August 16, 2009
For an easy to print version click Living in Memory PDF
It’s next time again.
You gotta love the Biennale. It’s an orgy of creativity. All this art, great and small, was imported to tiny Venice. I love to think about how all this weird and wonderful stuff cleared customs?
Art is supposed to impact you in some way. Isn’t it? It should make some difference in your outlook. If it’s good – it should somehow touch you. With this in mind, and with some trepidation, I beg your indulgence for the second part of the remembrance of the 53rd Biennale. Remembrance is the key. I want to remember these highlights and if I write about them, I will. I realize this is a personal motivation and I will strive to make it as interesting as I can and raise some issues that will hopefully take this beyond a travelogue.
The first issue concerns the idea of memory itself. One of my favorite comments about any Biennale came from my friend Howard Freedman. When some were complaining, a few years ago, that this Biennale was not as great as that Biennale, Howard said, “Sure it is, you just remember all the great stuff from that Biennale. You’ve forgotten about all the crap you saw and you are only remembering the really good parts.” This strikes me as a perceptive truth and it connects to the core of what art is supposed to do. What you “take away” from an art show like the Biennale is only a small part of this larger story.
This idea was further described by the great landscape architect Peter Walker. I interviewed him for a program done about Cleveland Clinic’s new expansion and landscaping which includes a minimal-art-inspired fountain. Peter Walker said his goal was to create a project that would, “Live in memory.” How erudite is that! He was incredibly articulate about this and I feel as though it is a core principal of his art. How significant this idea must particularly be for him since we are surrounded by landscape all the time and yet the medium of his art is to somehow take the everyday landscape and make it special. He said, “We see stuff all the time but much of it is just stuff. It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t stick.”
Do you see the “memory test” as any sort of significant criteria as you evaluate art? It has been a life changer for me. Now I think about this all the time. This is much more than just the aftershocks of “the shock of the new.” What lives in memory may indicate something very elusive and profound about the nature of art. It certainly impacts the fields of advertising and modern politics. I’m extremely curious about what you articulate souls have to say about this? Do you artists think about this (as Peter Walker does) when you create?
For what’s its worth, here is what I remember from this summer’s Biennale as so many artists fought to claim a little piece of memory among the brain clutter.
See now the sprawling swamp of Ms. Lara Favaretto. She lives and works in Treviso which is a handsome town built around a slow river and charming canals. It looks nothing like her work. Lara’s awful garden is hiding in plain sight just outside the China pavilion in the Arsenale. The gardens themselves, in this part of the Arsenale, are overgrown and a bit mysterious. I wouldn’t blame you if you walked right past Ms. Favoretto’s work, after all, you might not have been here before and there is a really good chance you would just assume this part of the garden is in total disrepair and sort of a brackish mess. Not at all. She likes it like that. She imported all this slime! It took a ton of careful work for her to get it to look like something most people would ignore.
She describes her work evocatively: “A graveyard of the missing ones, that holds and hides objects, memorializing such infamously “lost” figures as writer Ambrose Bierce, artist Bas Jan Ader and chess champion Bobby Fisher.”
It’s the rare person who would actually see this art. It is a bog of woes. It speaks to the filters we all use to screen ourselves from ugliness as we stay on the lookout for beauty. I wonder what in the world Peter Walker would think? My gut tells me there is something profound going on. Maybe you can tell me what it is?
I have followed the work of Hans Peter Feldman for several years. He has haunted me from a show he did in New York, where he pinned up tacky color Xeroxes, all the way to Muenster, Germany where he refurbished a public underground toilet with brightly colored tiles and Venetian chandeliers. Hans is one-half trickster, one-half conceptual artist, and wholly unforgettable. The question is, would I have loved his Biennale piece if I had not known it was his? The answer is yes! I loved the piece before I saw his name and when I did, I confess I loved it more. See now turntables filled with esoteric and iconic junk. Marilyn Monroe. The Empire State Building. A toy gun. Gnomes. A plastic clown. A pitchfork. A fake banana. Spotlights shine on the junk-filled slowly spinning turntables and cast a chaotic orgy of shadows. It is simple magic. A flickering shadow puppet of memory.
There is a lot of bad art at a show like this and it can wear you down. You start to wonder if your perceptions have dulled and if your cranky mood is skewing your judgment. At times like these, when you then see something transcendent, your heart just wants to burst. The courage and nobility of the contemporary artist shines bright. Mona Hartoum to the rescue. Take 700 eight foot pieces of barbed wire stretched taught and perfectly straight. Dangle each one vertically, a few inches apart, from a grid in the ceiling until you have a cube eight feet square on all sides. Suspend the cube two feet off the floor. It reminded me of a treacherous forest of birch trees. It was breathtakingly fragile and completely vicious.
Another uplifting and memorable piece was composed from Giocomo Costa’s back lit Sci Fi landscapes. The piece is a hallway of back-illuminated panels titled, Private Garden. It employs the display technology you see in airport advertising. Giocomo lives and works in Florence. Private Garden has the rich texture of Angkor Wat set in an overgrown future.
This incredibly detailed landscape foreshadows a time when electronics and technology no longer function and unbridled nature is in a lengthy process of reclamation. The imagery is part architecture and part rain forest. Saying it is computer generated doesn’t mean it is somehow automated. This is masterful technical painting worthy of a Dutch still life.
Dario Escabar from Guatemala took bicycle tires and, in an orgiastic fit of creative frenzy, strips them lengthwise in half and hung them like gigantic tangled tresses from the 20 foot ceiling of the Arsenale’s stone space. If you’ve ever changed a bicycle tire you know how tough they are and you also know that pungent and distinctive rubber smell. Dario’s installation reeks of it. He slices through the mental clutter with a great idea. His redolent rubber tentacles grab you and won’t let go.
Jan Fabre gets the tenacity prize. I’ve shot large scale installations and I know how much work they are to create. The amount of work and effort which went into these monumental pieces in these soaring monumental spaces is astonishing. I loved the theatricality. You came up a large brick stairway and this gargantuan archeological dig smacked you right in the face. Seeing the artist himself in his black trench coat was a total shock. Don’t walk on the art for god’s sake! Is he real or is he a hyper-realistic manikin?
I don’t know if this art is good or bad. I do know it sticks in my mind. Does that make it great? I don’t think it does. I’m not saying memorability defines great art, I’m saying it is one characteristic. I’m also fascinated by the idea that an artist would consciously use the idea of memorability and attempt to “imprint” their work with this in mind. Jan Fabre seemed to me to be working very hard to accomplish this. Judged only by memorability – he succeeded, but I still have some reservations.
One final piece I have to mention was an orgy on film created by a team from Russia. The team fell in love with a clever quote:
“If somebody says, ’I love you,’ to me, I feel as though I had a pistol pointed at my head”
– Kurt Vonnegut
They used this quote as their mantra and created a wild party of a piece titled: Unconditional Love. This work is really hard to describe. Let me quote from the press release.
(Tatyana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky, Vladimir Fridkes) Russian, live in Moscow
Unconditional Love will feature the premiere of The Feast of Trimalchio, a new video project by the Moscow-based collective AES+F. The work updates and abstracts the story of the Roman plutocrat Trimalchio from Petronius’ Satyricon, transposing the orgies of masters and servants to the setting of a modern-day luxury hotel. The Asian maids perform services for their white male clients, and then the clients return them the favours. The loop of reciprocity suggests the frozen temporality of glamour, where only the present moment of youth, beauty, and hedonistic pleasure is valid. The Feast of Trimalchio caresses the contours of ephemeral passion, and in doing so it throws into relief the profundity of unconditional love.
I loved this piece because it was so well made. So much video art is slapped together and badly done. Many of the video installations in this year’s Biennale only worked for the first week and then broke down. It was a professional thrill to see an installation so artfully constructed. Unconditional Love surrounded and smothered you with competence. It was like a finely photographed Prada billboard come to life. It was perhaps too slick, maybe it was too self consciously fashionable, but it certainly was not boring. It put you inside a voyeuristic orgy of sight of sound with eight channels of Dolby Digital audio (expensive speakers blaring Tchaikovsky) and super high quality High Definition video projected on to theater quality curved screens. You sat on the floor in this theater in the round. It was sensuously made, wondrous and never to be forgotten.
As my friend Henry Adams muses – the artists in the 53rd Biennale created “meditations on Beauty, Danger, and Serenity.” Henry is an Art Historian and he likes to use the word instinctual as he describes the nature of art. He connects something powerful, something archetypal in the Jungian sense, with the power of Art to tap into the innate urges of our collective past. He believes the pre-historic cave paintings (which he has actually seen and not just read about) demonstrate an evolutionary survival mechanism of jaw-dropping force: imagination. What concerns me is how and why some art jangles this nerve and some art does not? By what primordial magic does art stick in your mind and yet become more than just a token souvenir?
Until next time with much love, I remain your,