Over 300,000 attendees are predicted to brave this year’s torrid European summer to experience the Biennale’s International Exhibition Il Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace), the ambitious vision of New York-based Italian curator Massimiliano Gioni. Il Palazzo Enciclopedico includes 150 artists from 37 countries and takes inspiration from the vision of another Italian-American, the self-taught artist Marino Auriti.
Consider a museum, designed in 1955, that would be so extensive it could house all the world’s knowledge. Unsurprisingly Auriti’s 700m tall, 136-storey palace never saw construction. Nevertheless, his unwavering dream to acquire all possible knowledge and archive it for public access has inspired cultural practitioners ever since. Certainly, Gioni could not have picked a more ambitious muse for his exhibition, particularly when the types of modernist grand narratives within which Auriti’s palace was conceived have long been disregarded by contemporary art. Yet, as the Biennale’s youngest curator to date, Gioni is by no means old-fashioned and Il Palazzo Enciclopedico possesses a curatorial focus missing from the vision of its predecessors. Biennale President Paolo Baratta proclaiming in the introductory text – "Massimiliano Gioni, much more than presenting us with a list of contemporary artists, wishes to reflect on their creative urges and pushes the question even further: 'what is the artists' world?" After the exceptionally broad curatorial themes of past years (which did read like a list of artists at times), it is clear that Gioni has a vision that is both specific in its inspiration, yet infinite in its possible interpretations. This is both the blessing and curse of Il Palazzo Enciclopedico, as an exhibition that focuses on the themes and practices of the encyclopedia (cataloguing, archiving, collections) it also inevitably results in an exhibition of it’s limitations and finite paradigms. This quandary is certainly apparent to Gioni and it is clear that Il Palazzo Enciclopedico is conscious of its own impossible task.
There were works viewers would not expect to find at a Biennale, such as the 50-year collection of luminously abstract Indian tantric paintings on paper. Other inclusions were downright creepy, such as the disturbingly detailed dolls executed in secret by the American photographer Morton Bartlett.
In the much talked-about opening room, Carl Gustav Jung’s Red Book, sets the mood for the Central Exhibition. The selection of finely illustrated pages that originally complemented Jung’s expressions of esoteric philosophy is lit reverentially in a dark room. The detail and vibrancy of the works is striking for a man who was not renowned for being an artist. The serious attention devoted to pop culture and the occult is one of the most prominent features of the Central Exhibition. Gioni exhibits both established visual artists and ‘outsiders’ side-by-side, demonstrating his own research and dedication to an encyclopedic methodology that is willing to consider everything. Some inclusions are completely literal in their interpretation - there is actually a rock collection on display owned by the French intellectual Roger Caillois. Other collections appear arbitrary in their inclusion, such as Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s studies of ballerinas in oil paint, or Thierry De Cordier’s series of impressionist sea paintings. At the other extreme, there were works viewers would not expect to find at a Biennale, such as the 50-year collection of luminously abstract Indian tantric paintings on paper. Other inclusions were downright creepy, such as the disturbingly detailed dolls executed in secret by the American photographer Morton Bartlett. However, in equal measure there are some fantastic works which respond to the curatorial theme in thoughtful and effective ways, including the beautifully detailed figurative drawings of Imran Qureshi, the intimate dioramas of Andra Ursuta’s childhood house in Romania, the intricately patterned and organically coloured oil paintings from the 20s to the 30s by Augustin Lesage and my personal favourite, the 40 year collection of collaged artist books created by the Japanese artist Shinro Ohtake.
Don’t let Marino Auriti’s model of the Encyclopedic Palace fool you, the exhibition at the Arsenale takes on a different energy and includes more contemporary and faster-paced works than the Central Pavilion. Highlights include French video artist Camille Henrot’s fictional narrative of the universe, the collection of Haitian voodoo flags in Cindy Sherman’s mini-exhibition, the quirky ceramic monsters of Japanese sculptor Shinichi Sawada, humorously mundane video dialogues of Belgian artists Jos De Gruyter & Harald Thys, American Jessica Jackson Hutchin’s melting pastel forms spewing out of sculpted domestic objects, ‘post-internet’ projections of now defunct computer graphics by Helen Marten (the Biennale’s youngest artist), Stan Van DerBeek’s movie mural of a collage of random yet aesthetically pleasing happenings displayed on a sprawling screen, and the cloaks of the Brazillian textile artist and apocalyptic preacher Arthur Bispo do Rosário.
If one work can be said to capture the spirit of the 55th Venice Biennale, it would be Ragnar Kjartasson’s performance involving six brass musicians playing a specially commissioned piece by composer Kjartan Sveinsson aboard a small boat called the SS. Hangover. Each musician takes their turn to step off the boat once it's at a pier and play by themselves, and after a period of time they trade places with one of their colleagues to rejoin the ensemble and repeat the composition again. Kjartasson’s work neatly sums up Gioni’s vision for the Biennale. Both artist and curator understand that Auriti’s dream of obtaining all knowledge possible as a futile endeavor. Yet, its futility does not detract from its beauty. It both encapsulates the more humanistic side of universalism and offers far more possibilities for the Biennale’s future than the one-upmanship of spectacle which in previous years were becoming prevalent. Gioni’s inclusion of art ‘outsiders’ to the Biennale (one of whom is Auriti himself) is powerful in its message that although we may not be able to know everything, each individual has something to teach us all.
Carmen Ansaldo is a freelance art writer from Brisbane, Australia who is now based in Berlin, Germany.