Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Day 3 (Venice at large)

Day 3 was a chance to get beyond the official Biennale sites and visit some remote pavilions, as well as other cultural institutions in the City.

First off was the Portuguese Pavilion with an exhibition beguiling entitled Experiments and Observations on Different Types of Air. The exhibition is aptly described in documentation as "poetry as a possible means of capturing an only partially discernible world". Walking in from the bright sunlight, one was immediately disoriented by the pitch darkness. Several inter-leading rooms featured 16 films running on mechanical projectors. Each film featured a slowly unfolding phenomenon involving one of water, air, earth or fire. The stillness, the clacking of the projector, the quality of the film stock and the subtlety of the observations were transporting.

From here, Boxo headed to the Palazzo Grassi - one of two homes Fancois Pinault has created for his mega-collection. The Punta della Dogana, which opened ceremoniously a couple of days beforehand, is the other. They were advertising a show titled 'Mapping the Studio' in a nod to Bruce Nauman. After following the strict directional signage, and viewing a mix of luxuriously hung luxury items, quite what was meant by the title was entirely lost. No curatorial statement or guidance whatsoever. Rather, a marketing tagline to give these institutions a place in the current proceedings. A visit to the Dogana later in the day confirmed this thought. More of the same and a guard who proclaimed that photos were for those with authorization and not for "normal people". Both buildings have been beautifully renovated to the purpose by Tadao Ando, and the coffee at the cafe was kick ass. Go Francois!

Next on to the two sites of the collateral exhibitions of Nauman's work being shown university facilities. These are where the pieces Nauman made for the Biennale are housed. The first stop at the Universita Ca' Foscari, featured the sound piece titled Giorni. The piece featured a long hall of flat panel speakers from which the days of the week read in Italian by a several different voices were emitted at irregular intervals. One could walk the length between the speakers and experience a wave of rhythmic perception or sit on a tall stool and hear a pair of readers converge and part, converge and part.

Nearby, was a site specific piece, Untitled. This is a video work in which two women lithely swing their way around in a circular motion, over a grid taped on the floor. The grid is still physically in place, with the video projected on top of it. Several other older pieces were also installed, including Double Steel Cage Piece, one steel cage housed within another. A young woman had slid into the narrow space between the cages, a space calculated to discourage most folks from making an attempt.

A short walk away, at Tolentini, lunch beckoned before the second Nauman installation was explored. This installation was composed mostly of sound pieces, including an English version of the new sound work, entitled Days.

Now there was only one major item left on the checklist: Peter Greenaway's work on the island of San Giorgio. On the way to catch the long vaporetto from Roma to San Marco, Boxo glimpsed the new Calatrava bridge, another graceful triumph of engineering.

Greenaway's work, The Wedding at Canna, is part of a series of works titled Nine Classic Paintings. In this series, Greenaway is reinterpreting classic works using pioneering technologies. The Wedding at Canna, a huge painting depicting Christ turning water into wine, was painted by Veronese in 1562/1563. It was later cut up into pieces and sent to Paris as part of a war reparation agreement. Recently, a digital recreation of the piece was painstakingly created and hung back in the place of the original. Greenaway brings the piece to life in a wonderful display of sound, light and video. This was an uplifting way to end a long, and sometimes daunting, art adventure.

That evening, Boxo was hosted by new friends Roman Sadnik, an opera singer, and his partner Gille Gubelmann, a visual artist and scenic designer for opera. They now occupy a large Venetian palazzo-style apartment which Gille has renovated most artfully. Some of the rooms are available on a b&b basis and Boxo highly recommends this stylish base for Biennales, Carnivales and all other Venetian exploits.

The review of this year's Biennale are mostly negative, filled with accusations of mediocrity and banality as well as historicism. To a first time participant, the luxury of this much work and the generosity of the countless government and cultural institutions in creating the pavilions and collateral exhibitions, is exciting and praiseworthy. While stimulating pieces and concepts were few and far between, they afforded a sense of discovery and delight. Boxo is thankful to the Secretariat of the Biennale for inviting BoxoFFICE to the previews and looks forward to future participation, including the 2019 repair of the clay pot with Yoko Ono.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Boxo at the Biennale (Arsenale)

Day 2 (Arsenale)

got to the Arsenale right at opening time and was able to enjoy being ahead of the crowds for most of the morning. The luxurious length of high, barreled brickwork stretched on for what appeared to be miles. The dimness and cool humidity felt good after the growing heat of the Venetian Day. The Arsenale was a rich and dense offering - the following are merely some highlights.

The first piece, an installation by Anya
Zholud, was a wonderful web of criss-crossing brass or gold strands that created an ephemeral presence lit dimly in the height of the darkness. Lygia Pape. In stark contrast of tone, the next room featured several works by Pistoletto, large framed mirrors smashed in a performative act that left a fragmented reflection for the viewer. Bright and literally in your face. In another turn of contrast, were the paintings by Simone Berti. Delicate and slightly mysterious constructions combining organic and engineered influences.

Then through a portal and into an installation that appealed to all the senses. A reconstruction of the idea of a
Cameroon village by Pascal Martine Thayou. The entire ecosystem of an African village presented in wooden structures, video projections, clever sculptures and even smell. Invigorating. Further on, a personal favorite Paul Chan. Or in this case, naughty Paul Chan. The familiar haunting shadow projections, this time depicting man's fall from grace in the guise of Sade. Lots of buggery, fellatio and the like. This made for some fun theater watching spectators glancing at each other.

Next up, a fellow country man Moshekwa Langa. The work is a large installation of yarn, empty wine bottles, toy vehicles and balls of various sizes and textures. A mapping of connections and disconnections. Placement and displacement. Boxo found the work intriguing and interestingly devoid of any reference to its South African origins (no cape wine bottles). Nearby, an installation by a recent discovery and new favorite of Boxo - Cildo Meireles. A passage of several rooms, each saturated in a single color. The borders between the rooms yielded dynamic contract and sharp edges and the experience was a true learning in the effects of color on sight.

Next, a new discovery - Gonkar Gyatso, a contemporary artist from Tibet. Traditional Tibetan painting forms that reveal canny references to contemporary culture. Enlightening ;) A huge projection of a bonsai tree (!!), marked the end of the first section, and signalled a turn straight into the world of Joan Jonas. A dual screen video installation depicting Jonas' personal take on Dante's Divine Comedy. Boxo enjoyed a divine respite on a well designed bench, although the question of contemporary context reared it's insistent head yet again.

Noon again and time for that food and caffeine break. Another well designed cafe, another great
cappucino - viva Italia. Now it was time for a chat with Paul Chan in the misnamed Teatro Piccolo. Boxo joined a large queue, surprised at the turn out. Ends up the line was for Yoko On, Paul having explained his naughty bits the day before.

And so, into the fray. And what a fray it was. Sean and
Kyoko playing chess upstage as Yoko writhed and moaned her way around the stage, and then smashed a chair to bits with a sledgehammer. Lights down for a tedious film about Yoko's origins during which she sat on stage murmuring bits of commentary. Fade to video about Yoko's Light Tower project and lots of angles on her project to have everyone signal their love to everyone else in Morse code with flashlights. I love you. Then an interview of sorts with a curator which ended with the two of them in a large fabric bag flailing around. Boxo finally fond some interest in the closing segment which featured the smashing of a clay pot, the collection of pieces by the audience and a promise to be back in the Teatro in 10 years to reconstruct the pot. Boxo already has his reservations.

Following lunch, Boxo hit the Chinese Pavilion which housed a commentary on the commercialism and homogenization of art. Vending machines and found frame over color saturated canvases. Oddly uninteresting given the proliferation of strong political and performance art coming out of China these days. Next, a large section of more Italian art that lacked any real impact or entry point. Lots of well finished work that could have benefited from a little less spit and polish. A lush painting depicting James Dean as a religious figure did catch Boxo's eye (painter undocumented with apologies).

From here, outdoors for a series of installations set along a meandering path. Some Dietch inspired naughtiness by Miranda July, a giant web of dominoes and a bog by Lara Favoretto. Tucked behind these was one of the jewels of the Biennale - William Forsythe's The Fact of Matter/Choreographic Object. Two hundred gymnastic rings hung at varying heights through in a small space. Passage through the room meant swinging and clacking the rings and some folks took to walking their way through by inserting their feet in the rings. Forsythe's light touch and choreography of an unknown troupe (the public) was a joy to behold.

Next door, a more cynical offering from Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. A gate entrance to an unkempt area with the descriptive tag crossed out line by line. The catalogue describes this as Gonzalez-Foerster's fifth attempt to be included in the Biennale. Pity she took herself out yet again. She always makes Boxo long for the work of Felix Gonzalex-Torres...

Another long line beckoned for the short shuttle to the Arsenale Novissimo. Boxo had heard a lot about the Jean Fabre exhibition and giant signs beckoned. Giant signs for giant work. A giant flayed skull, a giant pile of human bones made of glass, a giant pile of gravestones with an erect artist on top. A giant budget, a giant? Admittedly flagging, Boxo popped out the back for a respite in a quiet garden only to find another hidden gem. A wooden maze of crafted slats by Marco Bagnoli, with soft chants luring one in to reveal a tree growing in the center. Ahhhh.

A long stroll down a back dock and through a window into another large exhibition entitled
Unconditional Love. Boxo didn't feel the love, especially in another large budget production. Slick video in the round by AES&F that claimed to update the Feat of Trymalchio. Yawn - time for a nap.

While resting for a few minutes back in the hotel room, Boxo was startled by a series of loud sirens. Fire? Conflict? Cocktail hour? No - on emerging to take a vaporetto to a performance in the Campo Santa Margherita, Boxo found San Marco square entirely underwater and several connecting streets starting to fill up to. A full moon and some strong winds reminded one that Venice is indeed sinking. The sight of art world folks clutching expensive shoes and hem lines as they attempted to negotiate paths to private parties was amusing to behold.

Boxo was off to see
The Dance of the Bees, a mysterious performance taking place in the distant Campo. Alas, dinner ran over the appointed hour and the performance was, as described by the person in charge, "over in a flash". A hive of live bees, strange music and a crew of bystanders was all that was left. So off for a cone of gelato, a soggy walk to the vaporetto and another fine day was done.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Boxo Goes to the Biennale (Giardini)

Day 0 - Around the Giardini
A banner moment for BoxoFFICE as we received an invitation to the previews at the Venice Biennale. In a flash, Boxo found himself at the Oranizing Secratariat's window in the Giardini to pick up his accreditation.

The weather was beautiful, and remained so throughout the four days of the trip. There was a lot of action on the water, alongside the entrance to the Giardini. First, the official entry of the Comores Islands - a traditional fishing boat with an upended cargo container inside of it, bobbing in the lagoon. Some men in national garb doing a performance with sticks. Free beer. A poetic clash of first and third world priorities.

Suddenly, Boxo's eye was drawn to a strange flotilla that came sailing into view. Three boats made of trash, er recycled items. These were part of a project devised by Swoon of Deitch fame. They had been transported from the US to Slovenia and then made their own way across the Adriatic to appear at the Biennale. Boxo met Swoon and some of the crew, who let him know that they could not get a permit to sail up the Grand Canal. Boxo admired the Burning Man aesthetic, the daring of the artists and the contrast of the flotilla against the superyachts anchored yards up the quay. He also wondered at the lack of sanitary, sleeping or cooking facilities.

That evening, Boxo met with a couple of friends who had already had the lay of the land to get some hints. And they were really helpful - mainly the tip to be at the Great Britain pavilion right at opening to get a time slot for viewing the work by Steve McQueen. Boxo also learned that starting off at a party (Canada) in the Giardini, and then meeting folks at Accademia for a chat can lead to an evening without dinner. Luckily, a snack of yogurt and apples was on hand to save the day (night).

Day 1 - Giardini
The first day got off to an interesting start. Boxo was approached at the entrance by an Albanian art student who asked if he could be taken in on the pass which admitted two people. Boxo was impressed at the chutzpah and complied. Then straight to Great Britain for a 3.30pm sticker. Phew - task one accomplished.

Next was the US pavilion. Historic works by Bruce Nauman, the great conceptualist. The pavilion was well curated, the works beautifully installed. Disembodied heads rotating, others serving as fountains. Severed arms reaching for the ceiling. And poetic neon covering the facade. While it was great to see Nauman recognized at this level, the question remained as to how this contributed to the notion of biennale which really stands for "an international manifestation of contemporary art". Two contemporary works created specifically for the Biennale were housed in remote locations - more on these later.

Next up was the host pavilion, Italy. Newly expanded, the pavilion felt somewhat like the last Documenta. There were several groupings of works by artists known and lesser known, contemporary and historic. Many were not Italian. The works were installed such that you came across each artist several times, in different locations around the giant pavillion, and thus came to recognize the work and era. Again, given the multitude of nationalities of the artists and the varied chronology, it was not clear how the pavilion supported the idea of highlighting contemporary developments in a nation's artistic practice.

Some highlights included the amazing spiders web/model of the Universe by Tomas Saraceno, the beautiful film sculpture by Simon Starling, the animations and installation by Nathalie Djurberg and the beyond psychedelic cafe design by Tobias Rehberger.

Noon chimed, jetlag nagged and it was time for delicious pannino and cappuccino at the outdoor cafe. Good people watching too.

Speaking of people, there were long lines at several pavilions, and it was time to line up for the show at the Danish and Nordic Pavilions. Titled The Collectors, the exhibition was a fine example of Scandinavian tongue in cheek. A real estate agent provided a tour of the Danish Pavilion on the premise that it was for sale. A strange assortment of artworks were hung, imitation Stella's with names like Arbeit Macht Freiheit for instance. Apparently, the owners had "left in a hurry". The adjacent Nordic Pavilion contained an assortment of homoerotic art as well as two hot looking guys said to be hustlers. Upon enquiring, Boxo was told that they were in fact actors although a real hustler had been on site at the opening. Tant pis.

Onward to the next line at the Dutch Pavilion. A quick meet and greet with a friend from NYC while waiting and then in to see the video works by Fiona Tam. A gallery of what looked to be black and white photos turned out to be video portraits. Beautiful if not groundbreaking. A multi-screen projection dealing with memory and aging was captivating. The title piece, Disorient was somewhat too national Geographic for Boxo.

With time ticking toward the appointed hour for Steve McQueen, Boxo headed to the pavilions clustered near Great Britain. The Czech Pavilion had been recommended. A beautiful marble arch. A short forecourt and then inside. Or was it? The path continued straight through with mature foliage matching that of the Giardini around. And then outside.

Somewhat confused, Boxo headed to the next doorway down the path only to find that was in fact the Autsralian Pavilion. Nice one. And so, inside to witness more video work, this time by Shaun Gladwell. Mad Max goes to the outback - picture a leathers clad motorcyclist carrying kangaroo roadkill across a highway, shot at an extremely oblique angle. Yowza.

3.30pm. Let the show begin. The Steve McQueen film was another split screen affair. Titled Giardini, it was a revealing look at what goes on in the Gardens when the Biennale is not in session - dogs scrounging, elderly residents on a stroll, men cruising, rainfall dripping. A wonderful meditation on facades, cycles and decay.

Back into the fray, namely the German Pavilion next door. Liam Gillick's much derided lengths of unfinished kitchen cabinetry appealed to Boxo. Hints of Judd and Zittel, modernism and the promise of social betterment. The stuffed cat on top of one cabinet, as well as the thick pamphlet being distributed to explain the work, were both ignored. Boxo's allergic to cats anyway.

Across the way, La France. A mysterious production of barred corridors, waving black flags, large, noisy fans and gilded walls. Apparently recalling the night before the Revolution and the height of the monarchy's decadence, this one should have had bars at the doorway.

To round out the neighborhood, it was time for Korea - a wonderfully realized construction of louvered blinds. Quite how this connected to the title, Condensation, just wasn't clear. Next door, Japan - humongous images of large breasted, threatening women housed in heavy, heavy black frames were more than somewhat predictable. Then to Switzerland, simple drawings that were not quite as exciting as the lovely modernist chairs scattered around the sleek pavillion.

Lastly, Russia, promising Victory over the Future. A large, warm pavilion filled with several interesting works. Notably, a large blacklight mural of football spectators that disappeared when the floodlights went on. Adjacent, a noisy set of dated machinery hissing and clanking as it pumped viscous liquids through icons encased in plexi. A quasi-religious take on capitalism perhaps?

5.30pm and time for a second pannino and cappucino. This art viewing is hard work! Spain beckoned across the way from the outdoor cafe. Luscious paintings and ceramics by Miguel Barcelo. Abstracts and gorillas in thick paint, muted pallette. Very exciting and a welcome discovery.

Suddenly, a huge storm broke loose and Boxo ducked back into the Italian Pavilion to buy an official umbrella. Then across the canal to some of the outlying pavilions. And another wonderful surprise. The Polish Pavilion featured gentle and absorbing projections by Krzysztof Wodiczko. Titled Guests, the piece dealt with the status of guest workers - seen as a series of shapes washing windows, climbing ladders, clearing leaves. The figures, faceless in a soft haze, were reminiscent of Bill Viola's characters, yet abstracted to the point of melancholy.

The adjacent Greek Pavilion was somewhat bling and the line for Roumania was one Boxo was advised not to brave. Venice featured some beautiful glass works, including that pirate Dale Chihuly. Egypt housed some striking paintings by Adel El Siwi.

As the day faded, it was time to return across the bridge to snap the marvelous neon words by Nauman, magically praising and criticizing his home country simultaneously. A quick peek into the Israeli Pavilion revealed works by Raffi Lavie that were reminiscent of BoxoFFICE's very own John Luckett. Idiosyncratic, accomplished, colorful.

You might have thought this would be a good time for a break - yet no, Boxo had some life in him yet. Off to the Teatro Goldoni for "an abtract opera'" titled No night No day by Cerith Wyn Evans and Florian Hecker. Arriving just before the curtain, Boxo wondered if he could snag a ticket. Luckily, a thoughtfdul woman returned a seat her friend was not going to use. Inside, it became clear that the word was out - the house was empty. The work was much like one Boxo recently experienced in Chelsea and described as a near death experience - soporific music and bright lights. Yike!

The silver lining on the evening was meeting a curator in the neighboring seat, who introduced Boxo to another curator friend. Off we went for an evening of dissection, discussion and seafood. A great day by any standards.