Germany : Faust

The Biennale has just opened with an endless line outside of the German pavilion. For her Faust, the whole concept of which is a performance, Anne Imhof was awarded the Golden Lion of the 57th contemporary art Biennale di Venezia.

Around the building two young Dobermans, their ears and tails still untouched, quiver behind a several-feet-high wire meshed gate. They yelp while playing with pet toys with enough enthusiasm to scare away the adventurous few or the distracted strollers. They seem harmless but one can never be too cautious. 

It turns out humans are wilder than animals. An army of performers with icy faces on androgynous bodies evolve both in the inside and the outside spaces, climbing up fences, perching.

The pavilion’s brilliant scenography puts the spotlight on voyeurism. Glass is the main component of the premisses including a false floor, podiums and culminating platforms. The performers subtly navigate the space under people’s feet and up in the air across three different rooms. A corridor connects the main room to its two annexes where fire hoses, soap and towels lay on the floor. In a corner a black leather mattress, some knives and harnesses can be found.  

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Androgynous icons, part gothic, part SM, part sportswear, actors are elevated to the rank of idols. Each of their single move -often sudden and abrupt, gives rise to a wave of excitement and admiration in the room. The master to slave relationship shows in the hand to hands, a savvy dosage of love and war making. A girl with a deep voice sings to a piano melody. 

The movements of the crowd are as fascinating as the performance itself. The human tide moving up and down becomes the piece.  

It turns out humans are wilder than animals.

Beyond voyeurism, the project questions the objectification of men. The watcher becomes the watched, exposed and photographed. The observer becomes the subject without knowing. Smartphones scrutinize the crowd taking unwelcome shots and videos of stranger faces. Below the see-though floors, the professional photographers taking millions of pictures may or may not be part of the show. The performance erases the notion of the spectator as we know it. One has to be ready to become the subject of a live experiment anywhere anytime. But are we really up for it ?

The audience’s behavior highlights another societal phenomena known as Fear Of Missing Out or FOMO. Ironically in Faust, the best strategy probably is to stay in one spot. The experience is then amplified by enhanced observation and goes way beyond just looking. Through its constant movement, the piece forces the viewer to position themselves. Seeing everything in a click of the mouse or the slide of a thumb is impossible. The visitor with this standpoint will only be frustrated, stressed and ultimately evict themselves. To appreciate is to make choices. 

Greece: Laboratory of Dilemmas

With a classic yet efficient plan, video artist George Rivas turns the Greek pavilion into a smart allegory of today’s scientific, geopolitic and demographic issues with a clear allusion to migratory flows. 

Buried in a dark yet extremely circumscribed environment, the visitor encounters retro video tapes and audio recordings. The premise of the installation, a well-known technique, is that a series of documents related to a secret research on hepatitis cells dating back to some unspecified long time ago is finally uncovered and introduced to the public. Starting from the paradigm of the king’s dilemma in Aeschylus’ play Iketides (the Suppliant Women), the piece is asking whether one should save the natives or welcome the newcomers.

The Laboratory of Dilemmas relies on a double deck maze of screens and recordings punctuating each angle. On the first floors, films, on the ground floor, sounds, in the exiting room: THE film. The public follows the peregrinations of the research team like a mini TV show. Upon discovering the molecule that should eradicate all forms of hepatitis forever, the scientists realize that the new cells, the product of their experiment, can only survive if they cannibalize the stem cells. From then on they are faced with a cornelian choice: extract the new cells and breed them separately with nearly no chance of success, or let them kill the stem cells, thus throwing away years of research. 

In the corridor one can hear the advocates of pros and cons debating. « If we kill the original cells, we just throw away all those years of research » then « we should give this new form of life a chance! ». Can the old and the new live together? Do the tradition, the familiar and the known have to make way for progress and its compulsory share of uncertainty? 

When faced with change, one gets carried away by two opposite streams: the Ancient has to go causing some incompressible pain whilst the New asserts itself bearing the promise of something better. The hardship of giving up customary comfort adds to the mourning of past accomplishments. In Laboratory of Dilemma the scientist in charge of the experiment is torn and desperate. « I cannot personally make this decision! »

The hardship of giving up our customary comfort adds to the mourning of past accomplishments.

The last room is a short film about the last executive committee’s meeting. Gathered around a rectangular wooden table presided by Charlotte Rampling, the stakeholders argue about the experiment’s outcome. Whilst the finance guy standing for the capital insists on showing the investors reassuring figures, the president shifts the debate down to the individual:  « Our objective when we started this experiment was very specific and cannot be altered. (…) You cannot personally make the decision to change the world ».

Korea 
Counterbalance: The Stone and The Mountain

The Korean pavilion is hard to miss with its huge neon billboard Venetian Rhapsody, a combination of American motels, Las Vegas and contemporary urban Korean landscape inspiration. Its claim: « Pole Dance, Free Video TV, Free Narcissistic People Disorder, Free Peep Show, Major Credit Cards, Free Orgasm ». What a heavy schedule. 

Brilliantly designed by artist Cody Choi the place is a burlesque mausoleum echoing the Korean war in which 200 000 soldiers died. Packed with postcards, small altars, prayers, objects such as a pair of latex slippers that used to belong to a 100 year old lady, medallions, identity pictures and family portraits, press covers of president Kim’s death, the walls call for intimacy. 

The place is undoubtedly a tribute to the dead of Korean’s no man’s land viewed though the lens of today’s contemporary culture. Cody Choi, known for his acid-kitsch pop aesthetics, furnished it with toilet paper sculptures, embedded nude photographs and a lonely pole dance in a red light looking as though it’d just been dug out in an archeological search, just like its nearby companions, an old couple of TV monitors on top of each other. 

Welcome, Pole Dance, Free Video TV, Free Narcissistic People Disorder, Free Peep Show, Major Credit Cards, Free Orgasm

This half museum half curiosity lab contrasts with the proposition made by Moon Kyungwon & Jeon Joonho two years ago, all in futuristic immersive video installations. It lacks neither intelligence nor humour nor depth. 

Japan: Turned Upside Down, It’s a Forest

Plastic artist Takahiro Iwasaki showcases an abstract of Japanese culture in line with his work on the way we look at objects and symbolism. Turned Upside Down, It’s a forest is an ode to wood and obsession to detail. His temples hanging up in the air reveal their hidden half, as if their reflection on water was made tangible. It looks as though a fairytale had unveiled its psychology with some extra care for miniaturist things and particularities. 

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One walks in like in a sacred place, disturbed by the pile of clothing shaping a well to the floor below. The visitor is invited to glance at the installation from under, with their eyes at feet level casting an astounded glance behind the scenes.

Somewhere in an angle, an oil slick awaits to be wiped out by the neighbouring detergent and broom.

Opposite is an altar where books pile up, a summary of Japanese culture through litterature from spiritual to erotic to manga.

This vernacular immersion is less spectacular, maybe less poetic than Chiaru Shiota’s odyssey two years ago, whereby hundreds of old keys were tied to hanging red fishing nets, but it is not less noticeable.


La Biennale di Venezia, Giardini, until Novembre 26th 2017, Venice, Italy. 

Images © Araso & Mathieu Dochtermann