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.'

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