‘Even ghosts come to the Biennale’, declares a character in Francesc Ruiz’s Il Fumetto dei Giardini (The Giardini Comic, 2015), published by the Spanish pavilion. During the frantic opening days of the biennale, as consensus seemed to congeal around a handful of highlights, these ghosts were doubtless wary. Could their presence account for the otherwise inexplicable feelings of discomfort and clammy indeterminacy in Venice this year?
The Spanish pavilion is definitely haunted by Salvador Dalí. Titled ‘Los Sujetos’ (The Subjects), the pavilion’s group show, curated by Martí Manen, sees Ruiz, with Pepo Salazar and the duo Cabello/Carceller, brought together under the rubric of an exhibition billed as having Dalí as its subject, though without including any of his work. Instead, the slipperiness of the artist’s persona, and particularly its queerness, is proposed as its thesis. The central atrium of the pavilion is given over to newsreels, TV spots and video interviews with and about Dalí, including strangely perfunctory reflections on the legacy of the eccentric artist by former director of Tate Modern, Vicente Todolí.
Salazar’s sculptures comprise steel poles and glass punctuated by neon lights, wigs, mirrors, carrier bags and mounds of Cheetos corn snacks. Shot in the empty pavilion, Cabello/Carceller’s The State of the Art_ A Performative Essay (2015) features four misfits and a dialogue around drag and androgyny that culminates in a hammy rendition of the song ‘I’m a Mystery’ by 1980s glam-pop icon Amanda Lear, the transgender singer who fascinated Dalí. In two newsstand sculptures, as well as the aforementioned Il Fumetto dei Giardini, Ruiz explores the history of drawn porn, homosexual subversion and censorship. It imagines gay characters from underground comics, including Renzo Barbieri’s Sukia (1978–86), as they cruise a parallel-world Giardini during the ‘Ass Comic Biennial’. The publication’s five instalments were distributed at different pick-up points during the opening week of the biennale. Despite the alacrity of Ruiz’s critical sleaze (which also tackles ex-Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi), Dalí’s louche spirit seems intent on annoying the pavilion like a malicious internet troll: it calls for more bunga-bunga and braggadocio, more uninhibited publicity-seeking and outrageousness, more wax on the moustache to prevent it wilting. Whether the outing of Dalí’s ghost and the contents of the pavilion’s fuscia-coloured central atrium benefits the artists’ work or not is moot. Actually, it isn’t. It doesn’t.
Yet, Dalí might have wallowed contentedly in the collateral event ‘Catalonia in Venice’, a project by filmmaker Albert Serra, curated by Chus Martínez. Indeed, Serra’s studied public persona owes a great deal to his fellow Empurdanese artist. Titled Singularity (2015), Serra’s five-screen film installation makes for a grim yet gloriously pretentious presentation, replete with off-key politics (it appeals to the audience’s ‘new innocence’ and features homosexuals because they are ‘only interested in intercourse that will fail to assure the continuation of the species’). With its sparse dialogue, in some way Singularity recalls Harold Pinter’s plays. Long, gloomily lit scenes portray an imagined community of miners and prostitutes who are all part of an oblique fable involving gold, drones and – in an echo of Okwui Enwezor’s main show – the spectre of Karl Marx. Serra pictures a future that looks grubby and degraded, as if spat out in some forlorn village. (By contrast, more polished highlights such as the techno-social dystopias conjured by Simon Denny in the New Zealand pavilion, or Hito Steyerl in the German pavilion, present a future that is graphically spick-and-span.)
If I could usefully have taken Dalí to visit further pavilions with a geographical or linguistic affinity to Spain then I would have, but it speaks as much to his overweening celebrity as to the cost of his investment in fantasy that he would doubtless have scorned the realities evoked by the representatives of Mexico or Peru. Or Lotty Rosenfeld, whose No, no fuí feliz (No, I Wasn’t Happy, 2015), part of Chile’s pavilion, is a roving-beam, multi-projector video installation tracing the fraught overlap of artistic gesture (incorporating the characteristic ‘+’ marks that Rosenfeld has been making in public spaces since the 1970s) and the apparitions of documentary history (from footage of the Chilean coup of 1973, to the trial of whistle-blower Chelsea Manning). In the Mexican pavilion, Tania Candiani and Luis Felipe Ortega’s exhibition, ‘Possessing Nature’, tackles what remains an undying trope of the biennale: the subject of water levels, which they evoke in the context of pre-Colombian hydrology. An imposing metal structure, whose form is based on a line connecting locations of previous Mexican pavilions, empties and fills with canal water in a continuous cycle. Also, in the Arsenale’s Sale d’Armi, Gilda Mantilla and Raimond Chaves’s ‘Misplaced Ruins’ represents Peru with a series of cardboard sculptures and pulpy shards, works that evoke the deleterious effects of Lima’s humidity and hinge on a disconcerting question: Why is the preservation of archaeological ruins valued more than that of political or ecological ones, perhaps the most frightening of the present-day ghosts?
First published in Issue 172