Sunday, June 19, 2011

Illuminating - Venice Biennale 2011 - To the Arsenale

Two and a half days in the Giardini - the minimum necessary to take in the dense offerings as well as negotiate the long lines - and then to the Arsenale. The massive darkness of the first long hall is a welcome respite from the sun, heat and frenetic crowds that typify Venice at this time of year.

First up for me was the marvelous para-pavilion by Song Dong. A maze of antique doors, door frames, closet doors and small building facades was a playful invitation to cross thresholds and change perspectives. Entering through a closet door (Narnia-like), I came upon a plinth on which Ryan Gander had depicted himself falling out of his wheelchair. A strange moment for me as I had recently met Ryan and came away with the sense that the wheelchair was the last and least thing one noticed about him.

Onward through the wide long space filled with offerings until I came upon the massive dragon made of inner tubes by Nicholas Hlobo. The giant creature hung from the ceiling seemed like a challenge to one's safety, aesthetic and otherwise, and reminded me of publicity for horror movies. My South African friends similarly decried it's merit - no matter as it has been purchased by Puma for display in corporate quarters back in the homeland. A couple of stitched works flanking the beast redeemed the effort for me.

A sucker for installation, my searching eyes were drawn to the mass of neon, metal tubing and silver tarp by Navid Nuur. The unfinished quality of the work, with the fabric drawn back and the neon brightly revealed in the middle, put in the mindset of planning for Burning Man - one never knows where inspiration for this year's shelter will come from.

Of the video works, I was drawn into Dani Gal's Night and Fog dealing with the scattering of Eichman's ashes. The video is a psychological portrait of the security forces carrying out an "act of honor". While I was taken with the stylized stuttering quality of the work, I was later told that this might have been a technological glitch. I clearly need to see it again.

The apse of the Arsenale was occupied by several large Urs Fisher works. They are giant candles, one a full scale recreation of The Rape of the Sabine Women, slowly melting away. Having not quite recovered from the Urs Fischer extravaganza at The New Museum, I moved on.

Next I came across a happy discovery - the complex yet lyrical work of Corinne Wasmuht. A large, multi-layered painting created a wonderful moment of fictional space. Someone for me to look out for.

Couches came next - First an installation by Rosemarie Trockel featuring the familiar draped couch and some unfamiliar wall works. Then the luxury of alarge screening room featuring Christian Marclay's The Clock. This was my third viewing, one at Paula Cooper in NYC and one two evenings before near the Biennale HQ. I had a restful and meditative half hour from 2.45pm to 3.15pm as the plasticity of time was so wonderfully deconstructed. A couple of afternoons previous, I had joined friends for a lecture by Jaques Ranciere on the interwoven elements of time and power, and the redistribution of time within the capitalist model. Strands of that idea greatly informed my viewing of Marclay's piece.

Now a left turn and down the short end. First up, a couple of people debating whether or not they were looking at art - namely the faithful reconstructions of garbage cans from the around the world. I'm sure a spare tissue or two got discarded into them.

Several national "pavilions" presented themselves next of which India was the most interesting to me. A mix of work ranging from traditional to high-tech, seemed to capture the cultural temperature as I imagine it to be. Most fun was a ride in an elevator - press the button, enter the cab and watch as floors go whizzing by simulated by giant video projection.

Croatia featured people behaving badly and Turkey provided a large set of piping that was another purification plant for local water. Did they text with Israel before coming to Venice?

South Africa was back in town after a 16 year absence and I was keen to be there at the official opening of the pavilion that afternoon. Down to the waterside to catch the shuttle which crosses all of about 100 feet of water (why no bridge?!). The shuttle could only take 12 people at a time (12 Angry Men?) and the line advanced little in my 15 minute wait. Luckily, entrepreneurialism is alive and well in Venice and an enterprising taxi driver was ferrying folks for a mere 5 euro. Cheaper than a vaporetto ride.

I strolled the length of the quayside in the heat until I reached the tower, guarding the inlet entrance, which housed the South Africans. Inside I found a thoroughly modern restored environment and an impressive array of large scale work by Siemon Allen, Mary Sibande and Lyndi Sales. While i did enjoy the works, it struck me that South Africa was putting forward its best foot in the context of "western" contemporary art and shying away from anything that smacked of post-colonial practice. Too bad - the country has been such an agent of change in other arenas, it would be wonderful to see work that challenged conventions in Venice.

Back across the water, I entered the Italian pavilion. This year, the work has been selected by 200 intellectual as a nod to 150 years of unification. Additionally, there is a second level installed which is a maze-like museum of the cosa nostra. Be it the mafia of the intelligentsia or the mafia of the Sopranos, the results were largely unintelligible and a real conversation stopper when brought up with citizens of the host country. I did like the simple poetry of a national flag made up of old t-shirts - it smacked of good, honest community art.

Next door, China was a contrast in simplicity. Clouds of mist rose from vats inside the space while in the garden beyond a large cloud sculpture was enveloped in yet more mist. Meanwhile, someone walked backwards with a clocks strapped to them that was - yes, you got it - going backwards. The mists of time were going backwards.

Moving in a forward direction, I walked through the gardens behind the Arsenale, took in the big pink Franz West protuberance from a distance and then happened on the most surprising display. Entitled Some Like it Hot, the installation/performance/event involved an audience sitting drinking wine. The wine bottles were whisked away when empty and thrown into a barrel in which they were mashed with a large pole. Glass shards were fed into a large furnace in the middle of the clearing and molten glass was removed from time to time and poured onto a growing mound. A live soundtrack was provided by a Brooklyn-based band called Japanther. The furnace was fed fuel from a woodpile stacked to one side. In front of the pile was a bench with some folks seated, including a very thin naked guy. At one point graffiti was written onto his back. He then went behind the pile, and emerged with a large axe. He approached a wood stump on which some older folks were seated and asked to clear it for chopping purposes. One woman, noting his scrawny body, offered him a sandwich which he ate with gusto. He then proceeded with the wood chopping. This was definitely different.

Enlivened by Gelatin's offering, I made my way to a cocktail party for the launch of a brochure by an Italian writer. In the garden of an old nursery near the Arsenale, the evening was a perfect way to segue out of Biennale mode.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Illuminating - Venice Biennale 2011 - Giardini Days

This edition of the Venice Biennale got off to a hot and sweaty start. Not only were the crowds overwhelming and the weather blazing, the political content and performance-based presentations heat up the scene.

The Danish pavilion stood out for its support of freedom of speech, literally providing a platform for a group of protesters involved in the current Italian referendum on nuclear energy. A large platform/tree house was built aside the pavilion and festooned with banners and an outsize megaphone. Inside, the most personally striking work was by Robert Crumb and Taryn Simon, two artists working at opposite ends of the spectrum to help us gain perspective on our lives in the US.

Just across the gravel, the US pavilion had a political message of its own. Represented by
the pair of Allora and Calzadilla, the US featured an oddly self-critical set of works including a US athlete running on a treadmill on top of an upturned tank, a giant pipe organ that played loudly as cash was taken from an ATM and US gymnasts exerting themselves on wooden replicas of first class seats. The last of these aptly brought to mind the exertions of staying on top of the corporate pile such that your seat upfront remained assured. There was something almost creepy about a State Department sponsored exhibit that was so in your face critical about US culture. Only one video work showed this pair working at a more subtle level of insight that is more familiarly theirs.

The lines outside the UK pavilion are legend. After an attempt to jump the line went awry, I waited my turn (almost) and took the opportunity met some great folks from the host country, John Plowman and Nicola Streeten. They operate a non-profit promoting art installations in non-traditional spaces under the banner Beacon Art. Once inside, I enjoyed the maze of spaces by Mike Nelson recreating rooms in an Istanbul quarter. Although I felt that the transportation of the piece from Istanbul to Venice, compromised the quality of just having missed the inhabitants of the rooms, I was struck by experience of doubting memory and following instinct.

France and Germany flank the UK in a wonderful late 19th century display of political design. France featured Christian Boltanski's whirring display on the vagaries of chance. Germany convincingly recreated a cathedral of art featuring a funereal take on Beuys, Fluxus and the artist himself, Christoph Schlingensief
, who had died at an early age. RIP the lot of you.

Down the road, the Swiss pavilion provided a wonderful contrast to its 2009 incarnation - from the quiet certitude of Silvia B├Ąchli to the all encompassing denouement of Thomas Hirschhorn. The space had been completely transformed into a paper and tape simulacrum of hell complete with dangerous edges and stifling heat.

From the dangers of contemporary society's quest for dominance to the Polish Pavilion's fascinating take on the "the Jewish problem". Three films. Part 1 - a cry for the Jews to return to Poland
and restore prewar glory. Part 2 - a twist whereby Polish youth build a kibbutz for returning Jews only to finish the structure with oddly familiar barbed wire festooned camp walls. Part 3 - the context, in which the youth leader is slain while viewing art and a series of speeches made at his funeral open questions regarding Polish culpability, Jewish identity, the State of Israel and "the Palestinian problem". Put on your thinking caps for this one.

The Biennale pavilion was festooned with Cattelan pigeons - so many that one writer pondered the lack of pigeons in San Marco. Personal highlights were the David Goldblatt images asserting their quiet power within the walls of a riotously wallpapered para-pavilion. The electro machinations of the Haroon Mirza installation in the same area provided another wonderful contrast against which to view. Pipolitti Rist provided three small works that blended her signature video candy with painted portraits of the Venice urbanscape. Not as transporting as her immersive works, I still marveled at their technical prowess. Llyn Foulkes provided another group of comments on the American dream with slyly altered icons such as George Washington and Superman and Ryan Gander's coin took a while to find - stuck on the floor in the middle of a gallery. As with any dense art experience, I eventually end up in the cafe and I was glad to see that the
Tobias Rehberger design from 2009 had survived to fragment another caffeine experience.

There were lines too for Israel's pavilion presenting Sigalit Landau. The space had been reconstituted into a large installation featuring various takes on water, salt and territoriality. A mass of pipes snaked their way across the bottom level and climbed the walls to turn meters above. Videos depicted salted boots eating through ice and the game of territorial marking on a beach pointed to the larger stakes played out in Gaza and the West Bank. While the individual works were of interest, the collective didn't quite gel into a cohesive experience for me.

That said, the cocktail reception for the installation, held at the Scuola Rocca, was that special combination of social event and great art viewing. The upstairs hall was a treasure trove of Tintoretto. While admittedly not well schooled in classic painting, I was moved by the experience of being enveloped in dark tones of oils. I spent several hours talking with friends and enjoying a classic Venetian venue far from the madding crowds...

And friendship was an important part of my Biennale. Admittedly, it was fun to don the dark suit and cross the water to Pinault's already feted party on the
island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Better though was returning to join friends form South Africa at a dinner for David Goldblatt. Other group dinners, and lunches, provided warmth, respite and insight amidst the Biennale behemoth.

Before leaving the Giardini, I enjoyed some time at the Austrian pavilion which features Markus
Schinwald. The pavilion had been transformed into a poetic maze in which walls reach down from the ceiling yet do not meet the floor. Interspersed throughout are sinuous sculptures wrapping around corner and into the heights. Repurposed paintings show old portraits modified by the artist to append prosthetic devices - to the chins, noses and other parts of the sitters. Finally, a duo of films depicting various forms of suspension in time and space are projected in two large rooms at the ends of the pavilion. While sitting on the floor to view these, the legs of other viewers walking the exhibition can be seen crisscrossing behind. The whole created a lyrical space in which the hand of the artist has intervened in the ordinary.