Wednesday 20 November 2019

Venice Biennale - Arsenale pavilions

There was a lot to see in 2 full days spent at the Venice Biennale 2019! My last few blogs have discussed some highlights of the curated exhibition May You Live in Interesting Times both at the Giardini here and the Arsenale here. I also discussed some national pavilion highlights at the Giardini here, and now it is the turn to outline a few of the national pavilion highlights at the Arsenale.

This is only the second time that India has participated in the Biennale, and its national pavilion presents a 7 person group show thematically related to the ideals of Mahatma Ghandi. Jitish Kallat's installation both moved and impressed me the most. Walking into a darkened room, one sees a letter being projected onto a "smoke screen" (dry ice presumably) and reading, as the projection scrolls, there is the realisation that this is a letter from the peaceful, great Ghandi to Adolph Hitler imploring him not to start a war. This historical item is chilling, but seen in this context its essence is driven home. The surrounding darkness, the ephemerality of the words as they easily disappear in the undulating smoke as it wisps with the movement of viewers who come and go (the exit is behind the screen).

The letter is visible on the floor, but the words are linked with the vertical projection and therefore reversed. While the horizontal projection is clearer, it cannot be read because it is backwards. There is an inherent miscommunication; the message of friendship and peace that Ghandi offered was ignored - not understood in its simplicity, in its humanity - by the crazed, monstrous Hitler.

The Italian pavilion was also a group showing, though only of three artists, where the theme of the labyrinth was based on a 1962 essay written by Italo Calvino (The Challenge of the Labyrinth). It was the labyrinth itself - the setting, the meandering from space to space, being confronted with mirrors, lights and curtains - that I found more interesting than any of the work done by the specific artists, which at the time I found chaotic.

Luxembourg's pavilion consisted of Written by Water, a massive installation by Marco Godinho. There was a large quantity of water-damaged books visible on a slope that seemed to continue into the structure of the building with the implication that the amount of books was limitless. Books are a source of information and entertainment, yet the damaged books are silent in their inability to be read. A story is told, nevertheless, and it is the viewer who is challenged to "read" what they will. It is 2019 and there is more here than washed up garbage, but stories - histories, lives - are silenced by poverty, war, death. Personally I felt an overwhelming sadness and regret within the installation, yet a certain rightness to witness being borne.

I had read about the Ghana pavilion before going to Venice, so I was eager to see Ghana Freedom live. This group exhibition takes its title from a song composed for the birth of the new nation in 1957.  I enjoyed meandering through Sir David Adjaye's designed elliptical and earthy galleries, which housed the six artists. The design both allowed for individual exhibitions and unified the work.

While El Anatsui's large-scale works hanging on the pavilion walls may evoke traditional Ghanian decoration, it is their tactility that brings about inspection and discovery. The colourful works are intricate combinations of found materials, such as metal bottle caps and pull tabs from drinking cans, that have a painterly aesthetic.

The pavilion for Saudi Arabia hosted the work of  Zahra Al Ghamdi in a beautiful and peaceful exhibition of light pillars and organic objects. On entering the dim gallery I felt like I was underwater and did a double-take as it seemed opposite to any feelings of "desert" to me. However, I have never been to the desert, so maybe a sea of sand evokes the same feelings as a sea of water, to one who knows it. Al Ghamdi's After Illusion intends to be a "creative dialogue between [the artist] and natural material she associates with her home".

To me, the materials evoked sea life - one could even say the pillars of light were barnacled - but the objects were not specifically recognisable and brought me into the realm of dream.

There were, of course, many more pavilions of interest, but I am not writing that book! I certainly went away from Venice Biennale feeling amazed and privileged to have been able to go there and see such a brilliant array of internation artwork. I look forward to being able to attend another Biennale in the future.

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