With ‘Il Palazzo Enciclopedico’ (The Encyclopedic Palace) curator Massimiliano Gioni has expanded the customary roll-call of established and emerging artists to embrace more liminal figures, adroitly evading any binding definition of Outsider Art through a generalised notion of the ‘inner image’. An intriguing side-effect is that it casts its eye over the modernist period through the work of the self-taught, the socially excluded and the mentally ill, whose practice in turn finds an analogue in the current vogue for the handcrafted in contemporary art.
There are drawbacks to this approach, and shared traits among the outsiders inevitably emerge, including a tendency to combine pedantic detail with pedestrian execution. However, when fatigue with the overly elaborate threatens to set in there is always something to lift the spirits, such as the drawings of Guo Fengyi, who thought of herself as a medium, channelling images through the practice of Qi Gong. Here her work is cleverly paired with the stone collection of dissident surrealist Roger Caillois.
Among the younger artists, labour- intensive media like 16mm film are almost de rigeur. Fascination is a recurrent theme in Melvin Moti’s work; in ‘Eigengrau’ (2011) it stems from the sensual properties of light refracted in slowly revolving glassware. Joao Maria Gusmao and Pedro Faiva show films shot in Mozambique that depict repeated, enigmatic actions: a pot being shaped on a wheel, an elephant’s trunk grasping for peanuts and marking the oor with damp, calligraphic swipes. Yet, in spite of references to René Daumel, these elegant vignettes border on the trite.
In the Arsenale, Cindy Sherman’s curated room is most impressive. A display case of paño drawings is particularly compelling: inked by Chicano inmates of US jails, the handkerchiefs portray a generic cornucopia of big hair, muscle cars and pin-ups, interwoven with symbols of clowns, peacocks and commedia dell’arte masks. Elsewhere, there is a welcome re-presentation of Dieter Roth’s video installation ‘Solo Scenes’ (1997–98), which subtly exploits the medium’s capacity to toy with ideas of presence and temporality.
Albert Oehlen’s collages boast a ‘pizza box design aesthetic’, although they are quite sedate compared to Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch’s four-part installation, one of which features a cage- fighting Russell Brand lookalike in camo. Another comes on like a ’90s video-clip, played out in an endless loop of teenage pranks, casual vandalism and woodland idylls broken up by the cops; a grunge séance in night-vision.
Shinro Ohtake’s obsessive scrapbooks are a delight: combing the detritus of globalised culture, his collages at times resemble fantastical Kaiju movie posters – Mao versus Santa Claus, adorned with decals of Hindu deities. Yuksel Arsan offers the sight of a monumental head of Ataturk being licked by a pack of dogs, amongst other images that annex the kind of psychotronic territory once favoured by Robert Crumb, whose illustrated Genesis, a couple of rooms away, provides as much scope for his gifts as old blues music or Haight Ashbury in the ’60s.
There’s a nostalgic undercurrent of pre-millennial esoterica coursing through the exhibition, as if it had been facilitated by Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone. A fantasy of course, yet attendant notions of poetic terrorism or pirate utopias t with its penchant for the exotic over the drearily authentic. Fittingly, it finds space for various eminences grises of the last century: Carl Jung, Rudolf Steiner and Aleister Crowley are all showing.
‘Il Palazzo Enciclopedico’ pulls off the neat trick of feeling personally argued while mollifying the often conflicting expectations that accompany the Biennale.