The Venice Biennale’s centerpiece exhibition, “Viva Arte Viva,” may altogether falter in the breadth of its curatorial framework. But, in its central ambition, as a celebration of artists, there is a wealth of work to celebrate, ponder, and discuss. Here are a few of the projects and presentations the art world will remember long after this epic show closes.
Installation view of work by Pauline Curnier Jardin in “Viva Arte Viva” at the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017. Photo by Casey Kelbaugh for Artsy.
Grotta Profunda, Approfondita is ostensibly based on the 19th-century religious experiences of Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes. That historical nugget is merely a springboard for an exercise in high camp, one that includes a sort of psychedelic nude ballet and a didactic explanation of racial divisions that uses ice cream as a defining metaphor.
The purpose-built theater for Jardin’s piece is easy to overlook—keep an eye out for the funky, gooey-looking sculpture of a hand that serves as an entryway. Inside, you can ponder some big questions: What’s up with Jardin’s come-hither Jesus, who coyly promises, “You love me, and I love you,” while clad in a blue loincloth? What exactly is a “mermaid-monkey,” and why is she in such pain? And, perhaps most importantly, how seriously does the artist take her own pseudo-philosophical voiceover script (probing nature, art, the human race, and everything under the sun)? The film offers a lusty, absurd break from the bustle of the main show—an actual cave to hide inside, gleaming with a satanic red glow. —Scott Indrisek
Installation view of work by Michel Blazy in “Viva Arte Viva” at the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017. Photo by Casey Kelbaugh for Artsy.
The artist “likes to watch everyday objects slowly metamorphose,” according to his accompanying wall text, which is both unpretentious and pretty damn accurate. For one sculpture in the biennial, Blazy arranged beat-up sneakers on a minimalist retail fixture, growing plants and various mosses on the shoe’s interiors and exteriors (a fecundity that’s helped along by a constant flow of water from the top of the apparatus). It’s a deceptively beautiful take on what our malls might look like once the human race has successfully obliterated itself via global warming or nuclear war.
Nearby, the artist has arranged four stacks of paper—printed with various colorful images of touristic scenes—which are degraded over time by water which drips from the Arsenale’s rafters onto the pages. The resulting, almost geological erosions bored into the printed matter are captivating. —SI
Installation view of work by Nevin Aladağ in “Viva Arte Viva” at the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017. Photo by Casey Kelbaugh for Artsy.
For Traces, a 2015 film, the Berlin-based, Turkish artist used balloons, tambourines, and a children’s playground to create what is both a kinetic sculpture and a piece of minimalist experimental music. The three-channel piece combines footage and audio of various soundmaking set-ups: a balloon inflated, stuck onto the end of a flute, and allowed to wheeze its air through the instrument; a merry-go-round with a violin affixed to its outer edge, so that every time it rotates it strikes a bow placed, just so, by the artist; an accordion hung from a lamp post, groaning as it stretches its bellows. The whole scenario has the intricate choreography of a Rube Goldberg machine, but one that’s been broken down into its constituent parts and taught to sing.
Aladağ was also an early favorite at April’s opening of the Athens chapter of Documenta 14 for her installation and performance Music Room. And, throughout the preview days of the Venice Biennale at 12 p.m. and 3 p.m., she will also activate an exterior stretch of the Arsenale with a new performance, Raise the Roof, which features headphone-clad young women dancing on plinths of varying heights to songs whose lyrics are emblazoned on their black t-shirts. —SI
Installation view of work by Achraf Touloub in “Viva Arte Viva” at the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017. Photo by Casey Kelbaugh for Artsy.
This young Moroccan artist, based in Paris, is showing a trio of mixed-media assemblages and accompanying drawings. The wall-hung sculptures pair stitched and painted expanses of nylon—resembling lumpy sleeping bags—from whose bottom edges are affixed lengths of heavy chain, like flaccid tentacles dangling from the larger body. Inset within the textiles are ink drawings, looping abstract tracks. The end result is both seductive and gross, or perhaps grossly seductive. The freedom of the stitched and drawn elements jars against the implications of the chainlink, as if the sculpture is just waiting to wrap and bind its own energy. —SI
Installation view of work by Irina Korina in “Viva Arte Viva” at the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017.
Installation view of work by Irina Korina in “Viva Arte Viva” at the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017.
Korina constructed a standalone room within the Arsenale out of corrugated aluminum and covered its interior, wall-to-wall, with exuberant kitsch. Huge, lush arrangements of fake flowers, modeled after those created for memorial services (though, in this case, perhaps a memorial service in 2150), hang on garish animal-print wallpaper, while neons shaped like war medals bathe the environment in a tawdry glow.
The room feels like a funeral home accessed through Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole: It takes familiar objects and exaggerates them. Korina, who got her start as a set designer, was inspired by a growing cult, which worships fallen soldiers in her home country; the movement honors and embellishes Russia’s triumphs during World War II. Like much of Korina’s work, this installation channels the changing face of Russian contemporary culture—and questions the ease with which reality is manipulated for political gain. —Alexxa Gotthardt
In this absurd, nerve-racking film, a famous tightrope walker moves expensive-looking paintings across a mountain crevasse. At the end of the rope, on a very high bluff overlooking an awe-inducing landscape, the subject hangs the artworks on a structure resembling the storage apparatuses found in the back rooms of galleries.
The artworks are reproductions of local masterpieces housed in the Dagestan Museum of Fine Arts’s collection. Located in the Republic of Dagestan, a remote, contested corner of the Caucasus, the museum is rarely visited, or its works viewed, by foreigners. Makhacheva’s film addresses the precarious future of art housed in war-torn areas, and the omission of Dagestani and other non-Western art from the Western canon. —AG
Installation view of work by Maria Lai in “Viva Arte Viva” at the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017. Photo by Casey Kelbaugh for Artsy.
What forms can a book or a map take? Does it have to be legible? These are some of the questions that the late Italian artist’s work flirts with at the Biennale. Christine Macel selected stitched textiles from the 1980s and ’90s for “Vive Arte Viva” that abstractly reference global geographies (scraggy threads trace what might be shipping or travel routes). The artist also used cloth—and, in one case, brittle bread—to create sculptural “books” that beg to be admired, if not read in the practical sense. (Something about these objects, which are literally scrapbooks, points ahead to the crafty, ragtag spirit of Susan Cianciolo.)
Also on view is film and photographic documentation of a 1981 project in which the artist conscripted an entire Italian town to string bright lengths of blue cloth from their private homes to a centralized location. The residents’ obvious enjoyment of the happily pointless project—as they learn that art can be about playing as much at is about thinking—is a joy to observe. —SI
Photo by Francesco Galli. Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia.
Until he came to install for the Biennale, the 70-year-old Binion had never set foot in Venice. “I told friends that I wouldn’t go unless my work was in this show,” he said, smiling, on opening day. The Chicago-based artist’s work has received belated recognition in the U.S. over the past several years. But a room devoted to Binion’s paintings in the Biennale’s central pavilion marks his first major international outing.
It’s hung with canvases from Binion’s DNA Series (2013–ongoing). From afar, they look like pure abstractions. But the closer you get, the content embedded behind painted striations pushes through. Binion primed these canvases by first applying papers that contain intimate autobiographical information. In one, bits of his birth certificate can be glimpsed through black grids. In another, images of his childhood Mississippi home emerge from a patchwork of sepia squares. As elements of Binion’s personal history reveal themselves, his painted marks look more like the quilts and jazz scores that surrounded him during his youth than pure geometric abstraction. —AG
Installation view of work by Edi Rama in “Viva Arte Viva” at the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017. Photo by Casey Kelbaugh for Artsy.
Over at the Giardini segment of “Viva Arte Viva,” one huge room is wallpapered with a series of colorful, geometric drawings, a bit like the sketchbook experiments of a particularly talented collegiate stoner. To be perfectly frank, the works wouldn’t matter so much if they hadn’t been made by the prime minister of Albania, the guy famously responsible for repainting all the buildings in Tirana when he was the city’s mayor.
It turns out that a wallpaper similar to the one in the Biennale is used to decorate Rama’s governmental office. The drawings themselves are done on stray documents and papers, culled from the prime minister’s daily business. As Rama told The Guardian late last year, “If art cannot make politics more sane, politics, with its insanity, can sometimes make art even better.” —SI
Installation view of work by Edith Dekyndt in “Viva Arte Viva” at the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017. Photo by Casey Kelbaugh for Artsy.
Macel situates Dekyndt’s One Thousand and One Nights (2016) in the last hall of the Arsenale, where it provides a contemplative postscript for the show. In the performance, a person sweeps a thick carpet of dust around a dark room, so that it stays within a roving rectangle of light issued by an overhead spotlight. As the performer brushes methodically, ethereal clouds of white dust billow into the dimly illuminated room. The effect is spellbinding, inspiring meditations on impermanence and transience; simultaneously, thoughts of mortality (dust as an allusion to death) and mysticism (stoked by the title’s allusion to magic carpets) emerge. —AG
B. 1980, Calgary, Canada • Lives and works in Montreal
Installation view of work by Hajra Waheed in “Viva Arte Viva” at the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017. Photo by Casey Kelbaugh for Artsy.
Waheed, who is based in Montreal, spent the majority of her youth in a gated community in Saudi Arabia where photography and other forms of documentation were forbidden. Across her body of work, she interprets the stories and of migrants whose voices have gone unheard.
Thirty-eight tiny paintings line two walls of her installation at the Biennale; together, they act like film stills visualizing the dreams of migrants seeking a better life. Instead of showing the atrocities that often attend the journeys of those forced to leave their home countries, Waheed renders the quieter moments—glimpses of starry night skies, sunrises that light calm seas—that give these travelers the strength to forge on. —AG
Installation view of work by Kananginak Pootoogook in “Viva Arte Viva” at the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017. Photo by Casey Kelbaugh for Artsy.
These large-scale ink-and-colored-pencil drawings capture vignettes from contemporary Inuit life, and are wonderfully tender, fun, and expressive. Even mundane moments—a man with a snowmobile, a couple sitting on a couch in their living room—are given a sense of drama. The showstopper, though, is Untitled (Successful Walrus Hunt) (2009). The sky is presented as an unnatural stack of purples, pinks, and yellows; we peer down into an almost diagrammatic rendering of a hunting boat, where men are celebrating their bounty—the eponymous dead walrus, flopped alongside their craft. —SI
Installation view of work by Sebastián Díaz Morales in “Viva Arte Viva” at the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017. Photo by Casey Kelbaugh for Artsy.
This spellbinding film is the last work that most visitors will see as they exit the central pavilion of “Viva Arte Viva.” In it, a man falls ever so slowly through an atmosphere of colorful vapors, as if suspended in a dream. Like most of the artist’s output, the stunning and unnerving Suspension (2014) uses fantasy to harness the existential fears with which humans wrestle. Here, as Díaz Morales’s sleeping subject moves through the surreal atmosphere, it’s hard not to think of the recurring dreams of falling that many of us experience over the course of our lives. According to psychologists, they are a response to deep-seated anxieties—feelings that Díaz Morales conveys viscerally in this film. —AG
Installation view of work by Luboš Plný in “Viva Arte Viva” at the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017. Photo by Casey Kelbaugh for Artsy.
Plný has long been fascinated with the inner-workings of the human body and mind—as well as their potential to break down. When the Czech artist was young, he dissected dead animals. Later in life completed a course in grave digging—and spent time exploring the recesses of his mind after being committed to a psychiatric clinic and diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Plný reconstitutes these experiences in a group of large-scale, wildly-intricate collages that layer his own drawings with images cut from fashion magazines and anatomy books. The masterwork of the room shows two figures in the act of doggy-style sex. Their body parts float, multiply, and merge. One finger gently pokes a turgid red ball labeled “nipple.” Elsewhere, a finger and schematic drawing of a penis simultaneously move towards a circle labeled “vestibule of vagina” and the two heads mirror each other and touch as if becoming one. The whole erotic shebang is grounded in the word “LOVE,” rendered at the bottom of the composition in all caps, tying the act of hot sex to intense emotions. —AG
—Alexxa Gotthardt and Scott Indrisek