Review and photographs by Martin Benjamin
Let’s get this out of the way first. The best art and artist showing in Venice was showing work not officially included in the Venice Biennale, but rather has two separate exhibitions at other places in Venice, with one advertised as a “collateral event.” He does have an installation as part of the German pavilion offerings. Rather than being able to be in Venice, Italy to participate, Ai Weiwei is not permitted by his government to leave China.
The first Weiwei installation I visited, “Disposition,” was impressive enough by itself. Located at Zuecca Project Space, it was a room full of perfectly straight pieces of rusted steel reinforcement bars (rebar), arranged in a large room like a landscape or wave sculpture on the floor. In itself, it was evoking and powerful, but the back-story is what takes the piece over the top. Ai Weiwei wanted to make a piece about the 2008 earthquake that rocked Sichuan, China and that toppled poorly constructed schools killing more than 5,000 children. Associating poorly constructed schools that crumbled onto school children to the ongoing epidemic of corruption and greed of those in power in China does not require much of a jump. Weiwei traveled to these locations to investigate the ruins left behind and to find sub-quality construction, materials and engineering prevalent throughout the ruins. Without saying it, it is about corruption among officials in China causing the deaths of thousands of school children, motivated by greed and power.
In order to make his piece on such a grand scale, Weiwei contracted to buy truckloads (multiple tonnage) of the salvaged rebar and then paid to have Chinese laborers work them back into perfectly straight pieces of same batch sizes. This was no small endeavor, and the accompanying video revealed the initiation and execution of the project from idea to completion. This piece is very engaging, very powerful and very important. Of course, this was not sponsored by the Chinese government as their offering at the Biennale. It is no wonder that Ai Weiwei remains in Beijing under house arrest and is not allowed to attend his exhibitions in Venice.
His second piece, “S.A.C.R.E.D.,” located in a church elsewhere in Venice is even more impressive. Six very large, cargo container-looking steel or iron boxes about 5’x5’x10’ contain scenes of his time when the government took him to a secret location and interrogated him for 10 days in isolation. Each box is the same size, but each contains a different scene made to scale of himself with two guards and each scene describes his captivity – two guards standing next to him as he showers; guards standing over him as he uses the toilet; guards interrogating him; two guards standing directly over his cot while he sleeps. Each large steel container has little windows to peer in through, mostly on the sides and sometimes on top from above with a box to stand on to get the vantage point needed to peer in. These scenes are isolated, quiet and disquieting all at the same time.
An inclusion of Weiwei’s work into the “official” Biennale appears with “Bang,” which consists of “886 three-legged wooden stools” in the German pavilion. It is dislocating and playful at the same time, referring to a specific piece of furniture that everyone used to have in their house, and that now is disappearing from the home-life culture of Chinese people.
As for the Biennale proper, you can think of it in three ways: (1) the big curated International Art Exhibition in the complex of old buildings known as the Arsenale; (2) the individual country pavilions with exhibitions in each country building in the Giardini section; and (3) other venues around Venice utilized to show work.
The Arsenale at the Venice Biennale is utilized to include presentations of significant artists in the form of a huge group show. Picture a huge expansive series of brick factory-like buildings that have been abandoned of their original purpose and now serve to exhibit a curated world group show every two years for the world to take in. As in past years that I have attended the Biennale, the group show seems to shine year to year in contrast to the featured works at different country’s pavilions in the main part of the Biennale grounds. Having read reviews that this year’s group show was especially strong and “with heart” (something lacking in the individual pavilions and past Arsenale group exhibitions), I was excited to see this current Biennale.
I was not disappointed. Curated by Massimiliano Gioni, who solicited the assistance of New York City’s Cindy Sherman, the group show is exhilarating. At the same time as displaying contemporary artists doing very distinctive work, the 55th International Art Exhibition at the Arsenale also reaches back to show some vintage works by artists from past times such as Eliot Porter, Herbert List and some unknown (sometimes deceased) artists coming to light through this group show.
University of Albany photography professor Phyllis Galembo has work included in the group exhibit in the Arsenale – eight stunning large-scale color photographs. As the wall statement expertly elaborates, “For over twenty years, Phyllis Galembo has captured the playful rituals of dress around the world. In her multiple series of large-scale portraits of people wearing masks – in communities throughout West Africa, Brazil, Cuba, Jamaica and Haiti – she recontexualizes these historically fetished objects alongside other components of costumes and cultural tradition.” The photographs on exhibit here are from the Winneba Fancy Dress Festival held in Ghana.
Special recognition for Phyllis’s work is much deserved, for all the right reasons – for inclusion in such an important international exhibition, for her excellent photographs and prints, for here perseverance over the years to keep making photographs, and for her great eye and the curiosity and wonderment she has for her subjects. This is beautiful work in an international setting where it deserves to be revealed to a larger audience!
R. Crumb has a huge presentation of his “The Book of Genesis” that he illustrated page by page. J.D. Okhai Ojeikere, a photographer from Nigeria, shows dozens of photographs from the 1960s of braided hair. Cindy Sherman shows some family albums she has collected from yard sales and antique shops that are charming, but does the invited assistant curator of this section of the exhibition really have to take space and notice from other artists she was charged to identify and include? Okay, we get it, your entire life is about identity issues, but really now…
In the same sense that the Arsenale group show is completely satisfying and heartfelt, the presentations at the individual country’s pavilion pale in contrast. It is like government art agencies and bureaucratic art administrators were asked to do this task, and the oppressive nature of that process leaves us with too many “installation art” pieces that maybe seemed okay when reading an abstract statement and reviewing sketches about them, but unfortunately do not often come to life with any real purpose or revelations once set up in the dedicated pavilion buildings. It all left me dismayed and disappointed that opportunities to get great art in front of great amounts of people were wasted with some of these installations by artists somebody knew or whose messages were deemed safe enough to represent an entire nation.
Kudos should go to the British Pavillion however, where the presentations at least have a purpose and an edge to it and some real feeling. While a look back at David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour of the UK was probably a great idea, it is poorly put together and does not approach its potential for linking the tour with all the public chaos going on in England at that time. One of those, by now overused, “maps” trying to prove how things are connected in the experience dominate a wall and the photographs researchers came up with are particularly poor to represent this tour. Style over substance, but not good style, either.
However, a series of drawings by prisoners (mostly war vets) that responds to the suicide of Dr. David Kelly, a UN weapons inspector who was chastised and driven to his act for stating that Saddam Hussein had no WMDs, is powerful. As well, a contemporary fable kind of piece about a mythical giant taking a millionaire’s private yacht that blocked access to the Biennale in the past and heaving it out into the ocean is to the point, dramatic and to be admired.
For me, the installation at the U.S. pavilion were particularly disappointing. Holly Block, director of the Bronx Museum, and Carey Lovelace, an independent curator proposed installation artist Sarah Sze, and the Bronx Museum serves as the commissioning institution. Sze made “Triple Point” – chaotic, cluttered office and artist studio-like scenes that look like they are spaces inhabited and maintained by a sufferer of an extreme chronic compulsive obsessive disorder. It is disheartening that the money, logistics and time that was put into this choice to represent the U.S. could have been used to present something much more powerful and important to the world, possibly something that speaks to the real concerns of real people in our world.
Kudos to Phyllis Galembo and Ai Weiwei!