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Once again, design in the narrower sense does not feature at the Biennale di Venezia. However, since autonomous art-art is increasingly beset by hybrid forms of fashion, design, marketing and activism, creativity is staged in hybrid interiors and theatrical spaces. But perhaps the future is also a child’s play.

By Thomas Wagner.

In its 59th edition, the Biennale di Venezia once again presents itself as a veritable world art exhibition in and around the Giardini and the Arsenale. It can be seen as a prime example of a pluriverse that allows different artistic perspectives and positions to have their say and be seen, uniting aesthetic, political, poetic and social concepts in an exciting way. Which is not least due to the fact that here not only one curator can look at art and the world alone. Whatever he or she puts together, it is relativised, counteracted, outdone in the national pavilions by a bundle of themes, concepts, styles and image politics. Gradations between the extremes included.

A female surrealism

Cecilia Alemani, the artistic director of the current edition, has given the main exhibition for which she is responsible the title “The Milk of Dreams”. She found it in a book by Leonora Carrington (1917 to 2011), in which the surrealist artist describes a world in which life is constantly perceived anew through the prism of fantasy. Alemani’s exhibition then also stages all kinds of metamorphoses of the human and propagates a female surrealism in the process, without clearly outlining its contours. This new surrealism also favours access to areas that are usually inaccessible to reason. However, by largely avoiding an aesthetic of horror and a fantasy of horror, it never openly challenges the world of facts. In addition, there are many a banal, kitschy production, such as in the Danish or South Korean pavilions. Since thinking about an appropriate artistic form has largely been abandoned, people like to squint at “a theme” as a substitute, which is supposedly referred to, alluded to, referenced or linked to.

Marco Fusinato: DESASTRES, 2022, Australischer Pavillon, Kunst-Biennale Venedig
Marco Fusinato: DESASTRES, 2022 solo durational performance as installation 200 days, Australian pavilion, Photo: Andrea Rossetti

Noise drives out kitsch

At the other end of the scale, close to the physical pain threshold, is Marco Fusinato in the Australian pavilion. The deafening storm of sound that the immersive expressionism of the self-proclaimed “noise artist” unleashes via electric guitar shakes the marrow and bone, so that it echoes in all the air like screaming, as in Jakob van Hoddi’s poem “Weltende”. The title fits the current world situation: “Desastres”. Especially since, in keeping with Fusinato’s improvisations, black-and-white images of art, war and myths are circulated on a screen by an algorithm.

End game for autonomous art?

Not surprisingly, design in the narrower sense does not appear at this year’s Biennale. Creativity aimed at mass production, possibly mass consumption, meets with little interest in the Mecca of individualists – neither from Cecilia Alemani nor from the curators of the national pavilions. Ergo, art as a subjective endeavour dominates. There are, however, a few outliers. Especially since hybrid forms of art, fashion, design, marketing and activism are increasingly asserting their alleged (economic?) superiority over autonomous “art-art”. The fact that, as is so often the case, it is the concrete mixture that counts, and that design can by no means be regarded only as design and conflated with fashion and zeitgeist, can be experienced in the most pleasurable way in the Austrian Pavilion.

Welcome to the Soft Machine

Installation view, Austrian Pavilion, Art Biennale2022, Photo: Georg Petermichl © Jakob Lena Knebl and Ashley Hans Scheirl

Curated by Karola Kraus, director of the “Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien”, or mumok for short, Jakob Lena Knebl and Ashley Hans Scheirl have playfully transformed Josef Hoffmann’s symmetrically constructed pavilion, built in the purist spirit of modernism, into a subversive interior in which all kinds of set pieces evoke the spirit of the 1970s. A grass-green creature, half Panton chair, half red-haired vamp, and other strange creatures seem to have landed here and taken up temporary quarters. With their “Invitation of the Soft Machine and Her Angry Body Parts”, the duo also humorously brings facets of contemporary body discourses to the stage. In his cut-up novel of the same name, William S. Burroughs described the human body as a “soft machine” at the beginning of the 1960s, and the two artists have been inspired by this as well as by the transformation of the soft human-machine into a technoid body cipher in the cyborg age. From paintings that correspond in colour with the wall, ironic sculptures, large-patterned wallpaper, photographs, text and video as well as a fashion collection and a magazine, Knebl and Scheirl have created a cosmos in which art, design, fashion and architecture merge into a quirky lifestyle instead of being merely interconnected.

The two main rooms each bear the signature of one of the two artists. Jakob Lena Knebl questions the arbitrary border between art and design in a surreal setting with set pieces from art and design history. Ashley Hans Scheirl stages – a red, velvet curtain is pushed aside by the artist’s painted hand – a walk-in self-portrait as a painter on the other side.

Capitalist (Sur)realism

As in Burroughs’ novel, all kinds of “wounded galaxies” are traversed here, fantasies of desire and merging are spread out. Transgression as a strategy of avant-garde art undergoes a humorous re-enactment, whereby the path from the soft cyborg to the dissolution of identities and the playful crossing of gender boundaries is covered in a rush. “The symmetrical structure of the pavilion,” says Scheirl in an interview with Sabine B. Vogel, “lends itself well to establishing a dynamic between the duo and the solo, between I and we. We want to show how our practices are interwoven and at the same time independent”. Scheirl invites, as he/she says, into a “self-portrait as a painter with fragmented body parts” in which a subject “relates to economic, social as well as art historical themes and aesthetics”. Without having to explicitly mention the emotionalisation of everything and everyone that takes place today in advertising, marketing and journalism, it becomes apparent how libidinous economies generate and stabilise power relations in an ambivalent mixture of pop, trash and kitsch. According to Knebl, the 1970s were a “decade of awakening”, with civil rights movements, counter culture, the oil crisis, terrorism, D.I.Y. cultures, spirituality and therapy booms. cultures, spirituality and the therapy boom, at the end of which, however, neoliberalism also broke through. A time from which a bow can be drawn to today: “People dared something back then. Today, we are strongly influenced by ‘capitalist (sur)realism’ – a concept by Markus Metz and Georg Seelen, who assume a dissolution of boundaries in which the human being becomes a product that must constantly market itself.

Ashley Hans Schiern, Soft Soft Softmachine, Photo: Christian Benesch
Installation view, Austrian Pavilion, Art Biennale2022, Photo: Georg Petermichl © Jakob Lena Knebl and Ashley Hans Scheirl

Let the children play

If you want to see and understand what it means to be creative, you only have to watch children playing. Children whose play behaviour is not fixed and deformed by consumer products. It is no coincidence and no exaggeration when Friedrich Schiller stated that man is only fully human where he plays. In the Belgian pavilion, Francis Alÿs is showing a selection of his films of playing children of different origins and skin colours, of girls and boys from Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. Whether from Congo or Switzerland, Mexico, Hong Kong or Iraq, all these children are true improvisation artists who know how to create a common game out of almost nothing. Whether it’s marbles or the jumping frog, or a little Sisyphus pushing a big tyre up the black slope of the tailings pile of the Étoile du Congo cobalt mine and then rolling down in the tyre in a breathtaking ride – art can’t be more upbeat, more optimistic, or more political in telling of all the small and big worlds in which we all move.

Francis Alÿs: Children’s Game #27: Rubi , Tabacongo, DR Congo, 2021, in collaboration with Julien Devaux and Félix Blume

Dying working worlds

In the Italian pavilion in the Tese delle Vergini at the back of the Arsenale, curated by Eugenio Viola, Gian Maria Tosatti unfolds his “History of Night and Comets”. If possible alone, one is immersed in a sequence of rooms in which the death of a form of industrial production and the associated way of life is made vivid in an oppressive way – theatrically, with the pathos of farewell, but directly tangible, without media gimmicks and lecturing know-it-alls.

You are greeted by a notice board and an old time clock that imposes its time rhythm on the workers. In the first room there are machines, uselessly flashing control cabinets, containers and stationary conveyor belts. A portable radio plays the Internationale. In the next room, all the machines have disappeared; the remaining exhaust hoses hang functionlessly from the ceiling. A staircase leads on to the lifeless, worn-out flat of a caretaker, factory owner or director, into a gloomy petty bourgeois hole from which one looks down through a window into a hall full of sewing machines. You cross this hall too, and the darkness increases further. You hear water sloshing invisibly against the walls. In an emptied warehouse, an internal combustion engine hangs above an open transport crate like a last farewell.

Gian Maria Tosatti, “History of Night and Destiny of Comets” (Storia della Notte e Destino delle Comete), Italian Pavilion at the 2022 Art Biennale, curated by Eugenio Viola, Commissioner of the Italian Pavilion Onofrio Cutaia. Courtesy DGCC – MiC

Tosatti has travelled all over Italy to gather the relics for his parable from abandoned factories. Everything in these melancholy narrative spaces speaks of farewell. The scenery is bathed in the twilight of a declining epoch whose light is fading more and more. In the night of the dying industrial culture, all the machines are rejects. This describes not only the decline of the Italian industrial dream, but also a general crisis of production on the threshold of digitalisation. The aggressive élan of the Futuristi is passé; the working class with the factories and machines has disappeared.

Gian Maria Tosatti, “History of Night and Destiny of Comets” (Storia della Notte e Destino delle Comete), Italian Pavilion at the 2022 Art Biennale, curated by Eugenio Viola, Commissioner of the Italian Pavilion Onofrio Cutaia. Courtesy DGCC – MiC

Here, progress does not celebrate triumphs. Here, the memory of the dark side of industrialisation prevails; in Italy, the dioxin leak between Seveso and Meda, the arsenic cloud in Manfredonia, the tumours and leukaemia in the Taranto and Bagnoli areas, and the toxic waste that was buried and burnt for years. “History of Night and Destiny of Comets”, as Eugenio Viola sees it, reflects “the difficult balance between man and nature, sustainable development and territory, ethics and profit”. Will nature really return to the abandoned spaces of a post-industrial world? In the end, Tosatti’s archaeology of the present does hold a sign of hope: a swarm of fireflies rises and hovers in the darkness to point a way out of the night and repossess a future thought lost.

The need for correction

Ignasi Aballí, Correction (2022). IInstallation view of the Spanish Pavilion. Photo: Claudio Franzini. Courtesy of the artist und AECID

Finally, it remains to mention the Spanish pavilion, which makes a correction conspicuous with reduced, equally simple and effective means. Quite real and symbolic. What is not right, what is out of line, can be corrected, even if it is the Spanish pavilion built in 1922 right at the entrance to the Giardini. So Ignasi Aballi inserted additional walls into the empty pavilion, bringing the building into alignment with its neighbours and correcting the deviation and misalignment. And thus not only sharpens the senses and plays with the viewer’s perception, but also demonstrates for everyone to experience that a correction of existing conditions is possible.

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