Maybe art should be about something – Reflections on the 2017 Venice Biennale By Keith Telfeyan

Should art be political? In this messy Trump/Brexit/refugee zeitgeist, people look to art for answers. But what sort of answers can art provide? Curator Christine Macel’s aim with the 2017 Venice Biennale was to seemingly sidestep the contemporary politics a bit, and to instead emphasize and celebrate art itself – the creative spirit, perhaps. After all, we are more than our current divisive issues, and indeed: art binds us. But “Vive Arte Viva” while cool-sounding, is a bit formless. And she’s been criticized for not being somehow more specific, more engaged, more pointed toward the current strife around the world.

Most commentary on the fair has celebrated the more overtly political. Popular standouts include the Giardini pavilions of the US and UK (ironically enough, given how much flack these titans get internationally). These pavilions aren’t obviously political until you read the words around them – they’re both about a sort of self-flagellation. It’s cool, apparently, for imperialist countries to aim low.

At the American Pavilion, Mark Bradford tossed garbage outside, blocked the main entrance, hung a huge wasp-nest motif inside and presented a general disregard and decay. He says it was a response to the way trans and black people are continually marginalized in society. This is the point America decided to show to the world, and the method toward that aim was to make a meticulous mess of things. Tomorrow Is Another Day.

Similarly, Phyllida Barlow stuffed the British Pavilion with cumbersome sculptures made of paper and junk. Cheap materials, slap-dash painting, confusion and pointlessness. The effect is shabby and sloppy – a real dismissal of anything like pride, national or otherwise. The installation is called Folly. As the UK sets to leave the EU, this is what it presents. I guess it signifies a sort of national embarrassment?

Israel, too, took on the aesthetic of imperial shame by displaying actual mold in its pavilion. There was a distinct feeling in that room – I’ll give it that. A creepiness pervaded, and one couldn’t help but consider Israel’s settlements into the West Bank when feeling the damp air, or perhaps its nuclear arsenal in a destabilized region. Is this what Zionism feels like in the Arab world? Or am I overthinking it?

I do admire the feeling of discomfort, of weirdness. It’s a totally legit message for art to address. And these examples aren’t without their aesthetic accomplishments: Folly made me aware of space, given how absurd these structures stood around me. Does the UK feel so claustrophobic? Tomorrow Is Another Day had some nice textures, some interesting forms, backdrops for portraits. But even as I recognize the good within these works, I wonder what point they serve. Is this really what these countries have to say on this most regal of art world stages? In regard to the biggest issues of our time, it sounds something like silence.

Germany’s Pavilion was more interesting, if also more overtly pretentious. Itinerant performances occurred in a space charged with themes of power and dread. Steel, glass, black-clad young actors, hoses, Rottweilers, crowds and confusion – given such elements, it’s easy to think politically about this work. And the form of the art actually synthesizes with an idea, which I think is the whole point of all art. (This piece won the grand prize, by the way.)

France went even more oblique, if we’re talking messages here, and set up an improvisational jazz session in a distinctly distinguished environment. I guess, in the Occidental World, we’re just improvising our way against a bourgeois backdrop.

I’m left wondering: if the developed world is to be any sort of leader, what kind of art is all of this??

Beyond the West, in the Russian Pavilion, the top floor was full of didactic art very clearly about the politics of propaganda, subversion and, again, power. No nuance here. The bottom floor was much more interesting: ambiguous sculptures of violence like bodies frozen in rock, which you could point an AR-equipped screen at to see the full picture. Surveillance and compromise felt very real here. This felt cool, clever, relevant and engaging.

But the best art at the Biennale got away from preachy or pitiful politics, and focused more on joy.

Austria’s Erwin Wurm delighted as always with his interactive absurdist sculptures, titled “For Vices and Virtues in General”. His work brings attention to our own bodies and they way we embody them. And one can easily construct a sort of political message from this: we must be aware physically, be conscious of how we’re posturing, and have fun, treat life light-heartedly.

Belgium seemed to eschew the political climate completely by presenting austere analog photography. It was a breathe of fresh air for the classical nerd in me.

Korea’s Pavilion was probably the best. It didn’t shy away from stern topics, like the division of the peninsula and Korea’s role in Asia and the world overall, both as a powerful actor as well as a subservient bearer of Western cultural and economic forces. But it addressed such topics with engaging forms: a grid of video screens, a room of clocks ticking at different rhythms to symbolize the time a workers worldwide need to a meal, a karaoke soundtrack over lights and glassware that comment on something like modern ennui. This pavilion felt like an actual museum, chock full of interesting pieces, all fun in their approach to serious themes.


Moving into the cavernous space of the Arsenale, and to Viva Arte Viva itself, there were many delightful pieces that stood out. From Saudi Arabia, a grid of colorful cassette tapes nostalgically harkened back to the simpler times, and were lovely to see. A film projection from Vietnam tapped into a sort of moving poetry. A three-channel video from Turkey showed fun instruments making their own ambient music. On and on, throughout the glut of too much art to take in, there was indeed a certain feeling: a thread runs through all of humanity – a perceptive focus on the moments that comprise a human spirit. And there were literal threads in the Mending Project from Taiwan, visitor’s clothes fixed on the spot by the interplay of color coming from the delightful installation. Like the huge balls of yarn nearby, it’s easy for the mind to go to political places of sustainable fashion. But the aesthetics of these pieces give one a deeper joy than any purely verbal or written rhetoric.

Viva Arte Viva doesn’t deserve all the hate. And the political messages of imperialist countries don’t deserve all the accolades. Art mustn’t directly address the failings of global politics. It’s possible there are smaller lessons in an international art show. Like the Olympics, humanity can shine as a collection of disparate ideas and methods. And with the overlooked and overhyped alike, it’s a nice takeaway message.

Text by Keith Telfeyan

Instagram: @keithpictures

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