Venice Biennale 2017

This year’s edition of the Venice Biennale, Viva Arte Viva, addresses many issues related to sustainability, the most obvious and widely photographed being an installation featuring a pair of enormous hands coming out of the canal waters to support a building, which of course comments on water level raising and Venice sinking.

Moving away from the basic sense of the analogue and the anecdotal (and news paper photography candy!) this Biennale offers deeper and richer research about art and sustainability. Located in Palazzo Pisani, the Diaspora Pavilion is one clear example of this. The works in this pavilion explore a wide range of issues touching upon race, the human body, displacement, colonialism and politics. Disconcerting spaces mix with beautifully crafted drawings and we are confronted by investigations of the possible and the manipulative through cartoons as we move through the different rooms of the palazzo. There are some magnificent site responsive installations, such as the work located in a shock of pink bathroom and the delightful British Library by Shonibare. Meanwhile, tourists bathe in the sea next to bodies of drowned refugees. Complexities are stacked up in a dense and layered critical account of colonialism and advance glimpses of a world in which no man will be allowed to remain an island. The pavilion was curated by David A. Bailey and Jessica Taylor. Bailey says ‘In a climate where difference is currently criticized and threatened, this project celebrates English/UK diversity’.

Anticipating mass migrations created by climate change and social injustices, the works in this pavilion comment on personal process of loss and adaptability; and it address mix rather than diversity and power games rather than inclusion.

The German Pavilion is showing Faust by Anne Imhof, a work that touches obliquely on issues of sustainability: urban alienation, hyper-visibility, human disconnection and what can happen when the borders are closed down, walls are erected and people are coerced into nationalistic views. This work is not only a recognition of the German soul investigating itself but a praise to performance as a discipline with almost infinite capacity to engage, raise questions and move the floor under your feet. Physicality is the word here. Sweaty- noisy- smelly- silent- warm physical presence inhabiting the space. The disconnection between performers and public creates a void in which one suddenly feels a powerful longing for humanity. Imhof and her team of performers got a really well deserved Golden Lion.

But it is the Arsenale that puts forward what is in the curator’s mind. Many of the works exhibited in the Arsenale comment on the idea that genocide and ecocide are linked and that it is imperative that we preserve others ways of knowledges. This is expressed not only explicitly through the works but also in the diversity and plurality of artists chosen. Making sound with water, bread books, a countdown to save the planet, exchange your mobile phone for a stone and Fukushima no-go zone are works which critically comment on technology and its impact on human and non-human agents. In another part of the Arsenale a Tarkovskyan indoor leaking house contrasts with an invitation to use a communal space for meditation; New Zealand revisits colonialism in cinemascope and the Irish attempt to go back to the figure of the witch to explore a wisdom that is beyond institutional divisions.

Are we there yet?