Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Venice Biennale I The Encyclopedic Palace The Arsenale

I took a lot of pictures at the Venice Biennale, as usual, but there were so many little objects and so many artists that my images can only give a vague suggestion of the work in the curated exhibition. As is widely known, this large display, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, is titled The Encyclopedic Palace. When I first heard the title, I thought it sounded like most of the previous titles of curated exhibitions: something that can justify anything you want to include; after all, it's encyclopedic. But in fact, he does appear to have had a stronger focus than any of the previous curators, for which I nonetheless have mixed feelings.

The Encyclopedic Palace was a concept of an Italian immigrant to the United States named Marino Auriti. Living in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, he operated an auto body shop and a frame shop. But after he retired, he devoted himself to building the model for an Encyclopedic Palace, which he imagined would house "the entire range of humanity's achievements - from the wheel to the satellite, and from ancient artifacts to the most vanguard art." He expected that it would be built in Washington, DC and would be the tallest building in the world. The model, down to its hair comb balustrades, opens the Arsenale section of Gioni's show, which is where we started.

detail of model with hair-comb balustrade
 Gioni takes this as his departing place and one expects the exhibition to focus on artists who "pursued the impossible dream of universal knowledge," as he indicates in the introduction to the exhibition, continuing "Today, as we grapple with a constant flood of information, such attempts to fabricate all-inclusive systems seem even more necessary and even more desperate." I'm not sure about the truth of this position; I'm not sure most of us don't have pretty effective "all-inclusive systems" that are also fairly straightforward, like the Rotary motto "Service Above Self." But the Encyclopedic Palace immediately reminds me of other projects by obsessive men who did not work as professional artists, for example Sam Rodia's Watts Towers in Los Angeles or, more near to me, S. P. Dinsmoor's Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas. More than an encyclopedic system, these constructions share the obsessiveness of their creators, who labored for years to build their monuments.

Obsessiveness seems a more reliable filter to use to connect the works in Gioni's two huge exhibitions, not to mention the character of the curator, who fills room after room with dozens, even hundreds of examples of artists' and non-artists' work. There's even a show within the show, of odd things gathered by Cindy Sherman for exhibition. What is not featured in the exhibition is contemporary art, although there are some works by living artists, often made many years ago. It occurred to me that it would be vitually impossible to mount an exhibition of this size in any normal museum (perhaps Mass MOCA could handle the size), and that not many directors or curators would want to sponsor something this huge. But it's possible at Venice and if Gioni had the idea, he may well have seen this as the only opportunity to do the project. And he got away with ignoring the expectation that the exhibition would feature contemporary art, at least with the critics I've read. Since one reason I like to go to the Venice Biennale is to see what's happening in contemporary art from around the world, I think I found this show disappointing. But after all, it was stuff to look at, so I looked as much as I could in the two days we allotted. This means I missed a lot, never had time to read most of the labels, whose style seem to be copied from Documenta last year - too much text in tiny print, with the added feature that many labels were in the dark, so no more than one person could read them at a time. The labels also referred frequently to works by the artist or maker that were not on view, confusing me and wasting my energy, since if I didn't know who the artist was, I would certainly not be familiar with her other work. Don't these people ever take museum training, or read the label-writing guidelines?

Surrounding The Palace model are photographs by J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere, a Nigerian photographer who documented the multifarious hairstyles of women in Africa. I've seen these before, or similar photographs, and always thought the hair had been made up especially for the photographer, but apparently he is documenting, not creating the hairstyles. Oddly, I chose to photograph the one that's in the Short Guide and there's a bit of blue from a reflection that distorts her ear:
A confession: before starting the exhibition, Tom and I decided that we should go to the end first, remembering that the last slog around the end of the Arsenale in mid-afternoon is really hot and tiring. The result is that we probably enjoyed the Chinese, Italian, Bahamas and Latin American pavilions more than in previous years and that we saved being tired for the curated exhibition. It is certainly exhausting.

Going backward, we started with Walter de Maria's 1990 Apollo's Ecstasy, which looks nice in the Arsenale room, I'm not sure if they suggest the delicate balance of "the pure, defined forms of the brass rods counterposed against the boundlessness of an infinite mathematical sequence." There are just 20 nice shiny rods in a big, rough room.

There are works by Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra and other artists who may not fit my understanding of the exhibition's theme, although I kind of think most artists are obsessive. I wondered about Duane Hanson, but of course he obsessively made his figures realistic, as did John di Andrea and, in a way, Charles Ray, all represented in the Arsenale.

I was very taken by Dieter Roth's Solo Scenes, 1997-98, 131 videos of himself in his everyday life during the last years of his life. The detail of his daily routine, the quiet of his life, seemed mesmerizing, even when I watched only a few for a very short time.

A woman, Prabhavatha Meppayil, born 1965 in Bangalore, India, does extremely subtle drawings with copper wire on gesso that are reminiscent of Agnes Martin in their subtlety. The work is invisible in my photographs. The photos on the
web aren't much better.

Another woman, Channa Horwitz (1932-2013) made meticulous geometric drawings that seem to be related to dance and music, but also are very similar to works in the Central Pavilion half of this huge exhibition. Here's one, with a detail:

Cindy Sherman's show within a show included some outsiders, like James Castle, and several people whose work often involved erotic fantasies. Carol Rama's watercolor of someone having sex with an animal and Pierre Molinier's fetishistic photographs, often amusingly bizarre:

Steve McQueen in a way came closest to the idea of encyclopedic knowledge with his 116 images from Carl Sagan's Golden Record, which was sent into space in 1977 with Voyagers 1 and 2 (I can't see that name without thinking of Star Trek and Vyger), juxtaposed with indecipherable sounds - glossalalia. Looking at the images, I wondered how anyone not from earth could make any sense of them whatsoever.
One of the most puzzling inclusions was the work of Drossos P. Skyllas (1912-73), who apparently labored very diligently to create his hackneyed and commercial-looking images that never received art world recognition. Until now, I assume. It reminded me of seeing a Thomas Kinkade painting at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts last fall. I only photographed one:
with a detail:

Perhaps another contribution to the encyclopedic idea; you can include all kinds of work that has been called art.
Before we got to the Arsenale, we stopped at a small building that this year housed the Ivory Coast pavilion. I rather liked the small works on cardboard by Frederic Bruly Bouabre, depicting the alphabet of a nearly extinct African language, or all the presidents of African countries, or other series of concepts or objects. There were dozens of these on view at the Arsenale as well, a good year for him. They reminded me of the Argentine artist Xul Solar, some of whose work is on view in the former bookshop, now Biennale library, in the Giardini.

Trying to think of an exciting, challenging installation in the Arsenale is problematic because most of the installations were just rooms full of multiple works, like the Dieter Roth series of 131 videos, each with its own screen. Another good example of this is R. Crumb's graphic version of the Book of Genesis, which filled one room. Adequate attention would have meant reading the whole thing, which was not possible, so I picked a few frames.

There were a few bigger projects: Danh Vo's frame of a Catholic church from Vietnam and hanging cloth works, Ryan Trecartin's loud videos of outlandish performers, Pavel Althamer's room full of grey skeletons with portrait heads of Venetian people all formed from draped with sheets of plastic from his father's factory, Almech.
In a corner behind some other works, I was fascinated by a video, Transmission, 2007, by Harun Farocki of people interacting with memorials and holy objects, from a statue of Saint Peter and the Bocca di Verita in Rome to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington and a spot where Christ rested his hand along the road to Calvary. Just hands touching places worn away from centuries of homage. Another aspect of obsession.

Among the outsiders at the Arsenale, the autistic Shinishi Sawada from Japan made a strange menagerie of terracotta sculptures covered with spikes, one of which reminded me of Grayson Perry's childhood teddy bear and inspiration Alan Measles:
Back at the beginning of the show, we found lovely nature photographs by Eliot Porter (1901-90, the brother of painter Fairfield Porter and another artist largely ignored by professional critics, who made beautiful images), very dramatic early aerial photographs by Edward Spelterini (1852-1931), and amazingly detailed Drawings of Old Trees, by Patrick von Caeckenbergh.

One last thing - I was pleased to see the monumental abstract works of Phillida Barlow hanging near the beginning of the exhibition. She is an artist who is gaining international recognition after many years of making sculpture.
I'm exhausted, and that's only a tiny selection from half the exhibition.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Andra
    Loved your appraisals and look forward to more when you've rested from apple picking time. Tom M'tone