What use is nationalism in this day and age? Arguably, it has gotten us into the muddy waters of Brexit and the twitter-happy American presidency of Donald Trump. The Venice Biennale, which first opened to the public over a century ago in 1895, famously follows a national-pavilion model, which originally sought to “affirm faith in the moral energies of our nation … without any distinction of nationality”. Today, in a world where artists often live nomadically between multiple cities, this pavilion system is perhaps outmoded—artists not always fairing from the countries they represent.
The Modernist Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti repeatedly refused invitations to exhibit his work at the Swiss Pavilion for the precise reason that he perceived himself to be an international artist, rather than one who could be defined through a national identity—a position that he took regardless of the fact that his brother, Bruno Giacometti, actually built the Swiss Pavilion in 1952.
Giacometti did eventually agree to have his work displayed in the French Pavilion (his adopted country) in 1956, where he showed a series of figurative sculptures made of plaster—called Femme de Venise or Women of Venice. (These sculptures have been brought together again for the first time as part of Tate Modern’s current “Alberto Giacometti” retrospective, which runs until September 10, 2017.) The title of this year’s Swiss Pavilion exhibition directly derives from these tall, waif-like beings and unites works by the Geneva-born, New York-based Carol Bove and the Austin-based duo Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler.
Curated by the Swiss-born, LA-based Philip Kaiser, “Women of Venice” pays homage to Giacometti but through the foregrounding of work by women artists, both past and present. Bove’s seven large-scale sculptures Les Pléiades (2017) directly reference Giacometti’s vertical linearity. Made from a combination of steel, found steel, stainless steel and coated with cyan blue urethane paint, the works appear deceptively malleable and soft. Cylindrical shapes are fused with planes of fragmented matter. Ragged edges frame these forms, which appear to have been bent, squashed or crumpled with ease. As such, they feel dynamic and active, theatrically performing for viewers who weave their bodies between the works in the pavilion’s outdoor courtyard.
The group is named after the seven daughters of Atlas, who in Greek mythology were turned into stars by Zeus when fleeing Orion the hunter. At the Swiss Pavilion, these women return from the sky to stand tall as abstract figures, rooted to the ground and closely allied with one another—separate but connected. Indeed, Bove has described Giacometti as one of her favourite artists, someone who “has an interesting sense of the space between objects, or the suggested space around objects.”
The exhibition’s most moving and subversive work is by Hubbard / Birchler, whose documentary-style-film Flora (2017) explores the life of Flora Mayo, an American artist who met Giacometti in Paris in the 1920s, and after a brief friendship, took him as a lover. Within the main exhibition hall, a large-scale screen fills the space, different projections falling on either side. Shot in colour, one depicts the (now elderly) son of Mayo, who describes her lifetime in Paris, during which she was supported by her wealthy family; her love affair and relationship with Giacometti; her pain at being cut off by her parents as the result of The Great Depression; her struggle as a single mother, once she had moved back to America, abandoned her art practice, and taken a physically gruelling job as a janitor. On the reverse, a fictional representation of Flora is rendered as a stylized black and white film, corresponding to her son’s description of her life. Her short blonde bob and elfin features stare intently as she sculpts a portrait bust of Giacometti—pressing in clay to form an eye; removing matter with a palette knife to mould the curve of a cheek bone. Though long destroyed, a reproduction of this sculpture is presented in the exhibition’s foyer, accompanied by a black-and-white photograph that captures Mayo, Giacometti and the original sculpture: as Giacometti gazes out at the viewer with a slight smile, his bust stares in the direction of Mayo who looks lovingly back at Giacometti himself—a love triangle completed by the viewer’s own acknowledgement of this story.
While the film reveals aspects of Giacometti’s early life, particularly his creative energy as inspired by Mayo, it places Mayo as its primary subject, restoring to her a subjectivity as both artist and woman, which was stripped during her lifetime as the result of financial hardship—she was reduced to existing as a struggling single mother. Here, we remember her, reflect upon her life, and value her work as an artist whose life happened to entwine with that of Giacometti.
The success of the Swiss Pavilion is in its subversive, roundabout tribute to Giacometti, who becomes a narrative thread that runs through the works of both Bove and Hubbard / Birchler. True to his wish, his sculptures have still not been exhibited in the national pavilion, but that’s not to say he can’t be honoured. The result at the Swiss Pavilion is an exhibition that sidesteps or circumvents nationalism, instead focusing on gender issues, reinserting into art history a forgotten woman artist, and rightfully providing a platform for Bove, one of the most exciting contemporary sculptors of this generation.
– By Louisa Elderton