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Much ado about nothing

Stories from the 2017 Venice Biennale, because that’s what art does, it makes stories of everyday objects and events that otherwise escape our notice


Text and images by AA Patawaran             

  • Four Phases of the Sun, assemblage of books, wires, plaster, paint on canvas on hardboard by Zambia-born UK artist John Latham

  • Dark star: no. 1 of 11 Assemblage of plaster, fragments of books, wire mesh, spray paint by Zambia-born UK artist John Latham

  • Collection de Chaussures, installation by Monaco-born French artist Michel Blazy

  • Collection de Chaussures, installation by Monaco-born French artist Michel Blazy

  • The Canadian Pavilion, which artist Geoffrey Farmer left in ruins, the roof and some walls taken off, while a high-plumed fountain jets into the air, soaking everything, pouring through an old grandfather clock and bursting through the walls

  • Blocked Content from the Russian Pavilion featuring social media ‘sinners’—spammers, virus retailers, and fake-celebrities—incarcerated in Dante’s 9th Circle of Hell, installation by the Recycled Group

  • Translated Vase_Nine Dragons in Wonderland by Korean artist Yee Sookyung;

  • Garden from the Russian Pavilion, film by Sasha Pirogova

  • Scene Change from the Russian Pavilion, installation by Grisha Bruskin

  • Proper Time from the Korean Pavilion, installation by Lee Wan

  • Swan Song from the Czech Pavilion, installation by Jana Želibská

  • Rosary, made up of dozens of crying baby heads, by Austin Camilleri for the Maltese Pavilion

  • A glimpse through the grimy, rain-soaked window of Living Dog Among Dead Lions at the Georgian Pavilion, installation by Vajiko Chachkhiani

    Living Dog Among Dead Lions

    Rain has colonized a wooden hut. It leaks through myriad holes in the roof. It cascades down the walls, even the glass surfaces of framed pictures. It gathers on the counters, on the tables, on the chairs and flows in streams to the floors. It seeps through the beddings and the pillows. It collects in the basins that no doubt trace back to a feeble attempt to contain the torrential invasion, but it spills over, determined to occupy every nook and cranny of the house that is now left completely uninhabitable, having been turned into an inferno whose fire is wet and cold, bitter and biting and bone-chilling, equally unbearable, maybe even more torturous because, unlike fire, it doesn’t burn you to death, only drowns you in the depths of misery.

    Newsreel 63—The Train of Shadows

    A woman stands on a platform, watching a passing train, each lit window a glimpse into the life she longs to live. One window shows a couple in the intimacy of a dance, another shows a table elaborately set for two, yet another shows a horse neighing while being groomed by the stablekeeper, still another shows a mother tenderly sending her child off to sleep beneath sumptuous sheets. Or is that last window a picture of your imaginings, in direct contrast to and an escape from visions of refugees now traveling via the once-famous Belgrade-Ljubljana train line “not in couchettes but between the train’s wheels”? The experience is enriched as in it you drift into the entire history of trains, with the appearances of the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, Harold Lloyd, and Charlie Chaplin. But at the end of the train, a man offers her a glass of sparkling wine and tells her, as she politely declines, “Wrong way. You should be in looking out, instead of out looking in.”

    Scene Change

    And there is the multitude, an army of hearts beating, a bevy of brains thinking, a nation of souls longing, but together they form a mass for workers. Faceless, nameless, featureless, their individuality is camouflaged in the monotone, a sea of white figures marching together not so much in the spirit of oneness as under the curse of homogeneity, herded by norms, controlled by the law, shaped and polished according to societal standards of appropriate behavior. Where are we in the crowd? Where are we in this great, big, ghostly world of more than a billion tiny workers indistinguishable from one another? Where are we in this community of nations that is getting smaller and smaller and more and more the same?

    Proper Time

    Over 600 clocks mounted on the walls of a room, each clock the same as the others, except for the names, birth dates, nationalities, and occupations engraved on their faces and except for the rate by which the hands on the clocks move, the rate determined by the amount of time the person whose name is engraved on the clock must work in order to afford a meal. One of the clocks belongs to Vanessa, born in 1987, Filipino, and an HR executive in the Philippines.

    One Thousand and One Nights

    A square of light in the darkness of a room, a square of light issued by an overhead spotlight. Around it, half in shadows, part-silhouette, a young man armed with a broom brushes a thick carpet of dust into the edges of light, where it forms clouds of iridescent particles floating in space, a million minute portions of matter hovering in the air, a presence, albeit fleeting and ephemeral, conjured out of nothingness.


    A group of young people walk aimlessly on a mound of gravel, the gravel crunching under their feet, each of their movement excruciatingly slow, painstakingly deliberate, as if they were unsure they could articulate their limbs, like a flower unfurling its petals in slow motion. They walk round and round, in no particular direction, their eyes blank, their faces devoid of any expression, devoid of intention. In their slow, purposeless movement lies the truth of how estranged modern life has become from thoughtfulness as well as from the stillness of a pause and the mindfulness of actions.

    Swan Song

    Against a monumental projection of walls and waves and ripples and swells of churning, heaving seawater, luminous swans are perched on islets made of dock lines. There is such great inconsistency between the tranquility of the swans and the turmoil of the water that in this tale peace co-exists with violence as does sea change with what lasts, as does eternity with impermanence.

    Collection De Chaussures

    Walk into a shoe store after the end of the world, like after a nuclear disaster, and here is what you find—a retail fixture full of sneakers that in a dead world are alive with weed, creeping with mosses, sprouting with creepers, green with foliage. Here is how “everyday objects metamorphose,” if we let them be—They come alive. Here is a snippet of earth that needs no humans, a planet that thrives in the absence of human intervention. Here is a bold statement about the supremacy of the human species in a world that its very presence has threatened.

    Nota Bene: The main exposition of the Venice Biennale 2017, the 57th edition of La Biennale di Venezia is jubilantly called “Viva Art Viva,” curated by the chief curator of the Centre Pompidou in Paris Christine Macel. In a nutshell, it is “inspired by humanism,” or the idea of the individual experience and its place in the unfolding of world events. Adding to the almost 90 national pavilions or other national representations distributed in the historical center of Venice, particularly Arsenale and Giardini, Macel’s international exhibition features works by 120 artists from about 50 countries, a good number of whom have not exhibited in the Biennale before. The most dominant themes of this year’s Biennale are hinged on political breakdown, migration and isolation, inequality and injustice, and climate change.

    The stories I gathered on these pages are drawn from the pavilions and presentations that left an impression on me. It so happened, however, that many of these stories are a bit apocalyptic in theme. I suspect it has something to do with my personal liking for disaster-driven films and literature, but it is, I believe, also because, as many of these artists seem to contemplate on, ours, indeed, is a world on the brink of political, economic, and social collapse.

    Here is more information on the stories:

    Living Dog Among Dead Lions Georgian Pavilion, installation by Vajiko Chachkhiani

    Newsreel 63—The Train of Shadows Slovenian Pavilion, film by Nika Autor

    Scene Change Russian Pavilion, installation by Grisha Bruskin

    Proper Time Korean Pavilion, installation by Lee Wan

    One Thousand and One Nights Performance art and installation by Belgian artist Edith Dekyndt

    Garden Russian Pavilion, film by Sasha Pirogova

    Swan Song Czech Pavilion, film and installation by Jana Želibská

    Collection de Chaussures Installation by Monaco-born French artist Michel Blazy

    The Venice Biennale 2017, which opened on May 13, runs until Nov. 26.

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