Inspiring these obsessions is the power of the imagination. Artists as diverse as Morton Bartlett, James Castle, Peter Fritz, and Achilles Rizzoli spent years dreaming of alternative worlds. The dynamic tensions between inside and outside are the subject of works that explore the role of the imagination in prisons (Rossella Biscotti) and in psychiatric hospitals (Eva Kotátková). Other places of confinement, real or fanciful, were conceived by Walter Pichler, who spent much of his life creating habitats for his sculptures, as if they were living creatures from another planet.
In the redesigned spaces of the Arsenale, the exhibition sketches a progression from natural forms, to studies of the human body, to the artifice of the digital age, loosely following the typical layout of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century cabinets of curiosities. In these eclectic microcosms, natural artifacts and marvels were combined to compose new images of the universe through a process of associative thinking that resembles today’s culture of hyper-connectivity.
Catalogs, collections, and taxonomies form the basis for many works on view, including J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere’s photos, Uri Aran’s installations, Carl Andre’s personal encyclopedia, Kan Xuan’s videos, Shinichi Sawada’s bestiaries, and Matt Mullican’s labyrinths. Pawel Althamer assembles a collective portrait with a series of ninety sculptures.
From Jung’s Red Book, to Shinro Ohtake’s scrapbook assemblages, to Xul Solar’s collaged volumes, the exhibition celebrates the book – an object now at risk of extinction – as a depository of knowledge, a tool of self-exploration, and an escape into realms of fantasy. Yüksel Arslan illustrates the encyclopedia plates of an imaginary civilization that resembles a slightly warped version of humanity. The aspiration to create a magnum opus that, like Auriti’s Palace, can contain and describe everything, also flows through R. Crumb’s visual chronicle of the book of Genesis, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré’s cosmogonies, and the legends recounted by Papa Ibra Tall. Camille Henrot’s recent video studies the creation myths of different societies, while the nearly two hundred clay sculptures of Fischli and Weiss offer a wry antidote to the romantic excesses of such sweeping visions of human history.
In the drawings of Stefan Bertalan, Lin Xue and Patrick Van Caeckenbergh, we find stubborn attempts to decipher the code of nature, while the films of Gusmão and Paiva, and photographs of Christopher Williams, Eliot Porter, and Eduard Spelterini, examine ecosystems and landscapes with an gaze that longs to capture all the Earth’s spectacles, large and small.
Video works by Neïl Beloufa and Steve McQueen, and paintings by Eugene Von Breunchenhein reflect various approaches to picturing the future, while memory serves as the point of departure for Aurélien Froment, Andra Ursuta, and many other artists in the exhibition.
At the center of the Arsenale, is a curatorial project by Cindy Sherman – an imaginary museum of her own devising in which dolls, puppets, mannequins, and idols cohabit with photos, paintings, sculptures, votive offerings, and drawings by prison inmates, composing an anatomical theater in which to contemplate the role of images in the representation and perception of the self. The word “image” is linked, by its very etymology, to the body and its mortality: the Latin imago referred to the wax mask the Romans made to preserve the likeness of the recently deceased.
Bodies and desires are illustrated in Hito Steyerl’s cinematic investigation of the culture of hyper-visibility, and in Sharon Hayes’s latest documentary – inspired by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Comizi d’Amore – in which a group of young women talk about relationships and sexuality. The quest for truth that pervaded Pasolini’s career is also evoked by Richard Serra’s sculptural tribute to the filmmaker and poet.
The bodies imagined by Evgenij Kozlov are animated by the fantasies of a rapt adolescent, and seem right at home next to Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern’s seductive matrons and Kohei Yoshiyuki’s voyeurs. A similar scopophilic yearning is also found in the paintings of Ellen Altfest, who trains a lenticular gaze on the bodies of her subjects, as if trying to capture and discover the world one inch at a time.
Ryan Trecartin’s volatile, post-human bodies introduce the final section of the Arsenale, where works by Yuri Ancarani, Alice Channer, Simon Denny, Wade Guyton, Channa Horwitz, Mark Leckey, Helen Marten, Albert Oehlen, Otto Piene, James Richards, Pamela Rosenkranz, Stan VanDerBeek and others examine the blend of information, spectacle, and knowledge that is characteristic of the digital era.
As a contrast to the white noise of the information age, an installation by Walter De Maria celebrates the mute, gelid purity of geometry. Like all works by this legendary artist, this abstract sculpture is the result of complex numerological calculations – a self-contained system in which the endless possibilities of the imagination are reduced to an extreme synthesis.
Among the exhibition’s outdoor installations and performances (which include John Bock, Ragnar Kjartansson, Marco Paolini, Erik van Lieshout, and others, extending to the Giardino delle Vergini at the very end of the Arsenale) are works that build on and transform the sixteenth-century Venetian tradition of the Theatres of the World, visual allegories of the cosmos in which actors and temporary architectures composed miniature representations of the universe.
Through these pieces and many other works on view, The Encyclopedic Palace emerges as an elaborate but fragile construction, a mental architecture as fantastical as it is delirious. After all, the biennial 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.