June 27, 2011
A few years ago I made a promise to myself. I would no longer stay in hotel rooms in which I would be ashamed to die. I’m pretty sure this was not an original thought but I don’t remember who came up with that delightfully clever phrase. So what has this got to do with the 2011 Venice Biennale? Read on and I’ll try to explain.
This year, like every year, the art in Venice is a mixed bag. You wander through the two main venues and you always find something you like and occasionally find something you really love. As you probably already know, the two main venues are the Arsenale (a massive, gorgeous series of buildings from the 14th or 15th centuries where Venice’s legendary mercantile vessels and warships were constructed. The buildings alone make you gasp and are always a pleasure to see) and the Giardini where, for over a hundred years now, countries from all over the world have made little art pavilions in a large scale Venetian garden and have filled them with the best new talent and art their cultures can produce. This, at least, is the noble aspiration.
But Venice gives you even more. All over the city are additional installations, sometimes in fabulous, usually closed, palazzi. It is a giant scavenger hunt. There is always the small victory of finding the place, and often a larger joy in seeing a building or a neighborhood you never knew existed. These buildings by themselves are often a marvelous discovery. You enter closed gardens where the intricate wrought iron gate is actually open and you can see what treasures bloom behind those old stone walls.
You climb terrazzo stairways going up and up and up, to fabulous views of the city.Dappled sunlight reflects off the water through leaded pale pink windows. You discover threadbare rugs; beamed ceilings untouched since Canaletto’s time with the faintest tracery of gilt-painted scroll work; rococo plaster moldings; gigantic dust-dimmed Murano glass chandeliers; musty canal level entry ways and old somewhat lumpy panes of glass filtering that molto famoso Venetian light.
So, if by chance you get to see some bad, or fair, or fun, or sometimes good and occasionally great new works of art, you feel as though you won the lottery. It is always a pleasure and on rare occasions it is something transcendent. Now there are Art Biennales all over the world, but Venice remains perhaps the best of them and much of this has to do with the timeless beauty of the city itself. More on this in a moment.
This year in Venice, many young artists have discovered a new and fascinating art supply and they are using it with abandon – packing tape. Miles and miles of it binds the Swiss Pavilion together. It adheres to Australia. It cobbles together Brazil and it even stars on TV in sticky High Definition glory. So what does this have to do with my admonition to myself up there about Hotel rooms? Well, I learned something very important about myself at this year’s Biennale. (If an Art show does not provoke self inquiry than it has not really done its job.) I have learned that I usually don’t like Art that is pieced together with packing tape. Call it a personal preference.
This newly learned aesthetic preference is just like another prejudice I have developed from trial and error; I usually do not like hotels where you can’t remove the hanger from the clothes pole in the closet. I don’t know about you, but I always find that annoying. It indicates the hotel management does not trust me. I’m sure there are exceptions to this, but, if I find those annoying stuck-to-the-rail hangers, it is a red flag that I had better not die in this hotel. In a similar way, when I see packing tape in an Art installation, I have already given the artist a cranky critical demerit and I’m usually not in the mood to look for artistic illumination lurking underneath the oh-so-deliberate trash.
Don’t get me wrong. I like deconstruction. I think Frank Gehry’s rough edges and Robert Rauschenberg’s “Combines” are brilliant. I’ve made films about these ideas. I can easily see, “The Beauty of Damage.” I’m not saying Art made with packing tape is not Art. I’m just saying I don’t usually like it. For me, Art made without craft or with a deliberate and self conscious resemblance to trash bears a heavy load. Let me give you a couple of examples because I’m wrestling with the issue in my own mind and before I mentally check out of this hotel with the unremovable hangers, your insights will be greatly appreciated.
The Swiss Pavilion by Thomas Hirschhorn is a good example of what one writer called “glorified trash.” Obsessive compulsive chaos, hard work, but (for me) no liftoff. No magic. Feckless. No insight. No transformation. Obvious and plain in its depressing motives. Valid? Of course. Some knowledgeable friends said it was “deep.” Other knowledgeable friends said it was high-school-level thinking; “War is bad! Wow, What a concept!” This installation, both physically and metaphorically, is hanging on by its fingernails. One acquaintance working there says, “They send me out for more ‘Scotch’ (what Italians call sticky tape) every day!” I’ve come to the conclusion that this is just not anything I choose to explore. (Which is actually not true because I have spent a lot of time and energy thinking about this.) I have learned if I get really turned off by an artist, that there is probably something there. That sense of irritation and disgust means they found a button and are pushing it. So, I did my homework. I visited and then I read the entire artist statement about the Swiss pavilion and visited again. Still no buzz. My knowledgeable friends who also found little glory in the trash, felt the artist statement was wonderfully articulate about the aspirations he totally failed to achieve. This makes it worse in a way. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my internal reaction and I’ve concluded that, for me – this is a blind alley. I am left with the irritation of not being able to remove that coat hanger and no matter how hard I try, I just can’t find it charming or even interesting. For me – it just doesn’t work.
Hong Kong Frogtopia, by Chinese performance artist, Kwok Mang-ho, (aka Frog King) is at the other end of the trash art spectrum. It has a potent positive core. He recreated his studio in all its trashy glory. You just have to smile. It is slapdash and deliberately goofy and all of it was made really quickly and with little polish. It feels like graffiti with a heart of gold. Now it is much easier to love something so joyful than it is to love something depressing. But, for me, Frogtopia communicated its fun very directly and quite effectively. All the people working there were having a blast and their energy was charming, infectious and memorable. Just because something like the Swiss Pavilion is depressing doesn’t, for me, make it more significant.
You could argue Frogtopia is lightweight so it soars more easily. But if part of your point is a reverse aesthetic (think a Duchamp urinal) then it might be even more courageous to find the unlikely surprise of joy in trash rather than the much more obvious unease and self evident ugliness.
Blogging about all this stuff is very frustrating for me because all of this is by its nature subjective and it is really hard to involve you in the discussion. So much of this art loses so much in translation that the attempt to describe it authentically is exhausting.“ You had to see it” is such a terrible cop-out, that you might legitimately start to question the power of what was seen. Let me give you a really specific example.
You read about the American pavilion right? It was all over the place. Huge kudos go to the Indianapolis Museum of Art for sponsoring this project. Wow! Did they get their money’s worth. They did more for their reputation and brand with this one triumph than most sleepy museums achieve in decades of academically classy shows. I read all about this project involving performance, sculpture and Olympic level athletes before I left the states. I was utterly bored by the concept. The photos I saw were underwhelming. Even the artist statements I read did not perk my interest at all. So why am I telling you about this? One simple reason; it was among the best things I’ve ever seen at the American pavilion! Finally a sense of humor. This project really cut through the clutter and, in Landscape Architect’s Peter Walker’s unforgettable phrase which, for him, defines what he tries to do with his art; this piece will unquestionably, “live in memory.” Why? The execution was superb.
I venture to say you have never seen a fully operational tank lying on its back belching diesel and making more racket than a Mack truck. On top an Olympic runner runs a treadmill. In concept and description and even in photographs it sounds sort of loony; in the flesh it was unforgettable.
In closing, I’d like to go back to perhaps the most important thing about the Venice Biennale which may be Venice itself. The fact that this art fair happens here is the one big reason I think it is the best in the world. This year’s curator, Bice Curiger, tried to make this point (I think) in the main entry space to the International pavilion in the Giardini. She hung three masterpieces by Tintoretto (1518 – 1594), one of the most important 16th century Venetian Renaissance painters. Because of the way she did it, you sort of have the reaction – huh? If you hang paintings this valuable you have to have lots of security, creating long lines. This was a really great idea poorly executed.
Her concept for the entire Biennale was Illumination and Tintoretto is a perfect example of this. But to hang three gorgeous Renaissance paintings in a white room and proudly claim, “voila – Illumination!” is facile and did not work for me at all. In one stroke, she managed to trivialize both Tintoretto and the Biennale. If your goal is Illumination, why not give the Tintorettos a dark space and some respectful presentation and some mystery? They were hung just like everything else (sort of like poster art) and they were the real deal. Was this her clever point? Were the guards part of her “performance?” Maybe this could have worked in Miami but here in Venice? You can wander over to the Scuola San Rocco and see so many Tintorettos (in a gorgeous setting for which they were painted) it makes your head spin.
Part of the goal is what sticks in memory without the need for packing tape. So, after all this glut of Contemporary Art, and wandering around this gorgeous city to search it out, what (besides the U. S. Pavilion) will I always remember about this year’s Venice Biennale? The superbly crafted video “The Clock” by Christian Marclay which is so well done that you will undoubtedly have a chance to see it. And the refreshingly simple but unforgettable installation of perfumed air at the China Pavilion. I also need to mention two vastly different exhibitions in the outlying venues.
The first was in an excellent show at Palazzo Grassi. This piece truly has to be seen to be appreciated but David Claerbout has created a haunting video masterpiece by combining over 900 photographs of a single moment into a 40 minute extended montage of pure joy. This piece is not new and will surely make the International rounds so I hope you have the pleasure of seeing it.
The second exhibition, at the newly restored Palazzo Grimani, examines three masterpieces by another Venetian Renaissance painter, Paolo Veronese (1528–1588). O Dio! This was so amazing, I almost cried. The ceiling paintings from the church of San Sebastiano (where Veronese is buried) were just restored by Save Venice. While the church itself is being restored, they hung these huge, incredibly impressive, canvases on specially constructed easels at the serenely beautiful Palazzo Grimani. The opportunity to get so close to something normally seen from 30 feet away was jaw dropping. Gazing close up at Paolo Veronese’s beatific vision of the coronation of this legendary beauty is a metaphor for the glorification of the city itself. Fredrick Ilchman, curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, explains it much better than I ever could.
“The exhibition offers the once-in-a-lifetime occasion to examine Veronese’s ceiling canvases at the same distance the painter enjoyed as he created them. Following the treatment sponsored by Save Venice Inc., the paintings appear far closer to the artist’s intentions than they had for more than a century. These fully autograph paintings show Veronese at a new level of mastery and should be seen as a watershed in the development of the Venetian ceiling. This exhibition allows us to be present at Paolo’s breakthrough.”