VENICE: Unofficially christened the Olympics of Art, there’s a reason why the Venice Biennale is one of the most prestigious contemporary art exhibitions in the world.
Every two years, the art spectacle takes place in Italy’s picturesque water city, offering the widest, most thought-provoking variety of contemporary art from around the globe — from paintings and sculptures to videos, installations to live performances.
The number of subsidiary shows and fringe events sprouting up all over the city seems to be increasing with every edition, effectively pushing the cultural conversation forward and rounding out the collective snapshot of the art world now.
And with each edition, the highly anticipated national pavilions provide a platform for many countries to showcase their most relevant and influential art.
With 86 official national contributors scattered across the Giardini and Arsenale at this 57th edition, there is an incredible variety of exhibits to choose from. Besides lending your support to multidisciplinary artist Zai Kuning and his impressive 17m-long ship (part of his installation Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge based on forgotten Malay histories) at the Singapore pavilion, there are many other pavilions and themes to sift through.
Seeing everything is pretty much impossible, so here are three highlights not to be missed.
Faust by Anne Imhof, German Pavilion
Known for creating visually rich presentations that take the forms of strange reverie, 38-year-old Anne Imhof is the recipient of Venice’s top prize - The Golden Lion - for best national pavilion. It was described by the jury as “a powerful and disturbing installation that poses urgent questions about our time."
One of the most in-demand country pavilions with constant snaking queues, this German entry is the quintessence of a complete work of art.
The controversial piece is a five-hour production that also bills itself as a seven-month “scenario” set to play out over the course of the Biennale.
The front entrance is blocked with anti-riot wire fencing with real barking Doberman standing guard. Inside, groups of young performers clad in hip black sportswear move, lunge and gesture among visitors who walk on glass platforms raised above the marble floor by sleek steel tubing. In this cold, foreign, glass-and-metal-bolstered world, the performer’s rituals - all set against a soundtrack of dance music, monastic chanting and scream - allude to violence and domination.
Between looking down at sulky performers trapped under our feet, and dancers on platforms shooting menacing stares while doing a zombie catwalk, it is a performance piece that feels both powerful and threatening at the same time. One that probes the power dynamics, sexual politics, and feelings of alienation that plague today’s tech-obsessed modern society.
Doing Time by Tehching Hsieh, Taiwan Pavilion
A pioneer of performance art, Hsieh has been called a “master” of the form by fellow artist Marina Abramovic. Presented at the Biennale is a selection of five works, most significantly a focus on two of his utterly astounding One Year Performances: The Timeclock Piece and Outdoor Piece.
From 1978 to 1986, Hsieh turned his life into an artwork.
The artist (who has not lived in Taiwan for more than 40 years) first isolated himself inside a cage for a year in 1978 and 1979, with no radio, television, or reading material.
Then in 1980 and 1981, he punched an office time card every hour, thus denying himself any real sleep or lengthy activity.
From 1981 to 1982, he roamed and lived on the streets of New York with only a sleeping bag, a backpack with daily necessities, never once entering a building or any other kind of shelter including public transport.
He followed that up by living his life tied up to fellow artist Linda Montano from 1983 to 1984, and then banned himself from creating any artwork or making contact with the art world from 1985 to 1986.
It is an intense body of work that explores the notions of human endurance, self-discipline, freedom and physical and psychological control, and showcases the philosophical investigations into the nature of time, life and being, making for a haunting study of struggle and resilience. Through different forms of documentation including film, photography and paraphernalia, you find yourself transported back to the artist’s journey.
“It is an important series of work to help us understand what’s happening in contemporary culture,” said Adrian Heathfield, Hsieh’s curator for the Biennale, in an earlier interview.
“Tehching was very far sighted and subjected himself to conditions that were only emerging at the time. In particular, we now live in this hyper-accelerated world in which technology contains and controls our lives. Illegal immigrants and their conditions of living: To be without shelter, to be constantly moving, exposed, vulnerable and under surveillance, are all embodied in his work.”
After the endurance experienced with his performance pieces, Hsieh pledged in 1999 to never make art again. He has kept to this pledge.
The Absence of Paths curated by Lina Lazaar, Tunisia Pavilion
This is Tunisia’s first national pavilion since 1958 and it aims to challenge contemporary political order and inspire further enquiry into human movement.
Although the Tunisian pavilion is officially located in the Arsenale section of the Biennale, this interactive performance comprises three separate locations scattered across Venice, where imitation visas referred to as “freesas” are issued.
To validate the document, visitors stamp it with their thumbs and simultaneously agree to “endorse a philosophy of universal freedom of without the need for arbitrary state-based sanction” as stated in the passport-sized booklet.
In lieu of artworks, Tunisia uses this project to not only comment on the refugee crisis but also the privilege given to cultural and art world events: The men behind these kiosks are all young Tunisian refugees.
Because of the special circumstances of the Venice Biennale, the men were granted one-month tourist visas. The kiosks will first be manned by Tunisian men who have tried to cross the Mediterranean multiple times to become migrants but failed to reach the other side.
Unsuccessful Bangladeshi migrants will be the next batch, followed by a group from Sub-Saharan Africa coming to the Venice Biennale last.
And thus, the installation aims to empower every visitor towards shedding the divisiveness. And serves as a living, breathing exhibit that points out the current humanitarian and immigrant crisis the world is facing.
The 57th Venice Biennale runs from now till Nov 26, 2017.