Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

All There Is (and more, or less): 54th Venice Biennale

by Scott Wark

28 Jul 2011

Tiredly wandering into the Australian Pavilion on my second day at the Venice Biennale, my first impression was is that all there is? The rarified atmosphere of this conventional, and, compared to other pavilions, tame exhibition of meticulously sculpted replicas of everyday objects doesn't have their immediate appeal or brazen conceit. After adjusting to the smaller scale, though, the insidiousness of Hany Armanious' works in The Golden Thread crept up on me.

In a work of the same title, Armanious refigures Alberto Giacometti's grotesque Le Nez, a face with a nightmarishly elongated nose suspended inside an oblong frame, as a leaf blower resembling polystyrene. Though seemingly just a punch line, I read Armanious' pun (nose, blow) as a smokescreen or pretense. There is an unsettling presence to Armanious' sculptures that exceeds cheap irony.

Giacometti's work was the product of the artist standing vigil over the body of his caretaker, whose nose he imagined to be growing ever longer in the night. Transforming this hallucination into a piercingly uncanny figure, Giacometti managed to reproduce both the lumpen materiality and the disquieting existentiality that corpses inspire.

Though no less striking then when it was produced, Giacometti's engagement with death reflects a peculiarly modern preoccupation with existential themes. Armanious' creative appropriation of its form, on the other hand, is more contemporary. Though balancing gingerly and seemingly fragile, it's hard to shake the resemblance of Armanious' Le Nez to a gun. It's just this fragility that I found so unsettling: the leaf blower's precarity threatens explosive violence.

The work's tenuous suspension and phallic symbolism imparts it with an anthropomorphic swagger that is disquietingly sexual. It presents violence as something that is done by bodies, emphasising that what we fear is not guns themselves but the unrepresentable - so, monstrous - humans that use them. Violence erupts relatively rarely in our society, yet has created a mindset in which we are constantly anxious about its unforeseeable manifestation. To this degree, Armanious' Le Nez resonates with contemporaneous fears.

Though the curator of the show, Anne Ellgood, presents Armanious' work as tactile [1], my response was more psychological. Another of the works, Interface, replicated a tattered, carpet-covered pinboard, the kind that wouldn't be out of place in a school hall. For me, this work evoked fiercely nostalgic childhood scenes. Here, Armanious is not playing with tactility, but with the visual resonance of textures. Nostalgic reveries are wholly textural. Their emotional charge comes from moods, colours and impressions rather than any particular substance. The texturality of Interface and works using chipboard, like Relative Nobody, is less sensory than hypnagogic: evocative of dreamlike states. It is oriented, thus, away from real spaces toward half-imagined, half-remembered ones.

Armanious' objects were neither big nor flashy, nor did The Golden Thread attempt to re-imagine a gallery as a total space for exhibition, as the German, Swiss and British pavilions did successfully. The curatorial conventionality of the Austraian Pavilion seemed outdated when compared to the pavilions around it; the Venice Biennale, an enormous exhibition, suits large-scale works with grand aims, which makes smaller shows seem paltry.

When set against the redolent but culturally specific textures of Armanious' replica notice board, though, Le Nez opens a play between Interface's innocence and its own latent violence. The works in The Golden Thread exploit the psychological resonances of things to produce a nuanced examination of Australia's cultural history and the West's contemporary distanciation from violence: a tall order for chipboard and a leaf blower to achieve.


[1] Anne Ellgood, Hany Armanious: The Golden Thread exhibition catalogue (Australian Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale, 2011)