On the Travails of the Plains
A tour of the Venice Biennale

It was not supposed to be a political manifesto. Christine Macel, the artistic director of this year’s Venice Biennale, wanted to celebrate the freedom and creativity of art. “Viva Arte Viva” is the motto of her prinicipal exhibition. But how was this achieved? What contributions did artists from the Deutsche Bank Collection like Olafur Eliasson,  Anri Sala, or Kader Attia make? And how does art deal with current realities? Brigitte Werneburg had a look around.
Time is the most important thing visitors needed to bring with them to this year’s Venice Biennale. The daily live dance performance, which is a major part of Faust, is five hours long. That was the title of Anne Imhof’s installation at the German Pavilion, which was awarded the Golden Lion on the opening day of the Biennale. The project initiated by Mark Bradford, an artist featured in the U.S. Pavilion in Venice, will last a total of six years. Together with the nonprofit Venetian organization Rio Terà dei Pensieri, he developed a program whose aim is to re-socialize former prison inmates.

The thirty minutes during which visitors have no possibility to escape the abysmal darkness in the Danish Pavilion, in a project created by Kirstine Roepstorff, seems like nothing in comparison. Only occasionally does the Danish artist illuminate her Theater of Glowing Darkness with lights. At times they buzz through the space like a swarm of flies, at others they glow softly. Yet this half hour is long, too. In an age in which we are inundated with social contacts and media stimulation, when everything has to be “brought to light,” Roepstorff celebrates darkness as a means of renewal. Three disembodied voices teach us about the creative power of the dark, and that it is not the annoyance it seems to be. We find out that the voices belong to a black river, a midwife, and a seed. Unfortunately, we are locked in and cannot evade their monologues.

So after a visit to the theater we have no patience for the gardens, which loom before us in the pavilion, from which Roepstorff removed the windows and in part also the walls. This work and the carpet Renaissance of the Night, which measures seven-and-a-half by two-and-a-half meters, have the same vibrant energy that the artist, born in Copenhagen in 1972, shows in her complex material collages, her central medium.

And one needs a lot of time right at the beginning of Christine Macel’s Viva Arte Viva exhibition at the Giardini Central Pavilion. There, Roepstorff’s compatriot Olafur Eliasson invites visitors to take part in a Green Light workshop where they can build modular lamps that glow green. People of all ages, genders, and skin colors tinker happily in the shared learning project. In fact, these trainees are people who came to Italy across the Mediterranean, refugees and migrants who live in Venice or have applied for asylum. Eliasson’s project enables them to do something different than simply waiting. They can learn languages and meet people. Once a week, a team of Venetian lawyers comes to the workshop and explains their status and rights to them. And the team gives them individual legal advice and support.

Hence Green Light, supported by the Vienna-based foundation Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21), which with the project is publicly expressing its rejection of Austrian refugee policy, shows how one can use the means of a welfare and constitutional state to oppose a policy that seeks to define this kind of state as one that benefits a privileged few. “The travails of the mountains lie behind us, before us lie the travails of the plains,” Bertolt Brecht wrote 1949 in his poem Observation, referring to the efforts needed to build a new society in order “to learn the lessons of history.” The international star artist Eliasson is ridiculed for precisely such “travails of the plains.” He even has been reproached for exploiting refugees. Anne Imhof skips the plains and aims for the top. She is more transcendent, ambiguous, and overwhelming than Eliasson. She goes the whole hog.  

And won by doing so. The candidate for the Golden Lion for the best national contribution at the beginning of opening week became the winner on Saturday. Like many of her predecessors the artist, born in Gießen, Germany, in 1978, intervenes in the pavilion’s architecture. With glass installations, she makes the German House disappear in a subtle way yet keeps it present in memory. Particularly spectacular is the glass floor suspended half a meter above the actual flooring. Walking on it is precarious and literally prompts reflection.

Ambiguous would be the appropriate term, if it didn’t become obsolete as soon as one recognizes the ideas and concepts that hold together the interaction between painting, installation, performance, and sound in Faust. The wakeup call is the barking of the Doberman pinchers in the enclosed steel kennels to the right and left of the main entrance. This makes it clear that the glass does not stand for democratic transparency, but is the bulletproof glass of the control centers of power.

The dancers to whom Anne Imhof delegates her performance are “bodily material permeated by invisible power structures,” as Susanne Pfeffer, the director of the museum Fridericianum in Kassel and the curator of the pavilion, writes. You don’t have to watch for five hours to get a sense that bodies come together repeatedly in compressed, often “brutal” images. Despite their seeming composure, their seeming pain, they are not “reduced to the naked body,” as Susanne Pfeffer explains to the audience. To find out what they really mean, the audience as to ask Olafur Eliasson’s tinkerers, who are saved by sinking dinghies.

To escape this allegorical exaggeration, one can take a walk into the city, to the Ukrainian Pavilion, where Boris Mikhailov engages with the Parliament, as he calls his brilliant series of current photographic observations. The series shows rows of parliamentarians behind one another in blurred television images: deformed faces and bodies behind the lectern reminiscent of Francis Bacon figures in which the 78-year-old photographer himself sees a media collision of Cubism and Suprematism. The distortion that Mikhailov creates by manipulating the antenna makes the figures seem at a distance from the political agenda. Yet this critical skepticism vis-à-vis politics and media society does not chime with the claim made by the makers of Faust: “In capitalism the rule of money is absolute.”

Then every speech in parliament, ever court decision, and every artwork at the Biennale would be only decorative ruffling of the surface. This Austrian Pavilion can be accused of this. At first glance, Brigitte Kowanz’ light installations and Erwin Wurm’s performative One Minute Sculptures, of which the truck visible from afar, standing on its hood, and converted into an observation tower, is the most spectacular, seem to there only for the effect. But Kowanz’ use of light as a real and space-creating medium and information carrier appeals to our curiosity, our knowledge, and our lust for thinking. And the way that Wurm, who is also represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, turns the human body and its utterly impossible interactions with moving and moving goods into sculpture certainly addresses essential aspects of our experience of the world, including our play instinct, experimental zeal, and willingness to cooperate.

“Art per se, as a manifestation of freedom, of creativity in relation to people, is highly political, not party political. But art in a free, purely aesthetic space has never existed for me, not even in history,” says Franz Erhard Walther, the winner of the Golden Lion for the best artist, who is also represented with his works in the Deutsche Bank Collection. Viewers were supposed to, and permitted to, cooperate with him back in 1963, in his 1. Werksatz, whose 58 objects made of cotton and foam, wood and other materials they were supposed to slip into or simply impose themselves on. At the age of 77, the founding father of participatory art is represented at the Biennale for the first time. And in his contribution the whole wretched business of Macel’s Viva Art Viva exhibition promptly becomes apparent. He cannot have received the Golden Lion for his wall formations, as feebly as his large fabric works in bright red and yellow hang on the wall. And nothing suggests that they seek to transform. There wouldn’t be any room for this anyway, as it is occupied by the pastel balls in Martin Coriano’s wooden maze.

There is a dearth of space everywhere. The works and the artists in the central exhibition of the Biennale are crowded together so much that this belies Macel’s motto of wanting to celebrate art and artists. Perhaps she arranged her show in this way to rehash in detail an exhibition she had already divided into pavilions of joy and fear, of artists and books, of common goods, of the soil, traditions, shamans, colors, time, and endlessness. That’s why Frances Stark’s great collage Behold Man! (2013), which shows the artist resting on the sofa of her studio, is in close proximity to a section whose motif is the sleeping artist. Not even Franz West, with his extolment of idleness, comes away unscathed in this thicket. And then it’s the turn of the artists who deal with books.

It is in keeping with this didacticism that as soon as one steps into the Arsenale one feels like one has entered an arts and crafts course. The Biennale has not shown so many embroidered works, textiles, and carpets for a long time. In every pavilion. Only a few artists can withstand this reduction of their art to content and motives. But how do the artists from the Deutsche Bank Collection fare? Let’s look at Anri Sala. He successfully evades this strategy with unaccustomed minimalist effort. For All of a Tremble (Encounter I) (2017), he created a mixture of a print roller and a music barrel. As though moved by an invisible hand, the musical cylinder rolls over a wallpapered wall, and with every turn leaves behind abstract patterns and sounds like those from a music box, transforming the space into a sound sculpture. Kader Attia also captures our attention, thanks to siren song. The beguiling images of oriental divas like Samia Gamal and Warda al-Jazairia are part of an artistic research project on the social power of the voice in Arab culture.

But there are also outstanding works that are more tangible. Given all of the textile creations that fill the Arsenale, it is astonishing that the oversized lengths of material that Petrit Halilaj's sewed together with his mother using traditional Kosovar fabrics stand out. A closer look reveals that they are giant moths that stick to the ceiling; one specimen is already lying dead on the floor. Even as a child Halijaj, whose works are included in the Deutsche Bank Collection, was fascinated by moths. In the Arsenale, he transformed this obsession into an impressive cycle on creation and decay, which convinced the Biennale’s international jury, earning him an honorable mention. But the quilt-like textile wall reliefs that the Moroccan Achraf Touloub weighted down and painted with steel chains are unfortunately hung on the side of the packed-full Arsenale. 

Koki Tanaka, Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” 2015 and a man of social experiments, is better off when he, for example, has nine hairdressers working over one customer. He was able to embed the video documentation Of Walking in Unknown (2017) in a closed-off installation. In front of a photo wallpaper of a tunnel, visitors can finally sit down, on rudimentary wooden chairs, and accompany Tanaka on his four-day march from his home city Kyoto to the closest nuclear power plant. Following the Fukushima disaster, Tanaka clearly suggests, the path leads to uncertainty. And for a moment it dawns on one that, just as all the knitted, tatted, and woven works here at the Biennale are human made, so are the catastrophes of the world.