A work by Emma Kunz at

A work by Emma Kunz at “Il Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace)” (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

VENICE — After all of the seeing and being seen, it was a huge relief to enter Il Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace), curated by Massimiliano Gioni, the youngest artistic director of La Biennale in 110 years. This museum-like exhibition featuring work from over 150 artists from 38 countries made throughout the past century is split between two massive locations: the Central Pavilion at the Giardini, and the Arsenale, which is roughly 12 times the size of an American football field.

Augustin Lesage, "A Symbolic Composition of the Spiritual World" (1923) (click to enlarge)

Augustin Lesage, “A Symbolic Composition of the Spiritual World” (1923) (click to enlarge)

Gioni took a stringent, analytic, and in his own words, “anthropological” approach to a subject normally omitted from theory-based practice, and eschewed by most of contemporary art in general: the historical belief, and the current renewed possibility, that visual art could be magical, even divine.

As has become his signature, like in his exhibition at the 2010 Gwangju Biennale, Gioni paired countless anonymous and outsider artists, and things that would not be called “art” by their makers, with contemporary work in a heartfelt and irrefutable way. Despite Gioni’s direct statement that the show is not about the occult, spiritism, or mysticism, and that The Encyclopedic Palace is not endorsing “a return to the irrational,” it is extraordinarily beautiful and surprising and contains works that are enigmatic and powerful, not unlike the venue itself, Venice.

The exhibition takes its title from Marino Auriti’s model of an imaginary museum, 136-stories tall, that would contain all worldly knowledge in Washington, DC — a quintessential image of a single location to contain “the dream of universal, all-embracing knowledge,” according to Gioni’s written statement about the show.

Various ceramic sculptures by Rob Nagle (1980s–present) in the foreground, with anonymous Tantric paintings in the background

Various ceramic sculptures by Rob Nagle (1980s–present) in the foreground, with anonymous Tantric paintings (1960s–2004) in the background

The focus on the mystical/spiritual is refreshingly dry. Anonymous Tantric paintings from India (dating from the 1960s to 2004, the same as seen at Feature Inc. in New York last year) are presented in a densely packed line around beautifully colored abstract ceramic sculptures by San Francisco–based Ron Nagle (US, b. 1939), who was part of the Abstract Expressionist ceramic movement (along with Peter Voulkos and Ken Price). The installation simultaneously contextualizes the Tantric paintings as art and Nagle’s sculpture as a practice akin to the devotional/meditative paintings.

An installation of paintings by Hilma af Klint

An installation of paintings by Hilma af Klint


And an installation of paintings by Emma Kunz

Large-format abstract paintings by artist and mystic Hilma af Klint (Sweden, 1862–1944) are paired with geometric, grid-based drawings by spiritual healer Emma Kunz (Switzerland, 1892–1963), as they were in 3 x Abstraction at the Drawing Center, New York, curated by Catherine de Zegher and Hendel Teicher, in 2005. Gioni added to this Augustin Lesage (France, 1876–1954) and his mind-numbingly complex paintings, which voices in his head, those of God, instructed him to make, and which caused the artist to go blind.

Two cards from Aleister Crowley's "Toth Tarot Deck" (1938–1943)

Two cards from Aleister Crowley’s “Toth Tarot Deck” (1938–43)

The focus on historical works from the late 19th to early 20th century is equally surprising and astute. Illustrations for a deck of tarot cards created by the British occultist and artist Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), for example, are unexpectedly poignant.

One of Walter Pichler's "Stele" sculptures (1962–76)

One of Walter Pichler’s “Stele” sculptures (1962–76)

Non-art objects, such as French philosopher Roger Caillois‘s (1913–1978) collection of cut and polished rocks — geology as art, are presented with the same weight as Walter Pichler’s (Italian, 1936–2012) seamlessly designed polished bronze totems on wide blocks of wood, “Stele I” and “II,”each dating 1962–76.

Enrico Baj, "Dame e Generali" (1960–75)

Enrico Baj, “Dame e Generali” (1960–75)

A Haitian Vodou flag (click to enlarge)

A Haitian Vodou flag (click to enlarge)

Elsewhere in the exhibition, Haitian Vodou flags depicting Amerindian and European gods and Catholic saints are hung opposite artist and theorist Enrico Baj’s (Italy, 1924–2003) Dame series, which features female figures composed of craft and decorative elements.

Gioni has long-standing relationships with artists such as Danh Vo, whose presence in the exhibition isn’t surprising; but with Vo, it fits together seamlessly. The artist’s installation of unstretched velvet taken from old Italian cathedrals, the material imprinted with the shadows of objects that were hung on it for many years, is not only affective, but also serves as a perfect marriage between contemporary art and the ancient world in which it is rooted.

Danh Vo, "Untitled (Chrismas in Rome, 2012)" (2013)

Danh Vo, “Untitled (Chrismas in Rome, 2012)” (2013)

Other additions in this vein, such as Wade Guyton, are less successful. On one wall in an oddly empty hallway-like space near a visually noisy sculptural installation, Guyton’s three large canvases hang mutely. In another context (in their own room, say, or facing one another) these works would be disarmingly simple and astute; here, they’re impotent.

Other artists seem to be grasping at straws, or perhaps just aren’t given enough space. Turner Prize winner Mark Leckey’s “Universal History of Dumb Things” (2013), a touring exhibition of videos and corporate-convention-like cardboard standups falls rather flat instead of being funny. While clearly related thematically to the exhibition (anthropology, ancient art history, humor, etc.) the actual room feels unresolved.

After halls filled with erotic cartoons, anonymous photographs, and other images of the dirty, quotidian reality of being human, the viewer finally encounters Ryan Trecartin, who dominates a wide, black space with architectural installations resembling public parks, bleacher seating, and chain-link fences boxing viewers in to watch his endless stream of self-made videos filled with absurd, “post-human” characters.

Visitors watching a Ryan Trecartin video inside his installation

Visitors watching a Ryan Trecartin video inside his installation

The work of this young artist stands out to an extreme degree. His creative impulse is so strong, and the productivity of his practice is seemingly boundless. The multichannel video installation serves as a breaking point, cutting the Arsenale almost in half. It was shocking to see Trecartin after all of the other work; it was powerful, almost relatable in a general human sense, but above all unique.

Gioni stated in the press conference that he is not “for” spiritism; however, he is a romantic. Through the examples we see, “we ourselves are media,” he said. He discussed how our first media is our brain and how images exist within us, before asking the question, “What is the point of creating an image of the world when the world itself has become increasingly like an image?”

Hyperallergic’s Venice Biennale coverage continues in the days and weeks ahead.

Stephen Truax

Stephen Truax (stephentruax.com) is an artist, writer, and curator who lives in New York.