An historic manuscript, two smashed up Range Rovers and William Morris throwing a giant yacht into the lagoon…This year's Venice Biennale is one of history, fun and fantasy, says Tate Etc. Editor Simon Grant
This is the 55th time that the art world has packed itself off to Venice, this year with 88 countries exhibiting in the historic pavilions of the Venice Giardini, the Arsenale and at venues across the city. Ten 2013 newcomers include the Maldives, Kosovo and the Kingdom of Bahrain - but perhaps most notably the Holy See, which is represented in a show on the modest theme of Genesis, curated by the director of the Vatican Museums. Britain, meanwhile, returns to its pillared Giardini pavilion, this year occupied with a film work by Jeremy Deller. More on this later.
Meanwhile a major highlight of this year’s Biennale, opening to the public on Saturday, is the hugely impressive main exhibition in the Giardini’s Central Pavilion and Arsenale, The Encyclopaedic Palace. Curated by Massimiliano Gioni, a director at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York it is based around an extraordinary illustrated manuscript by the famous psychotherapist and one time ally of Freud, Carl Jung.
Only recently discovered, the manuscript was made over 16 years by Jung, who filled it with his self-induced visions and fantasies, drawing with searing colours and fantastical imaginings. It is the aesthetic starting point for many of the works in the exhibition, which features over 150 artists from nearly 40 countries and ranges from the late 19th century to new commissions. The distinctions between big name artists and little known outsiders in the show are deftly blurred with the effect of giving us a modern day wunderkammer of ideas, and images that, as Gioni puts it, offers a ‘meditation on inner images and dreams’.
And so, there are many wonderful - and weird - works by dreamers, healers, clairvoyants and Godly folk, as well as some familiar artists such as Maria Lassnig and Carol Rama, a good number of which have rarely been on view to such a large and public audience. Who has seen, for example, Hans Scharer’s (Switzerland, 1927–1997) mesmerising and heavily impastoed series of Madonnas that he painted from 1965 to the mid 1980s, or Papa Ibra Tall’s (Senegal, born 1935) detailed decorative tapestries, drawings and paintings that celebrate with explosive abstract colours, local legends and pan African myths?
There are geometric drawings in pencil and crayon by the healer Emma Kunz (Switzerland, 1892–1963), who used these drawings to ‘divine energy disruptions’ with her patients. There are the strange phantasmagorical images of women and beasts by another healer artist, the little known Russian-born Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern (Russia, 1892–1982) who, after being interned in a Nazi labour camp, spent years in numerous mental hospitals.
A strong thread among many of the artists is a systematic feverish interest in organic forms, made out of the artists fierce psychological needs to create alternate worlds. In his work, Romanian artist Stefan Bertalan (born 1930) combines his fascination for engineering, mathematics and biology in his forensically detailed and beautiful drawings of natural forms in projects such as I Lived for 130 Days with a Sunflower Plant 1979, in which he studied the life cycle of a sunflower and documented its evolution from seed to death. For Anna Zemankova (Czech Republic, 1908–1986), the creation of her coloured biomorphic pastels, some encrusted with beading and silk applique, were made in the middle of the night to alleviate her depression.
Gioni’s Biennale is a coherent and rich mix of art and ideas, from past and present that lives up to its exhibition title, giving us, as he states, ‘an elaborate but fragile construction, a mental architecture as fantastical as it is delirious’./p>
Over in the British Pavilion, imaginary worlds also emerge in Jeremy Deller’s English Magic. It takes social, political and musical events from the past, present and future and strings together a narrative that manages to be both critical yet positive and celebratory. The rooms are dotted with visual statements, images with intent. In one, the figure of William Morris is imagined as a giant figure painted on the wall as a colossus throwing a giant yacht into the Venice lagoon (based on Roman Abramovich’s 377-foot yacht, Luna).
In another room, a huge painting of a hen harrier carrying off a Range Rover in its talons refers to the shooting of these birds on Sandringham Estate in 2007, while next door, a timeline from 1972–3 of poignant political events are interwoven with images from David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour. The images of happy fans mixed in with photographs from the Troubles in Northern Ireland are constant reminder of our own subjectivisation and editing of the past, but also a reminder about what we might not forget.
Perhaps the highlight of Deller’s intelligent project is his new film which includes footage of children rolling and somersaulting on the inflatable Stonehenge that he created last year. The footage then moves on to a balletic yet tough scene of two Range Rovers being crushed - all set to the infectious music of the Melodians Steel Orchestra from South London.
Highlights elsewhere in the city include the Prada Foundation, where the Italian curator Germano Celant has re-made the legendary exhibition Live in Your Head. When Attitudes Become Form, originally curated by Harald Szeeman at the Bern Kunsthalle in 1969. With the help of artist Thomas Demand and architect Rem Koolhaas, Celant has used the Prada Foundation’s spaces as the template to completely recreate the walls, floors, installations and art objects, with all the works (at least these they managed to borrow from institutions and private collection) set out in their relative positions.
The list of artists is an international (or rather Western) roll call of an artistic meeting of minds of Post-pop, Process Art, Minimalism, Arte Povera and Land Art, with artists including Joseph Beuys, Keith Sonnier, Bruce Nauman, Eva Hesse and Walter de Maria showing alongside lesser known names such as Michael Buthe and Paul Cotton.
There are many of us who only know this exhibition from grainy black and white photographs, but seeing the works together, you get a better feel for how fresh this collection of works must have felt, especially in the dynamic social-political landscape of the period. It gives an extra energy to what are familiar works, such as Barry Flanagan’s 1969 2 space rope sculpture (loaned by Tate) and Alighiero Boetti’s Me Sunbathing in Turin January 19 1969, his sculpture made from 111 pieces of hand-moulded concrete, with cabbage that was also shown in Tate Modern’s Boetti retrospective in 2012.
It is a curious, ambitious and inevitably flawed exhibition, a museum exhibition as a form of archaeology. And the imposing nature of the Prada Foundation with its heavy columns, staircases and frescoes interferes, and its comparison with its original installation. But despite its flaws, it is fascinating to see how these works, made nearly 50 years ago, maintain their presence (and still reflect their influence) among more contemporary peers on show in Venice.
The Venice Biennale 55th International Art Exhibition, from 1June until 24 November