Thousand and One Night by Edith Dekyndt
Aaron Betsky Thousand and One Night by Edith Dekyndt

In a dark space, a man sweeps sand into a rectangle lit from above. He pushes the stray grains back inside the lines made by the spotlight until the division between the shape of sand and darkness is clear. Then he fudges the lines, making more work for himself. Over and over, the division between light and dark, shape and background, form and void, precision and messiness appears and disappears.

The art piece, “One Thousand and One Night,” was created by Edith Dekyndt for this year’s Venice Art Biennale, “Viva Arte Viva,” and it is by far the purest statement of how to define form and space I have seen in a long time. It also summed up this festival’s notion of what it means to create an aesthetic moment: you make it, you keep working on it, you active it, you spin it out (quite literally, sometimes, given the amount of textile work here), and you maybe even let it disappear.

A Sacred Space by Ernesto Neto
Aaron Betsky A Sacred Space by Ernesto Neto

Certainly not all the displays in this globe-spanning, gargantuan art gathering were as refined as Dekyndt’s statement. Most of them erred on the side of sensuousness and elaboration. Around the corner from the sand rectangle in the Arsenale—one of the Biennale’s two main official display spaces—Ernesto Neto erected a tent, “A Sacred Space,” made out of an open net and filled with pillows and rugs. Visitors could relax there, and those newly introduced could create a temporary community. At times, members of the Huni Kuin, a tribe native to Neto’s home country of Brazil, also camped there, inviting you to be part of their community, even if only for a moment.

This kind of basic placemaking reminded me how closely intertwined are the origins of art and architecture. It is this making not only of space within place, but it also makes you aware of human-made territory and lets you share in it.

Canadian Pavilion by Geoffrey Farmer
Aaron Betsky Canadian Pavilion by Geoffrey Farmer

Both art and architecture extend beyond such creation within a larger extension to a digging, revealing, and erecting of an alternative world. To do so, they also have to be a kind of un-building or clearing. That became clear to me in Geoffrey Farmer’s contribution to the Biennale for Canada. That country’s pavilion—in the Giardini, where the other part of the art event takes place—has been stripped to its bare structure because it needs a renovation. (From the looks of it, the pavilion actually needs something more like a reconstruction.) Farmer left the ruins of the building and created a fountain that spouts up through bare timbers, reasserting the power of the water that gives Venice its beauty and power while evoking a country that revels in its hydropower.

Danish Pavilion by Kirstine Roepstorff
Aaron Betsky Danish Pavilion by Kirstine Roepstorff

Similarly, Kirstine Roepstorff stripped the Danish Pavilion a few yards away down to its structure, removed most of the roof, and created a landscape of weeds on small hills through which you wandered. It was the perfect merger between inside and outside, of the basic elements of architecture and landscape woven together not for use, but for contemplation. (It also revealed the pavilion and its site as a glorified suburban Danish site.)

Carlo Scarpa's apartment for his lawyer
Aaron Betsky Carlo Scarpa's apartment for his lawyer

Outside the Biennale’s official grounds, I came across a small installation by Melissa McGill, tucked away in an apartment that Carlo Scarpa designed for his lawyer (see my column from last week). She collected the sounds of Venice’s different “campos,” or squares, and boxed them up into containers. When you open them up and close your eyes, the whole life of these nearby places of public gathering envelops you.

If these installations brought me back to the basics of architecture, the one that photographer Thomas Demand, in collaboration with Alexander Kluge and Anna Viebrock, created at the Ca’ Pesaro under the auspices of the Prada Foundation offered a fun-house mirror to the complexities and contradictions that architecture and society have developed out of such simple building blocks. The installation consists of an array of rooms that appear to be endless and that you reach by trying the different doors in each space. Some of the entries don’t work, such as the one that would seem to take you into a cheap hotel, and give you only a glimpse through a window of a fluorescent lit hall. Others take you down a rabbit hole, moving through hallways filled with Demand’s photographs and videos.

The Ship Is Leaking. The Captain Lied. by Thomas Demand
Aaron Betsky The Ship Is Leaking. The Captain Lied. by Thomas Demand

The artist specializes in using cardboard to reconstruct scenes of real life, from mundane rooms to the Oval Office, and then photographing them. The result is always eerie. It takes reality back to the tentative and idealized, but it’s also not quite real. Here, the model extends to the frame around both the artworks and you, so that you are suddenly part of a possible alternate world. One moment, the labyrinth takes you past a gallery of photographs and thrusts you onto a stage where you find people watching you who have entered from the other side—as are others who are watching on video monitors in a space upstairs, you discover later—and the next moment you’re swept into a boardroom or an anteroom where you wait for something to happen, but nothing does.

Demand titled the exhibition “The Ship Is Leaking. The Captain Lied.,” and you can’t help but feel that the whole construction is a comment on the fantasies of functionality, purpose, and direction we have erected around ourselves and that might be, if not pointless, at least contradictory. (This is a conclusion Demand’s associate Kluge reinforces with videos of both himself and “experts” ranting about various philosophical issues.)

But after a day of wandering through Venice and its contemporary art, it was a solace to return to that delightful rectangle of light. At least at that spot, everything was clear, precise, and neat, even if that perfection needed continual work and the removal of all the confusions of real life.