It may be the 55th International Venice Art Biennale, but the first exhibit to greet visitors in the vast halls of the Arsenale is a giant Neoclassical-style model of Il Palazzo Enciclopedico, on loan from the American Folk Museum, which was designed to occupy more than sixteen city blocks in Washington D.C. and would have been the tallest building in the world. Consisting of a 136-story tower surrounded by Doric columned arcades, this flight of fantasy, which resembles Moscow’s Lomonosov University, is the work of self taught Italian-American artist Marino Auriti. In 1955, Auriti actually filed a patent with the U.S. patent office for his museum, which was intended to house all worldly knowledge.
In addition to being an exhibit, the Il Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace) is also the inspiration and the title for this year’s Biennale, which was curated by New York City’s New Museum Associate Director Massimiliano Gioni. It is fitting that the Encyclopedic Palace, with its classical references, is the theme of a show that Gioni has said is an “exhibition about the desire to see and know everything.” But this is not a show about artists as geniuses or even as mediums. Instead, as Gioni has stated, the intention of this year’s biennale is to “release art from the prison of its supposed autonomy, and to remind us of its capacity to express a vision of the world.” As such, this exhibition shares certain concerns with Common Ground, the 2012 Architecture Biennale. David Chipperfield, curator of that show, said it was intended to “illustrate common and shared ideas that form the basis of an architectural culture,” instead of showcasing the work of superstar architects.
In this year’s Art Biennale, the work of art stars such as Walter De Maria and Richard Serra share the stage with a host of outsider artists, including unknowns whose work was found in places like junk shops. There is also anonymous work, including ecstatic gift drawings with trees, religious inscriptions from Shaker communities, and drawings of shamans from the Solomon Islands.
A strong curatorial structure has been imposed on what would otherwise be a riot of imagery. The Arsenale—which was redesigned for the exhibition in collaboration with New York City architect Annabelle Selldorf—is a linear journey that loosely progresses from galleries that showcase manmade and natural forms, to ones that feature mechanical and digital forms of representation, such as video art. According to Gioni, this organizing principal is meant reference the Wunderkammern—or cabinets of curiosities—which were popular in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The art on display in the Il Palazzo Enciclopedico exhibition includes a number of architecturally inspired works. One is the frame of a 200-year-old Catholic church that was imported from Vietnam by Danish-Vietnamese artist Danh Vo. The small church, with its rough-hewn wood and stone columns, is intended as a symbol of the melding of European and Vietnamese architectural forms during the era of colonization. Some of the architecture-oriented pieces feature surrealist visions, including the work of Achilles Rizzoli, an architectural draftsman who in his spare time drew architectural representations of people, such as Mother Symbolically Represented/The Kathedral.
One of the largest exhibits is a table near the entrance of the Biennale’s Central Pavilion occupied by 387 model-train-set-style replicas of various buildings, including farmhouses, bank buildings, and single-family homes. Peter Fritz, an Austrian insurance clerk, made these intricately crafted miniatures from cardboard matchboxes, wallpaper, and magazine pages during the 1950s and 60s. Later, in the early 1990s, artist Oliver Croy discovered the models at a junk shop and, together with architecture critic Oliver Elser, created this display for the biennale.
Many of the national pavilions in the Biennale also include mediations on the built environment. One of the most striking is the actual pavilion for Georgia’s first exhibit at the Biennale, called Kamikaze Loggia. This rickety structure was designed by a group of Georgian artists to be representative of the country’s so-called “Kamikaze” architecture, which proliferated in the post-Soviet era.
The artist Lara Almarcegui, known for her work on urban wastelands and blighted areas, has filled rooms in the Spanish Pavilion with large mounds of rubble. One pile consists of the same quantity and types of materials as were used in the construction of the pavilion: bricks, tiles, and glass. Another pile calls attention to the materials used in the creation of an artificial island in the Venice Lagoon that was made from the discharges of the Murano glass industry.
Urban wastelands received a surprising amount of attention this year. A decrepit Athens is the backdrop for History Zero, a film by Stefanos Tsivopoulos at the Greek Pavilion, which shows isolated forlorn characters searching for things of value in a bleak decaying cityscape. One is an African immigrant who is a scrap metal collector, and another is an artist in search of scrap material for his sculptures.
Certain elements from the Greek Pavilion’s exhibition could fit into Intercourses, an installation in the Danish Pavilion, which features five films playing simultaneously in a looped format. This film shows three alienated-looking black men wandering through the banlieue and the city center of a miniature version of a post-apocalyptic Paris. In actuality, this place is a half-built replica of the city set in a suburb of Hangzhou, China. Intercourses, which is by Danish artist Jasper Jest, also includes posters of buildings in five foreign sites, including New York City, with invented symbols based on ideograms used for the translation of non-Chinese names by New York City–based design studio Project Projects.
Many of the exhibitions in this year’s Venice Art Biennale could easily inhabit the Venice Architecture Biennale. It is true that the show does not include models of state-of-the art buildings or suggestions on how to improve the built environment. However, a surprising amount of the art on display features architecture or addresses urban issues. And given various contemporary crises, it is fitting that the images and structures portrayed in the 2013 Art Biennale generally are portrayed as more fragile and conditional than might have been the case in the past. While celebrating flights of the imagination, a sense of melancholy pervades this show. As Gioni notes in Is Everything in My Mind?—his essay for the 2013 Biennale Catalogue—“The biennale model itself is based on the impossible desire to concentrate the infinite worlds of contemporary art in a single place, a task that now seems as dizzyingly absurd as Auriti’s dream.”