Viva Arte Viva

While the exhibition curated by Christine Macel includes many new names, the overall result is somewhat ordinary: it seems to offer less than the enthusiastic title promises and fails to generate anything new. #BiennaleArte2017

Katherine Nunez & Issay Rodriguez, In Between the Lines 2.0, 2015-2017. Crochet, embroidery & sewing. Photo Francesco Galli
“Viva Arte Viva”, the 57th Venice Art Biennial is an exhibition dedicated to artists. To their state, their ways and their works; because their vitality is precious and in them lies the positive and prospective energy that can show the world the way. Curator Christine Macel makes this idea quite explicit right at the beginning of her introductory essay: “Today, in a world full of conflicts and shocks, art bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human, Art is the ultimate ground for reflection, individual expression, freedom, and for fundamental questions […] Viva Arte Viva is an exclamation, a passionate outcry for art and the state of the artist”.
Katherine Nunez & Issay Rodriguez, In Between the Lines 2.0, 2015-2017. Crochet, embroidery & sewing. Photo Francesco Galli
Katherine Nunez & Issay Rodriguez, In Between the Lines 2.0 , 2015-2017. Crochet, embroidery & sewing. Photo Francesco Galli
It is perhaps as a consequence of this conviction that Macel has opted for a decidedly light curatorial framework: a sequence of nine chapters, or “pavilions” dedicated to rather elementary macro-themes that in many cases, function more as traces than genuine conducting threads. Situated in the part of the exhibition held at the Giardini is the Pavilion of Artists and Books and the Pavilion of Joy and Fears; while along the route through the Arsenale is the Pavilion of the Common, the Pavilion of the Earth, the Pavilion of Traditions, Pavilion of Shamans, the Dionysian pavilion, one for Colours, another for Time and Infinity.
Salvatore Arancio, <i>MIND AND BODY BODYAND MIND</i>, 2015. HD video, color, sound, 16’37’’. Photo Italo Rondinella
Salvatore Arancio, MIND AND BODY BODYAND MIND , 2015. HD video, color, sound, 16’37’’. Photo Italo Rondinella

Macel is interested in all artists: of every age, background and level of fame; in this sense manifesting considerable freedom and the result is a very transversal exhibition.

She is also interested in everything to do with artists: not just the creative act and its outcome – the work – but also everyday life, places, rhythms and lifestyles. In fact the exhibition opens, in the Central Pavilion, with a series of photographs by Serbian artist Mladen Stilinovic sleeping in his studio. Artist at Work is a piece from 1978: an act conceived then as a vindication of unproductive values such as time, nothingness, inefficiency, as well as a passive resistance to absorption on the part of politics.

Mladen Stilinović, <i>Artist at Work</i>, 1978. Eight silver gelatine prints, 2017. Photo Francesco Galli
Mladen Stilinović, Artist at Work , 1978. Eight silver gelatine prints, 2017. Photo Francesco Galli
The idea of idleness as a source of inspiration and, paradoxically, as a form of work, returns a number of times in the later galleries: from Franz West to the very young Katerine Nuniez and Issay Rodriguez from Manila, who present their own studio filled with books, papers, fabrics and intricate handcrafted works made from crochet.
Franz West, <i>Various works</i>, 1973-1978. Mixed materials. Photo Francesco Galli
Franz West, Various works , 1973-1978. Mixed materials. Photo Francesco Galli
From the intimacy of life and the studio we move onto collaboration with a number of participatory projects; then on to the relationship that artists can have with their own and with other artistic traditions; such is the case with the beautiful drawings by Ciprian Muresan referring to masterpieces by the great names from the history of western art, images of which in Rumania were once difficult to find whereas today they are reproduced in enormous quantities, to the point of disappearing in the mass. Or the dreamy and surreal video Tightrope by Russian Dagestan artist Taus Makha Cheva that shows a tightrope walker suspended over the landscape, a bridge between western and non-western traditions, between nature and culture, past and present.
Ciprian Mureșan, <i>Various works</i>, 2012-2016. Pencil and graphite on paper. Photo Francesco Galli
Ciprian Mureșan, Various works , 2012-2016. Pencil and graphite on paper. Photo Francesco Galli

Showing in the Arsenale is a proliferation of works linked to texture, webs, weaving and fabric; in its most diverse forms, from large mural sculptures by Franz Erhard Walther – awarded the Golden Lion for participating in the international exhibition - with which it is possible to interact, to the long and elegant hanging braids by Leonor Antunes, to the moment of great happiness of the wall of colours by Sheila Hicks: a giant, multicoloured cascade of soft and welcoming woolly pompoms.

There are numerous works of a collective nature connected to public space, mostly from the 1960s and 1970s: Antoni Miralda, Joan Rabascall, Jaume Xifré, to name a few. As if to reiterate that these works have a strong relationship with today’s sensibility and still have much to say.

Taus Makha Cheva, <i>Tightrope</i>, 2015. HD video, color, sound, 58’10’’. Photo Francesco Galli
Taus Makha Cheva, Tightrope , 2015. HD video, color, sound, 58’10’’. Photo Francesco Galli
A number of very strong pieces appear in the Earth Pavilion: one by Shimabuku for example, that expresses through a minimalist video the relationship between living creatures and their environment. In The Snow Monkeys of Texas the artist makes reference to a group of monkeys forced to move from a mountain environment to the Texas desert, to talk about questions of memory and adaptation. Or Les Immobiles by Marie Voigner, that uses a series of images relating to hunters and trophies taken during safaris being looked at by a retired big-game hunter to describe the ferocious violence and colonial attitude still now rooted in western society.
Franz Erhard Walther, Various works, 1975-1986. Mixed materials. Photo Andrea Avezzù
Franz Erhard Walther, Various works, 1975-1986. Mixed materials. Photo Andrea Avezzù

Also intense is the work of Kader Attia, who with his dense installation on the musical tradition of North Africa and the Middle East is confirmed among the most important artists on the international scene.

The exhibition ends in the Garden of the Virgins, with the hallucinated nature of Salvatore Arancio that disseminates this amusing place with rocky concretions and psychedelic totems, ironic but also unsettling, as if to remind us that reality by far surpasses the visible.

Leanor Antunes, <i>…then we raised the terrain so that I could see out</i>, 2017. Mixed media installation, 900 x 300 x 2.400 cm. Photo Italo Rondinella
Leanor Antunes, …then we raised the terrain so that I could see out , 2017. Mixed media installation, 900 x 300 x 2.400 cm. Photo Italo Rondinella

While individual episodes such as this encourage us to hold back and serve as a reminder that art can be striking and surprising, the end result of the exhibition overall is not quite so motivating.

Along the route the works are juxtaposed in “rooms” that each house an artist; a move to make it legible but that however generates a sense of reiteration rather than development; so much so that between one work and another the connection is labile or even absent. The repetitive nature of the display is particularly evident at the Arsenale, especially in the Corderie, because of the regular rhythm, with works installed mainly on two sides of the main route. The rhythm of the sections contributes to the caption-like effect of the overall. This levelling layout also influences the perception of the individual works, that appear in many cases inoffensive.

Sheila Hicks, <i>Scalata al di la dei terreni cromatici / Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands</i>, 2016-2017. Mixed media, natural and synthetic fibers, cloth, slate, bamboo, sunbrella, 600 x 1.600 x 400 cm. Photo Andrea Avezzù
Sheila Hicks, Scalata al di la dei terreni cromatici / Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands , 2016-2017. Mixed media, natural and synthetic fibers, cloth, slate, bamboo, sunbrella, 600 x 1.600 x 400 cm. Photo Andrea Avezzù
Although there are many not-so-obvious presences and lots of new names, the exhibition overall ends up seeming rather ordinary, offering less than the enthusiastic title promises and failing to generate anything new. What is most striking however is the feeling of disengagement with respect to the times we live in. Our present is dramatic, fierce, filled with great clashes, disruption, humanitarian emergencies and barriers being lifted. We feel the weight of it inexorably. Artists, the great diviners of every era, know who to grasp the urgencies, how to express them, we have endless proof of that.
Kader Attia, <i>Narrative Vibrations</i>, 2017. Mixed media installation dimensions variable. Photo Italo Rondinella
Kader Attia, Narrative Vibrations , 2017. Mixed media installation dimensions variable. Photo Italo Rondinella
As Christine Macel herself, in the first lines of her essay, makes reference to the conflicts and shocks of the world, it is incredible that in the exhibition, despite the large number of relevant works, everything seems to be filtered and neutralised to the point of generating a sense of the total lack of a grip on reality. Of those conflicts, the pressure and the tension, there is very little.
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until 26 November 2017
Viva Arte Viva
Giardini, Arsenale, Venice
Curator : Christine Macel

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