Two general remarks on The Encyclopedic Palace, Massimiliano Gioni’s main exhibition at the Venice Biennial in 2013:
1) The wall texts accompanying each artist’s contribution are unusually long and all start with at least one paragraph of biographical information and general claims about their artistic career on the whole. The approach is too consistent to be a fortuitous result of the different authors’ style or taste. The effect of this editorial principle is that I soon learn to skip the whole first part of the texts to get to the relevant sentences – often the three or four last – where the exhibited work is described.
2) There is no realism. With a few significant exceptions (which I will return to), the exhibition is free of artworks that try to describe or document their historical, social and political situations. Rather, the selection of the exhibition’s works has been steered by a surrealistic eye, where creations that exceed the order of reality or are suppressed from the self-consciousness of rational reason have been chosen (even if there are relatively few literally surrealist works).
“At the heart of the exhibition is a meditation on the many ways in which images have been used to organize knowledge and shape our experience of the world”, writes Gioni in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue, “Is Everything in My Mind?” The exhibition itself, he explains, should be understood as a temporary museum or, in accordance with the exhibition’s title, an “encyclopedic palace”. This concept is itself borrowed from one of the key works in the exhibition, the Italian-American mechanic and autodidactic artist Marino Auriti’s Il Palazzo Enciclopedico, a 136-floor building meant to stand in central Washington DC and contain all the knowledge in the world (it was never built).
This visionary-encyclopedic-cosmological starting point results in an exhibition that is not primarily composed of works of art, but by a vast array of fantasy creations from an extremely wide field: from anthroposophy to postminimalism, from art brut to institutional critique, from posthumously discovered outsiders to young emerging art stars, from the early 1800s to the 21st century. My first impression when I went through the exhibition is that it – by virtue of its rather dramatic inclusion of objects that are not meant to be art and its recurrent references to eccentric cataloguing and occult experiences – remains thematically and theoretically coherent, the wild heterogeneity notwithstanding.
In this regard the strong curatorial approach breaks with the Venice Biennial’s convention: the salon model, with a focus on active, often young artists and new works, here, just as Gioni points out, recedes into the background in favor of an anthropological and museal logic, with contributions from diverse disciplines and epochs. This break with routine is of course uplifting in itself – not in the least because it signals a certain lack of respect for the art market’s desire for a kind of work on which it can easily speculate. But soon one is forced to question if the exhibition can also carry the claims that accompany such a shift of models. Is the “encyclopedic palace” a sufficiently developed concept to account for not only the more or less clear correspondences, but also for the obvious and crucial differences between Rudolf Steiner and Richard Serra, the Shaker sects spiritual drawings and tantric meditation painting, Hilma af Klint and Ryan Trecartin?
Or put another way: what is this “knowledge” and how should we understand the “experience” that is at the “heart of the exhibition”, as Gioni asserts? There is no realism – but, however, the exhibition’s different contributions and the catalogue’s short theoretical essays constitute a comprehensive list of hyperbolic knowledge ideals, from the memory theaters of the Renaissance, via different more or less mystical variations of the Hegelian synthesis between substance and subject, to the digital era’s omniscient search engines and overheated information utopias. Gioni himself is quick to admit – to prevent objections? – that this makes his palace delirious and “dizzyingly absurd”. This is certainly true, but the exhibition nevertheless gives a relatively coherent impression – and what holds it together is, I believe, on a foundational level the recurrent and largely unproblematized emphasis on the anecdotal and the biographical, of the creative subject’s life and work, which depict a well-known picture of the creative subject’s freedom, of the visionary, artistic, or even mad man’s adventurous life.
The central pavilion in Giardini opens with a one-two punch that would floor even the most agile, supple and accommodating viewer. In the middle of the first, round dark room stands a dramatically lit showcase with a large, open book, like an illuminated bible: Carl Gustav Jung’s The Red Book (1914-1930), which, according to the exhibition catalogue and wall text, is the result of “a radical journey into the primordial cosmos of his [Jung’s] own psyche, which he believed would both advance his self-knowledge and moor him to his ancestral past”. Around the showcase color copies of several of the book’s fantastic, grotesque pages are mounted on the wall; the pedantically executed small paintings are reminiscent in style of tarot cards or Dungeons and Dragons illustrations.
When you come out of this dark atrium and into the pavilion’s first large, brightly lit exhibition room you are met by a number of chalkboards – in the school sense – that are sitting in rows covering the walls, from floor to ceiling. The chalkboards are filled with colorful, abstract diagrams, flowcharts and figures, and various numbers and illegible words. These are illustrations Rudolf Steiner made for his lectures on anthroposophy and spiritual cosmology throughout Europe in the start of the 1920s. The documents, explains the catalogue/wall text, “still appear to pulse with the thought of the maker” – but the writer adds as a prudent reservation (and maybe one can here detect a case of catalogue author irony): “though they are at times illegible to the uninitiated”. Just as in Jung’s case, the documents are presented here without a further problematization or contextualization, and auspicate a journey to an inner, fantastic psychic life that may communicate with a magical macrocosm.
If you succeed in getting up after this devastating combination blow you can then tour the rest of the palatial pavilion, where an overwhelming abundance of occult creations, outsider projects and contemporary artworks are installed in the large labyrinth of rooms, with no apparent regard for narrative sequence or development. The principle of composition for this part of the exhibition seems rather to have been the encyclopedia: the total, cyclically organized collection of knowledge, without start or end, but also the book in which unexpected juxtapositions arise, where meaning or aesthetic contrast effects arise from random encounters between essentially different subjects or articles. An example of the latter would be the surprising placement of Carl André’s beautiful scrapbook Passport (1970) – for the artist, a completely uncharacteristic little atlas of newspaper clippings, notes, sketches, poems, pictures of other people’s artwork and personal documents – adjacent to outsider artist Morton Bartlett’s grotesque, vaguely uncanny dolls of girls or shrunken women, dressed in meticulously executed dresses (made sometime around the middle of the last century).
The central pavilion contains the heaviest spiritual, mystical and occult material. Besides Jung and Steiner, here you encounter Augustin Lesage’s visionary, mediumistic paintings from the early 20th century, where religious figures and abstract motifs are combined into massive, symmetrical compositions; the anarchistic and drug-experimenting prophet Aleister Crowley and the painter Frieda Harris’ sexually explicit reinterpretations of the traditional tarot deck (1938-1940); and, not least, five of Hilma af Klint’s paintings from the Swan series from 1915: pastel-colored creations in which the spiritual dimension is unmistakably present in the form of printed zodiac signs and small, figurative motifs embedded in the larger abstract or symbolic compositions (it is not surprising that these works were screened out when the selection to Moderna Museet’s major retrospective was made in Stockholm).
The part of the exhibition that is installed at the Arsenal, however, is, as the enormous, elongated building prescribes, organized according to a more or less clearly linear narrative, and even evolutionary, logic. The sequence begins with Auriti’s model of his encyclopedic palace, but later marks, according to Gioni, a development from natural to artificial forms, a “prehistory to the digital era, with its manias for organization and its dreams of total knowledge”. The long stretch seems to separate into three main parts. In a first, extensive section, one can with a certain amount of good will discern that the different contributions form a vast, radically heterogeneous catalogue of creation myths and representations of human-nature-synthesis: of a nature that is spiritualized and a humanity that is invaded by nature’s forms. We find ourselves here in many respects covering the same territory as Documenta 13, including the multi-disciplinary, anthropological perspective, but without the “object-orientated” philosophical superstructure.
Among the noteworthy contributions in this part are Camille Henrot’s intelligent film Grosse Fatigue (2013), which describes various stories about the development of the universe through an ingenious desktop montage with windows in windows and images taken from, among other places, the Smithsonian Institute’s collection; the Polish painter Jakub Julian Ziólkowski’s in all respects terrible, surreal images of a grotesque, bestial cosmos where the borders between people, animals and the universe are dissolved in a huge, mystical orgy (Bestiary, 2013); or the Japanese and – informs the wall text – severely autistic artist Schinichi Sawada’s totem like sculptures of animals, monsters and mystical creatures (made between 2000 and 2012). It is worth noting that the exhibition has here – just as in many other places – combined outsider romanticizing, a fascination with insanity or the cognitive and aesthetic resources of psychic disorders, and mythology with what appears to be a blissful indifference to an entire, vast tradition of criticism of the historical avant garde’s primitivism (the renewed interest in anthropological models of understanding should not happen at any price).
At approximately the middle of the Arsenale there is a room that in a way constitutes the point of articulation between the first and the final parts. Here Cindy Sherman has been invited to curate her own exhibition within the exhibition, taking her own collection of artworks and artifacts as a starting point. Amongst the contributions, which together form a distinctly Shermanistic study of different media, forms and images though which people stage their own identity and sexuality, are Hans Bellmer’s monstrous drawings of bodies and genitals that seem to be folded into each other and enter into strange configurations (out of the de Sade inspired series Petite traité du morale, 1969); Jimmie Durham’s Jesus, Es geht um die wurst (1992), a Christ figure in wood and clay that appears intended to be resurrected through some sort of modern, pagan ritual; and Paul McCarthy’s giant teddy bear Children’s Anatomical Educational Figure (1990), a replacement object that has grown to a grotesque size and out of whose open stomach spill entrails. In a long display case lies Linda Fregni Nagler’s unparalleled collection of early photographic portraits of small children, The Hidden Mother (2006–2013): so that the children would remain still during the long exposure time they sat on their mothers’ knees, but so that the women would not figure in the photographs they were covered with blankets or sheets, with ghostly results.
After Sherman’s micro-exhibition or meta-work, where representation is understood as a means for the construction of the subject rather than a medium for voices from the other side, the final series of rooms in the Arsenale begins with works dealing with the impact of contemporary media technologies on people’s image world. The exhibition here drastically changes its pitch, in a manner that even alters the resonance of the show as a whole. There are no more outsiders or visionaries. The series opens instead with an entire room full of Ryan Trecartin’s hysterical video installations (all from 2013), which overwhelm the viewer with a terrifying glimpse into the hyper-mediatized, constantly tweeting and ADHD-affected youth’s stroboscopically flashing life-world (I have seen Trecartin’s films in quite a few different settings and cannot shake off the impression that they are moralizing, with all his cynical and ironic distance – like a Harmony Korine on speed).
In the following room we are met by something resembling a completely ordinary contemporary art exhibition: on temporary, white walls hang a series of Wade Guyton’s “black monochromes”, printed by an inkjet on linen, resulting in all possible defects: uneven color distribution, traces of a paint roller, varying feed rates, etc. (Untitled, 2011). On the next wall hangs a series of large collages, which confidently play with a catalogue of modernist references, but simultaneously incorporate historically specific forms and media(Albert Oehlen’s Untitled, 2009). A large installation across the room consists of full-scale color images of analogue TV transmitters, mounted on large frame structures, as a monument to an almost instantly obsolete technology (Simon Denny’s Analogue Broadcasting Hardware Compression, 2013).
The alienating experience of suddenly finding oneself in a typical biennial exhibition space where the usual suspects are lined up has a double effect. On the one hand, it reminds us that The Encyclopedic Palace is actually not such a show, but a fairly radical – but by no means impeccable, and in the end not either so extremely original – attempt to use another catalogue of work in order to study other forms of knowledge and spawn other experiences. On the other hand, it reveals a large absence in the exhibition as a whole: in contrast to its earlier parts, the artistic mediation techniques and display methods are thought here as historically and materially specific, as anchored in a social, political and technological moment that to some degree determines their possibilities. Where the artistic means of expression from everyone from Jung and Steiner to the exhibition’s many outsiders and visionaries appear as a window to other realities or as vessels for uninterrupted communications of mystical truths, so they are treated here – but first here, in one of the exhibition’s final rooms – as ideologically determined and distorting technologies that must be made into the objects of critical reflection.