Notes on ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’
A Venetian tour through the Biennale with Federico Florian
That day, the Yellow Emperor showed the poet his palace. They left behind, in long succession, the first terraces on the west which descend, like the steps of an almost measureless amphitheater, to a paradise or garden whose metal mirrors and intricate juniper hedges already prefigured the labyrinth. They lost themselves in it, gaily at first, as if condescending to play a game, but afterwards not without misgiving, for its straight avenues were subject to a curvature, ever so slight, but continuous (and secretly those avenues were circles).
Jorge Luis Borges, The Parable of The Palace
When Massimiliano Gioni chose the title for the 55th edition of the Venice Biennale, he clearly had in his mind, probably, the image of the Yellow Emperor’s mansion in The Parable of the Palace, a short story written by Jorge Luis Borges and published in 1960. It tells of an amazingly huge building, composed of circular terraces and vertical towers – a condensed cast of the world which encompasses courtyards, libraries, islands and shining rivers crossed by sandalwood canoes. It is a sad story; here, a poet is sentenced to death for having recited a single verse that contained the entire building, with all its richness and multiplicity. ‘You have robbed me of my palace!’, the Emperor shouts. That’s why he takes the poet’s life with the stroke of a sword.
‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ is a strong title for an exhibition. It refers to different layers of meaning: this is the name of the work by Marino Auriti, an ‘outsider’ Italian-American artist who built the model for an encyclopedic museum of everything (never realized); it is an allegory of the show, an ambitious attempt to collect an incomplete world encyclopedia through images and visual material; finally, it alludes to the aforementioned Borges narrative – a refined reflection on the human desire to grasp the whole of reality through literature.
The exhibition curated by Gioni unfolds into the spaces of the Giardini’s Central Pavilion and the Venice Arsenale. Both the venues display at the entrance two highly iconic works: respectively, the illustrations from the Red Book by Carl Gustav Jung and Auriti’s Encyclopedic Palace of the World. Like two poles of a magnet, these two ‘artworks’ attract each other, though pointing to diverse (but conciliable) horizons: on the one end the labyrinth of the encyclopedic knowledge; on the other the persistency of man’s effort to reach an invisible, supernatural reality – material versus immaterial, science versus esotericism, real versus dream. But there’s a file rouge that ties together these opposites: a sense of frustration, desperation, recklessness and folly. The rooms of the palazzo are imbued with a constant, well discernible feeling of affliction – this is a show about mankind and his limits, about the pain and sorrow induced by the impossibility of a complete understanding of the world.
During my Venetian stay to see the Biennale – a stirring, seducing stopover like every journey to Venice – I could ponder a long time (this particular state of mind stimulated by the surreal topography of the town) on this vast exhibition, on its strength and inspiring force. And I could find some parallels between the show and the city, as if the first directly grew from the Venetian lagoon basin (with all due respect to the curator, who evidently has been able to lead this semi-natural birth). I would summarize those considerations in four notes...
Dieter Roth, Solo Szenen (Aaaoli), 1997-1998, particolare dell'Installazione, Arsenale; Photo by Francesco Galli, Courtesy by la Biennale di Venezia. image at top: Marino Auriti,Il Encyclopedico Palazzo del Mondo or Encyclopedic Palace of the World, ca. 1950s; Photo By Francesco Galli, Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia.