Monday, 31 July 2017

 Venice Biennale, Curated Exhibition, Arte Viva Arte, Arsenale I

It was in the Arsenale, about halfway through, that I began to have the feeling of well-being I mentioned in the previous post. And going through my images and correcting the color and exposure, I’ve relived that experience. So many wondrous creations, so much imagination from so many unexpected materials. Many reviewers have mentioned the surprising number of objects using fiber chosen for this exhibition. We also experienced a surprising amount of fiber at Documenta, which I intend to address later. I don’t think I can give adequate attention to all the artists in Arte Viva Arte who use fiber as a primary material, but I can list a lot of them, in order of appearance: Lee Mingwei, Maria Lai, David Medalla, Franz Erhard Walther, Petrit Halilaj, Michelle Stuart, Cynthia Gutierrez, Francis Upritchard, Teresa Lanceta, Leonor Antunes, Ernesto Neto, Huguette Calande, Heidi Bucher, Abdoulaye Konate, Judith Scott, Sheila Hicks, Edith Dekyndt. All are worth Googling. I’ve been wondering if some curator will pay the same attention to artists who work in glass in the future. Glasstress helps call attention to them, but glass, like fiber, still remains outside the mainstream in contemporary art.

Reviewers have mentioned that many of these artists are not known even to specialists. I was familiar with very few of them. That is particularly surprising when I see that almost none of them are young. Most are over 50, many are over 80 and a few died some years ago.

At the Giardini Lee Mingwei (b. 1964 Taiwan, lives in Paris and New York) appropriated the small Carlo Scarpa garden area in the Biennale Pavilion and made it a meditation space, where he invited specific visitors to sit in a chair and appreciate the environment. We did not see him in person at the Giardini and so the Scarpa garden space looked like it always has, except for the chair set in the middle. (At the same time, this Biennale, and other sites in Venice have acknowledged Scarpa significantly this year – for one there’s the Galleria Querini Stampalia, which he renovated and which has a trove of Scarpa books in its shop.

At the Arsenale Lee Mingwei was busy sewing threads onto a visitor’s hat while a television news reporter prepared for her broadcast. Near him was a small pile of clothing with threads running from the pieces to spools of colorful thread attached to the wall. According to the label, he accepted pieces of torn clothing which he mended and then added to the pile. He seemed charming and friendly but we did not interact with him.

The didactic information for Maria Lai emphasized the 1981 performance and video in which she connected all the houses of the Sardinian town of Ulassai with strips of blue cloth strung from one to the other. The video and documentary photographs were there. That was interesting, but I was most taken by her cloth books with various patterns of illegible text or abstract illustrations. Not being familiar with her, I was stunned to find that she was born in 1919 in Sardinia and died in 2013. There’s a kind of fantasy of possibility evoked by color and texture of the books, which have no defined content and so have many possible contents. A series of Alphabet books, closed but with colorful edges of the pages peeking out, also inspired a kind of romantic sense of what books can be. Charming photographs of her and many images of her works can be found online.

I did not realize that David Medalla’s (b. 1938 Manila, lives in London) work, A Stitch in Time, 1968-, was interactive and that viewers were invited to add to the materials threaded onto this large hanging sculpture. No one was engaging with it when we saw it. It includes a vast array of ephemeral bits of paper: museum tickets, bus and tram tickets, receipts, an asthma atomizer, a Metrocard, and hundreds of other bits of memorabilia from around the world, strung together, an installation that is fun to look at, ambitious, but also something of a curio. Tom pointed out the Metrocard.  I would group it with works by a huge number of artists, some inventive and inspiring and others depressing and dispiriting, whose art recycles things that we would throw in the trash.

Franz Erhard Walther (b. 1939 Germany) was awarded the Golden Lion for his work in the exhibition. His contribution was a performance documented in a video available online, which I did not see (I actually watched a bit on You Tube, but lost patience and quit.). But I found the fiber wall hangings for the performance worth looking at as minimal sculptures and found it interesting that he had turned to fiber as his sculptural medium. Apparently, the hangings and floor pieces invite viewers to engage with them physically, becoming part of the works of art. We did not see anyone engaging with them and we did not either. They looked like objects you are not supposed to touch.

I loved Petrit Halilaj’s (b. 1986 Kosovo) fabric wall installation, which first looked just like West Asian carpets with fabric attachments, but on second glance were some kind of creatures attaching themselves to the walls and columns of the Arsenale. Only later did I realize that they are moths created by Halilaj in collaboration with his mother. The text says that moths are frequent subjects in Halilaj’s work, with complex personal symbolism. I was just delighted to see the textiles taking on life.

Like Maria Lai, Michelle Stuart’s (b. 1933 New York) contribution crossed the fiber medium with the book subject in Frijoles Notebook, 1974-75, a book made of earth from Frijoles, New Mexico; cotton; and muslin-mounted paper. I don’t think it has written content, but I loved the way she incorporated the land of New Mexico into a book form.  She was one of the first artists to use organic media such as those she uses here, making land art on a smaller, more accessible, scale, back in the 1970s! Three of her non-fiber works in the show, also touched me. One of them, Pumpkin Field, a small square painting of pumpkin seeds, beeswax, and neutral-colored pigment on wood, also made a connection with the land and what grows there. Of course earth and seeds are only the promise of crops, thus the work celebrates the earth and its fecundity and felt hopeful.

Leonor Antunes’s (b. 1972 Portural, lives in Berlin) work for the Arsenale was almost impossible to photograph, even though it dominated one section of the space. She hung open screens of woven materials, metal, wood, and leather, accented with glass lamps made in Murano. They are presented as inspired by modernist work by architects such as Carlo Scarpa and Lina Bo Bardi; for me they helped soften the overpowering factory-like space of the Arsenal and offered a variety of textures through which to see it.

I’ve always loved seeing Ernesto Neto’s (b. 1964 Brazil) installations of woven vessels hanging from the ceiling. His work at Venice was much criticized for including Huni Kuin Indians inside a structure suspended from the ceiling. Critics talked of anthropological tourism and exploitation. We did not see the performance involved. We saw a huge tent-like structure that people entered with their shoes off; inside they rested, chatted, or drummed. We did not go in, but I liked the shape of the tent, the sense of community it offered, and the mask-like abstract reliefs on the walls surrounding the space.

In Venice I was not very interested in Huguette Calande’s (b. 1931 Lebanon, lives in Los Angeles) work, but now I find the three dresses exhibited by her to be amusingly sensual. Heidi Bucher’s (1926-1993 Switzerland) wall hangings made from underwear did not interest me visually but surely must be acknowledged in the context of the women’s movement, since are also from the 1970s.

A huge wall hanging by Abdoulaye Konate (b. 1953 Mali), who studied in Cuba and met artist Wifredo Lam there, is predominantly dyed with indigo, an important colonial trading product, and was made for a San Paolo, Brazil festival. It’s a big, impressive fiber object with various small images relating to Brazil and Africa, for example an African sculpture, a macaw, and a football. Interestingly, one of the objects we liked at Documenta also involved indigo. And that reminds me of the fascinating exhibition we saw a year ago at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, “The Red that Colored the World,” about cochineal. The show is traveling through 2018 and well worth seeing.

Wandering through the Arsenale, not paying too much attention to the topics of the exhibition “pavilions,” I was struck by the vivid color and audacity of the huge pile of bales of pigmented fiber that Sheila Hicks had placed against the wall. It reminded me of the surprise I had at the first Biennale exhibition I saw in the Arsenale – there was a huge thick red wall hanging, striking in its color and just really big, made for the huge space of the Arsenale. Hicks’s work struck me like that.  I just loved the hugeness of it, its soft texture and bright colors and the sense of freedom the piles of balls of various colors portrayed.  I learned from the didactic information that Hicks studied art with Joseph Albers, architecture with Luis Kahn, and pre-Columbian art history with George Kubler at Yale and later worked with Mexican architects Luis Barragan and Ricardo Legorreta (who incorporates delightful and surprising color in his buildings). Born in Hastings, Nebraska in 1934, she lives in Paris.

There’s a small exhibition of 20 works by Judith Scott (1943 Cincinnati -2005 Dutch Flat, California), who wrapped bits of fabric, wool, yarn, thread,  textile strips and other materials around various objects, making them into abstract sculptures. Most of these did not particularly interest me, although in a way they might have been fiber John Chamberlains. Here is one.

Perhaps not as much fiber as the others is Edith Dekynt’s (b. 1960 Belgium) aluminum foil covered linen curtain, which shimmered outside her installation in the last section of the show the Pavilion of Time and Infinity. It hung like a theater curtain and had a seductive warm glow and tactile surface, a minimal sculpture with a touch of Pop. Slow Object 08, 2017.
Looking at these images, I’m again overcome with the sense of possibility and the creativity that the artists in this exhibition promise. While many of these artists may not be well-known, I was impressed that they have extensive experience, studied and worked with inspirational artists and architects, and have won significant recognition in museums and publications.  A lot of their works are not exactly contemporary, dating from the 1970s, but they still reward even brief observation. Like other Biennales, but moreso, this Biennale has been a rewarding educational experience, and a visual and conceptual delight.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Venice Biennale 2017 Viva Arte Viva in the Giardini

The Venice Biennale is so huge that it can be dispiriting to try and address it, even when electing only one or two aspects. I am always impressed that newspaper critics can write a relatively concise column about it. And I check at least a couple of reviews and articles to get an idea of what I might want to see.

For most of the Biennales I have visited during the past 25 years or so, I’ve felt that the curated part of the show has been overfull and not clearly organized. The topics were so huge that any work of art - or even any thing - could be included.  The last two were indicative: Okwui Enwezor’s “All the World’s Futures,” in 2015 and Massimiliano Gioni’s “The Encyclopedic Palace” in 2013. For a listing of all the 21st century exhibitions, click here.        

In 2015 in particular the focus seemed to be on political art, artists who espoused a strongly political point of view, or people who may or may not be artists with a strong political point of view, included in the curated show and the national pavilions. After a while it was both overwhelming and depressing.  I felt like I was being held responsible for travesties both in the present and the past in countries far away from me, with no recourse and no solutions suggested. I was particularly offended by several clumsy documentary videos that resembled newscasts. It was a lot like the Documenta exhibition in 2012, another gathering of hectoring political content.

This year’s curator, Christine Macel, was quite specific about her intention, to focus on art and artists, "the questions they ask, the practices they develop and the ways of life they choose." In a long introduction she speaks of art as "the favorite realm for dreams and utopias, a catalyst for human connections that roots us both to nature and the cosmos, that elevates us to a spiritual dimension." The topic is still huge and could admit almost anyone, but it led me to expect less political art, more positive messages, and even beauty. As a result, Holland Carter, in the New York Times, found the exhibition weak and with little meaning for himself. I had the opposite response.

While the curated exhibition still tends to be a lot larger than one would wish and exhaustion and heat tend to give many of the works, especially those toward the end of the show, short shrift, and although her last section in the Arsenale did not provide me with a satisfying conclusion, I cannot remember another Biennale or Documenta in which I gradually acquired a feeling of peace and comfort, delight and fascination, the sense that art can be about things other than the miseries of the world and that when it is, it might provide just as much resolution to those miseries as more confrontational work. I felt her message: "At a time of global disorder, art embraces life, even if doubt ensues inevitably." It was the first Biennale in years where I have felt amazed at the variety of contemporary art possibilities and been more pleased than irritated.

Other sources can tell about all the nine  sections of the exhibition. In this essay I will address only one of two units in the Giardini section. I particularly liked some of the works in the opening Pavilion of Artists and Books. Although some of the works were performance or video or installation and the section included Olafur Eliasson’s workshop of migrants making lamps, there were still several works of art directly involving books. The big colorful Sam Gilliam on the front of the Biennale Pavilion was a wonderful way to express the intended mood of the exhibition.

I was taken aback by John Latham’s abstract sculptures that incorporate books, then enjoyed the way he used the books, frayed, splayed, partially burned or covered with plaster, as elements in three-dimensional objects. Like all the artists whose work I liked, he is completely new to me, born in Zambia in 1921, died in Britain in 2006. The didactic text says he was inspired to destroy books in response to Nazi book burning, although I don't think he identified with that practice. In addition to making objects incorporating books, Latham did performances, in one of which he chewed up all of Clement Greenberg’s essay Art and Culture, “then filtered and distilled it into test tubes.” I know several people who would enjoy that work. Here are two of his sculptural works:

Liu Ye’s paintings of books surprised me, first as illusionistic images, then in the context of his own life. Raised during the Cultural Revolution when his parents hid forbidden books, he celebrates them just by depicting the covers. In this instance the label gave just enough context to inspire imagination of what books can mean to readers. 

Another of his paintings is an illusion of an opened book, a contemporary take on trompe l'oeil paintings. I had to look at it from the side to be sure it was not three dimensional. 

I’m not sure what I thought of Ciprian Muresan’s drawings of all the illustrations in various  art books, but somehow the Shredded Masaccio Book caught my imagination. The densely overlapped drawings indicate a focused study of the illustrations at the same time the objects themselves show neither the artists’ style nor anything about their lives or their place in history, most particularly not what made the artist’s work worth looking at. So shredding a book on Masaccio seems consistent with his approach to art books and altogether the works made me think of how useless reproductions of works of art are aesthetically.
Ciprian Muresan, All Images from a Book of Giotto, 2015

Ciprian Muresan, All Images from a Book of Giotto, 2015, detail
Shredded Masaccio Book
McArthur Binion’s work was not specifically book-related, but his gridded abstractions using own birth certificate or his address book from the 1970s and 80s seemed touching, very simple abstractions of material with intense personal meaning. I didn’t need to know the content of the underlying materials to sense the artist’s investment in them. Looking online, trying to find the title of the DNA Series painting I photographed, I discovered the variety of designs into which he incorporates his grids.
McArthur Binion, DNA painting
McArthur Binion, DNA painting detail

To be sure, there were works that didn’t make much sense. I had been looking forward to seeing the Eliasson installation with immigrants making lamps that were for sale. But on the day we attended, there were only two women sitting together and it was not clear if they were part of the project or just visiting at the work table. And the lamps did not seem very attractive or useful. 

I photographed a section of a work by Franz West in which he had someone transcribe a text he had recorded and then whited out selected words or phrases from the transcript, supposedly making a sort of prose poem. The text was in German and very long, multiple pages framed on the wall, like an unbound book. What was the curator thinking? She wanted to acknowledge and appreciate the artist, who died in 2012 and who was working with the idea of a book, but the work itself seemed out of place on the wall of a huge exhibition, too intimate and requiring too much study, not to mention translation.

The second section, the Pavilion of Joys and Fears, had less interest for me, but I photographed works of two artists who surprised me. Marwan (born Damascas, 1934, died Berlin 2016) took portraiture from relatively straightforward to nearly abstract and scary, not the first or only artist to do that, but his work stays in my head.

And there was Senga Nengudi, who makes sculpture incorporating nylon stockings, cleaner forms than Bruce Connor's using similar materials:

Senga Nengudi, detail of above sculpture
Finally, we watched part of a video by Taus Makhacheva (b. 1983 Moscow, lives in Moscow and Dagestan), in which a tightrope walker carries paintings from the Museum of Dagestan from one mountaintop to another, placing each in a set of storage shelves. It was amusing and also frightening for anyone with acrophobia, or even without.