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Art Makes the World Go Around: First Day at the Venice Biennale

Entrance to Venice Biennale (photograph by Nancy Nesvet)


By Nancy Nesvet

Surrounded by water, filled with foreigners speaking different languages, in a city where getting lost in ancient alleyways is a regular occurrence, Venice provides the perfect venue for the most famous of the World’s Biennales. Almost every exhibit at the Venice Biennale deals with risks to our changing world, whether they be political or environmental. Located at ground zero, with the risk of inundation by water if global warming continues to produce floods and facing refugees arriving in Italy every day, Venice is the perfect place for government-sponsored art projects seen by an international public.

On my first day at the Biennale, coming by vaporetto boat down the grand canal, I entered the former Arsenale grounds, where an arsenal of weapons was once housed. Walking further, I surveyed what Paolo Buratta notes in the “Introduction to Biennale Arte 2017 Short Guide” is the exhibition’s theme, “one of encounter and dialogue, giving thanks for art and artists, whose worlds expand our perspective and the space of our existence.”

The power that is given to artists here is not abused. Their messages are clear; their production convincing and creative. In this city with age-old art all around it, the contemporary juxtaposes beautifully with the art born in this city in centuries before. The voice I hear tells me to pay attention to history — and to the present, or we will face no future.

This first day, I stay on the grounds of the Biennale Arsenale and Giardini sites, where individual artists have been recruited by the curator, Christine Macel, to make projects for this exhibition, and where buildings within the Arsenale and Guardini grounds house work sponsored by individual nations.

Jeffrey Farmer’s installation, “Padiglione Canada,” 2017, National Gallery of Canada, in the Canadian pavilion, creates waterfalls unpredictably spewing at random intervals.

Hiroshima-born artist, Takahiro Iwasa’s “Reflection Model (Ship of Theseus)” and “Turned Upside Down, It’s a Forest,” 2017, Japan Foundation, depicts the Itsukushima Shrine with typhoon-inflicted damage, but still retaining its beauty. It refers to the Ship of Theseus of which we ask if there is only one timber remaining after its destruction is it still that ship? Is the Itsukushima shrine still that shrine if it has given birth to massive destruction?

Phyllida Barlow’s “Folly,” 2016, British Council, at the United Kingdom pavilion, features massive rough stone-looking pillars of paper mache that reach two stories and recalls Stonehenge, where a now lost civilization erected a similar piece. In Taiwan’s beautiful and peaceful garden, “When Beauty Visits,” 2017, Taiwan Pavilion, which includes recorded frog sounds and real koi in a built pond amid real overhanging cherry trees, the beauty of the natural environment is highlighted. But it is ephemeral, and the frog sounds are recorded.

Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei, now residing in Paris, invites one visitor at a time inside the Scarpa Garden of the Giardini, where they receive a gift, not to be opened until their next encounter with beauty. Upon opening it, the gift is the story of another person’s encounter with beauty, recorded by the artist. This message, that beauty is a gift that must be shared, continues throughout the months of the Biennale.

Finland’s “The Aalto Natives, Nathaniel Mellors’ and Erkka Nissinen’s” darkly comic video of a performance uses dark humor to comment on morality and power structures, reimagining the world from two messianic figures, focusing on clichés of Finnish history and national identity. While we see the ridiculousness of their re-imagined world, we also see how ridiculous any supposition of national identity is in our present and future world.

In Ireland’s video of a performance by a Greek sybil, with flowing hair who warns us that “chaos is the bread I seek,” politics and the risks of the world we are making is a theme. Cody Choi and Lee Wan’s “Counterbalance: The Stone and the Mountain, 2017, Korean Pavilion, expresses culture shock experienced by immigrants to the United States by appropriating and commenting on Las Vegas’ neon ​signs and the culture they advertise, and in doing so, critiquing perceptions of the USA.

But there is hope, if you follow the belief that as long as we can save art, we can save the world. At least that is the thesis in Ciprian Muresan’s film (2017, Romanian Pavilion), as he walks a tightrope between two mountain peaks, balancing two paintings each time, on a rod over his shoulders. Saving art is worth his risky endeavor.

In a fascinating and instructive project, “Stranded Assets,” 2017, Los Angeles-born, now New York-based, artist Sam Lewitt recycled equipment from the power plant that produces the electricity for the Arsenale to power two lamps installed at the exhibition site. By recycling the equipment and the waste product (pozzolan, the ash from coal-fired plants) to fashion lamps with shades of locally-produced Murano glass, he shows that harmful emissions can be recycled to benefit people.

The Venice Biennale is academic in character. It instructs and confronts. Christine Macel, Viva Arte curator, is quoted in the Biennale Arte 2017 short guide, as believing that, the “world of the future is often best intuited by artists.” Arts Council and other national and international funding encourage artists to creatively show the political problems of the world, and use their best artists’ efforts to create awareness, and propose possible solutions. It is the willingness of so many people to travel around the world to view this that encourages me to believe that artists can and do affect environmental and political challenges. Maybe art does make the world go around.