A Look at ‘Viva Arte Viva,’ the Hippie, Heal-the-World Venice Biennale


From the moment you walk into the main pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, it is apparent that the show there, “Viva Arte Viva,” is an extremely chill affair. It opens with a wall of photos of the Croatian artist Mladen Stilinović sleeping in bed and then a palatial room that the great New York artist Dawn Kasper is now using as a studio to making art, playing noise music with friends, and generally hanging out. The place is filled with her stuff. Hang a left, and you have a Franz West bed and a Frances Stark painting of herself lounging on a couch, and then another bed, this one by Yelena Vorobyeva and Victor Vorobyev, which seems to have a person sleeping in it.

Everyone is taking it easy, playing around, and not getting too worked up about anything. As Christine Macel, the show’s curator, promised, this is very much a celebration of artists and their processes. There are a few dark moments, but generally the mood is pleasant, good-natured, and accessible—almost earnest to a fault.

The Giardini section is solid—airy and comfortably paced. No one is exactly breaking any new ground here, but good artists, like Kiki Smith, McArthur Binion, Rachel Rose, and Senga Nengudi, have been afforded the right amount of space to do what they know how to do very well. In the sprawling Arsenale, the old shipyard a 10-minute walk away, though, the show falters, with a confluence of projects that are wan or ponderous—or both.

In the Arsenale, Lee Mingwei has set up a sewing station, where clothes can be mended and then displayed. Ernesto Neto has created a netted Cupixawa, where Huni Kuin Indians are performing rituals that “invite spectators to imagine a necessary transformation in society,” as the show’s catalogue puts it. And David Medalla is showing an historical work that encourages visitors to add embroidery to a huge expanse of fabric. All three feel outmoded and naïve. (Another misstep: the show is divided into sections with comically pretentious or just bizarre titles like the Dionysian Pavilion, Pavilion of the Shamans, and Pavilion of Time and Infinity. The less said about those the better.)

There are, thankfully, some bursts of joy in the Arsenale, where ambitious works are allowed to shine. Sheila Hicks delivers a knockout wall of knitting—all explosive, rumbling colors—at the end of the show, and there are admirable groups of work by Zilia Sánchez, Hugette Caland, and a few more.

So, it is a mixed affair. More on that later. For now, below, a look around the exhibition.