— by Dawn Roe

Christine Macel’s, Viva Arte Viva for the 2017 Venice Biennale, immediately strikes the viewer as a thoughtfully curated exhibition, its well-meaning intentions (described by Macel as a “focus on art and artists” with an emphasis upon individual process and approach) coming across very authentically. There were numerous poignant, charged, and compelling moments to be encountered throughout both exhibition sites at the Biennale (the more traditional museum-like space at the Giardini and the incredibly expansive and sometimes rugged spaces of the Arsenale). And, it has to be said, there was some pure mystical bullshit, as well. I couldn’t help but find the rash of works documenting the projects of long passed collectives of the 60’s and 70’s as troublingly backward looking - a futile glorification of idealized visions of (failed) utopias. While there were certain works within this particular archival vein that struck me as transcending the specifics of their time (such as Maria Lai’s hand-stitched books and maps, and Super 8 film documenting a 1981 project in central Italy involving the entire community and swaths of long, blue cloth), much of it was just a bit too saccharinely sweet.

I found Macel’s introductory statements for each section of the exhibition to be encouraging in their suggestions (Macel structured her exhibition into nine thematic components that she called “pavilions” – including The Pavilion of Joys and Fears, Pavilion of the Shamans, Pavilion of Time and Infinity, among others), but admit that at times the works that populated each section left me wanting more, or worse, squirming with discomfort (and not the productive kind) upon being confronted with works that were somewhat problematic in their ethnographic approach, or tone-deaf in their attempts at social practice. Much has been written about Olafur Eliasson’s collaborative Greenlight project, and although I recognize the inherent challenges around providing visibility and agency to marginalized communities – situating the workshop under the bright lights of the white cube gallery came off as super exploitive, and unnecessarily so. It’s clear the project is meant to critique labor practices while simultaneously offering tangible capital opportunities, but putting refugees on display as exhibition objects in what is (still) a commodity container is pretty deplorable. Perhaps what is most unfortunate about this particular work/project (in this context) is that it’s one of the first things you see, situated immediately beyond Dawn Kaspar’s (re)staging of her performative studio in situ. I’m not sure collapsing these two “studios” in such a manner was terribly productive.

Others standouts were Thu Van Tran’s rubber tree casts, photograms and painted walls; portions of Kader Attia’s “Narrative Vibrations”; Edith Dekyndt’s “One Thousand and One Nights”, a carpet of dust lit by a spotlight; and Alicja Kwade’s perceptually confounding and materially impressive “WeltenLinie”, a work comprised of stone, mirror, bronze, aluminum, petrified wood, steel, and rusted iron that perfectly occupies the tail end of the exhibition in the Arsenale’s interior space.

Fortunately though, there were subsequent moments of redemption for Macel with many strong selections including works that were appropriately thick with affect such as Lee Mingwei’s “When Beauty Visits” involving a performative giving of a gift the recipient is instructed not to open “until they next encounter beauty”; and Sung Hwan Kim’s single-channel video with architectural installation components that was challenging in its layered complexity around narratives of displacement.

As only the 4th female curator in the 122-year history of the Biennale, Macel was most certainly constrained by institutional limits, and this could be felt for sure (with women representing only about 35% of the artists included, we are nowhere near parity). Yet, Macel should be championed for her vision, her exhibition’s cohesion, and potential direction. (Images include works by: Lee Mingwei; Thu Van Tran; Kader Attia; Edith Dekyndt; and Alicja Kwade)

Dawn Roe

Dawn divides her time between Asheville, NC and Winter Park, FL where she is currently Associate Professor of Art at Rollins College. Her photographs and videos are exhibited regularly throughout the U.S. and internationally, and her imagery and writing has been included in many print and on-line journals. In 2013, Roe founded the public art project Window (re/production | re/presentation) in Asheville, NC and serves as the curator. 

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