Guest Review: Jeffrey Bishop visits Venice and the 2017 Biennale

Anne Imhof “Faust” Installation and Performance in German Pavillion, 2017
Photo by Jana Harper

No matter how many times I visit Venice it is impossible to be blasé about the wonders of this most liquid of cities. This is especially true when significant cultural capital is expended to stage the most venerated of Biennales, an all-out effort to expand art’s impact on global culture. In addition to the major venues at the Giardini and the Arsenale, and the many national pavilions scattered around the city, there are the ever-increasing ancillary mega-exhibitions in spectacular palazzi by billionaire tycoons and luxury super-brands.

The 57th International Art Exhibition called “Viva Arte Viva” was curated this year by Christine Macel who comes to Venice from the Centre Pompidou in Paris. In introductory interviews she emphasized her desire to spotlight artists instead of the usual emphasis on the thematic and the curatorial, all while acknowledging the pressure and urgency of issues on the planet. As she said, “with artists by artists for artists.” Many reviewers felt she fell short in achieving some of these aims.

To this viewer the Italian Pavilion in the Giardini, now called the Central Pavilion, the kick-off curatorial stage for the Biennale, was a disappointment. The architectural interior is in dire need of a makeover or even a rebuild. It takes an extraordinary installation to overcome its now tired structure. This was not it.

One enters under a lively exterior draped painting by Sam Gilliam honoring Yves Klein. Among the first works are installations by Dawn Kasper and the provocateur Franz West that confront assumptions about our hyper-active lives and our propensity to see work/production as the only way to assess or validate our selves. They suggest there is value inherent in moments of rest or idle repose. Kasper set up a studio for a six month stay and included musical instruments. As she says, “I brought all these different clothes, I might learn Italian.”

Interesting activities no doubt but a slack way to engage an anxious audience in anxious times. I do love Franz West’s furniture and his offer to be lazy and hang out– but had no time to rest, first thing in the morning.

Along more expected lines of social practice and activist themes was a large workshop installation by the ubiquitous Olafur Eliasson, where a group of immigrants and asylum-seekers were being trained to assemble lamps. The lamps were for sale–in order to help fund the project.

Back out in the Giardini grounds, the deserved winner of the prestigious Palme D’Or was the German Pavilion, which featured a powerful installation and performance by Anne Imhof called “Faust”(Picture, see above). Above and below an elegant double-thick glass surface, four feet above the pavilion ground floor, a handful of performers moved among the attendees, sometimes awkwardly parting the audience, sometimes moving with athletic grace, sometimes displaying menacing aggression. The glass divided but made transparent the conditions between actors and spectators. Many polarities of power were in play here. Outside, two large dogs, Doberman Pinschers I think, circulated in a caged area assessing the line of spectators waiting to be ushered inside. I heard tell of very raucous and rude behavior on this very long line, during the opening days–everybody wanted to jump the line.


The Swiss pavilion, curated by Philipp Kaiser, featured a compelling doubled narrative video by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler touching on Alberto Giacometti’s reluctance to represent his home country in international exhibitions. The double video narrative thread presents on one side the desolate figure of the son of one of Giacometti’s Parisian lovers who slowly declined, in sad circumstances in Los Angeles. On the other side, and remarkably with the same shared sound track, an actress portrays scenes from the same woman’s life.


Mark Bradford, “Tomorrow is Another Day” Mixed Media on Canvas, 2016

As a painter I have long admired this year’s US representative Mark Bradford, who arrived early and opened a shop called “Process Collettivo” where incarcerated people made products while aiming to transition to self-sufficiency. (This project parallels an enterprise in his native South LA called Art + Practice, which reaches out to neighborhood youth at risk.) In Venice the exterior of the US Pavilion was, I assume, deliberately and fittingly left worn, tired, shabby, and a heavy gargantuan foot-like form weighed down and impeded the progress of the visitor. It was said that the shape might also suggest the hull of a slave ship. In another gallery three huge, beautiful paintings were installed.


Philip Guston, “Pantheon” Oil on Panel, 1973

On the first of three days allocated to the Biennale we bailed on the Giardini in the late afternoon and hopped a vaporetto to the Gallerie Dell’ Academia to take in the superb “Philip Guston among the Poets” show, staged by the uber gallery Hauser & Wirth. I can never get too much of Guston and this show’s touchstone was not only his deep connection with poetry, but also his time spent in Italy and his reverence of masters, from Pierro and Masaccio to de Chirico. We ended a satisfying day by meeting up with artist friends for an impressive seafood feast at Corte Sconta. I mention the restaurant for Talking Pictures readers because we have eaten so poorly in past visits and finally came prepared with recommendations.

(We also had a simple but superb dinner on another day at Osteria da Gino which sits on a small canal in a quiet neighborhood in Castello.)


Day two began at the Arsenale, an imposing space, once home to Venetian shipbuilding and rope making, an imperative function of Venice’s centuries-long maritime dominance. Dating to the 14th C. it is one of the earliest examples of assembly-line construction, as ships in progress moved up and down the adjacent canals awaiting parts.  The Arsenale is still shared with the Italian Navy and one occasionally sees warships, in jolting contrast to the contemporary art.

The Arsenale is home in this Biennale to more than a hundred artists and overlapping themes prevailed in many forms.  Macel divided this huge space into seven areas with titles such as “Pavillion of the Common,” “Earth Pavilion,” “The Dionysian Pavilion,” “Pavilion of Time and Infinity,” and so on. As one might expect, migration, displacement, climate and environmental themes dominated and there was strong sourcing from, and reference to, colonial and post-colonial issues, as well as queer and gender critique.


Charles Atlas, “The Tyranny of Conciousness”
Multi-channel video installation, 2017

In Charles Atlas’ lament, “The Tyranny of Consciousness,” the protagonist is drag star Lady Bunny who bemoans the vanishing voice of peace. Atlas states: “I grew up with the hippy generation…so they were all about peace and feeling good. But there is no voice for peace anymore.”

Positioned at the midpoint of the interminable Corderie, Ernesto Neto offered a tent-like oasis within which millennials could be seen resting, nesting, and texting. Earlier in the run he had brought indigenous Brazilian rainforest Huni Kuin tribe members to Venice to occupy this enclosure in the “Pavilion of Shamans.”


#1: Marie Voignier “Les Immobiles” Film, 2013
photo by Marie Voignier

Nearby, the theme of species elimination and extinction was treated in a powerful  fashion by Marie Voignier in her film “Les Immobiles,” wherein a big-game-hunting guide reminisces winsomely as he flips through a memory book of client trophies, massive tusks and the like, with no voice-over or commentary. The images and voice speak for themselves in this sad bi-product of colonialism, where the clients were invariably white, while the helpers were always black.


Michelle Stuart “The Flight of Time”
Archival Inkjet Photographs, 2016, (detail)

A section was devoted to Michelle Stuart, highlighting environmental work from four decades of her career. She was an important influence for me in my early 70’s art school days. ”Flight of Time,” a gridded body of photo-based work showing landscape, birds, flowers, fauna, etc. reminded me of the Robert Smithson of  “Incidents of Mirror Travel in the Yucatan.” Stuart’s work was among many powerful statements about the fragility and grace of our anthropocene world.

Huguette Calland
Ink on Paper

Nearby Huguette Calland, Born in 1931 in Lebanon, showed extraordinarily delicate, intimate ink drawings of female genitalia.

Leaving the Arsenale, we made our way to one of the super-sized shows advertised heavily on the sides of the palazzi and the buzzing vaporetti that cruise the Grand Canal, picking up and depositing the never-ending flow of visitors. Tourists in Venice are estimated at 20 million per year and growing, compared to the plunging number of 55,000 residents.Only the need for tourist dollars can excuse allowing the gargantuan cruise ships into the fragile Lagoon. The ugliness of these bloated vessels that drop off thousands of day trippers daily, and the stress this puts on the architecture and infrastructure, insults the integrity and dignity of this ancient but still vital maritime city.


#1: Damien Hirst,
Photograph,“Mickey Carried by Diver”

Nothing was more bloated, however, than the Damien Hirst extravaganza in, astoundingly, both the Palazzo Grazzi and the Punta della Dogana, once a customs house, now elegantly restored by Tadao Ando. At a cost of some $65m and ten years in the making, “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” proposes, preposterously, a recently discovered shipwreck yielding a fabulist’s trove of historical artifacts from every conceivable culture and time. So ludicrous and spectacular was this monstrosity of an exhibition that we were left flabbergasted at the Spielbergian absurdity of it all even in an era of excess and exploded veracity.

“Demon with Bowl”
Painted resin


Heavily publicized everywhere and perhaps more popular with tourists than the Biennale in the distant Giardini and Arsenale, this show is easy to dismiss as simply a grand obscenity, courtesy of an ostentatious billionaire, François Pinault and the mega-ego of Mr. Hirst. Some new marker has been laid down in the annals of spectator entertainment. I heard one young visitor say, without irony, how “real” some of these glittery coral-encrusted artifacts seemed, many of which found reiteration in replicant copies with a wink and a nod to so many copies, think Roman iterations from the Greek. How then to navigate history and authenticity as you return as you will to your Met, Prado, Louvre and reflect on the multiple artifices upon which their canons have been constructed (Many not incidentally by force of cannon!)

However, the back-lit underwater photographs were undeniably gorgeous. And Hirst concocted a barrel of laughs with a virtually unlimited budget. Are these items for sale then? Of course! Do these items need to belong together? Is it art even? Does it matter? Do I care?

Shaking our heads, we retreated to our hotel in Sant Elena but en route made note of the comparatively humble and barely visible sculpture at the edge of the Lagoon, by artist Augusto Murer dating to 1968, -on a base by the revered Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa- of a reclining woman with waves gently lapping over her draped figure. Inevitably this brought to mind so many recent unfortunates who have drowned in their attempts to navigate the Mediterranean, fleeing the impoverished or war torn shores of their homelands.


Carlo Scarpa / Augusto Murer “Partigiana” 1968 Photo Jill Baker

The sculpture in fact commemorates the “Partigiana”, the partisan anti-fascist women of WW2. Interesting how time and context can shift meanings.


Tehching Hsieh,
Poster, 1982

We began our third and last day battling the selfie-taking hordes near San Marco and the “Bridge of Sighs” to reach the Taiwanese Pavilion which featured a look back at the astounding work of Tehching Hsieh. In the late 70’s and early 80’s Hsieh embarked on a series of year-long performance pieces requiring extreme deprivation, testing the limits of human survival. In “One-year Performance 1981-82,” for example, the artist remained outside in (a then much harsher) New York City for an entire year without ever taking shelter of any kind. Yet again these intense gestures put one in mind of the dire circumstances facing so many people now on the move.

We next made our way to the very quiet Campo Santa Maria Formosa. The ground floor of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia was restored by the aforementioned Carlo Scarpa in 1963. This unique jewel-like space in an elegant palazzo was given over to the eighty-four year old Italian Arte Povera artist, Giovanni Anselmo, whose work subtly spoke of the slow passage of time, geological and constant, rhythmic, fluid, and transformative.

This was a welcome pause of serene, minimal perfection before we proceeded to the Palazzo Fortuny, one of the more idiosyncratic experiences of any visit to Venice. This Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, dark and cluttered, was the sixth and last to be curated by Axel Verroodt. These Fortuny installations have always included works spanning centuries, packed, salon style, containing bizarre and startling juxtapositions.

Alexander Kluge
“The Soft Makeup of Lighting”, 2007
Anna Viebrock, “Runners,” 2009, “Four Doors,” 2017
photo Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti / courtesy Fondazione Prada

Our next stop involved crossing the Grand Canal at the Rialto Bridge to the Fondazione Prada for its tour de force exhibition, “The Boat is Leaking. The Captain Lied,” curated by Udo Kittelmann, featuring “three giants of German culture,” film maker Alexander Kluge, artist photographer Thomas Demand and the stage and costume designer Anna Viebrook. (The title is from a Leonard Cohen song). Occupying multiple floors and labyrinthine chambers, the show referenced all manner of global insecurities -in its own large-spectacle way, an intellectually inverse mirroring of the Hirst/Pinault extravaganza, as a German scholar friend pointed out.

Kittelman quotes Shakespeare from Julius Caesar “Why, now blow wind, swell billow, and swim bark! The storm is up, and all is on the hazard,” and suggests that  the collaboration was generated out of a “shared awareness, both on an emotional and theoretical level, of the critical aspects of present times and the complexity of the world we live in”. But the impressive Kluge film clips were too much unless one was familiar or had volumes of time to decipher the intricacies and references. I was fascinated however by a quote from Kluge from another source that seemed apt to much of the experience in Venice:

“Human beings are not interested in reality. They can’t be; it’s the human essence. They have wishes. These wishes are strictly opposed to any ugly form of reality. They prefer to lie than to become divorced from their wishes…(they) forget everything except this principle of misunderstanding reality, the subjective…If this is real, then the media industry is realistic in telling fiction, and the construction of reality founded on this basis can only lie. This is one of the reasons why history isn’t realistic: it’s not documentary, it’s not genuine, and it’s not necessary”.

This quote put me oddly back in mind of the Hirst. So much art in Venice seemed to be in dialogue with aspects of the liquid, the oceanic, the fugitive, the pirated….


Thomas Demand, Photograph, “Patio,” 2014 (on the right)

I have long admired Demand’s constructed photographs and recognized familiar themes in this work, specifically his sinking ship video called “Pacific Sun.” I was reminded of the cruise ship Costa Concordia which memorably capsized and sank off the Italian coast in 2012. The show at the Prada site was wonderful if overly dense. We could easily have stayed longer, we absorbed what we could and moved on….

After a hasty requisite run through the crowded but pleasing Peggy Guggenheim collection, which this year featured an elegant Mark Tobey survey, we found ourselves back at the Accademia for a dose of old Masters favorites, especially, for me, Giovanni Bellini, who I love for his delicacy and clarity. And to view his student Giorgione’s enigmatic “The Tempest,” is always a treat. The bonus at the Accademia this year was a superb small selection of work by Hieronymous Bosch that has a Venetian provenance. One triptych, of a crucified bearded female Saint Uncumber, another of St. Gerome and two other saints, and a series of four panels with “hybrid animals and scenes of witchcraft.”  The backs of these four panels were painted to imitate marble and reminded me of the Tobey’s seen earlier. The Saint Encumber triptych has a wild back-story: A teenage noblewoman named Wilgefortis, promised in marriage to a pagan king, took a vow of virginity and prayed she could become repulsive. Her prayer was answered; she grew a beard, and her father had her crucified.

I was also intrigued by the right-side panel which showed multiple ships sinking in a harbor while one very oddly shaped ship floated high in the water under oar. The nearby information suggested this ship represented the Catholic Church.


Hieronymous Bosch,
Saint Wilgefortis Triptych, central panel,
Oil on Oak Panel, 1495-1505

This old master finale seemed the appropriate way to end an art-packed three day Venice visit. We were too late in the day for a visit to the Basilica San Marco but we did have time to squeeze in a stop at the Louis Vuitton store. Climbing the stairs to the third floor, we passed three resplendent (and perhaps too well-sited) Candida Höffers and entered an ample gallery space screening Pierre Huyghe’s video “A Journey That Wasn’t” (2005), another fabulist conjoined story – a search in the Arctic for an elusive albino penguin and the foggy spectacle of a symphonic sound piece staged in Wollman Rink in New York’s Central Park.


Exiting the store, past the pumped up Jeff Koons old master bags and a model of the Frank Gehry LVMH building in Paris, I asked a saleswoman if many Louis Vuitton stores now had art spaces. She said she thought not but that this might change. I wondered, given the Hirst extravaganza, and the current NY gallery scene – where the middle seems to be increasingly eviscerated as many mid-level galleries are unable to compete with the super galleries–if the default venues of the future would increasingly become luxury-brand sites. As the pretty attendant remarked, “We are no longer just fashion, now we are culture also.”


All photographs by Jeffrey Bishop unless otherwise noted

A version of this review has also been published in The Boulevardiers