The Return of the Real: Venice Biennale 2017
The glorious idea that “real” art might eventually be allowed to return, overcoming all current orthodoxies and assumptions, can be smelled in the air this year in Venice, reports ADRIAN DANNATT in the first of artcritical’s dispatches from this year’s Biennale.
“Have you seen it yet?… It’s so amazing…we’ve been twice.”
The most debated and detested exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennale has nothing to do with it—namely, of course, Damien Hirst’s double-bill blockbuster. What makes this interesting is that the Hirst-Pinault machine has deliberately snubbed and subverted the venerable Biennale with a series of lavish gala parties just weeks before the official event and not a single celebration during its opening week. This has a genuine significance beyond PR micro-politics: the suggestion that Hirst’s work is no longer dependent upon the blessings of the self-assumed “powers that be,” and that all art can, theoretically, liberate itself from this reigning apparatus of curatorial approval. For this is the first Biennale in which one can sense an actual aesthetic argument or “counter-argument” indicative of a larger shift within contemporary art.
There have long been two distinct parallel art worlds: those of the “fair” and the “biennale”—the former largely supported by the market and the latter by institutions and foundations, one “commercial,” the other “serious.” (I remember Jeffrey Deitch explaining this to me with pitch-perfect discernment, which made it all the more shocking to spot him this year on a humble vaporetto, rather than his usual private speedboat.) But though the 2017 Biennale (directed by Christine Macel) puts up a valiant defense, it is starting to look as if the battle has been won elsewhere. The very “fairest” of fair art—including the outrageously figurative, openly decorative, and scandalously kitsch—is taking over, leaving the highbrow conceptualists stranded very dry indeed. This Biennale may herald the first serious cracks in the established system, the beginning of an “eternal return” to what might be termed traditional art making: final throes of that long announced death of the avant-garde.
In this respect, the most significant show in Venice after Hirst is that put together by Wolfgang Scheppe to celebrate the founding of the Internationale Situationniste sixty years ago. Contrasting Hirst’s extravaganza, this is a private initiative, resolutely closed to the public and accessible only by invitation as the summa of clandestine chic. Scheppe, an academic, writer, and curator long based in Venice, has been responsible for some outstanding projects. But the aim of this exhibition, largely drawn from his own collection, is none less than to herald the end of art itself, to celebrate the Situationists as the final avant-garde movement, one that did away with such notions along with everything else. Entitled “Tous contre le spectacle,” one of Debord’s war cries, it condemns every sort of diversionary cultural entertainment, both the official Biennale and Hirst.
The Return of the Figurative
No, of course art did not end with the Situationists. This necessary cleansing led to a generational break, for the official last year of the IS, 1972, was precisely the same year most consider the official birthdate of “Postmodernism.” This was the year of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing estate, and the first inklings of a return to figuration in painting.
Indeed, one of the most lauded exhibitions in Venice, Philip Guston and the Poets at the Accademia, emphasizes precisely such work from just this period, the most important paintings from the first flush of his figurative comeback of 1970 until 1975. Despite some beautiful abstractions, including Untitled (1958) and The Tale (1961), the main theme is his varied approach to realism and art historical lineage. This included early drawings and even a direct comparison between a Bellini “Madonna” and his 1944 Young Mother, an unflattering double-hang in which Guston comes out the loser. Guston’s wise wall text seems a prescient herald: “I don’t want to die with the past, but to me the past isn’t the past. Signorelli could be working downtown.”
The return of the figurative, the traditional, and historical can be seen all over Venice, that city which has never really let them die, despite codes of contemporary practice. Their alibis are the allegorical and literary, smuggling in such representational content in guise of archive. This can be seen in Stephen Chambers’s rich paintings of the Court of Redonda at Ca’Dandolo, portraits of the imaginary aristocracy of an invented island kingdom—one which writer Javier Marías has long claimed as his own. Likewise, La Kermesse Héroïque (2017) by Lucy McKenzie at Fondazione Bevilacqua suggests an eccentric historicism akin to Marías’s own writings, a sort of neo-postmodernism suggesting ancient artifact without moral or aesthetic judgement. McKenzie gets away with every sort of technique, even trompe l’oeil, due to an emphasis on research and re-creation: these only happen to look like attractive decorative devices. Equally interesting was a conversation with artist Markus Proschek, whose interest in the aesthetics of Third Reich sculpture and painting provoke questions of ideology.
And such ideological issues are at the fore of Space Force Construction, the exemplary first exhibition at the Russian V-A-C Foundation on the Zattere. As smartly curated by Matthew Witkovsky of the Art Institute of Chicago, this brings together archival material and contemporary installations, with an emphasis on revelatory photography and ephemera. Here we can marvel again at when abstraction was synonymous with social revolution, when the avant-garde were indispensable as the Red Guard. On show are Soviet Constructivists whose practices questioned bourgeois artistic rubrics of illusionism and authorship such as Popova and Rodchenko.
Craft, Kitsch, and Cultural Politics
Extremely interesting in this context is Isasthenai, a new work by Tania Bruguera featuring rapid clay portrait busts, done from life and described as “traditional statuary technique.” Here the crucial fact was that Bruguera, a hugely successful international artist, could not create these sculptures herself but was obliged to employ another artist, Ekaterina Kovalenko.
Issues of authorship, and indeed of “Russian taste,” are central to the whole furor around Hirst. For whilst Hirst makes no pretense to have crafted these sculptures and antiquities himself—au contraire his charming pretense is that they have been brought up from an actual shipwreck—connoisseurs claim to be able to recognize whether they had been hewn in China, Russia, or Italy, to identify such anonymous national craftsmanship. And these works, which have apparently enjoyed great commercial success, are dismissed as being for Russian or Asian collectors—for the old-fashioned goût of precisely the same sort of people who have created them, suggesting the paradoxical redemption of practical skills by such emergent markets. There is also the amusing contrast of the Grenada Pavilion’s exhibition of the work of Jason deCaires Taylor, the artist who provided direct inspiration for Hirst’s current work (an example of Hirst’s brilliant, longtime implementation of Picasso’s maxim about “great artists stealing.” And more power to him.)
Sculptures with echoes of Hirst are to be found everywhere: Lorenzo Quinn’s Support (2017), giant hands holding up Ca’Sagredo hotel, or Shezad Dawood’s Where do we go now? (2017), a shiny resin 3D rendering. Likewise, the white horse in the Argentine Pavilion by Claudia Fontes and the axe-man panorama by Liliana Porter immediately recall their fellow countryman Adrián Villar Rojas on the roof of the Met. Within the official Biennale there is, as expected, a persistence of old-guard conceptualism, and a relative resistance to any younger, fresher movement towards every form of figuration. However, cracks can be detected, not least among Chinese artists, who have often embraced the continuum connecting contemporary artists, such as Hao Liang, with ancient traditions. In fact, among non-Western artists, various types of figuration appear more frequently—for instance, New Zealand artists Francis Upritchard and Lisa Reihana, whose work riffs on a marvelous 1805 Joseph Dufour et Cie woodblock wallpaper (pleasingly “purchased from admission charges” by the National Gallery Australia). Particularly interesting are artists like Peruvian Juan Javier Salazar or Philippines-born Manuel Ocampo, who are overtly political about the Western suppression of other figurative traditions: abstraction as imperialism.
The gigantic installation by Roberto Cuoghi which takes up much of the Italian Pavilion is as crucial to the argument of a new emerging traditionalism as Hirst’s Venetian magnum opus. Like Hirst, Cuoghi is a major star who is unafraid to deal with the most fundamental of figurative themes—in this case, sculptures of Christ himself, Imitazione di Cristo (2017), produced by teams of skilled artisans in a hellish assembly line. Religious iconography is here another way into a certain “image-regime,” a side door, a way of entering the historical continuum, as with Hirst’s appropriation of every sort of mythology, from Medusa to Disney. As such, Cuoghi’s serial versions of Christ can be rewardingly compared to Paul Benney’s Speaking in Tongues (2017) at the Chiesa di San Gallo. This installation, featuring a single large painting with special lighting and audio effects, conjures a richly dramatic environment portraying some sort of contemporary spiritual visitation worthy of Titian’s Descent of the Holy Ghost (circa 1545) at Santa Maria della Salute. The central panel of Benney’s work is flanked by his “Reliquary” series of paintings, stuttering candles in airless bell jars, staking a convincing claim for not only what he terms “the rigors of representational art,” but also an example of religious (Christian) art practice.
Virtual Versus “Real”
This Benney-Cuoghi aesthetic reaches its absolute apotheosis over at the Faurschou Foundation with one of the most shocking works to be seen in Venice, Christian Lemmerz’s virtual reality piece, La Apparizione (2017). This terrifying representation of the crucifixion pushes Christian iconography to the outer limits of kitsch horror, and may be the one work that Hirst wishes he had thought of first. In fact, virtual reality may well prove, at last, to be sufficiently workable to be the next frontier in contemporary art, as demonstrated by the other VR work at the Faurschou: a truly troubling, extreme scenario dreamt up by Paul McCarthy.
The other advantage of VR is that you have to pay attention. You have no choice. By contrast, the smartphone wreaks the most delicious revenge on those boring video makers who made us suffer in silence in previous decades; now as soon as anyone sits down in front of a video, they immediately get to work texting, turning the whole room into a sea of bobbing white blobs, like cigarette lighters at a concert.
The glorious idea that “real” art might eventually be allowed to return, overcoming all current orthodoxies and assumptions, can be smelled in the air this year in Venice: a sharp tang, a salty brine to refresh the soul. As the artist known as Andy Hope 1930 quotes Franco Berardi: “The future is no more.” There is still some work to be done—after all, it is still only really acceptable to employ others to make your traditional sculptures or realist paintings. But that may be changing. At Mark Bradford’s excellent American Pavilion, there has been much stress on the handmade quality, to quote the pavillion’s brochure, how the “artist and his mother worked side by side for decades,” and the “paper that the artist bleached, soaked and molded with his hands.” Just as abstract art proved to be merely a hundred-year blip, that admittedly attractive fad of the “long” twentieth century, so “biennale” art may prove to have an even shorter shelf life, and we may all too soon be bingo back to Bouguereau—albeit in state of the art Sensurround virtual reality.