Reading the Palace

Shinichi Sawada, Untitled, 2006-7. Photo Francesco Galli.



This year’s director of the Venice Biennale, Massimiliano Gioni, has titled the main exhibition “The Encyclopedic Palace:” in other words, a Museum of Everything. Indeed, the grandiosity of the concept could have easily concealed a too-vague means of snapshotting a curator’s anxious, up-to-the-second notion of “the contemporary.” Yet Gioni, associate director and director of exhibitions at New York’s New Museum, is too clever to make such a fatal mistake. Armed with an airtight sense of purpose, an artist’s eye and an awareness of the subversive powers of subtlety, his palace could be taken as a model for all those skeptic-idealists who cling to the demand that a biennial should not be an ordeal to traverse. It includes artists from the anti-canon of so-called outsider art—including Shinichi Sawada, Hilma af Klint and Eugene Von Bruenchenhein—as well as more renegade art world insider-outsiders, such as Dieter Roth, Maria Lassnig and R. Crumb.

Which is not to say that the exhibition’s accessibility comes without challenges. It’s more that the challenges, well selected, are a joy to get through—more akin to the fun of a child’s board game than the head-scratching hermeticism of serious-minded conceptual folly.

For this year’s central exhibition, situated according to tradition in the Arsenale and the Italian Pavilion, Gioni has installed two departure points-slash-framing devices: The Encyclopedic Palace of the World (ca. 1950s) by Italian-born, Pennsylvania-based auto mechanic-cum-self-trained artist Marino Auriti (1891-1980) andThe Red Book (written 1914-1930, published 2009)  by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961). Neither of the two considered themselves artists in the professional sense. Auriti’s palace called upon—and expanded—the ancient form of the Roman memory palace, making it into a means of preserving all vestiges of human knowledge.

Jung’s Red Book was a personal compilation of hallucinatory visuals and calligraphic text that was begun around the time of the psychoanalyst’s break with Freud exactly 100 years ago, and represents a period when Jung attempted to mine his “inner images” and explore his unconscious in depth—though some biographers regard the resulting manuscript as the product of a psychotic episode. Gioni’s inclusion of theRed Book (at the entrance to the Italian Pavilion) alongside Auriti’s scale model of his never-to-be-actualized tower (fronting the Arsenale exhibition) effectively proposes an alternate history to our late Enlightenment menu of science, progress and rationalism—namely myth, cyclicity and dream.

Naturally, there is also a lot of new work on display. Much deserving of its hoopla, Ryan Trecartin’s untitled video installation manages to perfectly encapsulate Gioni’s thesis, evoking an eternal teenagehood where all people have evolved into animations and references to the “human era” denigrate the recent past as ancient history. PaweÅ? Althamer’s haunting room titled Venetians contains the cast hands and faces of dozens of the city’s residents—many of them of African descent—with skeletal bodies dripping ribbonlike threads of gray plastic. For these two works alone, Gioni can be forgiven for his rare lapses into the unfortunately overhyped. (I don’t really care how the Golden Lion jury attempts to defend it, Tino Sehgal’s annoying beatboxer performance is flagrantly idiotic.)

We can rest assured that the paint-bashing trend of certain biennales in years past seems to have abated. This year, I was introduced to Jakub Julian Ziólkowski via his grotesque Boschian headfuck paintings, brimming with eyeballs, teeth and literary motifs, and relished Thierry De Cordier’s stunning canvases of brooding, murderous seas, which, placed in the same room as Richard Serra’s sculpture Pasolini (1985),show off Gioni’s eye.

There is, however, no favoring of “contemporaneity” here—one is just as likely to bump into Duane Hanson’sBus Stop Lady (1983) or encounter Laurie Simmons and Allan McCollum’s Actual Photos(1985)—disturbing microscopic portraits of toy figurines that appear melted, mutated—though, as the examples imply, the focus here is more on forgotten than canonical works.

While it would be a stretch to deem this the “Art Brut Biennale,” the success of Gioni’s bold production signals a move beyond “the contemporary” as the default category we have relied upon for far too long, and a vertical turn towards the personal. That is not to conflate the personal with the narcissistic; rather, Gioni proposes a dissolution of popular conceptions of inclusivity and exclusivity, and particularly how they are conceived of in the art world. What the “Encyclopedic Palace” ultimately offers are multiple examples of the extra-exclusionary, which may be nothing more than that fleeting moment in the act of creation when other people don’t exist—just me and my god(s).