On November 16, 1955, self-taught Italian-American artist Marino Auriti filed a design with the U.S. Patent office depicting his Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace), an imaginary museum that was meant to house all worldly knowledge, bringing together the greatest discoveries of the human race, from the wheel to the satellite.
Holed up in his garage out in the middle of the Pennsylvania countryside, Auriti worked on his brainchild for years, constructing the model of a 136-story building that would stand seven hundred meters tall and take up over sixteen blocks in Washington, D.C..
Auriti’s plan was never carried out, of course, but the dream of universal, all-embracing knowledge crops up throughout the history of art and humanity, as one that eccentrics like Auriti share with many other artists, writers, scientists, and self-proclaimed prophets who have tried often in vain, to fashion an image of the world that will capture its infinite variety and richness.
These personal cosmologies, with their delusions of omniscience, shed light on the constant challenge of reconciling the self with the universe, the subjective with the collective, the specific with the general, and the individual with the culture of her time. Today, as we grapple with a constant flood of information, such attempts seem even more necessary and even more desperate. The 55th International Art Exhibition explores these flights of the imagination in a show that, like Auriti’s Encyclopedic Palace, combines contemporary artworks with historical artifacts and found objects.
With works spanning over the past century alongside several new commissions, and with over one hundred and fifty artists from more than thirty-eight countries, the exhibition is structured like a temporary museum that initiates an inquiry into the many ways in which images have been used to organize knowledge and shape our experience.
Blurring the line between professional artists and amateurs, outsiders and insiders, the exhibition takes an anthropological approach to the study of images, focusing in particular on the realms of the imaginary and the functions of the imagination. What room is left for internal images - for dreams, hallucinations and visions - in an era besieged by external ones? And what is the point of creating an image of the world when the world itself has become increasingly like an image?
The exhibition opens in the Central Pavilion with a presentation of Carl Gustav Jung’s Red Book, an illustrated manuscript that the famous psychologist worked on for over sixteen years. A collection of self-induced visions and fantasies, Jung’s Red Book displayed for the first time in Italy, and for the first time ever alongside works of contemporary art-ushers in a meditation on inner images and dreams that runs throughout the show.
The exhibition brings together many examples of artworks and figurative expressions that reveal approaches to visualizing knowledge through representations of abstract concepts and manifestations of supernatural phenomena. In the galleries of the Central Pavilion, intertwined with works by contemporary artists are the abstract paintings of Hilma af Klint, Augustin Lesage’s symbolic interpretations of the universe, the divinations of Aleister Crowley. Yet The Ecyclopedic Palace is not a show about artists as mediums. Rather, the works of these artists help illustrate a condition we all share: we ourselves are media, channeling images, or at times even finding ourselves possessed by images.
The ecstatic gift drawings of Shaker communities transcribe divine messages, while the drawings of shamans from the Solomon Islands are peopled by deities and demons. The depiction of the invisible is a key theme of the show, as evidenced in the cosmographies of Guo Fengyi and Emma Kunz, the religious icons and danses macabres of Jean-Frédéric Schnyder, and Artur Zmijewski’s video of a group of blind people painting a world they cannot see. The idea that images are living, breathing entities, endowed with magical qualities and capable of influencing, transforming, and even healing, may seem like a dated concept cloaked in archaic superstitions. Yet how can we deny the talismanic power of an image when we still carry pictures of our loved ones in our cell phones?
A sense of cosmic awe pervades many of the other works on display, from Melvin Moti’s films to Laurent Montaron’s reflections on nature, all the way to the sublime landscapes of Thierry De Cordier. The ceramic dreamscapes of Ron Nagle, the intricate patterns of Anna Zemánková, the mental maps of Geta Bratescu and the painted palimpsests of Varda Caivano describe an inner world where natural forms overlap with imaginary presences. These secret links between microcosm and macrocosm also animate Marisa Merz's hieratic figures and Maria Lassnig’s fleshly ones: both turn self-portraits and bodies into ciphers of the universe.
The exercise of the imagination through writing and drawing is a recurring motif in the exhibition. Christiana Soulou brings to life the imaginary beings catalogued by Jorge Luis Borges, while José Antonio Suárez Londoño translates into images the diaries of Franz Kafka. The rare stones collection of French writer Roger Caillois combines geology with mysticism, while the blackboard diagrams of Rudolf Steiner feverishly relate the idealist dream of grasping and conveying the universe as a whole.
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.
I want to thank la Biennale di Venezia and his staff.
I thank my collaborators:
Helga J. Christoffersen
A special thanks to the architect Annabelle Selldorf - founding principal of Selldorf Architects in New York – for her collaboration in the re-design of the exhibition spaces of the Arsenale.
The following individuals have greatly contributed to my research:
Negar Azimi, writer and senior editor of Bidoun, an award-winning magazine and arts and culture initiative based in New York City.
Gary Carrion-Murayari, Curator at the New Museum in New York.
Cesar Garcia, co-founder and Director of The Mistake Room, Los Angeles, and U.S. Commissioner for the upcoming 13th International Cairo Biennale.
Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, Chief Curator of the 9th Mercosul Biennial and the Curator of Contemporary Art for Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros.
Claire Hsu, co-founder and Executive Director of Asia Art Archive (AAA).
Abdellah Karroum, a curator, publisher, and independent artistic director based in Paris and Rabat.
Dan Leers, a New York-based independent curator. From 2007 to 2012 he was the Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Curatorial Fellow in the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Sarah McCrory, the Director of the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art.
Rodrigo Moura, a curator, editor, and writer. He is currently Deputy Director of Art and Cultural Programs at Inhotim, Minas Gerais, Brazil.
Tim Saltarelli, a New York-based curator and writer and currently curatorial advisor to the Frame section of the Frieze Art Fair in both London and New York.
Ali Subotnick, Curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
Philip Tinari, Director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing.
Renate Wagner, Project Manager of the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, Berlin.
Chris Wiley, a curator, writer, and artist. He contributes regularly to magazines including Kaleidoscope and Frieze, and has collaborated on the 8th Gwangju Biennale and on many exhibitions at the New Museum.
Thanks also to Sina Najafi and Jeffrey Kastner of Cabinet magazine for coordinating the catalogue essay by, among others: Lina Bolzoni, D. Graham Burnett, Simon Critchley, Brian Dillon, Anthony Grafton, Amy Hollywood, Caro Mavor, Alexander Nagel, Andrea Pinotti, Daniel Rosenberg, Marina Warner.