VENICE, Italy — There are thousands of artworks by hundreds of artists in and around the Venice Biennale, in the main exhibition, May You Live in Interesting Times, curated by Ralph Rugoff, in the national pavilions in the Giardini and dispersed throughout the city, in the many collateral exhibitions, and any number of other important shows.
It is easy to feel inundated, beleaguered, and rushed; it is much harder to feel enthralled and changed, challenged and stopped in one’s tracks. Rather than trying to sum up the big picture in Venice, I’ll focus on what, for me, were the four most riveting shows. Coincidentally, each of them prominently features music.
But first an observation: It has long become routine to decry the Biennale’s system of national pavilions, dating to 1895, as an outdated relic from a bygone era. One beneficial aspect, however, of this system is how it puts countries that typically receive scant art world attention on something of a par with countries that most certainly do. Which brings me to Iceland (population about 338,000), Lithuania (population about 2.8 million), and Mongolia (population about 3 million), whose adventurous art scenes, for whatever reasons, often don’t register all that much internationally.
There are no Icelandic artists in May You Live in Interesting Times, but that’s hardly surprising; Icelandic artists are rarely in such shows. There are no Mongolian artists as well — again hardly surprising. There is one Lithuanian — Augustus Serapinas — which is surprising, since a quick check reveals that no Lithuanians were in the last three curated Biennale shows. One could easily do such number crunching on many other countries and come up with similar figures. By way of comparison, a hefty 16 (by my count) out of 79 artists or collaborative artist pairs in Rugoff’s show are Americans.
The Icelandic pavilion in the wonderful, non-touristy (if that’s possible in Venice) neighborhood of Giudecca is an absolute revelation. Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, who also goes by the name Shoplifter, derived from the frequent mispronunciation of her first name by non-Icelanders, created an immersive, intensely colorful indoor cave, or rather a sequence of three caves, entirely out of multicolored synthetic hair, lighting, and a mesmerizing, remixed soundscape by the Icelandic cult metal band Ham, who also performed a rousing concert during the opening party.
Titled Chromo Sapiens, the installation’s synthetic hair, made of plastic fibers, and seemingly growing on the walls and ceiling, is a real nature/culture hybrid, evoking natural, lava-like structures as well as burgeoning plants, moss, and animal hides.
Enter the space and you are immediately engulfed by colors, textures, and sound; you’re in a spectacular, color-saturated elsewhere — an enormous, three-dimensional painting sans paint.
It is best to dispense with words and rational thoughts and instead to open yourself up to the pulsating colors and sound waves. It is best to be in this exhibition, comprehensively, for a good long while, not just to look at it, but to respond to it physically and emotionally.
Although Arnardóttir’s scintillating installation is hardly about Iceland, it sure seems the case that she has channeled her remarkable volcanic homeland into the work. Hers is a mind-bending indoor version of an exultant outdoor experience.
The first part of the three-cave sequence, named Primal Opus, features mostly dark, earthy tones. The mood is subdued and contemplative. You feel transported but also uncertain in the dim lighting. You hear the droning sound of Ham’s music but also feel it physically, on your skin, in your nerves and veins.
The middle section, Astral Gloria, is an ecstatic mesh of iridescent, neon colors — hot pinks, purples, reds, yellows, blues, and lime greens. The multicolored synthetic hair courses down the walls, flows and spreads across the domed ceiling (suggesting both a cave and a cathedral), and clusters into artificial stalactites and stalactites.
You can lie on a synthetic hair-covered platform, wowed by the chromatic splendor overhead; it’s a bit like being on drugs without the drugs. This multi-sensory show (touching is fine) feels wondrous, generous, nutritive, and thrilling.
In these anxious, maddening times it is hardly surprising that there are so many angst-ridden, issue-oriented works in Venice. Arnardóttir’s optical, visceral, and sonic work is entirely different. It does not comment on pressing matters out there, but instead offers a transformative and fundamentally joyful experience right here.
The final cave, Opium Natura, is covered with strands in various shades of white that flow down the walls and spread like a mist across the ceiling. They mix with soft pastels: yellow washes, fuzzy reddish-pinks, subtle touches of purple and blue. You can see exactly how this near-beatific effect was accomplished, but it remains magical and breathtaking. After the raucous, carnivalesque excitation of the middle cave, this section is tranquil and soothing, frankly sublime. What Arnardóttir has achieved with mere synthetic hair is a total marvel.
The grotto-like Mongolian pavilion is just a short walk from the Arsenale’s entrance, but once you enter it, it feels worlds away; like the Icelandic pavilion, music is also essential here. Looming in the semi-darkness are sizable biomorphic sculptures by Jantsankhorol Erdenebayar (Jantsa) made of black polyurethane foam, some illuminated by red lighting. Eventful surfaces with encrusted tubes, bulbous forms, ridges, and indentations feel distinctly organic.
But the big news here is the collaboration, titled A Temporality, between four Mongolian throat singers (N. Ashit, Kh. Damdin, A. Undarmaa, D. Davaasuren) and renowned German artist and musician Carsten Nicolai, aka Alva Noto, interacting with the artist’s sculptures. (The performance is available to subsequent visitors as a sound recording.)
I was fortunate to be in attendance for the live performance. With no announcements and nothing smacking of officialdom or ceremony, Nicolai began performing his signature minimalist electronica on his laptop and various gear. Dispersed throughout the crowd, and sometimes right next to the sculptures, the four throat singers — expert practitioners of the ancient technique characterized by singing multiple notes simultaneously — joined in. Nicolai’s electronica, mixed with this physical, bodily music and its deeply spiritual connection to nature, yielded an alternately swelling and receding, meditative, at times guttural, sonic environment. All around me people were rapturously swaying, often with eyes closed. The 45-minute or so performance, echoing across the sculptures and through the labyrinthine old building, was transfixing.
The Lithuanian pavilion, in the out-of-the-way Marina Militare, deservedly won the Golden Lion for best pavilion of all. For Sun & Sea (Marina) the filmmaker/director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, writer/poet Vaiva Grainytė, and artist/composer Lina Lapelytė created an indoor beach complete with lounging bathers; all wearing unobtrusive microphones, they are the singers in a lovely, but deeply unnerving, opera. You climb several flights of stairs to a balcony and gather around the railing to survey the scene far below.
The performers of all ages — a child, teenagers, young adults, and much older adults — recline on towels, fiddle with their smart phones, read books; they are languid vacationers on a curiously unstuck and isolated beach which could be pretty much anywhere. A child scampers about. Couples converse, or remain silent. Recorded music — austere and repetitive yet lyrical and emotive — mixes with songs sung live.
The libretto voices the private thoughts of these vacationers, some mundane, like a request for more sunscreen (“Hand it here, I need to rub my legs…Cause later they’ll peel and crack”) and others alarming (“Acidy waves/Ivory foam/Rocking the boats full of canned goods, tourists, fruits, and weapons”). A woman sings her distress over vacationers who have sullied the beach with their spilled beer, scraps of smoked fish, dog shit, and a champagne cork. This truncated, indoor, artificial beach is emblematic of the world that we have so grossly polluted and damaged.
Another woman, billed as a “wealthy mommy,” brings a gigantic load of class-based privilege with her to this beach. She notes all the oceans her young son has already seen as if they are trophies, and enthuses about drinking a piña colada at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, oblivious that the reef is dying due to climate change. A workaholic then frets about taking a vacation and what other people think about him, while worrying that his “suppressed emotions” will burst forth “like lava.”
There are warnings of deadly undertows and descriptions of an environment in which “everything is out of joint,” with “frost and snow” in early May and “buds and mushrooms” in the winter. The vacationers also seem intensely vulnerable. They are trying to relax in the midst of a nagging malaise. The final chorus is a coolly shattering invocation of impending environmental catastrophe:
THIS YEAR THE SEA IS AS GREEN AS A FOREST:
BOTANICAL GARDENS ARE FLOURISHING IN THE SEA—
THE WATER BLOOMS.
I unfortunately arrived in Venice one day late for Joan Jonas’s performance but was engrossed by her installation Moving Off the Land II in the newly opened Ocean Space, which now inhabits the former Church of San Lorenzo. This novel venue is an intiative of TBA21-Academy, part of Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21), founded by Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza in 2002. TBA21-Academy is a pioneering organization focusing on a confluence of ocean studies, art, science, and environmentalism. Jonas’s installation is the inaugural exhibition in the new space.
Drawings of sea creatures, including one with the outline of a sperm whale, hang on the scaffolding — left intact by Jonas — from the church’s renovation; it’s accompanied by an atmospheric sound piece incorporating the communicative clicks of sperm whales. Other drawings, done in Jonas’s signature, rudimentary style, are suspended overhead on wires. Reflective panels, made in Venice of famous Murano glass, lean against a wall; some have a rippling, watery look.
Jonas’s five videos mix footage of her performance Moving Off the Land (2016-present) with footage taken in aquariums, Jamaica, and Nova Scotia. Displayed in special viewing booths, they are completely absorbing. Seeded with ocean references from texts by T.S. Eliot, Rachel Carson, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and others, while exploring nautical myths like mermaids, they show the artist and several children (and a prominent white dog) interacting with a variety of sea creatures, and the sea itself.
“We all come from the sea,” Jonas announces in one video, “and we have memories of it, in our minds, in our bodies.” In one sequence, Jonas (wearing a dress) glides underwater as if she’s part sea creature herself, totally at home in the ocean. In another, essentially a video of a video, seals arc through the water. When they pass by Jonas, she reaches to touch their images, at once caressing and propelling them on their way. This is utterly lovely.
The sea creatures in the videos are independent, sentient beings that warrant respect. They also look wonderful. An orange jellyfish, filling much of the screen and framed on either side by Jonas in eccentric white garb and one of her co-performers, also wearing white, is downright resplendent; the same goes for other bioluminescent life forms. We learn that some fish like to be petted and have much better memories than we would expect. And captive octopi, a great deal smarter than we would normally suppose, often lift the lids off their tanks to escape.
So much has gone so terribly wrong because of the increasingly perilous fantasy that we are the lords and masters of our 4.5-billion-year-old planet. Jonas’s vision is the exact opposite; not human exceptionalism and domination but partnership with the living world, including the oceans. Her thoughtful, supremely poetic, deeply felt multimedia exhibition — so relevant in this watery city already severely impacted by climate change — is a treasure in Venice.
Joan Jonas: Moving Off the Land II continues at Ocean Space (Chiesa di San Lorenzo, Campo San Lorenzo, 5067, Venice, Italy) through September 29.
The 2019 Venice Biennale continues through November 24.