DEAD OR ALIVE
The Performance Arcade Director
reviews the 2017 Venice Biennale
Viva Arte Viva is the title of this year’s 57th Venice Biennale. ‘Viva’ is the imperative form of the verb ‘live!’, producing a call to action and call to life. Despite its duplicity in an English translation, ‘viva’ cannot be confused with a state of liveness and of ‘being live’ (on stage, to air, online). The correct Italian term here is ‘dal vivo’.
Through a misreading of this title I arrived at the Biennale expecting it to be brimming with performativity, liveness, and volatile, edgy encounters with artists’ bodies and installations. We headed straight for the German exhibit, and Anne Imhof’s much hyped work Faust. As we arrived, we passed a performer exiting the space with a duffel-bag over her shoulder. A Doberman in a fenced courtyard watched her leave. Inside this uncompromising sterile space, the visitors walk on a glass floor suspended about a metre above the white marble floor. It is precise and clinical. If we come at the right times we will see the performers moving under there. There is evidence of this – soap, charcoal, greasy skin, water, and other materials had smudged the pristine painted walls, glass floor, and walkways of the space. Here and there the traces of performance and action remain, emphasising precarity, provisionality, and temporality…
IMAGE SOURCE: http://moussemagazine.it/anne-imhof-faust-german-pavilion-venice-biennale-2017/
But we have missed it. I am told the performance only happens once a day. Despite the beauty of the space and the traces left behind, I am left with a feeling that my experience was secondary to that of the actual performance, and secondary to the giddy online accounts written by those who saw the work when it opened. Now it just seems tired and perfunctory. The work has not gone the distance. It could be critiquing the needs of contemporary audiences for immediate satisfaction and return on their investment. But it isn’t. It just seems that having one performance a day was a pragmatic solution to the problem of presenting a live art work in an exhibition that needs to be open for 6 months.
Precarity, provisionality, temporality… these are all popular catchwords in the art world today. Perhaps their prevalence are signs of resistance: a rejection by artists of the well done, the finished product, and a rebellion against the marketable neo-liberal fusion of art with commerce? Ironically, this aesthetic seems more and more familiar to marketing and high fashion, suggesting a new gentrification of the provisional.
Elsewhere, the Danish pavilion manages to produce performances more often, and passing through the beautiful and beguiling French pavilion it seems that a strange orchestra of instruments were being prepared for some kind of performance. But it is all so dead and anodyne, making it hard to linger with one work for too long. The provisionality of many works led to a kind of exclusivity and stasis. Some works attempt inclusivity, but seem to miss the mark. Olafur Eliasson’s Green Light workshop seemed like a meeting space set up for a trendy group of young thought-leaders who were off elsewhere changing the world. Reading about the work, I discover that it is a programme designed for asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants – learning to build lights made from recycled and sustainable materials. It sounds like a nice idea, but catching the night train from Venice to Naples later that I night I become an observer of the real issues facing the communities that Eliasson purports to be servicing. For three hours of the ride between Venice and Padova a battle of wits played out around us between twenty or so African immigrants, Roma gypsies, and Middle Eastern travellers, and the ticket-takers. Often a family will buy one ticket between four or five, then the mother will sit in that seat with a child on her lap while the others take nearby seats, hide in the toilets, or wait in the compartment between carriages. The individual in the seat will kick up a fuss with the ticket-taker, so that others can move up the train and avoid being detected. Every night across Europe this other class of people are travelling, trying to make better lives for themselves in new places. Maybe building a green light makes a difference for them, and maybe it does help bring them into the communities where they finally settle. It’s possible. I hope so.
The exterior of the United States pavilion is a classic piece US diplomatic architecture. On the outside, roman pillars hold up a triangular pediment with red brickwork between. The two wings of this miniature White House forms a natural windtrap for Illy coffee cups and other food rubbish that has been blown here. Unplanned, these elements seem more provisional than the painstakingly considered smudges and marks left on the glass by Imhof’s performer. Inside, Mark Bradford’s abstract expressionist works for Tomorrow is Another Day are alive and threatening, with crude sculptures dominating many of the rooms with their giant shapes. In the first, a bulge droops from the ceiling – a black tarry organ swollen so large in the space that we must skirt around it to reach the other room. In the third space, a similar material has wrapped the cupola and its white walls with a black papier-mache covering, swirling around the dome in great concentric circles of material - only interrupted by one of the venue security cameras with its unblinking red light and glassy black eye of the lens. Despite their abstract qualities, these ominous constructions seem alive to the now, reflecting on the ghastly face and textures of imperialism that combines classical forms with writhing discomfort, obese sculptural forms, the threat of collapse, and ubiquitous shit.
The New Zealand exhibit Emissaries by Lisa Reihana is excellent – a slow diorama of images that scroll past us in an unfolding tale of Pacific peoples and their first encounters with Western settlement. It is panoramic cinema at its best, and we stay here the longest – watching the slow wallpaper of colonialism sweep through a wallpaper of Pacific tropes. It is spellbinding. On the whole these works in the Arsenale are stronger, less self-conscious, and simply more interesting. Yee Sookyung’s Nine Dragons in Wonderland is a towering edifice of broken china, meticulously fused with golden glue – a monstrous baroque organism with edges that break into delicate fractal shapes and fragments of the familiar. Equally fascinating are Kananginak Pootoogook’s gorgeous drawings of Inuit hunting life. Guan Xiao’s hilarious video work David (about Michelangelo’s statue of David) pokes fun at the touristic arcades of Rome that we are almost inured to. Liliana Porter’s El hombre con el hacha y otras situaciones breves uses miniature figures and found materials in a wonderfully intricate three-dimensional diorama that resonates well with Reihana’s exhibit.
Perhaps these examples are what Venice Biennale does best. A six-month exhibition is too long for live art forms, and the current curatorial format needs to evolve if it is going to embrace performance and temporality successfully. Interestingly, Tehching Hsieh’s exhibition Slow and Steady in Venice coincides with this Biennale, and even his title alone provides some guidance for the artists like Imhof, who seem unable to work with the extended duration of the six-month format. There are critical effects on performance practice to consider when the artist moves beyond using their own body as Imhof does. Dawn Kaspar’s energetic occupation of her space and work (The Sun, The Moon, and The Stars) in the Giardini is not possible with second parties. On this matter, and in many other scenarios I can recognise an uncomfortable relationship with theatre that seems unreconciled and curatorially illiterate with the dynamics and subtleties of performance. Kaspar’s work is well judged, at least for the time that I passed through the exhibit. But in other cases (like Imhof’s awkward performance schedule) there is an overt theatricality, or vacuous lack of it that many works seem to stumble over. For example, the Danish exhibit influenza. theatre of glowing darkness probably shows where theatricality can go wrong in this context, with overdone declamatory voices and overdone scripting completely destroying the work. On the other hand we have the Uruguayan exhibit, which craves some kind of performative soul. Mario Sagradini The Law of the Funnel features a beautifully constructed timber platform and stage, based on traditional cattle-pen architecture: an intriguing construction that speaks wonderfully of power structures and architectural systems of control. It is intriguing, but also somewhat mute and unproductive. Unlike Bradford’s pieces in the US exhibit, the work sits tidily in the centre of the space. It is self-contained, and well-behaved. Moreover, as a visitor I find the resonance and ideas in the work are uncovered through a perfunctory exploration of the space, and a quick glance over the explanatory text. But what next? – and so what?
The title of the Biennale this year reads like a call to life and a call to action, but instead much of the work seems sterile and lifeless. Many works feel like a wonderful set design or performance installation – but lack a presence other than that of the audience. Where are the Vito Acconci’s? (that burrowing, fertile presence behind the walls and floors of the art world). Where are the Tehching Hsieh’s? (that master of patience, endurance, and time). And where are the Valie Exports? (the shocking gaze of the artwork back at us)? Instead, passive or mute exchanges seem to prevail that make these works seem more like ‘arty’ commercials or fashion editorials. It is vain. So when a performer crawls under the glass floor below us it becomes a titillating spectacle for the tidy theatrical interlude of one hour, once a day. Then the performer/star throws a bag over their shoulder and exits stage right for a spritz on the Grand Canal.
Viva arte viva begins to sound less like a call to action, and more like a slogan.