Outsiders in Venice / About Educators of a Limited Scope

written by Željko Kipke

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Massimiliano Gioni (born in 1973), the youngest curator of the international exhibition of contemporary arts in Venice, replied very casually to a remark made by a Chinese journalist that the number of Chinese artists at the central exhibition is not very high. He replied that he did not focus on the professional track record of those selected and but focused on their works. That the works generated a certain mystical frequency was much more important to him than the professional pedigree of selected artists. During the press conference, the Chinese journalist, who introduced himself as both a journalist and an artist, criticized him for selecting only three authors – two without any formal artistic training, and one professional –out of the immense artistic potential of the world’s most populous country. The artistic director of the biennale casually mentioned the fact that several major Chinese institutions organize collateral events outside the Arsenale and Giardini, something that should help achieve a broader perception of contemporary Asian art in Venice. He complemented this witty remark with another notorious fact that a distinguished institution like Moma of New York would never agree to organize collateral events during the Biennale.[1]


Representing this year’s exhibition, Gioni decided to give an equal opportunity to renowned authors, less renowned authors, almost unknown ones, those with no training, amateurs, creators of amazing worlds whose artefacts and properties are close to museum practice, but have not been in the public focus, at least not in the way in which more or less popular museums seize this focus. Due to this type of openness, it was obvious that the current Director of Exhibitions of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York owes a lot to the late Harald Szeemann. You could even say to the longest lasting curator of the Venice Biennale, who opened this Italian brand in all directions. Towards young artists, gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), Asian authors, therapeutic effect of art, etc. In other words, all the aspects of Szeemann’s curating aura can be recognized in young Gioni’s concept.


Last year’s exhibition, curated by Bica Kuriger from Switzerland, has already shown how the story of illumination, or a deep look back all the way to the 16th century and paintings by Tintoretto, can be dramatic and how it can open a different formula of gesamtkunstwerk in contemporary practice. With a series of para-pavilions directed by renowned artists, among other things… A similar pattern with the para-pavilion, or an exhibition within the exhibition, is placed in the middle of the Arsenale at the 55th exhibition of contemporary art. In it, Cindy Sherman, the American artist skilled in disguise, took off her mask and showed her priorities. Her selection of items and images encompasses mostly unknown authors focused on dolls – twisted, deformed, hypertrophied or invisible, like some hidden props of a Haitian voodoo ritual, and in exceptional cases like models in exclusive ladies’ magazines in 1920s Berlin…[2] Sherman’s anti-museum also includes the cover pages of Soviet magazine Ogonyok (‘little flame’) portrayed in a negative light by the Ukrainian artist Sergej Zarva, with paintings of politicians with deformed faces. He applied a magic ritual similar to Haitian tradition on Soviet media propaganda. Instead of dolls and needles, Zarva used the faces of politicians on the cover page, turning them into monsters from Frankenstein’s workshop by painting interventions.


There is no doubt that the American artist refreshed Gioni’s allegory about outsiders as equally significant, and with a dramatic effect on the contemporary arts climate. The props in her mini museum include one signed by Paul MacCarthy, a notable person from the American scene. It is generally known that his artistic excesses were bordering on the behaviour of an outsider in terms of style. In other words, there should be no difference between educated and non-educated artists, at least not in the domain of spiritual systems that are not an expression of the mentality of a subject’s allegiance, addicted to new technologies and dimensions of neo-liberal doctrine. From this neo-liberal perspective, the 55th exhibition seems a little bit naïve, and it is even understandable that critical reviews will not be too favourable. They will especially not be favourable due to the revaluation of surrealism and its assistants in a broader sense. These individuals – artists and amateurs, side by side – would be unreservedly promoted by the father of surrealism, André Breton (if he was alive, by some miracle), into the company of the privileged caste, only to be dispossessed of their privileged position the very next moment and mercilessly thrown out onto the street. In a short video walk around Breton’s extensive collection of rare books, paintings and tribal artefacts from the African continent, the British artist Ed Atkins (1982) suggested a metaphor of the collection being a corpse after the death of its owner. The Trick Brain video can also be seen in the Arsenale, a few rooms before Cindy Sherman’s amazing collection[3]. Gioni’s look back at the fateful times of the turn of the 20th century, especially at the less popular places and individuals who reached into parallel worlds of magnetism, spiritualism, hypnotism and the occult, could easily lose their foothold and privileged position, guaranteed by the 6-month duration of the Venice event, from June until late November.


Before the current story about better or lesser known outsiders in artistic practice wears out, it is useful to warn of some aspects of a bold look back at the educators of a limited scope. A look at the alternative crowd, with some who left a brilliant trace in philosophy like Rudolf Steiner, explorers of extrasensory perception like Carl Gustav Jung, or promoters of black magic rituals like Aleister Crowley and his collaborator in tarot cards, Frieda Harris[4]. Their esoteric engagement outgrew the scientific research envelope set by liberal society rules. In recent times, when the scientific community sets ever stricter rules of engagement for its members, when their research drags behind the wonders of the world and nature, the above are actually synonymous with a subversive operation in a liberal society. Their works have found their rightful place at the Venice exhibition of encyclopaedic systems outside the dimensions of the times in which they were created. Even today, Jung’s research of non-causality and the theory of synchronicity are regarded as scientifically illegitimate achievements, irrational in every regard and unsuitable to the pragmatism of the new era. Even David Cronenberg’s film The Dangerous Method,[5] a kind of soap opera about the early days of Jung, Freud and the Russian Sabina Spielrein,[6] Jung’s patient, lover, and later even a psychiatrist, raised doubts about the late esoteric work of the Swiss scientist.


The turn of the 20th century is symptomatic for the accentuated orientation of imperial communities and their individuals towards spiritualism. Germano Celent wrote an article for Artforum about the special connection between Italian futurism and spiritual séances, appearances of ectoplasm and so on.[7] There are numerous examples of people from that period, in whose public work the role of illusion techniques was almost as important as the scientific experiment itself. Nikola Tesla is certainly a brilliant example, and you could easily say that he acted like an artist. This metaphysician from the Croatian region of Lika failed to pass Gioni’s review, and the same happened with Vladimir Dodig-Trokut, the Croatian collector of everything and the founder of the Anti-museum. Simply put, polymaths from the Balkans rarely or never enter the field of vision of curators of popular events. Tesla’s performances in front of an audience are just as weird and mystical as Jung’s Red Book[8] or Steiner’s blackboard lectures. If an arts curator in Italy acknowledged Tesla’s genius, this would significantly disturb the false concept about the Italian genius[9] who allegedly invented the radio, although scientific circles know very well how things stand in regard to that particular patent. It seems that Szeemann’s enchantment with Trokut’s warehouses of amazing items from nearer or farther everyday life failed to ‘infect’ his successor. Although the biennale’s current curator used and expanded earlier biennale stories about gesamtkunstwerk, collectors of rare paintings and items, artistic techniques as an efficient form of self-therapy and so on. Trokut’s place in this context was worthy of attention, since Gioni’s associates thoroughly combed the African, Asian and Latin American continents, bringing to Venice amateurs whose props contain a strong metaphysical impulse. The constellations of exhibited items or installations reveal the strong dedication and fanaticism of their owners, i.e. creators. Trokut is an ideal figure in that regard, so it is not surprising that the Swiss art historian included him in his latest exhibition – about the Balkans – in a private contemporary arts museum not far from Vienna[10].


Anti-museum has been a Croatian brand since the beginning of the 1980s, and his owner and director has presented himself from the early days of his artistic career as a psychic through which the institution lives and spreads in all directions. Gioni’s key thesis in selecting individual educators of a limited scope is certainly their position of being a psychic, or the fact that they are able to receive messages and images, regardless of how they explain the circumstances under which they are received or the mechanism that sends them. Dreams, daydream visions, unknown voices, the unconscious, effects of drugs, various trance techniques, these are just some of the patterns to which the detached individuals/media owe their experiences. The immense number of unknown authors at the central exhibition of contemporary arts in Venice had to attract, and will attract, the attention of the public and the critics. This procedure will be differently interpreted in the context of contemporary practice that is a slave to the postulates of neo-liberal society. On the one hand, the Venetian pattern goes against the grain of that doctrine, in the sense of refreshing the professional scene. On the other hand, it is a warning about the important distinction between authentic psychics and contemporary artists who carefully plan their artistic cvs. Hence, this can be read as an artificial extension of Western society’s cultural agony, in the sense of expanding the field of struggle for contemporary art. According to parameters that, for example, give eu bureaucrats nightmares. According to metaphysics, alogical structures, synchronicity, spiritual correspondence between various things, events and people who were once favoured by the surrealists, and started the artistic epidemic on a global scale. It is interesting that Gioni’s list also includes the young Brazilian artist Paulo Nazareth (1977). At the very edge of the Giardino delle Vergini, in a small church in the complex behind the Arsenale, he arranged everyday life in Venice in the spirit of Trokut’s anti-museum and called it the My Mother’s Saints (Santos de minha mãe). He collected shop products that carry the names of saints adored by his mother, and arranged them on the floor like flea market vendors do. This kind of sensibility towards everyday life and its attributes has been cultivated by the Croatian anti-museum man for more than four decades, starting in the year of Nazareth’s birth.


The recent (Venice) form of expanding the field of struggle in contemporary art and theory largely delves into the philosophical and futuristic thesis about free time as a significant prerequisite of artistic work. Indeed, it even touches on the thesis of how all people will become artists in the foreseeable future – even Karl Marx mentioned this, speaking about the surplus of time, expanding creative work to philosophy and science. The organizers of the 55th festival could have easily included fragments of his documents among the numerous short essays and commentaries of writers, theoreticians, artists, historians, filmmakers and so on, that were included in the exhibition catalogue to accompany the central theme of amazing collections of the world[11]. In late 1960s or early 1970s, a Hungarian artist made a provocative Fluxus prognosis[12]. In it, he claims that by the year 2150 the entire population will be employed by the police, and by 2240 all the people will be artists, including the employees of repressive institutions. Its historical framework in Hungarian society is clear, but in a broader sense this prognosis expresses an almost insurmountable gap between the liberal monitoring of individuals (where there are no longer anonymous characters) and art as a zone of resistance to that same pragmatism.


The story about more or less self-taught polymaths sets the artistic measures very broadly. Regardless of whether they interpret them as something completely different, like therapy, fetish production, a heavenly alphabet, magical tools, or whether they have in focus a private cosmogony or similar. Most of them kept their engagement with paintings, objects or photographs secret. Like Jung, who for many years hid the Red Book from the eyes of the public, they too were focused on extrasensory perception that in the 1950s grabbed the attention of this Swiss scientist[13]. Despite keeping this secret, the names of dedicated researchers appeared at the Venice festival, a sign of a different impulse under the auspices of contemporary artistic practice. Perhaps even as a message of the status of anti-stars that dealt with ‘matter’ rather than with their position in society or their careers. Like the doll lover from Boston who hand-made fascinating models and successfully hid them from the public until his death. Morton Bartlett started as an orphan placed in a prosperous Boston family, so he probably made himself a parallel sanctuary with the dolls’ help. Or the self-proclaimed educator from the Ivory Coast, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, who used drawings to teach his fellow villagers the unwritten, almost extinct language called Bété. He drew hieroglyphics on small cardboard cards made from shoe boxes. In the end, the alphabet with more than 400 cards – écriture africaine, as he called them – ended up in European collections. Among the first who recognized the educational value of African mini-postcards from the early 1980s was Peter Ludwig, the founder of the famous European museum chain. And then there was the self-sacrificing Swedish psychic Hilma af Klint whose painting career was shaken by Rudolf Steiner. But the employees of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet were not shaken when they organized a retrospective exhibition in February 2013 of the works of this pioneer of abstraction from the turn of the century.[14] This humble artist devoted to spiritualism hid a rich heritage with more than a thousand works. Their futuristic orientation was revealed a hundred years later, first in the Swedish museum of contemporary arts, and later at the Venice Biennale.


Not even Zagreb’s Museum of Contemporary Art was indifferent to the mysterious frequency in the air that works in favour of outsiders. Tihomir Milovac, the museum’s senior curator, worked for more than three years on gathering the heritage of Stjepan Bukovina, a self-taught Croatian fantast and fundamentalist, and entering it in the institution’s registries. The effort was fruitful, and two months before the beginning of the Venice festival, a little cosmogonic magic entered the permanent collection of the Zagreb museum. Of course, something was in the air, Gioni spoke at the press conference about the telepathic abilities of selected authors, so at this level we could connect three syndromes. The Swedish, the Italian and finally the Croatian. Bukovina (1935–2012) still has not achieved that international aura, although his works are unique examples of ‘fundamental science’ in the context of art. His paintings were first pointed out by the late Nada Vrkljan-Križić when she organized the first exhibition of outsiders in that museum (which was then located in the Upper Town) way back in 1998.[15]


The central theme of the 55th exhibition in Venice – The Encyclopaedic Palace – named after the architectural phantasm of a car mechanic,[16] will definitely be remembered for its openness to new faces in the context of contemporary art. Most of them were not aware of that, like the Brazilian[17] who spent most of his life in a mental institution, or the Swedish woman who kept her vision of abstract art a secret, much earlier than Wassily Kandinsky or Kazimir Malevich. Gioni’s look back perhaps wasn’t attractive from the viewpoint of contemporary art, but however it speaks quietly in favour of the nameless prognosticators whose parallel universes were actually subversive compared to the neo-liberal organization of media practice. Most of them successfully resisted museum bureaucracy. They resisted the spoiled society that adores living spectacles, but even more likes seeing them filed away in museum moulds. Their strength will undoubtedly slowly extinguish in them.


In the Central Pavilion in Giardini, next to Jung’s Red book – if you disregard the partition walls – runs the short film by Artur Żmijewski from 2010 (Blindly). In it, the Polish filmmaker talks several blind people into painting first themselves, and then a landscape with a sun. The provocative therapy on the movie screen is a metaphor of limited scope. It first says that a contemporary artist must constantly expand the field of struggle. The blind psychics mostly make circular forms[18], and their visions are only theirs; they don’t worry how they look at the end after the struggle with fingers, brushes and paint. The museum and gallery audience see something completely different in them – patterns that could have been compared to something close from the history of painting. Polack’s film was not provocative in the sense of teaching the blind to paint. The experiment is provocative for being a warning that the parallel world of the blind is a great mystery. They try to leave the best possible impression, but their perception of the environment is futuristic. It is completely different and hard to understand by someone saturated with the visual spectacle of everyday life. In other words, things visible to the general audience in front of the movie screen or the art historians have nothing to do with the personal experience of blind painters.


[1] The press conference was held at high noon on 29 May 2013 in Teatro Piccolo Arsenale, a hundred metres from the entrance to the Arsenale. The following Chinese artists were selected: the late Guo Fengyi (1942–2010), a former tyre factory worker, can be found in Giardini; Kan Xuan (1972) is in Arsenale, with a video review of imperial graves from the rich Chinese past; and Lin Xue (1968), a drawer of phantasmagoric landscapes. As far as collateral events are concerned, two projects by Ai Weiwei are quite impressive. S.A.C.R.E.D. is a mini theatre in six containers on the topic of his imprisonment in China at a secret location for somewhat less than three months, and is located not far from Arsenal in the church of Sant’Antonin. The other one is Straight on Giudecci 32 (Fondamenta delle Zitelle), which consists of numerous iron bars from reinforced concrete structures torn down during the earthquake in Szechuan in 2008. The Chinese artist straightened the twisted bars in order to be able to lay them on the floors of institutions that invite him as a guest. On the Arsenale’s northern side you can also see a summary of 30 years of the Chinese independent scene (Arts Museum, Guangdong), or the 20 years of Chinese art in the context of the Venice Biennale (Contemporary Arts Museum, Chengdu), etc.

[2] Karl Schenker worked with fashion photography, creating wax mannequins, putting make up on them and photographing them in elegant poses and clothes. With great skill – as both photographer and artisan – he erased the border between living and artificial figures. The years of his birth and death are unreliable, but it is considered that he died in Great Britain in 1951 or 1952.

[3] The white mask of Breton’s face from the early 1950s, a work of French sculptor René Iché (1897–1954), has been installed in the introductory area of the exhibition in the Central Pavilion in Giardini, immediately before the opening to the hall with Steiner’s blackboard drawings.

[4] The templates were done in watercolours, based on a suggestion by Crowley, and the first set of cards was printed after their death. The first edition came out in 1969, followed by a second in 1977 in a much better quality. The third came out nine years later.

[5] A Dangerous Method (2011) was first shown outside the competition on the closing night of the 9th Zagreb Film Festival in Europa cinema.

[6] This Russian scientist dedicated to child psychiatry escaped Stalin’s purges and gulags, but in the German invasion on the Soviet Union she was executed for being a Jew, together with her two daughters, during the second occupation of Rostov in 1942.

[7] Germano Celant, ‘Futurism and the Occult’, Artforum xix, No 5, New York, January 1981, pp. 36–42. The essay is an expanded version of his article ‘Futurismo esoterico’ published in Bologna in 1970.

[8] It is installed in the circular entrance hall of the Central Pavilion in Giardini and protected by a glass cylinder. The illustrated manuscript bound in red leather was created far from the eyes of the public for a full 16 years, from 1914 to 1930. Its creator revealed that it includes the initial material of his future theories.

[9] Guglielmo Marconi.

[10] Harald Szeemann, ‘Blood and Honeythe Futures in the Balkans’, Sammlung Essl, Klosterneuburg/Vienna, 2003.

[11] Il Palazzo Encicopledico, Marsilio Editori, Venice 2013, pp. 23–330. Find out more about the details of Marx’s theory of free time in the scientific study of Doğan Bariş Kilinç Labor, Leisure and Freedom in the Philosophies of Aristotle, Karl Marx and Herbert Marcuse (http://www.marcuse.org/herbert/booksabout/00s/06Dogan_Baris_Kilinc_Tez.pdf)

[12] Tamás Szentjóby.

[13] See chapter 7 of the book Duh i život (The Spirit and Life), called ‘Sinhronicitet kao princip akauzalnih veza’ (Synchronicity as a principle of acausal relationships), Matica Srpska, Novi Sad, 1984, pp. 119 – 197

[14] ‘Hilma af Klint – Pioneer of Abstraction’, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 16 February to 26 May 2013. Iris Müller-Westermann was the curator of the retrospective exhibition that attracted great attention in the western world.

[15] Stjepan Bukovina participated in the first exhibition ‘Outsideri / umjetnici s onu stranu zrcala…’ (Outsiders / artists on the other side of the looking glass…) at Katarinski Square 3, from 26 February to 28 March 1998. The second event of this kind, also after the concept of Nada Vrkljan-Križić was also installed in msu, on the same location, two years later, from 30 March to 16 April 2000. Stjepan Bukovina did not participate in the exhibition ‘Outsideri 2’.

[16] Maurino Auriti, born in Italy, designed an architectural model for the future palace of complete human knowledge, and placed it in the us state of Pennsylvania, in the small town of Kennett Square, known for its production of mushrooms. If it had been built, it would have been the tallest building of that time. Since then, but also beforehand, architects have not stopped striving for height, and each new business tower has all the properties of a gigantic organism with all the available technological knowledge of the world. It is a race without a winner, because technology changes from day to day, hour to hour…

[17] Arthur Bispo do Rosário (1910–1989) publicly revealed his vision that he was sent on a mission by God. This cost him five decades of his life in an asylum, during which he manufactured flags with religious content. He used needle and thread to write prophesies, cryptograms and texts of impossible love on them. He was a collector of all sorts of objects and materials, turning them into a fleet of miniature ships, as a reminder that he we was a signaller in the navy as a young man.

[18] We could talk about circular forms at the Biennale in great detail. It is sufficient to mention just a few examples, starting with the series of anonymous tantric paintings exhibited in the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, the abstract visions of Hilma af Klint, Auriti’s architectural palace, Jung’s vision in the form of mandala, or the drawings of Emma Kunz, another Swiss woman who developed healing methods using extrasensory perception, believing her mind has telepathic abilities…