The Encyclopedic Palace

Venice Biennale

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

It was only a matter of time before the cultural phenomenon of hipsterism—a roughly defined set of values characteristic of the privileged, premillennial generation born in the West from roughly the 1970s to the mid-1980s—had its moment at the center of the art world. It arrived, via New York and Milan, from curator Massimiliano Gioni in the form of “The Encyclopedic Palace,” the Central Exhibition at the 55th Venice Biennale, where Gioni led viewers on a self-consciously exoticized journey of worlds filled with symbolic visions and fantasies, personal cosmographies and mythologies, religious icons and talismans, mental maps and landscapes of inner worlds—many of which he, or the artists themselves, had “discovered” by exploring the realm of imagery that exists beyond the art world’s formalized institutions.

Gioni appropriated the Biennale’s title from Italian-American auto-body mechanic Marino Auriti, whose Il Enciclopedico Palazzo del Mondo (c. 1950) was a proposed 700-meter-tall, 136-story building to be built in Washington, DC, which would contain all of the worldly knowledge and great discoveries of human civilization. The design of the exhibition was meant to mimic a Wunderkammer, an early European cabinet of curiosities created at the birth of global exploration (and colonialism), in which a collector would place heterogeneous objects of natural history alongside images. Like Auriti’s tower, the Wunderkammer represented the Platonic belief that “nothing is more divine than to know everything” (quoted by German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher in Ars magna sciendi  [ 1669 ] and cited in Gioni’s curatorial essay), an impulse that takes on new resonance in this totalizing era of the internet and digital-media saturation.

MARINO AURITIIl Enciclopedico Palazzo del Mondo, c. 1950. Installed at the Arsenale, Venice Biennale, 2013. Wood, plastic, glass, metal, hair combs, model-kit parts, 335 × 213 × 213 cm. Photo by HG Masters for ArtAsiaPacific.

In the Arsenale and the Central Pavilion, among the diverse objects from more than 150 artists, were Carl Gustav Jung’s dream-derived drawings from the Red Book (1914–30), anonymous Tantric renderings from Rajasthan, 19th-century Shaker gift drawings, “Paño (Cloth) Drawings” made by Hispanic prisoners in the United States, Guo Fengyi’s illustrations of semi-mythological beings derived from her salutary practice of Qigong, and the minutely detailed cosmos rendered in ink by Lin Xue, the last of which showed creatures that were at once of science fiction and primordial. Yet, despite the extraordinary menagerie of objects in “Encyclopedic Palace,” hierarchies remained enforced, between those curiosities that had been “discovered,” and the contemporary artworks that so confidently announced themselves as “art.” Gioni himself is quick to slap on pejorative labels, writing in his curatorial essay that “eccentrics like Auriti . . . share with many other artists, writers, scientists and self-proclaimed prophets . . . delusions of omniscience”—as if scholars, curators and museum directors do not also partake of these hubristic ambitions, or as if any one of these gallery-exhibiting artists couldn’t also be carelessly labeled “an eccentric.”

This attitude of purported openness to “the alternative,” yet the subtle reification of normative values, is exactly what made this biennial a hipster affair. Though still debated, hipsterism is a set of largely aesthetic values that, while eschewing politics, prizes both diversity and authenticity in individual and cultural productions, and tries to resist the corporatization of one’s own life, whether through commodities or in one’s labor itself. Hence the popularity of so-called heritage clothing and styles, DIY initiatives and small businesses and homesteading activities such as gardening and food preserving, as well as the self-conscious fetishization of activities (such as yoga, holistic and alternative medicines or pagan spirituality) derived from cultures in which premodern, traditional beliefs and practices still hold sway. Despite an emphasis on “ethical” and “progressive” activities—particularly in regard to personal liberties and the environment—as a worldview centered in “the West” with affinities for the rest of the world, hipsterism embraces a gentler form of cultural exoticism to replace the crass Orientalism of old.

That said, although the show became wearingly repetitive, throughout the Central Pavilion (which tended to be a more loosely connected survey of occult-derived or obsessive practices) and the Arsenale (which was a more linear, directed survey of the rationalistic impulse toward “omniscience”) there was plenty of beautiful handmade work. In Prabhavathi Meppayil’s minimalist panels, copper, gold and silver wire is embedded into thickly gessoed surfaces additionally scored with goldsmithing tools. Shinro Ohtake’s ragged, exuberantly created scrapbooks—thousands of pages of collages with images from mass media ripped, torn, pasted and modified—were presented in glass-shelved vitrines. Dozens of paintings by Yüksel Arslan from his “Arture” (a portmanteau of “art” and “écriture”) series, which he has been making since the mid-1950s with a distinctive muddy palette of homemade paints, depict taxonomies of societal groups, including autistics and schizophrenics, and the methods used to diagnose them.

DANH VO. Curtains from the reconstructed ruins of Hoang Ly church (c. 1800s) from Thái Binh Province, Vietnam. Installed at the Arsenale, Venice Biennale, 2013. Dimensions variable. Photo by HG Masters for ArtAsiaPacific.

Though briefly affiliated with friends of the Surrealists, Arslan is largely an outsider figure, and sits right on the line of becoming a subject himself. But elsewhere Gioni took an avowedly anthropological approach—and at times an archaeological stance—incorporating objects from the early 20th-century to the present and a number of individuals not traditionally considered artists, so as to “reunit[e] artworks with other forms of figurative expression—both to release art from the prison of its supposed autonomy, and to remind us of its capacity to express a vision of the world.” Arguably, this effort creates new prisons and, furthermore, is already a major part of artistic practice today. Danh Vo’s installation, for example, consisted of the frame of a 200-year-old, colonial-era Catholic church imported from Vietnam; parts of its wooden, decorative architecture were piled on the floor, while sun-stained curtains were draped over the walls. Kan Xuan’s Millet Mounds (2012) comprises two banks of 207 stop-motion-like videos of every known imperial burial mound in China, recorded in the faux-vintage styles of 8mm or lo-fi cameras, as widely replicated on popular iPhone photo apps.

When artists weren’t making work that looked fantastical or “otherworldly,” certain of them were treated plainly as anthropological subjects. This was particularly problematic in the case of Shinichi Sawada’s incredible terra-cotta sculptures of monstrous animals and figures covered in horns and reptilian skin, presented in a rounded room in display cases behind plexiglass as if they were antiquities in a museum. This disparity was further enforced by the text introducing his works: “Born with severe autism, Shinichi Sawada barely speaks; instead he prefers to express himself through sculpting an expanding menagerie of clay figures and masks, which he began to produce in 2001 while in residence at Ritto Nakayoshi Sagyojo, a facility for mentally impaired people.” And later came this piece of specious, facile art-historical psychologizing: “Interestingly, Sawada’s works also call to mind the arts of tribal societies in Africa, which the artist may have come to know through reproductions only to transform them through his imagination.” It is unimaginable that such a text would be applied to a “contemporary” artist. Compare that to the first lines describing the nearby works (frankly, no less “eccentric”) of Matthew Monahan: “In his sculptures and drawings, Matthew Monahan borrows from the history of figurative representation, creating unwieldy composite forms that synthesize references to diverse material cultures, from the colossal Olmec heads of ancient Mexico and archaic Greek statuary to the Veil of Veronica and the man-machine hybrids of science fiction.”

In the exhibition guide and wall texts, artists of the art world were introduced by a description of their work and their “conscious intentions” and specific references, whereas other (usually nonprofessional) artists were given a biographical introduction, frequently detailing a pathology, psychological disturbance or life circumstance by which they came, inadvertently, to create objects or imagery. The division in the show was clearly demarcated between the borrowers and the borrowed or, more polemically, the appropriators and the appropriated.

Though broadly acquisitive of a variety of artifacts and artworks, “Encyclopedic Palace” remained a staunch upholder of Euro-American aesthetic norms and cultural hegemony. At the end of the Arsenale, following a room that paired deeply humanistic, diaristic works by Bruce Nauman and Dieter Roth (in the latter case, from the last years of his life), viewers stepped into a cavernous hall with Walter De Maria’s installation, Apollo’s Ecstasy (1990): 20 solid-bronze, five-meter-long rods laid out on the floor. In its minimalist perfection—and it is a stunningly sublime ode to rationality and reason—Gioni affirmed that, in fact, all of the other curiosities seen along the way paled in comparison to this masterpiece of postwar, postindustrial Euro-American culture, in all of its critical and aesthetic clarity. From there, however, one exited Gioni’s “Palace” and ventured out around the island city to see the many national pavilions whose very existence, and the heartfelt, often tragic stories contained within them, was a trenchant-enough rebuke to the aesthetic dalliances and cultural pretensions of the hipster class.

See here for more on HG Masters’ visit to Venice Biennale’s Arsenale, Giardini and other venues.