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Ecological Destruction and Aesthetic Nightmares: Venice Art Biennale 2019

Synchronicity

Although it starts just days before Cannes, the Venice Arts Biennale is routinely ignored by film journalists. Perhaps it’s because of the (incorrect) presumption that the yearly film festival sweeps up the important material, or perhaps it’s the weird art/film world divide. But key film figures routinely make their presence known at the Biennale: when I first attended in 2007, José Luis Guerín represented Spain with an installation-based riff on In The City of Sylvia, while Tsai Ming-Liang screened It’s A Dream for Taiwan. Meanwhile, a figure then best-known in the art world, Steve McQueen, shared two filmed works in the festival pavilion that caught my eye, though not in a way that suggested a decade hence he’d be helming Liam Neeson heist thrillers. Curation varies from instalment to instalment; while 2017 wasn’t a banner year for name filmmakers, 2015 featured Chantal Akerman, Harun Farocki, Chris Marker and Alexander Kluge. It’s hard to argue that serious film journalists on their way to Europe couldn’t have spared a day or two in Venice, even if it potentially meant missing the opening film of Cannes (Emanuelle Bercot’s Walking Tall). 

On paper, the 2019 curation seemed especially promising, with Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Christian Marclay featured in the main curation, and Alexander Sokurov representing the Russian pavilion. For those not in the know: the Biennale unfolds over two large venues, the Giardini and the Arsenale, each of which features a curated international section as well as pavilions for individual nations. Other nations who can’t afford these high profile spots wind up popping up in venues all over Venice as part of the festival; so, too, do non-official artists looking to soak up the publicity or desperately cling to relevance. The worst example of this, incidentally, was Marina Abramović, whose desperately clumsy climate change-themed VR piece, Rising, began (as no good piece of art ever has) with a lengthy recitation of relevant statistics followed by a blatant statement of her attempt to create empathy in the real world through actions in the virtual world, before putting the viewer through a piece that asks “what if Saw, but to build empathy?”

I began in the national pavilions in the Giardini. The Danish pavilion features Larissa Sansour’s In Vitro (co-directed by Søren Lind), a remarkably striking and assured two-channel black and white sci-fi film. The opening is a riff on The Shining, with a black liquid flooding the streets of Bethlehem like the Overlook, and certain shots hint at Stalker. The bulk of the dialogue-heavy film, though, makes it clear that Sansour’s real interests are Palestinian identity and belonging. Hiam Abbass does heavy lifting in her dialogues with a young clone who has never known Bethlehem pre-apocalypse, but the moments of visual grace in the film made me wish Sansour placed a greater premium on showing instead of telling.

The Canadian pavilion, meanwhile, featured the ISUMA collective, focusing on a new feature film by Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner director Zacharias Kunuk. That One Day In The Life of Noah Piugattuk is 112 minutes meant that I was preparing myself to sit through it simply as a matter of due diligence; when I learned it was already available on iTunes, I got a bit angry. In an art festival wracked with so much (so, so much) art about environmental destruction, to ask international audiences to spend a good chunk of their carbon miles on something they could watch at home seemed, at best, perverse. Even if supporting indigenous art came from a good place (and I’m sure it does), they could have at least followed the lead of the Finnish pavilion, where the Miracle Workers Collective delivered a multi-threaded 30 minute joint piece, allowing each of them to give an insight into their work one couldn’t get at home. Nonetheless, for those inclined, the inclusion of Kunuk’s film is an opportunity to further interrogate the porous distinctions between “video art” and “commercial moving image object.”

Russia offered a continuing instalment in Alexander Sokurov’s collaboration with the Hermitage, using as its linchpin a painting by Rembrandt, “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” Sprawling over three rooms upstairs, Lc. 15: 11-32 (the Bible verse upon which Rembrandt’s painting rests) sprawls over three rooms that integrate sculpture, sketches, and two key pieces of video art. In the right side of the main room is a giant tableau of a building, its cross-section exposed by destruction, wracked by flames and a waterfall of a distinctly bloody hue, while in various rooms snipers fire, residents sledgehammer walls, and two rams butt heads. On the left screen, meanwhile, Christ sits in the desert, partially obscured by black smoke. The work eventually loops to reveal two standing soldiers, tethered to flaming rope, as slowly, hands emerge from the air and troops move through the background. Questions of beginning, ending, and duration are always complicated in moving image art, and Sokurov plays cannily and uncomfortably with this: do you want to wait for the inevitable conflagoration and associated horrors? After several minutes, I left, knowing it would continue. 

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when confronted with so much art, and to make snap decisions: the lengthy running time of video art makes it a physical impossibility to view everything on offer in a day. Laure Prouvost’s exhibition in the French pavilion, Deep See Blue Surrounding You, had been highly acclaimed, but on my first go, I gave it three minutes before I decided its willfully immature utopian vision of an all-ages, all-races road trip tied to crappy video anti-aesthetics, gratuitous eyeball shots and disjunctive, jarring edits was a hard pass. Thankfully, I returned on a second day, under less hurried circumstances, and while I didn’t find its aesthetics any less confrontational, I did find them more productive. A debt to Varda quickly became obvious (even before Varda herself appeared), and a slit eyeball pays homage to Dali, but I kept thinking of Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline for some reason: perhaps the confident willingness to offend the viewer’s sensibilities with flash frames, musique concrete-style jarring sound, disturbing shots of rubbish in water and bad performance art. Then it becomes a document of its own making. Also, it’s a musical. It’s the damnedest, most confounding thing I saw at Venice, and I don’t know how it would hold up stripped from its element (it was presented in an aquatic-themed room with accompanying lights accentuating the image on stage), but I’m on board for whatever’s next. 

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, shot in Colombia, had been hotly tipped for Cannes, and when I heard his name announced for the Biennale, I’d hoped we get a glimpse of that film here. Turns out that a glimpse is precisely what we get: two still images, shot in Colombia, one of a mosquito-bitten back, the other of a giant bridge over a river. They’re part of several of his images scattered throughout the Giardini, and who knows what those unfamiliar with Apichatpong would make of any of them. 

It’s worth noting at this point that curator Ralph Rugoff opted for an unusual strategy for this year’s Biennale, having artists exhibit not at just one of the two international exhibition locations but at both of them. Some artists use this as a chance to either showcase two sides of their practice or augment one key work with B-sides. I can argue the toss as to which approach Apichatpong took: many of the still images in the Giardini date from before 2017, and even though I dig some of them a great deal (particularly two splattery abstract lightboxes from 2014, Primates’ Memories and Mr. Electrico [for Ray Bradbury]), they pale in significance compared to his installation in the Arsenale. 

Synchronicity is a collaboration with Japanese artist Tsuyoshi Hisakado, responsible for the striking slanted wall with a circle cut in it through which a lamp is visible. Other lamps are clustered in the far corner behind the wall, casting an indirect light which fades and rises like the fires on-screen. The video projection, looped for 14 minutes, consists of a woman lying in a bed outside at night, whilst behind her, a series of theatrical scrims, oft depicting daytime palatial Thai courtyards, are raised and lowered. There’s a fire nearby, one that’s superimposed. If this weren’t slippery enough to get one’s hands on, at seemingly random times, the projector’s shutter is closed and re-opened. What we miss and what we experience while we sleep is a metaphor that runs through Apichatpong’s films, while the nocturnal setting and flames are of a piece with Primitive, his 2016 Tate Modern installation, but while that work focused on groups of men awake, we stay alone with a single woman here. It’s not a work that would survive the cinema, but I don’t think it needs to: as part of Apichatpong’s artistic practice, it’s a crucial new addition, and anyone who evaluates his work solely through his theatrical features is missing half the picture. 

Missing the picture, meanwhile, is a key element of Christian Marclay’s remarkable new moving image work at the Arsenale, 48 War Films. Building on the notion of duration in the 24-hour long The Clock, his latest work consists of 48 different war films overlaid on top of each other, each one slightly smaller than the last so that only the edges are visible, playing in a loop. The different durations mean the film could show nearly forever without repeating, a pointed mirror to our current never-ending war. Apart from conceptual heft, though, 48 War Films earns attention not only on superficial levels (working out Full Metal Jacket’s inclusion thanks to the boot camp tracking shots or Glory from a sliver of Matthew Broderick’s face) but aesthetic ones, with the natural fast-paced editing of so many war films creating flickers of movement that ripple across the concatenated rectangles. The cacophonous soundtrack, meanwhile, renders any individual conflict indistinguishable but the aggregate conflict overwhelming. (I wish I’d found anything nearly so gripping in Marclay’s still images in the Giardini, but perhaps it’s another A-side/B-side situation, or perhaps being positioned next to a wildly-flailing giant robot arm squeegeeing masses of red fluid meant I didn’t give them the attention due.)

Kahlil Joseph, arguably most famous for his work on Lemonade, got around the problem by literally installing the same artwork three times across the two locations in slightly different permutations. I’d be more cynical if BLK NWS wasn’t both successful and conducive to repeat drop-in viewing. A two-channel piece that re-imagines what the idea of news could be, Joseph includes everything from footage of baptisms and black men holding babies to Betty Shabazz to footage from Boyz N The Hood with a pointed lower-third chyron: “CONSIDERING THE EMOTIONAL WELLNESS OF GANG MEMBERS.” BLK NWS acts as a reconstructive rejoinder to Adam Curtis’s media deconstruction: if media has acted as a coding of negative social values, could it not be repurposed for the opposite, yet still be watchable?

Prize-winner Arthur Jafa, meanwhile, does something nearly the opposite with The White Album, a mashup of the sicknesses of white culture laced with stray doses of empathy and amusement, from Dylann Roof to A Clockwork Orange to YouTube race rants to the whitest man you’ve ever seen lip-syncing to “Livin’ on a Prayer” at a basketball game, hugging audience members of all races as he descends the stairs. Stray inclusions of black culture make things thornier. Also wrestling with issues of race  (I think) was Stan Douglas in his 2-channel sci-fi Doppelganger. Despite some of its loftier ambitions and gorgeous colours, the sub-Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place-level performances and dialogue left me cold and I quickly bailed. A look at still photographs from Scenes From The Blackout at the Arsenale, reminding me of Gregory Crewdson and Cindy Sherman, prompted me to return to Doppelganger, to see if I could take the amateurism as feature instead of bug, but playback issues on my return visit meant the image kept locking. 

Hito Steyerl’s neural-network imagined images of a drowned Venice ended with a line of narration so unintentionally hilarious I sat through the aesthetic nightmare a second time. (Speaking of aesthetic nightmares, Jon Rafkan and Ed Atkins can both fuck off with their uncanny valley CGI disturbias.) I also sat through Ryoji Ikeda’s overpowering data visualisation, data-verse 1, twice, and then a third time: I’m not sure if it’s cinema, or even related, but his work consistently hits my moving image pleasure buttons, and this one includes a freakout as powerful as anything Gaspar Noé unleashed on Cannes. In the Korean pavilion, a surround-screen installation by siren eun young jung offered a similar stroboscopic delight, with a series of “atypical” (wheelchair-bound, trans, etc.) Koreans brought on stage to live their dream stories. At its dizzying peaks, the screen was not just split but fractured into dozens of smithereens, with an overpowering dance track carrying the arguably overlong length into something less than narrative, but wholly sensual. 

Two three-screen installations in the national pavilions provided some of the highest points. I’ve been a fan of Angelica Mesiti’s multi-screen installations for a while, as she patiently uses music and translation through association to create thoughtful, immersive work, and Assembly is a new high-water mark. Meditating on the inclusive and exclusive nature of representational government through poetry, music, dance and cinema, Mesiti delivered one of the most patient, potent and of-the-moment statements without a single line of exposition. John Akomfrah, meanwhile, used Ghana’s pavilion to simultaneously deliver a full-throated negotiation of the sins and failures of the past (colonialism, poaching, environmental devastation) and provide an unexpectedly beguiling tourist brochure. That may sound like an insult, but his canny sequencing of imagery held viewers for the 50-minute runtime, an eternity in Biennale terms. If he could confine himself to one screen, I could imagine him delivering something like—and I mean this in the best way possible—an African Kooyanisqatsi. (Hopefully he’d lose the actors in animal masks for that, though.)

If I had the money to offer one filmmaker a feature after the Biennale, though, I’d probably offer it to Albanian Driant Zeneli. His two-channel film Maybe the Cosmos Is Not So Extraordinary hasn’t gotten the hype many other entries did—perhaps because he’s featured before, perhaps because this putatively science fiction film is so deadpan it’s arguably indistinguishable from arch seriousness. But as its dueling voice-overs assert its interstellar bona fides, the teenagers on a seemingly pointless mission in an abandoned factory kept bringing wry smiles. While many artists tried with varying degrees of success to push the limits of technology and make bold statements, Zeneli’s quiet bemusement with the future of the past was a droll, refreshing pleasure. I doubt it’ll lead to a Liam Neeson heist thriller, but I’ve been wrong before. 

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