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Bopping through the Biennale

Lawrence Bush
October 20, 2017

by Lawrence Bush

I’VE NOW BEEN demoted from the consort of a cherished dance educator in Slovenia to a tourist in Venice. (To read about my explorations in charming Slovenia, search “Bopping” in the search engine at right.) But everyone is a tourist in Venice, which is the most visually fantastic city this side of Mars, and the 57th Venice Bienniale is still underway, so Ciao Venezia, son motto felice di ester qui. (I’m very happy to be here.)

I was last here about sixteen years ago, and I vividly remember several pieces from that Biennale, most particularly Mark Wallinger’s 11-minute film, “Threshold to the Kingdom,” a slow-motion capture of the International Arrivals gateway at Heathrow Airport (excerpt below); and a fabulous life-size figure of a warrior in the South Korea pavilion made entirely from shining dog-tags of soldiers killed in the Korean War. The Biennale features artists from all over the world, and is a testament to artistic wizardry, creativity, and humanism.


We walked our feet off today in the Arsenale -- one of two main sites where the Venice Biennale is held -- and saw the work of artists from Argentina, Brazil, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, Cuba, Indonesia, Ireland, Kosovo, Malta, New Zealand, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and elsewhere. At least half of the artists were women, and at least two thirds of the artworks were films or included film. The works were arranged in nine “pavilions,” including the Pavilion of Joys and Fears, the Pavilion of the Earth, the Pavilion of Shamans, the Pavilions of Traditions, the Dionysian Paviliion, etc.

I’ve never seen so much fabric art concentrated in a single exhibition: one, a wall of large thread spools, attached like webbing to garments contributed by the public, which the artist sat repairing; another, a loft-sized area filled with bales of thick yarn of many rich colors; another, insect-like constructions draped with fabric; and numerous weavings.

There was also a grandly huge horse, about four times bigger than a living horse, hovering over a life-size girl, both of them pure white.

Resin, with its capacity for capturing life-like realism, was also very present. En route to the Arsenale, we paused in a park filled with resin statues of women and girls in bathing suits by Carole A. Feuerman, an American sculptor. There was also a terrific, strange assortment of ethnically costumed, gender-indeterminate figures by Francis Upritchard, a New Zealander who lives in London. I think of resin as today’s version of marble.

Most attractive and moving to me was Liliana Porter’s “Man with an Axe” (see the video below), an assembled landscape of 20th- and 21st-century destruction and fallen icons featuring a broken down piano, a small broken head of a ceramic Mao Zedong, broken pottery, a hammer-and-sickle, and a couple of dozen small figures (toy soldiers, worker figures, animals, birds), some of whom seemed to be trying to keep civilization going. I own a couple of the figurines that Porter uses in her assemblage and felt a special respect for her use of such toys to create a miniature landscape of overturned dreams.

Liliana Porter and The Man with the Axe - La Biennale 2017 from Liliana Porter on Vimeo.

I missed seeing paintings — fewer than five percent of the scores of artworks were paintings — and I found many of the pieces, especially the films, to be static, overly demanding on my attention, and uninspiring. Worse were the curatorial statements, which were barely penetrable and made claims for the supposed insurgent meaning of the artworks that were beyond credible. Here’s a sample: “Time as a flow of continuous mutations and impermanence that eventually lead to death, has inhabited the work of artists since the 1970s, when conceptual performance combined thoughts on the length of time and the inevitable fall. Reformulated by artists since the 1990s . . . the notion of time re-emerges today with a new metaphysical quality, within Borgesian mazes and speculations of a future that is already embedded in the present, or in an ideal infinity. In the face of the lagoon, the artist disappears or reinvents himself as ‘improved,’ through the power of hypnosis.”

Huh? Never mind . . .

My own commentary would suggest that there is a strong sense of despair, internationally, among artists, about the degradation of our planet and of hope generally; that there is a strong nostalgia for traditional cultures, and a romanticization of the power of those traditions to transform or restore the world; that there is lots of technical wizardry that often dominates over content and meaning (a lot of the work is cool and exciting but pretty empty); and that the world of artistic creativity is much, much larger than the United States — although a great number of the Biennale artists, whatever their home countries, live in New York!

Tomorrow we’ll see what the U.S. and Israel, among other countries, have to offer.

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.