Papa Ibra Tall, (b. 1935, Senegal), Installation view, Palazzo Enciclopedico, Arsenale, Venice, Italy
Collection Abdoulaye Diop and Gnagna Sow
Photograph by Katy Hamer
Il Palazzo Encyclopedia/The Encyclopedic Palace, part of the 55th Biennale di Venezia has been curated by Director Massimiliano Gioni and organized by Paolo Baratta, Chair. This particular exhibition is installed in the Central Pavilion in the Giardini and the interior and around the Arsenale in Venice, Italy The exhibition represents over 150 artists from 37 countries. In 1955 Marino Auriti (b.1891, Italy-d.1989, USA) filed a design with the U.S. Patent office titled Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace). This dream-like model of a museum was ‘meant to house all worldly knowledge’ and unfortunately never actually constructed, existing only as a labor-intensive model painstakingly made by Auriti. From the Press Release:

Auriti’s plan was never carried out, of course – Massimiliano Gioni says – 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. Today, as we grapple with a constant flood of information, such attempts to structure knowledge into all-inclusive systems seem even more necessary and even more desperate.

Following with, “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?

So that brings us to 2013 and the 55th Biennale di Venezia. You may be asking yourself, what is the Encyclopedic Palace or rather the exhibition of the same name, adapted from Marino Auriti’s concept many years prior? In fact the question may never be one that is fully answered. One definitive answer is that it is a group show, divided in two locations, one being in the long expanse of the Arsenale and the other the Central Pavilion at the Giardini. There is also a specially curated project in the Arsenale that belongs to Cindy Sherman, as she was invited by Gioni, which focuses on the representation of faces and bodies as they relate to the construct of the self.
Eva Kotáková (b. 1982, Czech Republic), Asylum, 2013,  Installation view
Palazzo Enciclopedico, Central Pavilion, I Giardini, Venice, Italy
Photograph by Katy Hamer
If The Encyclopedic Palace has a subject or theme it is rather open. Instead it appears that the work is more about well, categorizing. Many of the artists present exhibit work that feels repetitious. It merges into and out of itself, conceptually folding and unfolding. As far as medium, there is no restriction. Painting, photography, video, sculpture, installation and performance are all featured and the artists are culturally diverse as well as what appears to be the highest amount of women artists to date. The work in the Giardini seems to be painting and video heavy but that could also be relevant to the interior scale difference between the two locations. For this reason as well, some of the work in the Arsenale felt a bit underwhelming. Smaller, framed drawings and photographs, hung in a row at eye level are unfortunately easy to pass by, especially due to shear volume alone and the interval of time allotted.
Danh Vo (b. 1975, Vietnam),
Installation view (transported church)
Palazzo Enciclopedico, Arsenale
Venice, Italy
Photograph by Katy Hamer
For those familiar with Massimiliano Gioni and his recent curatorial projects at the New Museum in New York, many of the artists will be familiar although the artwork selection varies from what is or has been on view at the museum. Artists whose projects stand out in The Encyclopedic Palace installed at the Arsenale include Neïl Beloufa (1985, Paris, France), a young artist known mostly for his installations. Here he is included by way of a large-scale video work from 2007 titled Kempinski, featuring natives of Mali discussing their concepts of the future. Shot at night and lit with bright, unnatural fluorescent lighting the film is as welcoming as it is isolating. Another young artist who stands out also with a video and simple, object based installation is Helen Marten (1985, UK) and her work titled Orchids, or a hemispherical bottom (2013). Upon entering the carpeted gallery to confront the video, one feels immediately transported, not unlike the early work/environments of Sue de Beer, however aesthetically, Marten’s work differs in that it is more like a still-life, mobile by way of the screen but a grocery list of objects brought to life artificially, mimicking movement that would never be. Following close behind in third and fourth for stand-out artists with artwork located in the Arsenale include Danh Vo (1975, Ba Ria, Vietnam) who has imported a colonial-era Catholic church to Italy from Vietnam, while Ed Atkins (1982, Oxford, UK) presents “The Trick Brain”, 2012 a video that abstractly rotates around archival footage of poet André Breton’s collection of books, paintings and tribal artifacts. The latter artist uses video with narration and in this case also subtitles, as a way of investigating the human body and it’s variable functions. Here the artist discusses a timely portrait through objects which occasionally can be considered appear sexualized, regardless of their intention or purpose; subtle yet seductive .
Ellen Altfest (b. 1970, USA), Torso, 2011, Oil on canvas
Palazzo Enciclopedico, Central Pavilion, I Giardini, Venice, Italy
Courtesy of Ellen Altfest and White Cube, London
Photograph by Katy Hamer
When visiting the Biennale for the 5th time (as was my situation) it is impossible not to compare previous exhibitions, selections and installations. The last Biennale received much criticism, specifically the Italian Pavilion. One of the immediate visual similarities from the 2011 Biennale in parallel with the current Biennale is the location of the 90 sculptures of Pawel Althamer in the Arsenale. The installation, Venetians, 2013, is a similar selection from the same body of work was on view a part of the permanent collection at the Deste Foundation in Athens. Those wirey, white figures (in contrast to the Venetian gray) included likenesses of Gioni himself and other recognizable faces from the contemporary art community along with Deste,  Jeff Koons, and Urs Fischer. In the last Biennale in the place where Althamer’s Venetian figures now stand were the melting, also gray, wax sculptures of Urs Fischer. Candles, in the simplest description, were lit daily and by the end of the Biennale were just a mass of wax. The gray wax and the gray of Althamer’s sculptural figures was at first glance almost confusing. My brain immediately connected the two similar yet completely different bodies of work and for a brief instant I thought, “Urs again?”. But of course then I quickly returned to the moment when I was at The Deste Foundation last year in front of Urs Fischer’s slightly shifting mirror and Althamer’s famous artworld faces, eyes closed as in prayer (or in this case a mold). Within the walls of the Arsenale, where Gioni has moments of shining brightly, include his heterogeneous selection of young artists who reflect today and older artists who have recorded yesterday but also appear fresh and new.
The Encyclopedic Palace traverses genres and explodes with speculation, proposals and hypothetical possibilities. It’s as if one is entering a card catalogue with fixed intention and purpose but a subject that is broad and ever expanding. The word subject may not even be the correct one to use. Subject? Has there ever been a Biennale that follows a rigorous aesthetic theme as a thread running through each art work that is installed? Here, we find a thread that is placed on top of things, objects and photographs. It’s invisible presence is both forgettable as it is potent. An easy to swallow pill with positive side effects,  The Encyclopedic Palace is a catalogue of status. It is a hierarchy selection presented on the grounds of an even playing field.
Marisa Merz (b. 1931, Italy), Installation view, Palazzo Enciclopedico, I Giardini, Central Pavilion, Venice, Italy
Photograph by Katy Hamer
Unlike the Arsenale, the Giardini installation of The Encyclopedic Palace is different. It feels exclusive and worldly without being overtly political or preachy (both being a big part of many of the country based pavilions). Instead while the Arsenale plays it safe and keeps a steady flow, not unlike it’s very architecture, the installation in the Central Pavilion is lush, adventurous and unexpected. There is no time for a lull.  Here the work is extremely painterly even if times disguised as installation or sculpture. Two female artists received the Golden Lion (2013) for Lifetime Achievement, Marisa Merz and Maria Lassnig and were each given a gallery to themselves while Golden Lion winner Tino Sehgal, for best project by an individual artist with”Untitled” (2103), a performance, takes place in the first gallery upon entrance. That being said, the Central Pavilion houses an exhibition that sings. Each room leads into the next and in a circular, organic fashion, an artistic crescendo of sorts occurs. While there weren’t particular works that literally jumped off the walls with unbridled energy over others, such as in Illuminations -54th Biennale di Venezia- with Ryan Gander, Gabriel Kuri, the 52nd Biennale with Sol LeWitt and Sigmar Polke along with Harald Szeemann’s selection of Joseph Beuys in 2001- The Encyclopedic Palace forges its own path and has a palatable current all its own.
Richard Serra (b.1939, USA)-foreground and Thierry De Cordier (b.1954, Belgium) -background
Installation view, Palazzo Enciclopedico, I Giardini, Central Pavilion, Venice, Italy
Photograph by Katy Hamer
Additional notable artists besides those mentioned above from the Central Pavilion include, softly tinted photographs by Viviane Sassen (b.1972, Amsterdam, Netherlands), paintings by Jean-Frédéric Schnyder (b.1945, Basel, Switzerland), “Asylum” 2013 installation with various materials and objects by Eva Kotáková (b.1982, Prague, Czech Republic), and a duo of sculptures by Richard Serra (b.1939, San Francisco, USA) installed in a gallery with paintings of the sea by Thierry De Cordier (b.1954, Ronse, Belgium) with dates ranging from 2010-2013. The work of Serra and De Cordier together is poetic, reeling with fluidity and a tranquil space that exists between geometry and daydreams.

Again from Gioni: “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?”

Here, the viewer is the designated vessel. The cellphone an archivist, the internet a friend or gossip who remembers how to play ‘telephone’ with a mind made of wires by men whose minds are made of matter.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b. London, 1977), Installation view, Palazzo Enciclopedico, I Giardini, Central Pavilion
All work oil on canvas, 2013, Venice, Italy
Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, NY and Corvi-Mora, London
Photograph by Katy Hamer
The 55th Biennale di Venezia will be on view and open to the public until November 24th, 2013 in various locations throughout Venice, Italy.