Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Venice Biennale 2013: The Arsenale national pavilions

The Bahamas. Entering the Bahamas pavilion was puzzling. It took a while and a bit of label reading to understand that Tavares Strachan (b. 1979) is from the Bahamas, although he lives in New York. The relatively large pavilion, titled Polar Eclipse, is dedicated to the exploration of the North Pole, with particular reference to . or unacknowledged aspects of the 1909 expedition. He addresses the invisibility of Robert Peary's African-American colleague Matthew Alexander Henson, who is credited by many as the first to reach the pole. In videos of Strachan's polar exploration, he posits the difficulty of identifying exactly where the North Pole is, since the ice shelf that covers it is in motion.  

To connect the North Pole with his home country, Strachan brought 40 schoolchildren from the Bahamas and taught them an Inupiaq song that is untranslatable, which they performed at the opening and which is recorded in the gallery. There's also a  pair or blocks of arctic ice in freezer units (Me and You [North Pole Ice and Cloned North Pole Ice], 20,13).

It took a while to figure out what was going on with the objects in this gallery, which included a suspended figure in polar gear, a glass human figure barely distinguishable in a glass vitrine, huge drawings of an arctic bear, owl and walrus with number and figure annotations, and three scattered neon installations that read "I Belong Her, You Belong Here, and We Belong Here." After looking for a while, I became immersed in the subject and the irony of this as the Bahamas first ever Biennale entry.

Indonesia. The Indonesia Pavilion, titled Sakti (which "refers to the primordial cosmic energy and the personification of diving, feminine creative energy, as well as indicating change and liberation) displayed the work of 6 artists, whose names were hard to locate. There was an elaborately carved wall and other installations combining personal narratives, historical events, myths, and religion by Entang Wiharso.

Titarubi's work is a room of tables with large stylized blank open books and dark charcoal drawings of trees. The tables are intended as desks and he refers to the juxtaposition of learning with the colonial past and environmental destruction. I was pretty sure it didn't mean anything good. 

Albert Yonathan's amassing of small clay stupas and Sri Astari's pendopo [traditional Javanese pavilion] occupied by nearly lifesize Javanese puppets evoked the experience of classic Indonesia. They seemed to belong together, but probably weren't intended as one work. 

The dark setting, large installations, and fine craftsmanship made this large gallery an exotic respite from the series of challenging installations.

Latvia. I liked Latvia, with Kriss Salmanis's huge dead tree swinging back and forth from the ceiling, obviously referring to deforestation in Latvia, whose population strongly identifies with its woodlands and rural landscape. I was intrigued by the videos and black and white photographs by Kaspars Podnicks, of rural people standing facing the viewer, apparently 15 feet above the ground. The label says they stood on a tiny platform, which inhibited their motion, but I still can't figure out how it's done. I was just fascinated by the portraits of rural people in unlikely relation to rural settings, who moved slightly, standing in the cold.  

The United Arab Emirates' artist Mohammed Kazem created an installation that simulated the effect of being at sea, standing on rolling water. It was like an amusement park ride that leaves you unsteady on your feet when you leave it. A surround video of the ocean.

The Lebanon installation was much more interesting as a subject than as an art work. The Letter to a Refusing Pilot refers to a 1982 incident in which an Israeli pilot dropped his bombs into the sea rather than on a school. As a plea for peace and understanding, this was worthwhile project, but we didn't have the patience to watch the video.

Very similarly to two years ago, a group of Latin American countries shared one large gallery. Most of the contributions here were videos - about 10 of them - and we watched only a few. I was taken by Martin Sastre's video of the creation and advertising of a perfume made from flowers in the garden of the president of Uruguay and intended to be auctioned at the Biennale to initiate a national arts fund. 

Another Uruguayan artist, Christian Jankowski, blindfolded participants and had them climb the hill that gives Montevideo (translated as "I see a hill") its name. The video show the participants gathering and then holding hands in a line, slowly walking up the hill.

Sonia Falcone from Bolivia's installation Campo di Colore is a field of spices and pigments, each a conical pile in a clay bowl, grouped in the center of this Latin American space and sending off the scents and heat of the various spices. 

The introduction to this Latin American pavilion refers to the history of colonialism, the interconnectedness of the geography of Latin America and Europe, the transfers of artists from one continent to the other, and the blending and exchanges of artistic and cultural awareness among countries. Each object has its own history and often far-readhing resonances, which are impossible to explore adequately in a brief review.

Argentina showed Nicola Costantino's odd multivideo installation of a woman playing multiple versions of Eva Peron walking, sitting, talking on the phone, dressing for a party, looking in a mirror, and other activities, juxtaposed with black-and-white documentary photographs of Eva, a contraption said to have been used to support her so she could make standing public appearances when she was fatally ill, and a table what represents unending tears. Titled Rapsodia Inconclusa, it left me humming "Don't cry for me Argentina," but still ignorant about Eva Peron's life, but here's the Wikipedia link.

Chile. I looked forward to seeing what Alfredo Jaar would do to represent Chile, but found it seriously disappointing. He made a detailed model of the Giardini and placed it in a big tank of greenish water. Every three minutes it would slowly rise out of the water and then submerge again. press release says this had to do with the archaic idea of national pavilions, "which have lost their meaning in the fluidity of today's world culture," but I thought it seemed a more likely reference to Venice sinking into the sea. Whatever the concept, it seemed a lot of work for little effect, from an artist I have respected enormously for decades. And the cross-nationalities of so many artists showing at on-and-off-site national pavilions seems a more useful way to address the "fluidity" of the contemporary art world.

South Africa. The work of most of the artists in the South Africa pavilion referred in some way to apartheid and the country's racial history. And many of them required a certain amount of decoding. For example,  Cameron Platter's huge black and white drawing, The good Shepard Presents Dr. Bombaka, has its sources in similar works created by artists associated with the Rorke's Drift Art and Craft Centre, especially John Maufangejo, whose black and white drawings are similar in style, but without the satire and irony.

Sue Williamson's For thirty years next to his heart, 1990, consists of multiple color copies of Ncithakato John Ngesi's apartheid dompas, or passbook (translation, dumb pass) documenting all his movements and tax payments, a hated relic of a time finally past. I remember learning about apartheid 50 years ago in high school and being horrified by it. 

Andrew Putter (b. 1965), interested by the ethnographic black-and-white photography initiated by Alfred Martin Duggan-Cronin in 1904, used Duggan-Cronin's style to photograph South Africans in supposed indigenous dress in black and white, then photographing them again in their clothing of choice. My images select two single images from the larger groupings. Looking into Duggan-Cronin and his mission, he seems very similar both in style and in goal to Edward S. Curtis, and his work seems to have been similarly controversial. The link from the artist's name should take you to the whole series.

David Koloane (b. 1938) showed a series of acrylic and pastel dark and sad drawings of the last hours of the anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko, who was tortured to death by police in 1977. While the images were not horrific, the concept was. 

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Venice Biennale: The Italian Pavilion

In addition to about half of the curated exhibition, the massive Arsenale building also hosts a cluster of national pavilions: the especially large Chinese and Italian pavilions as well as odd others, the Bahamas, a collective of Latin American countries, Chile, Argentina, the Republic of Indonesia, the Republic of Kosovo, Lebanon, Lativa, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates,and the Holy See. Except for China and Italy, most of the country exhibitions occupy one large room. Passing through this series of rooms that lead directly into, or come immediately after the curated show, is a very different experience from that of finding the individual pavilions in the Giardini or hidden in apartments, churches, palaces  and other spaces throughout the city.. Independent as they definitely are, they feel like part of one large diverse exhibition. Because of some strange problem with Blogger, I've had to divide all these pavilions out and just post Italy here. I'm hopeful that I can get the rest of the Arsenale items, which are really interesting, fixed and up within the next day.

This was the second year that Italy has had a dedicated pavilion, since the erstwhile Italian Pavilion has been used for the curated exhibition for many years. Two years ago the huge space was a mishmash of a sort of "curators' choice" works, too many and not many of much interest, but jumbled together so closely that it was difficult to sort out. This time the exhibition is much more tightly organized and was much more successful. Titled "vice versa" and curated by one person, Bartolomeo Pietromarchi, showed 7 pairs of artists whose works made some sort of dialogue with each other. I was particularly touched by the works in the pairing of Francesco Arena (b. 1978) and Fabio Mauri (1926-2009). Mauri's work was a video from 1973 that I would have thought was brand new. It depicts a performance in which a young woman slowly, item by item, dresses in and undresses from an Italian Youth fascist uniform. The slow change from nude to a uniformed symbol underscores the difference between humanity and ideology, with reference to Italy's past. Francesco Arena's large, seemingly abstract sculptures also refer to history. He researched a goup of mass graves: Burgos, Spain (1935-39), Benedicta Italy (1944), Batajnica Serbia (1992-95) and Ivan Polje, Kosovo (1992-95) to represent the mass executions of the 20th century. After determining the number of cadavers in each grave, he multiplied that number by his own body weight and gathered the amount of soil those bodies would displace, 140 tons, using it to fill the four large pilasters placed in the gallery. The juxtaposition of this large monument with the video of a single woman gives depth to the concept of totalitarianism and atrocity.
Outdoors I might have overlooked a large cement cube by Piero Golia, My Gold is Yours, 2013, which looked like any minimalist sculpture. However, this one contained a kilogram, 2.2 pounds, of gold dust, which could be seen as lovely veins through the cement. Visitors are invited to chip away at the cube, although not many seem to have tried and the likelihood that any significant amount of gold could be retrieved was nil. The combination of preciousness in a mundane material and the inaccessability of it creats a push-pull response, as well as a sense of beauty and loss.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Chinese Art at and near the Venice Biennale I

China and Chinese artists seemed everywhere in Venice, and we did not see anywhere near all the Chinese exhibitions, most particularly the huge installation titled Voice of the Unseen: Chinese Independent Art 1979/Today, which apparently included 200 artists in a section of the Arsenale that was oddly inaccessible the day we were there. Here's an interesting link to the New Republic 'take' on it and the preponderance of Chinese art in Venice. Interestingly, I don't find many images at all from this supposedly important exhibition on the web. I'm wondering why the sign did not intrigue me more.

I had read that Ai Wei Wei had an installation work that was in a hard-to-find place near Piazza San Marco. On our first evening in Venice, we went out for a walk, looking for a restaurant, and walked right into the church with Ai's project, the six large metal boxes with dioramas of his time in prison that you could peek at through small openings on their top and/or side. We saw him sitting handcuffed to a chair, eating, walking, sleeping, showering, and on the toilet, all with two uniformed guards standing close by. I was glad to have this as the first Chinese display on our Venice trip. The Chinese seem to have imprisoned Ai in a slightly less draconian process than the Russians use for their wealthy opposition members.

Subsequently we were interested to see Ai's installation of three-legged stools that filled the main hall of the German Pavilion (the erstwhile French Pavilion) in the Giardini. The information that the stools had been essential elements of every Chinese home until they were replaced by plastic and the homes were replaced by towering apartment buildings imbued the dramatic huge construction with the sense of the loss of history in the midst of enormous economic development and modernization that Ai's work often raises.

We missed the Ai installation at the Zitelle on the Giudecca, but did see one of his works also in the Cini Foundation's exhibition of contemporary artists who incorporate glass in their work. His glass jar containing the powdered remains of a crushed Han vessel also referred to aspects of Chinese economic development and forced modernization.

At the official Chinese Pavilion in the Arsenale, protest was not evident. Tom loved that the introductory label touted computer-generated art as the art of the future and he really enjoyed the computer enhanced videos. I was significantly less entranced, thinking both of the hacking made possible by sophisticated computer knowledge and the rather bland content of the sometimes visually lively videos. The first video was a dystopian visual narrative of the destruction, rebuilding, and re-destruction of a city or a civilization, full of skeletons and insects doing the destruction, its architecture more suggestive of the western world than the eastern. The nearby label is what actually set me off against most of the digital work in the pavilion, even though some of it was engaging. Certainly focusing on a contemporary medium can seem forward-looking, but it also turns away from any significant content or even form to celebrate the technology:

I was very taken by a group of large-scale photographs by Wang Qingsong, which are much better photographed and described on Design Boom, a great source for Biennale images and information.
I particularly loved that photograph of the artist almost hidden in a huge study, Follow Him, 2010, surrounded by all kinds of books, reproduced in sharp detail, suggesting the impossibility of knowing and the absurdity of trying to know.  You need to click on the nest picture to see the whole thing:

Another photograph shows what looks like an enormous classroom, and Wang is the only person awake in it, aided by an intravenous fluids stand.

Finally, there's a video , also by Wang, of large groups of nude or nearly nude (they wear boots or socks) Chinese participants, posing as classical paintings in what appears to be a pretty cold studio, since as soon as the photograph is taken, they rush off the set in very businesslike style.

More videos and images drew my attention because the artist, Miao Xiaochen, made a copy of Michelangelo's Last Judgement with all 400 figures depicted himself, an interesting feat that pretty much robs the original of any meaning and doesn't give the new version much interest except in the making of it. There's also a huge wall projection of various images (I caught the Pieta image), paintings of digital constructs, and a cube onto which images are projected so you appear to see them from all sides. The label suggests that the cube has something to do with cubism, but that's a quite different from Picasso and anything he attempted.

The problem with video is that you can't capture the evolution of the images without copying them in video. These were engagingly diverse although they did not have any particular emotional impact on me.

Outdoors were some more interesting installations, at least for me. Shu Yong had taken Chinese words and phrases, Google translated them into English, put them on 1500 transparent bricks the size of the bricks of the Great Wall, and made a wall in the Garden. The phrases were as strange as one might imagine and the wall quite lovely it its way.

Next to it I rather liked the pavilion apparently reconstructing a building that was part of the refuse created by Chinese modernization, recalling the construction Ai Wei Wei made of old doors at the 2007 Documenta and the construction of stools in the German pavilion here. But the label defines this as something else. Hu Yaolin seems to be the artist, but is not mentioned further (and didn't turn up in a Google search) by the curator, who describes this as a structure of Hui-style architecture, an important and revered Chinese style that in modernization "is disappearing and has become more scarce and precious." He continues, "We have taken the saved structure of a residence to the Venice Biennale in order to demonstrate to the world that during the dynamic developing process, we are endeavouring to protect our cultural heritage." I found this disingenuous and can't believe the curator actually believes that by placing an example of the architecture in the form of an open pavilion in the humid, hot garden in Venice, it is being preserved. There is no indication of what will become of the structure after the Biennale ends, or, actually, what Hu Yaolin had to do with it, whoever that is. It's called Thing-In-Itself, an installation, 2013.

By the time I saw He Yungchang's Biennale project his 2013 glass bottles had been replaced by mostly plastic ones, all filled presumably, with sea water, as he instructed. All kinds of issues regarding Venice's relationship to the sea, water purification, water issues in general, were raised in my mind, but also the pile of bottles glistened wiith light and the color of the bluish bottles and colored bottle caps.

Chinese art at or near the Venice Biennale, II

Chinese artists turned up in several other sites, often unexpectedly, as in the Pavilion of Kenya, where the curators were Italian - Sandro Orlandi and Paola Poponi - and the artists from Kenya, Italy, and, mostly, China. The title of the show was "Reflective Nature, A New Primary Enchanting Sensitivity." The centerpiece was Feng Zhengjiu's Garden, 2009, but other works were perhaps more engaging.

I was taken by a group of photographs of people seeming to fly above landscapes, for example, Flying Over Venice, by Li Wei.

A painting by He Weiming, In the Deep Mountains, No. 4, 2012, was almost lost behind an arch and seemed deeply thoughtful and evocative, perhaps just because it was large, hidden, detailed, and monotone.

There was another rather traditional painter in this pavilion whose work attracted me. Fan Bo's painting of an old man standing, titled The Flowers Blow and Fade. Born in 1957, Fan Bo is somewhat older than many of the hippest new artists, and his work is far more reflective than most.

 We weren't always tuned in to the diverse sources of Chinese artists. Only later did we realize that the collateral exhibition, "Rhapsody in Green," was sponsored by the National Taiwan University of Arts, not from mainland China. The brochure talks about the various meanings of the "Chinese color word 'ch'ing,'" which could refer to green, blue or black, but green was the theme color of this display.  First we saw Green Box, 2004 by Kao Tsan-Hsing (b. 1945), one of several organic-looking sculptures made from painted iron and steel wool.

Huang Ming-Chang (b. 1952),  produced exhaustively detailed oil paintings of rice fields.

Finally, Chou Yu-Cheng (b. 1976) is a much more conceptual artist, who had two graduate students make a 2/3 copy of a highly regarded painting of the colonial period by Kuo Hsueh-Ha titled Near Mount Yuan-Shan, 1928 lauded for its use of 10 shades of green gouache.

At the conservatory of music there was a display of the Shanghai artist Simon Ma, some works in collaboration with Julian Lennon. I found them rather graceful, but also a bit facile. You need only go to his website to get a sense of his accomplishments and aspirations. The building, the Palazzo Pisani, dates from the 17th century and is decorated with gorgeous mouldings and eighteenth-century painting.

And in a church in Dorsoduro there was a huge kind of wacky display of the work of Zhong Biao, installed sort of in .imitation of Maurizio Cattelan's show at the Guggenheim, with all the slickly detailed and commercially surreal paintings hung randomly from the ceiling. There was a large label of unanswerable and not very interesting questions on the church wall. Zhang is an associate professor at Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Nonetheless, I wondered where this came from and what the curator, Gary Xu, from the U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was thinking.