Letter from Venice

This report from the Venice architecture biennale appeared in the September 2021 issue of Art Monthly:

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‘Stop Painting’ exhibition view at the Prada Foundation

As I stepped off the train at Venezia Santa Lucia and made my way from the station to where I was staying, trusting in the winding lanes and the odd sign to channel me to the right place, there was no human traffic flow to follow along and rely upon for orientation. The city felt unseasonably quiet and void of human presence, except for some idle gondoliers chatting together by a bridge. ‘It doesn’t just feel that way,’ the hotel receptionist concurred. ‘It’s actually empty.’ During the next couple of days the tell-tale sound of suitcases being wheeled along pavements and over bridges would resume, but on the eve of the architectural exhibition opening La Serenissima for once lived up to its name.

In the normal run of things, this would have been the art biennale preview and art tourists would be descending on the city in droves. I missed the last one, but didn’t Ralph Rugoff’s curatorial conceit hinge on a Chinese proverb, or curse, ‘May You Live In Interesting Times’? The words (and their source) now feel bitterly ironic. The pandemic has wreaked havoc with biennale scheduling, as with everything else, resulting in the postponement by a year of the architectural exhibition, which had a knock on effect on the 59th art biennale. And yet, given the number of high-profile art shows timed to coincide with the architectural exhibition and the hybrid nature of several national pavilions, hovering somewhere between art and architecture, one would be forgiven for thinking this was the year of the art biennale.

Last time I had seen Peter Fischli’s work in Venice – the Swiss duo Fischli/Weiss’s series of delightful unfired clay figurines mounted onto plinths at the Central Pavilion – would have been in 2013 as part of the 55th Art Biennale, Massimiliano Gioni’s ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’. This time round, the artist had been given a free hand to curate a group show at Fondazione Prada’s Venetian venue, a baroque palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal. ‘Stop Painting’, the resulting exhibition, identifies a number of ‘ruptures’ or paradigmatic shifts that have called into question the titular medium over the last century and a half. In its associative logic, eschewing a chronological approach, the show made me think of a memory palace, not unlike Aby Warburg’s Bilderatlas Mnemosyne, encyclopedic in its breadth yet quirky and personal.

One striking feature of ‘Stop Painting’ is a scaled-down (1:8) architectural model of the show, a sort of doll’s house large enough to warrant the title Modellone, 2021, presented on the palazzo’s ground floor. It contains pinned-up miniature versions of the artworks as well as texts Fischli wrote for each of the ten constituent sections, spread over the first floor within a set of specially-built exhibition walls that encroach on the original architecture. A similarly bold, Mnemosyne-like confrontation of old and new is present in featured works such as Alain Jacquet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1964, referencing Edouard Manet’s iconic work by that title,and Andrea Fraser’s Untitled (De Kooning / Raphael) # 1, 1984/2005, which morphs paintings by the eponymous artists.

Although the show brings together works by 80 artists, these were and are still active in some of the more obvious centres of modern and contemporary artistic production, located mostly in the West. A lot of the artworks on display hark back to New York or Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s, and the ‘stories of negation and creation’ they tell are familiar ones. The contributions by younger artists, Morag Keil and Leidy Churchman among them, appear to be there largely so as to consider the role painting may play in the digital age.

Bruce Nauman, whose Untitled (Flour Arrangements), 1967, is included in Fischli’s show, revisits a performance initially made and documented at roughly the same time for his ‘Contrapposto Studies’ solo show at Punta della Dogana – to more powerful effect. Contrapposto Studies, I Through VI, 2015/2016, shows off the possibilities of new media in a series of large-scale video installations that portray the fragmented body of the aged performer as he reenacts his Walk with Contrapposto, 1968, screened on a simple monitor in a separate room. The multichannel split projection, accompanied by a soundtrack of growing complexity, complicates the contorted image at its core in a way that recalls the art of fugue.

Walking along the lagoon from Punta della Dogana, I stumbled upon the nomadic Lebanese pavilion, which has taken over one of the Magazzini del Sale for the duration of the Biennale. The boundaries between art and architecture appeared yet again blurred in this alluring multimedia project, built around Etel Adnan’s sequence of round paintings housed in a monumental circular structure serving as a shrine to Olivéa, a goddess of the Lebanese poet and painter’s invention. This delicate body of work resonates with the sixteen millennial olive trees of Bchaaleh in Lebanon captured in Fouad Elkoury’s black-and-white photographs and the video triptych depicting the same trees shot at night by Alain Fleischer.

Legend has it that an olive branch plucked off one of the trees and carried back by a dove to Noah’s Ark announced to its occupants that the flood waters were at last receding. ‘The Ark Re-Imagined’, artist Rashad Salim’s expeditionary pavilion – in what is Iraq’s inaugural participation at the Venice Architecture Biennale – likewise started out as an art project. The artist set about reintroducing in the country he represents the modest-sized circular vessels made of reed that recall the coil basket in which Moses was set afloat in the biblical story. For the artist, speaking at Ocean Space in the deconsecrated church of San Lorenzo where the TBA21 Academy has set up home, the ark is a memory palace as are the ancient boat-building techniques passed down by generations of craftsmen. ‘The boat is an artwork, if you can identify the maker,’ says Salim, who sees himself merely as an archeologist of the archives.

Civilisation was born in the marshes, according to Salim, who in the same talk drew a parallel between Venice and Basra in southern Iraq, a lesser-known city of canals and waterways. One of the more intriguing and visually arresting proposals addressing the question put to the biennale participants by biennale curator Hashim Sarkis – ‘How will we live together?’ – came from the Brazilian Atelier Marko Brajovic. ‘Amphibious: Living Between Water and Land in the Amazon’ illustrates by means of lit-up resin models mounted onto white round counter tops covered in diagrams and drawings both human and non-human ways of adapting to the constantly shifting liquid landscape of the Amazon, including an amphibious floating village made up of interconnected off-grid units – a Noah’s Ark of sorts, fit for the Anthropocene age.