Viva Las Venice
Review of the 57th International Art Exhibition of the Biennale di Venezia

review by Jizaino, 30 December 2017

57th International Art Exhibition
Viva Arte Viva
13.05 - 26.11 2017
Venice, Italy - Giardini, Arsenale and various venues

Entrance: 25 €


The weird title is a wordplay of "Viva Las Vegas", the frivolous musical film featuring Elvis Presley in Las Vegas, the amusement town that is just like today's Venice: a theme park. I wonder if someone at the Biennale would ever care about Venice becoming more and more a giant entertainment machine for tourists; I believe not.

But reading the introductory texts at the Central Pavilion's entrance, it seems as if the Art Biennale did read our critique reviews to the past editions; well, I do not even dare to think they could have taken our humble opinions into consideration, anyway this time they adopted, at least apparently, my opinion: this world is heavily marked and shocked by deep crises and inequities.
Finally, they noticed that the world is going bad, and thus artists should care about it bringing us new visions and solutions, then they stated that this edition was ideated letting the artists to express more freely, without a strict thematic. Sounds good, but this seems the reason, or the pretext, of the curatorial weakness: they set the artists free right when they should have directed them straight to the urgent topics, asking for engagement to specific issues.
Yes, I found this edition quite weak, I believe that not pointing the spotlight toward the analysis of problems may be blameable of scarce determination, laziness, or worst of preferring things as they are.
Artists must not surrender to fatalism in front of the events, like the masses do, lost with no will to face power, playing with specks of consumerist entertainment like social networks, smartphones, reality shows and all the trash from TV false information, all people laying on sweet shallowness, cosy and embracing swamps where to loose wits and drown the fear of facing the oppressor.
Considering the rare presence of a female curator, this has been another lost occasion to prove the creative strength of women.
Once found, a problem can not be solved with an enthusiastic title, but searching its origins, exposing the damages, the reasons, what is wrong, raising public opinion, they have the power to do that, but… nothing.

The Art Biennale flaunts a new record: over 615,000 visitors, a huge business, the most visited exhibition in Italy.e
But we should consider other data: indeed Venice set th new record of visitors, continuously increasing year after year; further, we saw a fewer number of collateral events around Venice and almost no independent unofficial exhibitions and with free entrance, so you can see why art-thirsty people had not many chances to satisfy their thirst but to pay the ticket to the Biennale: in times of crisis the biggest one takes it all.
Proudly, I contributed to one of those very few independent exhibitions in Venice, that tried to counteract the problems above, while the Biennale was counting money.

This Biennale had the laudable initiative to set some round tables open to the public where artists could talk and discuss about their own expression, what they do and why, combined to personal video profiles available on-line. This is an attempt to become more interactive, putting in an arduous comparison an ancient, solid and a bit sclerotic institution like the Biennale and the turbulent and overwhelming vivacity of the internet. Anyway, being impossible that the visitors may attend all the events, this remains an attempt in words to relate with people, to communicate bidirectionally with the collective mind.

The Central Pavilion

Curator Christine Macel wished artists to express more freely, without an imposed main thematic, but in effect a dominant imprint is as always present, maybe for the inertia acquired by the artists along years of propaganda, maybe for undeclared directions, the exhibition often dealt with the big triad dictate of today: migration, recycling, normalisation. Disguised or not, we are always hearing the same voice from an unilateral political view preaching the interests of the global elite: the deployment of human labour herds, the business of slaves recycling raw materials, the containment of dissent making it systematic through dissonant relativisation and entertainment.
Hopefully, the guilt is not of the lone artists unaware that their personal poetics are used for the purposes of a bigger picture.

Year after year the number of entertainment installations and arty things pleasing art-insensible people have increased; you can see this trend as soon as you enter the Central Pavilion looking to the installation "Green Light" by Olafur Eliasson who, with the help of the multi-coloured doodles by the Albanian Prime Minister and artist Edi Rama, offers to the visitors something I would call consumerist design in a kiosk shop, selling Ikea-like lamplights and souvenirs to enliven living rooms. Please do not kill Art.
And of course the artist collaborated with NGOs helping migrants escaping conflicts, lining up to the elites' dictates but never protesting against the shame of war, never examining the causes, never exposing the elites trafficking weapons and plotting those wars.

As you enter the Central Pavilion at the Giardini, marked by an atmosphere of static limp and scarcity, you can also see a kind of artist promoted in this edition: the sleeping artist, who has, as stated on the Pavilion's preface text, a social status allowing the comfort, to waste time and linger in the Otium (idleness). But that is not true indeed, in the majority of cases the artists are not wealthy and lazy persons unconcerned of the world, detached from the problems of society.

Yelena Vorobyeva and Viktor Vorobyev, "The Artist is Asleep", 1996, mixed media installation

Mladen Stilinovic, "Artist at Work", 1978 / 2017
Eight silver gelatin prints

Other artists lining up to the above dictates are: the illusionist, storyteller and magic piper who deceives with a trick, Søren Engsted, and the ecstatic artist who invites you to catatonically entertain yourself with the beauty we have around us everywhere, or the remaining debris of it, and enjoy and bathe in the simplicity, Lee Mingwei.
But Zen is a serious moral and philosophical discipline, not a mundane frivolity to blindfold oneself as depicted today in the mass media by the intellectual ineptitude of the modern mind.

Søren Engsted, still frame from "Levitation", 2017
Video, colour, sound, 12’18”

Lee Mingwei, "When Beauty Visits", 2017
Ongoing participatory installation

Luckily, at the Central Pavilion you can still find several examples of determined and passionate art, my preferite was the performance "Tightrope" by Taus Machacheva, who moves many paintings between two hills, carrying them balancing on a tightrope over the precipice.
This performance is the perfect allegory of the relation between the masses and art, that ends into a museum's archive, kept away from people, following an elitist journey staying detached from the world, which sometimes possibly look at it just as an entertainment.

Taus Machacheva, "Tightrope", 2015
HD video, colour, sound, 58’10”

At the Giardini

Like the Central Pavilion, also the other national participation at the Giardini seemed to follow institutional propaganda as always, like the installations entitled "Peace on Earth!" by Gyula Várnai for the Hungarian Pavilion, enacting the trite perpetration of utopias, renewing the ones from the past reconverted for the contemporary situation: another sleeping artist, preferring to keep ideas in the everlasting condition of dream.

Very solid, pregnant, important and good was the German Pavilion featuring "Faust" by Anne Imhof, that brings the topic of anti-capitalism back to the primal relationship between Man and Nature, even if an artwork like this may seem a bit hypocritical being hosted by a Biennale fed by the same modern guilty economy. I would have expected and preferred to see a performance like this in some underground independent self-funded exhibition, and after all you may see a representation like this everyday, everywhere, on the streets, between common people.

Very good and straightforward the Uruguayan Pavilion "La Ley del Embudo" by Mario Sagradini, an wooden enclosure representing the social iniquities in this world where human masses are considered just cattle, but also evoking to me the tragicomic management of tourists masses with ticket barriers, more than once suggested for Venice.

Mario Sagradini, "La Ley del Embudo", 2017, wood

Disquieting and mesmeric, the Russian Pavilion "Theatrum Orbis" featured a large sculptural installation by Grisha Bruskin.

Grisha Bruskin, views from the multi-figure installation "Scene Change", 2016-17

Very interesting and beautiful the Pavilion of South Korea, again looking at our occidental culture, seems to make fun of it; deservedly, not referring to our art, but to our society on the whole.

Cody Choi, "The Thinker", 1995-96, toilet paper, Pepto-Bismol, wood, plaster
Cody Choi, Untitled Photo 03, 1994, C-print

Cody Choi, "Episteme Sabotage - Shit"
2014, oil on canvas, cloth, thread

At the Arsenale

The performance "Sharpening a MacBook Air" by Shimabuku is very enjoyable: not just a funny experiment, but a ruthless assault to one of the prime fortes of the economic system, the lure.

Shimabuku, "Sharpening a MacBook Air", 2015
MacBook Air with handle, vitrine, HD video, colour, stereo sound, 2’05”

Shimabuku, "Oldest and Newest Tools of Human Beings", 2016
Four prehistoric stone axes, four smartphones, vitrine with glass

"Stained Glass" by Peter Miller unmasks the function of art and of the artist as mystification and mystifier, projecting a film through a projector with the lens removed, creating a faint image, latent and hypnotic, suggestsing the importance of nothingness in defining the whole.

Peter Miller, "Stained Glass", 2014
16 mm film, music by Toby Driver

Few steps away and conceptually similar, "Traces" by Nevin Aladag, an "ummanned" performance.

Nevin Aladag, "Traces", 2015
Three-channel HD video installation, colour, sound, 6’03”

At the Latvian Pavilion, the installation "What Can Go Wrong" by Mikelis Fišers suggests that truth may hide somewhere else, ridiculing the whole panorama of esoteric thematics and myths about the origin of mankind, with its faiths, gods, deities, demons, aliens and recounts; there was also a light installation measuring 6 x 6 x 6 metres.

Mikelis Fišers, "Reptilians Heal Sterilized Mermaids from Depression on the Sinai Peninsula", 2017
Wood, polished paint, carving, 21 x 29.5 cm

Mikelis Fišers, "Grey Aliens Semen-Milking Captured Pacifists at Area 51, USA", 2017
Wood, polished paint, carving, 21 x 29.5 cm

Mikelis Fišers, "Fallen Angels Humiliate Unfaithful Preachers on the Fourth Circle of Hell", 2017
Wood, polished paint, carving, 21 x 29.5 cm

Mikelis Fišers, "Multidimensional Entities Cut Up Their Avatars Before Evacuation from Planet Earth", 2017
Wood, polished paint, carving, 21 x 29.5 cm

On the contrary, at the nearby Irish Pavilion "Tremble Tremble" by Jesse Jones, dramatically and dreadfully evokes ancient feminine attitudes relating to the concept of "In Utera Gigantæ" in an attempt to counteract a law system abusing women's body, which in this performance is used instead as an apotropaic fetish against fear.

Jesse Jones, "Tremble Tremble", 2017
Performative expanded cinema installation

In latest years we saw the birth of a new kind of installation artworks using living moulds, and in this Biennale there were several, alerting visitors that in those rooms potentially allergenic spores may be inhaled. The most powerful and dramatic one is "Imitazione di Cristo" (Imitation of Christ) by Roberto Cuoghi: a huge collection of shapes of the crucified Christ made of organic matter undergone to diverse processes of decay and alteration, hung to the walls, inside bio-hazard tents or laid over autopsy planks. The installation, a clear reference to the homonymous ancient book, literally breaks apart the materialist imaginary of sacred iconography depicting a dead Jesus, promoting a more spiritual view on the issues of Christianity.

Roberto Cuoghi, views from the installation "Imitazione di Cristo", 2017

The Chinese Pavilion, more than in the previous edition, is so interested in proposing a solid identity of its country that the artists disappear into a kind of Wunderkammer that evokes the atmosphere you may feel in messy chinoiserie bazaars.

As often happened, also this year I considered the "Giardino delle Vergini" garden the best "pavilion" at the Arsenale: maybe for my empathy with nature and open spaces, maybe its genius loci, maybe its decrepit indoor locations, the artworks presented here are very evocative, not much visited thus more easily enjoyable undisturbed.
For example, the videos with oneiric landscapes built by Zhou Tao with consumerist appliances, or the memorable performance "Broken Fall (organic)" by Bas Jan Ader.

Zhou Tao, still frame from "The Worldly Cave (Fan Dong)", 2017
Single-channel 4K HUD video, colour, sound, 47’53”

Bas Jan Ader, "Broken Fall (organic)", 1971
16 mm film, 1’44”

Finally there was an interesting installation "The Tyranny of Consciousness" by Charles Atlas, who with candid poetry, superior analysis between the deadly and the sarcastic, evokes the never enough discussed question about the damnation that deeply lubricates and drives the meat grinder of our society.

Charles Atlas, "The Tyranny of Consciousness", 2017
Five-channel video installation, colour, audio: Helm and Lady Bunny, 23’44”

Around Venice

Right adjacent to the Giardini, the Thai Pavilion was really fine, with Somboon Hormtientong featured in "KRUNG THEP Bangkok", an exhibition concerning the contrast between modern consumerism and the legacy of tradition, exposing the evident flattening of culture.

Somboon Hormtientong, "Bang Rak" (detail), 2015
Charcoal pencil on paper, 164 x 112 cm

Somboon Hormtientong, "Krung Thep Bangkok", 2017
Charcoal pencil on paper, 82 x 112 cm

Somboon Hormtientong, "Krung Thep Bangkok" (installation views), 2017, mixed media (plastic containers, wood, ceramic, marble), variable dimensions. Mixed media (wooden trunk, carved buddha), 70 x 100 x 80 cm

Very enjoyable and profound, the gorgeous video "Spite Your Face" directed by Rachel Maclean eviscerated the foundations of consumerism and commodification, the lie, through the Italian metaphor of Collodi's Pinocchio.

Rachel Maclean, installation view and still frames from "Spite Your Face", 2017, audio-visual

Being a huge heterogeneous collection without a precise direction or a specific socio-cultural thematic, "Personal Structures" at Palazzo Mora offered many artworks really free, very relevant to ponder on the world of today. First, "FUCK YOURSELF ART", an installation by self-declared founder John Doe, who produced an excellent manifesto that I wish it had been wrote by me, even if prolix, expressing dissent for the actual commodification of Art: in fact I always summarised my mind with the motto "Art needs no marketing bounds."
Also the liberating paintings from the "Screams" series by Daniel Pešta were very interesting.

(Writing on the wall)

“What does ART mean Today?

Here's to the ones who

see Art differently. They're
not fond of the Artist's
mind and they have no
respect for the Artworld.
They can quote, they can
reject, or glorify with Low
and High estimates.

Here's to the Blind. Price
estimates never change
Art, they pull the Art
collector backward.
Content can change the
Artworld, commercial
troublemakers cannot.
And while Artlovers may
recognize the evolution of
Art history, the ones who
Iook at Art in exchange for
Hammerprice are Fucking
John Doe, installation views from "FUCK YOURSELF ART", 2017, manifesto

Daniel Pešta, "ELECTION", 2016/2017, acrylic on canvas, 270 x 180 cm

Daniel Pešta, "SCREAM NO. 1", 2015/2016, acrylic on canvas, 220 x 170 cm

At the "Personal Structures" exhibition at Palazzo Bembo there was the wonderful bronze sculpture "King Kong Balls" by Denis Defrancesco seeming to me like an obvious allegory of megalomania and egocentricity of the human being who thinks more with his sex organ than with the brain.

Denis Defrancesco, "King Kong Balls", 2016-2017, mirrorer polished bronze, ~ 168 x 70 x 75 cm

The Lebanese Pavilion "Šamaš - Sun Dark Sun" by Zad Moultaka was amazing. The huge installation featured a timed choreography mixing complete darkness, light, voices, war clamours, a giant Rolls Royce Avon MK 209 jet engine and a constellation of 150,000 Lebanese coins, to form a desperate, impressive and convincing denounce against war. Congratulations.

Zad Moultaka, pictures from "Šamaš - Sun Dark Sun", 2017
Theatrical installation

At the Alamak! Pavilion "Islands in the Stream" a large selection of videos by the Thai artist Kawita Vatanajyankur were picturing colourful human installations/performances of women as objects or tools.

Kawita Vatanajyankur, excerpts from the videos (in order):
"The Ice Shaver" 2013 , "The Scale 2" 2015, "Poured" 2012, "Scale of Justice" 2016, "The Scale" 2015

Extremely strong and evocative, Evan Penny in the solo exhibition "Ask Your Body", beyond the excellent technical skill, with the disconcerting hyperrealism of the artworks and the atmosphere of the sacred location, renders tangible the burden of centuries of violence, perpetrated on the bodies for the only one but delusive chance to control human mind.

Evan Penny, view from "Ask Your Body"

Evan Penny, "Young Self", 2011, pigmented silicone, hair, fabric, aluminum, 86,5 x 76 x 61 cm

Evan Penny, "Old Self" (detail), 2011, pigmented silicone, hair, fabric, aluminum, 86,5 x 76 x 61 cm

Evan Penny, "Marsyas", 2017
Pigmented silicone, hair, aluminum, wood
244 x 38 x 35,5 cm

Evan Penny, "Self Portrait After Gericault’s Fragments Anatomiques", 2017
Pigmented silicone, fabric, resin, wood
46 x 145 x 198 cm

Nice and intelligent artworks for the Pavilion of Bosnia and Herzegovina "University of Disaster" from Radenko Milak, who suggests to search the main causes of human folly in the progress, dealing with the problem of migration flows without sticking to the same trite whining of institutions.

Radenko Milak, watercolours from the exhibition "University of Disaster"

At the Humanity Pavilion "Objection", there was the outstanding installation "There is No Lack of Security Here" by Ekin Onat, a laid table made with uniforms and badges of the Turkish police, and her performance "Crime is Persistent in The Soul", where she undresses from a riot-police suit.
Here you can find also great artworks by Michal Cole: "Domestic Godless", a kitchen with small silent videos of shouting women representing the domestic prison, and "Neverland", a series of videos where the artist embodies the eternal anonymity in the common uniform of many women: the housewife.

Ekin Onat, "There is No Lack of Security Here", 2017, mixed media

Ekin Onat, still frames from "Crime is Persistend in the Soul", 2017, performance

Michal Cole, "Domestic Godless" 2017, digital film installation

Michal Cole, still frame from "Neverland", 2017, digital film installation

After some moments to catch the meaning, the exhibition "Thank you so much for the flowers" by Mike Bourscheid for the Pavilion of Luxembourg becomes clearly brilliant, as much amusing as serious, representing the fetters of socio-relational protocols between males and females in the provincial small bourgeoisie or any other presumption of preconception.

Mike Bourscheid, view from  the exhibition "Thank you so much for the flowers"

Another exhibition nowadays really deserving attention was "Io Combatto" (I Fight) by Sarah Revoltella at the tesa 105 of the Arsenale, an open performance strongly antimilitarist, against war and any gun violence.

Sarah Revoltella, "Io Combatto" (I Fight), 2017, open performance

Luckily some big artists still gave Nature a chance to be heard, like Jan Fabre, who in his solo exhibition "Glass and Bone" reminds us the deadly hegemony of the human being over the environment and the wildlife in particular.

Jan Fabre, "Monk (Brugges 3003)", 2002
Human bones. iron wlre, 149 x 77,8 x 74,2 cm

Jan Fabre, "Skull with Parakeet", 2017
Murano glass, skeleton of a parakeet, Bic ink, stainless steel, 50 x 22,3 x 41,1 cm

Jan Fabre, "Skull with Woodpeecker", 2017, Murano glass, skeleton of a woodpecker, Bic ink. stainless steel
53,6 x 24,9 x 22,3 cm

Jan Fabre, "Skull with Chinchilla", 2017
Murano glass, skeleton of a chinchilla
Bic ink, stainless steel
52.8 x 22,3 x 22,3 cm


Jan Fabre, "The Catacombs of the Dead Street Dogs", 2009-2017
Murano glass, skeletons of dogs, stainless steel, variable dimensions

Jan Fabre, "Untitled (Bone Ear)", 1988
Glass, human bones, Bic ink, 180 x 250 cm

Jan Fabre, "The Future Mercifull Phallus and Vagina", 2011
Murano glass, human bones, Bic ink, variable dimensions

Jan Fabre, "Cross for the Garden of Delight", 2013
Murano glass, skeleton of a snake, 71,4 x 39,6 x 9,2 cm

Last but not least, with the collective exhibition "VITA TUA, VITA MEA" (full report here), co-curated by me, we suggested a philosophical answer to the social iniquities originating in today's crisis, the gap between rulers and oppressed, to open a breach in human souls petrified by qualunquismo, egocentric relativism and indifference.

A view of the exhibition "VITA TUA, VITA MEA"


My Best of Show Award goes to two joint winners: the Lebanese Pavilion  "Šamaš - Sun Dark Sun" by Zad Moultaka and the manifesto installation "FUCK YOURSELF ART" by founder John Doe at Personal Structures.

Jizaino -