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.

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