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.'