Thoughts On: Venice Biennale 2017 (Part Four: Italian Pavilion)

Giorgio Anderotta Calo; Roberto Cough

Italian Pavilion, Arsenale, Venice Biennale 2017

Outside the Italian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2017
It was on the second day of my speedy visit to the Venice Biennale 2017 that I made it as far as Il Mondo Magico (The Magical World) in the Italian Pavilion. As is common on a breakneck tour of any large exhibition I was exhausted from the previous day's art adventures. And, determined finish my tour before the gates closed, I saw only two of the three works within the Italian Pavilion. Therefore, my thoughts from this particular corner of Venice in 2017 will only cover the two artists whose work I saw: Calò's Senza Titolo: La Fine del Mondo and Cuoghi's Imitation of Christ. It is interesting to note that in a recent interview with The Art Newspaper Podcast, the Venice Biennale's 2019 creative director Ralph Rugoff acknowledged that visitor-burnout is a common experience, and has taken this into account within his approach to this year's Arsenale show. 

The Italian Pavillion is situated right at the end of the Arsenale complex, and you must exit the main building and walk across cobbled dockside past looming cranes and deep pillared cuttings to reach it. The name Il Mondo Magico originates from the writings of Ernesto de Martino - a Neapolitan Scholar who, in the first half of the 20th Century, composed theories regarding the anthropological function of magic. Under this umbrella, curator Cecilia Alemani had brought together three artists whose work encompassed, embraced or dealt with magic and imagination: Giorgio Andreotta Calò, Roberto Cuoghi and Adelita Husni-Bey.

In previous years the Italian Pavilion has played host to as many as one-hundred and fifty artists; in 2015 that number was down to fourteen, so for the space to be filled with work by only three artists seems comparatively luxurious. Given the size of the space, apportioning it out to three artists has given the opportunity for a development of an immersive installation experience for the viewer.

Imitazione di Cristo, Robert Cuoghi Italian Pavilion, Arsenale, Venice Biennale 2017 (2017)
Photo Roberto Marossi
Arriving from the dockside the first work encountered was Cuoghi's Imitazioni di Cristo (Imitation of Christ). The experience involved walking through a plastic tents akin to a bio-dome on a distant planet, or a mysterious quarantined setup from the X Files. In the semi-darkness, the brightly-lit bubble-tunnel beckoned you in. The smell of musk and mold hung heavily around, the roof and sides of the tunnel claustrophobically close, you walked forward. On either side openings branched out to small pods containing supine bodies in varying degrees of decay. The contrast of the plastic and the alien-brightness to the musty, crumbling forms gave off a sense of unease that only set in further once you exited the tunnel to be confronted by a wall of mutilated and twisted body parts.

I will admit freely that it was so overwhelming I couldn't bring myself to approach the bodies themselves, and instead I asked an invigilator in terrible Italian if the bodies within the plastic tents were real. She replied that they weren't, but I still could not wrap my head around what they actually physically were. With their arms outstretched, the bodies clearly harkened after a visual link with the Christ-figure, and the title of the work spelled out it's link to ideas of devotion originating in the 13thC Latin text: De Imitatione Christi.

Imitazione di Cristo, Robert Cuoghi Italian Pavilion, Arsenale, Venice Biennale 2017 (2017) 
Photo(s) Roberto Marossi

De Imitatione Christi is akin to an instruction manual, encouraging followers of Christianity to truly attempt a physical and spiritual imitation of Christ's life - forsaking desires for worldly goods, becoming humble and spending their time preaching. The process within Imitazioni di Cristo has been designed in order that each cast ends it's journey in a completely different form from any other. The 'bodies' begin their journey through the space as casts, then undergo processes of decay, drying out and further mutilation before being displayed at the opposite end of the hall to that which they started out. This journey can be read as the journey of the image of Christ, beginning with his original life and teachings, and ending with the varying ideas and sects that theological interpretations of Christianity have produced worldwide.

Determined as I was to reach the end of the Arsenale I ploughed onwards into the next hall. Another dark space, another maze-like structure. In contrast to the bright bubbles of the first hall though, this room appeared to comprise simply of bare scaffolding - rigidly geometric forms as far as the eye could see. This was Calò's Senza Titolo: La Fin Del Mondo.

Drawn onwards through the dull utilitarian columns towards a bank of metal steps ahead, I felt like I was backstage - or rather, under a stage - in a strange nowhere place. It could be the end of the world, a dim, mechanical, human-made oblivion. Ducking past yellow-vested invigilators I climbed and was absorbed into the darkness. On turning back, I was faced with the load all those scaffolding columns were supporting: a gigantic, still, black-as-midnight, unearthly mirrored-pool. The light and reflections of the architecture of the building made the view seem both infinite and intimate. After the cacophony of noise and people in the city, the dry heat in the Giardini and the dizzying layout of the group show in the Arsenale - here was peace and stillness. An End. That contrast, the world of the cramped scaffolding to the world of the infinite pool, was to be seen as a twinning of the space, referencing mundus Cereris as described in another of Ernesto de Martino's works: La Fine Del Mondo

Senza Titolo: La Fine del Mondo, Giorgio Anderotta Calò
Italian Pavilion, Arsenale, Venice Biennale 2017 (2017)

Impressive as the installation was, sumptuous and languid, it was all too easy to pull off the cloak of illusion thanks to my fellow visitors and their camera flashes. This was, after all, a very shallow pool of water - even as it seemed infinite, it was most definitely finite. Was it calling us to remember the fragile nature of Venice itself? A glittering, photogenic city built on stilts, carrying a load that is both infinite in it's cultural impact in the world, as well as shallow in it's accommodation of the tourist-trade squeezing out locals and inflating prices. A fragile, place in many ways, prone to destruction - sinking under it's own weight and threatened by rising seawaters.

Further Reading:

In September 2017 I visited the Venice Biennale and discovered many wonderful things. I am looking back at what I saw in a four-part series of short writings. This is the final 'article'.

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