Several drums are stacked up almost scratching the high ceiling, followed by ominous large standing trumpets and a white bust of Mao sitting on cassette tape records. The work of the late Terry Adkins dominates the first rooms of the international exhibition at the Arsenale pavilion, including: “Muffled Drums”, 2013; “The Last Trumped”, 1995 and “Darkwater Record”, 2003-2008 (from the series Darkwater). A feeling of foreboding lies in the air, which is soon confirmed by Monica Bonvicini’s “Latent Combustion”, 2015, consisting of five hanging sculptures of black metal and chain saws, succeeded by Pino Pascali’s “Cannone Semovente”, 1965, a black canon made out of wood and metal. It seems the Arsenale (a former military site) was taken quite literally. Did Okwui Enwezor curate this part of the biennale while in a bad mood?
Luckily there is plenty more to expect elation from. Berlin-based artist Katharina Grosse is the first to add colossal colour and oomph with her psychedelic installation “Untitled Trumpet,” 2015, which breaks up the Materialschlacht (material battle) of Arsenale’s start by coating it with a burst of pigments. Another example include Steve McQueen’s “Ashes,” 2014-2015, a short film about a boy called Ashes. The video is beautifully shot: a topless black boy on a boat wearing blue shorts and facing the deep blue sea. Sometimes he flirts with the camera while the wind blows his hair and the boat rocks and the wind hisses. The screening room is crowded, the viewers are marvelled, they can’t look away even if the story being told is about the boy’s death. His life is celebrated with such indelible beauty that it gives it continuity.
Further along the crammed rooms and wings of the pavilion is Cao Fei’s video, which is also a must-see. “La Town”, 2014, is an ingeniously theatrical stop-motion feature about a thrilling microcosmos that reflects on the chaotic changes occurring in society today. Using animated miniatures and figurines, the Chinese female artist creates tragic scenes of a quasi-apocalyptic world that also has a reinvigorating consolation to it.
After such a visual overload in the main exhibition, the word on the street is that the national pavilions lead to Macedonia, and its conceptual and almost immaterial installation. “We are in this alone”, 2015, takes the pre-renaissance fresco from the Church of St. Gjorgi, by an anonymous painter in the 12th century, as its premise. Artists Hristina Ivanoska and Yane Calovski recontextualise the painting with a firm focus on trust (which was initially deposited to that unknown artist) and question the importance of faith in human existence, the arts and the artists, complimenting the biennale with alleviating spirituality.