I am back at the Venice Biennale again, and once again I find myself in another world. That different reality is not just Venice—always so otherworldy—but the cosmologies that curator Massimiliano Gionni has assembled to make up the exhibitions of this 55th version of the international art fair. Entitled “The Encyclopedic Museum,” the show this year evokes worlds inhabited by artists who are mad scientists, pseudo-scientific tool-makers, or plain inventors. There is a great deal of obsessive making. There are many monsters. And there is a lot of work by self-trained artists.
What makes most sense to me are those visions that are the least surreal, the least representational of what it is difficult to picture, and the most thoroughly constructed. A good place to start is the U.S. Pavilion, where Sarah Sze has assembled one of her whirlwinds made out of bits of plastic, mechanical fragments, toys, and the equipment she uses to construct her assemblages. In fact, the exhibition consists of a sequence of such artworks, the first of which rises out of the space between the Pavilion’s symmetrical wings as scaffolding building a staircase to nowhere except beyond classicism. The work is, as always, delicate, but this time it also more explicitly about studying, arranging, and making sense of things. There are arrays of material laid out in rows, work lamps trained on parts of the assemblage, and a general sense that she—and we with her—wants to figure those things out. It is a good counterpoint to the more crazed visions that abound in this Biennale.
My favorite work was by the Spanish artist Lara Almarcegui, who filled the Spanish Pavilion with piles of dirt. To be more exact, they were piles of building material that Almarcegui meant to be similar to the raw materials that went into building this otherwise undistinguished structure in 1922. Much of her work has focused on unused or disused buildings, and in this case she wants us to be aware of the amount of building waste hiding in structures or made as result of creating other beautiful things: a film at the Pavilion shows a small ruined island in the Venetian lagoon, the result of decades of dumping of waste from glass production in Murano. The site is uninhabited and, because of the toxicity of the material, would be difficult to use in any manner.
What is so significant about Almarcegui’s work, however, is not its meaning, which it would be difficult to ascertain without reading the handout text, but rather its sheer beauty. The main pile, which consists of cement rubble, roofing tiles, and bricks, which she smashed up into smaller bits, towers over the main room and spills out into the adjacent galleries. It is an Everest of rubble, its contours as beautiful as the folds of Bernini or the furrows in actual mountains depicted by a great landscape painter. The smaller mounds, of sawdust, glass, and an approximation of the slag Murano produces, are more delicate, marking space as small offerings of pure material, while offering a counterpoint to the monument in the middle. If this is what goes into buildings, it would be good to liberate that inherent construction, but then again, we have known that at least since we first starting adoring ruins in the 18th century. What Almarcegui has added to that tradition is to make us see the beauty of what is not a building—or a Murano vase—as a something worth remaking and admiring onto itself.