Sunday, 6 August 2017

Venice Biennale – The National Pavilions in the Giardini

This year we did not find much of great interest in the Giardini national pavilion exhibitions. I missed the moving tree from last time’s French pavilion, the deconstructing Russian pavilion after 1989, the Hans Haacke broken up floor many years ago in the German pavilion, and definitely “Take Care of Yourself,” the Sophie Calle from years ago in the French pavilion, which I have seen at least two more times and which Tom and I still quip about in everyday conversations.

There are several pleasures in going through the Giardini, though, despite the still very limited dining opportunities and the exhaustion and heat. The pavilions themselves are worth looking at as examples of 20th-century architecture. This year the Venezuelan pavilion paid special attention to its architect, Carlo Scarpa(1906-1978), who designed it in 1954. Scarpa was mentioned very frequently this year and his modernist architecture was much celebrated. Because of the focus, I paid attention to some of the details of the Venezuelan pavilion, which looks very simple and straightforward, but has varied materials and textures.  

Goeffrey Farmer took most of the Canadian Pavilion down in order to install an group of fountains, the central one spouting like a geyser, art nouveau iridescent glazed tiles.
and the Australian Pavilion has been demolished and rebuilt. The artist there, Tracy Moffett, exhibited fictive film stills, perhaps inspired by Cindy Sherman, but without the artist’s presence and more theatrical. Uruguay was closed for some reason although there are descriptions of the facsimile of a cattle chute Mario Sagradini had made for it. The American pavilion is neoclassical, very Washington, D.C., lending itself to the images of a deteriorating, failing structure that artists often like to give it, this year’s work by Mark Bradford being no exception.

I’ve always loved the Hungarian pavilion, built in 1909, with its art nouveau iridescent glazed tiles. And although the show itself didn't grab out attention, we appreciated the thought.

Only a few exhibitions in pavilions captured our interest this year, and I was interested in more of them than Tom. We both very much liked the Russian pavilion work by Grisha Bruskin, dystopian but tongue in cheek, I thought. Generally I find Bruskin’s work rather mannered, but in this installation it had an impact, possibly because it seemed to warn against dictatorship, representing an autocratic country. In one room huge projections flash over white sculptures inscribed with book titles, concepts, aphorisms. Another is filled with strange vessels and objects, all looking threatening.  Also in the Russian pavilion, Recycle Group did a project called “Blocked Content,” in which figures or parts of figures emerge from white angular blocks on the walls. Inspired by the ninth and worst circle of Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy (the circle of treason and betrayal), where sinners are encased in ice, the artists encased human figures in these blocks for cyber crimes – spam, retailing viruses, fake celebrities. In poetic justice, the complete figures can be seen through an I-Phone app.

Yet another book project was in the Nordic pavilion. One of the six artists exhibiting there, filmmaker Mika Taanila (b. 1965 Finland) cut through the pages of cinema books to create three dimensional versions of the book’s subjects.

I enjoyed Phyllida Barlow’s crowded installation of the Great Britain pavilion. I only learned about her at a recent Biennale, at the time when her decades-long sculptural production was coming to attention, and I appreciated that after working for so long in obscurity she was chosen to represent Britain this year. Her huge, very rough sculptures were almost impossible to see, jammed into the rooms of the pavilion, and crowding around the entranceway as well. There’s a kind of abandon to them, and I got the sense that she was going to squeeze as much she wanted in that space. Being close to the American pavilion, where Mark Bradford’s introductory sculpture left little room for the viewer, it felt a little as if the sculpture is in revolt against the viewer.

The French pavilion was transformed into a very elaborately designed working recording studio, all angled bare wood. People were working in it. I didn’t see how that was visual art, except that the angled walls in blonde wood were lovely architecture. Tom liked it.

At the Israel pavilion a huge cloud form dominated the upper level, a concrete manifestation of the cloud of vapor that results from a missile launch, by Gal Weinstein. On the walls and floor of much of the building he installed panels covered with steel wool made to represent mold he found in his studio, giving the modernist building a mood of decay, some of it in the patterns of wallpaper. I’m not sure if his intention was to suggest institutional, political or cultural decline, but that was my sense of it.

I thought the Venice pavilion, celebrating the most fabulously expensive luxury goods made in Venice, and advertising for them, was vulgar, and I left it as quickly as I could. Some years this pavilion has celebrated Venetian art and design in a much less commercial fashion; I kept thinking they must be trying to parody the excesses of wealth, but that’s not how it came over.

The German pavilion was highly regarded, but it was a performance and we did not want to take the time to wait in line for entrance, so we skipped it. I later found that its subject would have been disturbing, so I'm not sorry. We did look at the pair of Rottweilers caged in front of the building.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Venice Biennale, Viva Arte Viva, Arsenale II

In addition to the works of art at the Giardini and the fiber works in the Arsenale, there were a number of objects in Viva Arte Viva that I very much enjoyed and that contributed to the sense of well-being I described in my first post on the Biennale.  And, of course, now that I’ve reviewed my images, there are quite a few. I’ve added some comments on the nonsensical parts of the label texts, having been a label nut for decades. Relatively short, the object labels offered some explanatory information, but often they then unfortunately attempted to philosophize and interpret the works in garbled and frustratingly pretentious language not unique to this venue, but regrettable.

I rather liked the ecological works of Michael Blazy (b. 1966 Monaco) and Julian Charriére  (b. 1987 Switzerland), but am not reproducing images of their work. Blazy’s running shoe planters attracted a lot of attention and I found his brooms planted in the garden and sprouting grasses amusing. Charriére’s layered white and gray towers somehow referring to the mining and eventual depletion of lithium were actually lovely.

We watched one complete video, which probably captured my interest because of my Italian Renaissance sculpture training. Guan Xiao (b. 1983 China) showed a panoramic array of reproductions of Michelangelo’s David, so many of them that it became a bit of a test as to which was the real sculpture, with the final line, “We don’t know how to see him.” A treasured object is reproduced so often and so badly that few people actually think about what the original is. It’s an obvious theme, but I appreciated it.  And the video was lively, short, and to the point.

 Photographs by Nicolás García Uriburu  (1937-2016 Argentina) look oddly colored, as if the exposures were manipulated, and perhaps they were, but they document his pouring green dye into various bodies of water, starting with the Grand Canal in Venice for the 1968 Biennale, an early example of Earth Art, and a comment on the environment. 
Japanese artist Shimabuku (b. 1969)  presented a vitrine with  Oldest and Newest Tools of Human Beings, 2015, consisting of four prehistoric stone axes, each set next to a smartphone. There’s something amusing about the juxtaposition, but I also felt my mind stretch at the pairing of such opposite-seeming objects. He pushed that point further with a video of himself Sharpening a MacBook Air (2015) and then attaching the sharpened ‘tool’ to a handle, making a hatchet.  Another video, which we watched for some time, asked “Do Snow Monkeys Remember Snow Mountains?” and documented snow monkeys who, generations after being transplanted from Japan to Texas in 1972, had adapted to desert living. Shimabuku dropped a large pile of ice in their habitat and documented the monkeys interacting with the ice. I could not tell what the answer to his question is from the tentative reaction of the monkeys.

I loved the colors of Pénétrable, by Thu Van Tran (b. 1979 Vietnam) - pigmented rubber that coats and penetrates the wall of the gallery - and Au leve au coucher (sunrise to sunset) 2017, three blue-green photograms of plants, including the rubber tree, hung against the peach-tinted wall. Laid on boxes on the floor are red and white sculptures of rubber tree trunks. Sadly, she uses the rubber to symbolize colonialism and abuse of power, as the French imported rubber to Vietnam in the early 20th century and an accompanying video shows people extracting rubber from the trees. Thu Van Tran as an infant became a Vietnamese refugee in France and lives and works in Paris. The didactic information which says, “The artist’s works, offering art as a means of transformation of our determinism due to the history, reveal the shortcomings and irrationality of human nature,” makes no connection to this work as far as I could tell, but then I couldn’t understand it.

Yee Sookyung (b. Korea 1963) made a huge sculpture from the pieces of broken Korean ceramics, broken because they came out of the factories with faults and the Korean practice is to destroy faulty pottery.  Nine Dragons in Wonderland, 2017 also employs the Asian practice of using gold to mend cracks in pottery, so the castaway parts become a monumental work of art. This is another example of an artist recycling materials, this one especially coherent, monumental and with lovely colors (especially celadon), designs and textures.
 Rina Banerjee (b. Calcutta, India 1963, lives in New York) made several flamboyant sculptures that suggest some kind of exotic plants. I thought they were delightful and the long titles seemed consistent with her visionary approach – example: “Addictions to leaf and nut aroused, curled currency and culture to itch and moan as arrivals of plants from plantation, not just servants or slaves exploded, swelled to levels fantastic but without majestic magic hurt to ripen.” These poetic labels suggest feelings and content while the curatorial statement, equally obtuse, “In the sculptures on show, the dialectic between authenticity and transfiguration concerns objects and images, to demonstrate that identity is not authentic if static and unitary, but only if it ‘participates in everything that is in the world,’” is not helpful.
When signs of origin fade, fall out, if washed away, trickle into separations, precipitate when boiled or filtered to reveal all doubleness as wickedness. Vanishing act that migration, mixation like mothers who hid paternity who could name move me slowly reveal me only when my maker stands straight, 2017.

  At first Maha Mullah’s (b. 1959 Saudi Arabia) wall work looks like a geometric tile pattern in shades of blue, black and white, then the label identifies the tesserae as audio cassettes made by religious leaders to tell women how to act and the work’s hidden protest becomes clear.  Not wanting to fill the world with more stuff, like many other artists, she recycles found objects.
 One might walk by Zilia Sanchez’s (b. 1926 Cuba, lives in Puerto Rico), abstract shaped canvases, thinking they are familiar. But she made them in the 1960s when ideas about shaped canvases and the relationship between sculpture and painting was a hot topic. And the white and barely pastel colored pointed shapes have a surprising delicate eroticism.

I also liked Liu Jianhua’s (b. 1962 China) installation of gold glazed porcelain circular forms arranged on black steel rectangles on the Arsenale floor. I was interested that he studied porcelain at the major traditional porcelain center in China, Jingdezhen. As the label indicates, the installation is pure form, suggesting a Buddhist concept of emptiness, “no meaning.” Like a Japanese raked garden, it was precisely conceived and executed and evoked meditative contemplation, a relief in the midst of so much active art.

And finally, one of my favorites, Liliana Porter’s (b. 1941 Argentina, lives in New York), El hombre con el hacha y otras situaciones breves, 2013 (The man with the axe and other brief situations), is full of surprises. At first I saw a bunch of broken furniture and crockery, piled and scattered from a corner, and a large cloud of bluish gauze, another sculpture made of recycled junk, I thought. But near the blue cloud there was a tiny grandmother, knitting the cloud (She's a mere dot in the first photograph). A man was sitting on one of the books, and another stood next to a coffee mug. The man with the axe looked at the whole mess from the side, but others were sweeping up piles of colored powder. The tiny people are of different sizes and occupy some alternate world. It’s fun to explore and it made me reassess my assumptions about the world and remember the importance of looking carefully.

You had to be there to see it in all its charming and amazing details.

Monday, 31 July 2017

 Venice Biennale, Curated Exhibition, Arte Viva Arte, Arsenale I

It was in the Arsenale, about halfway through, that I began to have the feeling of well-being I mentioned in the previous post. And going through my images and correcting the color and exposure, I’ve relived that experience. So many wondrous creations, so much imagination from so many unexpected materials. Many reviewers have mentioned the surprising number of objects using fiber chosen for this exhibition. We also experienced a surprising amount of fiber at Documenta, which I intend to address later. I don’t think I can give adequate attention to all the artists in Arte Viva Arte who use fiber as a primary material, but I can list a lot of them, in order of appearance: Lee Mingwei, Maria Lai, David Medalla, Franz Erhard Walther, Petrit Halilaj, Michelle Stuart, Cynthia Gutierrez, Francis Upritchard, Teresa Lanceta, Leonor Antunes, Ernesto Neto, Huguette Calande, Heidi Bucher, Abdoulaye Konate, Judith Scott, Sheila Hicks, Edith Dekyndt. All are worth Googling. I’ve been wondering if some curator will pay the same attention to artists who work in glass in the future. Glasstress helps call attention to them, but glass, like fiber, still remains outside the mainstream in contemporary art.

Reviewers have mentioned that many of these artists are not known even to specialists. I was familiar with very few of them. That is particularly surprising when I see that almost none of them are young. Most are over 50, many are over 80 and a few died some years ago.

At the Giardini Lee Mingwei (b. 1964 Taiwan, lives in Paris and New York) appropriated the small Carlo Scarpa garden area in the Biennale Pavilion and made it a meditation space, where he invited specific visitors to sit in a chair and appreciate the environment. We did not see him in person at the Giardini and so the Scarpa garden space looked like it always has, except for the chair set in the middle. (At the same time, this Biennale, and other sites in Venice have acknowledged Scarpa significantly this year – for one there’s the Galleria Querini Stampalia, which he renovated and which has a trove of Scarpa books in its shop.

At the Arsenale Lee Mingwei was busy sewing threads onto a visitor’s hat while a television news reporter prepared for her broadcast. Near him was a small pile of clothing with threads running from the pieces to spools of colorful thread attached to the wall. According to the label, he accepted pieces of torn clothing which he mended and then added to the pile. He seemed charming and friendly but we did not interact with him.

The didactic information for Maria Lai emphasized the 1981 performance and video in which she connected all the houses of the Sardinian town of Ulassai with strips of blue cloth strung from one to the other. The video and documentary photographs were there. That was interesting, but I was most taken by her cloth books with various patterns of illegible text or abstract illustrations. Not being familiar with her, I was stunned to find that she was born in 1919 in Sardinia and died in 2013. There’s a kind of fantasy of possibility evoked by color and texture of the books, which have no defined content and so have many possible contents. A series of Alphabet books, closed but with colorful edges of the pages peeking out, also inspired a kind of romantic sense of what books can be. Charming photographs of her and many images of her works can be found online.

I did not realize that David Medalla’s (b. 1938 Manila, lives in London) work, A Stitch in Time, 1968-, was interactive and that viewers were invited to add to the materials threaded onto this large hanging sculpture. No one was engaging with it when we saw it. It includes a vast array of ephemeral bits of paper: museum tickets, bus and tram tickets, receipts, an asthma atomizer, a Metrocard, and hundreds of other bits of memorabilia from around the world, strung together, an installation that is fun to look at, ambitious, but also something of a curio. Tom pointed out the Metrocard.  I would group it with works by a huge number of artists, some inventive and inspiring and others depressing and dispiriting, whose art recycles things that we would throw in the trash.

Franz Erhard Walther (b. 1939 Germany) was awarded the Golden Lion for his work in the exhibition. His contribution was a performance documented in a video available online, which I did not see (I actually watched a bit on You Tube, but lost patience and quit.). But I found the fiber wall hangings for the performance worth looking at as minimal sculptures and found it interesting that he had turned to fiber as his sculptural medium. Apparently, the hangings and floor pieces invite viewers to engage with them physically, becoming part of the works of art. We did not see anyone engaging with them and we did not either. They looked like objects you are not supposed to touch.

I loved Petrit Halilaj’s (b. 1986 Kosovo) fabric wall installation, which first looked just like West Asian carpets with fabric attachments, but on second glance were some kind of creatures attaching themselves to the walls and columns of the Arsenale. Only later did I realize that they are moths created by Halilaj in collaboration with his mother. The text says that moths are frequent subjects in Halilaj’s work, with complex personal symbolism. I was just delighted to see the textiles taking on life.

Like Maria Lai, Michelle Stuart’s (b. 1933 New York) contribution crossed the fiber medium with the book subject in Frijoles Notebook, 1974-75, a book made of earth from Frijoles, New Mexico; cotton; and muslin-mounted paper. I don’t think it has written content, but I loved the way she incorporated the land of New Mexico into a book form.  She was one of the first artists to use organic media such as those she uses here, making land art on a smaller, more accessible, scale, back in the 1970s! Three of her non-fiber works in the show, also touched me. One of them, Pumpkin Field, a small square painting of pumpkin seeds, beeswax, and neutral-colored pigment on wood, also made a connection with the land and what grows there. Of course earth and seeds are only the promise of crops, thus the work celebrates the earth and its fecundity and felt hopeful.

Leonor Antunes’s (b. 1972 Portural, lives in Berlin) work for the Arsenale was almost impossible to photograph, even though it dominated one section of the space. She hung open screens of woven materials, metal, wood, and leather, accented with glass lamps made in Murano. They are presented as inspired by modernist work by architects such as Carlo Scarpa and Lina Bo Bardi; for me they helped soften the overpowering factory-like space of the Arsenal and offered a variety of textures through which to see it.

I’ve always loved seeing Ernesto Neto’s (b. 1964 Brazil) installations of woven vessels hanging from the ceiling. His work at Venice was much criticized for including Huni Kuin Indians inside a structure suspended from the ceiling. Critics talked of anthropological tourism and exploitation. We did not see the performance involved. We saw a huge tent-like structure that people entered with their shoes off; inside they rested, chatted, or drummed. We did not go in, but I liked the shape of the tent, the sense of community it offered, and the mask-like abstract reliefs on the walls surrounding the space.

In Venice I was not very interested in Huguette Calande’s (b. 1931 Lebanon, lives in Los Angeles) work, but now I find the three dresses exhibited by her to be amusingly sensual. Heidi Bucher’s (1926-1993 Switzerland) wall hangings made from underwear did not interest me visually but surely must be acknowledged in the context of the women’s movement, since are also from the 1970s.

A huge wall hanging by Abdoulaye Konate (b. 1953 Mali), who studied in Cuba and met artist Wifredo Lam there, is predominantly dyed with indigo, an important colonial trading product, and was made for a San Paolo, Brazil festival. It’s a big, impressive fiber object with various small images relating to Brazil and Africa, for example an African sculpture, a macaw, and a football. Interestingly, one of the objects we liked at Documenta also involved indigo. And that reminds me of the fascinating exhibition we saw a year ago at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, “The Red that Colored the World,” about cochineal. The show is traveling through 2018 and well worth seeing.

Wandering through the Arsenale, not paying too much attention to the topics of the exhibition “pavilions,” I was struck by the vivid color and audacity of the huge pile of bales of pigmented fiber that Sheila Hicks had placed against the wall. It reminded me of the surprise I had at the first Biennale exhibition I saw in the Arsenale – there was a huge thick red wall hanging, striking in its color and just really big, made for the huge space of the Arsenale. Hicks’s work struck me like that.  I just loved the hugeness of it, its soft texture and bright colors and the sense of freedom the piles of balls of various colors portrayed.  I learned from the didactic information that Hicks studied art with Joseph Albers, architecture with Luis Kahn, and pre-Columbian art history with George Kubler at Yale and later worked with Mexican architects Luis Barragan and Ricardo Legorreta (who incorporates delightful and surprising color in his buildings). Born in Hastings, Nebraska in 1934, she lives in Paris.

There’s a small exhibition of 20 works by Judith Scott (1943 Cincinnati -2005 Dutch Flat, California), who wrapped bits of fabric, wool, yarn, thread,  textile strips and other materials around various objects, making them into abstract sculptures. Most of these did not particularly interest me, although in a way they might have been fiber John Chamberlains. Here is one.

Perhaps not as much fiber as the others is Edith Dekynt’s (b. 1960 Belgium) aluminum foil covered linen curtain, which shimmered outside her installation in the last section of the show the Pavilion of Time and Infinity. It hung like a theater curtain and had a seductive warm glow and tactile surface, a minimal sculpture with a touch of Pop. Slow Object 08, 2017.
Looking at these images, I’m again overcome with the sense of possibility and the creativity that the artists in this exhibition promise. While many of these artists may not be well-known, I was impressed that they have extensive experience, studied and worked with inspirational artists and architects, and have won significant recognition in museums and publications.  A lot of their works are not exactly contemporary, dating from the 1970s, but they still reward even brief observation. Like other Biennales, but moreso, this Biennale has been a rewarding educational experience, and a visual and conceptual delight.