A scale-model of an unrealized dream opens the Arsenale section of the 55th Venice Biennale. The exhibition is full of such visions. Its title, ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’, is borrowed from this little-known work, made in the 1950s by an artist whom curator Massimiliano Gioni has fondly referred to as an ‘illustrious nobody’. Marino Auriti’s Enciclopedico Palazzo del Mondo was an imaginary museum in which the self-taught Italian-American intended to house all the knowledge in the world. It would have stood only a little shorter than the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world today. But the estimated us$2.5 billion dollars construction costs failed to materialize; the maquette languished for several decades at the back of Auriti’s garage in Pennsylvania. Quixotic, Borgesian or both, this model is one emblem of Gioni’s Biennale.
If Auriti is the presiding influence of the Arsenale, with its litany of peculiar taxonomies, then Carl Jung is the patron saint of the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, an exhibition of spiritualist cosmologies. It opens with the psychotherapist’s Red Book or Liber Novus (1913–30), a vast illuminated manuscript stemming from a vision of God he had as a boy. As Jung later would later recall: ‘All of my creative activity has come from those initial fantasies.’ Prefacing exquisite pieces by mystics (Hilma af Klint), healers (Emma Kunz) and occultists (Aleister Crowley), this is the realm of knowledge through epiphanies, dreams and hallucinations. These practices are guided more often by voices than by research or rationality. But they are interspersed with the collections of scholars and polymaths: pedagogue Rudolf Steiner’s blackboard diagrams; sociologist Roger Caillois’ collection of rocks; drawings collected by the anthropologist Hugo Bernatzik in the Solomon Islands during the 1930s.
So ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ is capacious, accommodating the work of the highly trained and the self-taught, the academic and the hard-to-categorize. Gioni’s exhibition suggests a collection of collections, full of bestiaries and compendious scrapbooks and totalizing worldviews. It is frequently magisterial and provocative, but also frustrating – often all at the same time. For an exhibition of some 160 artists, close to twice the number included in Bice Curiger’s tasteful edition in 2011, it is coherent and carefully paced, weaving a number of refrains: Surrealism’s vexed affair with ethnography (André Breton makes several appearances); and the Uncanny (from Morton Bartlett’s creepy mannequins to a show-within-a-show curated by Cindy Sherman); not to mention faintly deviant forms of sexuality.
But Gioni’s grand gesture, his most controversial move, is to mingle works by ‘professional’ artists – i.e. those from the MFA-gallery-museum-biennial complex – with ‘outsider’ artists. The latter term was coined in 1972 by the British art critic Roger Cardinal as an alternative to what Jean Dubuffet called ‘Art Brut’. It’s an inadequate category, everyone agrees, though less offensive replacements – compulsive visionaries? – have yet to catch on, mostly because they insist on biography rather than anything specific to the work itself. Alongside pieces by biennial/market favourites such as Wade Guyton, Albert Oehlen and Tacita Dean, Gioni has installed (to paraphrase the title of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s concurrent survey of outsider art) great and mighty things by less easy to categorize makers. Three remarkable examples: spiky-faced stoneware demons by Shinichi Sawada (a young Japanese man who suffers from severe autism); the paintings of the midcentury German cigar seller and cult leader Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern (who proclaimed himself Eliot the Sun King); and the bricolage arcs that Arthur Bispo do Rosário made in preparation for Judgment Day while an inmate at a Rio de Janeiro psychiatric hospital. The psychological conditions of these artists aren’t insisted upon, though they are politely mentioned in the well-judged wall texts.
‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ reflects a wider cultural interest in the creations of the self-taught or unconventionally trained. You see this everywhere – from last year’s documenta(13) and the Hayward’s current exhibition ‘Alternative Guide to the Universe’, to Rosemarie Trockel’s touring retrospective (2012–13), which incorporated works by Judith Scott and James Castle. Vitrines from the latter show were included in ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’, and Gioni hopes that his exhibition will ‘blur the line’ between the insider and the outside. Might it be the case that, as art historian Briony Fer recently cautioned, ‘this trend sometimes veers perilously close to a mystificatory as well as mystic re-enchantment of a culture in trouble’? That is, does the inclusion of such works really question the mainstream, as Gioni has suggested, or is it just further proof that – in order to maintain its primacy – the mainstream always needs to designate exceptions? In a recent essay titled ‘Orthodoxies Undermined’ (2013), Lynne Cooke – a consistently engaging curator who, along with Gioni and Matthew Higgs, has been instrumental in exhibiting under-represented visual narratives – noted that, ‘outsider art has come to be viewed as a parallel field, separate but equal to contemporary art’. As she points out, parallel lines can never converge.
Although ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ is often thrilling, what Gioni has achieved is not exactly new in the realm of postwar exhibition-making. Take a look at the catalogue for Harald Szeemann’s Documenta V (1972), and you’ll find that it included sections titled ‘Artistry of the Mentally Ill’ and ‘Individual Mythologies’, as well as an area dedicated to museum-like collections by artists. If this sounds familiar, it’s because they constitute the three dominant themes of ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’. If what Gioni has done feels new, that could say more about the way in which biennials of the last decade have become stagnant and routine.
Conservatism now often masquerades as provocation. While biennials used to insist on their radical distinction from museums, today they adopt their guise. Architects are regularly enlisted to build white cubes: Ryue Nishizawa worked on the Istanbul Biennial in 2011; Martin Corullon on the Bienal de São Paulo in 2012. This marks a shift from the crumbling spaces familiar from biennials of the recent past, which were thought to signify site-specificity, local engagement or simple exoticism (take your pick). For ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’, Gioni commissioned New York-based architect Annabelle Selldorf to transfigure the Arsenale’s cavernous brick spaces into a series of classical white cubes. He even made the startling claim that his exhibition could be likened to a temporary ethnographic museum – startling because, rather than redrawing the line between inside and outside, this would simply designate everything as ‘other’.
Douglas Crimp once made the argument that the museum should be added to Michel Foucault’s trio of institutions of confinement: the clinic, the asylum and the prison. At points in ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’, it felt as though Gioni had this genealogy in mind, with several recent works developing from situations of confinement. For example, Rossella Biscotti developed dream diaries with the inmates of a women’s prison on Giudecca (The Prison of Santo Stefano, 2011), while Eva Kotátková’s Asylum (2013) was made in collaboration with patients at a psychiatric hospital near Prague. This is not to mention the many works that were made from within the walls of asylums and prisons, such as the handkerchief paintings (or paños) made by inmates in Texan jails.
Earlier this year, Francesco Bonami (who curated Venice in 2003) suggested that Gioni’s exhibition seemed to be ‘inaugurating what might be called the anti-Biennale’. This is true to an extent. There is limited space for the kinds of practice typically favoured by biennial curators – whether discursive, documentary or socially engaged – and barely any performance. The only exceptions are new commissions by Tino Sehgal and the Italian dramaturge Marco Paolini, as well as Ragnar Kjartansson’s endearing S.S. Hangover (2013), a fishing boat that carried a brass band performing a lament to sobriety around the docking area behind the Arsenale.
This represents a break (not necessarily unwelcome) from recent biennial orthodoxy. But Gioni overstated the case when – in response to Bonami’s statement – he claimed that, unlike recent biennials, ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ isn’t about spotting recent trends. Significant sections of his Biennale are haunted by current Zeitgeists. This is most obvious in works (many of them strong) by younger artists picking at the overlaps between the digital and the three-dimensional – for example, the bodily forms of Alice Channer or Pamela Rosenkranz, Simon Denny’s investigation into analogue television, as well as new films by Helen Marten and James Richards. But many of the apparently unexpected inclusions have also been exhibited in museums, biennials and commercial galleries in the last two or three years: from Jung’s Red Book (shown at the Hammer in Los Angeles), to ‘outsiders’ like Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (the American Folk Art Museum in New York), Schröder-Sonnenstern (Michael Werner, New York) and Bispo do Rosário (30th Bienal de São Paulo). ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ does not try to identify a new Zeitgeist so much as consolidate a number of existing ones.
Gioni has been responsible for some of the more imaginative biennials of the last decade. Think of the street-length promenade of the 5th Berlin Biennial (2006), which he co-curated with his long-time collaborators Ali Subotnick and Maurizio Cattelan, or the 8th Gwangju Biennale (2010), which ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ is a sequel, extending its themes of image obsession and the uncanny. Gioni has referred to his recent exhibitions as ‘pedagogical universes in which stories can be told’. If his shows are storytelling machines, then as a narrator he is unusually fluent: in Venice, the Arsenale is a tightly plotted Bildungsroman, an episodic tale that traces a long arc from birth to death. In the early sections we have R. Crumb’s illustrated Book of Genesis (2009), the first line of which – ‘In the beginning …’ – echoes through Camille Henrot’s excellent film Grosse Fatigue (Dead Tired, 2013), a history of the universe developed out of a residency at the Smithsonian. There are exquisite botanical diagrams by Ștefan Bertalan, charting the lifespan of a sunflower, and an overdose of inchoate sculptural forms by Roberto Cuoghi, Phyllida Barlow and Hans Josephsohn. The final parts of the Arsenale are, correspondingly, about last things: in the penultimate gallery is Dieter Roth’s ‘Solo Scenes’ (1997–8), a 131-monitor video diary tracing what would be the last year of the artist’s life. This is followed by the late Walter De Maria’s Apollo’s Ecstasy (1990), 20 solid bronze rods that mark a Dia:Beacon-style coda.
Does finishing an exhibition that claims to be about competing visions with a stately parade of works by old white men – Bruce Nauman, Otto Piene and Stan VanDerBeek are also in the final galleries – feel like more than carelessness? Yes, I think it does. But then ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ prides itself on magnanimous inclusiveness, even while less than a quarter of the participating artists are women. How does this still happen? Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that a return to the museum is a return to business as usual, but it is a little sad.
Many of the most extraordinary works in Gioni’s temporary museum have close ties with (or are influenced by) early 20th-century spiritualism. One gallery, for example, features the paintings of the Swiss healer Emma Kunz, the spirit-directed abstractions of the Swedish mystic Hilma af Klint and the kaleidoscopic works of Augustin Lesage, a French miner who declared himself to be the reincarnation of an artist from pharaonic times. ‘Don’t you think that the search for the re-discovery of spirituality originates in a disavowal of the politics of everyday life?’ An irascible Benjamin Buchloh quizzes curator Jean-Hubert Martin in a long interview published on the eve of the former’s exhibition ‘Magiciens de la terre’ (Magicians of the Earth, 1989). I wonder how this relates to ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’. Does the Biennale’s emphasis on dreams and visions necessarily equal a rejection of the ‘everyday’?
It’s an issue of which Gioni is clearly aware. Many interviews he gave before the opening struck a pre-emptively defensive tone. ‘It’s not an exhibition about politics,’ he has said, worrying that he may be accused of idealism, escapism, even cryptofacism. Of course, not being ‘about’ politics does not mean that ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ isn’t political. Its stated commitment (however successful) to the marginal is clearly a kind of politics. But global issues of conflict and identity are almost entirely absent, the few exceptions including Bouchra Khalili’s video about migrant populations in Genoa (Words on the Streets, 2013) and Sharon Hayes’s video Richerche: three (2013), an affecting series of group interviews. Many visitors at the opening just seemed happy they didn’t have to sit through grainy videos of protests. No curator has a responsibility to bear witness, of course, but opening two years after historic revolutions across the Arab world, and the same week as the beginning of major uprisings in Turkey, it was difficult not to wonder at that region’s almost complete absence. While some have praised Gioni for not bowing to the demands of pious internationalism, a month or so after I saw ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ certain silences began to feel louder.
‘The great museum’ – this is what Henry James called Venice in 1892, three years before the inauguration of the Biennale. Gioni’s exhibition claims the form of a great museum too, but it is one in which inclusion and visibility is wildly unbalanced. Maybe this was always the way. As Svetlana Alpers noted, writing a century after James: ‘Museums can make it hard to see.’
Sam Thorne is director of Nottingham Contemporary, UK, a contributing editor of frieze and a co-founder of Open School East. His book, School: Conversations on Art & Self-Organised Education, will be published by Sternberg Press this summer.
First published in Issue 157