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Editorial – ‘Women Artists at Venice’, Visual Artist’s News Sheet, July/Aug 2017

July 14, 2017

Women Artists at Venice

The 57th Venice Biennale, curated by Christine Macel, proclaims an emphasis on “art and artists, positivity and reinvention”, in contrast to curator Okwui Enwezor’s overtly political stance in 2015. Probing the ritualistic aspects of art-making, Macel’s ‘Viva Arte Viva’ manifests a widespread preoccupation with craft and its traditions – an almost anthropological inquiry that occasionally borders on self-conscious ‘primitivism’.

In a breakdown of the 120 artists participating in the main exhibition, the online platform Artsy noted that only 35% artists are female, 4% are black and 2% are under the age of 30.

Noteworthy presentations by female artists in Venice articulate the body as a site of unresolved struggle. Lani Maestro’s installations in the Philippines pavilion present the phrases “No Pain Like this Body” and “No Body Like this Pain” side-by-side in red neon. In the Dionysian Pavilion, Heidi Bucher’s beautiful iridescent garments resemble cast-off skin, while Eileen Quinan’s photographs scrutinise her 40-year old, post-pregnancy body. Edith Dekyndt’s One Thousand and One Nights (2016) comprises a spotlit carpet of dust, maintained by a labourer who sweeps, causing the particles to rise in an ethereal cloud. These are some of the quieter, more poetic scenarios that sit in contrast to the intoxicating ‘Instagrammable angst’ of Anne Imhof’s award-winning performance installation Faust (2017).

Occupying the New Zealand Pavilion with an immense, scrolling landscape, Lisa Reihana’s ambitious digital projection, In Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015–17), depicts the colonial history of civilisations in the South Pacific. Kenyan artist Phoebe Boswell was special winner of the Future Generation Art Prize with Mutumia (2016), a mesmerising interactive installation of hand-drawn animations. Romanian artist Geta Brătescu presents an impressive body of work across various media, expressing a faith in motherhood as the matrix of all artistic creativity”.

Among the many collateral events, ‘Objection’ places domestic and feminine actions at the heart of political resistance with site-specific installations in a historic Venetian house. UK-based Israeli artist Michal Cole adorns the traditional front room with 25,000 men’s ties: the ultimate symbol of “phallic potency within a patriarchal civilisation”. In the bathroom, her heartrending film, Neverland (2017) depicts a 1950s housewife futilely rowing a boat with a mop. Turkish artist Ekin Onat upholstered dining room furniture with deconstructed military uniforms of the Turkish police and is depicted on film wearing these garments, which, on the female body, resemble fetish-wear.

In the deconsecrated church, Chiesa di Sat Caterina, Rachel McClean represents Scotland with a technicolour fantasy narrative, Spite Your Face (2017). McClean’s compelling film assimilates various aspects of Venetian visual culture, reflecting the shimmering hues and flattened perspective of Early Renaissance art. Channelling the Italian fairy-tale The Adventures of Pinocchio, the pimpled and destitute protagonist is gradually transformed into his bejewelled, power-hungry alter-ego, ‘Pin’. With rotten teeth now upgraded to a diamond grill, his new ‘golden stature’ offers commentary on class structures and social mobility.

Outside the Irish pavilion, the soundscape of Jesse Jones’s Tremble, Tremble (2017) reverberates. Inside the darkened space, a film is projected across two tall screens, depicting the lone figure of a witch (performed by actress Olwen Fouéré) who recounts woeful tales of ancient struggles. A third screen offers Italian translations. The giant figure towers above us, flitting between screens like a supernatural shape-shifter, whispering incantations in an unfamiliar dialect reminiscent of backmasking – a recording technique whereby censored messages are hidden in audio tracks. Systematically illuminated with spotlighting, sculptural artefacts expand this cinematic encounter. Lumpen and claw-like, they levitate above the ground, as if petrified and spellbound. Sheer curtains wisp past periodically like a veil of enchantment, creating a truly immersive experience.

Venice’s national pavilions transcend geography, functioning as patriotic portals and alternative territories of the state. Ireland at Venice is funded through Culture Ireland and other bodies, in a gesture of support towards Irish artists and the wider arts community. This year, the President of Ireland visited the biennale on official duties for the first time. It is infuriating that Northern Ireland, after successful previous presentations at Venice, continues to be denied similar governmental support.

At the launch, Jones discussed the changing political landscape that has produced new waves of resistance. She also spoke about our earliest encounters with our mothers “tethering over our cribs, their giant arms protecting and nurturing us”. We have since learned the heart-breaking news that the 24-year-old British artist Khadija Saye – whose evocative photographic portraits, ‘Dwelling: in this space we breathe’, are exhibited at the Diaspora Pavilion – tragically died with her mother in the devastating fire at Grenfell Towers, London. There are fears that some of the dead may never be identified, because many were undocumented migrants and refugees. It is achingly poignant that, as a young artist on the brink of success who had not yet achieved agency, Saye has become a symbol of the state’s failure to protect the vulnerable. Her work, which explores the migration of traditional Gambian spiritual practices, still hangs in an international exhibition that seeks to interrogate the meaning of ‘diaspora’ as an enduring critical concept.

Featured Image: Khadija Saye, Nak Bejjen (2017) from the series ‘Dwelling: in this space we breathe’; wet collodian tintype


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