#Hashtags: The Ideological Venice Biennale

The title of this year’s Venice Biennale, Il Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace), illuminates the event’s political ideology via its philosophical and curatorial conceits. The main exhibition centers on a utopian fantasy of comprehensive knowledge, aspiring to a completist vision of human achievement with the caveat of inevitable failure built in. Though self-reflective in that sense, this theme does not acknowledge the long shadow of cultural erasure that the rhetoric of total objective knowledge has cast since the Age of Empire. Rather, the show celebrates a primitivist rhetoric of “naïve” knowledge as a foil for the rationality of European academicism. As such, it reinforces age-old cultural hierarchies that have remained surprisingly intact in contemporary times.

Marino Auriti. The Encyclopedic Palace of the World, c. 1950s. Wood, plastic, glass, metal, hair combs, and model kit parts. American Folk Art Museum, gift of Colette Auriti Firmani in memory of Marino Auriti, 2002.35.1. Photo by the author.

Marino Auriti. The Encyclopedic Palace of the World, c. 1950s. Wood, plastic, glass, metal, hair combs, and model kit parts. American Folk Art Museum, gift of Colette Auriti Firmani in memory of Marino Auriti; photo by the author

This ideological subtext is absent from the discourse around the exhibition. For example, Kadist Art Foundation has supported a smartphone app for Biennale-goers, The Venice Biennale Ideological Guide, created by Dutch artist Jonas Staal. This guide evaluates each national pavilion according to the political and demographic conditions of each sponsoring nation. The ideological position of each nation’s ruling party is articulated, as is the ideological bent of each contributing writer. However, no critique is offered of the main exhibition that sets the tone for the whole event.

What, then, is the ideology of The Encyclopedic Palace? In its mash-up of Enlightenment classification and Romantic visioning, the show quotes an eighteenth-century cabinet of curiosities that fluctuates between science and mysticism. This is a museological framework that has served to mark and isolate large groups of people as Others for centuries, from women to the working class, disabled, or racially and culturally different. Curator Massimiliano Gioni has included a number of compelling mid-century artists whose work has been largely overlooked, often because they are women (such as Hilma af Klimt and Emma Kunz), or self-taught (such as Achilles G. Rizzoli and Marino Auriti, after whose work the exhibition is named). This is necessary and commendable in as much as he positions metaphysical goals for art to counter the consumption-based values of globalization. However, Gioni falls short because his embrace of a romantic perspective regarding outsider artists, which was popularized by André Breton at the start of the last century, lacks the self-awareness that would elevate his project above smoothing a path for these rediscovered artists to likewise be consumed by the art market. In this exhibition, outsider artists are celebrated as visionaries but still characterized as lacking in intellectual or decision-making capacities. Therefore, their works are celebrated, but their full humanity is denied. Furthermore, while artists from the developed world are lauded for transcending social and academic norms in their quests for metaphysical knowledge, artists from the developing world are described as continuing traditions, rather than reinventing them. This reflects two entrenched biases of imperialism—that artists from the developing world are capable only of emulating, rather than inventing and that non-Western cultures maintain only spiritual traditions to the exclusion of other modes of inquiry.

Guo Fengyi. Image Becoming Reality, 1990. Ink on paper. Photo by the author.

Guo Fengyi. Image Becoming Reality, 1990. Ink on paper. Photo by the author.

The exhibition is divided between self-taught and professionally trained artists. For an example of the phenomena that I describe above, it is instructive to compare the treatment of two Chinese artists, one of whom has come up through the contemporary art system, the other of whom is regarded as a naïve artist. Kan Xuan is represented with a bank of video monitors that display footage of Imperial tombs within China, many of which now function as tourist sites. Her work, which takes an archaeological and technological view of her culture, is “contemporary” because she quantifies local traditions within a structure of classification and analysis derived from European models. In contrast, the late Guo Fengyi, a self-taught artist, is considered a visionary who conducted, rather than created, imagery. Guo engaged with “cosmologies” of the body in drawings related to the traditions of Qi Gong. This is an ancient healing practice, equally tied to Chinese medical precedents as it is to spiritual ones. Guo was practicing Qi Gong at a time when Chinese authorities were severely prosecuting leaders of groups engaged in the practice as charlatans spreading irrational pseudo-science (but also as potential political rivals to the party oligarchy). She was attempting to heal her own labor-induced injuries and those of others. As such, her assertion of faith as her artistic motivation was an act of political subversion. Nonetheless, possible understandings of her practice of Qi Gong or of art are limited to talk of ancient Chinese spirit wisdom, never rational choice. Kan, whose work is encyclopedic and data-driven, is allowed the capacity for thought, while Guo is described as acting on instinct. The distinction between Kan as an “insider” and Guo as an “outsider” also speaks to the ways in which non-Western artists are pressured to articulate their concerns in European-American terms or be characterized as lacking in intellectual capacity.

Elsewhere, works are included by unnamed artists from a range of folk traditions, including members of the American Shaker sect, Chicano convicts making paño arte, shamans of the Solomon Islands, Vodou banner artists from Haiti, and anonymous Tantric painters from Rajasthan. The justification for these selections is steeped in unreconstructed Primitivism. Folk artists are nameless and preserve traditions, while academic artists who borrow from their practices are authors and inventors. The way in which this plays into a division between artists in the developing world and those in the developed world is exemplified by the treatment of artists from South Asia. In the case of the Rajasthani Tantric painters, the works are contemporary and have market value. Yet the artists who have made these remarkable abstract works, in which color and form are employed on a small scale in a manner reminiscent of large-scale paintings by Ellsworth Kelly, Sean Scully, and Mark Rothko, are not granted commensurate value to the works they have created. They are described as continuing an ancient spiritual practice with no acknowledgement of the influence that said practice has had on the Modernist canon, or of the academic figurative tradition of South Asia from which these works wholly depart. Meanwhile Imran Qureshi, a Pakistani art star who works in academic figuration, is placed adjacent to “visionary” artists from Europe without acknowledgement of his highly developed skills or extensive historical research, suggesting that his work is also “naïve.” The inclusion of an artist such as Syed Haider Raza, who has for decades made paintings based on Tantric practices but using the methods of Modernist abstraction, would have helped to mitigate the narrative by bridging gaps. Raza, an Indian who has worked in France for much of his career, has not been included in a Venice Biennale since 1956 and is precisely the kind of artist whom Gioni has taken pains to include in other cases: possessed by a singular vision, reconciling disparate spiritual traditions, and under-recognized by art history.

Shinro Ohtake. Artist book, undated. Photo by the author.

Shinro Ohtake. Artist book, undated. Photo by the author.

Due to Gioni’s close adherence to these nineteenth-century ideologies, The Encyclopedic Palace is ultimately a good-looking but flat-footed exhibition. There are moments of greatness. Among the historical works, Carl Jung’s original plates for the Red Book are exquisite visual explorations of his theory of the collective unconscious which drew heavily on nineteenth-century spiritualism as a synthesis of Eastern and Western mythologies. Equally graceful are colorful paintings by Senegalese painter Papa Ibra Taal and bizarre Surrealist works by Italian-American illustrator Domenico Gnoli. A contemporary highlight is the gallery of handmade artist books by Japanese artist and musician Shinro Ohtake, who assembles any materials at hand into his journals, from advertisements to guitar parts. Another show-stopper is the video Grosse Fatigue by French artist Camille Henrot, which speaks directly to how our contemporary quest for knowledge has adapted to the Internet age while maintaining the modes of collecting, preservation, appropriation, “orthography, carnography, zoology, physiology…” and so forth, that were established during the Enlightenment. Ohtake’s work foregrounds the reality that nearly all of the world’s cultures are engaged in a similar negotiation between nostalgia for established traditions and adaptation to the brave new world in which we live. Henrot’s work is a meditation on the impossibility of gaining an objective point of view in the study of our own human cultures, lives, and selves. Both of these viewpoints are sadly absent from the exhibition’s curatorial perspective, which celebrates knowing and not knowing, but never acknowledges the space in between. This is indicative of a contemporary paradigm in which artists inhabit a twenty-first century milieu while institutions and their curators still struggle to adapt their ideas and methods to the twentieth.

The Encyclopedic Palace and the 55th Venice Biennale are on view through November 24, 2013.

#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.