By Maria Nicolacopoulou
On January 31, 2013 Roberta Smith wrote an article in the New York Times titled Curator, Tear Down These Walls, where she was commenting on the use of folk and outsider art within the museum context. Smith confronted the fact that folk art is still isolated and exhibited separately than academic art, particularly in museums like the National Gallery in Washington, the Metropolitan Museum, Yale University Art Gallery and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She explained how those museums, even though they own large collections of folk art, they insist on exhibiting them separately in small exhibition spaces, which results in notions of suggested marginalization of that type of art. Why, she asks, don’t they mix them up since curators are all about innovative integrative methods and groundbreaking exhibition methods?
During this year’s Venice Biennale though, it appears that the “snow globe was shaken” since the biennale’s International Exhibition curator Massimiliano Gioni has fulfilled Smith’s wish and not only simply integrated folk art with academic art in the Central pavilion and the Arsenale exhibition, but made it a dominating aesthetic. At the Arsenale one could find numerous works by self-trained artists, like the mythological clay creatures of autistic Japanese Shinichi Sawada amongst more established names, whereas the Giardini’s Central Pavillion was predominantly occupied by work from outsider artists with some from a century ago. Examples range from the religious-based Composition Symbolique Sur Le Monde (1923) by Augustin Lesage, a French miner who lived between 1876 and 1954 and heard voices that compelled him to become a painter, to Levi Fisher Ames’ sculptural figurines, made out of wood, shell and stone in the form of various animals. Levi lived between 1843 and 1923 and spent most of his life in Wisconsin, USA, despite his efforts to stay in the Union Army and fight for the American Civil War due to his repeatedly sustained injuries.
The overall theme of the International Exhibition was inspired by Marino Auriti, an Italian born American mechanic who lived in Pennsylvania between 1892 and 1980 and whose work can be found in the American Folk Art Museum. Auriti built a 136-storey model structure titled Encyclopedic Palace of the World as a potential museum intended to house all the wonders of the world, which was envisioned to be built in Washington DC, but which was though never realized. The model can be found in the Arsenale’s Encyclopedic Palace first room. Based on that idea, Gioni produced an exhibition that was mainly focused on our relationship with the world as one all-encompassing image, whether it is via the artist’s relation to art, the viewer’s or the scientist’s, in an effort to expand the boundaries of the familiar to similarly include the diversity of humanity’s interpretation of the world as a whole. Blending the boundaries between the real and the imaginary as well as the familiar, the unknown, the fictional and the spiritual, Gioni attempted to challenge our perception of the understanding of the world by blending current and past views from scientists, prophets, untrained artists and historical figures in his own Heterotopia of the immaterial. Via images and image sources that can redefine and compare our internal view of the universe against what has been historically accepted, he endeavored to redefine not only our perception of art, but also the world. A notable example is Harun Farocki’s 43 min video Transmission of the documentation of the physical relationship of religious visitors to holy monuments as an immersive sample of humanity’s attempt to connect with what we don’t understand, where the intuitive need for physical contact embodies the degree of our anxiety towards the unknown.
Another noted example is New Zealand’s Simon Denny’s installation Analogue Broadcasting Hardware Compression, a number of inkjet printed canvases portraying the visual surface of obsolete television equipment, as the “flat” revelation of the reality behind constant technological progress that we experience every day whereas Carl Jung’s unconscious visions manuscript Red Book is for the first time presented with contemporary art to introduce the essence of The Encyclopedic Palace’s inspiration behind the importance of sources in our perception and understanding of the world’s images. Can we see the world through our own devices or have external influences corrupted our visual perception? And why can’t the inside world we experience have equal value with the outside? This is the question that led to the mix between insider and outsider art in an attempt to validate the exploration of personal experiences as artistic manifestations against the commonly accepted aesthetic interpretation of the outside world. So, ironically, it is the outsiders who provide the insider view against the insiders who are offering the outsider perspective.
The result is a questionable amalgamation of a cabinet of curiosities that returns us back to the original concept of the museum. Only this time it includes modernism’s products compressed in individual works and presented as museum pieces as part of the world’s progressive wonders. The inclusion of every form of visual and scientific representation of the world, from the indigenous aesthetic to the comic book and from the technological to the occult, mostly confuses than enlightens. The use of folk art in the 19th century was perhaps refreshing in its deviation from the homogenous norm, as Smith noted, but when we are dealing with the notion of the contemporary, it is folk art that is homogenizing due to its limitation to transcend personal boundaries of its creator and uphold art’s main universal purpose of life’s critique. Contemporary art is contingent on innovation and even though the outsider aesthetic here provides a refreshing new alternative, it is nevertheless uniform. And if innovation is indeed the driving force behind this decision, what are then the ramifications for the ‘outsiders’? The essence of the latter’s aesthetic depends on its distance from the established cultural and aesthetic values of the art world, mainly a critical viewpoint. The moment that aesthetic is positioned in the art world, it becomes ‘insider’ by default and seizes to maintain the justifying element of an outsider. By removing the ‘outsider’ label from the works, they then become victims to the criteria all works are objected to, condemning them to an uneven battle.
The debate of whether and how a Brillo Box, or any ordinary object, can be art or not is a much easier topic to analyze, due to the distance between the inherent property value of an object vs an artwork, whereas the debate between different kinds of artforms is much more complex due to the proximity of their agencies’ boundaries. A readymade or any ordinary object positioned in an art museum changes in value by becoming art, but what happens to that which is already art? Is its aesthetic suddenly legitimized as academic? Inclusion leads to integration which, in turn, leads to conceptual readjustments and, therefore, alteration to both system forms, an idea central to capitalism and its need to homogenize that also applies in this year’s biennale. Will Gioni’s attempt of topological restructuring succeed, and to what degree? The result of that experiment is expected to be unfolded in a ripple effect over in the art market where we will also witness the corroding effect of its influence on the newly integrated ‘outsiders.’
The return to art of the past was also found elsewhere in Venice this year with the most notable example being the remake of Harald Szeemann’s landmark exhibition of 1969, When Attitudes Become Form, at the Fondazione Prada as a collateral event and curated by Germano Celant in dialogue with Thomas Demand and Rem Koolhaas. The show was recreated by consulting Szeemann’s archive from the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles and by positioning the exhibition as a readymade onto the foundation’s building, Ca’Corner della Regina. Most of the works were borrowed from private collections and museums around the world, whereas the ones that could not be traced were replaced with a photo of the work positioned within a hand drawn floor diagram of where it was supposed to be originally. The assimilation of the curatorial dialogue between the works, the space and the visitor of the original concept was successfully re-contextualized within the older building and integrated even further elements of the past with the present, while blurring any remaining boundaries between the material and immaterial and the changeable with the static. Queueing for this version of “heterotopian” show averaged between two to three hours during the opening days and was rated by most as the best exhibition of this year’s biennale. This fact alone agrees with a constantly growing need to re-examine past trends as contemporary, but also raises concerns as to the merit and appeal of contemporary art exhibitions today. Perhaps the need to re-examine undiscovered trends, challenge topological structures, reevaluate folk objects and revisit the past is the way to the future after the end of art history, but if this is going to be the focus of the next century, are we not just “shaking the snow globe” by merely recycling 20th century modernism for the 21st?
-Smith, Roberta, Curator, Tear Down Those Walls in The New York Times, 2013 – http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/03/arts/design/american-folk-vs-academic-art.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2&