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Bopping through the Biennale, part 2

Lawrence Bush
October 22, 2017

by Lawrence Bush

To read part 1, click here.

I’VE NEVER THOUGHT I could be exhausted by art to the point of barely having the strength to write about it, but my experience yesterday in Venice’s Giardini, the public park where nations of the world have permanent pavilions that house art during the Biennale, has done just that to me. I feel like one of the hundreds upon hundreds of panting runners whom I witnessed running the Venice Marathon today as we strolled through the St. Marco piazza and along the Grand Canal.

But here goes: Three nations’ contributions stood out to me as most brilliant or, at least, interesting from amor the twenty or so pavilions we visited — Russia’s, Israel’s, and Hungary’s.

Russia’s was a deeply philosophical presentation by Grisha Bruskin called “Scene Change,” consisting of sculpture and video arranged in three rooms. All of the sculpted figures were in pure white, probably plaster, and included, in the first and third rooms, marching masses of men, suicide bombers, airplanes and drones, and other symbols of our deeply distressed civilizations — in which, the artist writes, “growing aggression, terror, the irrational life of the masses, and unprecedented control and monitoring strategies permeate the life of our contemporaries.” The middle room has more complex and beautiful individual figures whom Bruskin calls “Retorts,” each engraved with titles of famous 20th-century books that investigated “modernity and modern humanity.”

Unlike many of the artists at the Biennale who seem to be suffering from acute pessimism about the state of our world (and are resorting to nostalgia for traditional culture, or spiritual shamanism, or outraged despair), Bruskin was more nuanced and balanced in his perspective, which acknowledged both the disruptions and positive possibilities that are stalking humankind. The work also combined a sense of mass-production and individual handcrafting that spoke to human sophistication, mass achievement, and the need for every individual to participate in the quest for sanity. I loved it, and respect Gruskin’s artistic achievement enormously.

ISRAEL’S PAVILION, a simple, pure white Bauhaus building, has been turned by artist Gal Weinstein into a mold-polluted space. His piece, “Sun Stand Still,” includes coffee mold spread across the floors and a missile launcher encased in a cloud of dirty white steel wool and mold (see the image at the top of this blog). Weinstein’s vision felt deeply sorrowful, and I was appalled that a county created less than seventy years ago would give rise to such a vision of mold and decay. (The U.S. pavilion, a small Federalist-style building, was similarly consumed by sculptures of decay and cancerous growth by African-American artist Mark Bradford, though there were also statements of resiliency and resistance in the works he presented; and the British pavilion was filled with monuments of power and destruction assembled under the title “Folly” by Phyllida Barlow.)

An enormous contrast to this was Hungary’s pavilion, presenting an exhibition by Gyula Varnai entitled “Peace on Earth.” The show included a neon “Peace on Earth” image, complete with a dove, that for all of its clichéd corniness felt very moving; some footage from the 1970s of science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem speaking about the need for human beings to plan for the future and not allow chaos to rule the day; a rainbow on the wall made of medals, badges, pins, and brooches, the detritus of our hopes and our pride; a video of an elegant housing development with buildings and parks set within a rotating, encased wheel in outer space; and several other pieces that stirred a sense of hope.

There was much, much more: a feminist myth-movie in the Egypt pavilion, an installation of swans representing civilization’s “Swan Song” in the Czech Republic pavilion; a faux-Las Vegas installation, as well as nine simultaneous films about contemporary political and economic developments in Asia, in the South Korea pavilion; and Lisa Reihana’s wonderful, poignant telling of the early encounters between British imperialists and the Maori people of New Zealand, consisting of live-action film (lots of dance) against a painted scrolling backdrop (like a puppet show crankey, more moving scroll).

The overall takeaway, for me, is that artists the world over are freaked out, like the rest of us, about the deterioration of civility, predictability, and environmental health in our world — and are, like the rest of us, flailing about for answers, or at least for places, people, or technologies to blame — while a few, a very few, are assembling rainbows and space stations.

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.