The Good, the Bad, and the… Huh? Ranking the Venice Biennale’s Standout Moments

Further thoughts on events in and around the much-scrutinized 2017 art fest.

Artists perform at the opening of the Chinese pavilion, presenting
Artists perform at the opening of the Chinese pavilion, presenting "Continuum-Generation by Generation" of Tang Nannan, Wu Jianan, Wang Tianwen, Yao Huifen, is seen at Arsenale during the 57th Internaztional Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia on May 10, 2017 in Venice, Italy.Photo by Awakening/Getty Images.

Cleverest Use of State Power 

Of all the nations presenting a pavilion at the Biennale, China tends to be the most interested in using their stage as a way of projecting a state-engineered political message. This year, one is immediately surrounded by artworks across mediums that celebrate the ocean and its watery ecosystem. At a time when the United States is stepping back from its position as a global leader in combating climate change, China clearly wants to make the statement on the world stage that it is thinking about sustainability and ecological initiatives (along with globalism) in a way that makes it the visionary geopolitical leader for the 21st century. (Andrew Goldstein)

Frank Walter, <em>Polaroid Photograph</em>, (1992). Photo by Kenneth M. Milton Fine Arts Conservation. Courtesy of Estate of Frank Walter

Frank Walter, Polaroid Photograph, (1992). Photo by Kenneth M. Milton Fine Arts Conservation. Courtesy of Estate of Frank Walter

Best Rediscovery

I gotta give credit to ARTnews scribe Andrew Russeth, who always seems to somehow see everything, for recommending that we go check out the Antigua and Barbuda pavilion. I’m glad I did. “Frank Walter: The Last Universal Man 1926–2009” happens to be the first ever outing in Venice for the Caribbean commonwealth, and also happens to be great: an illuminating, scholarly look at the life and art of a figure who has been compared to Adolf Wölfli and Henry Darger, but who has a story too riveting and singular to butcher by abbreviating it here. Just go take a look. (Ben Davis)

A picture shows the artwork "Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands" by US artist Sheila Hicks, on May 10, 2017 in Venice during the press preview of the 57th International Art Exhibition Biennale. Photo credit should read Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images.

A picture shows the artwork “Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands” by US artist Sheila Hicks, on May 10, 2017 in Venice during the press preview of the 57th International Art Exhibition Biennale. Photo Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images.

Most Dramatic Pairing

In the main “Arte Viva Arte” show, coming to the end of the long enfilade of galleries in the Arsenale, the final space pitted Takesada Matsutani’s Venice Stream against Sheila Hicks’s Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands. All measured grace and restraint, Matsutani’s work offered a vast, suspended roll of lead-colored paper that poured down the wall and across the ground. On it sat a ceremonial dish bearing a sphere covered in black ink dripped from a sack in the ceiling. Squaring off against it was Hicks’s riot of tufted fiber balls and suspended textile works.The H8trs may have stacked up against sewing, spirituality and hippydom in Macel’s Biennale, but this face-off was spirit raising. (Hettie Judah)

Visitors look the installation of France artist Kader Attia at the opening of the Venice Biennale. Photo by Awakening/Getty Images.

Visitors look at Narrative Vibrations by Kader Attia at the opening of the Venice Biennale. Photo by Awakening/Getty Images.

Most Lulling Artwork

Again in Macel’s “Viva Arte Viva,” Kader Attia’s Narrative Vibrations explored the special powers of the human voice. One gallery featured storied female vocalists from the Arabic-speaking world, whose singing caused exceptional vibrations to appear on domed enclosures of couscous attached to the speakers. So far, so enervating. By way of comedown, however, the film Prosody offered recordings of older women with beautifully resonant and textured French speaking voices, reading the poems of Rachida Madani. It was like having the greatest grandmas in the world telling us a bedtime story. (HJ)

PAULINE CURNIER JARDIN Grotto Profundo, Approfundita, 2016 in "Viva Arte Viva." Image: Ben Davis.

Pauline Curnier Jardin, Grotto Profundo, Approfundita (2016) in “Viva Arte Viva.” Image: Ben Davis.

Best Thing About “Viva Arte Viva”

Sure, “Viva Arte Viva” sounds a little woolly and naive and indeed, walking through its “pavilions,” it did feel like that. But the result was pretty much like the exact opposite of Okwui Enwezor’s heavy-handed “All The World’s Futures,” in the best possible way. While Enwezor’s group show was earnest and political, often at the expense of the artworks on display, Macel’s felt alive, hopeful, and open-ended, allowing viewers to follow their own paths and create their own threads and interpretations. There’s something to be said for that. (Lorena Muñoz-Alonso)

Mikelis Fišers, <em>Aliens Force Musicians</em> (2017). Image courtesy Latvian Pavilion.

Mikelis Fišers, Aliens Force Musicians (2017). Image courtesy Latvian Pavilion.

Oddest Painting

At the Lavtian Pavilion, as part of his show “What Can Go Wrong,” Mikelis Fišers created a suite of panel paintings depicting the horrific doings of lizard people and aliens as they cruelly torment mankind, including this scene showing an alien conducting a fecal symphony while another alien whips the musicians, while the dead conductor hangs from the rafters. (AG)

The Italian Pavilion, presenting Roberto Cuoghi's Imitation of Christ. Photo by Awakening/Getty Images.

The Italian Pavilion, presenting Roberto Cuoghi’s Imitation of Christ. Photo by Awakening/Getty Images.

Most Anecdote-Worthy

At the Italian pavilion, Roberto Cuoghi’s factory production line of lifelike Jesus figures cast in unstable organic material. Stepping through the medical-grade inflatable mortuary to see the ‘corpses’ in various stages of realistic putrefaction and desiccation was horrifying. The cryogenics lab built at the end to freeze them in perpetuity was a grim coda. (HJ)

Work by Giorgio Andreotta Caló in the Italian Pavilion. Image: Andrew Goldstein.

Work by Giorgio Andreotta Caló, Senza titolo (La fine del mondo) in the Italian Pavilion. Image: Andrew Goldstein.

Most (Literally) Reflective Artwork

Also in the Italian Pavilion, Giorgio Andreotta Caló creates a spellbinding mirage by using scaffolding to hoist a shallow pool of water high above the ground in order to create a mirror image of his building’s pitched roof, bringing the viewer into a strange and beguiling netherworld. Called Senza titolo (La fine del mondo), it echoes an ancient Roman myth about a pit provided a portal to both heaven and hell. (AG)

The Austrian pavillon, presenting 'Brigitte Kowanz Erwin Wurm' of Brigitte Kowanz e Erwin Wurm. Photo by Awakening/Getty Images.

The Austrian pavillon, presenting Erwin Wurm. Photo by Awakening/Getty Images.

Most Fun

By all accounts, the “One Minute Sculptures” of Erwin Wurm at the Austrian Pavilion. (BD)

The Korean Pavillon, presenting 'Counterbalance: The Stone and the Mountain' Images courtesy Awakening/Getty Images.

The Korean Pavillon, presenting “Counterbalance: The Stone and the Mountain” Images courtesy Awakening/Getty Images.

Most Flamboyant Pavilion

There’s a lot going on in the South Korea pavilion, and the facade leaves no doubt that the Koreans came to play: It goes full-on hyper-pop, via a huge neon sign with an intertwined tiger and dragon, and ads for a sleazy motel offering “Free Orgasm.” (BD)

Actors perform in <em>;Faust</em>by German artist Anne Imhof during the press preview of the 57th International Art Exhibition Biennale, on May 9, 2017 in Venice. .Photo by Giacomo Cosua/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

Doberman pinschers in Faust by German artist Anne Imhof during the press preview of the 57th International Art Exhibition Biennale, on May 9, 2017 in Venice. Photo by Giacomo Cosua/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

 

Worst Thing About the Best Pavilion

Everyone loved Ann Imhof’s Golden Lion-winning Faust, but not everyone is a fan of the use of two Doberman pinschers, guarding the doors of the German Pavilion. Yes, the result was indeed unnerving and powerful and yes, she’s been employing animals in her performances for some time now (hares, donkeys, falcons). Still, using living animals felt wrong here since, unlike her performers, they didn’t choose to be displayed in cages for hours on end, especially in the sun and heat of Venice surrounded by gazing, photo-snapping crowds. (LMA)

Visitors attend at the opening of the Italian Pavilion. Photo by Awakening/Getty Images.

Visitors attend at the opening of the Italian Pavilion. Photo by Awakening/Getty Images.

Worst Thing in General

Obviously: The omnipresent queues. Queues to enter most pavilions (the one to enter Imhof’s was reported to last longer than one hour); queues to get close to some of the artworks in the group show; queues in every kiosk to buy coffee and sandwiches… The whole thing made covering the Biennale during preview week a durational performance in itself. (LMA)

Claudia Fontes’s “The Horse Problem.” Image: Ben Davis.

Claudia Fontes’s “The Horse Problem.” Image: Ben Davis.

Biggest Huh

OK, Claudia Fontes’s Argentine Pavilion, dubbed “The Horse Problem,” is actually meant as a reflection on national identity, inspired somehow by the 1892 painting The return of the Indian raid. On the other hand, it also looks like Fearless Girl did some ayahuasca. (BD)

Most Mortifying Instagram

Ernesto Neto brought a group of Huni Kuin Indians to perform at the Biennale as part of his participation in the main show. The resulting spectacle may have been well intentioned but it looked, well… take a look for yourself:

#biennaledivenezia new #coachella ? #ernestoneto 🦋

A post shared by Laura O. (@laleliuleu) on


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