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Venice conveys the signs of the times
ZAI Kuning is as much an artist as he is a shaman. At the opening of the Singapore Pavilion in the Venice Biennale last week, he banged on the janggu (Korean drum) while his team members carried out a traditional procession to launch his 17-metre Phinisi ship. It involved spinning rocks and circling the vessel three times.
Zai, 52, said he was channelling a spirit of Dapunta Hyang, the 7th century ruler of South-east Asia, to partake in the blessing ceremony. The historical figure was responsible for the spread of Buddhism in the region. However, little is known of Dapunta Hyang today, prompting Zai to focus his decades-long research on the forgotten maharaja.
Zai is not alone in his interest in forgotten histories, rituals and traditions. As it turned out, several Venice Biennale artists have also turned to these themes - an antidote perhaps for these anxious, uncertain times.
The all-important Central Exhibition, which is not tied to any national pavilion, features the Pavilion of Traditions and the Pavilion of Shamans. Curator Christine Macel explains: "Many artists subscribe to the definition of the artist as a 'shaman', and there are also those who become 'missionaries', as per Marcel Duchamp's definition, stirred by an internal vision."
Shaman-like artists in the Central Exhibition include Ernesto Neto with his gigantic cupixawa, a spiderweb-like tent where visitors are encouraged to come together and socialise as the Huni Kuin Indians do.
Next to Neto's work was Rina Banerjee's exotic totem-like assemblages made of feathers, cowry shells, ceramic balls, silk and other materials. These works and others display a fascination for ritualistic traditions and indigenous art forms.
Host country Italy devoted a huge space to Roberto Cuoghi's massive installation titled Imitation of Christ. It features dozens of Christ-like sculptures hung on the cross, assembled in labs or lying on beds in futuristic rooms - a statement on man's need to find meaning through spirituality despite the progress of science.
The Italian Pavilion's other artist, Adelita Husni-Bey, filmed herself conducting a tarot card-reading session with young people who were asked about their relationship to their homeland.
At the China Pavilion, superstar artist-curator Qiu Zhijie assembled four artists whose practices reflect Chinese art and culture over the course of 5,000 years. From ink painting to weaving to shadow puppetry, the practices of Tang Nannan, Wu Jian'an, Wang Tianwen and Yao Huifen illuminate the collective cross-pollination of various Chinese art forms over centuries.
Like the Singapore Pavilion, the China Pavilion emphasises the need to remember the past.
Au courant themes
On the flip side, other national pavilions choose to tackle au courant issues head-on. Global migration, political anxiety, ecological destruction and post-colonial issues are common threads running through the Biennale.
Germany, which nabbed the Golden Lion for Best National Participation, had the most contemporary theme of them all. Its artist Anne Imhof created a hip and radical performance piece that taps into the anxieties of our time. Bored-looking millennials in T-shirts, hoodies and jeans move about like zombies, some trapped beneath a glass floor through which visitors can see them. Against a soundtrack that is sometimes harsh, sometimes romantic, the players interact with each other or remain alone.
Disparate as they may seem, the pieces fit to convey power dynamics, modern ennui and the impact of the all-seeing social media on our privacy, self-esteem and personal identity. With queues longer than any other at the Biennale, it was small wonder when the German Pavilion and Imhof were later announced winners.
Venice Biennale 2017 would not be complete without artists reflecting on the refugee crisis. And Tracy Moffatt of the Australian Pavilion conveyed these issues most eloquently through her video and photography works. One particularly effective video titled Vigil splices images of desperate asylum-seekers with Hollywood film stills of famous white actresses such as Elizabeth Taylor, Kathleen Turner and Julie Christie peering through their windows and looking alarmed. Unsurprisingly, the Australian Pavilion drew long queues.
Other standout pavilions include the Russian Pavilion where artist Grisha Bruskin's sprawling multimedia installation creates a picture of a world under constant surveillance. The Taiwan Pavilion features the oeuvre of groundbreaking performance artist Tehching Hsieh.
The US Pavilion has abstractionist Mark Bradford addressing issues of violence and discrimination against black and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) folk. And the Hong Kong Pavilion stars Samson Young poking fun at the apparent futility of 1980s "charity singles" such as We Are The World and Do They Know It's Christmas?
Outside the Biennale, there are also a number of much talked-about shows. The one that got the most hype before the Biennale opened is Damien Hirst's Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, which even The New York Times couldn't resist dubbing "the most talked-about art show on earth".
Hirst had initially claimed he'd sunk £50,000 (S$90,190) to finance an underwater expedition to salvage the priceless artefacts of an ancient shipwreck from the Indian Ocean. But anyone walking into the exhibition would quickly realise the entire show at Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi is one giant hoax. The so-called treasures include a Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Transformer sculptures covered in coral.
Astonishingly, when placed on pedestals and professionally-lit like museum pieces, these kitschy works take on a patina of reverence they don't actually deserve. Hirst is clearly questioning the value of art and antiquities, a question he happily turns on himself by putting everything in the exhibition up for sale. The largest sculptures are tagged at more than US$5 million.
Another must-see show is Intuition at the Palazzo Fortuny where art-lovers queued for hours to get into. Sprawled over four floors, this gorgeously curated and designed exhibition looks at the role of intuition in the creation of art. One finds exquisite works by Jean Michel Basquiat, Vassily Kandinsky, Girgio de Chirico, Kazuo Shiraga and others juxtaposed with ancient objects and artefacts. Taken together, they illuminate the importance of dreams, telepathy, intuition, magic and fantasy in the making of art.
Zai's own Phinisi ship would not look out of place here.
- The Venice Biennale runs till Nov 26 in Venice, Italy