(The) Contemporary: Reflections on the 55th Venice Biennale

Sarah Sze, Triple Point, 2013, mixed media. Installation view, US pavilion, Venice, 2013. Photo by the author.

The 55th installment of the Venice Biennale has come to a close, ending yet another months-long, ever-expansive spectacle of contemporary art seen by 475,000 visitors, in a century’s old city that remains a spectacle in and of itself. The sheer scale and scope of the exhibition–this year comprised of a main exhibition curated by Massimiliano Gioni entitled The Encyclopedic Palace that included 150 artists, 88 participating nations, and close to 50 collateral events–makes seeing everything and subsequently reflecting upon it nearly impossible. I visited in early November while on a research trip, and I am surprised by how much my experience at, and of, this year’s Biennale has stayed with me, by how profound an impact it has had on me as an art historian. I say surprised not only because I am disposed to a cynical suspicion about now-ubiquitous international contemporary art biennales and fairs, which somehow manage to be both bloated and vacuous, but also because, as a historian who works on postwar art of the not-so-distant past, my relationship to “the contemporary” and “contemporary art,” both in regards to my teaching and scholarship, has felt rather tortured of late.

Jeremy Deller, English Magic, 2013. Installation view of the entrance to the British Pavilion, Venice, 2013. Photo by the author.

The concept of  “(the) contemporary” and the categorical label of “contemporary art,” are fragile and multiplicitous, used so often and with so little specificity they become the catchall for everything and nothing at all. My intention here is neither to provide a definitive answer to the meaning of these terms (for far more thorough examples of this see, Giorgio Agamben’s “What is the Contemporary? (2009),” Peter Osborne’s Anywhere or Not At All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art (2013), and the extensive collection of texts published as “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary’” in October (Fall 2009, No. 130, Pages 3-124)), nor offer anything resembling a proper review of the Biennale as such. Instead, I want to reflect on how the 55th Biennale provided insight or rather a palpable opportunity to confront “the contemporary.” I am aware of how obvious such a premise is considering that the stated purpose of the Biennale is the presentation of “contemporary art,” but the work on view this year seemed to be wrestling, explicitly, with what such a designation actually means.

Richard Serra, Pasolini, 1985. Installation view of The Encyclopedic Palace, Central pavilion, Venice, 2013. Photo by the author.

The Encyclopedic Palace sections, overly concerned with social action or engagement in a “relational aesthetic”-sort of vein, but rather displayed private, inner worlds filled with a menagerie of objects and images, created by a range of individuals from bluechip artists like Richard Serra to autodidacts, non-artists, and “outsiders,” like the 19th century Wisconsin folk sculptor Levi Fisher Ames. Gioni, in his catalogue essay, “Is Everything in My Mind?” writes: “These personal cosmologies, with their delusions of omniscience, shed light on the constant challenge of reconciling the self with the universe, the subject with the collective, the specific with the general, and the individual with the culture of her time. Today, as we grapple with a constant flood of information, such attempts to structure knowledge into all-inclusive systems seem even more necessary and even more desperate (The Encyclopedic Palace: biennale arte 2013, 23).”

Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Plötzlich diese Übersicht (Suddenly This Overview), 1981. Installation view of The Encyclopedic Palace, Central pavilion, Venice, 2013. Photo by author.

The works I thought were the strongest, or perhaps more honestly put, my favorites were those that spoke to the inherent fracture or disjunction embedded in contemporary art through a serious (if at times playful) interrogation of the things that comprise the contemporary world; works that, to quote Terry Smith, are “doubt-filled gestures, equivocal objects, bemused paradoxes, tentative projections, diffident proposals, or wishful anticipations,” that serve as “interrogations into the ontology of the present that ask: what is it to exist in the conditions of contemporaneity (“Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary,’ October (2009): 54)?”

Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser, The 387 Houses of Peter Fritz (1916-1992), Insurance Clerk from Vienna, 1993-2008. Installation view of The Encyclopedic Palace, Central pavilion, Venice, 2013. Photo by the author.

In many Biennales of the recent past there has been a disconnect between the central exhibition and the works shown in the national pavilions, and while there was the usual range of artistic quality on view, this year’s Biennale should a tremendous amount of confluence, something that confirmed the strength of Gioni’s curatorial proposition presented in “The Encyclopedic Palace.”  There of course was a range of quality and conceptual premises on view, but for those not buying into Gioni’s construct, this broader convergence of how to wrestle with knowledge, history, and the stuff making up the universe was instead symptomatic of a “timeless present” and hermetic universalism that made for a conservative, banal Biennale. As Benjamin Buchloh writes in his recent assessment, “The Entropic Palace,” “Gioni’s either charmingly naïve or cunningly disingenuous strategies try to revitalize a myth of universally accessible creativity at the very moment when globally accelerated technological and economic pressures erase even its last vestiges in the cultural formations of the collective and the subject (Artforum (September 2013): 312).” Gioni specifically states that The Encyclopedic Palace did not have “universalist aims (28),” and while the extent to which he succeeded or failed is clearly up for debate, my own experience of the dense, labyrinthine exhibition was not one of ahistoricism or naïve mythological spectacle. There was a thoughtful quietness and subtle investigation into the continued and continual relevance of highly individualized eccentricities, fears, dreams, and perspecitves alongside, and at times intermeshed within, evocations of parables, narratives, and archetypes.

Sarah Sze, Triple Point. Installation View. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging, courtesy of Sarah Sze.

The work that has gnawed at me from the moment I left it is Sarah Sze’s Triple Point. The official entry from the United States, the intricate, multipart work took over the whole of the country’s neoclassical pavilion dating from the 1930s, but also extended outward into the streets of Venice. Sze self-identifies as a sculptor, and while it is easy to see why, she does represent a paradigm shift within the practice of sculpture, or at least a radically new approach. The title of the work comes from thermodynamics, designating the moment when all three phases of a substance (gas, liquid, and solid) exist in perfect equilibrium. The scientific reference is far from coincidental, as the work is a polysensorial explosion of aesthetic, scientific, and material phenomena.

Sarah Sze, Triple Point. Installation View. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging, courtesy of Sarah Sze.

Triple Point is a massive sculptural and architectural installation, and yet it manages to avoid the spectacularization of so much recent “installation art,” grounded in small, quiet details from twine wrapped rocks to an material intervention in the cleaning cupboard, which feels almost uncomfortable intimate and private. It is a remarkable feat to create a tone of absence in the midst of so much presence, to evoke such profoundly immaterial concepts through an almost overwhelming accumulation of materials. Sze states that she wants to create sculptures that retain an aesthetic function while simultaneously purporting to be devices that “calculate time, measure space, understand behavior—mechanisms that make measurements of things that are ultimately beyond our capacity to understand. Inevitably they fail in that pursuit, like an encyclopedia that goes out of date the minute you finish it. (Sarah Sze: Triple Point (New York: Bronx Museum of the Arts, 113).”

Sarah Sze, Triple Point. Installation View. Photo by the author.

What Triple Point reminded me was that in “the contemporary” there is a tremendous and powerful potential to look back, to engage and re-engage with both personal and grand narratives without falling into a trap of reductive, uncritical referentiality, or retrograde conservatism. As Sze states, she wants to play with a multiplicity of interpretations in her immersive sculptures, “to create a place where it seems impossible to take it all in at once. A place that swings between states or narratives at odds with each other… I want you to be located when you walk in the door and then dislocated and then relocated as move through the work, to create this constant experience of teetering (“Sarah Sze and Jennifer Egan Studio Visit,” in Sarah Sze: Triple Point, eds. Carey Lovelace and Holly Block (New York: Bronx Museum of the Arts, 2013), 107-108).” I cannot think of a better way to describe not just the 55th Venice Biennale, but also the best of contemporary art. It is the overwhelming and instable nature of the threshold, its inherent teetering, that defines the contemporary condition, and gives me hope for the future, however naively optimistic that may be to say.


One thought on “(The) Contemporary: Reflections on the 55th Venice Biennale

  1. Marin —- thanks for this personal review of the Biennale. I particularly appreciated your comments on Sze’s work because they highlight the fundamental conflict between installations (by their nature ephemeral, often seen only by the élite) and conventional sculpture that is available for later perusal and reconsideration.
    On a somewhat different but related matter, I found Nick Paumgarten’s New Yorker article on David Zwirmer to be illuminating but somehow discouraging:

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