June 23, 2013
It’s next time again.
I don’t know about you, but I like art that thrills me. This does not have to happen all at once. It does not have to shock. It does not have to hit me over the head. But I like art that is enticing. I like art that mysteriously attracts my attention. I like it when the first impression contains a little tingle of anticipation, almost like a barely perceptible whiff of expensive perfume. All of sudden, and often you don’t really know why, your senses are put on high alert and some part of you feels as though something wonderful is about to happen. I like it when, under scrutiny, one good thing in the art leads to another. Perhaps I like it the most when, the more I find out about it, the more I like it.
This begs the question, “What turns you on about Art?” What do you like and why do you like it? I realize this sounds like a great pickup line so, if you’re ready and are feeling a bit adventurous, let’s get out of here and go someplace fun. I know a place I think you’ll like.
The Venice Biennale is an orgy of art. There is too much to see. You need to damp down your senses. If you love art, you have to pace yourself because your perceptions can quickly be overwhelmed. There is so much eye candy it inevitably turns into a binge. After a while you stumble along feeling bloated and dissipated. This was particularly true this year since the exhibition contained twice the number of artists as in years past; over 150 artists from 88 countries. Instead of trying to cover them all, I thought I would focus your attention on just one.
My most satisfying experience of the Biennale was not unexpected. The retro girl with the camera photo was sent out in a press release over a month ago. I had been looking forward to seeing what the artist had done. There is something about this photograph that is very intriguing and innocently sexy. Perhaps it is the tan gloves, or the teased hair, or more likely the vintage camera, but I look at this picture and I sense a back story and want to find out more. I am delighted to report I did.
The Slovenian pavilion of Jasmina Cibic (even her name is charming) is titled, “For Our Economy & Culture.” It is located in a gallery space in a narrow alley near the Palazzo Grassi. This space is unusual in Venice because it has huge floor to ceiling windows next to the front door. This sort of modernity is rare. From the outside, what you saw through the windows was so banal it betrayed nothing of the fascinating installation inside. All you saw was a grouping of oil paintings depicting flowers.
These were not of the sort of photographically-detailed Dutch still life paintings on black backgrounds that stop your heart with their drama and realism. Rather, they were old fashioned boring flower paintings you would see at a garage sale or in a fusty British bed and breakfast. There was nothing interesting about them. Even though my senses were on high alert, she tricked me with those boring paintings. The fact that they were hanging on a wallpapered wall in the foyer made them float away in your peripheral vision. Anxious to step further inside, I walked right by them (as perhaps visitors were supposed to do) without giving them a second thought. More on their significance in a minute.
Unlike every other small outlying pavilion I had been in that day, the girl minding the installation greeted me with a beckoning smile and seemed actually happy to see me. Her welcoming face was all the more pleasant to see after the grumpy, hungover, scowls I had received all morning. I complimented her manners and her attitude and she said in a British accent that she hated being treated poorly in art galleries and then quickly apologized for the fact that while the film downstairs was working fine, the one upstairs was sadly not working at this time. I mumbled, “Maybe I can help” sort of like Sean Connery in the Michael Crichton film, Rising Sun. On prearranged cue, when his co-star Wesley Snipes gives the signal, Connery steps forward and says, “Perhaps I can be of assistance.” She eagerly escorted me upstairs and I felt quite the hero of the moment about to rescue pretty docents in distress.
Upstairs, an attractive girl in a black dress greeted me with wide beseeching eyes, as her colleague explained I was there to help. Their attitude was refreshing. They really cared. They knew thousands of hours by many people went into the installation and the fact that it was not working was offensive to their professionalism. The technical set up was thankfully simple. A little Mac mini computer fed a small projector and a small DVD player that was being used to route audio to some wireless headphones. Not intimidating if I left the projector alone. First step was to re-boot the mac mini and in spite of the fact that the girl in the black dress said she had done that a couple of times, for once I had the magic touch. The reboot put the video back up on the screen where it belonged. The audio, however, was still not working. We moved the viewing bench over so I could get up high enough to work on the audio and after about ten minutes I finally figured out the problem. From their grateful reaction you would have thought I’d split the atom.
Anxious to repay me, the girl in the black dress offered coffee and I gratefully accepted and sat down to watch a film I had been looking forward to seeing for months. It did not disappoint.
The upstairs film is more intimate than the one below. The film begins in a small boat on a placid lake and then becomes a walking tour of an elegant government house surrounded by a forest and garden. The film consists of a dialog between a journalist, and one of the architects you saw in the film downstairs. They discuss art and architecture and the proper roles for both in official buildings. She probes with intelligent questions. He gives thoughtful answers peppered with political meaning. There is a flirtatious subtext but it is hidden under a façade of formality and professional duty. The film is both thoughtful and amusing. By the time it is over you feel happy and relaxed but your mind is hungry to find out more.
After thoroughly enjoying the upstairs video, I went down to watch the one downstairs. The British girl sat next to me on the bench and then went into a fascinating explanation of the entire installation. She just poured forth information. There was something almost pent up about her explanation. She had clearly done her homework and now had a receptive ear.
Installation art has an itinerary just like a building. There is usually a sequence of experiences and it is most engaging when these build seductively from one to the next. In Jasmina’s installation, the first room held the boring oil paintings and then you parted wispy elegant curtains to get into the room with the first film. There is a nice bench for you to sit on (covered in the same wallpaper) and this is sort of built into the wall. The film is high quality and the sound is good. You come into the film mid-scene. A group of architects and art historians are having a friendly but passionate argument about choosing appropriate artwork for an official government building. Their clothes and manner indicate the scene is happening in the past. They speak in English but it is formal and a bit stilted. Turns out all the dialog is taken verbatim from an official 1957 meeting transcript from the archives of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. When you find this out you have a bit of an “aha moment.” The politics of their opinionated discussion starts to overwhelm the aesthetics. The film becomes even more charming because now it is laced with historic context and irony.
The downstairs film doesn’t really have a plot. The discussion just goes on and on like every other bureaucratic meeting you ever attended. When you have had enough you climb the nearby stairs. Every surface is covered in the wallpaper. At first you don’t even notice but upon closer examination you see that the understated grey pattern is made out of bugs.
The wallpaper design depicts a special and unique beetle found in a Slovenian cave in the late 1930s. The discoverer was allowed to name the species and decided on the provocative name:Anophthalmus Hitleri. The bug was named for a man he greatly admired, Adolph Hitler! Once a species is officially named, it can’t be changed.
I also learned, with extraordinary attention to detail, Jasmina Cibic had commissioned scientific illustrators to draw the Hitler beetle. More than thirty entomological artists were given the commissions but they could not work from previous illustrations. They had to work in a purely scientific way. These drawings were then combined into the wallpaper pattern that was also reproduced on the sheer draperies. Every surface in the installation except the floor and the ceiling was covered in this pattern. After you know this, what was once innocuous, now feels foreboding. Your perception has been transformed and now it feels as though the spirit of Hitler permeates the atmosphere and infests the space.
This begs the question, and I would love to hear your opinions, how much should you have to know before you can properly experience the art? I think the answer is, “not much.” The challenge for the artist is to first attract your attention and then lure you into an investigation. If you have to read a manifesto before you become intrigued, then probably the art is not working for you. The process works best when it is less like doing homework and more like dancing the tango.
Anxious to further repay me for helping to fix the installation, the British girl gifted me with a heavy roll of the wallpaper and a catalog of the installation. She also explained the oil paintings in the foyer are actually from the National Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia! They were removed from people’s offices and loaned to the exhibition. The irony is, this is what the people in both films are arguing about. What art should be included in an official building to properly represent the country’s culture? How should this art be displayed? Brilliant questions for a Biennale. To discover these humdrum paintings of flowers were officially chosen, sanctioned, and displayed in the Slovenian Parliament building transformed them into a very droll expression of “our history and culture.”
It no big stretch to apply the word seduction to this project. Jasmina is a very smart and enticing artist. She set her installation in a former residence and transformed the space into a bedroom. You part long, elegant sheer curtains to enter these rooms. They are dark and restful. The pillow talk is intellectual but some of us like it like that.
Why does some art beckon you with a come hither smile and whisper, “find out more about me,” and other art give you the cold shoulder? This is about more than accessibility. It’s about experience and meaning. Seduction is fun. So is good art. It is fine to pretend that it is all about the journey, but if you fundamentally do not care about your destination, the stress of travel seems to last forever and it is hard for you to forget your trip may be pointless. If you think your time is valuable, it seems stupid to waste it by going somewhere boring. The trip (like seduction) is so much more exciting when it is filled with the anticipation of someplace (or someone) fascinating.
It is clear Jasmina Cibic seduced me. I loved it. But this raises the question of what are the artist’s goals and what are your goals as you look at art? I’m looking for an experience. I’m looking for interaction with the artist and a shared journey. Many artists are not interested in this sort of byplay and this does not make them bad, it just makes them more difficult to appreciate. I’m interested in art because I’m interested in beauty, but obviously art is more than a beauty contest. I don’t know how you feel or what you are looking for, but I have found another way I evaluate art, and its effects. I learned this insight from an interview with the Landscape Architect, Peter Walker. He said he strives for art that will “live in memory.” I find this idea very useful and apply it to all sorts of experiences.
For example, I also had the chance to see an exhibition on filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni at the Palazzo Diamante, in his hometown of Ferrara. I won’t go into all the details except to say many people find his films difficult because they don’t really have traditional plots. He said he is not particularly interested in telling stories with “beginnings, middles and ends.” This makes him really difficult for many people, especially Americans, who grew up with television. When you stop and think about it, almost everything you see on TV, and especially the commercials, are all about beginnings, middles and ends.
I wanted more information about Antonioni, so I got on the web. In the comments section of many websites, people said, “I didn’t really like this film at all. It was really slow and pretty boring and I couldn’t really figure out what was going on but then I found myself thinking about the film days later so I went back and watched it again. It is really good! Now it is one of my favorite movies.” I’m not sure we can ask a whole lot more from an artist. I can’t wait to go back and experience the Jasmina Cibic installation again. She is vividly living in my memory and because her art is multi-layered and complex she, like Antonioni, has seduced me in ways that are not superficial.
In the context of the 55th Venice Biennale, one other really important thing needs to be said about seduction. It can quickly lead to obsession.
Obsession is a major theme of this Biennale. The young curator of the 55th Biennale is Maximiliano Gioni (39). He titled the 55th Venice Biennale, “The Encyclopedic Palace“ Here is how he described his theme:
“…throughout history, artists, writers, scientists and self-proclaimed prophets have pursued the impossible dream of universal knowledge. The representation of the invisible is a central theme of the show, illustrated by painters and mystics of the early 20th century and by young contemporary artists.
In the spaces of the Arsenale the exhibition is organized as progression from natural to artificial forms, loosely following the typical layout of cabinets of curiosities: here, the exhibition composes a catalog of encyclopedias and exceptions that leads the viewer from studies of nature to reflections on the role of images in contemporary digital culture. Following the personal cosmologies, the exhibition examines the role of images, the functions of the imagination, and the realms of the imaginary, and in so doing questions what room is left for dreams, visions, and hallucinations in an era besieged by external images.”
I had the chance to walk around Venice with a charming and sophisticated poet on this trip and he provided a drop dead insight, “I’m bored with art that is obsessive.” By this, he implied the idea that art should contain more than just obsession. He went on to say that artists sometimes develop a highly personal language and the more obsessive they become this language can become something only they can hear. His brilliant observation became a “lens” through which I saw all the art in the show that played with this theme. Yes, there is no question, when you look at a lot of this art you are blown away by all the hard work and sometimes you are blown away by all the somewhat creepy obsessive compulsive behavior. Sometimes as you look at a collection of 5,000 whatchamacallits you feel as though only a psychologist would be really interested in all this evidence of mental illness.
When you first see all the carefully framed and hung panels of R. Crumb’s Illustrated Bible filling a gigantic room and then you examine one of the pages and see all of it’s amazing pen and ink detail, it is hard not to be blown away by all the hard work. It is hugely impressive. With many of the other artists’ obsessive private journeys, you just shake your head and moan.
One thing is obvious. The borderlines between seduction and obsession and compulsion and repulsion and art and genius and mental illness are often exceedingly thin. These boundaries, like the intimate art of seduction itself, are also extremely personal.
Until next time with much love I remain your,