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.

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