Exhibitions Fairs Venice Biennale Italy

Reading the great Venetian encyclopaedia

The verdict on Massimiliano Gioni’s biennale

Roberto Cuoghi, Belinda, 2013

Massimiliano Gioni’s exhibition for the Venice Biennale, “The Encyclopaedic Palace”, takes its title from the self-taught American artist Marino Auriti’s unrealised plan to construct a giant museum to house all of mankind’s great discoveries and inventions, and a model of this towering 136 story structure ushers in the Arsenale section of the show. Gioni’s vision echoes this omnivorous ambition by bringing together more than 150 artists from 37 countries and spanning from the 19th century to the present day, including a large number of untrained so-called “outsider” artists, as well as an array of historical artefacts, found objects and even a collection of mineral specimens, in order, as he puts it, “to explore the quest for an absolute knowledge that eventually becomes a kind of delirium of the imagination”. The Art Newspaper asked leading art world figures for their response to the exhibition in the Giardini and the Arsenale (until 24 November).

Chris Dercon, director, Tate Modern, London

I was astonished and fascinated by the belief that the crisis of art as commodity can be saved by looking back to Art Brut and that Art Brut is going to save us all. But what we saw was very much an Art Brut of the past and I would really have liked to have seen the Art Brut of today, as I know that there are many contemporary examples. My problem is not so much with the archive and the encyclopaedia; but with the way in which, because of all these new machines that are searching and archiving for us, we live constantly in the present. So I would like to have a tool to learn how to forget, because only when we are able to forget can we start to remember and order again. That said, I was happy to see a lot of art by strong women: especially Carol Rama and the Chinese wonder woman Guo Fengyi in combination with Maria Lassnig, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and the fantastic Marisa Merz. I was also pleased by the Angola Pavilion, which I think rightly won [the Golden Lion for best pavilion]; but for me the best pavilion was Carlo Scarpa’s renovated Negozio Olivetti curated by Armin Linke in Piazza San Marco.

Beatrix Ruf, director, Kunsthalle Zurich

In general it was an impressive and coherent show with so much work you could spend encyclopedic amounts of time in there. I think that, at a time when the generation of now is indulging in deep knowledge through the internet the idea of the encyclopaedic ties in to the reality we are living in and then takes a totally different approach by looking at the marginal, the untaught and the so-called “outsider”. It also brings up the question of whether the encyclopaedic is really an idea of the wunderkammer or whether it is more tied to Modernism and Enlightenment ideas and a scientific approach, but I would have liked a moving away from the series and an archival listing and more of a statement about why choices were made. I think it feels like a continuation and extension of Massimilano’s Gwangju biennale, albeit with a different focus, and that’s a positive! I also thought the “When Attitudes Become Form” remake at the Prada Foundation was really incredible to see: this show is such a myth and it ties into the desire of younger generations of artists to really know in depth about the historical background and to have a totally different view back into the canon.

Donna De Salvo, chief curator, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

For me the Encyclopaedic Palace was about both the impossibility of telling any complete story of where we are now and the possibilities to be discovered. The Giardini was a meditation, while the Arsenale teased out contradictions. There’s always a desire to luxuriate in those magical works that take us somewhere else—a kind of mental sabbatical—but I also looked for those moments that brought us back to now, however complex, confusing, and disturbing. One piece that summed up so much was “Suddenly this Overview”, the series of 180 clay sculptures by Fischli and Weiss. It spoke to the nature of human subjectivity and the particular time in which we live, from a post-coital Mr and Mrs Einstein shortly after conceiving their genius son Albert, to the history of the potato’s arrival in Europe. This work became my compass through the different aspects of the exhibition. I was very taken with Cindy Sherman’s installation and absolutely mesmerised by Sharon Hayes’ video of students whose opinions on feminism she canvassed. Massimiliano’s installation was sensitive and gave each work its due—it should be seamless and invisible, and it was, but as a curator, it didn’t escape my eye.

Okwui Enwezor, director, Haus der Kunst, Munich

I was excited about the premise of this show but in many ways the outcome did not fully realise the initial promise. Walking through, I constantly asked myself, what if we replaced the term art with invention? Because the entire history of human existence has been about invention, regardless of which part of the world you go to, my instinct tells me that we would have a different kind of show, with more contributors spread across the world. This is what would have been appealing about the Encyclopaedic Palace. But instead the exhibition retreated back into an historical past situated squarely in the West with an absence of the rest of the world in the bulk of the works presented. For me the Arsenale was the most successful part, with younger artists grappling with different notions of the time [and] arcane scientific and vernacular knowledge, with creation myths jostling with the inventions and chaos of artists’ daydreams. There were some very beautiful moments with Camille Henrot, Neil Beloufa’s film in Mali and Steve McQueen’s film about the Nasa time capsule. In order to appreciate what the imagination is able to create, you have to have an intelligent realisation of the present.

Kasper König, independent curator

The problem I have is a tendency of big exhibitions of the last 20 years or so: it is too inflationary and too large. It is a third too big and can be everything to everybody and not antagonise anyone. The encyclopaedia idea is a good change for the Venice Biennale, but it could have been more careful, and I felt that the selection was done in rather a two-dimensional way—it was more like a scrap book. It was shot from the hip, happy-go-lucky and in some cases just hip—but that I enjoyed. Sometimes there was good work and there were very good artists, but the contextualisation was often absent. I enjoyed the films made on mobile phones by college kids in America; from a sociological point of view, they were fantastic, but as art, really not so interesting. And even though Tino Sehgal is an interesting artist, his performance with the Rudolf Steiner drawings was too hysterical for my taste. However I loved the Romanian pavilion, liked the British—which was populist in a good sense—and was surprised by the Greek: I spent more than an hour there and I didn’t expect to do that.

Isaac Julien, artist and film-maker

I think the "Encyclopaedic Palace" has some parts that are really attractive: I enjoyed seeing the Fischli and Weiss and the way it was counterposed with the painting of Dorothea Tanning, and I also thought that the Danh Vo room was fantastically done. I loved the Cindy Sherman curated section, it is a little bit like a cabinet of curiosities and also very revealing as a premise for the artist—but maybe I am biased because I am an artist myself. In some ways, the whole exhibition is like the kind of show that you might see in a museum, and if you saw it in a museum you might not feel all that excited. What I look for when I go to the Venice Biennale is a sense of discovery, a certain kind of frisson where the themes would have a certain intricacy, but I didn’t really feel that here, it all felt a little bit underwhelming. I found much more inspiration in the pavilions: Richard Mosse’s work in the Irish Pavilion was extraordinary in terms of how it made you feel and Russia was the pavilion I enjoyed the most, it felt very witty, ironic and of the now.

Pawel Althamer, Venetians, 2013
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