Thursday, 31 December 2009

Orchard asleep

A while ago I was going to write something just to acknowledge that the orchard and vineyard had gone to sleep after a few days of hard freeze in early December. The leaves were either gone or brown and the grass was brown. Finally it was time to start pruning. But then we went away for 10 days, we came back in a blizzard, we were snowed in, and the snow has drifted deep enough that walking in the orchard is even difficult for the dogs. Without the sun, under clouds, it looks like a black-and-white art movie or Russia during Napoleon's retreat (in my imagination, of course; I have never been to Russia). I've never found snow to be so dreary. So pruning has been put on hold for a few days; we'd like to wait till the temperature is above freezing. Maybe next week....

Saturday, 5 December 2009

New Museum Joannou Exhibition controversy

The recent blog entries and articles in the New York Times and New York Magazine about the exhibition of Dakis Joannou's contemporary art collection have been fun to read. Deborah Sontag (Times) Jerry Saltz (New York and blog) and Tyler Green (Art Newspaper and Modern Art Notes) were venting pretty actively there for a few days in November. Not being personally familiar with the individuals involved, I've been thinking about this all from my Baldwin City, Kansas vantage point and trying to sort it all out.

The New Museum has scheduled an exhibition of works from the Joannou collection, a widely admired private collection of contemporary art housed in a private museum in Greece and never seen in this country. The collection includes 40 works by Jeff Koons, an art celebrity whose early work inspired Mr. Joannou to collect contemporary art. Jeff Koons will be the curator of the exhibition. Among the concerns stated are that Joannou is a trustee of the New Museum; that Koons is not a curator, will likely be choosing his own work for the exhibition, and is beholden to Joannou as a major collector of his work; and that by showing the collection the New Museum increases its value, thereby financially benefitting its trustee. Several of the writers also are very critical of museums showing private collections at all. Additional blog information documents a range of connections in this instance between the New Museum staff members, the collector, several artists, and the dealer Gavin Brown.

Museum codes of ethics usually include a statement that trustees should not profit personally from their association with the museum. More specifically, museums should not exhibit the collections of their trustees. Obviously, the trustees, who hire (and fire) the director, should not use their power to influence the artistic decisions made by the museum staff and should not use their positions to enhance their own reputations as collectors or the value of their collections through exhibiting them in a museum over which they have fiduciary responsibility. This rule is especially important because most museums have trustees whose collections are not appropriate for exhibition in their museum, but who want to have their collections displayed. The ethical rule saves the museum staff from the danger of offending museum supporters and saves the audience from being puzzled as to why objects unrelated to the museum's mission or of inferior quality are on view.

So, when the trustee has a collection that is widely praised and internationally respected, it presents a conflict between following the standard codes of ethics and taking advantage of a rare opportunity to have an exhibition of interest. In some circumstances it may be more in the public's interest to show the collection than to adhere to standards. From the standpoint of the ordinary museum goer with an interest in contemporary art the Joannou exhibition would appear to make a contribution to the New York art scene, especially if it includes major or exciting works of art that have not been seen publicly in New York before, or have only been seen in the galleries from which Joannou purchased them.

There has also been an argument that museums should never offer exhibitions of private collections, on the principle that they are vanity opportunities for the collector, lazy on the part of the museums, misleading to the public by giving more importance to the collections (collectors) than they may deserve, and that they raise the commercial value of the objects in the collection. In many cases, museums display private collections that have been donated or are promised gifts to the museum, eliminating the possibility that the collectors will sell the objects after having received that museum imprimatur.

These commercial possibilities involved in showing private collections are indeed problematic. Nonetheless, there are instances when private collections provide a unique educational opportunity for museum visitors. Sometimes private collectors have acquired groups of objects that are unavailable in museums anywhere and an exhibition of these collections is enlightening to the public and provides a unique scholarly resource as well. Collectors have individual tastes (unless they are completely dependent on art consultants, which is another issue) and it is fascinating to see which works and which artists engage one individual, as well as to have an insight into the process of forming a collection. People love visiting private collections. But visiting collectors' homes is not possible for most people and the exhibition of a collection in a museum is a more democratic way of sharing the art. (I love the way Jerry Saltz slips into his column that he has seen Joannou's collection; so we know he's an insider.)

The argument that the exhibition might increase the value of the works of art seems moot, since if the Joannou collection is as famous as it sounds, then the imprimatur of the collector should be adequate to make the objects valuable. Also, given the artists in the collection whose names have been published, their values are already beyond the means of most museums and art lovers, making the likely impact on prices of a museum exhibition minimal. On the other hand, without knowing exactly what will be in the exhibition, perhaps Joannou owns a lot of relatively unknown work that would increase in value by being exhibited in New York and Koons might choose it to show. He could make those choices because he thinks the work deserves seeing, or he might want to do the artists a favor. That is a potential problem.

Since Koons is not trained as a curator, his reasons for including works in the exhibition may be very different from the normal ones we attribute to curators. We think curators choose the very best objects, based on their years of training, careful thought, and perceptive vision, and perhaps an overriding concept that drives an exhibition. However, personal factors may also have weight for museum curators. A curator could be swayed by something an artist says, by the obvious preferences of the collector, by personal and professional alliances of all sorts, as well as by physical limitations of the space of the gallery.

The choice of Koons as curator of the exhibition seems intriguing to me. I would be interested in what he wanted to show from a large collection and I think organizing an exhibition from an artist's point of view is appealing, even if it is from a collection in which he is strongly represented. Which of his own works would he want to show? Would he be vain enough to include an immodest number of his own works? Does he have interesting ideas about art? Does he have anything interesting to say? One blogger decries Koons as curator because he sees it as further reducing the curators' role in museums. Granted, curators seem to be under fire in many circumstances, but they are also often overworked, organizing more exhibitions than they have time to do justice. It is not clear if the curators/director chose Koons to organize this exhibition, but if they did, that would suffice as a curatorial decision, not unlike the choice of an artist to organize exhibitions from museums' own collections, a popular practice in recent years, for example at the Metropolitan and Cooper Hewitt Museums.

What was most troubling about this project, however, were statements made later in blogs about the personal, social connections between the collector, the museum director, the curators, the artists the museum shows, and one dealer. Everybody seems to hang out together. For a museum to present four one-person exhibitions in two years of artists from one dealer - who also represents the spouse of the curator responsible for one of the exhibitions - is troubling. Even though I've been working in the art world for decades, I still imagine that museums choose to show the artists they think are most compelling and whom they want to share with a wider audience for intellectual, aesthetic, and possibly political reasons. But what if the art is not compelling and we are struggling to appreciate something that is exhibited as the result of personal or commercial alliances? Those tangles of associations endanger the museum's public trust and call into question the whole contemporary art enterprise. For the last few weeks it has left me pretty cynical about most contemporary exhibitions.

And, come to think of it, aside from being enormously famous, what is it about Jeff Koons that would make me want to see an exhibition for which he is the curator?

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Chicago-hard and easy art

In Chicago the first weekend in November, SOFA, the sculpture, objects, and functional art exhibition, is a great place to see a lot of different objects in traditional craft media – wood, metalwork, fiber, mixed media, jewelry, mixed media, and glass - from dealers from around the country and the world. We go specifically to look at contemporary glass. This year the exhibition was significantly smaller than in the past and we noticed the absence of several of our favorite galleries. Nonetheless, there was plenty to see and we were exhausted by the time we were finished. It appeared that sales were rather good, although I believe the prices were lower than in the past and the lower priced objects were selling the best.

In retrospect, most of what we see at SOFA is pretty easy; the objects are often colorful, either of interest because of their color, shape, or function, or because of the narrative they include, which is generally quite easy to read because it is depicted either though pictures or pretty straightforward texts. Although some of the work there makes you laugh or smile, not much makes you struggle to deal with it.

I've been struggling a little with Liam Gillick, the British artist who occupied the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this summer. We were completely uninterested in the nonfunctional wood cabinets he strung across the Pavilion spaces and we hardly noticed the animatronic cat perched on top of one. Learning later that the cabinets reproduced those of his kitchen did not engage my interest any further. But preparing to go to Chicago, I found that he had a small exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art there and the publicity indicated that it would juxtapose his work with that of minimal artists. So rather than think about the faux cabinets as non-functional woodwork, I felt compelled to consider them as neo-minimal and Tom and I discussed whether that works. Tom says "no" because the minimal artists reduced their objects to an essence that draws the viewer's attention to what is left. He thinks what is left is of interest because the artist has still been creative, just with much more limited media. I.e. there would not be non-functional cabinets, but wood sculptures that could never be imagined as cabinets, like Donald Judd's wood sculptures. I'm still wondering whether copying your kitchen cabinets as sculpture is sort of a minimal Pop activity, taking everyday objects and reducing them to less. But I must agree that the cabinets still would not attract my attention or inspire much reverie beyond what I've just written.

The exhibition at the MOCA included somewhat different installations. In one room Gillick replaced the frosted white ceiling glass panels with transparent colored ones, drawing one's attention to the ceiling and the fluorescent lights behind it. The label said this was supposed to make us see the space differently, and I guess the ceiling was different from the other galleries (a minimal response to the change). The colored ceiling seemed a rather obvious thing to do and was reminiscent of the bright colors Jorge Pardo had used in his retiling of the DIA Art Center on 22nd Street in New York several years ago. The same room at MOCA was subdivided with fence-like walls and each subdivision had a grey carpet. It looked somewhat like the pens you see at a cattle or horse auctions around these parts. I suppose a prison or school might also come to mind. We didn't look at the video in one of the subdivisions – it was kind of washed out.

The other space held a narrow vertical rectangular object and a large square-shaped object. Both had colorful bars shaping them and some transparent walls. The square one was very large, maybe 6 feet high and 10 feet on the sides. Both of them enclosed spaces that you could not enter and the label said we were supposed to think of them as somehow between architecture and sculpture. I thought they looked like colorful minimal sculptures. In the adjoining room there were Donald Judd works that underlined and seemed consistent with the minimalism of the Gillicks.

A few years ago I had a meeting with a rather famous headhunter. After asking about my interest in getting a job, he launched into an attack on minimal art, saying it's the Emperor's New Clothes and really not of any interest. Didn't I think so? I couldn't tell if he really meant it or if he was imitating a philistine museum goer. And I had no idea if it was a test or a way of continuing the conversation when he knew he had no interest in me as a candidate for any of the positions he controlled. But I thought the subject was interesting and I disagreed with him (politely, of course). I think the idea of reducing an art form to its essentials, seeing how little you can do and still have it be an art work, seems a worthwhile challenge. I've loved thinking about the space evoked by Karl Andre's metal tiles on the floor, the way a bi-colored painting by Brice Marden makes you look at the juxtaposition of colors and the textures and edge where the colors meet, not to mention enticing you to contemplate rather dull hues in subtle relation to each other. So minimalism can be fine. There is some question, however, as to how long one really wants to look at a minimal object and I question whether all minimal objects can hold anyone's attention, even if they are understood to be iconic masterpieces.

When we got our tickets for the Museum of Contemporary Art, the ticket person said something about Tino Sehgal, then said "Men Who Stare at Goats, BAAAA." We started a conversation with her about the movie and its reviews and about Tino Sehgal, who apparently had the ticket sellers choosing a headline each day to repeat to the visitors. Sehgal's art without objects has engaged my interest since the "guards" at the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2005 danced out singing "Oh, Zees is so conTEMPorary!" in a show of sculpture that really wasn't. Two years later we were at the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt and wandered into a Tino Sehgal installation where people were standing around the room and all said something in German when we walked in. We didn't know what to do, didn't understand them, and made a hasty retreat. The next winter I saw the installation in New York, in English, and joined in the conversation, which reset every time a new person entered. I'm interested that his background is in theater and economics and that his art purposely avoids objects. But mostly I'm interested in the way his work encourages communication among strangers in art-based spaces. We don't normally talk much in art museums and galleries, except to our companions; Sehgal's work breaks down the distances among museum and gallery goers.

Another purpose of the trip was to visit the new modern and contemporary art galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago. We detoured to see the very carefully presented Arts and Crafts exhibition, focusing on England and Chicago and drawn from collections in the Chicago area. It seemed a particularly good way to organize a reasonably priced exhibition that includes beautiful and unusual objects, presents wonderful ideas and coherent historical information, and connects to the specific community and its relationship to the world. The exhibition includes the expected furniture, textiles, book illustrations, ceramics and metalwork, and also includes photographs. Beginning with William Morris and ending with the Prairie School and Frank Lloyd Wright, it presented both familiar and unfamiliar works of art, most of them fascinating. We were interested in the progression from Morris's focus on the handmade object and rejection of industrialization to the later artists in Chicago embracing industrialization and proclaiming industry's important role in creating the simple clean designs embraced by the movement.

Entering Renzo Piano's addition to the Art Institute from the older museum building, you first encounter a huge white hall with plain walls and high ceilings, articulated primarily by the openings on one side that accommodate the stairs, the first floor gallery entrance, the open second floor hall, and by the lights that are suspended from the ceiling in a row that extends from one end of the hall to the other and that have cords that go diagonally from the lights to the ceiling corners; this ceiling is all that really distinguishes the space from any commercial building. Otherwise, it is a bright, white straightforward flat space. That it contains no art and no color reminds me of the Stephen Holl expansion of the Nelson Atkins Museum, but the Holl structure is significantly more sculptural. I also thought of the old expansion of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with its huge but uninviting lobby.

Piano is known for museums, from the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Menil Collection in Houston to the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and the Morgan Library in New York. It took me a while to like the Menil Collection building, which seems to imitate a beach house from the outside, but has the carefully balanced gallery proportions and natural lighting that, combined with extraordinarily sensitive placement of the objects, makes for an enlightening and often moving art experience. In the Morgan Library, Piano designed a large open atrium the turns a formerly intimate museum - that made the visitor feel privileged - into a more corporate and brittle interior. Galleries were not a major part of that project and the additional space is no doubt useful, but it makes the Morgan feel like everywhere else, except for the older spaces, which retain some of their domesticity and tranquility.

On a beautifully sunny day, the Art Institute spaces were bright with natural light. Some of the gallery areas have window walls with shades that reduce the sunlight, but permit one to see the skyline outside. The interior gallery walls appear to be flexible, and as configured they create rooms that accommodate a relatively small number of objects. The installation included several rooms devoted to one artist; for example, Robert Gober and Bruce Nauman each had two spaces, Robert Ryman had one, as did Jim Nutt. They are beautifully proportioned, simple white boxes, and the works all had enough space to be seen easily. So after you pass through the huge lobby, the building appears to serve its art well, in a neutral, anonymous way.

The exterior of the addition, facing Millennium Park, has glass walls, lots of white vertical ribs and a roof that seems to float. It's a pleasant-looking building, but without the impact of Aqua, the new high-rise I caught a glimpse of from a taxi. Designed by woman architect Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects, it stands out in a skyline of amazing buildings. Chicago is still a great city to see contemporary architecture in the United States.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009


Our farm is on a quiet dirt road. The past couple of days I've noticed a dark pile on the east side of the road not far from our driveway. It looked like feathers and today I took the time to stop. It's a big barn owl, splayed on the side of the road. Occasionally when we're driving home at night an owl will swoop right across in front of the windshield. I guess this one didn't make it. The patterns on its wings are like murrini glass, white, brown, beige, black.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Venice Biennale VI

The Biennale seems endless and with so many exhibitions and objects, there's neither time nor space to give any really careful discussion of any object or installation. That's something I hope to do later. But for this post I'll talk about five of the 44 "collateral events," most running at the same time as the exhibition but not part of the curated exhibition or official national pavilions. Amazingly and sadly, we were only able to get to these few in our time in Venice. Many of them were on outer islands or outside Venice altogether. As one reviewer said, it's helpful to have a motorboat at your disposal. We stick with the vaporetto pass.

We were most interested in "Glass Stress," the exhibition of contemporary artists working with glass that was in two sites. The majority of the show was at the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, Palazzo Cavalli Frachetti, which is close to the Accademia Bridge and where we've seen interesting Latin American exhibitions during other Biennales. It's a lovely palace with great views and Murano chandeliers.
Here's a piece I found amusing set against the view out the window of the palace across the Grand Canal. It's by Silvano Rubino, titled Addizione Sottrattiva (Subtractive addition), 2009. The water glasses are on the table, but the plates and silverware are cut out through the table top. I think it's a little like the fur-lined teacup, depicting something familiar but also impossible to use in the way you would expect.
What was notable about this exhibition is that it was not a show of glass artists, but of artists who had used glass in some way in their work. The exhibition was conceived by Adriano Berengo, whose Berengo Studios on Murano has invited artists who do not primarily use glass as a medium to work there with glass. In that sense it is similar to Pilchuck, north of Seattle. Many of the works in the exhibition resulted from Berengo's initiative, but others predate Berengo's activity. For example, it begins with Robert Rauschenberg's Untitled Glass Tires of 1971, two full size glass tires on a metal stand. Impossible objects, rather lovely, absurd. Here Rauschenberg incorporates everyday objects in a Pop tradition, but makes them out of a material that cannot function.

I needn't add a photograph of the Joseph Kosuth minimal/conceptual work of 1965, titled "Any Two Meter Square Sheet of Glass to Lean Against Any Wall," since that is exactly what it was, against a neutral wall. Guiseppe Penone, whose Arte Povera work we had seen in an exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham and in various other sites, was included, as well as an Arman glass box holding multiple light bulbs.

Beautifully blue bars of glass on the wall made up Rene Rietmeyer's Venezia, 2007. They worked well in a room with a white chandelier.

Mona Hatoum made a tableful of colorful glass grenades, forcing one to change thoughts from the beauty of colorful glass and the otherworldliness of Venice itself to the reality of war and world politics. Just for a moment.

Fred Wilson, who seems to have discovered the possibilities in glass when he occupied the United States Pavilion four years ago, contributed a striking Murano work, Iago's Mirror, 2009.

There was a video by the Korean Hye Rim Lee, which apparently includes characters the artist has developed and uses frequently. We didn't make any sense of it in terms of it having a story, but enjoyed watching the illusionistic glass pieces change color and morph into different shapes and characters. And it was blessedly short.

In a second site, the Scuola Grande Confraternita di San Teodoro, there was a single installation by Koen Vanmechelen, consisting of huge glass and feather dinosaurs and oversize glass eggs in various settings. These seem only to be representative of his overriding project and the best way to transmit that is to show the label, which you can enlarge by clicking on the photograph. Here are four pictures. I love this project, although the objects did not really suggest what he seems to be doing.

The other collateral exhibition we visited was "Danger! Museum," an installation by the Russian artists Vladimir Dubossarsky and Alexander Vinogradov. The installation consists of several rooms of very large, heroic-style paintings imitating Old Masters. The painters appeared to take their subjects seriously, but we found them very amusing.

At the center of each painting I discovered a small hole and realized that there were cameras behind the holes. So we returned downstairs in the palace and found a small room in which surveillance images of us in the galleries were projected. It seemed a very Russian idea.

We went to one other collateral exhibition, called Foreign Affairs: Artists from Taiwan, in the fascinating location of the Palazzo delle Prigioni (Palace of the Prisons) in San Marco. While I did not photograph there, the work of the four artists: Hsieh Ying-chun, Chen Chieh-jen, Chang Chien-Chi, and Yu Cheng-Ta - addressed issues of immigration, isolation and displacement through video and other documentation. This Taiwan exhibition is often quite challenging and engaging.

Upon leaving the Giardini on our first day and taking a slightly different route to the hotel, we came upon two small and fascinating exhibitions, each in an old apartment building. The first, "Distortion," organized by the Arts Council England, curator James Putnam, included Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller, Oliver Clegg, Mat Collishaw, John Isaacs, Alastair Mackie, Tim Noble & Sue Webster, Jamie Shovlin, and Gavin Turk. The first object I saw was a little pile of metal trash, sort of an abstract sculpture, until I saw the image it projected on the wall. This was the work of Tim Noble and Sue Webster. I love this thing, however much a gimmick it is.

The mirrored bell jars by Alastair Mackie made distorted images of the viewer, which you can see.

Gavin Turk had apparently been modelling distorted heads in one of the spaces. There were about 10 of them.

And Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller had an audio installation, identified by its label as Feedback, 2004,  Guitar amp, wah wah pedal, interactive control circuit playing Star Spangled Banner Tribute to Jimi Hendrix Woodstock 1968. We pushed the button and listened for a moment, then got away from it.

Next door to this was another apartment with the installation titled "Library" by Korean artist Woojung Chun, filled with fascinating objects that we could just make out in the dark.

We never planned to go to these last three exhibitions. We just happened upon them. Part of what's fascinating about the Biennale is that you have to search through parts of Venice you've never seen in order to find small exhibitions that interest you for whatever reason. Another part is that you happen upon displays by artists you've never thought about that are wonderful. And the discoveries are more exciting because they are in unoccupied apartments or available spaces in palaces that give you a glimpse of the everyday world of Venice.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Venice Biennale V – The Dogana

Before we went to Venice, I read a couple of reviews of the new museum Francois Pinault has made at the Dogana, the Custom's House, which is beyond the church of Santa Maria della Salute, at the point of the district of Dorsoduro. The reviews were very negative, unhappy with the size of the building compared to the works of art installed there, irritated at the roughness of the architecture compared to the works, generally uncomfortable with the building. I expected to be equally unhappy because two years ago, when Tom and went to see Pinault's display of his collection at the Palazzo Grassi, we had been significantly underwhelmed with the objects. They were colorful and often abstract, but just not engaging for us. I thought it was perhaps because I wasn't familiar with his collection, but in any event, I had no intent to return there.

We went to the Dogana with two art historian friends who study primarily Renaissance art. One of them is Venetian, the other American. The Venetian had no particular interest in the objects, but was both impressed and pleased with the restoration of the Dogana. I told her I didn't think I had ever seen the building and she assured me that it had been closed for many, many years. She enjoyed many of the details that had been preserved, as well as the scope of the building. Her husband agreed, but he also, as he often does, found inspiration and Renaissance or Christian iconographical sources in many of the paintings and installations, giving the exhibition an additional layer of interest for me.

But in any event, I found the installation, and many of the objects, fascinating, starting with the beaded curtain that closes the gallery off from the entrance. Red beads, by Felix Gonzalez Torres, titled "Blood," and calling to mind all the associations one makes with blood and its relationship to disease, life, and death. The Maurizio Cattelan horse hanging from a wall we had seen in Frankfurt a few years ago, but it still caught our attention. It's a strange and amusing image and I enjoy its absurdity; beyond that, I have no sense of meaning. Rachel Whiteread's One Hundred Spaces of 1995, characteristically materializing the spaces under various chairs, held the large space well and provided soft colors to it. There were also some large paintings that I've forgotten.

An installation that really captured my interest was Peter Fischli/David Weiss's Sun, Moon and Stars, which originated as a book of 800 advertising images commissioned in conjunction with the annual report of Ringier AG, a Swiss publishing house. At the Dogana the images are laid out on rows of tables. While the layout can't exactly be called thematic, there were links from beautiful women to children to watches and so on and the display not only called one's attention to the absurdity of advertising but also to our desires for objects and appearances that become both enticing and offensive at the same time.

Maurizio Cattelan also had nine beautifully carved Carrara marble sculptures of sheets covering bodies, presumably corpses. These beautiful and offputting objects recall both 19th century romantic realism and photo-realism of the 1980s, while they force one to think of death in all its contemporary manifestations – war, disease, exploitation.

One of my favorite installations was by an artist who has never interested me, Mike Kelley. His Kandors full set 2005-2009, translucent abstract castles in various colors, illuminated from below in a dark gallery, were fantasies that made me think of Disneyland but in a good way. You couldn't imagine living in them because they were too abstract, but they nonetheless suggested other worlds and possibilities. I can't find any adequate photos of them on the web and I wasn't allowed to photograph in the Dogana. Mr. Pinault charges admission to everyone, even art historians, Venetians, and museum staff, and doesn't permit photographs, an interesting approach to "sharing" his wonderful collection.

Most of the photographs from the museum – aside from the spectacular views of the Punta see from above and the many photos of people taking pictures of Charles Ray's Boy with Frog outside the museum - seem

to focus on that first room with the Cattelan and the Whitereads, then perhaps on one or more of the amusingly sexual Takashi Murakami sculptures or the Robert Gober Male and Female Genital Wallpaper. Also there are several images of Jake and Dinos Chapman's dioramas titled Fucking Hell, which every single viewer has compared to Bosch. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of tiny figures torturing and being tortured in ghoulish landscapes. A tour de force, disturbing, ugly, and fascinating to a large number of viewers. Unlike the Chapman Collection in the Tate Britain, I found this impressive but also a bit sophomoric, they kind of thing guys say "Wow, did you see that? It looks like Bosch!" about.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Dog break

Our dogs are farm dogs. They sleep in the garage and are basically outdoor dogs, although they do come in for a few hours most days. Rosie the red heeler follows me around and is always hungry. Thunder the white husky really prefers to be outside most of the time and is a very picky eater. They are always there in the morning, waiting to come in for a tiny bit of milk and their food. But this morning Thunder wasn't there. This is very worrysome for me because twice in the past he has not been around the house and turned out to have been caught in one of the traps that our neighbor a mile or so away sets for wild creatures. Once he hurt his foot in a leg trap and the other time he got caught in a noose and had a very swollen neck for a few days. So far, he's survived, thanks to the people who have found and rescued him, but you never know. So we worry a lot if he's not right around the house.

I went out and called several times. Nothing. Finally I took Rosie outside and said several times, "Where's Thunder?" I did this because two years ago on a sub-freezing winter night when he was caught in the leg trap too far away for us to hear him, I said "Where's Thunder?" and she seemed to turn her head in the direction where he turned out to be (we never would have found him back in the woods there), and later I thought she might have been trying to help me find him.

Anyway, I said, "Where's Thunder?" and she took off across the field to the south orchard. She never runs away when she and I are outside together; she runs alongside me, or heels me, or tries to bite my feet. She'll chase a bird, but she never runs away for long. I thought maybe she was heading toward the south-side neighbor, who recently moved cows into his field. When they were much younger (they're four now), the dogs used to get into trouble chasing his cows, but they haven't done that lately. But she ran down the hill and up the hill through the path Tom had just mowed yesterday, then veered to the left behind a tree. I was watching from the driveway and had to move to see behind the tree. And I saw something white. So I followed her and there was Thunder, happily chewing away on some deer innards left behind by a hunter. I'll never know if she really was leading me to Thunder or just wanted to see if she could get some of his snack, but I like to think she'll keep track of our wayward husky for us. She got lots of praise and several treats.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Venice Biennale IV – The Arsenale Making Worlds

The Arsenale, which is the historic center of Venetian ship building, still has the look of an old empty factory, with enormous dark spaces and rough walls. Some sections are in notable states of deterioration, making the experience of art there always seem more impromptu and the art either more experimental or very surprisingly elegant in such unrefined spaces. I still remember with particular delight the 1999 installation of drinking glasses by Serge Spitzer in one of the especially deteriorated spaces of the Arsenale. I believe when this building was first converted to Biennale space the idea was that it would hold the work of newer, younger, more challenging artists, and it is the place I saw my first Damien Hirst (Cow and Calf) many years ago. Usually it is occupied by the larger and messier installations.

The Arsenale entry space traditionally houses a dramatic installation that may set the tone for the rest of the show. This year that installation was the recreation of a work by Lygia Pape, the Brazilian Concrete artist who died in 2004. Very difficult to capture in a photograph, it is made up of gold wires attached to floor and ceiling to make bands of light. Pape worked in theater and was a professor of semiotics in Brazil and this installation may connect with those aspects of her career as well as her role in Concrete and Neo-Concrete art. What you see is what you get, in this case a very spiritually inspiring environment.

The next large installation, by Italian Michelangelo Pistoletto, is a room hung with large elaborately framed mirrors, most of them broken with the shards on the floor in front of them. Not surprisingly, the room was cordoned off, but I could still imagine the multiple reflections, some complete, some partial, that the installation would create, and it fascinated me. Tom was completely unimpressed. Oh, now I see, Pistoletto himself smashed the mirrors in a performance at the opening of the exhibition. I guess we missed it.

Nearby, Aleksandra Mir (born in Poland, a US citizen, who lives in Palermo, Sicily) had made a simple project, Venezia, All Places Contain All Others. On the floor were multiple boxes of postcards inscribed "Venice" or "Venezia," all depicting photographs of tourist sites involving water, but none of them to be found in Venice. Like most other people, I took several of them and enjoy finding them among my other documents from the show.

Then there were the blimps. Apparently the Mexican artist Hector Zamora had positioned an inflated one between two buildings for the exhibition, but we didn't encounter that; perhaps it had deflated by July. But in the Arsenale he presented videos of blimps gliding over the Doge's Palace, and in later spaces cardboard blimps floated above the exhibition. He explained it as documentation for a Venetian blimp festival that never took place.

It seemed this year that more artists were using the upper spaces of the building and I photographed a large installation of boxes and other objects supported by a web of colored string, by Yona Friedman (born in Budapest in 1923), which I now discover is actually meant to be a "second level of livable space" presented as an investigation of innovative concepts of architecture that Friedman has been exploring since the 1960s. Looking at them again, they still look like a jumble of scraps of cardboard.

Pascale Martine Tayou from Cameroon created a large installation suggesting an African village, with huts, animals, videos of Africans working, and many clusters of colored cloth bags of white powder labeled "Cocaine." This installation was engaging, sometimes amusing, and thought provoking, as opposed to many other huge gatherings of materials that have occupied essentially the same space in the Arsenale. I'm embarrassed to be reminded by the above link that Tayou previously made a piece in the 2005 Venice Biennale that I thought very beautiful and thought provoking. It was a vertical grid, erected near the water toward the back of the building, and hung with colored plastic bags, recycling and calling attention to the proliferation of plastic bags, but also beautiful as the bags waved in the breeze. Besides making a lovely object from menial materials, he suggested many ecological and social impact of the proliferation of these non-degradable everyday items.

I can't find much specific about South African artist Moshekwa Langa's installation, Temporal distance (with a criminal intent), of spools of colored thread interspersed with toy vehicles and bottles, but I kept looking at it with fascination. It seems to represent a city connected to the textile industry, but I would never have suspected his nationality or gender from the work.

I have been fascinated by Cildo Meireles's work for more than 20 years and looked forward to his installation at the Arsenale, even though I had been disappointed with his exhibition several years ago at the New Museum in New York. His conceptual, sort of Dada approach to art is always intriguing to me, and I once owned a Zero Centavo piece that he gave me. At the Arsenale he constructed rooms painted with primary and secondary colors, then installed videos in the corners that either repeated the wall color or showed its complement. Interestingly, I only photographed the corners of the rooms with the videos, whereas others only photographed the doorways showing contiguous rooms of contrasting colors.

The Tibetan artist (lives in London) Gonkar Gyatso made a contemporary mandala that he called a Shambala, with a silhouette of the Buddha surrounded by stickers, labels, phrases, and headlines reflecting the miasma of contemporary life.

Toward the back of the building we came upon Constellation No. 3, the installation ethereal tiny lights, some blinking, by Chu Yun, which revealed itself to have been created by setting multiple appliances at various levels in the darkened space. The artist expanded on something that we experience at home after the lights are out and made it magical (but also surprising when a flash photo reveals the light sources).

Also at the back of the building are works by Ivan Navarro from Chile (This space was called the Chilean Pavilion), all of which incorporate fluorescent lights, sometimes with mirrors to create the illusion of impossible spaces: a deep well in the floor (titled Bed, with the word 'bed' repeated into infinity) and a row of brightly lit corridors that would penetrate deep into the walls if they actually existed (Death Row). The illusions catch one's attention, as do the bright colors, but I was not able to grasp any further point in the work. A third object consists of a bicycle with a chair made of fluorescent bulbs attached to it. In a video, the artist pedals the bicycle around Times Square, the energy of his pedaling powers the fluorescent bulbs, and the chair lights up.

After this section, you leave the building and continue around a corner, walking on a stony roadway by the water in the bright sun. The last section includes the new Chinese pavilion and the even newer Italian pavilion, as well as some additional works set into the garden that is slowly being renovated. The objects in the garden were not terribly interesting, but the vines growing around the ruined buildings are wonderful, reminiscent of the ruins of Angkor in Cambodia.

The Italian pavilion is huge and filled with enormous artworks, vigorous paintings and extremely kitsch installations. The theme apparently was a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Futurist Manifesto, so I suppose Futurism was in the curators' minds, but as with many installations, the point and the relationships were not at all clear. It is wonderful though, that Italy actually has a pavilion at the exhibition that it has hosted for more than 100 years.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Venice Biennale III - Making Worlds

The curated group exhibition at the Biennale, in both the former Italian Pavilion (now called the Palazzo delle Esposizioni) and in the Arsenale, is always a huge gathering of artists from all over the world, and obviously offers a chance to see works from a great variety of perspectives. Of course, rather than be a random gathering of objects, the exhibition reflects the artistic preferences and tendencies of the curator/s. Nevertheless, it is never really satisfying, partly just because of the huge size of the show, which prohibits the choice and explication of any sensible truly coherent theme. Daniel Birnbaum, the curator this year, chose “Making Worlds” as his title, and the theme actually suggests certain types of art – objects or environments that suggest a world, or THE world. But, as the curator actually says in his introduction to the Short Guide, it also makes it possible to include almost anything, since by creating an object, installation, video, play, music composition, or book, for that matter, the artist can be seen as “making” a “world.” After a few artists and labels, we quit trying to figure out how they fit in to the theme and just looked at the works. And after a few more artists, we realized that the artists and their work were probably much more interesting than we thought they were, because we had been so antagonized by the labeling that we started to think the art was pretentious and stupid as well. Not all of it is.

In both locations, the exhibition started out rather well. Tomas Saraceno, from Argentina, but living in Germany, tied black strings in a sort of enormous cat’s cradle to make a galaxy of spheres suspended in one of the first large spaces of the exhibitions building. It was impossible to enter the space or to capture the installation in one photograph, but it did suggest another world that we were fascinated to explore from outside. The spheres he suspended in the room had different woven designs that enlivened his imaginary world.

Another artist who lives in Germany, Nathalie Djurberg, populated a gallery with the clay props of her “claymation” videos, huge distorted plants and other organic forms that almost seemed to move in the darkened space. Not generally attracted to video, I found myself fascinated as two of the contorted figures in her video began to scratch at each other and one scraped all the clay off the other’s body, down to the metal armature. It was creepy, funny, sad, scary and compelling.

Anju Dodiya‘s work is beautiful, evocative, and very obtuse. The label said her “intricately layered watercolors are predominantly autobiographical,” but that they “forge a narrative of exploitation and innocence.” The hand-colored screen prints drew images from many sources and repeated motifs from one to the next, but I couldn’t see either that informed me about any possible aspects of her biography or about exploitation and innocence. Horses playing polo, lace doilies, Japanese Edo prints of women, swords, and a repeated irregular arc make an engaging image, but to my mind can’t be interpreted as either a world or a biography. Perhaps taking imagery from worldwide sources has something to do with it.

Toba Khedoori, of Iraqi extraction from Australia, who lives in Los Angeles, made beautifully detailed delicate drawings that looked pretty traditional and specific; I photographed drawings of a crumpled white cloth and an empty cave from Bamiyan. The label’s idea that placing the drawings “in the midst of wide stretches of [paper covered with] monochromatic white wax … encourages viewers to perceive things in a new light” made no sense to me. They’re lovely drawings, and whenever you make a good drawing of one thing, the viewer looks at it, perhaps even carefully.

I loved Hans-Peter Feldman’s (from Dusseldorf) Shadow Play, which was just that, everyday objects, sometimes on automated moving platforms, in front of lights that made shadows on the wall behind. Nothing specific in the subject, but both the shadows and the objects that made them are fun to examine.

Some of the work in the exhibition was from earlier times, although only the labels betrayed that for many of them. One section showed works from the Japanese Gutai group of the 50s and 60s. Sadamasa Motonaga, Water Work, from 1955-65 is surprising and unusual, although it does call to mind the more recent works by Ernesto Neto (Brazil, 2001 Biennale) who suspends colored powders or elements in long, stretchy fine mesh bags. Across the upper part of the gallery Motoaga suspended long wide strips of plastic sheeting with colored liquid in them.

Then there were several sets of squares and abstract forms on the walls and pedestal, by the German Wolfgang Tillmans, American Sherrie Levine, and Brazilian Lygia Pape, artists who approach abstraction from far different perspectives, nationalities, and generations. Although their art all looks related, it ‘means’ very different things. Tillmans’s grey-toned rectangles on the walls relate to colors of photography and are minimal in a sense. Sherrie Levine’s squares of color on the wall are appropriations of earlier work, in this case by Yves Klein. Pape’s simple geometric two- and three-dimensional works arise from her dedication to the Concrete Art movement (Tom did not go for this concept at all.). But for a viewer without the long historical context and conceptual appreciation, these objects  may look like so many geometric forms with the visual interest of, perhaps, paint chips.

I photographed works by the African artist Georges Adeagbo that it turns out I shouldn’t have. It looked like he had gathered everything in his house, or his garage, or in the trash and installed it in a couple of galleries, as another of those biographical or life representations that have become so popular with artists these years. The installation is supposed to represent a wide range of his interests and concerns, which, of course, such a huge gathering of stuff would be likely to do. It's a particular type of art, quite widespread, for which I personally have no patience (surely he'll be the biggest genius of the whole show). Although it doesn’t seem to require much thought or careful preparation, these installations are worlds of a type; but they remind me of the bedrooms of teenagers.

One of my favorite parts of the exhibition was the work by Rirkrit Tiravanija, who designed the book shop for the exhibition building. The fa├žade of the pavilion was painted with a blue seascape and palm trees by America artist John Baldessari. It was fine, but neither challenging nor particularly beautiful. I love John Baldessari’s work and it was wonderful that he was honored with a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. The seascape seemed a pleasant way to frame the exhibition entrance, but I wished that it had had some 'bite.'