I was determined I was not going to write anything negative about the 57th Venice Biennale that took place this year. The reason is that it was curated by a woman, by Christine Macel, the Chief Curator of Centre Pompidou in Paris. If you think this is unfair, well then, I welcome you to women’s life where unfairness is the norm invariably. If there is nothing positive to say about women’s work anywhere I just don’t say anything at all. I make it a point to praise women artists’ work and especially choose and post works by woman artists on social media. And that's me.
This is the 57th biennale but it is the third time it has been curated by a woman. The first time happened in 2005, the 51st Biennale, when it was co-curated by Maria Corral and Rosa Martinez. Two women! At the same time! It was as if to say it would take two women to do what one man could do. The curators, Rosa Martinez is Barcelona based, while Maria Corral, a former director of the Reina Sofia Museum is from Madrid. Now the animosity between Barcelona and Madrid is legendary in every aspect, is it just my feminist paranoia or does it really look like a male agenda to pit two women against one another only to expect them to fail? I don’t know, unfortunately I didn't see it.. Later in 2011 for the 54th Biennale a singular woman artistic director was finally let to do what men have been doing for years by the Swiss curator, Bice Curiger. Thus making the French Christine Macel, the second woman who curated the biennale without a co-curator.
This year’s biennale was titled Viva Arte Viva which we were meant to understand as, Art for Art’s Sake. Hmm. A biennale that was not political or historical, or that had a real concrete theme. And just when the whole world was all about the whole political scene everywhere, which made the whole endeavor even more difficult in my opinion. But I was ready. Dani went before me, at the end of an all-guys cruise he took with his friends in May, whereas I flew in June from Barcelona, and met my friend Elizabeth who came from Miami. It turned out to be the least crowded I ever saw Venice, turns out Monday to Thursday is the best time to travel to Venice. Now I know.
And we did the usual: The Arsenale, the Giardini, the pavilions and interesting exhibitions time permitting, Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi, new location of Fondazione Prada. Dinners, drinks, shopping for obscure objects, and of course my favorite: getting lost in Venice which ended up taking us to places we never saw before, which was fun. I thought how out of touch with the times the Giardini is (this kind of landscaping just doesn’t exist anymore. It really should be re-done). And lost in thought about my indecisiveness when it comes to how I feel about different countries' having their own pavilions. I can’t decide: Is it good we bring nationality to art? Or rather, the emphasis of art specific to a country for some, or representative of that country, in a way? Or should art be above it all, and have no boundaries, so to speak. Well, there are no boundaries in art. But still, while a part of me like it that so many governments end up supporting the arts in their countries specifically for representation in the Venice Biennale, and of course it certainly is a good thing considering arts don't get much funding normally, a part of me doesn’t like it as implies territoriality in a way.
Everybody’s has seen the pictures from the large installations of course, the nine themes Macel divided the Arsenale to. Well, what I saw and noticed the most was how much textiles—woven, knit—tapestries and clothes there were. A lot of doability so to speak. And when we last entered what I think was the Albanian pavilion, very much surprised, I blurted out “Oh! It’s all paintings!”
Which brings me to what I think of this biennale: I realize also a big hesitance in criticizing Macel’s work as a curator by many, but all in all I think everyone in the art world seems to think it was not political at a time like this. And that there was no depth to it at all. And while it seems there was no connecting theme I think there was an incredible democracy to the biennale, in that it was not for the art world per se, but for the people, il popolo. I mean, times have changed, art used to be about incredible talent—and it should still be of course—but it used to be that you would be in a church and as you listened to the bible being recited in Latin, a language you didn’t understand, you would see the images of the biblical stories all around and get closer to the creator, to creativity, and get your imagination going.
Petrij Halilaj, Do you realise there is a rainbow even if it's a night?, 2017, Arsenal, 57th Venice Biennale.
But now, there are so many more art forms for storytelling other than painting and sculpture and writing and classical music than before. As well times have changed in such a way that we are not fed information as fact anymore. Instead when you see art now, instead of transporting you to a biblical story about the creation, etc. it should also strike a creative spark in you. It should propel you to do something similar in that vein. Yes, of course there will be art that touches you, that you admire, that is of unbelievable talent, that is mastering a “new”ness. But now there is also a side of contemporary art that should make you go and say “Hey, I can do that” and make you go home and just create something. And it is precisely in this sense that I thought the biennale was more democratic, and for the people. There were a lot of textiles and clothes and it seemed like you said, "Hey, I can do that",or "I can express myself this way too!", and, "Let me go do something with what I wear, let me use this old tapestry and do an installation myself". We want more people admiring art, appreciating art, more people visiting art exhibitions, museums than not, right? I mean I will go to museums no matter what, but how do you bring in those who normally do not? Themes seem to be lost on the general public anyway, so why not just give them something to be inspired by?
Now, I personally do like political art, and I do expect biennales to have a political voice, and now more than ever I guess. But I hear from so many that they don’t like in-your-face political art, because politics now separate us while art should perhaps bring us together. Everywhere we turn is now politics, and this is exactly when we need art. Perhaps to keep our sanity—a respite so to speak. But also, all this political discourse we have at every place and with everyone leads to no productivity, and certainly to no solutions. We just complain, criticize, complain even more, and only to those who have the same opinion as us anyway because we can't convert anybody to our way of thinking at all.
Heidi Bucher, (Strumpfhose) title unknown, Unknown (Unterhose), (Blaues Kleidchen) title unknown, 1978, Arsenal, 57th Venice Biennale.
So perhaps we all need a little inspiration to create; us as minions with no talent to see we too are artists in a way, to see that art is doable—and is democratic. A woman can be rich, and knit and create a dress and a poor Afghan woman who is tortured by the Taliban can do it too. And in both instances each woman can be a part of the creative process and escape from the insanity of all that is going around in their respective countries, doing the very same thing, knitting. Hence we realize there is a democracy through art that also leads to productivity rather than idle talk.
Francis Upritchard, Buey, 2017, Makiko, 2016, Marianne, 2016, Purple and Yellow Diamond, 2016, Men with Octopus, 2017, Octopus with Fish, 2016, Arsenal, 57th Venice Biennale.
It is because of these feelings I experienced while visiting Viva Arte Viva that I thought it was more for the people. But Viva Arte Viva is supposed to be Art for Art’s Sake, an exhibition "designed with artists, by artists, for artists". ButI have to say, when I first heard the title “Viva Arte Viva”, I was reminded of expressions like “Viva Zapata!”, “Viva Las Vegas”, “Vive la Révolution”. I'd thought that “Viva Arte Viva”, meant “Long Live Living/Alive Art” and thought it would be about art being above politics and nationalities and nationalism at a time post Brexit, post the election of Trump when nationalism has a resurgence everywhere and division instead of unity seems to be the norm. Also, the region of Veneto--of which Venice is in--has been holding referenda for separation from Italy (the most recent this last October as the biennale was taking place in which unofficially more than 60 percent voted yes for autonomy).
Then it came to me: Resurgence in Italian is Risorgimento. And thus thought of Viva VERDI. Well everyone knows how territorial Italians are compared to any of the other European countries. Italians usually would say which city they are from rather than emphasize their "Italian"ness. And it all began with the Risorgimento movement after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and then ended in 1871 when Italy was unified under one country with Rome as its capital. (And doesn’t Risorgimento sound like Rinascimento, the Italian for Renaissance, Re-birth?) During this period, Viva VERDI was the slogan of a unified Italy. Yes, Verdi, just like the composer Guiseppe Verdi, who wanted a unified Italy, but in fact here, Viva VERDI, meant “VIVA Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia”, because at that point in time, single Italy could only have been founded under the King Vittorio Emanuele II. Yet people had to use the acronym and gave the impression they meant "Long Live Guiseppe Verdi" so as not be ousted or discriminated or prosecuted for their political views.
I will be the first to admit that I am an over-thinker, but perhaps Viva Arte Viva is political in a way that is subtle, in a way that is not in your face. In a way you say Viva Verdi, but it’s not really about Verdi, whose operas are seen so above nationalism they are performed the whole world over. Because on one side we have a post-nationalistic outlook on the art world where everyone is connected, and then on the other a biennale space with different pavilions and countries vying to be the best and compete with one another, a separateness that has a unifying theme at the same time. I would like to think that Christine Macel, whose mother was a History teacher, perhaps thought this way. Viva Popolo..