57th Venice Biennale, Part 1: Viva Arte Viva
By HG Masters
There are many colors, fabrics and textiles, books and beds, and playfully interactive components among the works by 120 artists at the 2017 Venice Biennale, which opened this week. Just as the title, “Viva Arte Viva,” suggests, the 57th Venice Biennale, curated by Christine Macel, has a celebratory spirit, foregrounding art over discourse. If Okwui Enwezor’s edition of the Biennale two years ago was like an anthology of postcolonial discourse, then Macel’s is like a re-issued collection of world poetry. The 2017 Venice Biennale opens at a time, Macel acknowledges, when the world is “full of conflicts and shocks,” but the French curator presents art as the “last bastion” and, in an explicitly humanist worldview, as “the ultimate ground for reflection, individual expression, freedom, and for fundamental questions.” Macel proposes that “at a time of global disorder, art embraces life, even if doubt ensues inevitably.” You come away from this Biennale not burdened (but also not unburdened) by history, yet uplifted by art’s own discoveries of worlds slightly apart from the ones that bring us so much trouble in our regular lives.
In its primary objective to put art—and artists—first, “Viva Arte Viva” excels, with Macel bringing a commodious, museum-like presentation to the Central Pavilion at the Giardini and the Arsenale. On first impression, the art itself looks good, and it especially looks good when presented all together. The exterior of the Central Pavilion is draped in a colorful fabric—a “drape painting”—titled Yves Klein Blue (2016), by Sam Gillian, an African-American Color Field painter who exhibited in the United States pavilion in 1972, and whom history (and art history) had largely forgotten. Right inside the door is a tribute to the late Mladen Stilinović (1947–2016), a member of Zagreb’s 1970s experimental art scene, rendered in photographs of the artist lying in bed for a performance series of his cheekily called Artist at Work (1978). Behind the partition in the Sala Chini are the contents of Dawn Kasper’s “nomadic studio,” where a band was jamming. There are also many references to books in the coming rooms: in the lovely paintings of Liu Ye—whose obsession with Mondrian shines in his compositions—which Macel paired with the diaristic scrolls written by Abdullah al-Saadi that the artist keeps in self-customized metal tins, and the ink-soaked volumes by Geng Jianyi, which inhabit the same room as book-embedded wall sculptures by Jonathan Latham. Another ebullient spirit, the late Hassan Sharif (1951–2016) has a room of his own where his eclectic assemblages of plastic and metal objects, tied together with jute or copper wire, sit on metal shelves as if they were in a supermarket. There's much to be said for artists finding new ways to fashion things from all the mediocre and unlovely things already in the world.