The Malta Independent 28 January 2023, Saturday
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The Posthuman Condition and Kinetic Art: A marvel of alternative cosmologies at the Venice Biennale

Tuesday, 22 November 2022, 11:11 Last update: about 3 months ago

AnneMarie Saliba

Revolving oil drill heads, rotating motors, falling liquid, moving metal, meditative musical scores, flowing water, flashing lights, disharmonic sounds and a rain of fire: indisputably, an outstanding spectacle of kinetic art lies at the heart of The Milk of Dreams, the 59th edition of the Venice Biennale. This year, several artists exhibiting at the well-renowned international art show at the Arsenale and the Giardini of Venice inspect the posthuman condition. The present-day division between technological optimism and pessimism has led a number of artists to imagine a world that bridges the human and the non-human - a world where, irrespective of our condition, we are one with other species and with Earth as a whole. The presence of kinetic art at the Biennale 2022 is conspicuous; the fusion of art and motion emerges as a leading medium of art that excellently interprets and expresses the relationship between human beings and technology.

The Milk of Dreams is curated by Cecilia Alemani and its title has been taken from a book by Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) produced in the 1950s while the artist was living in Mexico. The Surrealist artist expressed her dreamy and magical visions of humans and animals through her writing and her drawings. She created a puzzling cosmos of anomalous creatures with the intention of forging a fanciful, outlandish universe where everything and everyone can be transformed into something or someone else.

To manifest the metamorphoses of bodies and human transformations, several installations at the Venice Biennale utilise various kinds of technological innovations. Such art is commonly referred to as kinetic art, otherwise known as art that incorporates movement. Kinetic art flourished in the 20th century with the work of artists who were in search of a new system of language, one that went beyond the static language of the Renaissance. As a result, a new obsession with the nature of vision and space emerged. The era between the 1920s and the 1960s witnessed multiple experiments with new forms of sculpture and mobiles. Major artists of note include Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953), Alexander Calder (1898-1976), Jean Tinguely (1925-1991), Dan Flavin (1933-1996) and Naum Gabo (1937-1977). The approach towards the creation of kinetic art varies from one artist to another. From concerns with mathematical relations and optical illusions, to capturing speed, to an examination of light and rhythm, one thing is certain: kinetic art can wonderfully evoke all sorts of human states and emotions. As the Italian post-war sculptor Nino Calos claimed "art, even when it is kinetic, is an emotional experience created by the mind of man!" This year there is no better place to observe and examine kinetic art and its power in the invention of a new cosmos of human and non-human beings than at the Venice Biennale.

One of the most successful pavilions is the Korean Pavilion, curated by Lee Yong-Chul. Kim Yunchul's Gyre features five chromatic-kinetic works that together form an alternative universe where objects, humans and nature coexist. Fluid movements and the physical changes of the installation are programmed in tandem with the frequency and intensity of sounds. The concept of Yunchul's art, however, is not solely an exploration of materials and fluid dynamics. The artist merges art, literature, mythology, anthropology, philosophy, science and cosmology and appeals to our diverse understandings of life. He brings together three themes: The Swollen Suns, The Path of Gods and The Great Outdoors. These deal with the various dynamics of existence such as the relationship between humans and non-humans, beginnings and endings and physical reality.

The incorporation of Rebecca Horn's iconic sculpture Kiss of the Rhinoceros (1989) is exceptionally appropriate as a celebration of an imaginary world where animals, humans and technology co-exist. Horn's iconic Kiss of the Rhinoceros was initially displayed at the international exhibition Les Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (1989). It particularly highlights the artist's oeuvre which consists of artworks that convey a symbolic world where mechanised objects are freed from their materiality and instead take on a dynamic meaning that relates to mythical, spiritual and literary imagery. In Kiss of Rhinoceros, two steel arms with metal horns of a rhinoceros on top of each arm, pull apart from each other and towards each other in a rhythmic manner. An electric flash flows between them, however, and stops them from completing one whole circle. The opening and closing of arms imitate a human gesture, but Horn renders it in the form of a cyborg animal to bring into question the pre-eminence of the human form.

The installation Endless House: Holes and Drips by the South Korean artist Mire Lee also explores the human form and particularly highlights the theme of animateness. By producing animatronics with metal rods, low-tech motors and PVC hoses through which silicone, grease and oil flow, she assimilates these creations to a human's internal organs. Liquid clay seeps out of the holes of ceramic sculptures which resemble our metabolism and circulatory system. Lee's fascination with the human body and its deformation allowed her to push more boundaries by drawing attention to physical disabilities as an attempt to raise awareness and comparison to non-disabled bodies. She states that she "started thinking that the more disfigured one's body is, the more people start regarding it as an inanimate sculpture, not as a human form with a soul - as if something essential is missing". Bare organs, gurgles of liquid and open pores are no longer protected under layers of skin. Instead, a certain powerful vulnerability emerges. The use of animatronics in her installation allowed Lee to offer a different way of being by blurring the distinction that we often make between the mind and the body.

Furthermore, an urge to contemplate on today's global world issues is a concern of many artists showcasing their work at the Venice Biennale 2022. Monira Al Qadiri's kinetic installation entitled Orbital stands out as it seeks to alert us about the past, present and future of the Earth's depleting resources. Three revolving 3D sculptures imitate rotating oil drill heads and portray Al-Qadiri's story on how the industry of pearl-diving, which was the main industry in Kuwait for around 2,000 years, has been taken over by the oil industry. Through experimentation with colour and form, she takes into consideration the future of petroleum and attempts to make a connection between herself and her grandfather who used to sing on pearl-diving boats. Al-Qadiri chose shiny, iridescent colours for her sculptures since they imitate the colours of pearls and oil which share the same colour spectrum. The drill heads float magically on top of their bases in which magnetic floating displays were inserted. There is no doubt that science fiction serves as inspiration for the artist. The kinetic sculptures that symbolise the devastation of our environment are almost alien-like machineries from an imaginary world. The kinetic triptych succeeds in bringing across not only Al-Qadiri's personal artistic recount of her connection with her grandfather but also her critique of progression and technological advances in relation to how they have led to the present-day destruction of our planet.  

The invitation to contemplate on the contemporary world is a core concept of the installation of molten metal and water by Arcangelo Sassolino, Brian Schembri and Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci for the Malta Pavilion entitled Diplomazija astuta (Cunning diplomacy). Essentially, the pavilion is a contemporary interpretation of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's seminal altarpiece, The Beheading of St John the Baptist (1608) found in the Oratory of the Decollato in St John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta. The immersive project, curated by Keith Sciberras and Jeffrey Uslip, merges a biblical narrative with contemporary social, political and cultural concerns. It is a pavilion that embodies the essence of kinetic art. The installation is composed of an engraved steel plate that has the exact measurements as Caravaggio's painting, seven water-filled basins made of steel that symbolise the seven figures in the Baroque composition and an induction machine that melts metal at 1500 degrees in droplets of steel which fall into the basins of water. Once the melted steel hits the water, it hisses, cools, turns into a ball of steel once more and sinks into the bottom of the pools. Moreover, the Malta pavilion attempts to make its viewers think about current atrocities such as wars, famines and genocides. The core themes of Caravaggio's monumental 1608 altarpiece are re-situated within the misfortunes and injustices of contemporary life. Sassolino's kinetic installation, Schembri Bonaci's calligraphic marks and multilingual Biblical texts on the steel plate, together with Schembri's set of musical scores attempt to "de-caravaggize" Caravaggio by propelling his canvas into the present day. It is in this way that Diplomazija astuta invites us to pause and reflect on ourselves and our world, in hope to reconcile the past and the present, and shared humanist principles are sustained in the future.

Perhaps the biggest embrace of kinetic art lies at the core of the Giardini at the main exhibition curated by Alemani. A number of artworks from the 1960s and 1970s spotlight the human fascination with mechanics and technology and accentuate Carrington's fantasies about the fusion of man and machine. The exhibition Technology of Enchantment showcases the art of Dadamaino (1930-2004), Lucia di Luciano (1933-), Nanda Vigo (1936-2020), Grazia Varisco (1937-), Laura Grisi (1939-2017), Marina Apollonio (1940-). A fascination with an industrial aesthetic, the creation of stimuli, an intimacy between the physical, scientific and spiritual, perceptual experiments and a show of light, vibrations and impulses, dazzle the viewers as they enter the central pavilion of the Giardini. The marvellous display of optical illusions and stimulating, luminous, geometrical sculptures make the exhibition a highly immersive one.

The Milk of Dreams is an exquisite culmination of the amalgamation of kinetic art and the posthuman condition. The beauty of the convergences between engineering, technology, motion, light and sound in kinetic installations, merged with notions of humanism and beyond, have created a sensational and spectacular international art show. The Venice Biennale 2022 has provided us with the perfect occasion to contemplate our universe, who we are, and who we want to be. It makes us aware of our mortality and of our interdependency that binds us together, to other species and to the whole world.  The Milk of Dreams is an optimistic exhibition that tries to imagine alternative cosmologies where everyone and everything can co-exist while showing us what our universe is like and what we are able to become.

The curatorial team for the Malta Pavilion comprises of curators Keith Sciberras and Jeffrey Uslip, kinetic artist Arcangelo Sassolino, artist Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, musician and composer Brian Schembri and lastly, project managers Nikki Petroni, Esther Flury and Laura Dequal.

The Malta Pavilion is commissioned by Arts Council Malta under the auspices of the Ministry of National Heritage, The Arts and Local Government


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