A gym for fencing and foil, that is the new definition of Christine Macel's 57th Art Biennale

As Documenta 13, a cultural digging among biographies, performance and poetics. 615.000 visitors

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A gym for fencing and foil, that is the new definition of Christine Macel's 57th Art Biennale

As Documenta 13, a cultural digging among biographies, performance and poetics. 615.000 visitors

Opened on May 13 (it will close on November 26, 2017) the 57th Venice Art Biennale just previewed to the press is very similar to the Documenta 13 signed by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev: it is not only for the place the ‘book’ has – the object and the transcultural media – but for the relevant place performance and artists’ personal biographies hold in the structure of the show.

The curator is Christine Macel, the main partner is Swatch. The Swiss watches group continues to boost arts and to support Biennale but faces front to the worst crisis since 20 years: the 2016 fixed a loss of around 10% given low sales in Asia and the super strong Swiss currency that not helps exports, as for any Swiss corporation.


Macel speaks currently Italian and English, she also curated two pavilions in Venice (France, Belgium) and work for public institutions in France  - beside this she teaches, writes and loves techno music. Anri Sala (her clever French Pavilion of few biennales ago) and Philippe Parreno (the other artist she loves as much as Pinault, is the director of the opera La Fenice theatre will host but made for Biennale) will be exhibiting in Venice among the 120 artists she invited. 52 will exhibit a new artwork.

For those craving for stats, this is not in the press release: there are equally young, mid-carrier and mostly unknown artists as Gioni did, with a different ratio, for his Palazzo Enciclopedico. But you will find also recurring ones (as Ernesto Neto, presenting a very similar project of his previous this time in Venice with a performative version involving Amazonia indigenous people who approach art for the first time).

There will be also passed away artists. Of this group we counted 11, among them again Franz West and the mysterious Jan Bas Ader.


Many artists are represented by New York galleries and among the outsiders, or better among the less mainstream – there is an Italian dead recently, Maria Lai, who often uses poetry in her works and whose life had an intense chapter in Venice.


Many living artists are requested to re-enact their past works as David Medalla, who exhibits alone and also performs as Mondrian Fan Club.


Macel seemed to design an ecumenical and easy, overall a very boring Biennale, whose artists are grouped in trans pavilions (she prefers to call them ‘mantra’, we again hazard with something different like islands of meanings). They are not based on nationality and are coined as they’re chapters of books. After having seen them twice, we still have to get their reason, the works you see inside have nothing to pertain with the 'title' of the section and the title itself doesn't give you back anything about that art.

Let’ say that the ‘book’ returns as form (media), as bone, as exchange arena, as pot-pourri in which anyone can find something.
To start (and from Macel’s explanation, we figure is better to start from Giardini), the Stirling Pavilion is transformed in a real artists’ library (Je deballe ma biblioteque/Unpacking My Library) where all the 120 invited ones create a room where the books are donated, those that were seminal to start their practice and to perform their poetics. The books will be not used for the performance, ‘they will be not read or acted: the place to meet artists is the Tavola Aperta’ she told us.

Together with the visit or after having crossed the trans pavilions (that are seen as alternative to the exasperate individualism of artists, she says) the audience can seat to a table with them (we still do not know how to book the lunches).

Each Fridays and Saturdays behind the Stirling Pavilion (exactly on the right side of the Central Pavilion, Gardens), the artists of Macel’s section will talk about them and with the public. The meetings are on reservation (on the Biennale website or when you purchase your ticket) and with a meal. While at the same ‘table’ will be also possible to meet the artists of the national pavilions every Wednesdays and Thursdays (for those not materially in Venice, the meetings will be in streaming). There is a short video by any of the invited artists (as well as the entire performance section) on the Biennale website. Then the collection will take place in one of the rooms of the Arsenale once finished the performances and the Tavola Aperta.

Viva Arte Viva (logo and catalogue graphic design are from the French studio de Valence based in Paris) tries to detach itself from the exasperation of contemporaneity and from the frenetic rhythms to look easily and differently to another intellectual experience organized in chapters and about the artists’ production.

If Baratta stated that this humanism sees the artistic gesture as resistance, liberation and generosity, Macel says that it is like a garden - something as a last bastion - to cultivate and to come between individualism and indifference. To add, immediately after, that the artists’ individuality is often influencing and designing the world of tomorrow that has ‘blurred boundaries’ but of which the artists have better intuition on where they go.


After the Books Pavilion, placed at the Central Pavilion (Giardini), Dawn Kasper moves (she is not the first) her house and studio for six months at Giardini and in front of her space there a Franz West’s work (Armchair) that stands as the other side of negotium, the otium. There is also the awaited return of Olafur Eliasson, who more than ten years ago was chairing Domus Academy’s art seminars Art Experience with students and scientists (it was the same year when he was exhibiting his lighting artwork in the mobile pavilion by David Adjaie curated by TBA21 at San Lazzaro island). This time, exactly where he exhibited in the past Biennales his Little Sun, he will place his multidisciplinary practice that will work from Venice (also with migrants). The alter ego to the Eliasson’s negotium is the Raymond Haynsotium: according to the word of the curator, this artist spent his life reading, talking and traveling.

Among the nine trans-pavilions designed by Macel (Joys and Pains, Common, Earth) there is one we got curious of,  the Pavilion of Traditions, where no artisans and designers will be found but artists working between the ‘old and the new’ as the New Zealand born Francis Upritchard (1976). She is very collected also in Australia and uses rusty techniques with a very uncanny twist that is not only sharp but always very convincing on the aesthetical side. She is the Martino Gamper’s wife (the London based designer works always more in the arts field). Among the other ‘mantra’ there is the Shamans, the Dyonisian (dedicated to feminine pleasure, to ecstasy, to sexuality and to trance either in the music and in the drugs ones), the pavilion of Colours where she drafts them as ‘fireworks’ as told in the vague of neuroscience. This is the place where we suggest you to look for the fantastic works of the Glasgow born artist Karla Black. She uses colour on a perceptive and sculptural level. Represented by David Zwirner, New York, she recently exhibited in Venice (2011) by representing Scotland and her incredibly pleasing works were filling Palazzo Pisani where to drench in.


Macel’s biennale ends in a sort of ‘performance arena’ (where the Gelitin some biennials ago placed their oven to re-cook glass and where their boat driven by naked captains was departing) where to find 11 pieces (Giardino delle Tese) of artists with a second artwork on show (as Bruscky, Bleuter, etc) while 15 performance will be enacted only on the vernissage days and in streaming (May 10-11-12 at Arsenale) and one over via Garibaldi. It is a strolling concert of traditional music designed by Korean artist Yeesookyung, as recently did by artist Marinella Senatore (with different melodies) invited last Biennale by Creative Time.


This year the national pavilion will be 85, for the first time there is Kiribati (of the climate change challenge of this state we dealt last year with the interview to a Melbourne photographer), the only shame is that the pavilion is hosted at Palazzo Bembo where other artists last Biennale (Lili & Jesko) told us somebody was able to steal one of their artwork. We just hope the exhibition quality there improved.

There are also big returns in Venice as Christian Marclay this time as co-curator of the fantastic French Pavilion or Phyllida Barlow at Great Britain as artist.
The resistant communities have two very important representations. An Aboriginal artist is exhibiting at Australian Pavilion (the photographer and film-maker Tracey Moffat, while the commissioner is a rich fashion retail entrepreneur, the sponsor and collector Naomi Milgrom AO). Bernardo Oyarzún is representing Chile: he brings on the spot the Mapuche people who are placed in the central Chile and Argentina. We will see a 10x11 sculpture made of masks and led lights beaming names and surnames of members of the Mapuche on the wall.

Among the sponsors, the Italian real estate group by Catella (COIMA) that declares to sponsors the Italian artists selected by Macel: the already quoted Maria Lai, then Salvatore Arancio, Irma Blank, Michele Ciacciofera, Giorgio Griffa, Riccardo Guarnieri (these two in the Colours Pavilion at Arsenale).

As a bit delusional is the Biennale, a bit delusional are also the final awards, communicated by the Jury on May 13: the main prize goes to the German Pavilion, so to Anne Imhof. Already nicknamed the 'dogs pavilion' given the presence of two young dobbermans (a male and a female) in the big cage in the front, less deserved the second prize to the same pavilion and all the others (in particular to Hassan Khan and to his sound artwork at the end of Arsenale, Giardino delle Vergini, as the youngest most promising artist). We might think that this time Italy could deserve a prize or a mention especially for the outstanding works by Cuoghi (who points on the pure sense of caducity, transience and decomposition) and by Andreotta Calò, who incarnates either Brodsky and Ruskin and his idea of Venice in a game of mirrors, water, architecture and super evanescent sea sculptures that come from that corner of nature.


- - -


Like any other finissage, the closing weekend of Venice Biennale (the last day of visit is Sunday Nov. 26th, discounted entrances for Venetians) is crowded and stuffed with meetings, conversations, artists' lunches and events inside and outside the pavilions and the collateral exhibits. 


Ataraxia, the Salon Suisse of this year curated by Koyo Kouoh, offers the last weekend of free entrance performances and talks with also Marco Lutyens and Megan Rooney on the stage with their performances (grouped in one title but distinct: Without Poetry Nothing is possible) on the 24th. Lutyens will perform also at the Venetian venue of the Parisian Galleria Alberta Pane on the 25th and at Museo Fortuny (within the collective exhibit Intuition) on the 26th. And Salon Suisse will continue also on that day always starting at 6.30 pm while before the art addicts will be listening to Macel and Baratta wrapping up this edition at Sala D'Armi at 3 pm (Arsenale).

The Venetian galleries open the rooms for their finissages, often with special events. If you've lost in the past weeks the double exhibit on contemporary glass at Caterina Tognon (she puts together two female artists working glass at its extreme poles both reaching stunning outputs: ultra-realistic for Lilla Tabasso and abstract for the Australian Jessica Loughlin). There is also the Anita Sieff performance on 25th at Beatrice Burati.


If you're the last ones to visit the Biennial, it's better to deal with the few pieces or pavilions which are better to do not miss in the plethora of nonsenses. This is our mini-guide in the main venues (unfortunately the most interesting exhibits in the collateral venues have already closed in September, Fortuny apart).


At Giardini, the analogical photography is mastering at Belgian Pavilion with Dirk Braekman where stunning is its dialogue with the lighting design. Do start queueing early in the morning (at 11 am) to secure your entrance to the extended (and richer) version of the German Pavilion performance (to be noted: dogs have been changed, the previous ones were too young and less taught to be there so long). While you will be (surely) queuing, try to ask somebody to keep your place and sneak in to the South Korea pavilion at least to see the most interesting work inside, signed by one of the two exhibited artists, Lee Wan. It is The Proper Time: a room filled with lots of clocks signing the time needed to people at any latitude to earn enough to live. Or to survive.


Of course the pavilion which has been always on our hit list (and is) the Canada with a gigantic artwork: it is complex and straightforward to your heart, signed by the ineffable Geoffrey Farmer. Ashamed by the controlled demolition to make room to the new pavilion, the venue is generating a clever and precise game with interstices and bronze carving (included a pebble fountain at the beginning where to sip drinking water). This game was the best to reveal the 'inner world' of the artist as described by the Macel's brief. Do not forget to look for the poetic text the artist placed face à la lagune, no worries: the water geysers have a timing allowing you to run into with a secure and dry slot.


If you have not remembered to check on the artist's facebook page (weird way to publish just there a calendar of performances lasting six months) who is playing at the French pavilion on this week end, do check in person (the convulse rhythm at which the performances were happening makes me think to a few of them, like the Bosetti's spoken words and the Air's electronics). Then rush to the Egyptian one to dig in and deal with superstition and finally to the Austrian one (just the first part) where to look for the astute words the artist Erwin Wurn placed at each selfie station. If you have still time, why do not take a look to the Israeli cosmogony of conquest made of coffee and fungi (if you're allergic or you suffer of ashtma maybe better not).


Once at Arsenal, the sole artist of Macel's selection to look at (excluded the ones I named for you before) is the Belgian Edith Dekyndt (any gallery she works with at Frieze was having one of her pieces). She is placed not that far from the other very notable of the curator's selection: Peter Miller with his Stained Glass

The more acclaimed national pavilions at Arsenale after the Italian (for one time we are at the first place among any commentator and art lover) are the South African with two distinct sections (do not loose the last one), the Turkish and, to do not be missed for sure, the New Zealand and the Irish ones (in this latter, the performance is repeated any few minutes and the artist is always present).


- - - A gym for fencing and foil: the official audience figures at the wrapping up of 57th Venice Art Biennale - - -



As every fall season in Venice, the last day of the Venice and world oldest art festival is the moment to wrap up with figures and first impressions further to baptize the ‘old lady’ of the contemporary art with a new nickname (this year is ‘gym for the fencing and the foil,  after having also been the ‘machine of the wind’).


Given this very old institution (the most copied and not only the oldest in this sector) does not - and never had - media planning and advertising buying if we except some banners placed in the city where it takes place (Venice, of course), to let audience grow always on double digits stands for a great result.


It is even a greater result, this year, to see that this growth reached + 23% on 2015, the year of the previous Art Biennale edition. More that 615.000 have been the 2017 visitors and, moreover, the nine weeks in October and November accounted for more visitors than the three days of opening days.


All is true in these accounts except two things: the Biennale since a few years has been forced to invest in communication either for the medias (they design some roadshow conferences around the main arts capitals in the world) and for the online audience by using more - and as never before - the social networks and by restyling their very classical website.


While commenting on the figures, the president of the Biennial foundation Paolo Baratta told also that he is not so lucky as Beaubourg directors are (the reference to Paris comes straight from the fact that this year artistic director is French and comes from that museum where she works as conservator-officer for contemporary and modern art). 

They can count on a potential audience population of 12 millions of people: Venice is having a shrinking population - actually less than 55.000 residents.

He was particularly eager to have accounted this edition as the one with the youngest audience ever, exactly under 25 years old. This has been obtained with a keen and constant work with the schools via a club of around 3000 teachers which has been formed in advance, allowing the professors to come earlier to see the festival and to be taught about the themes and artists before bringing themselves the students to visit it.


Returning to the impressions on arts at the wrapping up and conclusive moments - given this Biennial has been named as the biennial for the artists themselves - the artistic director Christine Macel once more took her distances from the market by clearly stating she is not interested to it by being a conservator. 

We added that galleries and dealers often produce the artworks of the invited artists and that always any invited artist’s curricula is boosted by the appearance at a Biennale edition. In such a kind of dynamics it is like the ‘art market’ sneaks in and out the Biennale without the institution being part of it and able to elaborate one or more systems to give itself a role beside the one it has already.


Ça va sans dire, any artistic director has to have a relation (tight and onnivore) with the market to produce a Biennale.


Macel clearly stated her position about the art market while Baratta wanted to use a very colorful experience to address this subject: he was calling Art Basel the Cuckoo's Nest…was him referring to them as a bloodsucker?


We are not inviting the Biennial to reopen its internal Purchasing Office as it was in the past but to reconsider a kind of role toward the international collectors. Without forgetting, of course, the role of guide in the international art sector and history as ‘the’ pioneer as it has always been.


According to the various comments, the most innovative section or formula of this year has been the ‘Tavola d’Artista’, the luncheons with artists all along the festival according to a precise calendar in the two main venues (which is also having a resized parallel online because each encounter has been filmed and published on the Biennale’s website). 

A local curator was asking Macel (who was using French in the final press conference) if this section could last longer or for many editions of the following art biennales. She was in favor of that and added that in her idea these moments were ways different from the classical conferences with artists given they were not mediated and more intimate. 

She also remembered that for this Biennale she produced 50 artworks and particularly recalls the Hassan Khan’s one at the end of the path almost let audience flying away ‘à la Rousseau’. And also the Sheila Hicks’ work (this has been exhibited at Design Miami four years ago) with her accent on social networks. Without forgetting her loved Dawn Casper (who is representing a dear topic - to her and to Baratta- this year: the creative otium located at the debut of the exhibition path). She also wanted to thank once more the selected artists who donated a video work before the festival started, published on the Biennale’s website.