The Genteel
April 17, 2021


S.S. Hangover by Ragnar Kjartansson. Photograph by Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times.
Venice Biennale Encyclopedic Palace

Il Enciclopedico Palazzo Del Mondo
(The Encyclopedic Palace of the World) 
by Marino Auriti.

Massimiliano Gioni, artistic director of the 55th Venice Biennale, expressed his concern for curating the ambitious exhibition, telling the New York Times, "Of course I'm nervous. This is center stage and it's difficult because it comes with so many expectations and so much history."

It's easy to understand why Gioni, a rising young star in the contemporary art world, is nervous. As one of the most prestigious international art exhibitions of its kind, every two years, the Venice Biennale becomes the rendez-vous point for artists, art critics, journalists and art lovers from all over the world. In its 118 years, prominent artists from Gustav Klimt to Pablo Picasso have shown their work here. Now the exhibition sees its youngest artistic director in 110 years - a conscious choice made by longtime president of the Venice Biennale, Paolo Baratta, who told the New York Times, "It was time to ask a man of the next generation."

This year's theme is "The Encyclopedic Palace," a title taken from the work of Italian-American artist, Marino Auriti, whose 11-foot-tall model of a 136-story modern skyscraper was intended to encompass all the knowledge in the world.

It's a fitting theme for the Venice Biennale, as the exhibition attempts to show everything contemporary art has to offer. This year, Gioni wanted to present a combination of distinguished and lesser-known, self-taught artists to present the state of contemporary art today. With the theme in place, the task of curating the works of 158 artists representing 88 countries (10 of which are making their very first appearance) between the Central Pavilion in Giardini and the shipyards of Arsenale, was no small feat.

This year's biennale is "an anthropological approach to the study of images," Gioni stated in his introduction to the exhibition. "This show will deal with our age of hyperconnectivity, by looking at what goes on in our heads rather than online.  It is about the synchronicity of the past, the present and the future." And artists in this year's biennale have offered no end to the diversity in interpreting the theme.

"Music for Silence," the multi-media installation of Toronto-based artist Shary Boyle, is an "intimate and immersive" body of work - ranging from bronze sculptures to silent films - that focuses on her appreciation for silence. Boyle told The Wall Street Journal, "Silence is a space where we can reflect on the unknown." She also referenced well-known "silent" heroes such as Charlie Chaplin and Helen Keller.

Bang AiWeiWei

Bang by Ai Weiwei.

Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson chose to combine the present with the past. Inspired by the film Remember Last Night? (1935), he crafted a small boat from a 1934 wooden fishing boat from Reykjavik, transforming it to look like the theatrical boat in the swanky party scene from the film. He cheekily named the boat, the S.S. HangoverFor four hours a day for six months, a brass sextet will continuously play a piece by composer Kjartan Sveinsson, created specifically for the sculpture, while sailing around the Arsenale's shipyard. The boat will drop off musicians, one at a time, with each performing individually on the pier as the boat sails away while the rest of the musicians play onboard - only to be picked up a a round or two later and replaced by another musician in a continuous loop.

Related: Young, experimental, exploratory: all words that could characterise today's Iceland.

Estonian post-conceptual photo artist, Dénes Farkas, created a performance called "Evident in Advance," which deals with the elusiveness of language and the various aspects of translation and interpretation. In a preview, actress and model Milla Jovovich took part in the performance. Inspired by American writer Bruce Duffy's groundbreaking novel, The World As I Found It (1987), Farkas (along with Duffy himself) carefully deconstructed the novel with the addition of texts from philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore, within a given physical space. The visitor is supposed to view the texts found throughout the space, attempt to piece them together and become a part of the unique story. 

Although he is constantly under surveillance by the Chinese government for his views on democracy and human rights, Ai Weiwei is everywhere.

Perhaps the most well known artist to grace the Venice Biennale is Chinese contemporary art and vocal social critic, Ai Weiwei. Although he is constantly under surveillance by the Chinese government for his views on democracy and human rights, Ai Weiwei is everywhere. On the web, his heavy metal song Dumbass, has more than 200,000 views and offers expletive and scathing lyrics against government repression. In fact, he recently released an entire album called The Divine Comedy. In film, the 2012 documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which provides a compelling and intimate portrait of Weiwei and contemporary China, has won various awards. In London, Howard Brenton's play, The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, is currently at the Hampstead Theatre. Now he's participating in the Venice Biennale.

Three large-scale installations by Ai Weiwei will be shown - Bang (a display of 886 tangled wooden three-legged stools, which were used at home and passed down through generations, only to be replaced with plastic and metal alternatives), Straight (150 tons of crushed rebar from schools destroyed by the Sichuan earthquake of 2008), and his most revealing, S.A.C.R.E.D. The latter shows the artist's experience while in detention after being captured by the Chinese government in April 2011. In six large iron boxes, visitors can take a peak to see sculptures recreated from the memories of the artist while detained. 

The exhibition demonstrates a wide rage of interpretive and personal artwork. According the Gioni, "The Encyclopedic Palace is not a show about artists as mediums." Instead, Gioni explained to The Telegraph, the show is about "the many ways in which images have been used to organize knowledge and shape our experience of the world."

The Venice Biennale runs until November 24, 2013. 



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