A visitor takes a selfie in front of Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands, an installation by American artist Sheila Hicks, during the 57th Venice Biennale. Photo: Reuters

Venice Biennale 2017 round-up: political undertones everywhere, but it’s not all despair and anger

Featuring standout works by Franz Erhard Walther, Anne Imhof, Mark Bradford, Lee Mingwei – and Hong Kong’s own Firenze Lai and Samson Young – biennale rarely disappoints, but everyone’s still talking about Damien Hirst

This year’s main exhibition at the Venice Biennale sets out both to remind an angry, frightened world that there are shared, humanist instincts, and to defend art as a vital source of reflection, resistance and personal freedom. It accomplishes this, and more, through a selection of exhibits that are both passionate and compassionate, and which pay scant regard to the need to shock and the fashion for the grotesque.

While the perky title “Viva Arte Viva” does not quite capture the urgent, political undertones of the 57th edition of the world’s biggest visual art exhibition, curator Christine Macel is more direct in declaring her intent.

“Today, faced with a world full of conflict and shocks, art bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human, at a time when humanism is precisely jeopardised,” Macel says in her curatorial statement. Art, she explains, “stands as an unequivocal alternative to individualism and indifference.” Paolo Baratta, president of the biennale, echoes her sentiment. “Art is an act of resistance, of liberation, and of generosity,” he proclaims.

The Artist is Asleep (1996, 2008), an installation of a figure asleep on a bed by Kazakhstan-based Yelena and Viktor Vorobyev. Photo: Enid Tsui

The main exhibition occupies both the Central Pavilion in the city’s Giardini area and the Arsenale building. It is divided into nine “trans-pavilions” – as opposed to the separate national pavilions that are independently commissioned by each country – with 120 artists participating, including one from Hong Kong.

The first trans-pavilion, the Pavilion of Artists and Books, has references to literal inspirations, including Chinese artist Liu Ye’s painstaking paintings of banned books his parents stashed away during the Cultural Revolution.

Books are also shown to symbolise the genesis of artistic ideas and how they fit into larger narratives. Taking the time to think, read or rest has become a radical act in today’s real-time, hyper-fast capitalistic world.

The Artist is Asleep, an installation of a figure asleep on a bed by Kazakhstan-based Yelena and Viktor Vorobyev, celebrates the importance of the space between idleness and action. Tightrope (2015), an engrossing video by Taus Makhacheva, shows a man carrying historic paintings along a tightrope stretched between two mountaintops, a metaphor for the challenges in taking art beyond museums.

Hong Kong artist Firenze Lai’s corner of the Vive Arte Viva exhibition. Photo: Enid Tsui

Next comes the Pavilion of Joys and Fears, where Sebastian Diaz Morales’ Suspension (2014-17) – a video of a man falling through an orange haze with his eyes shut – and the strange, heavy-footed figures painted by Hong Kong’s Firenze Lai Ching-yin are likely to prompt both emotions.

The Mending Project (2009-2017) by Lee Mingwei. Photo: Enid Tsui

The exhibition becomes more forceful once it enters the historic Arsenale building. Here, the remaining seven trans-pavilions are dedicated to the global community, the environment, female sexuality, artists as shamans, the treatment of tradition, colours, and time and infinity. The tone is unapologetically upbeat and benign – rather the opposite of the vitriol and pessimism that dominate public discourse the world over. And whether intended by the curator or not, there is a lot of fabric here, which reinforces the warm, welcoming atmosphere.

Taiwan’s Lee Ming-wei (or an assistant) sits at one end of a long table near the Arsenale entrance and invites the audience to bring a piece of clothing for his Mending Project.

Hundreds of reels of colourful cotton are pegged to the walls around Lee like a rainbow-coloured world map, the threads stretching over to a pile of clothes on the table that have been mended by the artist. Nearby, the hand-sewn, 3D tapestries of German artist Franz Erhard Walther – who was named best artist in the main exhibition, receiving one of the biennale’s two Golden Lion awards – welcome “activation” by the audience.

German artist Franz Erhard Walther holds his Golden Lion for best artist. Photo: AP

The theme of mending and connecting the world recurs throughout the show, such as in Philippine-born David Medalla’s A Stitch in Time (1968-), another participatory project that requires visitors to sew a personal belonging to a cloth banner – a time capsule of sorts. There is also Ernesto Neto’s new work Um Sagrado Lugar (A Sacred Place), a huge crochet tent with patterns resembling cell structures. Inside, several Huni Kuin people from the Amazon rainforest hold court, asking the audience to share in shamanistic rituals and to discuss ways for urban dwellers to rediscover their connection to nature.

There are piquant moments, such as Maha Malluh’s Food for Thought “Amma Baad” (2017), a collage made out of cassette tapes issued by religious leaders on how women should act in Saudi Arabia; and French-Vietnamese artist Thu Van Tran’s manipulation of rubber which links to the history of Western colonial expansion. But on the whole, this is not a display of despair and anger. Perhaps it should come with a warning for the curmudgeons and cynics who probably feel nostalgia for the much darker direction taken by curator Okwui Enwezor for 2015’s biennale.

Artist Lee Mingwei holding up a top he fixed as part of his Mending Project. Photo: Enid Tsui

Outside the main exhibition, there is still plenty to mull over – particularly given the pre-show hype about the tension between some of the artists in the official national pavilions and the implicit nationalism of the pavilion tradition.

Mark Bradford has destroyed the grandiosity of the US pavilion, inside and out, by dumping rubbish on its periphery, turning the central rotunda into a ruin, and by making visitors go through the side entrance into a room where a large, bulbous lump squeezes them to the periphery.

As a gay, black man from a poor background, Bradford has always refused to succumb to the white men who hold all the power in his country, and his “Tomorrow Is Another Day” exhibition is an explicit message for those despairing of the Donald Trump presidency.

Visitors chat near British artist Phyllida Barlow’s “follies”. Photo: AFP
Phyllida Barlow’s bulbous, haphazard-looking “follies”, as they are called, obscure the neat neo-classical proportion of the British pavilion, and force visitors to make their way gingerly around the towering constructs; they confer a foreboding sense of imminent collapse, much like that surrounding Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.
British artist Phyllida Barlow poses next to her work at the Great Britain pavilion. Photo; AP

Singaporean artist Zai Kuning’s Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge (2017) features a 17-metre-long rattan ship hulk in honour of the first Malay king and the pre-Islamic traditions of the Orang Laut people – the southeast Asian gypsies of the sea who defy the very concept of national borders. The Chinese pavilion, meanwhile, goes against the biennale zeitgeist with a pretty but vapid display of shadow puppets, Suzhou embroidery and ink paintings as a celebration of traditional heritage.

Zai Kuning’s Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge. Photo: Reuters

Bradford’s and Barlow’s exhibitions perfectly fit the mood of the biennale and are indeed interesting concepts for subversion. But as much vaunted examples of what art has to say about the world today, they are disappointingly sterile compared to the terrifying, raw visions presented at some of the other pavilions – most of all Germany’s, which won the Golden Lion award for best national pavilion.

Actors perform in Faust by German artist Anne Imhof. Photo: AFP

Faust, by German artist Anne Imhof, is a haunting, intense operatic piece about surveillance and the homogenising effect of capitalism that will be talked about for years. It sees the audience move across an elevated glass floor, becoming complicit as voyeurs as they follow performers who alternatively embrace, masturbate (or at least pretend to), engage in pyromaniacal acts, or become howling, singing rebels who scale the roof to escape. The two fenced-up Dobermans on the way in only add to the air of anxiety.

A view of the German pavilion. Photo: EPA

Italy has been deeply involved in the European refugee crisis and a number of national exhibitions seek to ensure the privileged, jet-setting art crowd does not ignore this large-scale tragedy. Australia’s Tracey Moffatt has spliced together images of refugees making perilous journeys across the sea with clips of famous, white film stars looking terrified. At the Taiwan pavilion, the archive of Tehching Hsieh’s seminal performance pieces as an illegal immigrant in New York gets a timely outing.

Outside the biennale, Tunisia has set up a number of “Absence of Paths” booths across the city for people to “apply” for a passport that allows them to travel across any national border – a silent protest against the imposition of new restrictions on movement. And British artist Shezad Dawood presents the first of his 10-part film cycle Leviathan which, set in a post-apocalyptic world, features experts invited to share their views on such sobering topics as the identification process for refugees who die in shipwrecks in the Mediterranean and the treatment of trauma.

A woman asylum seeker makes lamps as part of the project Green Light, by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. Photo: AFP

Olafur Eliasson’s Green Light – An Artistic Workshop, situated in the Biennale’s Central Pavilion, is also an attempt to generate empathy and understanding – but misfires. It features a temporary assembly line where real-life refugees, migrants and asylum seekers put together an environmentally friendly light, and the audience is invited to join them and engage in conversation.

While well-meaning, the lack of audience participation – at least during preview week – means that the workers are simply on show like zoo animals.

In a coincidentally related vein, the idea of Western acts of charity backfiring inspired Samson Young Kar-fai’s thoughtful and engaging exhibition at the Hong Kong pavilion.

But nobody, not even Imhof, is as talked about as Damien Hirst and his “Treasures from the Wreck of The Unbelievable” exhibition at the nearby Palazzo Grassi. A decade in the making, the vast display of fake salvaged antiques is the most controversial exhibition in Venice. People cannot decide whether he has simply spent enormous sums to create a work of fluff, or whether he is making a clever statement about national pride and the ownership of heritage.

It’s all part of the joy of the Venice Biennale. It gets people all worked up about art, but beyond the tumult, you can still step away from the cultural map of the moment and wonder, in contemplative silence, at paintings in churches by the likes of Tiepolo, Rembrandt and Tintoretto, or simply absorb the great work of art that is the city itself.

57th Venice Biennale International Art Exhibition. Until November 26

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: lure of the lagoon