My primary goal at Laumeier Sculpture Park is to use the whole space and history of St. Louis as a platform for artistic research, using the rubric “archaeology of place” to guide our thematic shows. This notion has helped us commission work by artists from around the globe—Matts Leiderstam (Sweden), Ken Lum (Canada), Tea Mäkipää (Finland), Ahmet Ögüt (Turkey), Emily Speed (United Kingdom), and Kim Yasuda (United States), among others—to match the opportunities in our 105 acres in a near-suburb of St. Louis. We use our “cultural landscape” to explore how and why we live in the world the way that we do. Ultimately it is the performance of place and space that I am interested in, and this year’s Venice Biennale was rich in this regard.
Large-scale exhibitions like the Venice Biennale have allowed me to construct a global understanding of contemporary artistic practice. It was at Venice many years ago that I learned not to be overwhelmed by the volume of work in large biennials and fairs such as Documenta and Art Basel. I have learned to seek, instead, only a handful of artists whose work would be served by being in my institution’s context and would engage our local audiences through their mediation of the conflicting forces of our world. Artists show us how we can connect to our fellow citizens on the other side of the globe, creating a more sympathetic humanity as a result. Each version of the Biennale raises questions about the rising demand to engage a broad and diverse public, the importance of cross-disciplinary artistic practice, and the future of artist education.
This year’s Biennale, organized by Italian curator Massimiliano Gioni, currently of the New Museum, New York, takes as its thesis “The Encyclopedic Palace,” a concept devised by the American self-taught artist Marino Auriti for a museum to house all worldly knowledge. This meaningful thesis, conceived of by an artist once considered an “outsider,” let Gioni embrace artistic practice along a social and cultural continuum rather than reinscribing categories enforced by the marketplace. “The Encyclopedic Palace” broke down the distinction between Gioni’s curated project and the national pavilions; between outsider artists and contemporary, highly educated artists; and between art forms. The wonderful performances I encountered in Venice transported me past my role as a professional and back into that of global citizen, which is one of the reasons why art is so fundamental to a civilized world. Each presentation wandered outside the traditional confines of media-specific practice, something at the heart of the Biennale.
The works that made the most compelling case for the blurring of lines of Gioni’s thesis were the performances, which I came upon by surprise, each a generous gift, linking the audience together by filling the space between us. Tino Sehgal, who won this year’s Golden Lion for best artist, continued his dematerialized practice with, when I saw it, a trio of youths sitting on the floor. The two older children made sinuous, languid movements to the abstract, rhythmic singing of a young boy. The music was vaguely Middle Eastern, which suggested a celebration in a faraway tent. The intimate, informal way the artists sat on the ground reinforced the sense of community these exhibitions bring their viewers.
Of greatest interest to me, however, were Antti Laitinen’s Tree Reconstruction and Forest Square, parts of an exhibition titled Falling Trees by the curators Gruppo 111. Laitinen responded to the collapse of a large tree onto the Finnish Pavilion at the 2011 Biennale by dismantling, then rebuilding, a tree outside the Italian pavilion. Scottish ornithologist Alexander Wilson’s idea that nature and humans create each other came to mind while watching Laitinen reconstitute nature into an imperfectly cobbled-together representation of a tree, perhaps a commentary on our mistaken understanding of landscape in today’s world.
As more arts organizations realize the urgency of supporting public art—art for the public, outside, where the public lives—Laumeier Sculpture Park’s 36-year history of public artistic practice gains renewed relevance. Laitinen’s work held resonance for me, and for Laumeier, as we continue to show how we are all connected by our landscapes. In fall 2013 we have invited self-taught topiary artist Pearl Fryar to shape three juniper trees and train our Master Gardeners to continue to clip them over the next decade as the trees grow. Laitinen and Fryar recognize that the rock upon which we live is the most vital connector between us. Their work, as well as the immediate, performative works of Francesca Grilli, Eva Kotatkova, Zhang Jianhua, and Ragner Kjartansson that I saw in Venice, all help me to find new meanings about our future by digging into our past reliance on the land that has shaped our community.