The Rat Woman is a harbinger of death. Kristinus Oplinus is possessed by Satan, or so they claim. Sateri, nicknamed ‘Il Pesce’, can swim underwater for hours. The Fool is said to have a mental age of eight, and often becomes transfixed by animals. Franceline de Veugelier wishes she had never been born.
The motley cast of ‘MONDO CANE’ (2019), Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys’ project for the Belgian Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, could well have been assembled from a defective batch of Punch and Judy dolls. Enclosed within a loose approximation of what might be a prison, a folkloric museum or a commercial showroom, this troupe of automated mannequins jitters back and forth with no regard for one another’s space. The Knife Grinder toils while the Town Crier looks on.
Taken at face value (and these faces are invariably marked with dull, dead eyes), there is a childish lunacy to this march of marionettes: they sing, groan and loop, void of discernible drive or determination. But lunacy is a dark force, a crazed by-product of existential pressure, and this particular cast grows increasingly impatient at the prospect of being forever held within this cabinet of crooked curiosities. In his essay ‘The Philosophy of Toys’ (1853), Charles Baudelaire writes that ‘toys become actors in the great drama of life’; De Gruyter & Thys’ dolls doubtless have one foot in the misery of our real world: a gang of sorry outcasts, markedly anxious about spending their mutual eternities being gazed upon, fawned over, fucked with.
Cathy Wilkes deploys mannequins to a more serene end – and ‘end’ feels like an apt place to begin with the British Pavilion, since its opening room recalls a morgue, a mausoleum or a memory. Four knee-height mannequins – each with a stone-white face, dressed in a light tunic and with a swollen grey abdomen suggesting pregnancy – flank a low, canvas crypt. Placed with great delicacy on and around this structure are dried flowers and berries, dragonflies, rocks, open books: dedications to a someone who remains unknown.
The unknown is a vital component of Wilkes’s sculptural assemblages, each of which seems to have been bleached clean of lingering narratives and distinctive features (an echo, perhaps, of how her disenfranchised figures went unnoticed in their past lives). This anonymity haunts the space, imbuing every cast foot, lone twirl of fabric and found object with a profound sense of loss – or, more specifically, a profound sense that it has been discarded and never retrieved. A cold silver teapot, resting on a sheet. A high-chair, empty.
In the pavilion’s final rooms, Wilkes’s sterile assemblages give way to a selection of (what appear to be) salvaged paintings of natural landscapes – burnt umbers, greens, browns, all layered. For those of a romantic disposition, this curatorial transition, a dissolution of cold bodies into fields of mute colour, could be read as a pantheistic rebirth, of sorts; the show itself, a passage from life through death and back. In an accompanying catalogue, curator Zoe Whitley invokes T.S. Eliot’s poem, ‘Little Gidding’ (1959): ‘We are born with the dead: / See, they return, and bring us with them.’
Martin Puryear’s A Column for Sally Hemings (2019) returns another: Sarah ‘Sally’ Hemings, an African American slave of US President Thomas Jefferson and mother to four of his children. The column, a painted tulip poplar with a cast-iron peg at its tip, stands in the rotunda of the US Pavilion, its shape echoing the Doric columns at the building’s entrance. This positioning lends greater gravitas, still: the US Pavilion was designed in 1929 by Delano and Aldrich, and was inspired by Jefferson’s Virginia home and plantation, Monticello. It was at Monticello that Hemings and Jefferson started their lengthy ‘relationship’ (female slaves had no legal right to refuse unwanted sexual advances); it was at Monticello that Hemings remained enslaved to the President until his death in 1826.
Such loaded artefacts sit at the heart of Puryear’s presentation, ‘Liberty/Liberta’, and while these objects might be abstracted and enlarged to the point at which recognition becomes tricky, the force of their stories remains. The oversized steel visor of Tabernacle (2019), for instance, estimates a cap worn by Union and Confederate infantry during the Civil War, while the bulbous, snail-like curve of Big Phrygian (2010–14) mimics another headdress: the Phrygian cap, a universal symbol of freedom (or the ceaseless pursuit thereof). These are old tales – of liberty, allegiance, force – retold at such a remove that their authority begins to deteriorate. These are symbols of power paraded as empty constructs.
After all, what is power but the unseen struggle for it? And what is a façade but a mask for an infrastructural system of rigging, wires and shoddy labour? The German Pavilion, overseen by Natascha Süder Happelmann (a moniker of the Berlin-based artist Natascha Sadr Haghighian constructed from various misspellings of her given name), takes gleeful pleasure in dragging this veneer to the ground. In a stubborn retort to the Biennale’s charge to ‘represent’ a national identity, Happelmann has laid the German Pavilion bare, bisecting the space with a vaulting concrete wall and exposing its weathered substructure. In the ramshackle rooms flanking the wall sit clusters of fake rocks, streams of putrid water and reserves of spare material for future construction; in the chamber behind the looming structure is its raw skeleton: a spindly modular system of scaffolding, speakers and the flimsy wooden struts which, alarmingly, are all that hold the wall in place.
While it may deliver a blunt rejoinder to the very premise of the Venice Biennale – namely, the concepts of nationhood and national representation – Happelmann’s is a project delivered with a wink. For all of her twisting of words and testing the rules, the artist remains complicit with much of what she critiques. Hers is a reaction, yes, but one that has been solicited and sanctioned by a cultural establishment that will ultimately benefit from her mighty show of iconoclasm. It is revolt bound up with artifice, as revolt so often is; it is disorder, curated.
Happelmann’s project is ugly – intentionally so. Her fake rocks are ugly; her pencil-marked walls and damp floors: ugly. But, as Annie Dillard writes of rocks in An American Childhood (1987): ‘If even this ugliness was worth whole shelves at the library, required sophisticated tools to study, and inspired grown men to crack mountains and saw crystals – then what wasn’t?’
Curator Ralph Rugoff’s epithet of choice for the title of his Biennale – ‘interesting’ – is maddening in its refusal to commit: to colour something ‘interesting’ is to balk at the prospect of passing judgement and, instead, stack the space with meaningless signification. (‘This quality of being interesting,’ observed Susan Sontag in On Photography, 1977, ‘is an empty one.’) But the term is just as frustrating in its potential to encompass the world. While, as a curatorial tool, the term’s boundless potential is doubtless appealing, in the Giardini, at least, its stupendous inclusivity renders its guiding influence both absent and omnipresent in equal measure.
As per every edition of the Venice Biennale, there are threads to be traced (ecological disaster, nationhood, fluid identity, the obligatory ‘bodies moving quite slowly’) and others to be tossed (say, the Russian Pavilion and its bizarre, subterranean response to Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1663–69), but there is little on show that could be slandered with the term ‘uninteresting’. And this is not wholly to Rugoff’s credit. If rocks are interesting, then what isn’t?
Main image: Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys, ‘Mondo Cane’, 2019, installation view, Belgian Pavilion, La Biennale di Venezia 2019. Courtesy: the artists and the Belgian Pavilion; photograph: Nick Ash