Project Impossible
Maija Rudovska, Art Critic, Curator
Afterthoughts on the 55th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale
The 55th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale with its pragmatic title of The Encyclopedic Palace requires a clear head and cool heart. I say this partially with irony, because in such a contradictory exhibition as this it is impossible to comprehend and experience everything as one totality, and consequently to evalu- ate it. In the countless receptions, parties, bars, exhibitions, performances, and simply in the seen and the heard, it is easy to become confused and lose yourself – all of it together unavoidably creates a collage of impressions that for each visitor to the Venice Biennale is his or her own and unique. Although it is not an event where to seek the latest, freshest and most inspiring trends in contemporary art, but rather established praxes and phenomena, mainstream and institutionalised art, and numerous unsuccessful and poorly created exhibitions, there are, however, also countless pearls that would not be possible to find and see anywhere else.

To all those involved with art, it is fairly clear that the Venice Biennale is the “Eurovision” of the art milieu, a huge art fair where each and every one is showing themselves at their best, and every time this event grows in volume, becoming overwhelming, with quantity dominating over quality (this year 88 countries are par- ticipating, from which 10 are total newcomers). Very shortly after the opening, various opinions were expressed in numerous blogs, websites, newspapers and other media, describing the Biennale as “sombre and provocative”1, an “alluring warren”2 or “magisterial and elegantly provocative”.3 Yet, irrespective of the contradictory stand- points, for many countries the Venice Biennale has for a long time been one of the most important points of reference for manifesting and acknowledging their national identity in an international envi- ronment. The institutions representing the national pavilions in Venice try their best to justify the hopes and funding provided by the ministries of culture or other equally important governmental organisations to advertise their countries. As proved by the strategy of Latvia’s pavilion this year, the issue of nationalism / nationality has also been placed above everything else.

In comparison with other international contemporary art ex­ hibitions, the Venice Biennale is to some degree unique: it consists of both the national pavilion expositions and an exhibition organised by the invited chief curator – this year, the Italian curator Massimiliano Gioni. The principle of the national pavilions stretches back like a tail to the late 19th century, when the first Biennale took place in 1895 – a typical international exhibition based on the foundations of the industrialism and capitalism that were at the time cultivat- ing modernism in the Western world. The national pavilions were located in the so­called Giardini, the Arsenale and elsewhere in the city, whereas the exhibition of the chief curator took up the greater part of the Arsenale and the main pavilion in the Giardini. In fact, the Venice Biennale includes many failures, because it is clear that the pavilions whose content and form are organised by each country according to its own understanding and abilities, provide an unpredictable mix of art where the wheat must be sifted from the chaff. However, taking part offers an opportunity to compete with all participating countries on equal terms, thus any one can poten- tially break through and become noticed. This was well illustrated by the winner of the Golden Lion this year – the pavilion of Angola. The country took part in the Biennale for the first time, however, it resonated with the jury with the simple concept – “naïve dualism”4, exhibiting take­away posters with photographs by Edson Chagas featuring street views of Luanda, the capital of Angola, in the premises of Palazzo Cini, among the works of such Renaissance classics as Botticelli, Filippo Lippi and Fra Angelico.

New discoveries and the same old mistakes?

The exhibition The Encyclopedic Palace at its very root encompasses the concept of impossibility, and even utopia. Curator Massimil- iano Gioni has taken the project Encyclopedic Palace of the World by the American autodidact artist of Italian origin, Marino Auriti, as the source of inspiration. Auriti’s intention was to create an imaginary museum that would comprise the knowledge of the entire world, gathering together in the one place the greatest achievements of humanity. He worked on the project for three years, patenting it in 1955. The model of the museum is an approximately 700 metres high, 136­-storey neo­classicist building, with the planned location in Washington, D.C. In height, the building would have exceeded grand projects conceived during the modernist utopian era such as Albert Speer’s Great Hall with its huge dome in Berlin, or the nearly 500 metres high Palace of Soviets by Boris Iofan (Борис Иофaн) in Moscow.
Marino Auriti. Encyclopedic Palace of the Worl (1950). View from the 55th International Art Exhibition of Venice Biennale at the Arsenale
Photo: Francesco Galli. Publicity photo
Courtesy of the la Biennale di Venezia
The authentic model made by Auriti serves as an introduction to the The Encyclopedic Palace at the Arsenale, imbuing a feeling of impossibility or utopia throughout the entire exhibition that contin- ues beyond the walls of the exhibition hall. Although, it seems, this could be an imperceptible impulse in the direction of the elusiveness of contemporary art (when there is too much of everything and it is impossible to catch any concrete trends, because at the next moment they are already outdated), the exhibition moves far more directly towards an imitation of an encyclopaedia, or a certain kind of mapping, where an attempt has been made to draw attention to things that so far have escaped the notice of the Western world and its can- ons of art history. Gioni emphasises: “Blurring the line between professional artists and amateurs, outsiders and insiders, the exhibition takes an anthropological approach to the study of images, focussing in particular on the realms of the imaginary and the functions of the imagination.”5

Particular attention has been paid to highlighting marginalised and peripheral practices and artists, and to bringing them into the general composition of the exhibition. The period when the authors were active covers both modernism – the beginning of the 20th century, as well as post­modernism, especially the time when minimalism and conceptualism emerged, opening up a different perspective on art history. Objects made by the mentally ill Arthur Bispo do Rosário in preparation for Judgement Day, the entertaining hybrid figurines of animals made by Levi Fisher Ames, or anonymous tantric paintings were exhibited next to the works of stars of the mo­ment such as Tino Segal, Hito Steyerl, Cindy Sherman, Matt Mullican, Steve McQueen, Ragnar Kjartansson and others. Backstage, though, I heard somebody saying that some artists were shocked about this kind of gesture – can anonymous tantric paintings from India be regarded as contemporary art? As noted by critic Dan Fox, for a cer- tain proportion of VIP attendees during the opening week “contemporary discourse” was a code for “recognisable names” or “what col­ lectors are buying”.6 Sam Thorne, on the other hand, in his review on the Arsenale exhibition wrote that “Gioni has ...suggested that he’d like to conceive of his exhibition as a temporary museum, rather than a show that ‘captures the supposed zeitgeist’”.7

Evidently, the abolition of hierarchies among the still prevailing conservative views of what is and what is not art, as well as what is good and bad art, by positioning crafts on a lower level than, for example, video art, or positioning art made as a result of collective practice lower than a single author’s work with a signature, is very healthy and necessary. The exhibition curated by Gioni offers wide­ ranging and exciting material: many artefacts and objects, archival material and things that you would have never seen or known of, are taken out of their local contexts, specific circumstances of origin and the places where they have lived their lives so far.

Yet at the same time I would not like to define this exhibition as the rewriting of art history, because with this several problems surface. Firstly, the superior colonialist streak of the West is still present, and even rather obtrusive. Here, most likely, it is the manner of exhibition that should be blamed, “throwing it all out on the table” as a puzzle and thus avoiding purposeful structuring or positioning of the works to be viewed, as well as additional explanation. It constantly felt like some kind of an illustrative encyclopaedia revealing the principles of evolution. Secondly, without contextualising material that includes a lot of art about which people “brainwashed” into the Western canon haven’t had a clue until now, the authors of works remain as oddities, outsiders, dilettantes and unsanctioned artists, who, due to various circumstances and mostly the leading discourses of art history, institutional approaches, preservation or other reasons, so far have been unknown to the majority of viewers. The exhibition does not attempt to reveal the existing models and situations, it does not move around the focus and emphasis, it does not ask uncomfortable questions. Instead, it simply puts on display, to some degree repeating a once cultivated practice of colonialism: it uproots objects, phenomena and praxes from their established contexts, arranges everything in new combinations, and presents them as special treasures in a Cabinets of Curiosities kind of setting, and by the creation of this microcosm speaks about the creator’s power and control.

In Gioni’s exhibition (and especially in the main pavilion in the Giardini) there were to be seen a great many works created through esoteric practices or as a result of an interest in the esoteric, marking a popular tendency in contemporary art for an uncritical enthusi- asm for the unexplainable, mystical, supernatural and mysterious. For example, the abstract paintings of Hilma af Klint, who practises occultism, Rudolf Steiner’s visualisations, Emma Kunz’s geometric drawings that have been used for treatment purposes, Guo Fengyi’s works created under the influence of the Chinese spiritual practice Qigong, and others.

In general, the exhibition curated by Gioni is formalistic, and it has avoided dealing with socio­political aspects – the “hot” issues that are usually included en masse and tackled in other international exhibitions. Such a choice makes one wonder – why. The riots in Istanbul that started at the same time as the opening events of the Biennale highlighted this aspect. To my mind, an excellent gesture in this direction was the photograph of Tilda Swinton shared on Facebook, where she is pictured standing in St Mark’s square hold- ing a paper sheet saying: “June 1st, 2013, Dear citizens of the world, right now police is violently attacking citizens that are protesting the government in Istanbul.”8

Starched Latvian art

The fortune and at the same time the opportunity of the Latvian pavilion at this Venice Biennale lies in its ideal location – at the Ar- senale, where the exhibition North by Northeast has found its place in one of the rooms at the far end, thus as if concluding the general architectonic horizontal of The Encyclopedic Palace. This year, the institutional reins of the Latvian exposition were taken by kim? Contemporary Art Centre and the New York art institution Art in General, whereas the conceptual role – by curators Alise Tīfentāle, Anne Barlow and Courtney Finn.
Kaspars Podnieks, Krišs Salmanis. North by Northeast. View from the Latvian exposition at the 55th International Art Exhibition of Venice Biennale. 2013
Photo: Valts Kleins. Publicity photos
Courtesy of the artists and kim? Contemporary Art Centre
The upside­down, dead tree of Krišs Salmanis that is attached to the ceiling by its roots slowly rocks above the heads of viewers, and for a taller visitor may even be a bit threatening. This forms the dynamic point of the exhibition, whereas the people standing in the air as portrayed in Kaspars Podnieks’ photographs and video works make the static part. Several hours after opening the Latvian pavilion, I happened to be standing next to Orlan, who was discussing the technical side of Podnieks’ works with her companion, thinking, of course, that there was some kind of digital trick that made those country folk stand in the air, with a cow meanwhile walking beneath them. As a student, I too wondered at a photograph made by Kaspars showing a painted tree, thinking at first that it had been digitally processed.

Nils Sakss in his essay ‘Just Above the Ground’ included in the catalogue made for the Latvian exposition beautifully tells the story of the creation process of Podnieks’ works – how the rural inhabitants in Drusti on a cold winter’s day were lifted up in the air, how the cow refused to walk underneath, and so forth. It is an event that reveals not the art of Podnieks, but rather the country environment and its people, thanks to whom this art was made – the local and the specific that the exposition had apparently intended to reveal, and would provide added value.

Before the opening of the Latvian exhibition, the curators and institutions, when advertising their achievement in the media, often indicated that Latvia’s task in Venice is to inform about the local, the specific and the characteristic, about Latvian identity and uniqueness. In a way, the title North by Northeast points to some kind of a special periphery from which Latvian art has emerged, already marginalising and turning it into the exotic at the conceptualisation stage. But what then are the special and unique qualities characterising our identity? Is it the landscape? Nature? The rural environment? Trees?

In the works of both artists nature is present and important, however, here in the context of the Venice Biennale it is more as a background or motivation for creating a feeling of “Latvianness”. Surely everyone knows that we are not unique or special, because some artists in their works use nature as a motif, conversation partner or grounds for conveying a message about something else. And it is not the presence of nature that is the most essential in the context of this exposition, although the poetic qualities of nature, especially trees, coincidentally do play an important role in this year’s Biennale in several pavilions, for instance, in those of Denmark, Finland, Germany and others. The slow repetition of the mechanical movements of Salmanis’ upside­down tree, dissonat- ing with the nature of the tree – usually a living and pulsating organism, give rise to a feeling of discomfort, indicating to a certain clumsiness. This stiffness is also evident in Podnieks’ works – “the extraordinary bodily experience causes a somewhat shifted state of consciousness that is revealed in the facial expressions and body language of the peasants as certain stiffness and the atmosphere of intense concentration, which add to the generally uncanny impact of photographs.”9 Do all these variations of feelings create connotations about the indistinctiveness of identity, a kind of covertness and reluctance to reveal? In her article ‘What is it that makes Latvian art so different, so Latvian?’, Alise Tīfentāle explains it as a position of looking for identity, the locally familiar, but in an international en- vironment, unfortunately, the avoidance of potential confrontation with any socio­political or ideological context is alien.10 Most likely, the problem does not lie in the mysteriousness, but is due to a certain stiffness. How do Latvians look on the international scene? As if attending a photographer’s studio for the first time. And – completely frankly – the stiffness is intensified by bringing to the foreground the issue of nationalism and identity. Currently in the art world, the ability to express emotions and feelings, to be free, impulsive, open­minded, to know how to engage and to become involved, are all highly regarded, and this, in my opinion, is still a problem when exhibiting art from Latvia. When on several levels – institutionally, organisationally and among the artists themselves – this is overcome, there will be the possibility, I think, of attaining far more recognition and attention internationally, similarly to the way that Angola managed to do this year without any undue stress, or Lithuania is able to achieve in playful manner.

Translation into English: Laine Kristberga

1 Laura Cumming the 55th Venice Biennale – review. At: artanddesign/2013/jun/02/55th-venice-biennale-review (accessed on 14.06.2013)
2 Filipa Ramos Venice Biennale Offsite and Museums. At: reviews/venice-biennale-off-site-and-museums/ (accessed on 14.06.2013)
3 Sam Thorne the 55th Venice Biennale: the Arsenale. At: venice-biennale-the-arsenale/ (accessed on 14.06.2013)
4 Filipa Ramos Venice Biennale Offsite and Museums
5 The Encyclopedic Palace: Short Guide. Venice: Marsilio, 2013, p. 18.
6 Dan Fox the 55th Venice Biennale: Afterthoughts. At: (accessed on 14.06.2013)
7 Sam Thorne the 55th Venice Biennale: the Arsenale.
8 See image: http: // 9 Tīfentāle, Alise. What is it that makes Latvian art so different, so Latvian? From: North by Northeast. Kaspars Podnieks. Krišs Salmanis. Riga: kim? Contemporary Art Centre, 2013, p. 193
10 Ibid, p. 188
go back