The 55th Venice Biennial energetically shoulders through the ecologic and economic gloom hanging over the city, presenting art from a record number of nations. If one follows the intellectual route steered by Massimiliano Gioni, lead curator of the central international exhibition, the motley of competing shows even begins to make some sort of communal sense. By including historical artists (forty of the 158 artists in his exhibition, The Encyclopedic Palace, are dead) and extra-canonical art practices (including ceramic sculpture, voyeuristic photography, and "outsider" art) in his reading of "contemporary" art, Gioni recoups an emphasis on invention while sidestepping modernist notions of "progress."
Although curation of the national pavilions has little to do with the central show, the best work in the national exhibitions resonates with Gioni's undogmatic approach. For example, Britain's Jeremy Deller orchestrates photographs, murals, videos, and very welcome social practice (serving tea) into a view of Britishness that is simultaneously caustic and generous. And Tavares Strachan paradoxically manages to represent the Bahamas, with a sideswipe at colonialism, by planting his own hybrid flag at the North Pole. On the meta-political level, the turn away from didactic work seems hopeful. If there is a way past the climatalogical doom threatening humans and our biological cohort, it travels through the realm of things we don't know yet. On the artistic level, it means fresh art, not necessarily new art, but non-art-star work. The not-so-usual suspects hitting it out of the Giardini include sculptor Ron Nagle, whose suite of palm-sized, unnameable ceramic objects might just be the most sublime experience on the island.
The 55th Venice Biennial runs June 1 through November 24, 2013 at the Giardini and Arsenale in Venice, Italy.
Mural of William Morris pitching Roman Abramovich's yacht away from the Giardini, one of the components of Jeremy Deller's British Pavilion. Abramovich's is infamous for mooring his yacht at the entrance to the 54th Venice Biennial.