'Viva Arte Viva' is the theme that the French curator Christine Macel proposed for this year's Biennale that takes place from 13 May until 26 November 2017 in Venice. The 57th Biennale is an international survey show in which 120 artists from 51 countries participate in exhibits at the Giardini and the Arsenale. In addition, 86 countries present themselves in national pavilions with Antigua and Barbuda, Kiribati and Nigeria participating for the first time. Throughout the city of Venice, the Biennale is accompanied by more than 23 collateral events. It is not surprising, therefore, that Venice appears as a pivotal centre for contemporary arts
every biannual May when the Biennale opens. But does the Biennale live up to the high expectations?
Fig. 1 Alicja Kwade, Pars pro Toto, 2017. (Photo: Sarah Hegenbart)
This year's motto 'Viva Arte Viva' alludes to the idea of l'art pour l’art. This suggests a curatorial approach coined by a type of aestheticism that interprets Kantian disinterestedness as if it were to exclude all pressing contemporary (political) problems. Macel's choice might have been due to recent trends in contemporary arts: the focus on socially engaged artworks has led to a certain ignorance for the aesthetic nature of art projects. This raises the question of how to separate a work of socially engaged art from pure social work. By highlighting the aesthetic nature of the arts in order to emphasise 'humanism', Macel's Biennale is in danger of collapsing under many commonplaces which become most visible in Olafur Eliasson's artistic workshop Green Light which the artist describes as 'an act of welcoming, addressed both to those who have fled hardship and instability in their home countries and to the residents of the cities receiving them'. The problem with this well-meant project in its presentation at the Biennale is that it presents migrants as quasi art objects in the central room of the international pavilion. Do we have nothing more to offer to people who just fled from disastrous wars than becoming green light constructing objects at which we gaze before heading on to our next champagne reception in a picturesque Venetian palazzo?
Fig. 2. Olafur Eliasson, Green Light, 2017 (Photo: Sarah Hegenbart)
When Walter Benjamin demanded the politicisation of art, he had a strong reason for this: he desired to impede the aesthetisation of politics which he linked with fascism. Pure aestheticism can be so seductive that it alienates us from our own sensual perception and renders us vulnerable to infiltration by ideologies. Thankfully, many projects at the Biennale do not possess even the slightest aesthetic force for seduction. While the positive aspect of this is that they will not succeed in alienating us from our own senses, the downside is that they leave us indifferent. Indifference, however, was one of the attitudes Macel desired to attack with her Biennale. Macel's other target is to counter individualism: a rather astonishing claim if one considers that art provides a sphere in which sensual perception inspires critical reflection – a process that is necessarily individual.
Fig. 3 Mark Bradford giving a tour through his show Tomorrow is another day (Photo: Sarah Hegenbart)
How important individual narratives are is emphasised by the US artist Mark Bradford whose large abstract paintings melt individual experiences of belonging to a black minority into an art form which has become a national founding myth of American art: abstract expressionism. During his tour through Tomorrow is another day, Bradford's exhibit in the US pavilion, Bradford asks why the story of abstract expressionism dominated by mostly white and mostly male art historians and curators has not yet been rewritten. 'Even the constitution has an addendum’, Bradford notes, and goes on to remark that it is necessary to add such an addendum to the founding myth of abstract expressionism.
Fig. 4 Geta Brătescu Apparitions at the Romanian Pavilion (Photo: Sarah Hegenbart).
Folly is the name of Phyllida Barlow's display of sculptures at the British Pavilion. The term ‘Folly’, describing, among other things, a costly ornamental building with no practical purpose, therefore responds pretty well to the Biennale's theme of celebrating art for its own sake. However, folly’s alternative meaning refers to an act of foolishness, and this is important. Is it not an act of irresponsibility to claim that art can be separated from any political meaning? While there are certainly many exciting and engaging projects, such as Erwin Wurm's performative sculptures (very entertaining) or Geta Brătescu Apparitions (very beautiful), what the Biennale seems to lack is genuine obstinacy.
Fig. 5 View of the exhibition “The Boat is Leaking. The Captain Lied.” Fondazione Prada, Venice 13 May 2017 - 26 November 2017 (Photo Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti, Courtesy Fondazione Prada).
Display window passage, 2017
Circus pedestal, 2017
Four videos broadcasted simultaneously, 2017
Obstinacy is a key term introduced by the German filmmaker and philosopher Alexander Kluge and his philosopher colleague Oskar Negt to highlight the necessity to be different in order to form images beyond the images of certain ideologies. Kluge's own aesthetics as a filmmaker is inspired by the vision of fragmented imagery. If an image is fragmented, the perceiver's active participation is required to create a third image. By using sensual stimuli to encourage the viewer to start a process of cognitive reflection, art possesses a political potential that is mediated through the senses. While socially engaged art often fails to fulfil the criteria Kluge envisions since it lacks the aesthetic aspect, pure aestheticism does not succeed in stimulating critical self-reflection. Does Kluge himself succeed in creating works of art that realise his request for critical self-reflection? This can be explored at at Fondazione Prada: The Boat is Leaking. The Captain Lied arranges the works of filmmaker Alexander Kluge, artist Thomas Demand, and stage and costume designer Anna Viebrock in the form of a fragmented montage in staged environments that resemble settings from bleak post-war Germany. This leads to the total deconstruction of the naturally beautiful interior of the Palazzo Corner Della Regina, a Baroque Palazzo referencing Baldassarre Longhena's architecture of Ca' Pesaro. While conventional beauty is wiped out, something else comes into existence: the beauty of sensual knowledge which the visitor is supposed to gain by completing the fragmented images presented.
This harks back to another art form that has been opposed to approaching beauty in a shallow, merely superficial sense: surrealism. At Dorsoduro, two exhibitions highlight the surrealist spirit. Rita Kernn-Larsen. Surrealist Paintings at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is a very fine exhibition, curated by Gražina Subelytė, which illuminates the work of the little known Danish surrealist who participated in the key European surrealist exhibitions throughout the 1930s. Peggy Guggenheim invited her to stage a solo show at the Guggenheim Jeune in London in 1938.
At the Accademia, Philip Guston and the Poets investigates how the poetry of D. H. Lawrence, W. B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Eugenio Montale and T. S. Eliot resonates in the work of the American painter Philip Guston. Moreover, it explores how Italian painting, and works of the Italian Renaissance in particular, exerted an influence on Guston's practice throughout his career. While Guston is not a conventional surrealist, his admiration for Giorgio de Chirico's metaphysical renderings of distortions - a key influence for the surrealists - might explain Guston's surrealist touch.
Returning to the theme of this year's Biennale 'Viva Arte Viva', visiting Venice certainly reveals a lot of opportunities to celebrate art for its own sake. The asset of Macel's motto is that it is (rather unintentionally) left so vague that it allows for many interpretations. However, many of the works selected to emphasise the idea of l'art pour l'art rather prove the opposite. They declare a kind of art that remains limited to the aesthetic realm as dead. Yet, there remains hope for this kind of art that goes beyond pure aestheticism – a type of art entering the senses to stimulate critical thinking.