Ecstasy & post-humanity: highlights from the 57th Venice Biennale

, 16 May 2017

The 57th Venice Biennale opened to the public last Saturday, May 13. As always, an event with so many works on view tends to overwhelm the eyes and the mind. However, whether amongst the endless halls of the Arsenale, the Pavilions in the Giardini or spread throughout the city, some positions clearly stood out.

Rachel MacLean at the Scottish Pavilion
Chiesa di Santa Caterina

‘Spite Your Face,’ Rachel MacLean’s extravagant take on the tale of Pinocchio, is shown in the Church of Santa Caterina, far away from the Giardini. Projected on a huge, vertical surface just in front of the altar, her hallucinatory reinterpretation of the traditional children’s story includes masturbation, in-your-face music video aesthetics and perversion, both consumeristic and sexual. At times hard to watch yet captivating, this video proves the artist’s commitment to investigating our society’s taboos through the grotesque and the caricatural.

Jeremy Shaw, ‘Liminals,’ 2017
At the Arsenale

The practice of Canadian artist Jeremy Shaw has always been informed by his interest in subconscious states of mind. In his circa 20 minute long video ‘Liminals,’ a group of people — it’s unclear whether they’re a dance collective, a cult, or both — experience various states of ecstasy, triggered by exercise, dancing and light stimulation. Subtly the aesthetics shift from 1960s modern dance documentation to Xanadu extravaganza and in the end, to the ones of a 1990s rave. In the end, one leaves the room dazzled by the dystopian echoes in Shaw’s powerful work.

Katja Novitskova at the Estonian Pavilion
Palazzo Malipiero

Katja Novitskova’s installation ‘If Only You Could See What I’ve Seen With Your Eyes’ almost reads like a proposal for a post-human science fair. Her large cutouts of animals in various stages of predatory or parasitic feeding are placed densely next to each other. This cleverly amplifies their fatalistic aura. In one of the rooms, a group of mechanical baby-rockers, adorned with organically shaped, semi-transparent sheets of resin, move to a regular rhythm, like the zombified larvae of a giant insect. All in all spooky, terrific and frankly unforgettable.

Geta Brătescu at the Romanian Pavilion

Conceived as a small-scale survey of the Romanian trailblazer’s work, this presentation seems classical, while helping one grasp clearly how multifaceted Geta Bratescu’s practice has been and still is. Whether looking at her geometric collages — the brilliant video of her immediate drawings executed by her dancing hand with the thickest possible black marker — or an outstanding series of drawings inspired by Bertholdt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children play, one is confronted with an artist whose curiosity seems to become only more vivid with age.

Anne Imhof at the German Pavilion

While the use of ultra-referential props — Dobermans, black mattresses, cages, and so on — seems all too expected, the performers in Anne Imhof’s ‘Faust’ at the German Pavilion manage a tour de force many will be discussing for a long time. The performance-installation explores exclusion and visibility, self-promotion, self-destruction, escape and the omnipresence of anxiety in a world many of us, especially millennials, have little idea how to deal with. As such, ‘Faust’ is set to make hearts and guts pound until the Biennale closes in November, and probably after that too.

Mike Bourscheid at the Luxembourg Pavilion
Ca’ del Duca

Conceived like a parcours through the ground floor of a palazzo, Mike Bourscheid’s exhibition ‘Thank you so much for the flowers’ features a set of both humorous and oppressive elements. In one room, lit with yellow light, a bronze sculpture of a lion sits on the carpeted floor, its head chopped off, the surface of the cut reflecting any viewer interested in a closer look. In another one, fetish-y aprons smelling of fresh leather hang from the wall, all combined with a set of clunky shoes, decorative ironwork and funny props, such as sausages or eggs. There’s a dark undertone to this, possibly about captivity within social structures; but nobody is forced to swallow it, just like the over-salted cookie visitors are encouraged to bite a piece off of when they leave the pavilion.

Julien Charrière, ‘Future Fossil Spaces,’ 2017
At the Arsenale

Majestic hexagonal columns of different height compose Julien Charrière’s installation. The works are carved out of Bolivian salt rich with lithium — a material necessary to the manufacturing of batteries — and occasionally feature a triangular glass box filled with aquamarine liquid. ‘Future Fossil Spaces,’ as the work is titled, might be an incarnation of just that: the remains of a civilisation overcome by its own greed for more gadgets. The Swiss artist’s work, somber and static, successfully clashes with the colourful and flowy aesthetics that characterise many other pieces on site.

Erkka Nissinen + Nathaniel Mellors at the Finnish Pavilion

Two animatronic sculptures in the shape of an egg and a box, father and son, recreate the globe 35 million years in the future based around Finnish societal values. In ‘The Aalto Natives’ installation, the whole world is one big Finland, and there’s an ocean full of herring. There are no women but mad, impotent creatures fruitlessly swinging their cocks about as various creation myths intertwine.**

The 2017 Venice Biennale is on at various locations around the city, running May 13 and to November 26, 2017.