The Golden Thread: Hany Armanious at the Venice Biennale

Reviews Jul 01, 2011 2 Comments

John Kelly feels a song coming on – and it goes a little like this…

Round like a circle in a spiral
Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning on an ever-spinning reel
Like a snowball down a mountain or a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that’s turning running rings around the moon
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping past the minutes
on its face
And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind [1]

Jean Baudrillard is dead, so you might have read in the press of 7 March 2007. This may be one reality, however the truth may also be that the French philosopher simply disappeared. Did he choose to slip into a nearby parallel universe? Contemporary physics and M-theory (the ‘M’ stands for ‘Membrane’ or ‘Mother of all theories’) might be able to describe Baudrillard’s disappearance. Physics now suggests that there may be more than one universe and that these ‘multi’ universes coexist with ours in up to eleven different dimensions, with some curled up so small that they may be just millimetres from us; yet we can’t see them. Could it be that this radical scientific M-theory (a development of String theory) fits in with Baudrillard’s philosophy of Simulacra and Simulation [2] and that if there are other worlds, where carbon copies of ourselves potentially exist, then Baudrillard could still be alive, a clone in another space? Science is looking through the looking glass, back beyond the Big Bang, and seeing that reality is far more fantastic than fiction.

Like a tunnel that you follow to a tunnel of its own
Down a hollow to a cavern where the sun has never shone
Like a door that keeps revolving in a half-forgotten dream
Like the ripples from a pebble someone tosses in a stream
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind

Baudrillard famously wrote three essays during the first Gulf War. The first was titled The Gulf War will not take place, the second was The Gulf War is not really taking place, and then The Gulf War did not take place. Much as Francis Fukuyama’s The End of Historythesis was misunderstood, so was Baudrillard. He was attacked for denying a reality that was being beamed live into our lounge rooms – how could he not see it? However, this was his point; we were watching a simulation of a war in the media-world. Even though we were told we were at war in the traditional sense, we weren’t. This was in part due to the absence of politics (no cultural ideology was at stake, the Cold War having ended a few years earlier) and that technology allowed the war to be so thoroughly rehearsed in simulated war games that it could be pre-scripted as an all-consuming media event with a foregone conclusion. The Gulf ‘War’ could therefore be read as a simulacrum, or ‘something having merely the appearance of a certain thing without possessing its substance or proper qualities’. In the end America declared victory but Saddam Hussein was not defeated. He remained in power whilst his Revolutionary Guards crushed the internal dissent; ‘Shock and Awe’ was some time off. [3]

Keys that jingle in your pocket
Words that jangle in your head
Why did summer go so quickly?
Was it something that I said?

Some scientists believe that if computing power continues to develop at its current speed then sometime soon, rather than just war games, we will be able to develop a complete simulation of life itself. The Matrix might not be so far-fetched as first thought. This fits neatly with Baudrillard who states that history is no longer real for at some point human existence escaped from reality and it is our role to try to understand whether we can return to this moment which forever after held that nothing is true. M-theory also allows for the possibility of time travel. Maybe we can go back. Let’s try.

There is a parallel world we know and it thrives on artifice. We know it as The Art World. In June 2011 we find it in that most beautiful of simulations, Venice, Italy. Let’s go via 2001 and stand in front of Lyndal Jones’s exhibition Aqua Profunda (Deep Water) in the Australian Pavilion. Back then you would have seen a plasma screen showing water lapping at a ferry as it crosses Sydney Harbour, whilst on another screen a vaporetto (ferry) heads across the Venetian lagoon. It is not real water but projected digital pixels. It is not even deep; it is a simulacrum. Just as the Gulf ‘War’ exploded harmless pixels on TV, you could not drown in Jones’s work. Now head to 2009 and you will find parked up at the Australian Pavilion Sean Gladwell’s exact replica of the car from the Mad Max films along with a motorbike. On the wall are videos of Australian desert imagery. Welcome to the desert of the reel!

Pictures hanging in a hallway
Or the fragment of a song
Half-remembered names and faces
But to whom do they belong?
When you knew that it was over
Were you suddenly aware
That the autumn leaves were turning
To the color of her hair?

Now go back to 2003 and we see Patricia Piccinini’s installation Game Boys Advanced and her other disturbingly ‘real’ hyper-realisations, even though we know the figures are made from silicone (with human hair). In 2005 you will find Ricky Swallow’s table of fish carved so intricately from wood, so life-like, and you marvel at the skill of his knife that has wrapped a skull in a wooden bean-bag. Gladwell, Piccinini, Swallow and Jones all use an exacting reproduction of what we generally accept as reality to express their ideas. Flip along now to 2007 and have a look at Callum Morton’s Valhalla. In this piece he reproduces an exact replica of his Melbourne home. In 2009 we have Ken Yonetani’s Barrier Reef replicated in sugar and other digital simulations by Vernon Ah Kee and Susan Norrie. It is a fact that in the last decade of the Venice Biennale every Australian presentation has presented some form of hyper-realism. It could be String theory, or The Golden Thread, the title of this year’s Venice Biennale exhibition from Australia by Sydney-based Hany Armanious.

A polystyrene box might look like polystyrene but we are told it is not polystyrene. It has another cast object on top of it – it is what it is but it is not. I arrive in Venice in 2011 to find Hany Armanious’s work, which involves casting real objects and then exhibiting them. I am told repeatedly at the opening that it is all about the process. According to the exhibition’s curator, Anne Ellegood (also Senior Curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles), Armanious often exterminates the original for there is no longer any reason for them to exist. The work is beyond criticism because it deliberately sets out to be so unoriginal that it contains an inherent humour in the dumbness of it (this is not a criticism [4]). It moves effortlessly from Baudrillard to the archetypal cartoon about Modernism, the one that shows a gallery visitor mistaking the fire extinguisher for the artwork. It then moves back to the Ecclesiastes which is quoted by Baudrillard at the beginning of his text, The Precession of Simulacra:

The simulacrum is never what hides the truth – it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The simulacrum is true.

Armanious casts his work in materials that are close to but do not have the essential quality of the original. And ‘original’ is a good word in this case for one can think of cast beer cans by Jasper Johns or Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, even Madame Tussauds, to understand that many have played with the idea of the exact reproduction all the way back to Magritte’s pipe that wasn’t. In contemporary Australian terms take a look at Greg Taylor’s cast vaginas, or Ron Mueck who must be odds-on favourite as our next Venice Biennale representative! Armanious’s work is a translation of a pre-existing simulacra (often mass-produced, disposable objects) whilst Jones’s digital water and Piccinini’s hyper-real figures could also be regarded the same way. Mad Max’s car is a simulacrum of a film prop which is in itself a translation (the film is also a simulation of the Western genre). The same for Morton’s house, ditto Yonetani’s sugary reef, Swallow, et al. I am not suggesting these works are not good, for some are very good. What I am highlighting is the conceptual repetitiveness of Australia’s presentation over the past decade, which raises the question: is there only one art world in Australia? What happened to the others that M-theory suggests should exist?

If Baudrillard were to reappear, he might argue that Hany Armanious actually did not exhibit at the Venice Biennale and that it was in fact himself, Jean Baudrillard, who exhibited in the Australian Pavilion. [5] He might not be wrong. He could equally argue that the Australian Pavilion, that lies in the shadow of the British and French pavilions, is a presentation that reflects an Australia that is itself a simulation, and this is translated in an apparent obsession Australian artists have had for the past decade – an important and consistent thread. From Baudrillard to M-Theory through to the previous decade of Australian art at the Venice Biennale, what we can establish is that Armanious fits into a defined model or simulation of what Australian art must be in order to be presented in the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. This is the reality of this pavilion.

As the images unwind
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind


Top – Hany Armanious, African Witch Doctor, 2010
Installation – Australian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2011
Pigmented polyutherane resin, 190 x 40 (dia) cm
Image by Mara Comin courtesy of the Australia Council for the Arts
©Hany Armanious

Bottom – Hany Armanious, Relative Nobody (detail), 2010
Pigmented polyurethane resin, 114 x 89 x 66 cm
Image by Greg Weight courtesy of the Australia Council for the Arts
© Hany Armanious


1. Lyrics from The Windmills of Your Mind (Les moulins de mon cœur), a song performed by Noel Harrison with music by Michel LeGrand, and English lyrics by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman from the 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair.

2. Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation was originally published in
French in 1981; English translation by Sheila Faria Glaser, The University of Michigan Press, 1994.

3. Regarded as ‘the most intense bombardment in history’, ‘Shock and Awe’ was the official name of America’s bombing campaign in Baghdad over two days in March 2003.

4. My own work deals with ‘Simulacra and Simulation’ which is why I am so interested in this subject. I began my Dobell’s camouflage cows work during the Gulf War and these were pure simulacra because there are no extant ‘originals’ and their very existence is open to debate. I acknowledge there is also a dumbness about them. My recent work also deals with models of museums. I am currently making a sculpture of the Tate Modern from a forty-foot sea container for the Goteborg Biennale in Sweden (10 September to 13 November), inside of which is another set of self-contained exhibitions and references.

5. Australia Council for the Arts CEO Kathy Keele announced in Venice, in tortured bureaucratic speak, plans for a new Australian Pavilion. It would be great if Hany Armanious got to design it! John Kelly is an Australian, British and Irish artist who lives in Cork, Ireland. He will be represented at this year’s Goteborg Biennale in Sweden, 10 September to 13 November.

John Kelly

This article originally appeared in Art Monthly. Re-posted here with their kind permission.

John Kelly


  1. Interesting article. would be better if you got the opening a little more authentic. I think you’re trying to quote those American theoreticians Run DMC … “and it goes a little *something* like this …”

    Yes, of course, RUN DMC were the first to ever to utter those words – Art Life Management

  2. shagufta

    Love it! Thank you for saying what isn’t said….

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