“The Encyclopaedic Palace” was the title of this year’s Venice Biennale. It was taken from Italian-American artist Marino Auriti’s 1950s model for a 136-floor Encyclopaedic Palace, intended to house all humanity’s achievements. Curator Massimiliano Gioni described it as the fulfilment of his aim for an exhibition to be about “the desire to see and know everything”.
I had assumed this label to be expedient; a name which would allow the show to accommodate the vast array of art shipped-in from the four corners of the world. And, in many ways, the biennale was no different from previous years. There was an absolute abundance of art. As a collection, its diversity and seeming incoherence was matched only by its size. It continued to surprise until my senses could no longer respond. To the cynic, or the plain lazy, it could feel as if the exhibition is merely a reflection of our era; excessive, disparate, grabbing, elitist.
But the assembled work at the Arsenale was actually very different. Firstly, it appeared close to a unified whole. While their form varied immensely, and the origin of the art too (such incongruence perhaps being a truer representation of modern societies, as bound by the sum of their distinct parts) they shared an altogether more profound commonality: Most of the artists shared a desire to generate knowledge.
Auriti’s model was a towering aspiration, but other art, such as the philosopher-educationalist Rudolf Steiner’s cryptic sketches or Ivorian artist Frédéric Bouabré’s colourful pictograph drawings from his own “World Knowledge” series, are an exuberant and optimistic attempt to build and sustain human knowledge.
This earnest connection between artistic expression and the creation of knowledge was unusual, in an era when contemporary art is so often ironic. The exhibition subverted Enlightenment ideas in which human knowledge must be the product of scientific rationalism. Much of the art was Outsider-ish; childish, playful, narrow and folkish, exemplified by Patrick Van Caeckenburgh’s photorealistic trees.
The other affront to traditional Enlightenment ideas was that knowledge generation must somehow be a secular domain: for the first time ever the Vatican hosted a pavilion.
It was curated by Micol Forti, who curates 19th-century and contemporary art at the Vatican museums. “It’s very important for the Holy See to be here”, she said. “It’s a different situation where you can create a space for a dialogue with different ideas, different ideological thinking, different religions. Here at the biennale, it is not important where you are from: the only important thing is that there is a place where you can speak.”
The idea was the brainchild of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, an enthusiastic polymath who, as president of the Pontifical Council for Culture since 2009, has often tried to build bridges between the Church and contemporary culture.
In this market-place of ideas, the Vatican was actively promoting its role in furthering human consciousness, if not esoteric knowledge of the kind exhibited in the open-plan rooms of the Arsenale. Their three rooms covered three themes. Intense, large-screened interactive videos by the Milanese collective Studio Azzurro focused on creation. These were followed by stark black and white photographic images of man’s destructiveness, by Czech photographer Josef Koudelka. American artist Lawrence Carroll completed the narrative with his hopeful paintings, hinting at restoration and renewal.
The pavilion successfully conveyed these themes, as well as the underlying notion that the Roman Catholic Church remains central to the story of human knowledge. As such the biennale argued convincingly that the sources of human knowledge have always breached the Enlightenment ideal; knowledge has always derived from hermitic outsiders and centralized religions as much as from secular rationalists.