Grand Screaming Yellow Wrong Time Without a Word Gurgling Key in Hand: Six Women Artists at the 2015 Venice Biennale

Part One: Joan Jonas, Fiona Hall, and Chibaru Shiota

Observations by Paula Nees; September, 2015-Venice, Italy

Paula Nees is an artist living in Columbus, OH

I have traveled to Italy a number of times in the last 15 years, but this was only the second time my trip coincided with the Venice Biennale. This is one of the oldest international art exhibitions dating back to 1895 and occurs every two years on odd numbered years with an international architecture exhibition on view during even numbered years. The major exhibitions are situated in two areas in the Castello Sestiere just east of San Marco. The Giardini is the original exhibition site and consists of a main pavilion along with 29 national pavilions scattered throughout this park like space. The other site, the Arsenale, consists of large repurposed industrial spaces once used for Venetian shipbuilding. Along with these two main areas there are numerous collateral exhibitions throughout Venice which include national exhibits from countries not situated in the Giardini plus special groups and individual artists presenting work during the Biennale – May through November.


My observations are focused on six women artists who are connected through installation as art form. Beyond that though they differ dramatically in theme, approach and materials. This is not a critique as much as a response and personal observations I recalled during my visit to this exhibition viewing artwork, sites and people. Along with these observations I have included photos taken while viewing these installations plus links to video segments which provide interviews of each artist.


Joan Jonas “They Come to Us Without a Word” – United States Pavilion

Jonas -They Come to Us 1

The United States Pavilion is one of the oldest structures in the Giardini. Neoclassical in design it looks more mausoleum than exhibition space. Representing the US this year is artist Joan Jonas. Long known for her performance and video art she created an installation titled “They Come to Us Without a Word”. Each room of the pavilion had video screens –some installed as freestanding structures in the center of the room along with the actual objects and props seen in the videos. Other walls were lined with simple line drawings. Each room was devoted to a particular visual element – bees, fish, Jonas’s dog running on a beach, children in costume and a figure walking through a forest. This installation encouraged wandering – not the “please sit down now and watch the video”. The rooms referred to sensations of being in the world – no evident narrative, but rather a layering of images. This was a spirited approach to the environment – not spiritual. Perhaps because children were involved with the video imagery the effect was one of fragileness and innocence.


Fiona Hall “Wrong Way Time” – Australian Pavilion

Fiona Hall - Wrong Time 1

The newly inaugurated Australian Pavilion contained Fiona Hall’s installation “Wrong Way Time”. There was a dark and foreboding quality to the space; walls painted a dark gray with glass cabinets situated in the center of the room creating a smaller space within its interior. The perimeter of the room contained an arrangement of altered clocks – cuckoo clocks, grandfather clocks – all with moving pendulums and each set at a different time. Along with the clocks were more innocuous displays of driftwood that resembled animals or reptiles. The one display that I spent time investigating was a collection of quirky animals created out of grasses, cloth and colored raffia all situated on stacks of charred books (Kuka Irititja – Animals from Another Time, 2014). Hall’s connection to the environmental crisis in Australia has brought her to work with the Tjanpi Desert Weavers an Aboriginal women’s collective.


The glass cases were a Cabinet of Curiosities – delicate, bizarre, and puzzling objects made from humble materials like bread, collections of vintage glassware, and bird nests made of shredded dollar bills. In the interior space hung large humanoid mask-like shapes made from shredded camouflage clothing and grasses. Ultimately this reflected the Biennale theme of this year’s curator Nigerian born Okwui Enwezor titled “All the World’s Futures. “ In part he states “through which to explore the current “state of things,” namely the pervasive structure of disorder in global geopolitics, environment and economics.”

For his full statement see


Chiharu Shiota “The Key in the Hand” – Japanese Pavilion

Before arriving in Venice I had read a review of the Biennale that mentioned Shiota’s installation, so I was intrigued with how one would see these elements in space. There were thousands of old rusted keys strung and woven into a mass of red thread – all suspended over decrepit wooden boats. This wasn’t a net as much as it was a miasma of red color – so dense it obscured the walls and ceiling of the rooms. By themselves keys and boats are loaded with symbolism, but with the addition of red threads linking them I thought of nerves and connecting synapses. Shiota specifically used old keys – skeleton keys – for their connection to the human form.

The keys are old technology now out dated but had once kept something safe and secured.

Another aspect to this exhibition was located in the lower level outside of the pavilion. There was a photo of a child holding keys along with videos of children talking about memories from before and right after they were born (!?). Perhaps we all manufacture memories based not in reality but what we wish to be true.

Shiota - Key 3


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