Ai Weiwei’s Cell, Sherman Giantess Boost Venice Biennale

Ai Weiwei has a showstopper in this year’s Venice Biennale.

His remarkable work is entitled “S.A.C.R.E.D.” and installed in the church of Sant’Antonin.

At the time of the last Biennale, Ai Weiwei was imprisoned in China. Two years later, he presents miniature, mesmerizingly detailed tableaux of his life at that time.

The extremely lifelike statues, about one-sixth real size, are hidden inside large iron tanks in the nave of the church. You peer inside through a slit and see the artist in his cell, or being interrogated, or seated on the lavatory flanked by two guards, or having a shower.

The effect is extraordinarily powerful. No one today demonstrates the global nature of art and its power as effectively as Ai Weiwei. He is Chinese, his artistic language is Western (a mixture of minimalism and hyper-realism), and his subject is universal: freedom and captivity.

At every Biennale, there is an enormous rambling exhibition in the old buildings of the Arsenale. It always has a vague, ponderous title — this year it’s “The Encyclopedic Palace” — and it invariably contains a vast number of disparate works of art.

This Biennale is slightly different, however.

For the first time in my experience, the Arsenale blockbuster makes some sense. So congratulations to the curator, Massimiliano Gioni.

The fundamental idea of the Biennale is to be an international art extravaganza. Each year, more individual nations take part. Ten countries are participating for the first time in this, the 55th edition.

Global Concept

Never before do I recall there being a truly global concept for the Arsenale show.

“The Encyclopedic Palace” starts with the work of Marino Auriti, a self-taught Italian-American artist who dreamed of a museum that would contain all the world’s knowledge. He registered the idea with the U.S. patent office, and in his garage made a model of a 136-story building to house the institution. Architecturally, this looks somewhere between the Empire State Building and the Tower of Babel.

This strange structure stands at the entrance to the Arsenale. It gives a hint of what you are about to see. Much more than usual, there is room in this display for what the art world calls “outsider art,” not just from Auriti himself.

One of the outstanding moments is provided by Arthur Bispo do Rosario, a Brazilian who said he had a visitation from God, and subsequently spent five decades in a Rio psychiatric hospital. He made surreal assemblages and embroidered textiles quite like, and somewhat better than, the works of Tracey Emin.

Curiosity Cabinet

The whole show seems like a quirky, updated cabinet of curiosities.

There are insider artists, as well, such as the Turner Prize-winning Mark Leckey, who contributes a witty piece called “The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things.” The American art star Cindy Sherman is the curator of a subsection of images of people. Among them is a Charles Ray statue of a giant blonde in a blue dress, standing about eight feet (2.4 meters) tall.

Featured are such well-known artists as Paul McCarthy (who exhibits a giant rag-doll figure with its cloth internal organs flopping out). Side by side with McCarthy is an array of works by Norbert Ghisoland (1878-1939), a Belgian studio photographer whose poignant portraits of his clients have been described as involuntary anthropology.

The outsiders mingle easily with the insiders, the Westerners with Easterners, the past with the present.

And, as there ought to be, there are more standouts, among them another piece of art archaeology: “Movie Drome,” a collage of moving images on a curved screen by an experimental American filmmaker of the 1960s named Stan VanDerBeek (1927-84). This is a vision of the future, rediscovered from the past.

First published on Bloomberg Businessweek

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