Right in the middle of the Central Pavilion is Chicago-based artist McArthur Binion’s suite of grid paintings of repeated horizontal and vertical striped squares. He has used copies of his birth certificate as well as an old address book to form the basic layers, thereby ‘including’ fellow artists in his work and abstracting his personal history. In the adjacent room, Agnieszka Polska’s 2009 film Sensitisation to Colour pays homage to forgotten Polish artist Włodzimierz Borowski. Polska likes to delve into histories and turn them into films in which objects obtain an erotic appeal. The difference between documentary and fiction is blurred in her work. Finding such pieces removes the weight of criticism regarding Macel’s way of presenting things, and the some-times-forced trajectory through trans-pavilions labelled with key words such as ‘tradition’, the ‘Dionysian’, or ‘time’. Here she combines different generations of artists with a whole range of attitudes and origins. At the Arensale, works by Franz Erhard Walther “need completion”, as the artist says while touching pieces of fabric. The visitor is allowed to step into these vertical paintings, causing them to lose their somewhat static, formal appearance. Walther received the Golden Lion for best artist and was happy that a young generation is embracing his work, which as early as the 1960s blurred the distinction between sculpture and painting.

“If we, as white capitalists, would not have killed all rites – I mean the forms of symbolic and sacred practices – we would not have a biennale full works looking for authenticity”, remarks French artist Pauline Curnier Jardin when we meet at the Arsenale. One can indeed wonder about the many references to faraway traditions, reminiscent of the early years of the 20th century when artists like Picasso or Gauguin were looking for authenticity in other cultures. In 2017, though, a lot of artists from these ‘other cultures’ are actually making their own work. Or, as in the case of Curnier Jardin, artists are inventing mythologies or stories of origin themselves, rather than looking for them elsewhere. Her work Grotta Profunda, Approfondita leads the visitor into a Platonic cave where an all-seeing eye walks round and reflects on the big questions of life and creation: What if nature made art, made paintings...? says a voice. “I invent mythologies and stories about origins because I think my mission is to invent things, to invent forms of catharsis and fantasy, and then to invent origins that are other than ours...”, states the artist.

Love Story, 2016 / Candice Breitz Video installation. South African Pavilion
In Francis Upritchard’s works, tradition seems invented as much as remembered. Her sculpted human figures are painted in colourful combinations and are both beautiful and sinister. One has to guess where these creatures and their indigenous appearance actually come from. Maybe they’re from New Zealand, where the artists was born, or maybe she assembled them from observations made in London, where she currently lives, or maybe they are just from her imagination.

Apart from the main exhibition, there are of course the national pavilions situated in the Giardini and throughout the city. In the Brazilian Pavilion, Cinthia Marcelle has created an interior that transmits a feeling of instability. She made a second, inclining floor formed out of welded gratings. Several sculptural and painterly elements have been added and contribute to the feeling of being out of balance. A video shows a scene with men climbing off a roof, carrying mattresses. They seem to want to escape, or are they looking for shelter? They don’t actually manage to get away. In her art, Marcelle finds it possible to create a zone “between imprisonment and freedom”, as described in the video. A similar feeling of being in-between can be gathered in Mark Bradford’s U.S. Pavilion. In this case, an installation of abstract, collaged paintings functions as the passage from an oppressive situation to a more hopeful future scenario.

Teatro Orbis, 2017. Curator: Semyon Mikhaelovsky / Russian Pavilion Photo: Peter-Jan Scherpereel
In the Belgian Pavilion, the visitor encounters the instability of perception, as photographer Dirk Braeckman tests our eyes. What seems to be a photograph of an empty wall with some formal line-play has more to offer when you look closer: the faint traces of a painting containing many figures appears. Paradoxically, motifs are hidden within Braeckman’s black and white photographs. With his shape-shifting eye, he presents the world. Drops of water from a wave seem to become solid matter; a carpet on the floor creates the entrance to an interior that is further concealed.

In the South African Pavilion, Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore are on screen performing text fragments collected from refugees, improvising and introducing elements of alienation in their act. In the neighbouring room, one can view the full interviews with the refugees – the source material. Artist Candice Breitz apparently did not want to choose between documentary and fiction while touching on sensitive political actuality. Yet, the best works in the biennale step into fiction with full conviction. A particularly ingenious example is to be found in a collateral event at the Prada Foundation, where Alexander Kluge, Anna Viebrock, and Thomas Demand have created a show that merges their respective works in the mediums of film, photography, and set design, into one big installation spanning three floors of an old palazzo.

Various works, 2017 / Francis Upritchard The Pavilion of Traditions / Arsenale Photo: Peter-Jan Scherpereel
Just about virtues and vices in general, 2017 / Erwin Wurm Austrian Pavilion / Photo: Siegrid Demyttenaere
Walking through The Ship is Leaking. The Captain Lied, the visitor is constantly confronted with the question of which reality s/he has entered: on a boat, in a cinema, in a theatre, or elsewhere. There is the feeling that art gains its power in a fruitful friction with reality. Another highlight in the sidelines is the Philip Guston show at the Gallerie dell’Accademia, bringing together some later works by the American painter, with a focus on his relationship with poets. “In my end is my beginning”, one can read on the wall, along with: “We must be still – and still moving / Into another intensity”.

This article appeared in DAM63. Order your personal copy.
Faust, 2017 / Anne Imhof / German Pavilion Golden Lion winner - Best National Pavilion Photo: Siegrid Demyttenaere
folly, 2017 / Phyllida Barlow British Pavilion. Photo: Peter-Jan Scherpereel
Tomorrow is Another Day, 2017 / Mark Bradford American Pavilion / Photo: Peter-Jan Scherpereel
Sensitisation to Colour, 2009 Agnieszka Polska. Photo: Siegrid Demyttenaere
Suite of paintings, 2014-16 / McArthur Binion / Giardini Photo: Peter-Jan Scherpereel
Book Painting No. 13 (Lolita), 2015 / Liu Ye Photo: Siegrid Demyttenaere
Franz Erhard Walther / Arsenale Golden Lion winner - Best Artist Photo: Jurriaan Benschop
Backyard, 2014 Thomas Demand
The Aalto Natives, 2017, Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen Finnish Pavilion. Photo: Siegrid Demyttenaere
Turned Upside Down, It’s a Forest, 2017 Takahira Iwasaki / Japanese Pavilion Photo: Peter-Jan Scherpereel
Stand quiet and look out over the Mediterranean Sea, 2017. Erwin Wurm / Au rian Pavilion Photo: Peter-Jan Scherpereel
Chão de caça (Hunting Ground), 2017 / Cinthia Marcelle Site-specific installation / Brazilian Pavilion
Z.Z.-T.T., 2017 Dirk Braeckman Belgian Pavilion