Saturday, 7 October 2017

Venice Biennale National pavilions at the Arsenale and offsite

Once we had finished slogging through the national pavilions and first sections of the Viva Arte Viva at the Giardini and Viva Arte Viva at the Arsenale, we still had some 23 national pavilions at the Arsenale and what we could see of the national pavilions tucked away in palaces, apartments, and other venues around Venice. We only got to ¼ of the 32 off-site pavilions. On the way to the Arsenale from our hotel is a building that always houses one of these. This year it was Cyprus and the subject was pigment. Unfortunately, my images do not convey the subtlety of color in the nearly abstract canvases on view there, works by Polys Peslikas (b. 1973 Limossol, Cyprus, lives in Berlin and Nicosia).
Polys Peslikas

At the Arsenal, I was at first put off by the New Zealand offering of a very long panoramic animated history that started with images that reminded me of the movie “Moana,” which I had just watched on the airplane. Then as the Europeans arrived, it seemed likely to erupt in conflict, but it didn’t and we left well before the end, again our impatience with time-based art manifesting itself. In retrospect, it seemed a contemporary version of the historical painted panoramas that were popular in the 19th century in Europe and the United States, the history gradually emerging on a very long screen.

The Italian pavilion was completely different from its previous two iterations, focusing on only three artists rather than the dozens we’d seen there before, and titled Il Mondo Magico, (The Magic World). One installation created a sort of tunnel of translucent material, with side passages that led to little rooms with cadaver-like sculptures on tables. At the end of the tunnel was a workshop, where the figures were supposedly made, and a wall with many figures hanging against it. It felt rather creepy, something about death, degeneration, maybe crucifixion, since some of the forms were posed as if taken from a cross. The artist’s statement, by Roberto Cuoghi (b. Modena 1973) calls it a factory for turning out devotional figures.
Roberto Cuoghi 
Another space was a large substructure, which I didn’t understand; it looked like some kind of warehouse, bare metal columns and wood. At the end was a bleacher-like set of stairs we were encouraged to climb. It was quite dark. From the top one looked back and saw that the substructure supports a reflecting pool that provides a mirror image of the vaulted roof of the building. The effect is something like an infinity pool and a bit disconcerting and pretty cool, but reminded me of other similar water illusions I’ve seen. My main memory is of my own unsteadiness going down the stairs, which must be traversed at an angle, and of some concern that the heavy water would break the substructure. The label explains that the artist, Giorgio Andreotta Calo, intended the substructure to be read as a church and the upper area to refer to something called the mundus Cereris, a mythical pit near Rome that served as a door between the underworld and heaven. The work is titled Sensa titolo (La fine del mondo)
Giorgio Andreotta Calo, Sensa titolo (La fine del mondo)

Years ago, when the Chinese first had a pavilion in the Arsenale, it was in a space filled with huge drums, a dark place with relatively narrow passageways between the drums. Creating art for that space was an interesting challenge. Now all but one of the drums (symbolic of the past, I assume) are gone and the pavilion is light and spacious with white walls. And the art seems more ordinary as a result. Several artists were included and it was not very easy to distinguish who had done which objects. The guide indicates that the pavilion combines folk crafts with contemporary artists. There was an investigation by Wang Tianwen of the concept of shadow puppets, including very intricately cut sculptural forms suspended from the ceiling - one of these was also on view outside the gallery - plus shadow puppet contraptions. Large videos, I think by Tang Nannan, of things happening in the sea caught my attention. I never really figured out what they were about but found the scale of the images memorable.
Wang Tianwen
Tang Nannan video, showing scale
We used to hunt for the Mexico pavilion when it was located in a palace or church somewhere in Venice. For the past couple of Biennales, Mexico has had a relatively small space in the Arsenale and its offerings have been less intriguing to us. Perhaps the act of hunting for the pavilion increased its previous interest. In this case Carlos Amorales had created his own alphabet in order to tell a story of the lynching of an immigrant in Mexico. At least that’s what the label says. I was unable to make anything of the letters, so the label seemed to define the conceptual artwork.

Speaking of immigration, a video of Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore caught my attention for a surprisingly long time. Eventually I ascertained that they were speaking the first-person experiences of various migrants crossing the Mediterranean, and I was surprised that my response to their reports of the experiences were more moving to me than the reports given by the actual immigrants, which appeared on videos in the next room. It’s mortifying but informative to realize how one responds to “the other,” as opposed to one’s “own kind.”  Titled “Love Story,” by Candice Breitz, (b. Johannesburg, 1972), it was an extremely effective work of political art, at the South Africa Pavilion, in the Arsenale.
Julianne Moore in "Love Story" by Candice Breitz

      Not far from Piazza San Marco were a small group of particularly effective spaces, in various parts of a small palazzo. In the palazzo courtyard, the path to the Mongolian Pavilion was lined with birds, cranes, actually, bronze sculptures cast as if from rifles by Chimeddorj Shagdarjav (b. 1954).  The flock, I Am a Bird, increases inside the pavilion, for a total of 60.  Cranes represent happiness and eternal youth in Asia, and the concept of the beautiful and graceful birds suggests an alternative to guns. Another Mongolian sculptural project, Karma of Eating, by Munkkh Munkhbolor-Ganbold (b. 1983)  is a kind of shamanistic gathering of the skulls of a few of the millions of animals that died in exceptionally cold winters and droughts in 2010, a disaster exacerbated by the overbreeding of goats for the cashmere business. The other three projects also address environmental degradation and exploitation.
Chimeddorj Shagdarjav, I Am a Bird

Munkkh Munkhbolor-Ganbold,  Karma of Eating

Nearby, the Mauritius pavilion proclaimed a dialogue among international artists, including work by Robert Rauschenberg, on the principle that it recreated the Edenic unity of the prehistoric Gondwanaland, one of the prehistoric supercontinents, which contained most of the southern hemisphere land mass. Traces of the continent were recently found under Mauritius. The Rauschenbergs were wonderful, better than much of the recent Rauschenberg retrospective at the Tate and MOMA. Of the other artists, I was most struck by the day-glo abstract utopian visions of SEO (b. Gwangju, Korea, 1977).
One of my very favorite pavilions was that of Andorra. Titled Murmuri, and by the ceramicist Eve Ariza, the room had black walls covered with hundreds of ceramic vessels ranging in color from black through brown and cream. The attendant explained that the vessels were the colors of human skin and that each of the vessels makes a sound if you listen quietly, i.e. they murmur, as the title suggests. Looking more closely, the bowls are crimped at the bottom, making a form that suggests lips. If I had one pavilion to recommend in Venice, this would be it.

Murmuri, detail

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Venice Biennale – The National Pavilions in the Giardini

This year we did not find much of great interest in the Giardini national pavilion exhibitions. I missed the moving tree from last time’s French pavilion, the deconstructing Russian pavilion after 1989, the Hans Haacke broken up floor many years ago in the German pavilion, and definitely “Take Care of Yourself,” the Sophie Calle from years ago in the French pavilion, which I have seen at least two more times and which Tom and I still quip about in everyday conversations.

There are several pleasures in going through the Giardini, though, despite the still very limited dining opportunities and the exhaustion and heat. The pavilions themselves are worth looking at as examples of 20th-century architecture. This year the Venezuelan pavilion paid special attention to its architect, Carlo Scarpa(1906-1978), who designed it in 1954. Scarpa was mentioned very frequently this year and his modernist architecture was much celebrated. Because of the focus, I paid attention to some of the details of the Venezuelan pavilion, which looks very simple and straightforward, but has varied materials and textures.  

Goeffrey Farmer took most of the Canadian Pavilion down in order to install an group of fountains, the central one spouting like a geyser, art nouveau iridescent glazed tiles.
and the Australian Pavilion has been demolished and rebuilt. The artist there, Tracy Moffett, exhibited fictive film stills, perhaps inspired by Cindy Sherman, but without the artist’s presence and more theatrical. Uruguay was closed for some reason although there are descriptions of the facsimile of a cattle chute Mario Sagradini had made for it. The American pavilion is neoclassical, very Washington, D.C., lending itself to the images of a deteriorating, failing structure that artists often like to give it, this year’s work by Mark Bradford being no exception.

I’ve always loved the Hungarian pavilion, built in 1909, with its art nouveau iridescent glazed tiles. And although the show itself didn't grab out attention, we appreciated the thought.

Only a few exhibitions in pavilions captured our interest this year, and I was interested in more of them than Tom. We both very much liked the Russian pavilion work by Grisha Bruskin, dystopian but tongue in cheek, I thought. Generally I find Bruskin’s work rather mannered, but in this installation it had an impact, possibly because it seemed to warn against dictatorship, representing an autocratic country. In one room huge projections flash over white sculptures inscribed with book titles, concepts, aphorisms. Another is filled with strange vessels and objects, all looking threatening.  Also in the Russian pavilion, Recycle Group did a project called “Blocked Content,” in which figures or parts of figures emerge from white angular blocks on the walls. Inspired by the ninth and worst circle of Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy (the circle of treason and betrayal), where sinners are encased in ice, the artists encased human figures in these blocks for cyber crimes – spam, retailing viruses, fake celebrities. In poetic justice, the complete figures can be seen through an I-Phone app.

Yet another book project was in the Nordic pavilion. One of the six artists exhibiting there, filmmaker Mika Taanila (b. 1965 Finland) cut through the pages of cinema books to create three dimensional versions of the book’s subjects.

I enjoyed Phyllida Barlow’s crowded installation of the Great Britain pavilion. I only learned about her at a recent Biennale, at the time when her decades-long sculptural production was coming to attention, and I appreciated that after working for so long in obscurity she was chosen to represent Britain this year. Her huge, very rough sculptures were almost impossible to see, jammed into the rooms of the pavilion, and crowding around the entranceway as well. There’s a kind of abandon to them, and I got the sense that she was going to squeeze as much she wanted in that space. Being close to the American pavilion, where Mark Bradford’s introductory sculpture left little room for the viewer, it felt a little as if the sculpture is in revolt against the viewer.

The French pavilion was transformed into a very elaborately designed working recording studio, all angled bare wood. People were working in it. I didn’t see how that was visual art, except that the angled walls in blonde wood were lovely architecture. Tom liked it.

At the Israel pavilion a huge cloud form dominated the upper level, a concrete manifestation of the cloud of vapor that results from a missile launch, by Gal Weinstein. On the walls and floor of much of the building he installed panels covered with steel wool made to represent mold he found in his studio, giving the modernist building a mood of decay, some of it in the patterns of wallpaper. I’m not sure if his intention was to suggest institutional, political or cultural decline, but that was my sense of it.

I thought the Venice pavilion, celebrating the most fabulously expensive luxury goods made in Venice, and advertising for them, was vulgar, and I left it as quickly as I could. Some years this pavilion has celebrated Venetian art and design in a much less commercial fashion; I kept thinking they must be trying to parody the excesses of wealth, but that’s not how it came over.

The German pavilion was highly regarded, but it was a performance and we did not want to take the time to wait in line for entrance, so we skipped it. I later found that its subject would have been disturbing, so I'm not sorry. We did look at the pair of Rottweilers caged in front of the building.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Venice Biennale, Viva Arte Viva, Arsenale II

In addition to the works of art at the Giardini and the fiber works in the Arsenale, there were a number of objects in Viva Arte Viva that I very much enjoyed and that contributed to the sense of well-being I described in my first post on the Biennale.  And, of course, now that I’ve reviewed my images, there are quite a few. I’ve added some comments on the nonsensical parts of the label texts, having been a label nut for decades. Relatively short, the object labels offered some explanatory information, but often they then unfortunately attempted to philosophize and interpret the works in garbled and frustratingly pretentious language not unique to this venue, but regrettable.

I rather liked the ecological works of Michael Blazy (b. 1966 Monaco) and Julian Charriére  (b. 1987 Switzerland), but am not reproducing images of their work. Blazy’s running shoe planters attracted a lot of attention and I found his brooms planted in the garden and sprouting grasses amusing. Charriére’s layered white and gray towers somehow referring to the mining and eventual depletion of lithium were actually lovely.

We watched one complete video, which probably captured my interest because of my Italian Renaissance sculpture training. Guan Xiao (b. 1983 China) showed a panoramic array of reproductions of Michelangelo’s David, so many of them that it became a bit of a test as to which was the real sculpture, with the final line, “We don’t know how to see him.” A treasured object is reproduced so often and so badly that few people actually think about what the original is. It’s an obvious theme, but I appreciated it.  And the video was lively, short, and to the point.

 Photographs by Nicolás García Uriburu  (1937-2016 Argentina) look oddly colored, as if the exposures were manipulated, and perhaps they were, but they document his pouring green dye into various bodies of water, starting with the Grand Canal in Venice for the 1968 Biennale, an early example of Earth Art, and a comment on the environment. 
Japanese artist Shimabuku (b. 1969)  presented a vitrine with  Oldest and Newest Tools of Human Beings, 2015, consisting of four prehistoric stone axes, each set next to a smartphone. There’s something amusing about the juxtaposition, but I also felt my mind stretch at the pairing of such opposite-seeming objects. He pushed that point further with a video of himself Sharpening a MacBook Air (2015) and then attaching the sharpened ‘tool’ to a handle, making a hatchet.  Another video, which we watched for some time, asked “Do Snow Monkeys Remember Snow Mountains?” and documented snow monkeys who, generations after being transplanted from Japan to Texas in 1972, had adapted to desert living. Shimabuku dropped a large pile of ice in their habitat and documented the monkeys interacting with the ice. I could not tell what the answer to his question is from the tentative reaction of the monkeys.

I loved the colors of Pénétrable, by Thu Van Tran (b. 1979 Vietnam) - pigmented rubber that coats and penetrates the wall of the gallery - and Au leve au coucher (sunrise to sunset) 2017, three blue-green photograms of plants, including the rubber tree, hung against the peach-tinted wall. Laid on boxes on the floor are red and white sculptures of rubber tree trunks. Sadly, she uses the rubber to symbolize colonialism and abuse of power, as the French imported rubber to Vietnam in the early 20th century and an accompanying video shows people extracting rubber from the trees. Thu Van Tran as an infant became a Vietnamese refugee in France and lives and works in Paris. The didactic information which says, “The artist’s works, offering art as a means of transformation of our determinism due to the history, reveal the shortcomings and irrationality of human nature,” makes no connection to this work as far as I could tell, but then I couldn’t understand it.

Yee Sookyung (b. Korea 1963) made a huge sculpture from the pieces of broken Korean ceramics, broken because they came out of the factories with faults and the Korean practice is to destroy faulty pottery.  Nine Dragons in Wonderland, 2017 also employs the Asian practice of using gold to mend cracks in pottery, so the castaway parts become a monumental work of art. This is another example of an artist recycling materials, this one especially coherent, monumental and with lovely colors (especially celadon), designs and textures.
 Rina Banerjee (b. Calcutta, India 1963, lives in New York) made several flamboyant sculptures that suggest some kind of exotic plants. I thought they were delightful and the long titles seemed consistent with her visionary approach – example: “Addictions to leaf and nut aroused, curled currency and culture to itch and moan as arrivals of plants from plantation, not just servants or slaves exploded, swelled to levels fantastic but without majestic magic hurt to ripen.” These poetic labels suggest feelings and content while the curatorial statement, equally obtuse, “In the sculptures on show, the dialectic between authenticity and transfiguration concerns objects and images, to demonstrate that identity is not authentic if static and unitary, but only if it ‘participates in everything that is in the world,’” is not helpful.
When signs of origin fade, fall out, if washed away, trickle into separations, precipitate when boiled or filtered to reveal all doubleness as wickedness. Vanishing act that migration, mixation like mothers who hid paternity who could name move me slowly reveal me only when my maker stands straight, 2017.

  At first Maha Mullah’s (b. 1959 Saudi Arabia) wall work looks like a geometric tile pattern in shades of blue, black and white, then the label identifies the tesserae as audio cassettes made by religious leaders to tell women how to act and the work’s hidden protest becomes clear.  Not wanting to fill the world with more stuff, like many other artists, she recycles found objects.
 One might walk by Zilia Sanchez’s (b. 1926 Cuba, lives in Puerto Rico), abstract shaped canvases, thinking they are familiar. But she made them in the 1960s when ideas about shaped canvases and the relationship between sculpture and painting was a hot topic. And the white and barely pastel colored pointed shapes have a surprising delicate eroticism.

I also liked Liu Jianhua’s (b. 1962 China) installation of gold glazed porcelain circular forms arranged on black steel rectangles on the Arsenale floor. I was interested that he studied porcelain at the major traditional porcelain center in China, Jingdezhen. As the label indicates, the installation is pure form, suggesting a Buddhist concept of emptiness, “no meaning.” Like a Japanese raked garden, it was precisely conceived and executed and evoked meditative contemplation, a relief in the midst of so much active art.

And finally, one of my favorites, Liliana Porter’s (b. 1941 Argentina, lives in New York), El hombre con el hacha y otras situaciones breves, 2013 (The man with the axe and other brief situations), is full of surprises. At first I saw a bunch of broken furniture and crockery, piled and scattered from a corner, and a large cloud of bluish gauze, another sculpture made of recycled junk, I thought. But near the blue cloud there was a tiny grandmother, knitting the cloud (She's a mere dot in the first photograph). A man was sitting on one of the books, and another stood next to a coffee mug. The man with the axe looked at the whole mess from the side, but others were sweeping up piles of colored powder. The tiny people are of different sizes and occupy some alternate world. It’s fun to explore and it made me reassess my assumptions about the world and remember the importance of looking carefully.

You had to be there to see it in all its charming and amazing details.