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.

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