VENICE, ITALY, MAY 9, 2019 — I spent my second day at the Venice Biennale touring the national pavilions at the Giardini site and in other areas in Venice. The most beautiful exhibit I saw was on the second floor of the Russia pavilion, where the director of the 2004 film, Russian Ark and the 2011 winner of the Golden Lion at Venice, “Faust,” directed an exhibit that featured a life-size giclée of a Rembrandt painting, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” on permanent display at the Hermitage, here along with the biblical verse, The Parable of the Prodigal Son from the Gospel of Luke, and Chapter 15 of the Gospel of Luke, that speaks of property deeded to a son by a father, squandered by the son, further illustrated with statues of biblical figures. On two video screens were a vision of fires burning down buildings in present and biblical times, with Jesus sitting on a rock watching the fires burn. Continuing what I believe is the theme of this biennale, the presence and preponderance of false truths, the alleged Rembrandt not only is not in the Hermitage collection, but does not exist at all. When I asked the curator about it, she responded that perhaps it was inspired by Rembrandt, admitting that does not exist at all.
Chilling, the mechanical ballet downstairs by Alexander Shishkin Hokusai, featured several life-size figures held up by chains around their necks. They were lifted slightly and regularly and then, all of a sudden, with the audience gasping, were pulled up, clearly hung by the chain. It’s also about spreading the truth, whether we are recalling the words of Jesus or Luke or the opulence expressed in Sentsov’s film, Russian Ark.
The first floor installation by Alexander Shiskin-Hokusai included giclées of the alleged paintings at the Hermitage, of the Flemish School, about material nourishment and the “endless routine of human existence” including Frans Snyder’s “The Fish Market, dealing with sacrifice”; Jacob Jordaens’ “The Bean King” sowing a feast during the time of the plague; Bartolomeus van der Hels’ “The New Market in Amsterdam” depicting an elderly woman, vegetables and flesh; and Peter Paul Rubens’ “Roman Charity” showing nourishment and a person’s needs.
As Russia emerged from the communism of the Soviet Union days, it was pointed out that they became increasingly religious, and the artists here are exhibiting some of the cynicism of the religious who claim to vow poverty, but in fact, enjoy luxuries of the flesh and the table. Assembled in the Museum of Street Art in St. Petersburg is the exact opposite of the Hermitage in the same city, a young, open, outdoor space in a post-Soviet factory. The post-Soviet generation has grown up to form a new cynicism about the word and beliefs of their elders, having seen the demise of the old system and a new underclass emerging. All of this, of course, deals with what we consider necessities and luxuries, what we can live with and without.
Martin Puryear, this year’s United States representative at the biennale, opened his exhibit, “Liberty, liberta” at the U.S. pavilion this morning. The best sculpture by this black, Afro-American wood artist was his wagon, clearly alluding to the wagons that carried Americans west over a 100 years ago, finding new territory for themselves, but destroying native cultures in their paths. The sculpture, incorporating a crucifix faced with a white animal’s head with wings, alludes to Sally Hemings, showing Puryear’s acknowledgement that Jefferson fathered Hemings’ children. His Phrygian hats, recalling those worn by French revolutionaries, were here joined by sculptures illustrating Americans’ behavior during the 18th century. Clearly, these two exhibitions spoke of revolutions, by the poor and needy, and the ramifications of those revolutions, linking biblical and past times with our current era.
Japan’s pavilion showed artist Motoyuki Shitamichi’s work, curated by Hiroyuki Hatori. The black and white photographs and moving images showed minimalism at its best with a centered rock in each, surrounded by waving seaweed and grasses. Called the boulder artist, his work speaks of renewal after a disaster in contradistinction to the work at the Russian pavilion. He photographs enormous rocks that washed up from the sea after the tsunami, often becoming home to new plant life and migratory birds. Other creative forms are present, merging the cosmic egg folktale, concerning the birth of humans, and accompanying zombie music, merging anthropologists, photographers, scientists and musicians to create this quiet, contemplative work.
“Weather Report: Forecasting Future,” at the Nordic pavilion, featured artist collective Nabbteeri that gathered materials on site, including seaweed and other vegetation. Ingele Ihrman’s “A Great Seaweed Day” tells of the origins of humans from the sea and connections between life forms. It creates silent, large-scale objects that “propose the exhibition visitors to transgress limiting concepts and to reconsider notions of loneliness, belonging and co-existence with nature.” (Curator Leevi Haapala and Pila Oksanen.)
So today I saw several interpretations of the same message, that we must learn to live together and with nature; that greed must be rebelled against; that we all can partake of the gifts of the earth if we treat it gently and with respect. The biennale, unafraid, successfully presents that message.
(La Biennale di Venezia: The 58th International Art Exhibition — “May You Live in Interesting Times” takes place from May 11 through November 24, 2019 at the Giardini and the Arsenale, Venice, Italy. For more information, visit labiennale.org/en/art/2019.)