Encyclopedic City: Postcard from Venice Biennale

Arriving in Venice by vaporetto at night has the uncanny feel of the opening scenes of an old Broadway stage musical.

Arriving in Venice by vaporetto at night has the uncanny feel of the opening scenes of an old Broadway stage musical. Crumbling palazzos emerge from darkness like theatre flats, illuminated by street lamps and the occasional glow of a street vendor’s cart. Venice is at once instantly recognisable but strangely unreal, and even if you’ve been here before it is still breathtaking. The 55th Venice Biennale opened in June, and runs until November 24. This year’s central exhibition, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, is titled The Encyclopedic Palace, referring to the proposal conceived by self-taught artist Marino Auriti for an imaginary museum to contain all human knowledge, from the smallest invention to the greatest discoveries of mankind. Exploring the Biennale, not only in the Giardini and Arsenale venues, but in national representations and collateral events around the city, the visitor gets the sense that perhaps Auriti’s wish has come true, if only one had time enough to see it all. The Giardini, where each of the countries with permanent national representation have their pavilions, has the feeling of a kind of neighbourhood of art embassies, with each building reflecting the country it represents and the era in which it was built. (There are a lot of imposing neo-Grecian columns.) This sense of an art-world diplomatic corps is reflected this year by the French and German representations swapping pavilions, with French artist Anri Sala presenting a multi-screen video work in the German Pavilion, while in the French Pavilion a show features works by Ai Weiwei, Romuald Karmakar, Santu Mofokeng and Dayanita Singh – both with snaking queues which almost comingle in the centre. Many of the representative artists chose to reflect on their surroundings – not only on the history of the Biennale and of the city of Venice, such as the ephemeral and spare performance work in the Romanian Pavilion titled An Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale – but of the setting itself. Set in parkland and surrounded by trees, many of the artists engage with the complicated and often destructive exchange between humanity and nature. In the dimly lit Belgian Pavilion, Berlinde de Bruyckere’s Kreupelhout – Cripplewood, a monumentally- scaled gnarled tree wrapped in clotted and twisted bandages, lies in state like a fallen monarch. Across the way at the Alvar Aalto Pavilion, which was forced to close during the 2011Venice Biennale when it was crushed by falling tree, the work of Antti Laitinen attempts a repair of another kind – systematically ‘rebuilding’ a pile of logs into a tree he felled in his own town in Finland. Likewise, the Nordic Pavilion, hosting fellow Finn Terike Haapoja, presents work that sensitively incorporates the trees that grow within the building into her installation. And of course, Australia’s representative artist in Venice, Simryn Gill, with her exhibition Here art grows on trees, pushes this environmental interplay even further, resulting in an installation that invites nature to reclaim some of the spaces we have taken. Simryn’s use of the Australian Pavilion building is a revelation – by removing the roof and allowing rain, leaf litter and insects into the space, the rooms are flooded with light and are transformed. Twelve enormous paper panels, each featuring minute hand-torn paper insects, will eventually disintegrate and return to nature, in a way that the landscapes ravaged by mining activity in the series of photographs opposite cannot. Positioned off the churned-up gravel track, the Australian Pavilion is an oasis of calm. In sites around the city, countries without permanent pavilions stage their own national exhibitions in private palazzos, public buildings, abandoned hotels and secluded enclaves, transforming an ancient city into what sometimes feels like a contemporary art treasure hunt. We use the Grand Canal as a central point of reference, glimpsing it across bridges and between buildings, eventually abandoning maps to navigate by feel. The Irish Pavilion is tucked away behind the Palazzo Grassi, and dashing out of the rain into the entryway feels like entering a cloister. Richard Mosse’s multi-screen video installation is immersive and disorientating. Filmed on location in Eastern Congo while embedded with rebel troops, Mosse has inverted camouflage tones to hot pink, magenta and crimson, the visual effect of which is as unsettling as the content – war-ravaged villages and claustrophobic jungles full of armed men. By contrast, the Pavilion of Iraq is a warm welcoming space where we are greeted with a tea served in an elegant glass, and a chance to sink into a deep armchair to leaf through the piles of books about Iraq. Curator Jonathan Watkins has incorporated works by eight Iraqi artists into this Venetian home, and we wander around discovering them in their domestic settings. This, and the show’s title Welcome to Iraq, proposes a more nuanced understanding of Iraqi life, and encourages cultural exchange on a human scale. Trooping further north to the Rialto Bridge, we reach Palazzo Bembo where works by Australian artists Yhonnie Scarce, Sally Gabori, Dale Frank, Sam Jinks and Selby Ginn are placed alongside works by senior international artists. In this context, their works are strong, prescient and hold their own, especially Selby Ginn’s imposing yet delicate sculpture, an over-lifesize male figure composed of tiny leather offcuts, which dominates what is an otherwise over-crowded room. As the 2013 Venice Biennale draws to a close in a month, and the last wave of summer guests give way to the final art-hungry hordes, Auriti’s desire for a conglomeration of all human endeavour seems like a distant but tantalising possibility. From the sublime to the ridiculous, discoveries awaits the visitor around every corner. Eleanor Zeichner works for the Visual Arts team at the Australia Council, and travelled to Venice independently. She also co-directs Critical Animals, a festival which presents experimental creative research by emerging writers and artists, as part of This is Not Art in Newcastle. Images All photography by Jenni Carter

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