THE ARTIST. A MAN OF CONSCIOUSNESS

SPECIAL | 57TH VENICE BIENNALE

The 21st century has begun, but already the foundations laid by the recent past are affecting the future. Moreover, we live in a time when everything is subject to rapid transformation. What today appears modern, tomorrow may already be obsolete. Nature in this sense is exemplary.

The person best able to describe his time is the artist, precisely because he is the interpreter and the guide of this difficult era of transition, he is always committed to recounting a meticulous story of the future, because he is the only person aware of the nature of the present.
As the Canadian sociologist Marshall Mcluhan said, “the artist is the man who in any field, scientific or humanistic, seizes the implications of his actions and of the science of his time. He is the man of integral awareness.” Mcluhan continues, “in a culture like ours, accustomed to dividing in order to control, it is sometimes disturbing to remember that from an operational and practical point of view, the medium is the message.” (Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1964 / Gli strumenti del comunicare, il Saggiatore, Milano, 2008).
The message given by a medium or of a technology, argues Mcluhan, is the change in proportions, rhythms, and patterns that it introduces in human relationships, while its contents or uses may be different, they have no effect on human forms of association. While technology, mediates our relationship with the world. In a world dominated by technology, most people consider technology a mere tool, but people themselves are often reduced to mere tools, dominated in their perceptions of the world: each medium has the power to impose its conditions on the careless or thoughtless user.
Driving Mcluhan to conclude that “only an authentic artist is able to deal freely with technology, because he possesses the expert awareness of how changes affect sensory perception”. So it’s the artist, the sole interpreter of the time in which he lives, because he is aware of the full potential his tools possess and uses them as an extension of his thinking and of his way of life.
However, what an artist produces is not always understood by his audience, as often happens with contemporary art, which is termed ‘difficult’, in the words of Angela Vettese “because this century holds the absolute record of beginnings and equally sudden eclipses of avant-garde artistic productions, innumerable trends and movements, with a decisive surge in the last fifty years” (Capire l’arte contemporanea, la guida più imitata all’arte del nostro tempo, Allemandi, 2010)
Two or three points explain precisely what’s going on. As we have said earlier with the words of Mcluhan, the artist is a busy researcher, an interpreter of his time, leaving the making of beauty to other, sensational figures such as designers, graphic designers, photographers and advertisers.
The first reason for this is globalization, in which fast developing technology and the ‘rich’ history of the European continent, have given birth to new professionalisms which use certain aesthetic and functional values, as is the case with design. That’s why the artist seeks out ‘the other’ and goes beyond sensational and exciting aesthetics, in his work he prefers to analyse underlying themes more carefully, without the need for beauty, but rather with depth and consistency.
The extreme and banal narrative of Kitsch works prevented a different level of interpretation, perhaps an even higher one. The concepts described do not hide anything, they exhaust themselves, and even in a deeper analysis they do not appear to be particularly telling. In this way all ambiguities are deleted, the message is conveyed by the producer to the viewer without any possibility of error or misunderstanding; The one who creates Kitsch already inserts the final interpretation into the act of production.
Kitsch brings with it a strongly sentimental connotation. In this regard, the Czech writer and multifaceted figure, Milan Kundera writes: “In the kingdom of Kitsch, there emanates the dictatorship of the heart.” (Milan Kundera, The Unbearable lightness of Being – Milan, Adelphi, 1989, p.256.) Aroused feelings must of course be shared by a large number of people, which insures that the fundamental images of Kitsch are inculcated in people’s memory.
Despite technological advances and the rapid propagation in all corners of the world of iphones and PCs, which have reached the most remote spots on the planet, spreading information faster, this technological progress especially associated with experimental contemporary art has not made it any easier for people to understand art. It is mainly art insiders such as people working in galleries, foundations, museums and public or private spaces, as well as some artists, art students or simple admirers, gathering together in their small Eden, a privileged place for great collectors and the ‘most famous’ artists. 

The artist. Introverted creator.

We all know how in the past the artist used to recount, to document what was happening in society, initially in the aristocratic courts, then in popular life situations. This role has not changed, only the epochs have changed. Nowadays, the artist still uses nature to best represent his ideas. 

The Venice Biennial 2017

Spain
Who has never at least once in their life desired to take a symbolic photo of a city? We all wanted to take away the memory of that place, which lives on forever. And what if we had the opportunity to see a palace in miniature, what’s more while running? What links this to a Biennial artist? Jordi Colomer, a Spanish artist, who represents Spain, welcomes us to the Venice Biennial 2017.
The Spanish pavilion, the first one we visited, immediately leads us to be citizens of an ideal place of which we want to be part of, whose motto is ¡Únete! Join Us! We are united in a collective action of nomadism. We sat on the stairs as if we were in an ancient theater and let ourselves go to the video stories. With this project the artist wants to deal with a current theme, that of transhumance, a movement which re-elaborates the social imagination. Video narratives, as Jordi Colomer calls them, tell of how a community transforms an urban space, one observes suburbs, council housing, deserted places, living areas clearly short of resources but where the very instability creates a territory where it is still possible to build. In Colomer’s works, there is often a wandering figure, probably a key to describing the role of the artist or of the curious artist, restless, never stable, but in constant pursuit of his happiness. This artist is strongly linked to the places he visits, makes the landscape  his, makes the stories which inhabit that place, his. It drags you to run behind his characters or raise the weight of a palace as happened with the 2011 work ‘l’Avenir / De toekomst.’ Between 2002 and 2004, Jordi Colomer presented Anarchitekton, a series of four videos simultaneously projected, in which an artist runs on the streets of four big cities: Barcelona, Bucharest, Osaka and Brasilia, carrying cardboard and wooden models representing the real buildings surrounding him. The title is inspired by Anarchitecture, a group founded by American artist Gordon Matta-Clark, and alludes to the works of Kazimir Malevič, the ‘Architekton’. Keep in mind this work that we will discuss later.
Continuing our walk suggestions on the gure of the artist come to mind. We wondered why art fascinates us and involves us so, the answer we have found is in the role the artist has in society. In fact, as Marshall Mcluhan argues, the artist is the only figure capable of recounting his time, precisely because he is the interpreter and leader of this difficult era of transition, as he is always committed to writing a minute story of the future and is the ‘only’ person aware of the nature of the present. 

At the Biennale, ‘Viva Arte Viva’, curated by Christine Macel, today’s art, in the face of the conflicts and surprises of the world, to use the words of the curator, testifies to the most precious part of humanity, because looking at the past, we can build a new future.
This Biennial is a yes to life, more than ever, the role, the voice and the responsibility of the artist appear crucial in all contemporary debates.

Tunisia
Several pavilions have looked at identity as the central theme of works by artists they have chosen to represent. Tunisia is a new presence at the 2017 Venice Biennial which with lina lazaar’s ‘The Absence of Paths’ has highlighted the absurdities of global systems where our presence is defined by legal documents.
We all know that we are unique thanks to our fingerprints, but not everyone knows that to escape a difficult destiny, many immigrants erase their identities, deleting their fingerprints by burning their ngertips in hot oil. Ink in these kiosks becomes a symbol and emblem of the exhibition project. 
The kiosk is on the corner of Via Garibaldi and Riva dei Sette Martiri; The navy checkpoint, Arsenale, Campo della Tana; Sale D’Armi, Arsenal, Campo della Tana.
Freesas, as passports are called, are distributed to anyone who wants to be a citizen of the world. They were issued by the institution that produces passports at an international level, with the same materials as official ones. They reduce the travel document to something absurd and easily available. The project wants to discuss the major migration and political acceptance issues in the countries where asylum is requested.

NSK State Pavilion
Another Pavilion that dealt with the strong theme of migration is the NSK State Pavilion. It is imperative to go back for those who do not know anything and explain what NSK is.
In 1984, at a time of tumultuous historical change for Europe, when Slovenia was still part of Yugoslavia, NSK was born, controversial because it remembers the Nazi annexation of the Slovenian state during World War II. In 1991, NSK became a sovereign state and in 2017 participated in the Venice 
Biennale, claiming to be a “state without state.” In fact, this pavilion poses the most pressing issues in today’s states: migration, citizenship, history and identity. At a time when Europe, and more generally the world, looks at news events, such as terrorism, where fragmentation and antagonism seem to be the only possible prospects, this pavilion is the only one capable of imagining a new community.
A hard, as well as contemporary topic today. It will test you and challenge you intellectually.
Precisely because the Pavilion is free and borderless, the organisers have asked visitors to fill in a questionnaire to understand the vision of the present Europe, asking the following questions: What do you want to bring with you from Europe’s heritage (as you conceive it) to help build a new and better world? What do you want to forget or erase from Europe’s heritage (as you conceive it) to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past? What do you want to bring with you from your nation’s heritage (as you conceive it) to help build a new and better world? What do you want to forget or erase from your nation’s heritage (as you conceive it) to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past? 
Inside the pavilion, the space is divided into a ‘global disorder’ room in which the artist and citizen Ahmet Öğüt, invited to shape the Pavilion’s installation through the conceptual and physical experience of gravity, starts with the notion of status, and the definition of citizenship and bureaucracy connected to it.
The NSK delegates are: Bisan Abu Eisheh, Azra Akshamija, Djordje Balzamović, Safia Dickersbach, Claudio Donadel, Michael Fehr, Roza El-Hassan, Kendell Geers, Sarah lunaček, Sohrab Mohebbi, Victor Mutelekesha, Ahmet Öğüt and Malina Suliman.
Commissioned by the artistic group IRWIN (Dusan Mandic, Miran Mohar, Andrej Savski, Roman Uranjek and Borut Vogelnik), the project is curated by Zdenka Badovinac and Charles Esche, and is directed by Mara Ambrozic, with contributions from NSK citizens, artists, philosophers, students and young professionals from the world of art, cultural institutions, social cooperatives and international universities. 

New Zealand
We move from one pavilion to another, without stopping to wonder. It’s a continuous discovery, we amaze how the great variety of topics differ by technique but they come together in a multiplicity of artistic practices. In this journey, we wondered how identity is something tremendously strong for each of us, how the artists have dealt with this theme by making the audience participate, involving them in the narrative, as lisa Reihana has done for the New Zealand Pavilion. A 23 meter long, 3,3 meter high video story, a work which took ten years to create.
The personal art project named ‘Emissaries’, part of a cycle of works called In Pursuit of Venus [infected], seems like an old painting, but instead it is a monumental video installation. Characters are not the run of the mill figures, but performers that move on the lush background of the video work. Inspired by the French cycle of panels painted on paper ‘les Sauvages de la Mer’ (1804-05), also known as ‘The Captain Cook’s Trips’ (produced by Joseph Dufour & Cie and illustrated by Jean-Gabriel Charvet).
The latter refers to the legendary expeditions of Jean-François de la Pérouse, louis Antoine de Bougainville and Captain James Cook, who was the first to circumnavigate New Zealand. Of course, the great neoclassical scenery is reinvented by the New Zealand artist. Native culture emerges overwhelmingly, the point of view of the colonisers is reduced to the minimum, confrontation between the two ethnic groups becomes an infection that attacks the unreal patina of the original representation. Cook was killed in Hawaii in a violent clash with Indians during his third exploratory trip to the Pacific. The title of the video wants to conjure up the term ‘point of view’ and at the same time allude through the word ‘Venus’ to the international scientific mission to measure the heavens documenting the transit of Venus in 1769 (in order to determine the distance between the Earth and the Sun).
On a technical level there are 1500 individual digital layers for a total of 33 million pixels in each single shot of ‘In pursuit of Venus [infected].’ The work is projected with multiple DlP laser projectors and has a resolution of 15K. This pavilion is a must-see. 

South Africa
Moving from identity to conquest, we enter the South African Pavilion. This year, Candice Breitz, class of 1972, and Mohau Modisakeng, class of 1986, were invited to represent South Africa. The latter produced, Passage, a video project in which the aesthetic power lies in the composition of the scene and in the dark tones of the pho- tography, which make it elegant and evocative. 
Beauty contrasts with the significant strength of the work. In fact Passage, is the story of slavery and the exploitation of the coloured populations of Africa. The figures in the boat represent metaphors of the oppressive destiny experienced by these populations. Candice Breitz works differently, but equally powerful, calling on Hollywood actors, Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin, to tell us stories, in the belief that we, the viewer, respond better to ‘stars’ than to common people narrating stories. Inequality, continues in this way too, reminding us of the sad truth, that we need to gossip to maintain our interest in human affairs. This is ‘love Story.’ 

We leave Africa and cross Europe until we arrive at the Finnish Pavilion, which with irony and irreverence shows us political and moral issues that revolve around the history of Finland. The two artists working on ‘The Aalto Natives’ are Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen. When we enter the Pavilion, we are stunned in front of a giant egg that moves and talks with a box, in the words of a famous saying, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Here the egg came first, it moves and talks continuously in a mirrored narrative, in which a pair of messianic characters pose questions and reveal Jung and his archetypes, a computer and its user, as well as a lost guru, all of which possess a projector on top of their bodies to narrate these stories. Aalto’s natives face the complexity of today’s globalized world, races and class struggle. The duo is famous for creating playful works with contemporary themes, in fact the narrative structure created in the work is based on the concept of culture as feedback and reality as an idol. These characters that make up the installation and are also found in videos, are guided by eschatological and violent impulses trying to make sense of what it needs to shape communities and develop cultural life. The work combines the intuitive attitude towards image production and the inclination of Nissinen’s naive musicality with that of Mellors’ sculpture. 

Turkey
Another pavilion that interprets the identity of its people is Turkey’s. A sound piece, ‘ÇIn’ gives voice to the collective 
discomfort created by the current political situation. The name of the installation, ‘ÇIn’ is also a Turkish onomatopoeic word, which mimics a persuasive sound, and is also the root of two words that indicate reverb and tinnitus, two terms that have to do with sound and the ear. Cevdet Erek’s work is powerful and at the same time sensitive, inviting you to listen as though you were a judge that looks at the community from above, but instead as you walk around the installation he puts you into the listeners’ dimension. In order to understand, one must listen and open one’s self to a community, this makes Erek’s work malleable and lends itself to transformation.
Two wings are connected by a side corridor, from the outside the work resembles a kind of cage, as one approaches the sound grows, at times being imperceptible, to getting stronger as one walks up the platform, leading us to an understanding of the complete work.
A highly structured program puts the work at the center of the performance, debates, interventions, in order not to give a static and a very defined form to the installation. In its simple architecture, the Turkish Pavilion is the most complex space  all detail and artistic form, including the square brochure which accompanies the work.

Russia
We walk in a northerly direction beyond the Turkish Pavilion, through the Giardini, to reach another pavilion that each edition leaves its viewers quite literally open-mouthed with wonder, it’s the pavilion of Russia.
Semen Mikhajlovskij, curator of the pavilion, invited three artists (Grisha Bruskin, the collective Recycle and Sasha Pirogova) and three composers (Dmitrij Kurljandskij, Petr Ajdu and Konstantin Dudakov-Kashuro), authors of the music for the ‘Theatrum Orbis’ exhibition project.
At the beginning of our journey we were reminded to keep in mind Kazimir Malevich’s Architekton. Well, this year, Russia brings us to a Suprematist vision of society, at least at first glance, because Mikhajlovskij’s project in three acts narrates the fears of the contemporary world, the rebellion against absolute power, our current dictatorships, the violent predominance of one human on the other, and the depiction  of a hungry god of death, in a personification of terrorism. ‘Theatrum Orbis’ or world theater, from the point of view of these Russian artists can be considered the atlas that collects our modernity.
What opens up before us as we enter are three rooms. The first welcomes us with visions of a terrifying dream, where planes, silhouettes of men and women roam, symbols of power swing, sculptures arranged on the sides of the room are illuminated thereby revealing their identity, bringing to the surface a fake cheerfulness. We continue our visit, with the artist Bruskin we find a series of hybrid sculptures, platoons of men who form archaic symbols and idols, while airplanes fly over the static white scene in black, darkened background. We hear and see the anguish of an ever-present past, one of war, where there’s destruction, where evil is an echo of something that has never gone away and the artist Grisha Bruskin unveils Maya to reveal reality. Sasha Pirogova’s video treats the binomial of life and death. Going downstairs, we find the collective ‘Recycle’ that invites us to download an application to engage us to find out what really makes up the white resin clusters in front of us. 
Even here harsh reality is shown to us, as men torture a third man, as we aim our cellphone towards the installation we can also read about the victim’s guilt. I decided to wake up from the nightmare and go back to watching stars.

Kosovo
A pavilion that every two years interprets in a wise and contemporary manner, Kosovo. In this edition, Sislej Xhafa’s project Lost and Found, consists of pallet pedestals which form an office for lost properties, lined with nylon, the only object out of place in this composition is a black phone that never rings. It’s a minimalist work, dedicated to those people gone missing after the Kosovo war. The conflict ended in 1999, with thousands killed and still today 1,664 people are still unaccounted for, missing. For Sisley Xhafa, art serves to put reality under discussion. In this work, he asks questions about conflicts and what they involve, but the project has an even deeper level of reading, an intimistic level. Sometimes, we happen to find ourselves, due to life’s difficulties, lost and would like to be found by someone. We feel that we are living in a limbo, not knowing how to get out of it unless for a reason, for a friend or for an affection, so we live waiting to be reclaimed thanks to a ‘lost and Found’ office.

Earth Pavilion
The curator of the 2017 Venice Biennial, Christine Macel, has divided the pavilion into nine spaces, two set up inside the Giardini area and the other seven in the Arsenale. Each pavilion has been devoted to a theme: Artists and Books, Joy and Fears, Common Space Pavilion, Traditions, Shamans, Dionysis, Colours, Time to Infinity, Earth.
As one walks through the Earth Pavilion, I noticed the particularly active participation of the young Franco-Swiss artist, Julian Charrière. Class of 1987, he is a former student of Olafur Eliasson, who three editions ago was present at the Biennial in a memorable performance ‘Some pigeons are more equal than others’ in which he coloured some pigeons in St. Mark’s Square. While his mentor Eliasson dedicated a show at the Biennial to the ‘Green light Workshop’, where he created green lamps for migrants, giving new hope and passing on knowledge. The pupil Charrière, got involved in an ambitious project, overtaking the master and introducing us to the anthropocene era, a term first used by the Nobel Prize for Atmospheric Chemistry, Paul Crutzen, to define the geological era in which the earth’s environment, understood as the set of physical, chemical and biological characteristics of life and evolution, is strongly influenced by local and global events caused by the effects of human action. Human impact on ecosystems has progressively increased, leading to substantial alterations in nature’s balances (tropical forests disappear and biodiversity declines, employment of nearly 50% of available land, overuse of freshwater and overfishing in the sea, use of natural resources, of nitrogen fertilizers in quantities greater than those naturally set in all terrestrial ecosystems, the introduction of large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, etc.). Julian Charrière in the Future Fossil Space project presented at the Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts in lausanne shows us towers of salt which reveal the temporal layers of eras, salt blocks taken in Bolivia at Salar de Uyuni, one of the largest unused lithium deposits, an important element for our current technology. ‘The fossils mentioned in the title refer to the latin etymology of the word, which literally translatesas ‘obtained from digging’.
The artist proposes in the exhibition space, works that are in dialectical tension between the two arrows of time, one pointing to the past and the other towards the future.’ (Julian Charrière, Future Fossil Space, Mousse publishing, 2014). As with the Tower of Babel, erected to contain all human knowledge, in these towers is the story of man, from the first traces of life to the present mineral history, as well as the denunciation of how earth was brought to being scarce, with dwindling future resources, torn by pollution. We should reflect on the importance of the existence of things, as Shakespeare reminds us when Hamlet reflects on his past friend the jester, Yorick. 

Italy
From the Earth Pavilion to the Italian Pavilion, we are catapulted into the magical world, curated by Cecilia Alemani, where ancient knowledge joins tradition, between myths and rituals, engaging a very emotional and sensual journey. The works of Roberto Cuoghi, ‘Imitation of Christ’, in which the artist explores how material properties flow into the definition of identity, this being the key term which underlies our present interpretation-cum-travelogue through this edition of the 2017 Biennial. The artist transforms the space, he leads us into a double dimension, between the burning chamber and a sacred place, in which the waxed bodies of many Christs are lying down. They derive from the transformation of matter following through thermal and physical changes. They appear torn, tortured, even enriched with mould, we experience the sculpture as a process which is alive and reflect on the power of the images, on the energy of repetition and on the iconography of memory.Roberto Cuoghi is an artist whom we could compare, in a moment of optimism, to gold, a precious and malleable matter. This polyhedral artist has over the years presented a great variety of works. Memorable is his performance in 1998 in which he assumes the features of his father, seriously ill, fattening 140 kilograms and for 7 years taking up all his habits of a parent, he being a 29 year old imitating a 60 years old parent, leaving an indelible mark of emotion in us, the viewers. Another colossal, unforgettable work by Cuoghi is ‘Belinda’, exhibited at the Venice Biennial in 2013. The work is a sculpture made in 3D print and retouched with ash taken from a pizza oven to give it the effect of heaviness and rock. In fact, the work has a very light structure which has given the artist the special mention by the jury for the important contribution to the Venice International Art Exhibition. “A revelation that takes you unprepared, which forces you to rethink everything,” according to the artist’s words, “in a structure that sabotages all real, material references.”
Another, powerful, performative work by Cuoghi is ‘Putiferio’, on the island of Hydra in Greece at the Deste Foundation. With the help of ceramic experts, the artist designed and created ovens to make sculptures. Ovens like a chrysalis, which use archaic cooking techniques, create materials which grow and shine with the power of fire, leaving viewers astonished by what they saw. The performance ‘Putiferio’, a dialectical term of a speech, was of such portentous impact raising a stink and talk of hellish inspiration, was also of great scenic impact, as well as progenitor of the birth of many crabs. “Why Crabs?” you are probably asking yourself. Because Carcino, the Greek mythological crab figure during the battle between Hercules and the Hydra of lerna came to the aid of the latter. The crab pinched Hercules who crushed him under his heel, but for pity’s sake took the crab up to the heavenly vault where he became the constellation of Cancer. In short, Roberto Cuoghi never ceases to amaze us in his work and to make us reflect, trying to give a face to art, an identity. We leave you with this question, how much does art, when it captures the medium and the message, revive the foundation of our fundamentals and subverts them? 

Marika Marchese

I have been living and working in Milan since 2016 where I teach and write about contemporary art. I follow my passion for art always, not only for my career, but also for my hobbies, in fact, I define myself an art lover. I also love to travel and read. I have been writing for Made In Mind since 2017, I have been manage the Streams column since 2020.

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