At the Venice Art Biennale 2015, the Romanian Pavilion in the Giardini showcases Darwin’s Room, an exhibition of recent paintings by Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977), curated by Mihai Pop. The title refers not only to a series of portraits (and self-portraits in the guise) of the great British naturalist, but also to Ghenie’s exploration of twentieth-century history as an expanded »laboratory of evolution,« with seminal ideas fighting for survival and domination as part of an allegorical interweaving of past and future histories. The conceptual construct behind the exhibition as a whole is based on the artist’s vision of the contemporary world, defined by memory and desire, upheaval and spectacle.
Imagined within a tempestuous atmosphere,
Darwin and the Satyr (2014) sets in opposition
the world’s need for the irrational, embodied in
the esoteric figure of the satyr (comparable with
those found in old alchemical treatises), on the one hand, and the figure of the great scientist, on the other. The image has not been selected from the repertoire of the explicable, but rather we are confronted with an oneiric amalgamation of two opposing worlds.
The sequence of the Darwin’s Room exhibition is punctuated by three sub-themes that lend nuance to the development of the curatorial concept. The core rests under the sign of The Tempest as a metaphor for the disquietude of subterranean history. It is a journey through realms replete with obscurity and enlightenment, whose elements are linked by a »syncretism of primordial fears, as they manifested themselves in the primitive religions—fear of tempests, lightning, death« (Marcel Brion).
Opernplatz (2014) recreates the saturnalian atmosphere in which the Nazis burned around twenty-five thousand books on the night of 10 May 1933—an intense image of twentieth-century history, of ideological purification. In the image, the cloudy sky becomes an active element of history: the unexpected storm hindered the burning of the books in the public square.
Black Flag (2015) is one of the works in which the theme of history is summed up by the raising of a black flag, an abstract commemoration. It can be transposed upon any traumatic context functioning within a relationship of familiarity and alienation relative to the chromatics of the painting, which are theoretically impossible from a pictorial point of view— between the dominants of white and red.
Carnivorous Flowers (2014) portrays Josef Mengele and the murky story of his flight to South America. His relocation to a space in which history would otherwise not have placed him becomes the pretext for a work about hypocrisy and the failure of the idea of justice, to be found in history’s subterranean reaches.
Conceived as one of the exhibition’s centrepieces, Persian Miniature (2013) is a work in which the finesse of the miniature is transposed on a monumental scale using the pictorial means of abstract expressionism. The work speaks of the encounter with the wild beast in the troubling space of the forest, about the anxiety of
the encounter with »the other.«
The portraits of Hitler (Untitled, 2012) and Lenin (Turning Blue, 2008) are »consecrated« portraits of the monstrous, but in painting them Ghenie places himself in opposition to the propaganda images that generated them. Where the propaganda image is purified and idealised, Ghenie seems to overload his historical figures with pictorial matter in an attempt to convey their true nature through gesture, colour and pictorial accident.
Charles Darwin at the Age of 40 (2014) and Charles Darwin as a Young Man (2014) are representations of the scientist betrayed by his own body. The great naturalist is wracked by illness, laid low by the biology of his own body, thereby becoming a romantic figure, a spirit shackled inside a fragile carcass.
In the works of the Pie Fight Study (2012) series, Ghenie returns to one of his recurrent sources, the cinema, namely the universal absurdity of The Battle of the Century (an anarchistic early-twentieth-century American film comedy). This series of works can be cited as a mise en abyme of collective humiliation.
In Degenerate Art (2014), in which the portrait of Van Gogh becomes an extension of landscape and the texture of nature, the history of art is viewed in relation to ideology, as the title suggests, and the surface of the painting thereby becomes an exercise in simulating—and implicitly understanding—that history.
The third sub-theme is The Dissonances of History, a personal jigsaw puzzle of historical facts that are inexplicable from the standpoint of any connexion between arguments, actions and consequences; incongruent history, which diverts things in unexpected directions, resonates with the intimacy of Adrian Ghenie’s pictorial practice, and the final painting is the result of a process whereby pictorial accident is integrated into a narrative.
Artist: Adrian Ghenie
Curator: Mihai Pop
Architect: Attila Kim
Lead Project Coordinator: Corina Șuteu
Commissioner: Monica Morariu
Deputy Commissioner: Alexandru Damian
Project Manager: Oana Radu
Production of the exhibition and co-editor of the Pavilion’s publications: Juerg Judin
Production Assistant: Mihaela Luțea
Pavilion Staff Coordinator: Corina Bucea
PR Manager (Intl.): Jennifer Benz Joy
PR Manager (Romania): Cristian Neagoe
Photos by Mathias Schormann (assisted by Ben Plefka)