It is time to talk about the second part of the Venice Biennale (if you missed my review of the Giardini, it can be found here). This time, we head to the Arsenale, a historic shipyard responsible for the naval power of Venice over the last millennia. The Arsenale is a nice contrast to the Giardini. The exhibition is entirely indoors, allowing you to escape the scorching heat and enjoy the exhibition in the large, cool exhibition spaces.
Maybe it was the cold, but the first few installations gave me goosebumps. The exhibition starts with a stunning set of individual works, each carrying strong political messages in their own unique way. One of the opening pieces is a film by Christian Marclay called 48 War Movies. As the title might suggest, it is 48 war movies overlaid and played at the same time, creating an audio-visual spectacle. The dissonance on the screen paired with the overwhelming sounds of gunfire and mangled voices create an awe-inspiring spectacle, outlining the scale of wars and the souls involved. Even quiet parts in some movies, where people are happily talking and reminiscing, are overpowered by the colossal white noise of war.
Other displays were a lot more subtle, yet equally as powerful. Shilpa Gupta’s For, in your tongue, I cannot fit was one such piece. The dimly lit room is filled with 100 microphones, each reverse-wired to produce sounds. A symphony of voices read 100 poems of 100 poets who are all currently political prisoners across the world. As you walk through the space, surrounded by rippling and moving voices, you can read each individual poem skewered under the microphones. Each one is a silenced voice. The whispers of ghosts of living people were haunting, creating a truly moving experience.
The last individual piece I want to talk about is the one of Tavares Strachan. Strachan’s installation talks about individuals who have radically contributed to the progression of humanity but have stayed invisible to history. The installation has a large neon sign telling the story of Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., who was the first African-American astronaut, died due to an accident during a training mission. There wasn’t another African-American astronaut for another 11 years after this event, and Lawrence’s family received a lot of hate mail after the accident. Behind the wall is a body made out of neon lights. Strachan has sent a golden jar, blessed as a container of Lawrence’s soul, into space on a satellite. As the satellite passes overhead every 4 hours, the neon body goes dark. Sadly, I did not get to see the lights turning off. The notion, however, is powerful. It gives Lawrence a strong presence. Even though his soul is all the way out in space, the direct connection back to that room makes it feel like he is there. It respects him and makes him visible to the public, more than he was ever acknowledged before. Magically, Strachan has fulfilled Lawrence’s destiny as an astronaut by sending his soul out on a space mission. And as he looks down on the earth from his orbit, he is above all conflict and discrimination on the planet.
The start of the exhibition was incredibly strong. I was honestly shocked at how good the exhibition was. However, as we walked further and further through the exhibition, the work became more and more abstract, and I started to lose interest. As I said in the previous post, I understand that the work could have significant meaning to it, but it flies well over my head. I guess the first section of the exhibition focused on issues that I am interested in and involved in, and I lost that enthusiasm the further we got.
This theme continued through to the national pavilions. Last year, the architectural displays at the Arsenale were the highlight of my visit, but this year was a bit of a letdown. It might be due to the incredible start setting my standards too high. And no offence to the artists displaying their work, it was just not to my taste. By the time we got to the Italian and Chinese pavilions, I had entirely tuned out. The Italian pavilion was a maze with random items and sketches scattered throughout, and the Chinese display was equally cryptic. The issue with the national pavilions is that they do not provide much of an explanation for the work, expecting you to either read up beforehand or figure it out yourself. I understand a lot of art has to be interpreted in your own objective way, however, this is a huge show which thousands and thousands of people visit, and I think should be more accommodating to people outside the inner art circles. It also seems that similarly to the Giardini, the more prominent countries show more obnoxious and abstract work with very little care to the theme of the show. It seems that they do not want to send out a political message, and would rather show art for art’s sake.
I don’t want to end on a bummer, so I will talk about one more piece that struck a chord with me. Outside the Arsenale, between the main building and the Italian pavilion, there was a wreckage of a boat. The sole reason why I wanted to see the Biennale this year. It is a boat that carried between 700 and 1100 immigrants from Libya to Europe. It sunk on the 18th of April, 2015 with only 28 survivors. Is this art? Is it disrespectful to show what is essentially a mass grave? It is a perfect example of the artist showing us the times that we live in. On the one hand, tragic conflicts are happening around the world. People are forced to flee their homes and travel to foreign lands in the hope of finding peace, during what we consider to be peaceful times. But on the other hand, the boat being displayed seems to have stirred up more controversy than the thousand lives lost on the boat, and the thousands more lost around the world. What are our priorities? Why do we put more effort into talking about issues at art shows than actually trying to solve the conflicts?