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Seeing Indifference To Art And Science At The 2013 Biennale

A visitor walks past an exhibit in the <a href="http://www.labiennale.org/en/art/exhibition/55iae/">Encyclopedic Palace</a>.
A visitor walks past an exhibit in the <a href="http://www.labiennale.org/en/art/exhibition/55iae/">Encyclopedic Palace</a>.

Two things jumped out at me when I visited the show "Encyclopedic Palace" at the Central Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale. The first is that in a show that claims, according to the wall text, to "initiate an inquiry into the many ways in which images have been used to organize knowledge and shape our experience of the world," the work on display is openly indifferent to anything that might be called knowledge, science or learning. Instead the exhibition is a disturbing celebration of the work of mystics and self-styled visionaries.

On display are séance induced abstractions by Hilma of Klints, images from Jung's Red Book, Aleister Crowley's tarot cards, blackboard doodles from Rudolph Steiner and Guo Fengyi's Chi-Gong visions, among much else.

Is this the curator's idea of a good joke? In the age of climate-change deniers and unreasoned skepticism about human origins, I don't find it very funny.

Or could it be, is it just possible, that from the playful heights of the art world, the very difference between seeing and knowing, on the one hand, and fantasies of communication with sages on the astral plane, on the other, has become too difficult to make out?

The second thing that jumped out at me when I visited the Central Pavilion was the near absence of art.

There is a great deal that is of interest and value, to be sure. For example, the wonderful models of imagined buildings — 387 of them! — that Austrian artist Oliver Croy found in a junk shop in Vienna; or the thrilling collection of pictures made by a Russian tween, most likely for the purposes of his own onanistic pleasure. But these are stand-alones, one-offs, the private products of isolated individuals. They are not so much art as they are art's raw materials.

Art happens in community, in exchange with others, in participation with the ideas and work of others who share common questions, puzzles, fascinations.

I wonder whether the curator's indifference to knowledge and science is also what explains his apparent indifference to art.

Art and science are different, to be sure. But they have a common origin in our joint engagement with a shared reality; and each thrives only in the crucible of community. Where there is no knowledge, there can be no art. And where there is no art, there is not even the desire for knowledge.

A final note: there are a few works of bona fide art on display in the Central Pavilion. For example, there is Tino Sehgal's wonderful installation (discussed here last week), and there are also striking works by Tacita Dean, Ellen Altfest and Artur Zmijewski. For the most part, though, the show does not even try to target art.

It should also go without saying that these critical remarks about the show in the Central Pavilion of the Giardini are not intended to apply to the work in the different national pavilions. There is magnificent art at this year's Biennale. I especially recommend the work at the French, British and Romanian Pavilions.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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