Massimiliano Gioni's Urbane Biennale Is the Most Dazzling in Memory

Marino Auriti's "Il Encyclopedico Palazzo del Mondo (Encyclopedic Palace of the World)" (ca. 1950s) surrounded J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere's photographs
(Photo By Francesco Galli, Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia )

As far as biennial concepts go, the “encyclopedic palace” is a smart one. It justifies in one fell swoop the inclusion of pretty much  anything that might tickle the curator’s fancy while knowingly nodding to the quixotic nature of the exercise — and the loaded history that comes with it (imperial or otherwise). The curator of the 55th Venice Biennale, Massimiliano Gioni, takes his cues from a utopian project devised by Marino Auriti, an Italian-American oddball, who, in 1955, patented the design for a Capitol-like building to host all human knowledge: Il Enciclopedico Palazzo del Mondo. Not unexpectedly, Auriti’s palace was never realized, but the concept provided Gioni with a metaphor for the unquenchable curiosity that has spurred artists, scientists, and enthusiasts of all stripes since the dawn of time. The curator is pointedly making no distinction here between visual artists and so-called outsiders, artworks and artefacts. It’s very much in keeping with the Zeitgeist: at the last dOCUMENTA, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev featured Batrician Princesses (stone sculptures from the 3rd millennia B.C.) at the conceptual core of her exhibition at the Fridericianum; at Margate’s Turner Contemporary, Cabinet editor Brian Dillon has just opened an exhibition based, like the magazine itself, on the cabinet of curiosity model; in Venice, the indefatigable James Brett has pitched the 7th version of his Museum of Everything (here, “Il Palazzo di Everything”) in the Giardini.

Gioni’s all-encompassing curatorial premise means he has included over 150 artists – almost twice as many as in ILLUMInations, the last Venice Biennale’s group exhibition curated by Bice Curiger. The risk was that he might end up with a wunderkammeresque assemblage of knick knacks, but Gioni has adroitly avoided that pitfall by favouring large pieces or full series of works, allowing for a satisfying experience of individual practices — both at the Arsenale, and at the International Pavilion in the Giardini, where the second part of The Encyclopedic Palace is staged. The curator doesn’t display one painting by Maria Lassnig — this year’s recipient, with Marisa Merz, of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement — but seven, spanning the German painter’s visceral struggle with mortality from 1972, Self Portrait Under Plastic, to the hauntingly emaciated bodies of Hospital (2005). Rather than picking just one picture from Imran Qureshi’s Moderate Enlightenment series — which portrays contemporary characters using the ancient Mughal technique of miniature — Gioni has selected nine of them, the sheer critical mass enhancing their unsettling qualities.

 For an exhibition embracing the multifarious forms that knowledge and creativity can take, The Encyclopedic Palace is remarkably restrained, at least to start with. At the Arsenale, it opens with an elegant juxtaposition of Auriti’s original maquette with J. D. Okhai Ojeikere’s black-and-white photographs of women’s braidings and headdresses in Nigeria, documenting a changing tradition in the wake of decolonization. Artists’ psyches, governed each by their own logic, unravel room after room. Gioni places them under the aegis of Carl Jung’s Red Book (1914-30), the psychoanalyst’s iconic volume for which he drew his patients’ dreams and visions with the precision of a medieval monk. Lin Xue’s meticulous ink-on-paper abstractions (Untitled (Scroll No.2) (1995-98) reply to Roberto Cuoghi’s monumental rendition of the Assyrian demon Pazuzu (Belinda, 2013). Other highlights include a selection of Yüksel Arslan’s Artures (from “art” and the French écriture), a series of drawings combining elements of philosophical musings, medical treatises, botany, and biology; Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s domestic erotica with the photographic series Untitled (Marie) (c. 1943-60), featuring his wife as a pin-up; and Papa Ibra Tall’s oneiric acrylics on board, which capture pan-African myths championed by the négritude movement, as conceptualized and promoted by his friend and mentor Léopold Sédar Senghor.

The Encyclopedic Palace effortlessly bridges periods and continents, teasing out affinities between artists with nothing more in common than a bulimic curiosity — and often prolific production. Several of the pieces on show defy the predominant aesthetic of their time. The large, rough-hewn sculptures of human figures by Hans Josephsohn resemble tribal statues from the Pacific — or perhaps sub-Saharan Africa — and Phyllida Barlow’s suspended polystyrene boulders nod to the archaic (untitled: hanginglumpcoalblack, 2012 and untitled: hanginglump 2, 2012). Paintings of monstrous creatures and hellish landscapes by the young Jakub Julian Zió?kowski hark back to Hieronymus Bosch. The clay bestiary by Shinichi Sawada, a severely autistic Japanese artist who started working on his phantasmagorical monsters at a facility for mentally impaired people, is a real gem. It shines all the more installed, as it is at the Arsenale, inside a rotunda, at the centre of a room otherwise dedicated to alt comics god R. Crumb’s cartoon version of the Book of Genesis.
As you trek through it, the show gradually progresses towards a more contemporary understanding of knowledge distribution. Albert Oehlen’s collages (all Untitled, 2009) reconfigure snippets of mass-produced images, and Pamela Rosenkranz’s Because They Try to Bore – Death of Yves Klein (2013) challenges the artist’s mystic idealism by presenting flawed versions of his IKB monochromes based on JPEGs found on the Internet. A trio of UK-based artists — the hotly-tipped Helen Marten and James Richard, shown alongside their predecessor in the rhizomatic exploration of information overload, Mark Leckey — offers a particularly strong moment in the Arsenale. Restaging an exhibition the artist curated at The Bluecoat in Liverpool which investigated what he calls “techno-animism” (a quasi-ritualistic power granted to everyday objects), Leckey’s The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things (2013) functions as a show-within-a-show, echoing and distorting Gioni’s Encyclopedic Palace.
This stretch culminates with a mini retrospective of works by avant-garde filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek, installed as a kaleidoscope of simultaneously projected collaged and abstract pieces (a direct reference to his now-legendary “Movie Drome”). Most of these films are from the 1960s, yet — and despite their somewhat retro aesthetic — the ensemble feels very topical. VanDerBeek had a prescient grasp of the way images, information, and knowledge would come to be consumed, and this display would have made a perfect grand finale to The Encyclopedic Palace. But the show doesn’t stop there. Gioni drags the exhibition a little further along with Otto Piene’s Light Ballets, Bruce Nauman’s video installation showing his gyrating head Raw Material with Continuous Shift-MMMM (1991), and two walls of monitors featuring Dieter Roth’s Solo Scenes videos (1997-1998), which document the artist’s everyday activities from the creative to the trivial. The curator’s chosen grand finale is Walter de Maria’s Apollo’s Ectasy (1990), 20 solid bronze rods elegantly arranged on the floor in parallel diagonals. It’s a stunning piece of work. Yet with its Greek mythology reference and pure minimal aesthetic, it seems to allude to ideas of universality and transcendence that have been repeatedly undermined throughout The Encyclopedic Palace.” With VanDerBeek’s filmic extravaganza, this vast show could have ended with a bang — instead, it trails off. Nevertheless, it is a testiment to the strength of the vision here that such a detail cannot undo the success of Gioni’s endeavour, which is no doubt the most successful Venice Biennale exhibition in recent years.

Watch ARTINFO interview with Massimiliano Gioni in Venice: