Half a dozen directors before him have tried but Massimiliano Gioni is the first to curate a 21st-century Venice Biennale that entirely, ruthlessly, outlandishly leaves the 20th century behind. Gioni, 40, is young for the job, has lived most of his adult life after 2000, and understands the crucial trends transforming post-millennium art.
One is the search for the Picasso of the Facebook generation, a cubism of cyberspace – for artists who utilise and explain the seismic cultural changes engineered by the internet and social media. Another is that history from this perspective can no longer be strictly narrative or angled through a single lens; it reforms as so many little stories. The Encyclopaedic Palace, Gioni’s compelling exhibition for the 55th Biennale, posits the absurdity of knowledge-as-meaning in our information-overload era – and particularly the demise of modernism’s triumphal arc.
“There’s an anti-viral on the market will turn you into night vision … lock you into – linearity,” rasps an actor in one of Ryan Trecartin’s untitled fast-talking films that collage chatroom jabber, confessional TV, sitcoms, animations, tweets and text-speak in jittery non-sequences of screens-within-screens, images splitting and mutating, sudden cuts, unstable perspectives. Linearity means death for the ever-morphing, posing, mask-like figures who pretend to characters in Trecartin’s lurid, camp, grotesque, inane floating world, where gender, race and identity chaotically shift, existence is image, experience a mere prelude to afterlife on YouTube.
With Trecartin, born in 1981 in Texas, as leader, Gioni’s Arsenale bursts with young artists exposing the anxieties and opportunities of the internet age. French-Algerian Neïl Beloufa’s dystopian “Kempinski” – mock-interviews with local residents shot at night in Mali – dissolves barriers between documentary and fiction. Briton James Richards’ black-and-white “Rosebud” dreamily examines image-making via YouTube clips, film archives, his own fugitive zoom-ins – a strobe-lit parakeet, scratched-out Japanese erotic prints, water particles. Fellow Briton Helen Marten’s “Orchids, or a hemispherical bottom” recycles domestic objects as laser-cut synthetic slabs, depictions of the body, acts of drawing, a tortoise, into self-commentating visual cacophonies (“I can’t tell whether this diagram is generative or corruptive”), as slickly exuberant as the consumer culture Marten critiques.
Everything is random; interiority and exhibitionism collide. Gioni begins his historical excavation in the Giardini with a display of Jung’s Red Book; in the Arsenale he opens with Marino Auriti’s “Palazzo Enciclopedico” (1955) – an exquisitely modelled imaginary museum, with hand-drawn mullions and tiny hair-comb balustrades, intended to stand 700 metres in Washington, DC, and showcase humanity’s achievements from wheel to satellite.
Auriti, an Italian emigrant to Pennsylvania, built the model in the garage of his autoshop. He typifies the obscure hobbyist visionary whom Gioni obsessively resurrects, neglecting most recent global names in favour of unknown creators of quirky personal libraries, museums of the mind, archives of anything from Nigerian hair ornamentation – JD Okhai Ojeikere’s photographs documenting postcolonial sculpted, braided, folded styles – to provincial architecture, dolls’-house scale (Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser’s “The 387 Houses of Peter Fritz, Insurance Clerk from Vienna”).
There is the menagerie of Levi Fisher Ames – a 19th-century Wisconsin wood carver who depicted wolves, dogs, a “Michigan Mermaid” and “Ponderous Iguanodon” – plus a modern clay version, every animal sporting twisted spikes, by Shinichi Sawada, a 30-year-old Japanese autist. Gianfranco Baruchello’s delightful tableaux “La Grande Biblioteca” proposes a library constructed from found objects, paper sculptures, rolled newspaper; Evgenij Kozlov’s “The Leningrad Album” commemorates, in pen and ink, drawings of women undressing, washing, snogging, a young boy’s sexual awakening in a 1970s communal apartment.
What is going on? Gioni’s proliferating gods of small things challenge, I think, not only history but the market hype, unquestioned reputations and curatorial jargon that so stale the current art carousel. Defiantly, Gioni refuses to confirm identikit global acquisition patterns – a chief pleasure on day one was observing the confounded expectations of the Biennale set.
There is, of course, a severe downside. Anthropological approaches do not privilege the best art. Painting here is almost invisible, apart from potent, gun-wielding nude self-portraits by 94-year-old Golden Lion winner Maria Lassnig, and Jakub Julian Ziólkowski’s inspired neuroscientific fantasies (“Genesis – Crying Galaxies”, “100 Eyes, 100 Fingers”). Just one solo installation, Hans Josephsohn’s craggy/delicate totemic brass figures, tells that great art arrests and stirs by its twin formal and expressive powers. Surrounded by loud-mouthed moving images, Josephsohn stands out – grand, still, reproachful – for his ability to make transience monumental.
Solo presentations often outstrip the curated international show but this year’s national pavilions pale before Gioni’s energetic vision. For Britain, Jeremy Deller is popular, eclectic, irredeemably parochial: “English Magic” comprises visual re-enactments of news stories interspersed with the inevitable Deller tea room and music film. A painting of a harrier hen references a rare bird Prince Harry may once have shot. “You Have the Watches, We Have the Time” is a group of amateur portraits by UK prisoners, depicting British figures connected to the Iraq war, including weapons inspector David Kelly. The mural “We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold” imagines William Morris as a colossus, tossing Roman Abramovich’s yacht into the Venetian lagoon. Originality, intellect, skill, lightness of touch – all are desperately absent.
Attempting to undermine nationalist assumptions, Germany and France have swapped pavilions, with feeble results. For France, Anri Sala’s film of a Ravel piano performance is slight. Germany, co-opting artists including Indian photographer Dayanita Singh and Ai Weiwei, addresses the vocabulary of displacement, political/cultural boundaries, art’s power to radicalise: the lingua franca of 21st-century biennales. Ai is better shown at Zuecca Projects in “Straight”, a sombre, claustrophobic installation of tonnes of steel rebar from shoddily built schools whose collapse in Sichuan’s 2008 earthquake killed thousands.
I loved two unexpected variations. For the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed Kazem’s “Walking on Water”, an immersive film environment, leaves you feeling exhilaratingly lost at sea – metaphor for crossing physical barriers or “roaming the borders of ideas freely”. Iceland, lacking a permanent pavilion in the Giardini, recreates a small Viking boat, the SS Hangover; aboard, a band plays melancholy tunes, ebbing in and out of earshot as the vessel circles the Arsenale.
America’s Sarah Sze disappoints – painfully intricate hanging junk sculptures smugly reprise minimalism. Russia is brilliant: Moscow conceptualist Vadim Zakharov’s “Danae” invites women visitors, each given an umbrella, into a cave where they are deluged by thudding gold coins; male visitors watch upstairs, alongside a suited Vladimir Putin lookalike perched on rafters. Scoop up the coins, return them to a levered bucket, and you “guarantee the flow of material goods” while bringing alive the ancient myth of lust and greed. Greece’s “History Zero”, featuring a collector shaping euro notes into flowers, an African immigrant selling scrap and an artist-flâneur seeking inspiration in Stefanos Tsivopoulos’s film trilogy, talks directly of economic collapse. Belgian Berlinde de Bruyckere’s “Cripplewood”, a huge fallen, wounded tree/figure, embodies psychological collapse.
Off-biennale, Anthony Caro at Museo Correr lends gravitas; Marc Quinn at the Cini Foundation is the most vapid thing in town; Pawel Althamer and Anatoly Osmolovsky at La Casa dei Tre Oci explores in pristine, unsettling bronzes the vexed legacy of Russian icons and the avant-garde; and the Ducal Palace’s Manet: Return to Venice, boasting a once-in-a-century juxtaposition of Manet’s harsh “Olympia”, unprecedentedly lent from Paris, with its model, Titian’s serene “Venus of Urbino”, is the year’s unmissable event.
The Encyclopaedic Palace at the 55th Venice Biennale, from June 1 to November 24