2015 Venice Biennale: Shiharu Shiota + Dansaekhwa/Lee Ufan

The Venice biennale gathers the best and worst of the art world. Within each individual’s subjective experience, many of the pavilions, exhibitions and collateral events are a hit-or-miss affair. It is worthwhile, when reminiscing, to consider which exhibitions remain most vividly in your mind. Did you take any pictures? If not, why?

I will discuss a number of Asian artists who exhibited at the 2015 Biennale and who each managed to create a space that can be inhabited endlessly. Together, they represent some of the strongest work I saw this year.

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(c) Shiharu Shiota

  1. The Japanese Pavilion – Shiharu Shiota “the Key in the Hand”

Entering the main space of the Japanese pavilion feels like crawling back into the womb. The red light creates an atmosphere at once warm and inviting as well as dense and disorienting, not unlike Anish Kapoor’s 2011 Leviathan installation at the Grand Palais in Paris. When your senses adjust, you first notice the two boats stranded in a mound of – what are they? – keys! – before noticing that the objects dangling from the hazy red clouds that arch along the ceiling are keys as well. Finally, taking a closer look, you notice that the clouds are actually made up of a myriad of fine threads, a cathedral of red yarn spun in an intricate and minute design.

Shiharu Shiota’s installation is both mesmerizing in its visual and emotional appeal and baffling in its technical ingenuity. As the pavilion’s curator, Hitoshi Nakano, remarks, the installation contains both a bright and hopeful side as well as a dark anxiety. As a visitor, even without knowing or grasping the symbolism, you are simultaneously lifted by the beauty of the space and overpowered by a sensation of being swallowed up by it.

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Shiota chose to work with the keys because of the “countless, multilayered memories” they convey. We use keys every day to safeguard our personal spaces and belongings, so that when we pass them on to people this is an intimate expression of our trust in them. As such, Shiota’s installation uses the keys – gathered from all over the world – and yarn as a medium to show how our individual lives are all interconnected within this huge “sea of memories”.

On the ground level, underneath the pillars, various recordings of children narrating their memory of being born are shown in a loop. This part of the installation stands on its own as a hilarious addition to the project. Yet it was not until I heard one of the children describe swimming around in the womb and rolling out on a wave that I understood how these recordings strengthened the association between the womb-like atmosphere of the installation and the notion that humans are connected much like the infant and the mother are connected through the umbilical cord. According to Shiota, the keys represent hope for the future, the human ability to close some doors and open others. As such, the children step forward as the ideal bearers of this hope.

Learn more here and here

  1. Dansaekhwa with Lee Ufan

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Before entering the Dansaekhwa exhibition, one of the Biennale’s many collateral events, I stop in the income hall to read the lengthy introduction on the wall. The term, tricky to pronounce and even more difficult to remember, demands some preliminary explanation. Dansaekhwa, or so this wall tells me, is a late twentieth century Korean art movement, that developed during the post-war period. Though it is admitted that the “movement” is something of a construction, the artists are said to be united by a shared interest in the connections between art, nature and politics, as well as a dominance of monochromatic work and experiments with material. The exhibition is curated by Yongwoo Lee and ranges from the 1960s until today.

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Safe to say that I wasn’t much the wiser as I went further into the beautiful Palazzo Contarini-Polignac. By the time I had climbed the staircase, all I remembered was to expect a lot of monochromatic art. What I saw blew me away. The colors, textures and techniques are both pleasing and startling, and invite you to take a closer look. Hemp, cotton, Korean paper and other non-traditional undergrounds often fill in for cloth, creating a softness in color compositions that might otherwise feel stark or bare, and allowing for deeply layered textures, as in the works of Ha Chong-Hyun and Chung-Chang Sup.

Park Seo Bo surprises with a technique that mixes oil paint and pencil in obsessively minute pattering. Kwon Young-Wo, on the other hand, carves up his canvases in ways that open up new aspects of a technique that to me easily feels tired and repetitive. All the while, the visual delicacy of these deceptively simple paintings echoes the intellectual depth they harbor behind their graphic façade.

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Back downstairs, I entered the installation designed by Lee Ufan, tentatively treading a crackling carpet of pebbles dotted by large stones, guided by the sounds of the canal swishing against the front of the palazzo. The muted lighting recalls the dim atmosphere of Samuel Beckett’s theatrical spaces, yet at the same time it creates crisp, precise shadows along the rocks. The four other spaces also play with the contrast between lighting and shade, and find new ways to interpret the combination of painting, light and carefully placed stones.

When I showed pictures of Ufan’s work to an artist I met later on in my journey, he expressed his admiration, emphasizing that it would take a lifetime of experience to know how to execute the composition just right. Born in 1936, Ufan was clearly the right choice to headline this exhibition. As I exited through radiant, floor-to-ceiling white curtains, I felt as one would after leaving a zen-buddhist temple: as if I had compressed years into minutes and amassed verbless knowledge in silent conversation with my surroundings. Both exhibitions are carefully curated to exude calm, harmony and purity, all the while pulling you out of your comfort-zone without you even noticing it. An experience that will leave you speechless.

Learn more here.