Sunday, 16 October 2011

Venice Biennale 2011 The Arsenale, Part 2

The Clock seems to be located at turning point of the Arsenale, after which the works are primarily installations rather than individual works in a gallery. Several national "pavilions" and artist collaboratives occupied rooms in this later section. I was intrigued by the video elevator, Elevator from the Subcontinent by Gigi Scaria of India. After entering the 'elevator' you ride it from the basement to the roof of an apartment building, scaling the socioeconomic classes that might have occupied the floors before ending with a panoramic view of a city from above. While the content, the idea of rising through the classes in India, was not particularly striking, I just enjoyed the sensation of traveling up and down while standing still. Zarina Hashmi from India made some touching delicate drawings and abstract sculptures with gold and silver foil, not especially innovative, but pleasurable just for their abstraction and beautiful execution.

Two sisters from Saudi Arabia, Raja Alem and Shadia Alem made an installation of a large oval mirror that reflected various video images and patterns on the floor behind it. I liked the shapes and colors, especially when they were not representational.

I was very taken by Ayse Erkman's Plan B, 2009, an installation of colorful pipes and cables that turns out to be a water purification system. In a Sisyphusian endeavor, the Turkish artist was pulling water from the canal next to the Arsenale, purifying it, and running it back to the canal. I loved just thinking of anyone making the effort, and the colorful pipes are cheerful and optimistic.

At an outside corner of the Arsenale, the point where one is exhausted and resents having to go out into the heat  and blazing sun and around a corner on loose gravel to get another huge part of the building, I noticed a fenced off area. Often there is something interesting in this blindingly sunny area, so I dragged myself, and Tom over to take a look. The fence surrounds a huge sculpture of a whale, called The Geppetto Pavilion, by French artist Loris Gréaud. I saw tubes coming out of the whale and a sort of manhole door in it, but continued on my way without figuring it out. Only later, checking on the web, did I find that the sculpture refers to Geppetto in Pinocchio being swallowed by a whale.Gréaud invited individuals to spend 24 hours locked in the belly of the whale, so now I imagine that there was someone locked inside while I was wondering what it was. Images online show the inside facilities and the artist's contract for inhabiting it. I only hope it was air conditioned. It's quite amusing and a mild test of the participants' mettle (the interior appears to be adequately equipped), but I'm not sure what else. (On the website he's saying it's all about semiotics.?)  At the Palazzo Grassi later we saw the installation by Gréaud, a room filled with black trees and a big projected moon. Again later I found that the trees are coated with explosive powder. While I'm interested in the creativity and might become intrigued by the danger projected in these projects, I have not found them emotionally moving of intellectually gripping. But they are memorable.

The Italo-Latin American Institute (IILA) occupies a very large room with an exhibition of its own, Between Forever and Never. At least 24 artists from as many countries displayed works, many with piercing political content. For example, there were two works by Regina Jose Galindo from Guatemala. For one, titled Looting, on view were eight tiny irregularly shaped pieces of gold. The artist had a Guatemalan dentist drill holes in her molars and fill them with pure gold that was later extracted by a German dentist in Berlin. The label explains, "Thus with her own body, Galindo reincarnates the operation of plundering that characterized the EuropeAmerica relation during the period of conquest and colonization, by which the original communities, such as the Maya civilization in Guatemala's case, were pillaged from the 16th century onward." In another exhibit, she shows False Leon. In 2005 she won the Golden Lion at Venice as the best artist under 35. For economic reasons, she sold the lion to another artist, who sold it to a collector. Galindo then had a workshop in Guatemala make her a Golden Lion, a fake one. She refers both to the financial precariousness of being an artist and, perhaps not so clearly, to the exploitation of Guatemalan gold in antiquity.

Martin Sastre's video Tango with Obama, 2009 depicts a Latin American person dancing the tango with an Obama look-alike, interspersed with statements about collaborations with and decisions about Latin America from the point of view of the United States, indicating the delicacy of the relationship between the two continents as well as the hypocrisy that continues in that relationship.

Adan Vallecillo from Honduras displayed La Fisiologia del Gusto (The Physiology of Taste), an elegant stainless steel tray piled up with teeth extracted from poor Hondurans by the volunteer teams of dentists who travel to the country to provide free dental care. There is definitely something chilling about seeing this pile of human teeth, especially in the context of having heard about free dental clinics where there is not time or money to do anything about decayed teeth but pull them and knowing that they proliferate in service to the poor in this country as well as others.

Finally, among all the videos and installations in this powerfully expressive exhibition, there was Humberto Velez's La mas Bella, 2010. Velez, from Panama, went to Ecuador and persuaded two villages not far from Cuenca to participate with the Museo de Arte Moderna in Cuenca in a beauty contest for llamas. The project calls attention to the popular and indigenous practice of decorating llamas; it included a parade, and culminated in the selection of the most beautiful llama.I don't know if competitions of this type have a tradition or not, but certainly in a contemporary art museum a llama beauty contest challenges traditional ideas of beauty and of art. The project is also touted for initiating civic collaboration between the two villages and the museum, as well as a different approach to the idea of contemporary art.

I'm interested that this gallery is identified as the "Latin American Pavilion," because there are several individual pavilions in the Giardini dedicated to Latin American countries - Brazil, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and other Latin American countries have individual locations around Venice, for example Mexico and Costa Rica. But the IILA seems to have provided a venue for many other countries if the artists can collaborate in a group show.

Still to go are two substantial group shows - the Italian and Chinese pavilions. Even more egregiously than two years ago, the Italian Pavilion curator seemed to want to show as many Italian artists as possible. The only difference is that two years ago a few of them were good. This looked like a really badly displayed student exhibition and demonstrated extremely well how mistaken one would be to ask various colleagues to serve as the artist selection committee. There was also a large exhibition that was somehow about the Mafia (not the art mafia, but the real one), but it was too obtuse for me, although a few of the works got my interest.
Also as usual, the Chinese pavilion occupied a fabulously beautiful part of the Arsenale, which I enjoy seeing just because it is still filled with rows of huge vats. But it's sometimes hard to find the art. Two works did attract me. Yang Maoyuan, All Things Are Visible, made hundreds of small and tiny clay vessels and grouped them on the floor among the vats. They looked really good for being light colored and of simple design in the midst of remnants of dirty, heavy industry. Of course, reading about his work, I found that it's more complicated: these are traditional Chinese medicine pot. He carved medical prescriptions on the insides of the pots, invisible to the viewer, saying "according to the theory of traditional Chinese medicine, all things are visible, be it acupuncture points, meridians or collaterals; however they do not exist in modern science."

Pan Gongkai's Withered Lotus Cast by Iron, is an installation I almost skipped. You walk between two large walls depicting traditional ink paintings of lotus. Above the black ink lotus images, white texts in English scroll down, but they deconstruct and the letters fall like snow before you can make sense of them. The artist says in the label, "In a literal sense, Western as the shining English characters illuminates Eastern. However, while the English text continuously entering, and illuminating China, it also continuously deconstruct into flakes, falling down like snow, piling onto lotus leaves, and melting gradually. This particular dynamic process is the projection of the process of Western introduced into Eastern... Western continuously export, Eastern very continuously absorb, digest and melt rather than simply import and accept."  Other Chinese offerings were lost on us because we weren't there at the right time.

At the end of the Arsenale is the garden, with additional spaces for art. Here I was relieved by Piet Oudolf's garden, Il Giardino delle Vergine, planted during the Architecture Biennale but flourishing for this one.

 Also in addition to some vaguely interesting videos I was pleased to see the sculptures by Katharina Fritsch, 6 Stilleben, although they had nothing like the impact of her 1993 Rat King, one of those unforgettable Biennale experiences. She has been chosen to do a sculpture for the notorious Fourth Plinth at Trafalgar Square in 2013 titled Hahn/Cock and identified as a cockerel. I know why they don't just call it a Rooster, but still.....It looks like it will be Yves Klein blue.

Katarina Fritsch, 6 Stilleben
Completely unnoticed on my first walk through the exhibition was Swedish artist Klara Liden's Untitled (Trashcan). It's at one of the entrances of the Arsenale and I think I just thought they were functioning trash cans on my first walk through. On the way back I realized that it was an installation of about 10 trash cans from various cities, most of them damaged or covered with graffiti, not at all expressing the idea of cleanliness for which they are intended.

And it crosses my mind to mention what beautiful weather we had and what a pleasure it is to see the water in between art immersions.

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