'Visions of spell sometimes emerge from the lagoon like ghosts dripping endless melancholy.' These are the words that the well-known Italian art critic Antonio Morassi once used to describe the impressionistic views of Venice by Francesco Guardi – the great 18th century painter (and also Giambattista Tiepolo's brother-in-law). Morassi's description does justice to the evanescent, ghostly quality of Guardi's paintings; there, Venice seems to disappear in a tangle of colors and vaporized forms. I think about Guardi while I'm standing in front of a bar's window in Piazza San Marco – I can glimpse on the glass the reflection of the square's trembling lights over the wet pavement (a rainy Venice is the setting of these Biennale opening days). As never before, the city appears to me as a dreamy marine creature (if you look at it on a map, its shape resembles that of a huge whale), devoid of substance and consistency. Immaterial like the glare that I can see on the café window.
But defining Venice 'immaterial' is a kind of paradox. It's a lagoon city, born from a reclaimed land – a thick stone conglomerate settled on an invisible skeleton of concrete and wooden poles. Just think of the multitude of churches and palaces spread on its small urban surface – that makes it one of the most 'material' city in the world. Venice is an in-between place: it rises amidst the sea and the land, is made of rock and water, and looks like it's vanishing and monumental at the same time.
In a way, the national pavilions at the Giardini and the Arsenale are crossed by the same 'in-between disposition'. As the city itself, the artworks on show swing between the poles of materiality and immateriality, the substantial and the ephemeral. For that reason we can imagine the tour through the pavilions as a route towards a progressive artistic dematerialization – a loss of physical substance that runs over the city too, like in a Venetian view by Francesco Guardi.
Berlinde De Bruyckere, Kreupelhout-Cripplewood, Material vs. immaterial, stone vs. water, Belgian Pavilion, 55th International Art Exhibition, Il Palazzo Enciclopedico, la Biennale di Venezia; Photo: Italo Rondinella / Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia.
My tour begins in the Israeli Pavilion, which hosts a video-installation by Gilad Ratman titled The Workshop. It tells of a journey from Israel to Venice taken by a small group of people – an epic, primitive voyage that starts in the caves of Israel, continues through subterranean passages and finally reaches the pavilion from the underground (there's a hole on the pavement to demonstrate this). After their arrival, the space is turned into a sculpting workshop: the weird band makes clay portraits of themselves; they shout, scream and cry at their sculpted heads, where a few microphones register the noise that is then transformed into music by a DJ. It is an impressive installation; it has to do with primordial and rude pushes. The physical, tactile element – the clay, the hole on the floor, the corporeal act of molding – is at the core of the work. This is the roughest and coarsest national intervention in the whole Biennale – it represents the 'material' far end of the spectrum.
When I get in the Belgian Pavilion, I find myself inside an obscure, mysterious venue. I can hardly distinguish a bulky and gnarled object – it is an uprooted elm tree, covered and surrounded by a mass of wooden limbs. It looks like a devastated corpse, full of scars and wounds: an imaginary plant incarnation – according to the artist Berlinde De Bruyckere – of Saint Sebastian's injured body. Again, materiality and physical consistency identify this work; it possesses a spiritual force like that of an arcane ritual colossus.
From the tormented body of a tree I move to the images of altered and remodeled human bodies; I refer to the multi-channel video installation by Ali Kazma, in the Pavilion of Turkey. In these video works the artist investigates the interventions and transformations practiced on the body today: tattoos, body-building, surgery and taxidermy. The films are shot in nine different cities all over the world – they constitute a kind of unsettling and accurate compendium of the shapes that the body can take on in contemporary society.
Lara Almarcegui, installation view, Spanish Pavilion, 55th International Art Exhibition, Il Palazzo Enciclopedico, la Biennale diVenezia; Photo by Italo Rondinella / Courtesy la Biennale diVenezia.
Lara Almarcegui's intervention in the Spanish Pavilion comprises a portrayal of the body of a building. The exhibition space is occupied by mounds of different construction materials (cement, sand, glass and iron), of the same type and quantity used to build the pavilion in the early 20th century. It's like being in a Martian landscape, made of irregular mountains and hills of debris. Undoubtedly, the focus of the project is materials and their physical consistency – but at a conceptual level; the heaps of rubble are the ingredients for the construction of the pavilion, like a sort of abstract architectural recipe.
The itinerary towards the immaterial and intangible side of the Biennale continues inside the Dutch Pavilion, which presents a stunning retrospective of Mark Mander's work. Room with Broken Sentence is the title of the show – an attempt to transform into images and objects the cerebral power of language. The external windows of the pavilion are covered with fake newspapers, containing all the existing words in the English vocabulary. The photos that accompany the written columns have been taken by the artist in his studio: they are pictures of dust and powder. A huge vertical sculpture, composed by a working table and a feminine head cut by vertical wooden beams, stands in the middle of the room; it silently dialogs with a series of disrupted heads over a line of white plinths. Here the material element is strong – but the clay, the wood and the resin of the sculptures seem to have lost their palpable qualities. Some pieces in the show are partly hidden behind a flimsy membrane and a thin white rope on the floor describes the contours of an imaginary room. The enigmatic, cryptic strength of the works ideally evokes the inner landscape of the artist?s mind – the material fades into the ephemeral, the real into the visionary.
The US Pavilion is completely transformed by the American artist Sarah Sze: a fragile universe of objects taken from Venice – leaves from the Giardini, tickets from the vaporetto, photographs of stones and an array of tools – occupies the entire space of the building. The visitor is led to discover the multitude of elements that constitute the installation – these minute, colored and countless puzzle pieces form a delicate combination which appears on the verge of collapsing and falling down.
Alexandra Pirici, Manuel Pelmus, An Immaterial Retrospective of The Venice Biennale, Romanian Pavilion, installation view, 55th International Art Exhibition, Il Palazzo Enciclopedico, la Biennale diVenezia; Photo: Italo Rondinella / Courtesy la Biennale diVenezia.
The brittleness of a fictitious cosmos is the prelude to the complete dematerialization of the artwork: this is what happens in the Romanian Pavilion, where a group of performers reenact with their bodies the works (not only performances, but even paintings and sculptures) that have been exhibited in previous editions of the Biennale. This intervention, conceived by the artists Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmus, is a sort of fugacious depiction of the history of the show – a tribute to the unsubstantial and the transitory, the immaterial finish line of the journey.
I think about Venice again. Now, I imagine it as a double city: the first is the city that we all know, the visible one that sits on the water; the other one is the image of the first reflected in the shaking surface of the sea – its ephemeral, trusty companion. And what if Venice disappeared under the water that sustains it? This is exactly what occurs inside the Pavilion of Chile; Venezia, Venezia by Alfredo Jaar consists of an exact model of the Giardini, but flooded by water. Like a 'vision of spell' – using the words of Antonio Morassi – the replica occasionally reemerges from the sea; it is a phantom from the past that constantly returns. I'm sure that Francesco Guardi would have drawn inspiration from this beautiful mirage.
To read more of Federico Florian's impressions of Venice, follow his Biennale Diary, published on KLAT magazine - Special Venice Biennale:
(Image on top: Gilad Ratman, The Workshop, Israeli Pavilion, 55th International Art Exhibition, Il Palazzo Enciclopedico, la Biennale di Venezia; © Photo by Italo Rondinella, Courtesy by la Biennale di Venezia.)