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Danse Macabre

Walking along the imposing spaces of the Corderie dell’Arsenale, one of the main venues of the International Art Exhibition at the 55th Venice Biennale, one bumps into five bizarre characters. Displayed in a sequence, side by side, they belong to a series of works from the early and mid-’60s by celebrated Italian artist Enrico Baj (1924–2003).

From a distance, you would say they are paintings, but as you get closer you realize they’re actually assemblage works with an arts-and-crafts take. Layering domestic and commonplace materials, such as buttons, tassels, clock faces and trinkets, on decorated tapestry and brocade backgrounds, the compositions end as anthropomorphic, puppet-like figures titled with evocative nicknames—Dama, Femme Habile, Ma Petite, Diane de Poitiers and Pussy-cat—that stare back at the viewer with a lifeless look halfway between amusement and threat. This oscillation between the sense of humor and the sense of the macabre is, after all, a key to the entire oeuvre of Baj, an irreverent, iconoclast artist, politically engaged and intolerant of authority, whose work can ultimately be read as a mockery of the severity of the avant-garde. Baj’s inclusion in the Biennale comes as a pleasant surprise, and one that is revealing of the attitude of this year’s director Massimiliano Gioni, the youngest curator to ever be appointed to this role.

Entitled “The Encyclopedic Palace,” the exhibition addresses the human aspiration towards all-encompassing knowledge, from archives to collections, catalogs and systems. Juxtaposing professional artists and amateurs, outsiders and insiders, Gioni’s curatorial take blurs conventions in favour of an attention to internal images, dreams and hallucinations, where the most secret self creates the most visionary art.