2017-05-07 17:42:02
A Venice Biennale About Art, With the Politics Muted

VENICE — In 2015, the Venice Biennale with Okwui Enwezor as curator sometimes felt more like a political manifesto, with readings from Marx’s “Das Kapital” and work that touched on climate change, colonialism and the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. The curator of this year’s Biennale, Christine Macel, had a different vision: to put artists and artistic practice at the center.

For Ms. Macel, the chief curator of the Pompidou Center in Paris, the 57th Biennale, which opens this week, is “an exclamation, a passionate outcry for art and the state of the artist.” She added that it is “a Biennale designed with artists, by artists and for artists.”

But in times like these — after “Brexit” and the election of President Donald J. Trump, with the rise of populism and return of nationalism and with intense political fervor and uncertainty in Europe and beyond — can a Biennale curator turn away from politics and focus on art for art’s sake?

When I asked her that last week, Ms. Macel effectively said yes because of the way she believes art operates. “I’m very interested in politics,” she said, walking through the Biennale gardens here. “But not all art should be about politics. It’s only one dimension.”

Workers were installing art nearby. A bird trilled and Ms. Macel paused to listen, then pointed in its direction. “To me, art is linked with all dimensions of life,” she said. We strolled toward the water, where hulking cranes rose in the background. “People think art will save the world,” she continued. “I don’t think art will save the world, but it’s saved a lot of lives.”

Ms. Macel, 48, is probably the most important woman whom you’ve never heard of in the European art world. Since 2000, she has helped oversee contemporary art acquisitions for the Pompidou. She is the fourth woman in the Biennale’s 122-year history to be curator of the international exhibition. One of the most prestigious shows in the world, the event drew 500,000 visitors in 2015.

Ms. Macel calls her show “Viva Arte Viva,” and it extends from the former Italian pavilion through the Arsenale, a cavernous space where ships were once built, and into the surrounding gardens. (She does not oversee the work in the national pavilions, of which there are 86 this year; curators are chosen by each country.)

“Viva Arte Viva” begins with a methodological question: What does it mean to be an artist today? It showcases 120 artists, 103 of whom are participating in the Biennale for the first time. Ms. Macel chose to give the Biennale’s Golden Lion for lifetime achievement to the pioneering feminist performance artist Carolee Schneemann, whose work — including her bacchanalian 1964 video, “Meat Joy” — pushes the boundary between dance and visual art. “I wanted to honor someone who’s changed the definition of artist,” Ms. Macel said.

“There’s a lot of people there I don’t know; it’s a good thing,” said Robert Storr, a curator and former director of the Yale School of Art who was curator of the 2007 Venice Biennale. One of the challenges of the job, he said, was to “set a tone without necessarily having a theme,” he said.

Ms. Macel’s Biennale comes in an intense year for the art world, after the Whitney Biennial, caught up in debates around race, and Documenta, which this year is divided for the first time between Athens and its native Kassel, Germany.

The Biennale’s national pavilions are expected to generate debate about the very idea of national pavilions. (Mark Bradford is featured in the United States pavilion, with an installation that questions how to represent a country he feels no longer represents him.)

Like all Venice Biennale curators, Ms. Macel has had to work with limited time and funds. The budget for her international exhibition is 13 million euros (about $14.2 million), of which she had to help raise 10 percent.

Ms. Macel, who was raised in and around Paris by an architect father and history-teacher mother, said a formative experience came at age 8. That’s when her parents took her to the inauguration of the institution where she would later come to work, the Pompidou Center, with its once-radical, inside-out, high-tech architecture by Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Gianfranco Franchini.

In the often-insular French art world, she is known for traveling — especially to Eastern Europe and the Middle East — to find artists to introduce to French audiences. She has also helped rediscover older artists and championed some of France’s best-known ones, such as Philippe Parreno and Fabrice Hyber.

When Ms. Macel was curator of the French pavilion of the 2013 Venice Biennale, she chose a non-French artist: the Albanian-born, Berlin-based Anri Sala, and his “Ravel Ravel Unravel” video work in which two pianists play Ravel’s “Piano Concerto for the Left Hand,” which the composer composed for a musician who had lost a hand in World War I.

“Ravel Ravel Unravel” is a telling window into Ms. Macel’s taste and thinking — philosophical, poetic, aesthetically accomplished, but with a subtle undertone of politics, in a work that addresses the wartime enmity between France and Germany. (Mr. Sala also has a work in “Viva Arte Viva.”)

That year’s French pavilion caught the attention of Paolo Baratta, the president of the Venice Biennale, as did some of Ms. Macel’s other exhibits, including “Danser Sa Vie,” her 2011 show at the Pompidou about dance and visual art. “It showed that even in a state institution like the Pompidou, a fresh creature may develop,” Mr. Baratta said.

In choosing Mr. Enwezor for 2015, Mr. Baratta had wanted a curator for what he called an “age of anxiety.” This year, he said the pendulum had swung a bit, and he wanted a curator with a different point of view.

Ms. Macel has organized “Viva Arte Viva” into nine sections, which she calls pavilions. “The Pavilion of Joys and Fears” explores “new feelings of alienation due to forced migrations or mass surveillance,” she writes in her introduction.

Her Biennale may touch on timely themes, but in a more oblique way. “At a time of global disorder,” she writes, “the role, the voice and the responsibility of the artist are more crucial than ever before within the framework of contemporary debates.”

The “Pavilion of Artists and Books” explores artistic practice removed from the art-market context. (The Biennale is an exhibition, not an art fair, although it draws its shares of gallerists who sometimes host parties on yachts.) In this section, Olafur Eliasson created an installation that operates like a workshop, in which migrants to Venice will assemble lamps.

Ms. Macel has had the Biennale website feature videos of each artist at work, so visitors can acquaint themselves from afar. In a parallel project, she asked the artists to provide a few books that inspired them. “As a kind of autobiography,” she said.

Back in the Biennale gardens, Ms. Macel stopped to check on Attila Csorgo, a Hungarian-born artist whose work she had chosen as the concluding work in “Viva Arte Viva”: a small machine that would project an image of an infinity sign onto a screen. She said wanted the show to end on a poetic, even spiritual note.

Earlier, I had asked her what she hoped people would take away from her Biennale. “For me, the worst thing would be indifference,” she said.