives are hacked in the most cruel way in this science-fiction.

And finally: who is Apichatpong Weerasethaluk? How will we remember his complicated name if we are an European visitor?

Halil Altindere, Mars Refugee Colony, 2016

This installation shows a refugee colony on Mars, to be exact its plan. Syrian engineers and people talk to us about a plan to colonise Mars, their style reminds us of the sixties trust in the possibilities of science. The work can be a paraphrase of Breeze project and Settlement on the Moon (2015-2016) and of Nader Khalili’s super adobe project for Nasa.

Halil Altindere is a Kurdish artist from South-Turkey, close to the Syrian border. The region belonged once to Syria, or was at least a territory of permanent fights between Osman and Arab dynasties. But also science-fiction's and Syrian attitude is to stay always in a positive mood, no matter what happens and Syrians try to find a rational solution, or any solution - the most important thing is not to break, because Syria is the spirit of (maybe the last) revolution in humankind.

Scientists in seventies style speak seriously about the possibility to colonise or to occupy Mars. It is also a paraphrase to the deep and dark irony of many Syrian caricatures depicting the victims and Syrian children on the moon. Still the display reminds us of a science museum and it does not have the deep message of immediate call for solidarity, as in the Syrian cyber-activists’ works. It is rather like a dark satire about the Syrian system, mainly men inhabit the museum of science.

Zanele Muholi, Ntozakhe II

The artist is outstanding in the biennial, her photo-portraits are of emblematic strength. Zanele Muholi was born in 1972 in South-Africa, lives and works in Johannesburg. Her portraits are dispersed in the Biennale on many places, they are one of the main motives of the show. We see female or cross-gender portraits, coloured, black person, still it is not a social documentary photo, but rather an iconic and still individual motive, a unique mirror mental state. The portrait is black, but is she a black person? It could be also a white person painted black, or any colour, man and woman at the same time.

Christoph Büchel, Barca Nostra

I did not realise the ship as an artwork. I thought it is a ship. There was a navy museum very close to the location and several objects were around it at the seaside in Venice. I read the story only when I returned to Budapest. It was the particular ship where thousand people lost their life on the sea, migrants from Africa. The artist took the ship to Venice as an exhibition object. Most of the people do not perceive what it is. Maybe it was better that I did not realise it. Sometimes the lack of memory (failures in perception) save us from collapse.

Shirley Tse, Stakeholders, Hong-Kong

A great independent pavilion with a work about negotiations between cultures and the nearly endless patience to be willing to find links and connections between different materials and forms - a light and still touching work of peaceful human quality, related also to the arte povera movement. Hong-Kong is part of China and has multilayered political structures, since it was not so long time ago British, and people saw themselves suddenly shifted into Chinese citizens.

Tse’s work is not part of the official Biennale, but one of the independent exhibitions. Like many of the independent projects, it has a natural tone of multiplied identity layers instead of the big outcry in the Central Italian Pavillon. It is good that independent projects exist next to the official program. They are more peaceful and mild, gentle. The problem with the main Pavilion and Arsenale is that some works are mean.

Why are they mean? For example let’s see the conflict between Hong-Kong democracy and China - no democracy plus cultural dominance efforts. So if we set China equal to the mean, we do injustice to Chinese people. If we set darkness equal to the mean, we do injustice to Africans. If we set Black equal to the mean, we do injustice to Jews.

Why do the victims and the satan forces live that close together in one metaphor? Satan as depicted by religions, especially by Islam and Koran speak often of the “Satan who whispers in the human’s ear” (read the part “Surat of the Human” or “Surat of the Non-believers”)?

And besides there is the shaman, the healer - the shaman healer - this is more Hungarian or African tribal). All live together in the big bag of darkness and there is Dadaism. And Bakhtin’s theory of carnival and laughter, and the absurd. The absurd theatre was always the theatre of dark humour. Still it is not only humorous.

It is also present in the beat generation’s radical revolt in the USA, for example in Allan Ginsberg’s poem "The Howl" (1955) against real threats. Or in later rock songs “Another Brick in the Wall”. The early beat movement was later transformed into John Lennon style flower-power hippy movement, which had very little real political aggression promoting often grass, free love and peaceful togetherness - for the good and bad.

Rugile Barzdžiukaite, Vaiva Grainyte and Lina Lapelyte, Sun and Sea (Marina), Lithuanian Pavilion

It is the award-winning Pavillon of the Biennale. The installation shows people taking a sunbath on a sandy beach. Ordinary daily people. Further there was music, there were opera singers. The sun-bathers sing. The visitors see the people from the perspective of the sun. In reality it is a huge closed space and the sun is replaced by lamps, people take a sun-bath under artificial lamps. The scenery is on one hand interpreted as a critique of the society of leisure and free time.

On the other hand it is a great piece of a performance, real people on real sand. No stylish advertisement bodies or robots, but real bodies. Young, old, thin or corpulent, men and women. A third possible reading is that one of a science-fiction scenery, where there is no real light, and sun.

Living underground appears in many works in the Biennale. Artist talks are organized in unknown, secret underground locations and transmitted via video.

Miracle Workers Collective, A Greater Miracle of Perception

The Finnish Pavillon is in the building, which used to be Iceland’s Pavillon in earlier Biennales. The Nordic Countries has also a common Pavillon, but this year Finland has a further statement. It is made by a group, named Miracle Workers. We see Earth-Bricks (same size as produced also in Hungary) along some sticks and textiles strips.

A female shaman appears on the video and tells a tale about time and the healing force of nature. I really liked first this video, but then I realised that all might have been meant sarcastic. Many elements has a style from Lapland, Suomi folk-culture of indigenous people (for example the strong red textile boot). But usually there is no earth and adobe brick building up in the north in Lapland. Adobe needs the sun and strong heat to dry. Adobe-brick buildings has been designed in recent years as artworks.

Aya Ben Ron, Field Hospital X

Field Hospital X is a clinic, a psychiatric clinic, for those whose voice was repressed. “Be a patient” is the call. There is a small bolstered room, where you can shout. Then you can listen to trauma stories of others (mainly woman, who were victims or violence), while sitting in soft comfortable chairs. It is somehow real a healing process to listen to their stories. What was meant sarcastic is turned into positive deliberation.

Tamás Waliczky, Imaginaire cameras, 2019

The Hungarian Pavillon shows cameras. The photos are very stylish, precise. On the photos cameras are depicted. They capture reality or something labeled later as reality. The emptiness and conceptual distance of the Hungarian Pavillon can be seen as a small empty core of the hurricane. The silence in the orbit of a storm.

This selection shows some artworks selected from hundreds of shows and thousands of artworks.

The best is to travel to Venice and to visit the controversial, but really unique and outstanding art-event. I have seen in the recent thirty years many Biennales all over the world, and participated three or five times in Venice, but the spectacle and ambition of the 2019 Venice Biennale is outstanding, statements are more than problematic: punk and even emotional effects, zero political correctness, others, but I have never seen anything of this dimensions as Venice 2019: a grandiose artistic and intellectual statement about our times. But can an art-event be grandiose, if we are not sure about its political correctness, because the message and the strategy is not clearly defined and understandable?

 


(1) https://www.labiennale.org/en/dance/2019

3. July 2019.
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