September 7, 2015
It’s next time again.
Great Art can stop the clock. It creates a rupture in time that you can remember all your life. This is one test of great Art, do you remember it? Assuming you do – what is it about the Art or the setting or the experience that stops your internal clock and drives an unforgettable stake into the shifting sands of your memory?
The Venice Biennale of Art provides many opportunities for this. Nothing like Venice to nourish a hunger for beauty and also explore the current state of Contemporary Art. Finding the time to think about Art for a few days is a great luxury and something I don’t do often enough.
Anaïs Nin, in Seduction of the Minotaur said, “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.”
Maybe this is the reason I was not as dazzled as I usually am by this year’s Biennale. The art was probably just as great as it always is but, perhaps I was distracted or just not ready for it. I found about ten of the installations really memorable but, for the rest, I didn’t seem to be in the mood. I instead, became infatuated with some very old Classical Art seen in three remarkable venues. Despite this art being ancient and somewhat familiar, its astonishingly modern presentation (and the sophistication of the ideas that went along with it) seemed breathtakingly new to me.
The Director of this year’s Biennale is Okwui Enwezor. He is also the Director of an important contemporary non-collecting museum (The Haus der Kunst) in Munich, and the adjunct curator of the International Center of Photography in New York. He titled this year’s Biennale “All the World’s Futures.” There was a healthy dose of politics in his approach and those politics extended to daily (performance art) readings from the works of Karl Marx. Readings from the original Das Capital had almost a religious connotation to it. This seems fitting since Marx felt the worship of capital (commodity fetishism) was analogous to the “misty realm of religion.” I always like to read the Director’s philosophical statements about their theme for the Biennale and Enwezor’s was fascinating. Turns out, most of what I really enjoyed about it, were the extensively quoted ideas from a man named Walter Benjamin. I will always be grateful to Mr. Enwezor for turning me on to the ideas of Walter Benjamin.
What a find! Benjamin was (no surprise) a Marxist but he writes about Marxism in an experiential way with fabulous insights into Art. This is probably because he had a doctorate in German Romanticism and laced his ideas of Marxist theory with evocative strains of Jewish Mysticism, The Kabbalah, Baudelaire, Kant, and Nietzsche. He wrote movingly about Capital as Religion in 1921. On top of this are brilliant insights into the nature and purpose of Art. Hang in there with me for a moment and you’ll see what I mean.
Benjamin totally grabbed me with one of my favorite topics: time. I love Science Fiction books and movies that involve time travel. The nature of time also figures prominently into my love of Eastern religions. For Benjamin, he sees two types of time. Everyday time that he calls “Homogenous Time” and a much more exciting “ruptured” time he calls “Messianic Time.” Think of it this way – what a clock measures second by second is Homogenous Time. Every second is like every other. It is quantifiable and you can sell it because it is what he calls “fundamentally empty.”
The other kind of time is much more special. You have had wonderful moments of Messianic Time in your life. These are the powerfully intense timeless moments you will never forget. If you are lucky, you can dip into these moments and remember them at will. They are not bound by the everyday. They are not boring. Often, these are the moments that make life worth living. Benjamin connects Messianic Time to timeless moments of historical revolution. His Jetztzeit (literally “now time”) is defined by the Oxford reference as: “time at a standstill, poised, filled with energy, and ready to take what Benjamin called the ‘tiger’s leap’ into the future.” Benjamin scholar Andrew Robinson describes Messianic Time as something “the artist or revolutionary blasts free from the ceaseless flow in which it would otherwise be trapped.” He says Benjamin sees “the messianic moment as a stop-chord on a runaway train. History is awakened with a slap born of long-contained frustration, not a kiss.”
I hope I am not trivializing the concept, and I am certainly no expert on Walter Benjamin, but I think he would also believe that ruptures in time can apply to Art.
The Venice Biennale holds the promise of such experiences in every installation. It is a tall order to expect a rupture in time by walking into an Art pavilion and even though “you had to be there” let me give you an example or two.
You walk into a clean well lighted space with 400 kilometers (250 miles) of red yarn strung through 50 thousand keys. These drip from the ceiling in an impossibly complicated network that stops you dead in your tracks. Buried in this dense red spiders web of yarn and keys are a couple of old rotting boats. How did this possibly happen? It happened with 10 people stringing keys on yarn ten hours a day for two months.
The artist, Chiharu Shiota, who now lives in Berlin says, “ Visitors may feel as if walking around an ocean of memory. The keys are connected to each other by thousands of red strings. Keys are everyday objects that protect valuable things and by coming into contact with people’s warmth on a daily basis, the keys accumulate a web of memories that coexist within us.”
Another example, with a totally different feeling is the spare and elegant and very high tech installation called Sea State by Charles Lim Yi Yong for Singapore. Elegant high definition monitors play high quality video of ships. Some of these monitors are on their sides so they create a disorientation of form. A giant 15 foot tall buoy covered in carbuncles looms over the space. Undersea video on a giant high quality monitor completes the illusion. The project looks at land masses disappearing, ecological issues, and the rapid ways in which Singapore is changing. It is also fundamentally about water. The artist says, “In the West, I think they tend to see the sea as sublime, as a space that is an obstacle, a place where you find god, and there are many good reasons for it. One good reason is that when you fall in the water, you normally have only 15 minutes to live before you get hypothermia, so Europeans build up all these narratives of the sea being dangerous.
But my relationship with water is very different. In Singapore and in a lot of equatorial regions, the temperature of the sea is the same as your internal body temperature. It’s similar to your blood in a sense. When there is a storm that comes, sailors and fishermen fill their boat with water and immerse their bodies in water, because the sea water is warmer than the air temperature during a storm. So this work also opens up new ways of looking at water.”
As arresting, elegant and memorable as these and many other installations by contemporary artists were, it was art from very long ago that I will remember the most from this trip. I should clarify these installations of Classical art were not a part of the Enwezor’s Biennale. They connected so deeply with Benjamin’s ideas only because this is what was on my mind.
To prove that great Art creates a rupture in time look no further than this haunting figure from 320 B.C. I met him inside the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence where he became the impossible to forget hero of a magnificent show they did on Hellenistic Bronzes. Many of these bronzes were recent finds from shipwrecks or excavations that arrested the ravages of time.
The Boxer at Rest, now in the Museo Nationale Romano, was not buried at sea but instead literally buried and brought back from the dead in 1885 during excavations in Rome near the baths of Constantine.
Seán Hemingway, Curator, Department of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum in NY (where the boxer visited in 2013) writes, “His broken nose and cauliflower ears are common conditions of boxers, probably the result of previous fights, but the way he is breathing through his mouth and the bloody cuts to his ears and face make clear the damage inflicted by his most recent opponent. The muscles of his arms and legs are tense as though, despite the exhaustion of competition, he is ready to spring up and face the next combatant.”
I could not help but stand next to him and gaze into his eyes. His expression so haunting. I felt him thinking thoughts from so many thousands of years ago. In the disturbing silence of stopped time a voice in my head said, “You talkin’ to me? What’re you looking at?”
Leave it to Walter Benjamin to put his finger directly on another very contemporary (and classical) idea. What is it about a work of Art is unique and cannot be duplicated? One of Benjamin’s most famous essays is The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. He writes eloquently about film, photography and Art and ponders what the difference is between a unique work of Art (sometimes in a particular place) and a representation or replica of a work of art created by increasingly sophisticated technology?
I find this fascinating. Most of our interactions with art are now from photographs and reproductions. The original piece, Benjamin claims, has what he calls an “aura” that cannot be duplicated. I think digital reproduction and high definition would certainly have blown Benjamin’s mind but I bet he would say the same thing today. Seeing a work of art, even on film, is not the same as seeing it in the flesh. The difference is a fascinating and subtle thing to explore.
And so they did at the first exhibition of the PRADA Foundation in Milan. The exhibition Serial Classic begins with tiny fragments of ancient bronzes from ancient Olympia – fingers, eyes, feet, hands, genitals, eyelashes and ears. One of the curators, Salvatore Settis, explains, “Scholars estimate between 1,000 and 3,000 bronze statues were on display in Olympia alone. … [but] metal in the Middle Ages was worth more than the works of art. As a result, the artistic heritage of antiquity has been almost entirely lost, and no more than 2 percent remains. Today, scarcely one hundred more or less complete Greek bronzes survive, almost all of which were rediscovered in the past 120 years, often pulled up from the sea millennia after having sunk along with the ships that carried them.
“But, the Romans developed a passion for Greek art and had many copies made of Greek statues which, thanks to their sheer numbers survived better than the original prototypes. The copies give us an idea of what the lost originals looked like, because they were the product of a mechanical, serial process of reproduction. It is in these copies that we can rediscover traces of the originals by great master sculptors (Phidias, Myron, Polyclitus, Praxiteles) mentioned in Greek and Roman sources.”
How perfect is this concept for PRADA that makes its money from the “serial” reproduction of designer originals? Walter Benjamin would have adored this show. Think of it. “reproductions” from the first century B.C.! Leave it to PRADA not to cheap out on more recent copies. The copies they displayed (on the most exquisite lucite platforms ever devised by man) were often “the real deal” from the Capitoline Museum in Rome, Herculanium, The Louvre and other great museums and institutions too numerous to mention.
As if this were not enough, the PRADA Foundation in Venice did a companion show called Portable Classic. This show was all about the collecting of copies of great Classical artistic works from antiquity. Again, the ideas of Walter Benjamin filled me with coincidental wonder. Consider his comments about collecting as quoted and distilled by Andrew Robinson writing for Ceasefire. (It is primarily due to Robinson’s distillations and explanations of Benjamin’s ideas that I found such meaning in Benjamin’s ideas.) Robinson explains, “In the article ‘Unpacking my Library’, Benjamin discusses the relationship of a collector to objects which are collected. Crucially, collecting is about liberating objects from their status as commodities or as instrumental objects for use. Instead, the collector places objects in a kind of magical arrangement. Collecting is thus a way of renewing the world. An object acquired for the collection is ‘reborn’ into it. The collector feels responsible towards the objects, rather than the reverse. Further, the collector comes to life in the objects. A collection exists between order (the arrangement of objects) and disorder (the passion for collecting). It is a passionate phenomenon. Collecting creates a mood of anticipation, and always carry memories from the moments of acquisition.”
The centerpiece of the Portable Classic exhibition was a line of reproductions of the famous colossal Farnese Hercules (now in the famous Archeological Museum in Naples) dating from the third century A.D., signed by Glykon from an original by Lysippos made in the fourth century B.C.
I started at the small end and felt as if I was paging through history in giant clumps of time. I knew they were not in chronological order but it was fascinating to see how this image was interpreted and re-interpreted over the ages. The statues seemed like bookmarks in time. Imagine my surprise when I finally got to what I thought was the actual Farnese Hercules and discovered it too was a copy – a giant sized epoxy replica created only last year!
Finally, Benjamin also has much to say about another love of mine (and probably yours) photography. Not surprising that he would love the way photographs stop time. In his essay, A Short History of Photography, he writes about an early “daguerreotype” self portrait/wedding photo shot by the French photographer, Karl Dauthendey. Benjamin knows that Dauthendey found his wife’s bloody body after she had slit her wrists and therefore filled with the Jetzzeit of the moment, frozen by the new invention of the camera, he muses, “One comes upon the the picture of Dauthendey… from around the time of his wedding, seen with the wife whom one day shortly after the birth of their sixth child he found in the bedroom of his Moscow house with arteries slashed. She is seen beside him here, he holds her; her glance, however, goes past him, directed into an unhealthy distance. If one concentrated long enough on this picture one would recognize how sharply the opposites touch here. This most exact technique [photography] can give the presentation a magical value that a painted picture can never again possess for us. All the artistic preparations of the photographer and all the design in the positioning of his model to the contrary, the viewer feels an irresistible compulsion to seek the tiny spark of accident, the here and now. In such a picture, that spark has, as it were, burned through the person in the image with reality, finding the indiscernible place in the condition of that long past minute where the future is nesting.”
But, ultimately, as we all do, Benjamin sees what he wants to see. It turns out the woman in the photograph is Dauthendey’s second wife. It was his first wife that committed suicide. The death wish he sees is just a projection of Benjamin’s mind, fueled by incomplete facts. Benjamin was moved by the story and the photograph somehow touched a nerve within his own experience. “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Tragically, years later in Spain, Benjamin would also commit suicide so as not to be returned to Nazi persecution in Germany.
As I think about his ideas and I remember the great art I saw on this trip, I am grateful to have such vivid memories, ungoverned by time, that I will never forget.
Until next time, I remain your,