55th Venice Biennale: Il Palazzo Enciclopedico | The Encyclopedic Palace

This year’s Venice Biennale’s subject, The Encyclopedic Palace, is conceived by Biennale director Massimiliano Gioni after M. Auriti’s Il Enciclopedico Palazzo del Mondo in the 1950s. Auriti’s model built on a 1:200 scale, welcomes guests at the central Pavilion of Giardini. The original 136 floor skyscraper-to-be would have occupied a vast area in Washington DC and would have played host to an international knowledge database from all times.

In a similar fashion to Auriti, Kippenberger’s utopic Metro-Net World Connection series (1993-7) envisaging a vast network of tube lines connecting the entire world, was materialised with the production of only a few real-life metro-like entrances (such as the one on the Greek island of Syros). His work was posthumously exhibited at the German Pavilion of the 50th Biennale in 2003 and although it did not become the subject of the entire Biennale back then, the philosophical romanticism, idealisation and conceptualisation of both arcadian cases inspired artists and theorists on a grand scale.

This year’s 88 national participations spanning across Arsenale, Giardini and various other sites, along with other independent exhibitions around Venice, have tailor-made their shows to transmit this year’s proposed theme.

How can art evolve and expand along the lines of “what could knowledge be or become”? The answer derives from the spectrum of what the modern world today may assess as a valuable piece of information; consequently, the perception and understanding of knowledge is worth extracting and distilling from today’s reality. Needless to index or even differentiate the valuable portion of data from the non-valuable, perhaps it all deserves to fall into a ‘universal’ category of encyclopedic knowledge. This would embrace pretty much everything in a Platonic and Aristotelian domain.

For the art enthusiast and critic, the national pavilion behaviourism is always an interesting phenomenon. The perception and acuity of knowledge filtered through national identity and social layering proves to be manifested and rather pronounced in this year’s Biennale. While several national participations seem to establish their artistic locus via certain political and socio-economic routes, probably in the hope that their chosen narrative will create international awareness, some others free themselves from analogous needs and effectively represent an artistic oeuvre and calibre worth revisiting and investigating further.

The unique environment of the Korean Pavilion, To Breathe: Bottari (curated by Seungduk Kim), encapsulates both the long artistic tradition of its creator Kimsooja and diverse elements of Korean culture. The transformation of the entire pavilion space into a bubble-like enclosure allows light and sound to dominate throughout, instantly stimulating the viewer’s senses. Visitors are invited to experience the given terrain and increasingly become part of it. But by entering a small dark anechoic chamber and remaining there in a state of blandness for just one minute, the visitor is vulgarly amputated from their senses. Kimsooja’s exploration of senses via the stern process of ‘total voidance’ created literally by introducing this black hole, reaches (via manipulating our living environment) a state of realisation and, therefore, total appreciation of our current known situation. By actively involving the viewer with this experience, the artist succeeds in producing an ongoing mass performance, in other words a living intervention.

Konrad Smoleński of the Polish Pavilion works along the same lines of understanding our senses within a natural and non-natural, controlled environment. His installation, Everything Was Forever, Until it Was No More (curated by Daniel Muzyczuk and Agnieszka Pindera), encompasses the assessment of sound produced by a traditional instrument (two bronze handmade ecclesiastical bells), its reproduction by loudspeakers and its processing with a special technique that re-transmits a delayed, altered resounding sound wave. Smoleński’s lengthy research on the properties of sound and time has not only achieved to de-characterise and separate a source from its very own physical sound but also to free and re-baptise the latter with a brand new hypostasis. The ‘newly born’ abstract sound echoing forcefully among the pavilion walls voids the original pre-sound minimalistic locus and introduces a surreal time lapse domain. I personally found it extremely intriguing how eager visitors were to investigate the soundless space before the activation of the two bells, and how keen they were to abandon it shortly after the production of the reverberating noise despite the earplugs provided. This intense discomfort may be explained as the natural result of the process of deconstruction of senses through deanalysing and decoding noise against time. It all proves how complex it can be to re-register in our collective unconscious a modified detail in one of our senses. Coincidentally enough, the artist had been asked by the Biennale organisers in July to pause the installation until further notice.

Outside the borders of Biennale proper, the Azerbaijan Pavilion situated at Campo San Stefano presents a group exhibition of six young artists focusing on aspects of cultural existence, ethnic distinctiveness and social discourse. Ornamentation, the title of Azerbaijan’s show (curated by Hervé Mikaeloff), is an amalgamation of decorative arts, religion and tradition infused with contemporary vision. Rashad Alakbarov’s installations, Intersection and Miniature, are assemblages of random objects made of wood or metal organised in -what appears to be- an unsystematic fashion. Only when a projector light hits the mass of objects we witness the hidden imagery revealing itself on the opposite wall. Although sharing a very similar technique with other highly acclaimed artists such as UK’s Tim Nobleand Sue Webster, Alakbarov’s chosen shadow iconography is profound; from the traditional shebeke designs and patterns to a human reclining figure and an optical illusion that reveals its secret message only when you use a camera.

“It is not chaos” appears through the camera lens pointing out to the [semi]obvious oxymoron, that the actual appearance of things can only be subjective, the mass of knowledge generated from the conscious world can only be interpreted through the de-construction and re-construction of its individual components.

Auriti’s vision can only depart from its limbo by praising the value of senses. This year’s Biennale has had several strong participants, whose artistic oeuvre and exploration have gone a step further and, undoubtedly, increased our expectations in the fields of research, technological development and medium advancement, and in absolute synchronicity with the latest psychoanalytic, philosophical and scientific impetus.