August 1, 2017 Repository 206: Reader’s Digest Review of the Venice Biennale, Skulptur Projekte and Documenta Posted In: art practice, contemporary art, culture, exhibition of note, perspective, philosophy, travel

Abel Rodriquez, “Ciclo annual en las altas terrazas de la selva tropical (Annual cycle in the high terraces of the rain forest, 2007), ink on paper. Image courtesy the artist and Trobenbos International Colimbia.

“Art forces people to respond, and if people were no longer discussing art and found themselves in complete agreement, then it ceases to have any relevance.” – Susanne Pfizer

It’s taken me almost three weeks to digest what I consumed over the course of two weeks of art exploring, and will take the course of years to fully appreciate the line of inquiry proposed by the artists, curators and organizers of documenta 14, Skulptur Projekte Münster and the 57th Venice Biennial. I’ll share with you a reader’s digest version, some highlights of specific works and some further points of research if you are curious. If you are an artist full stop you know the importance of these events – they are neither commercially inspired, nor are they meant to please, inform or entertain. Of all the major exhibitions I’ve seen these were the most challenging, the most heart wrenching and the most urgent I’ve seen. My opinion falls opposite from the Guardian or the NY Times reviews – both found the exhibitions, specifically the Venice Biennale, “soft” or scattered. Honestly, I think they’ve entirely missed the point. Also by focusing the Venice Biennale exhibition on artists, and having open tables with artists removes the usual power of “authority” on criticism or critics. We need no expert lens to experience this work, only us, the work and the artist – a true dialogue. I am loving this. And I’m guessing the mass “art” press does not. Another zing on the au courant movement to fire the gatekeepers.

To their defense, the press had to stand in long queues to see work at the Biennale’s opening, which is like going to a popular swimming pool on a hot day, where the pool is filled with celebrities in their swim suits, and the art sits adjacent to the commotion not clamoring for attention. Which is precisely why the these works are so important this year.  Slow and long thinking my friends, this is the wave of the critical thinking future, and artists and audiences need to ride this wave. If sitting in this cadence sounds like a snore fest to you – then please reconsider your profession – it’s our duty as artists to carry the zeitgeist and unless we slow down and consider things more carefully we will all melt. Or not melt, maybe evolve to a rodent consciousness – you get the gist.


Viva Arte Viva, The 57th International Art Exhibition

The Venice Biennale’s curator Christine Macel makes it clear that the humanistic lens needs to be revisited and reconsidered. Basically if we don’t get to understanding and navigating our own humanity in a consequential way, there is no hope for our future growth or prosperity. Specifically if we continue on the “I” focused islands of late, where the precedence of “me” and your individual preferences trump the greater good and a thoughtful consensus, there is no hope for humanity. This is a crucial line of inquiry if I ever heard one. Resistance, liberation and generosity are sitting at this exhibition’s table, and it’s courageous for Christine Macel to take this humanistic approach. Getting the inside right is the ONLY way to get the outside right, so let’s examine that. That said, some of the works and artists had the “what” right in their works, but the “how”, or the execution, was questionable.

“The exhibition is intended as an experience, an extrovert movement from the self to the other, towards common space beyond defined dimension.” – Christine Macel

While the individual countries and collateral events more or less considered her curatorial statement, the main building is where the curator’s statement fills nine major buckets of work, or “pavilions” *. Since I am a promiscuous aesthete I was on the prowl for work exploiting things besides the ocular – to my pleasant surprise there was haptic art abound (weavings, tapestry interactive pieces), as well as a nod to scent in Ernesto Neto’s piece which had a performative and installation aspect. There were memorable sounds pieces (e.g. Denmark Pavillion), there were mold warnings before entering pavilions (Italy and Israel), and even a purposeful scent incorporated into the work (Israel). In general the entire Venice Biennale was incredibly taxing on the viewer: unless you read the label or descriptions many, many pieces would simply fly over your head. And if you didn’t take the time to watch the ENTIRE film, you missed the point completely. I’ve never been so studious about seeing art – and was duly rewarded on a few occasions. Some were admittedly slow and off putting where the hot temperature and dark rooms in the afternoon were drool inducing.

“In a world of conflicts and jolts, in which humanism is being seriously jeopardized, art is the most precious part of the human being.” — Christine Macel

*Just like a book the exhibition in the Arsenale and Central Pavilion of the Giardini has nine “trans-pavillions”, like chapters. They are:


Skulptur Projekte Münster

A PROJECT BY KOKI TANAKA. Image courtesy the artist

Skipping over toSculpture Projects Münster (Skulptur Projekte Münster) there was a period of respite. The air was cooler, the art was more spread out, and you could truly choose your own adventure. As an avid walker and runner I found this a delight. We were there for the shortest time, and since it was my first time to Münster, I really wanted to understand the city, and the history of the project. Skulptur Projekte’s main theme seemed also centered on humanity to a degree – where artists focused on the skin as a barrier to the public, our human boundaries as cartography (everyone has different types of boundaries), and much of the art focused on the pressing issues of political refuge, community, belonging and not belonging.

“…Whether still or moving the self is an act of cartography, and every life a study of borders.” – Frances Stonor Saunders

Mounira Al Solh, drawing from series “I Strongly Believe Our Right to Be Frivolous”, ink, graphite, marker, paint and thread.

documenta 14

The last stop was Kassal for documenta 14. As always in this town there is the palpable smog of a dark history that is never ignored by artist or curator: the WW 2 history of the town being decimated by 400,000 bombs in 1943, and being 15 minutes from a concentration camp is not lost to careful observers. documenta 14 was like looking into a 3-foot wide steel pipe – it’s either blowing harsh, cold, chemical scented air at you, or a gust of warm, stinky, organic air.  The Venice Biennale was like good cheese – sometimes it smells weird, or is even hairy, but once it’s in the mouth it tastes great. You get the picture?

Kassel’s documenta 14 was the anti-statement, the fringe, all the things being pushed outside were now demanding your full attention. Unlike doing some navel gazing suggested by the Venice Biennale, documenta was demanding we look at all things and people who have been left out of the popular frame, out of the logical zones of our consideration and consciousness, and to look instead to those people, places and things that have conveniently been coined “the other”**.

The buildings and venues were chosen deliberately – from the placement of artworks from Athens National Museum of Contemporary Art – all works they can not afford to display in Greece, were now displayed in Kassel – to the many venues in Athens that confused the press, to the old post office building that housed some of the darkest works. Upon exiting the brute post office building in Kassal they renamed the “Neue Neue Galerie” or “New New Gallery” you were confronted with the city blocks where the Turkish refugee and immigrants seem to have found a natural home for themselves – so you navigated that while trying to get to the next venue to view “art”. This was my favorite, brilliant curatorial turn of the exhibition.

“…to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude.” – Susan Sontag

So what exactly do we mean by that which is excluded? That which is not framed? We are talking about things the western world has only scant information on – regional histories of uprisings and problems with imperialists in South Asia, serious and far reaching implications of treating a company as an individual, having a peaceful protest while eating lemons in Iraq and getting tear gassed, the politics of reindeer herding and the attempts of government to remove power from their people, critical writing on decolonizing culture, the incredible hardships of the first peoples of Canada, the refusal and questioning of the prominence of the English language and Western culture. And on and on. No rock was left unturned, and I feel I have an adequate amount of humility and research to do with respect to humanitarian issues.

“…the best site specific work makes an effort to address blindness in our self-understanding. Is there anything more urgent and challenging than coming to terms with social strucures and dispositions underlying our own consciousness?” – Jay Chung & Q Takeki Meade


In sum here are some meta thoughts and take aways from the art safari I will be chewing on for months/years to come:


Top 10 Pieces IMHO – chosen for how they made me think, feel and consider – not what they looked like – some were invisible:

  1. Denmark Pavilion – Artist Kirstine Roepstorff, and the exhibition project “influenza. theatre of glowing darkness”. You are forced to sit in the dark (no leaving!), with pockets of light direction and a continual dialogue about embracing darkness. While I felt I had heard many of the thoughts in the dialogue from previous texts on consciousness and energy, I had never done so in the dark, and for that I am grateful.
  2. Swiss Pavilion – An odd and troubling pavilion. The homage was apparently to Alberto Giacometti, the artist that for political reasons refused to show at the Bienniale. There was some art by Carol Bove, and for me the main draw, and quite possibly the most compelling video piece I have seen in years, was the video piece “Now and Then: The Rediscovery of Flora Mayo by the artist duo Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler. The video room had a two-sided screen that were synchronized with the same sound track. One side of the video was of a romantic vantage point of the artist Flora May who was Giacometti’s lover and an American artist training in Paris. The other side of the screen, with the same soundtrack of Flora’s son telling her story, were images of his vantage point of his mother, an artist who never “made it” as an artist but stayed true to her vision and her love of art. It was profound, clever, and depressing to watch. Using fiction and documentary elements, the film’s black and white nostalgia and sunny suburban vignettes create a gritty portrait of life choices and desires.
  3. German Pavilion – When people do strange things very close to you, while pretending you aren’t there, a new spectacle of the viewer riveted and revolted is born. I’ve never felt anything like it – performers being walked over, groped, possessed, crying, and masturbating. Very achtung, very important. Though art that. Thank you Anne Imhof, performers and dogs for this terrific jolt.
  4. American Pavilion – Mark Bradford (American artist at Bienniale) created a thoughtful collaboration with Venice, and made an ambitious and well executed work representing his identity as a black, gay male in his specific upbringing. So grateful for the presentation, it was prefect for our times in the states. On his unique stance of being a black artist using abstraction: “I’m going to look through the lens of abstraction to pull out my representation, to interrogate a black space through abstraction.”….On his use of materials: ”If Home Depot doesn’t have it, Mark Bradford doesn’t need it.”
  5. South African PavilionCandice Breitz created a multi-channel representation of refugee stories. The artist used brand name actors to share the refugee stories which was a comment on empathy and how it is considered. I left only wondering whether she thought through her choices – Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore, to tell the stories. Why not choose famous black actors, as there are, that could lend further credence to the plight of the refugee stories. Or not? This is an excellent line of inquiry.
  6. Marcos Avila Forero – “Atrato” in the Giardini – The artist reenacts the lost ritual from the Congo and Columbia of communicating through water drumming on the river. The film records men and women rhythmically playing the water of the Atrato river as if it were an instrument. Since this is a lost tradition, and the history of drumming was used as political and cultural struggle was important, the artist collaborated with anthropologists on this project. The result is a poetic interpretation of the lost art of water drumming. And mesmerizing to boot.
  7. Irena Haiduk – At documenta 14 in the Neue Neue Gallerie, the artist used a shop, installation and sound piece to consider the serious consequence of consumerism, mass production, and the concept of corporation as human. The artist recreated the Borosana Labor Shoe, a relic of socialist-era Yugoslavia which was designed by women workers to be comfortable for a full nine hours of standing factory labor. The documenta staff were wearing them, and visitors could purchase during random hours of the installation. The most impressive installation was in the dark, where voices interrogated each other about the importance of resistance and the travesty of business being “human”. The dialog about the ramifications of treating a business as human is quite urgent to consider. I’m hoping the presentation was not too sexy or obtuse for viewers to reach the kernel of this project. To buy products or more understand the project, check out Yugo Export, the pretend (though real shoes et al) web site procuring goods for this project.)
  8. Koki Tanaka “Provisional Studies: Worksop # 7 How to Live Together and Sharing the Unknown”. Aggressive and stunning lesson on living together, breaking boundaries and being real.
  9. Aram Bartholl “3V” – The artist plays with the ideas of connectivity and cadence – the more you slow down the more delightful. He set set up fireplaces that charged phones (to play with the idea of slowing down and having a fire chat). He also made an installation that juxtaposed the LED light with the candlelight  – one is clearly for tasks, while one is for conversation. His chandelier has the candle supporting and firing up the LED light. Dialogue trumps the task bits.
  10. Peter Friedl Film – because language is only a facade, this film spoke mounds even though I could only translate 1/8 of the languages being spoken. Basically for 30 minutes you watch people in many different languages describe a nonsensical story attributed to a famous author about a gorilla. Somehow this felt perfect in these times.

Standout projects outside of the main exhibitions:

Intuition, Palazzo Fortuny
Every time I’ve been to Venice I’ve been fortunate to make the pilgrimage to this carefully curated series of exhibitions by Alex Veervordt and Daniela Ferretti. The theme this year is Intuition, and as always the mix between ancient art and artifacts, with contemporary sculpture, performance and sound works combined in a stunning four-floor Gothic palazzo was exquisite. The show in sum is a thoughtful gesture and reminder that all which we surround ourselves with have energy, light and darkness. In their words, “The exhibition will explore how intuition has, in some form, shaped art across geographies, cultures and generations. It will bring together historic, modern and contemporary works related to the concept of intuition, dreams, telepathy, paranormal fantasy, meditation, creative power, hypnosis and inspiration.”

The Boat is Leaking the Captain Lied, Prada Foundation
Like the Palazzo Fortuny, this exhibition takes over an 18th century palazzo now known as the Prada Foundation. It is a terrific collaboration between three artists where viewers are led through a maze of fictional scenarios that in sum speak truthfully and quite directly about the reality of our current media and political landscape. There is no doubt the exhibition catalogs were sold out – the show was at once visually captivating while leaving a huge itch to scratch about the intention and explanations behind each part of the exhibition. I believe the obtuseness is precisely the strength in this exhibit, and that the catalog will leave no answers, only share stories contextualizing the artists’s practices and the individual “rooms”.

Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, Palazzo Grassi and Punta Della Dogana
Oh my. The naughty artist as environmental and anthropological steward: myth, material and excess. No words except a cross between what you would expect from him and the cheesiest “art” galleries you’ve seen in the middle of a Caribbean “luxury” resort. The excess is a site to be seen. 

LWL Museum of Art and Culture
The contemporary drawing collection at this Münster museum is brave and elegant. Their Foundation for the Line was presenting selections that prove a deep understanding of the profound practice of drawing – it’s not just a preliminary practice, drawing is a foundation that reveals so much of character and environment. The work in their collection focuses on work where the means of drawing determine the visual statements. Artists in this selection included Jorinde Voigt, Richard Tuttle and Reiner Ruthenbeck among others.


** Bonus points for research on the “other” – the theme was deep at documenta 14, and there was even some talk of “heterotopia” – this is otherness of places and spaces. Example sentence: “Many of the artworks featured….generate critical ideas about intersections in history, articulating the site as a continuously evolving and dissolving HETEROTOPIA.”

Basically heterotopia is an idea elaborated by Michel Foucault that describes places and spaces in human geography that function in non-hegemonic (fancy word for non-political) ways. These spaces of otherness that are irrelevant mentally or physically such as the space of a phone call or the moment you see yourself in the mirror.  In closing I hope all of your studio time is heterotopia-ish – in that you are lost in a zen/trance/no ego zone while working;-) I’m sure I’ve used the word incorrectly there. Thank you for reading !



Peter Friedl, “Report” (2016)
Digital video, color, sound
Stadtmuseum Kassel, Kassel

Marcos Avila Forero, still from the video “Atrato”, 2014. Image courtesy the artist and Galerie Dohyang Lee.

Installation image of one of the many rooms of “The Boat is Leaking the Captain Lied” at Prada Foundation


View of Anne Imhof’s German Pavilion. Performance artist in Boxer shorts, viewers surrounding, milling consciously and unconsciously.

Installation image of Kimsooja, “Archive of Mind” at Intuition exhibition at Palazzo Fortuny


Installation view of Geng Jiangi’s “The Reason Why Classic Is”, at the Venice Biennale.


Installation view of American artist Sharon Lockhart, representing Poland for “The Little Review” – a powerful and important project on the idea of giving voice to youth.


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  1. Louise Sheils • August 1, 2017

    Makes me wish I had been there with you:must admit I would have needed your guidance to interpret & appreciate the different dimensions of these exhibits. You have a wonderful way of blending Art, the Humanities, and Philosophy. A pleasure to read you. Reply

    • Catherine Haley Epstein • August 2, 2017

      Many, many thanks Louise! I wish you would have been there too, next time for sure - or shall we meet in Spain for the Prado etc? Merci de lire mon travail, cela signifie tellement! :) Reply

  2. Leon M Trice • August 2, 2017

    I knew this was coming from you at some point. I look forward to reading when I come up for air. Thanks a mil for all of it. Leon Reply

    • Catherine Haley Epstein • August 2, 2017

      Thank you Leon!! Looking forward to your exhibition - hoping I can peek on Friday as I'm traveling Saturday. Best of luck and thank you for reading!! Reply

  3. Roberta Aylward • August 4, 2017

    Thank you for this, Catherine-a great article! I will be re-reading this as we prepare for this adventure. I appreciate all of your insights, information and tips, especially the advice to "read up" before we go. Reply

    • Catherine Haley Epstein • August 21, 2017

      Wonderful Roberta! I'm so glad you are finding this helpful! The web sites for the Biennale is pretty full of information. At the very least there is a good curators statement. When there you can buy the mini-catalog and use while looking (it's in the book store for 12 Euro). Have so much fun and I'd really like to connect when you return! Best - Catherine Reply

  4. Leon M Trice • August 7, 2017


    I had some time today to read your post on your time with the art world in Venice and Germany. I appreciate the effort it must have taken to put all of this together in your reader's digest form. It amazes me what's going on in the art world outside of the United States and of our culture her in the northwest. Thanks so much for sharing and giving us a glimpse of the bigger picture. Reply

    • Catherine Haley Epstein • August 21, 2017

      Thanks for reading Leon! I'm so glad you're moved by yes the MUCH larger picture of art and politico beyond our borders - it's so important to remind oneself, and to see with different eyes from time to time. I look forward to catching your show hopefully in the next week or so! :) Reply

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