Art Papers  

more from the May/June 2013 issue:

Mike Kelley's
Mobile Homestead:
a re-envisioning of space in public sculpture

by Rana Edgar

Because the Night:
Curating One-Off Nocturnal Events

by Helena Reckitt

Letter From
the Guest Editor:
Erin Dziedzic

Palace of Propositions:
Beyond the boundaries of space and time–
Massimiliano Gioni's dual-venue exhibition
The Encyclopedic Palace
at the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013

Text / Belinda Grace Gardner

The Italian American artist Marino Auriti (1891–1980) conceived of Il Enciclopedico Palazzo del Mondo (The Encyclopedic Palace of the World), a museum of mankind's greatest achievements in all fields of art, technology, and science, after his retirement as an auto mechanic. The planned 140-story mega-skyscraper, soaring up to the staggering height of 2,300 feet, was designated to be located on the Mall in Washington, DC. Auriti's palace, however, was never built. After having been shelved for decades, the model of the building finally found recognition as a unique utopian vision in the collection of the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Auriti's Palace will serve as a conceptual blueprint for Massimiliano Gioni's core exhibition, Il Palazzo Enciclopedico / The Encyclopedic Palace, at this year's 55th Venice Biennale (June 1–November 24, 2013). Gioni (b. 1973, Busto Arsizio, Italy) is based in New York and is an art critic and curator. He is associate director and director of exhibitions at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and has already realized a number of major exhibitions and biennials. He also has a reputation for assuming a poetic, often explicitly literary stance in his presentations of contemporary art.

Marino Auriti, in situ view of the artist with The Encyclopedic Palace of the World, c. 1950s, wood, plastic, glass, metal, hair combs, model-kit parts, dimensions unknown (photographer unidentified; collection of the American Folk Art Museum, New York; courtesy of Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte la Biennale di Venezia)

In his latest endeavor as the Venice Biennale's youngest artistic director thus far, Gioni intends to remain true to his fondness for collapsing the boundaries between artworks and artifacts, and between cultural contexts, formal genres, and historical eras. He previously employed this method as curator of the 8th Gwangju Biennale in 2010, which centered on the epic poem Maninbo (10,000 Lives), written by the South Korean author and pro-democracy activist Ko Un after his release from imprisonment. As a method of survival, the poet envisaged all the people who were important to him in his life. Addressing the interrelationships between images and the crucial ways we engage with them, Gioni's Gwangju Biennale featured works of art alongside masks, idols, dolls, figures, and other artifacts.

For his International Art Exhibition at the 55th Venice Biennale, spanning the two venues of the Central Pavilion in the Giardini and the spaces of the Arsenale, Gioni plans to draw upon the cross-cultural notions and interdisciplinary dynamics represented by the baroque concept of the curio cabinet or Wunderkammer (chamber of wonders). In fashion in Europe between 1600 and 1800, the Wunderkammer transcended the borders of time, space, and aesthetic categorization, representing a "theater of the world" wherein the various spheres of nature and culture converged in a staged drama of creation. Strikingly, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the artistic director of last year's documenta (13) in Kassel, Germany, also embraced the Wunderkammer concept for giving shape to her thought processes in the idiosyncratic epicenter of her exhibition referred to as the "brain."

Carl Gustav Jung, The Red Book (page 655), 19151959, paper, ink, tempera, gold paint, red leather binding, 40 x 31 x 10 cm (© 2009 Foundation of the Works of C.G. Jung, Zuürich; first published by W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2009)

Next to Auriti's utopian model of human knowledge, in itself a kind of world-spanning Wunderkammer, one of Gioni's other starting points is The Red Book of Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961), an illustrated and calligraphically scripted book in the fashion of medieval illuminated manuscripts. Jung's Red Book will be the metaphorical heart of the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, where the individual national pavilions will be located. Historically, the Giardini presented the now-outdated notion of assembling the world's most significant art for public appraisal. This practice has become increasingly obsolete, with the German and French pavilions, for example, not only inviting artists from other countries as their representatives, but also swapping their spaces this year. As Gioni remarked in a phone conversation with the author in April 2013, naming his show The Encyclopedic Palace was also a self-ironic reference to the absurdity of past attempts to gather "all the world's art in one place" in the framework of the Venice Biennale.

Rudolf Steiner, Drawings on a Blackboard, 1923, chalk on paper, 102 x 153 x 3.8 cm (courtesy of the Rudolf Steiner Archive, Dornach, Switzerland)

In the Central Pavilion, Gioni will bring together 40 of the approximately 160 artists contributing to his dual-venue exhibition, organizing their works and projects as dialogic encounters rather than in the monographic style typical of many previous shows hosted there to date. He is including figures whose work is located at the fringes or distinctly outside mainstream art practice: for example, Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), the cultural philosopher, architect, and founder of anthroposophy; and the French art brut painter Augustin Lesage (1876–1954), who, as the story goes, was induced by the voices of mystical spirits to create art. Gioni's focus will be on art forms that evade clear-cut definitions while broadening the terrain of art to include manifestations of the visionary, the esoteric, the spiritual, the fantastic, and the subconscious across the media and the ages. The Red Book, which will be on display in a glass case next to facsimiles of its individual pages, brings to mind Jung's theories on archetypes and synchronicity, providing a rich, atmospheric underpinning to this presentation that also is to pay homage to the book as a form of art, or, in Gioni's words, an "endangered species." It will set the stage for embarking on journeys into the inner worlds of the mind that will be induced not only by the language of images but also by the pictorial power of words.

This post-surreal, associative approach—conflating various levels of reality, including the realm of dreams and the unconscious—will be continued in the Arsenale, the centuries-old shipyard complex once instrumental in making Venice a superior naval and trade port of Europe. In the Arsenale, Gioni's exhibition will proceed from the natural to the technical and artificial, and from the intuitive spheres of the fantastic to the conceptual fields of invention (including Auriti's model), to the virtual domain of our digital era. The latter is exemplified by the Italian video and film artist Yuri Ancarini (b. 1972), who is exploring realities "beyond the screen" in his recent work. Portraits by Nigerian photographer J.D. Okhai Ojeikere (b. 1930), concerning the complexities of hair-braiding as art in the artist's home country, will be juxtaposed with a labyrinth of drawings on paper and bed sheets composed by the New York conceptual artist Matt Mullican (b. 1951). The heroine of role-appropriation, Cindy Sherman (b. 1954), is putting together an extensive curio cabinet of her own—with masks, dolls, artworks, and artifacts produced by more than 30 artists—that addresses representations of the body. Danh Vo (b. 1975), known for his works that blur boundaries between public and private space, is relocating an entire church from his native Vietnam to Venice, whereas the exuberant, trashy theatrics of the German performance and installation artist John Bock (b. 1965) will be among the more performative works extending the exhibition into the outside area of the small park adjoining the Arsenale.

J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere, Aja Nloso Family, 1980, gelatin silver print, 60 x 50 cm
(© J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere; courtesy of André Magnin (MAGNIN-A), Paris)

The interflow and overflow of impressions and experiences is intended to trigger feelings of losing one's bearings while expanding a viewer's horizons. Yet Gioni is intent on providing a reduced, museum-like ambience to allow the abundance of works gathered in the spaces, including many expansive installations or sculptural pieces, to affect the space without too great a visual distraction. The art itself will be given ample scope, to further enhance viewers' feelings of being unable ever to fully perceive the exhibition in its entirety. Progressing "deeper and deeper" into the former "factory of the marvelous," as Gioni describes the historical site, "you will see an image wherever you turn." His hope is that "the show will go around the viewer," as opposed to the viewer finding his or her way around the show, and "will open up the spectrum of the 20th century." It remains to be seen just how Gioni plans to develop this concept in the space, and with such an expansive artist list.

John Bock, performance view of Unzone/Eierloch, 2012
(© John Bock; courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London)

Gioni likens the experience he wishes to evoke in both venues of The Encyclopedic Palace to Jung's "dialectics between the images in our heart and the world around us," as addressed in the phantasmagorical Red Book. In this sense, Gioni claims, the exhibition(s) may serve as "a reflection on the way we use images," both in the spaces of our minds and in the external sphere. In adopting the historical concept of the Wunderkammer to create a transnational, transtemporal, and also transmedial "other space" in Michel Foucault's sense, he is also investigating issues of national identity, the globalization of the various worlds through which we are passing today, and the interrelationships informing them. By composing The Encyclopedic Palace as an associative, open-ended "theater of the world," Gioni is inviting us to look to the inside after taking in what surrounds us, and, as when reading a book, "to see with our eyes closed."

Belinda Grace Gardner, M.A., studied literature and linguistics in Göttingen, Germany, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She currently lives in Hamburg, Germany, and has published extensively as an arts editor and critic. Gardner also works as an independent curator and lecturer of art theory, currently at the University of Fine Arts, Hamburg, and the Leuphana University Lüneburg.

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