Critical Eye: Venice: Off Beat

View of Olafur Eliasson’s installation Green light—An artistic workshop, 2016–, in “Viva Arte Viva” at the Venice Biennale. Photo Francesco Galli.


Critical consensus formed quickly around “Viva Arte Viva,” the exhibition that Christine Macel, chief curator of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, has mounted at the 57th Venice Biennale. It’s out of touch with the harsh present, too soft to face an ominous future. “It just feels sentimental,” Evan Moffitt wrote on Frieze’s website, “an ineffective response to the current global surge of fascism and intolerance.” 1 Artforum critic Kate Sutton said that the show’s “emphasis on aesthetics and process made some political intentions seem decorative.” 2 During the Biennale’s preview days the New York Times ran a news piece headlined “A Venice Biennale About Art, With the Politics Muted.” 3 Holland Cotter followed up two weeks later with a review saying the show “feels almost perversely out of sync with the political moment.” 4 Most critics began their reviews of “Viva Arte Viva” by describing the first work they encountered in the Giardini’s Central Pavilion, Mladen StilinoviÄ?’s photo series “Artist at Work” (1978–2017)—in which the Croatian artist is seen lolling in bed, asleep or dreamy—and took the images as emblematic of an exhibition hopelessly unalert to its sociopolitical context.

Andrea Fraser once said that “all art is political, the problem is that most of it is reactionary, that is, passively affirmative of the relations of power in which it is produced.” 5 Sometimes this view gets reduced to the rejection of any art subtler than comedian Kathy Griffin’s fake decapitation of Donald Trump or artist Molly Crabapple’s maudlin wheatpastes satirizing the president and his cronies. If being in sync with the political moment means matching its spectacle of cruelty and accelerated disposability, then why not work in a different rhythm? “Viva Arte Viva” is a reminder that warmth is a strong position, that generosity and hospitality can be strategies of resistance in a time of xenophobia and nationalism. Of course, this art doesn’t do anything. Gentle as it is, the work championed by Macel is not effective in the way that organizing and marching are. But art carrying an explicit political message doesn’t actually do anything either. It just makes critics feel slightly less guilty for gallivanting around Venice instead of hashtag-resisting at home.

There is little painting in Macel’s exhibition. From Yee Sookyung’s amalgams of broken Korean ceramics and Abdoulaye Konaté’s collaged textile banner to Lee Mingwei’s clothes-darning station and David Medalla’s long swath of fabric onto which visitors can sew their own everyday objects, “Viva Arte Viva” is characterized by references to craft. Andrew Russeth, writing on the ARTnews website, called the preponderance of such handiwork “outmoded and naïve.” 6 In a sense, he’s right—but not because it’s a touchy-feely “hippie” throwback. Incorporating skills from outside the repertoire of the fine arts is often a way of alluding to art produced by and for a community, rather than in a studio for a market. It evokes a social purpose for art that is now outmoded. As a contemporary art exhibition, “Viva Arte Viva” almost exclusively features works made by individuals for display rather than collective use, but it’s permeated by an impulse to integrate art into the social fabric. This is often subtle, as in Senga Nengudi’s A.C.Q. (2016–17), composed of suspended, sand-filled hosiery whose stretchy synthetic fabric alludes to skin and whose sand evokes guts, a material metaphor for bodily elasticity. In the past, Nengudi has reinforced her interest in the communal aspect of art by working with collaborators who touch and move the sculptures; here, the works’ fabric is set atremble by fans.

Truly community-based art is represented in “Viva Arte Viva” through documentation and ephemera. Prominently featured near the entrance to the Arsenale, a video samples iterations of Anna Halprin’s Planetary Dance (1981–), an annual ritual first performed to reclaim the hiking trails of Mount Tamalpais in Northern California after seven women were murdered there. Planetary Dance resonates with indigenous notions of dance as a form of community healing; according to the work’s legend, cited in a wall text and the Biennale catalogue, Halprin met with an elder from the Native American Huichol tribe after the first dance, and he advised her to repeat it. After the third performance, the “Trailside Killer” was caught. Since then, Planetary Dance has been performed around the world. A large print of its score hangs on the wall of the Arsenale, beside photographs showing how Halprin’s choreography has been realized in Poland, Peru, Australia, Japan, and elsewhere. 

Environmental architect Bonnie Ora Sherk organizes gardens in neglected neighborhoods, transforming communities not only physically through the introduction of greenery but also socially, by bringing people together to learn skills through the implementation of her plans. Photographs and documents in the Arsenale selected from decades of material show people working in Crossroads Community (The Farm), 1974–, a garden in a once-derelict lot by a freeway in San Francisco, and A Living Library (1981–), a plot in New York’s Bryant Park.

Sherk’s work is displayed opposite documentation of several projects by Nicolás García Uriburu (1937–2016), an Argentinian artist engaged in social and environmental activism. During the 1968 Venice Biennale—an edition marred by violence, as local police repressed protesting artists—he dyed the Grand Canal green. García Uriburu organized these dye actions in cities around the world, a message of unity against the division of the globe into an imperialist North and exploited South.[pq]Any ambitious exhibition will challenge viewers’ expectations for what can happen in the gallery.[/pq]

Several installations include people at work in the galleries. Their presence has been cited in reviews as evidence of Macel’s political cluelessness. Huni Kuin Indians are performing rituals in Ernesto Neto’s Um Sagrado Lugar (A Sacred Place, 2017), in the Arsenale, and refugees (many from Africa) are building modular lamps with green bulbs in Olafur Eliasson’s Green light—An artistic workshop (2016–), in the Central Pavilion. Dan Fox wrote for Frieze that these works add up to “a sightseer’s guide to different ways of life that in some places comes close to fetishizing alterity.” 7 If you understand the exhibition space as a one-way channel where the viewer consumes the work, Fox is right. But that’s not how these artists approach it. While Eliasson has greater name recognition in the art world than Halprin, García Uriburu, or Sherk, he is as unbeholden to the white cube as they are. His work has always been intensely collaborative, and he uses art as a means for bringing people from diverse disciplines and backgrounds together. His Green light project (which has also been realized in Vienna and Houston) creates a bubble for alternative ways of engaging with art, interrupting the pace of tourist shuffling.

Any ambitious exhibition will challenge viewers’ expectations for what can happen in the gallery. In “Viva Arte Viva,” Macel has endeavored to build an atmosphere of earnest exchange. Open Table, a program that invites visitors to enjoy a free lunch with a Biennale artist, and the video interviews posted to the Biennale’s website reinforce the curator’s commitment to conversation and conviviality. The problem is that most critics can’t shake the habit of treating artworks as images and products. They stroll through the Arsenale like you scroll down an image feed, sometimes pausing to register approval, but ignoring most of it. In this regime of reception, which is exacerbated by the expanding scale of international shows and the shrinking time to publication for reviews, it’s easy for a stereotype about a show—that it’s backward, apolitical, out of touch—to get parroted so much it sounds like the truth rather than the shallow distortion it is. That’s the drawback to being of the moment.


CURRENTLY ON VIEW “Viva Arte Viva,” at the Venice Biennale, through Nov. 26.