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Biennale Babble

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Gabrielle Mollett responds to Martin Holman’s brief “We can’t talk anymore. Words spilt or spoken are the alta acqua of the Venice Biennale.”

Are words flooding the 2015 Venice Biennale? What effect has the onslaught of words in installations, documentaries and performance on the visitor? Is this linguistic alta acqua rendering words meaningless?

This year’s biennale titled ‘All the world’s futures’ focuses on global concerns and challenged artists to be specific yet universal. Tobias Zielony’s documentation in the German Pavilion about immigrants living in Germany voices their views of what it is like to be a refuge in the wealthiest EU country. Although these often thought provoking interviews are convincing and certainly authentic, one can’t help but feel that whilst this is a worthwhile project there is a kind of worthiness attached to it that undermines the real plight of these immigrants. Are such overtly political art projects seeking two incompatible goals, artistic recognition and political action?

A much talked about entry was the Armenian exhibition on Isola Lazzaro. ‘Don’t miss it’’ someone sitting at a restaurant table beside us urged, so we went and it felt like being on a pilgrimage. This project documenting the still disputed 1915 Armenian holocaust is located in the monastery established in 1717 by Armenian Monks, and famous for its publications and ancient manuscripts and books.
First-hand accounts of the holocaust mounted on the walls of the atmospheric rooms amid old printing presses and other print paraphernalia spill over into the solemn and beautiful library rooms. In one of these rooms that seem far removed from the world outside a video explores the concept of national identity. Carefully worded questions to a married couple, the woman of Finnish origin brought up also learning Swedish, her husband an Armenian who’d spent his childhood in Beirut where they met, both speaking several languages between them, reveal a reality that deflates the notion of national identity, a contentious global issue that no doubt influenced the decision to award this entry the Golden Lion.

Emotive words from the song ‘I will be your mirror’ by Velvet Underground are flickering from fluorescent lamps in Pallazzo Loredan where the Portuguese entry of Joao Louro explores language and image in today’s culture with installations that questions their value, meaning and accessibility. A loosely crumbled black sheet depicting a map, a large black canvas proclaiming ‘The End’, references to structuralism and post-structuralism, to writers and thinkers all appraise and challenge conceived ideas about the effective use of language and leave the viewer on somewhat slippery linguistic ground.

Christoph Buchel’s bold entry for Iceland is the Mosque he installed in the defunct church of Santa Maria Della Misericordia. Facing much opposition for the project, Buechel was not permitted to hang a banner with the inscription ‘Allahu Akbar’ on the outer walls of the church. Here just two words became inflammatory and indicative of western sensibilities where Islam is concerned. Yet instantly noticeable on entering the mosque was the silence. People moved about quietly, looking at the Islamic texts on walls and the fixtures that have changed one place of worship into another, like a palimpsest asking to be deciphered. This mosque installation challenges visitors to contemplate if it represents a meaningful dialogue between art and entrenched religious and cultural belief systems.

Elsewhere words spell out dire warnings as on the clock faces of Fiona Hall’s ‘Wunderkammer’ in the Australian Pavilion, a imaginary collection of fantastically spectral objects and sculptures, some representing the fragile state of our natural world and all pointing to some irreversible apocalyptic future, whose haunting voice echoes our deepest global concerns.

The Arab lettering of ‘Peace’ set in narrow strips of inter connecting grass covered path answers the question ‘Can you see’. The title of this installation in the Egyptian Pavilion is referencing a thought by the 12th century philosopher Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi. The ancient text is effectively made visual with these graceful pathways showing different ways to proceed, even if the simple words used for the message of peace achieved through reconciliation of opposites appear more than ever utopian.

Far from utopian Jeremy Deller’s documentation about the harsh working conditions for women working in Welsh mines hundred years ago uses original documents and photos. Headlined ‘The Shit Old Days’ black plaques with succinct explanatory texts accompany and ingeniously underline the original documents. A jukebox playing the monotonous sounds of industrial processes and heavy machinery pounds out any human voice. But the loudest yet wordless exhibit is the electronic monitoring device worn on the wrist by Amazon staff to control their efficiency. It speaks volumes about today’s working conditions as does the hand stitched tapestry proclaiming ‘Hello, today you have day off’, a text message received by a zero hour’s worker to inform him that he didn’t have work that day. Deller’s art not only poses the question of what ‘All the world’s futures’ will look like for most of its workers, but he also proves that carefully chosen words are powerful and effective tools for an artist.

Words also dominate at the Arena in the Central Pavilion where a continuous programme of song, recitals and discussions takes place including readings of ‘Das Kapital’, Brecht and a recital of the Akhand Path, a Sikh holy book over several days.

The Pressroom debated this ‘alta aqua’ of words at the biennale, in the media and public sphere and saw the phenomena as problematic, undermining meaning. We talk first without thinking, and tweets and blogs offer instant platforms to voice our thoughts. However the superficial seeming online chat is interesting for its irreverent syntax flowing like a new stream of consciousness. True, too much talk stops you from really seeing, evaluating, but it is also a measure of our civil liberty.

With regard to the biennale it is clear that many artists found words the most effective art form to answer Okwui Enwezor intention for this biennale ‘‘to properly grasp the current disquiet of our time, make it comprehensible and examine it’’.

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