Sequential art at the 56th Venice Art Biennale, 2015

Last time at the Biennale, Robert Crumb’s Genesis was prominently exhibited, which was already a pleasant surprise from a comics perspective. But who would have thought there was going to be a comic specifically made for the Biennale (Francesc Ruiz’s, see below) this time?

As always, there are probably works of sequential art that I’ve missed, so the works featured here (click images to enlarge) are just an incomplete selection. All works are from 2015 unless indicated otherwise. The Venice Art Biennale still runs until November 22.

Double page from "A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas" by Aikaterini Gegisian

A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas, an artist’s book by Aikaterini Gegisian, is on display at the Armenian pavilion on San Lazzaro degli Armeni island. It consists of collages of photographs – juxtaposed images, as it were – arranged on top of or within each other, so that the chronology of placing the pictures into the collage (from back to front) implies a sequentiality. Another sequentiality is suggested by the ostensibly different times at which the photographs were taken (e.g. black-and-white followed by colour images).

detail of Rotolo Armeno by Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi

Also exhibited at the Armenian pavilion is Rotolo Armeno from 1991 by Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi. It is a large paper scroll (17 × 0,8 m) filled with watercolour drawings in vertical tiers, which are to be read from top to bottom and left to right. The drawings re-tell ancient Armenian fairytales.

Liquid Gardens by Terry Adkins

Moving on to the central exhibition at the Arsenale, one of the first works exhibited there is Terry Adkins‘s Liquid Gardens from 2012. A rack similar to those displaying posters for sale holds photographs of parachutists. Apart from the “first” and the “last” one, these pictures can only be seen in pairs – juxtaposed –, and their similarity of form and content hints at a possible chronological relation (i.e. McCloudian closure).

from Zwischen Lagos und Berlin by Karo Akpokiere

Zwischen Lagos und Berlin by Karo Akpokiere, also part of the central exhibition at the Arsenale, is a series of fifty framed pictures of equal format. Some of them are single image drawings, some are text-only, and some contain multiple images which form little comics, like the one pictured. In his pictures, Akpokiere reflects on life as a Nigerian immigrant in Berlin.

works by Ricardo Brey

Several large glass cases at the Arsenale are filled with diverse works by Ricardo Brey, including some leporellos (from around 2011). It’s hard not to think of such a leporello as a comic (in McCloud’s sense): no matter how you open it, you will almost always see juxtaposed images, and ideally the cover tells you where to start reading it, thus suggesting sequentiality.

part of Omaggio all'Italia by William Kentridge

William Kentridge is better known as a creator of animated films. However, his Omaggio all’Italia charcoal drawings shown at the Italian pavilion are preparatory sketches not for a film, but for a large-scale frieze to be realised in Rome next year. The figures are taken from Italian history, but arranged in non-chronological order. The arrangement is not quite random, though: “It proceeds through a series of free associations of images where the past enters into dialogue with the present”, says the accompanying text. “Distant episodes are linked. Differences are connected. Unexpected analogies lead the way. We are invited to retrace the decisive moments in the history of Rome. In a journey that goes from Remus to Pasolini.”

detail from The Special Era (II) by Mio Pang Fei

At the pavilion of Macao, next to the Arsenale central exhibition area, Mio Pang Fei has arranged several items of everyday use on a table, forming the installation The Special Era (II). Among them are three traditional Chinese comic books (lianhuanhua). All objects are from the times of the Cultural Revolution, and the installation is meant as a critique thereof.

still from Factory of the Sun by Hito Steyerl

Factory of the Sun is a short film by Hito Steyerl shown at the German pavilion in the Giardini. Part of it is animated, with characters drawn in manga/anime style.

Il Fumetto dei Giardini by Francesc Ruiz

The aforementioned “actual” comics by Francesc Ruiz are shown at the Spanish pavilion in the Giardini. Titled Il Fumetto dei Giardini, this series of black-and-white pamphlets places pre-existing gay comic characters into photographed backgrounds of the Giardini. It might not be the most beautiful comic ever made, but still: a comic made specifically for the Biennale is quite a sensation. Related to this comic is another work exhibited in the same room, a newsstand stacked exclusively with gay comics.

by Simon Schwartz

Not officially part of the Biennale, but concurrent with it (September 1st – November 1st), is the exhibition “Imago Mundi – Map of the New Art” on San Giorgio Maggiore island. It consists of thousands of artworks in the format of 10 × 12 cm by different artists from all over the world. Among the German artworks, I was delighted to discover a panel by Simon Schwartz.

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Sequential art at the 55th Venice Biennale

Last week I visited the Biennale di Venezia, which still runs until November 24th. There seem to be far more comics-related artworks there than at the documenta last year, possibly due to this year’s topic of the Biennale, “The Encyclopedic Palace”. Here are some that caught my eye (click on images to enlarge):

drawings by Yüksel Arslan

At the Arsenale, one of the two central exhibition spaces, the first work that bears some resemblance to comics is Yüksel Arslan‘s series of drawings. Most of them are from the 1960s and 80s already. They are quite enigmatic, but at least some of them seem to be arranged in sequences on the same sheet, not unlike panels in a comic.

drawings by R. Crumb

Then there’s Robert Crumb, of course. The inclusion of his Genesis isn’t that much of a sensation, as his work was exhibited at art museums before. Furthermore, the display at the Biennale (all of the original drawings in a long row) didn’t invite people to read much of it. Still, it’s good to see a proper comic at such an art show.

drawings by Matt Mullican

Comics theory usually negates the role of writing (as in script) in order to account for wordless comics. The drawings of Matt Mullican might pose a challenge to that point of view, as they consist of letters and numbers only. At the same time, they can also be regarded as images, which form deliberate sequences.

anonymous paño drawings

Some of the paño (“cloth”) drawings by Mexican American prisoners seem to tell a story in several distinct images, even though there are no panel borders. The order of the images and the overall story remain somewhat vague.

photo book at the Georgian pavilion

This photo book in the Georgian pavilion documents a performance. But is this photo comic a work of art in itself, or just a medium of the actual artwork, the performance? The same doubts apply to the photographs documenting Fabio Mauri’s performance Ideologia e Natura at the Italian pavilion (not pictured, but see the installation view here or here (websites in Italian)).

The Red Book by C. G. Jung

Carl Gustav Jung is better known as a psychoanalyst, but as his Red Book shows, he was also an accomplished artist. Some of the drawings are abstract, some figurative, some are combined with text and some are not. And some of them undoubtedly are connected to sequences. In this case it is a pity that not all of the pages are exhibited, as it is hard to figure out the narrative by reading only the short segments on display.

 

drawings by Evgenij Kozlov

Finally, mounted on a large wall are the erotic drawings made by the teenager Evgenij Kozlov in Leningrad in the 1960s and 70s. Some of them form little stories extending over several sheets. There’s also some writing on them, albeit in Russian. Regardless of what one might think of their individual quality, the inclusion of such older works (also Jung’s, Mauri’s, Arslan’s and others) in a contemporary art show strikes me as a condescending rather than reverential gesture. It’s a gesture that basically says: these works are only worthy to be exhibited because of their age, out of historical interest. But it’s not as if there wasn’t enough good and interesting art produced today that could have been exhibited instead, as the rest of the Biennale amply proves.


Sequential art at documenta (13)

Comics will be part of documenta when hell freezes over. However, there are some works at this year’s documenta (Kassel, June 9 – September 16) that come quite close to the McCloudian definition of comics. The following list is just a personal selection and by no means meant to be exhaustive.

The very first work I’ve seen at documenta could actually be called a comic, sort of. In the Ottoneum, Amar Kanwar has several books (and other things) on display. One of them, Photo Album 1: The Lying Down Protest, documents a protest action in India through a series of photographs, sometimes with captions added. There is one photo on each page, on both sides of the leaf, resulting in a layout similar to that of Martin tom Dieck’s hundert Ansichten der Speicherstadt (cf. my essay).

For an exhibition of contemporary art, there is a lot of old art to be seen, e.g. a sizeable collection of abstract drawings from the 1940s and 50s by Gustav Metzger in the Documenta-Halle. Some of these drawings are arranged like comic panels, i.e. in different sizes, with clear borders, on the same sheet of paper. Are these drawings meant as independent sketches which Metzger placed closely together on the sheet only to save paper? Or is there a relation between adjacent drawings, maybe even an intended sequence?
Another example of a not-quite-contemporary exhibit is Charlotte Salomon’s widely publicized Leben? Oder Theater?

Khadim Ali‘s four-part painting The Haunted Lotus in the Neue Galerie is reminiscent in style of traditional East Asian religious paintings, but at the same time the framing makes it look like a panel sequence in a comic: the continuous background evokes a “tracking shot” from left to right or vice versa, so that each of the four parts can be seen as one point in a chronological sequence. The figures in the foreground remain largely the same in all four parts of the painting, thus giving the impression that some figures move between the “panels” while others stand still. Another comic-like feature is the writing next to the figures’ heads.

Then there’s Nedko Solakov at the Brothers Grimm Museum. Among many other works, some drawings are shown in several display cases. Their arrangement in two horizontal lines suggests a sequential relation between them, but although each drawing has a handwritten caption text on it, it’s hard to make out any order in which they could form a narrative. Still, the surrounding works by Solakov strongly suggest a narrative reading, since they are all about his dreams and fantasies of medieval knights in shiny armours.

All in all, while not completely absent, sequential art is sadly underrepresented at documenta (13). Unfortunately, the exhibition of comical art, Caricatura VI, which is on in Kassel at the same time, doesn’t show many comics either, although it contains cartoons by comic artists such as Guido Sieber, Harm Bengen or Nicolas Mahler.