Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Venice Biennale 2011: The Arsenale Part I

Doing justice to the Venice Biennale is impossible. This year our general response was in agreement with many critics who found it boring and uninspiring. However, now that I'm getting down to it, I'm finding that many more works engaged me than I remembered. No matter how long we stay in Venice, it seems that we can just touch the surface of the contemporary art off erings there, and we have to pass by the extraordinary Renaissance art to see what we do.

In order to get started, I decided just to mention the works that really excited me and to leave out anything that didn't. I thought there would be about three, but there are many more. First the Arsenale, which is both a curated exhibition and a number of national and other pavilions.

The most engaging work at the Biennale was, of course, Christian Marclay's The Clock. I thought I had a lot to say about it till this week when I finally read Zadie Smith's comprehensive, complimentary, and compelling article about it in the April 28, 2011 New York Review of Books (pp. 14-16). She demonstrates beautifully how the work is technically amazing (everyone seems to wonder how he did it), intellectually provocative, and emotionally fulfilling, not to mention impossible to leave. We encountered it about half way through the Arsenale and watched from just before noon to sometime after 1 p.m. and stopped again at 5 for 15 minutes that stretched to 40. Noon and 5 p.m. seem relatively dramatic times for the movies; I still remember the bits from High Noon and the train leaving Paris in Casablanca, but also Sir Lawrence Olivier remembering poor Yorick in Hamlet for a prolonged segment and bits of people making lunch, leaving work, checking the time. Many popular works of art are strikingly unusual but don't seem to have any other important quality. While watching The Clock, I became intensely aware of the time as well as of the idea of time and found that the work itself inspires ruminating about time, mortality, movies, tension, drama, and thinking I'd like to see Casablanca again. It deserved the Golden Lion at the Biennale.
Shortly after we entered the Arsenale, we found what we thought was the actual capsule that had brought 33 Chilean miners to safety last year. The room was quite dark and the capsule looked worn. We all three looked at how tight the space was and I imagined it sliding through a shaft just large enough for it. We talked about how the miners had needed to be relatively thin to fit into it. The rescue seemed more of a miracle. It was only later that I found the label and learned that it was a replica made by Slovakian artist Roman Ondak.

Farther on we found a gigantic monster creature of mixed media, with a skull head, huge wings, and a long meandering tail. It was by Nicholas Hlobo, a South African artist, and the catalogue said that he was referring to the Tintoretto painting of The Creation of the Animals with his own reference to Xhoza folk songs. A few days later we encountered another Hlobo creature in the Palazzo Grassi. They are fantastic and awe-inspiring, as well as being a little scary.

Various places in the Arsenale and later in the Giardini, I found amusing or intriguing relatively small works of art that all turned out to be by  British artist Ryan Gander. First there was a tiny realistic figure of a man who had fallen out of his wheelchair (turns out to be a self-portrait of the artist as toy action figure); he was in the middle of a larger installation of mirrors and cabinets. Then I wondered about a pile of rectangular panels, each painted a bright color. The label explained that the artist separated out all the colored shapes from Mondrian and other abstract painters and laid them against the wall. I guess that's a version of deconstruction. There was a small pair of copies of Degas dancers sitting facing each other on the floor between some huge paintings, just quietly sitting together. Another day, in the Giardini, we found We never had a lot of € around here,  a 25 Euro coin dated 2035 pasted on the floor, representing how much inflation will affect the Euro in 25 years. All these interventions in various modes gently jolted me out of the gallery and into thinking about the world and sometimes about the place of art in my life.

Another major work that I had anticipated relatively eagerly was Urs Fischer's wax copy of Giambologna's Rape of the Sabine Woman from the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, which Fischer had made into a giant candle. It stood next to a portrait of his dealer, also as a candle, and what I think was a desk chair candle. At the opening these were whole figures, but a couple of weeks later they had burned down significantly, another way of referencing time, and I don't imagine there's much left of them by now. This was one of the works that may be more interesting to see in the middle of the Biennale's run, than at the beginning. I suppose the passage of time and the inevitability of mortality, or at least change, are evoked by these works, as well, perhaps as something about copies versus originals. I was most interested in the light effects of the candles in the wax.

Giulia Piscitelli's Spica, 2011, a series of warm colored rectangles of silk with subtle images or patterns on them caught my attention and seemed particularly subtle and delicate in the context of the aggressiveness of so much of the Biennale. Finding that she made the images with bleach and hydrochloric acid gave them an unexpected conceptual grit; I still thought they were lovely.

(to be continued)

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