notes and notices

notes and notices are short and curt reviews of exhibitions at (mostly) London galleries.

  • Vlatka Horvat, The Croatian Pavilion in Venice ★★☆☆☆

    Vlatka Horvat

    By the Means at Hand


    Curated by Antonia Majača
    On until 24 November 2024

    The elegant simplicity of Horvat’s project should have been a breath of fresh air in the ideologically fecund edition of the Biennale. Responding to Adriano Pedrosa’s facile call to foreignness, the London-based Croatian artist solicited reflections on non-belonging from her international crowd of art world friends, thus starting a letter chain. 

    The pavilion is filled with cutesy poems and doodles. “Young man (35) from Sarajevo seeks a person to discuss art with” jests one, “return to Serbian poets all their books” urges another. Hundreds of these pieces and printouts of the emails which gave rise to them are on show in a sleek purpose-made archive management system which accounts for one of this review’s stars.

    Art history books claim that mail art was something once. Horvat’s presentation today, however, is so banal that it puts this legacy to a test. It turns art into a record that might come in handy to an NGO worker reporting on art world networking. Entirely by design, then, this closed circulation speaks to and agrees with only itself. 

  • Josèfa Ntjam’s, swell of spæc(i)es, Venice ★★☆☆☆

    Josèfa Ntjam

    swell of spæc(i)es


    On until 24 November 2024

    Ntjam’s Biennale presentation has all the hallmarks of world-building ambition. For one, it boasts two separate locations, one dedicated solely to the work’s public programme. The main feature is housed in a giant purpose-made structure which occupies a third of an exceptionally spacious courtyard. The shiny blue surface of this installation plays here the part the monolith from Kubrick’s Odyssey and gestures at an epic inside.

    The scenography and the screening room’s seating are equally lavish. The giant image, too, breeds high expectations, billed as it is as a retelling of an obscure creation myth sourced from Mali’s Dogon people and remade with AI backing for a mythleas generation.

    Whatever the AI did here entirely breaks the spell. Ntjam’s animation holds the appeal of a lacklustre PC screensaver from circa 2015 and so not because of its budget but due to the artist’s lack of narrative prowess. 

    Sea creatures and stones drift across the screen, beating no life into each other, let alone the world. This is what transhumanism looks like when it tries to root itself in pseudoscience and half-digested tales. Ntjam’s project suffers also because her chosen subject matter, unlike the creation myths of lasting civilisations, has little application in the world it gave rise to. 

  • Tesfaye Urgessa, The Ethiopian Pavilion in Venice ★★★★★

    Tesfaye Urgessa

    Prejudice and Belonging


    Curated by Lemn Sissay
    On until 24 November 2024

    Urgessa’s collective portraits exude unsettling calm. Groups pose for the painter having arranged themselves as though for an anthropologist’s camera. The bodies on the canvases are half undressed, half hidden among ritual but contemporary objects that make up symbols of deep time and even deeper knowing.

    The artist’s hand is present in these pictures, too, along with his arm, torso, and in one painting his buttocks. Some of the subjects’ faces turn out to be mere reproductions, as if collected from some forgotten atlas. Others are contorted in love, death, or merely life and it is no longer obvious if Urgessa walked in on a wedding feast or some backroom orgy. 

    Perhaps this is a timeless idyl, perhaps some personal and tragic stories make up this dance of body parts. But even when doubt becomes overwhelming, Ugressa grants his subject the command of his canvas. In the politically rigged Venice, this gesture is as necessary as air.

  • Open Group, The Polish pavilion in Venice ★★★☆☆

    Open Group

    Repeat After Me II


    Curated by Marta Czyż

    Control over the Polish pavilion passed to a Ukrainian project in December when the freshly-elected minister of culture unceremoniously pulled the plug on his predecessor’s favourite Ignacy Czwartos’ proposal of history painting. In place of the promised series of hammy tragic images that would promote Poland as the victim of history, Open Group now presents a video diptych in which the tragedy is Ukrainian.

    From the screen, displaced men and women lead a would-be performance, inviting the audience to imitate the sounds of gunfire, artillery rounds, drones, and an air raid. They do this with the patience of kindergarten teachers and their didactic efforts are aided by karaoke-like subtitles. Some viewers do join in, eliciting stifled but sympathetic laughter from others. 

    This isn’t bad propaganda and not terrible art, either. It does, however, portray Ukrainians as aimless, stunted, and lacking the capacity to make their own decisions. Whether this view is accurate or not, it happens to be what the country’s Western allies want of it. NATO would rather be saving Ukraine’s children than contend with its broader responsibilities. At the pavilion’s opening, the crowd’s applause was rapturous. A sense of tragedy, however, was altogether missing.

  • Eva Kot’átková, The Czech pavilion in Venice ★★☆☆☆

    Eva Kot’átková

    The heart of a giraffe in captivity is twelve kilos lighter


    Curated by Hana Janečková
    On until 24 November 2024

    Having exhausted her options as the leading Eastern European female collage artist – an accolade which quickly leads to type-casting – Kot’átková has turned to collaging the world’s story in 3D.  Her lament of the giraffe Lenka, who died after only a brief spell in the Prague zoo in the 1950s, is a cross between a children’s adventure park and a biology lesson taken by a substitute history teacher. Lenka’s innards are rendered in plush pink and red cushions and her cardiovascular system is one with the building’s plumbing.

    So far, so amusing, and so open for the imagination. Lenka would make a powerful symbol of the costs of the friendship of nations and the impressive, though stunted stature of the Czechoslovak dream. 

    Alas, Kot’átková desperately needed this giraffe to broaden her future career prospects. To this end, the animal’s soft guts were deftly co-branded in the exhibition by a group calling itself Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures who boasts “links to indigenous peoples” of Canada but no expertise in zoology. In her short life, Lenka was a victim of a safari and an ideological stunt. Her taxidermied corpse is now host to another. 

  • A Comparative Dialogue Act, Luxemburg pavilion in Venice ★★☆☆☆

    Andrea Mancini, Every Island

    A Comparative Dialogue Act


    Curated by Joel Valabrega
    On until 24 November 2024

    Behind the metallic curtain, a polished steel platform turns this pavilion into a fetishist’s dream theatre. A bunch of glass structures adorned with stripped-down computer parts sets the scene firmly in the language of a faux-futuristic present. A woman crouching on her fours mumbles into a microphone. Her look is menacing but that’s only a put-on. Her name is projected on discreet LCD displays, giving this performance the look of an open mic gig. She speaks of her performance anxiety and thus quickly loses the fight for attention to silence and the pavilion next door.  

    If this is reminiscent of Anne Imhof’s 2017 German pavilion performance Faust, any favourable comparison pales quickly. Andrea Mancini designated the Luxemburg pavilion as a stage for four ‘residencies’ for performers who would use his steel rehearsal cage to record a vinyl audio record.

    This may be generous but is fundamentally misguided. The pavilion’s location and the Biennale’s transient nature are wholly unsuited to this kind of endeavour and the project’s visual framing downs any would-be performer in it. Stage fright is real. Cowardice is another thing altogether.

  • Erick Meyenberg, Nos marchábamos, regresábamos siempre, the Mexican pavilion in Venice ★☆☆☆☆

    Erick Meyenberg

    Nos marchábamos, regresábamos siempre


    On until 24 November 2024

    The exhibition guide outlines Meyenberg’s unremarkably winding family lineage and, without much explanation, the tale of a particular family reunion dinner. It makes use of personal and national stereotypes and stories so complex that even a seasoned historian would reach for a pencil and then for the truth serum. 

    Whatever the reason or purpose of this confusion, it’s not to be found in the gallery where an oversized dining table stands as a memento of this fateful event. White linens and ceramic debris of plates, glass, and foodstuffs pay testament to a feud, but also to life because clay’s wonky stature is an inalienable feature of this millenia-old medium.

    This would have been fine. But Meyenberg needlessly exalts his non-experience by sending a camera around this table-top diorama and drowns the family scene in gratuitous projections. Rather than add, they undermine his story, making an exhibition that distrust its own medium and a tale that quenches curiosity.

  • Abdullah Al Saadi, Sites of Memory, Sites of Amnesia, UAE pavilion in Venice ★★★☆☆

    Abdullah Al Saadi

    Sites of Memory, Sites of Amnesia


    Curated by Tarek Abou El Fetouh
    On until 24 November 2024

    Al Saadi’s storytelling performance is pitched near faultlessly at the cloud generation. The exhibition’s user experience rivals that of the Apple Store. A rusty but airy steel and glass interior funnels the captive viewers towards the pavilion’s Genius Bar where the artist’s highest-prized wares are on display in ornate tins, boxes, and crates. Each contains a tale, a poem, or a little drawing. Line-perfect assistants interpret these tirelessly, though one is left to imagine that even their ad-libs have been tightly scripted. 

    Al Saadi thus smuggles rustic tales of the Middle East into the YouTube unboxing video and draws pencil-thin lines between the date grove and the universal experience of TikTok. That this strategy is commercial rather than artistic is revealed only by the project’s performative slips and frictions and the frankly excessive resources used to communicate so little.

  • looking to the futurepast, we are treading forward, the Bolivian pavilion in Venice ★☆☆☆☆

    looking to the futurepast, we are treading forward


    On until 24 November 2024

    The Russian Federation and Bolivia signed a $450 million Lithium deal last December. Its extra contractual perk of free rent on Russia’s Giardini pavilion clearly took the South American state’s Ministry of Cultures, Decolonization, and Depatriarchalization (yes, that’s the real name of the governmental body) by surprise and it barely succeeded in finding content for the presentation.

    Thankfully, the tourist office dug up a museum demo of traditional yarn-spinning and a bunch of naive folk paintings came out from the store. A set of panpipes tucked in the corner signal that the contemporary is of no interest to a nation whose future is yet to be dug out from the ground. One star is due, however, for this project’s unintentional geopolitical relevance.

  • Trevor Yeung, Hong Kong in Venice ★★★☆☆

    Trevor Yeung

    Courtyard of Attachments


    Curated by Olivia Chow
    On until 24 November 2024

    Young previously found recognition for his faux zoology and pseudo anthropological studies of fungi and gay cruising. This time, he dispensed with the live subject altogether and turned the Hong Kong exhibition into a ghostly aquarian pet shop. Rows of watery glass cubes line a hobbyist’s dream adventure space. Some of the aquaria are fitted with fish castles, others bear traces of photosynthetic activity induced by the purple fluorescent light hues typical of this environment.

    But there are no fish. A single net miserably dangled over a bucket reminds anyone seduced by this sci-fi hall of mirrors that all this engineering is nothing lest life – and thus peril – are a key part of it. Sadly, Yeung seems to have missed his own point here and, as he did in some earlier work, the lesson slips past the viewer. This fishbowl universe is easy sea comfort but ultimately no sushi.

Inspired in form and attitude by Manhattan Art Review.