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Looking Back: La Biennale

All Photography Courtesy of Martha Wilcox

Venice — After so many blue chip gallery openings, sales-driven art fairs, and blockbuster museum exhibitions this year, the Venice Biennale was a memorable departure. The strong presence of capitalism was still there, lurking always in the background of important cultural events, yet it was upstaged by the quality of the work itself; a rare feat in the art world. Criticism of the Biennale is certainly warranted, from the countries exhibited to the allocation of the onsite pavilions, but there remains a kind of fitting grandeur to the event that recalls Venice’s bygone days of doges and palaces.

The Biennale felt both modern and global while taking place in a city that is anything but. After days of wandering the twisting alleys and meandering waterways, sipping glasses of rosato and eating simplistic pastas, Venice morphs into a way of life. Tourists learn its bridges, lions, squares and cafes in record time, and Venetian artists like Veronese, Tintoretto, and Titian remind us that the city’s history is beautiful and brutal. Is there a better place to hold an international art show? Certainly. This year’s Biennale, however, offered up some of the most important statements about the state of art, global politics, nationalism and even patriotism, where artists tackled the terrors of our time head-on.

Who is likely to forget, for example, the fraught nature of the German Pavilion’s five-hour performance Faust created by Anne Imhof? Perched on pedestals, caged beneath a glass floor, or trapped behind walls, performers with ashen faces and malleable bodies transformed the space into a sticky web of emotion and ennui, fire and filth. It felt like one of those subway tunnels we instinctually avoid, where something too real and too human has occupied and altered the space. Staying in the German Pavilion too long, and every passerby started to look and feel like a performer. Outside adolescent Dobermans prowled the grounds, at once menacing and puppy-like. The entire spectacle seemed to encapsulate 2017’s disillusioned outlook.

The humor of Phyllida Barlow’s sculptural installation for the British Pavilion, aptly titled Folly, took a different tack, echoing the powerful statement made by the women’s march following Trump’s inauguration. Inside one of the Biennale’s most beautiful pavilions were sculptures that were stuffed awkwardly into the space, making a clever mockery of the monumental. The materiality and form was playful—think odd shapes and blobs—and the industrial materials were unexpectedly painted in a glorious range of cheerful brights and feminine pastels. Dada-like in tone, the statement was provocative. Barlow’s critique of those who are allowed, and extravagantly paid, to make large-scale artworks and the aesthetic rules such works are expected follow felt damningly prescient.

The mysterious photographs of the Belgian photographer Dirk Braeckman emerged as one of the unexpected highlights amidst pavilions opting for the loud, kitschy, or overdone. Black and white with a silvery sheen like platinum prints, the everyday was recast as mysterious and abstract in large-scale prints. The drape of a velvet curtain, the murky gray shape of a small wave crashing, a beautiful rug left stranded on a dirty floor, the legs of a faceless women; all moments depicted without context or narrative. The repetition of subjects and objects recalled an older era of photography, when formalism reigned above conceptualism. Devoid of detail, the images were sensual celebrations of process, evoking the romantic and the desolate, allowing viewers to escape within the immense depth of monochromatic stills.

Hidden in a remote space, the smell of deterioration at the Georgian Pavilion is what struck viewers first. Transported to Venice by artist Vajiko Chachkhiani, a small wooden cabin from the mining town of Chiatura was subjected to steady artificial rain for the duration of the exhibition. Humble yet once homey, the shack rotted slowly on cue, smelling like nature and decay. A mood of hopelessness and despair emanated from the structure as viewers peered through the wooden slats at a small interior furnished with a kitchen table, dishes and a twin-sized bed. The sound of rain splattering across every surface made the feeling of resignation that much more acute, as if the house might crumble as we watched. The installation resonated beyond its hyper-local concerns of protection, invisibility, and work into a politicized questioning of history and generational trauma.

It’s hard not to look ahead and wonder what the global art scene will be thinking about and making in 2019, but perhaps it’s best not to speculate. As things stand, we must go day by day, month by month, hoping the world’s leaders are saner than they appear, and that artists are up to the challenge of holding them accountable.

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