June 8, 2009
For a printable version click War of the Worlds PDF
It’s next time again.
A man in a black suit and tie has landed by parachute in a snow covered mountainous landscape. A roaring wind buffets and violently twists his billowing parachute. He grimaces in pain as he tries to control it before it kills him. Will he survive? On the adjacent screen, a striking woman with long hair in a water logged black coat is almost drowning. The half submerged camera is bobbing with her in the water as she gasps and screams. The water is choppy and treacherous. The loud music (mostly plaintive guitar and deep booming percussion) makes these scenes tense, elegiac, and somehow heroic. Welcome to the 53rd Venice Biennale of Art.
Almost every other year since 1895, the art community, like an invading armada in search of a new world, has voyaged to Venice. This year, a new young director, Daniel Birnbaum, 46, has declared a sort of war of the worlds. “A work of art is more than an object, more than a commodity. It represents a vision of the world, and if taken seriously must be seen as a way of ‘making a world.’” This is his theme: Fare Mundi – "Making Worlds." Over 90 artists in the main exhibition will make their worlds at this years Biennale. They are in a war for your attention. To cover the battlefield over 6,000 journalists have invaded the city. Total attendance is expected to be over 300,000. Venice is well prepared and uniquely situated for this onslaught. Always a crossroads of people and ideas, Venice has seen everything. Nothing surprises her. What I adore the most is new art in an old town, and the old town is well-armed, primped and primed.
See now the newly restored Peggy Guggenheim Museum. The facade has been completely cleaned. Viewing it from a small boat in the middle of the grand canal my friend tells me they had watered the plants on the upper party deck with fertilizer containing copper sulfate. This made ugly green stains all over the white Istrian stone facade of the building. Now the stone is blinding white and looks years younger. But the Peggy Guggenhiem is not the only building refreshed by a face lift. The Palladian church of San Giorgio Maggiore has been polished with money from Prada. The scaffold on the Ducal Palace has been removed. It preens with wonder-of-the-world status. My favorite church here, San Salute, a billowing ship of a building, is now out of restoration and her abundant domes gleam. Even the old customs house, one of the most famous landmarks in the world, The Dogana, has been completely refurbished by Japanese master architect, Tadao Ando, and has become a new contemporary museum funded by the king of the French luxury brands, François Pinault.
Traditionally, the Biennale has been held in specially made gardens (the Giardini) which contain small permanent buildings built in the 1920‘s by the participating countries. In more recent years, as the Biennale has grown, new venues for art are scattered all over the city. This year 70 countries participate with over 40 collateral events. Half the fun, in this palazzo-filled half sunken paradise, is a scavenger hunt as you consult your map to try to discern where the art has been tucked away.
A behemoth military building of legend – the Arsenale has now become a massive gallery of art. Traditionally, this fortress protected and defended all of Venice’s treasures and created her world-renowned fleet. Guarded by a diverse collection of stone lions brought back from the crusades, the Arsenale, at the height of its powers in the 1500s, was a bustling shipbuilding complex of 16,000 workers. They churned out a massive warship every day through perhaps the largest and most audacious assembly line ever constructed. For the next several months, the vast high-ceilinged and brick columned spaces will crank out an endless stream of art enthusiasts. Mostly dressed in black, they come by the thousands to be transformed.
Being here is an overload of the senses. The old city captivates you with a timeless beauty you feel in your bones. Then you enter into the mouth of this international art factory and are slowly chewed and processed by clever artists all of whom want to blow your mind. Some of them assault, some seduce, all are craven for attention.
I think it is fair to say, when the Biennale began over a century ago, art all over the world was easier to recognize. It was often picturesque. It was delivered in a gilded frame and it usually involved the representation of a narrative. I’m thinking of Greek myths or Bible stories. Often the art was judged by how well and convincingly the artist depicted nature. In the 20th century, some artists found it more fun to hide the art. To use the metaphor of this years director, some artists make their world with a handy map and others don’t. Some art sticks out its hand with a smile on its face and seems to say, “It’s so nice to see you. Welcome to my world!” Other artists deliberately put up barriers to keep you at bay. You don’t get in without a visa. It feels more like an airport screening. “Take off your belt and your shoes. Is this your passport? Where is your boarding pass? Take that change out of your pocket. Open your luggage and let me paw through it. What’s wrong with you? You can’t take that bottle of water in here!”
Some art is wide open. Other art is closed and secretive and it is next to impossible to find your way in. Some of it is like a puzzle and too often a one trick pony. Once you get the trick – the mystery evaporates and takes the art along with it.
How appropriate the Biennale’s two major venues here are an arsenal and a garden. One, the Arsenale, was all about protect, defend and attack. The other, the Giardini, was a refreshing green foliage labyrinth promising a playful game of hide and seek. Today, art of all kinds is contained in both and overflows into the rest of the city. The world makers have taken over. Getting lost in Venice takes on a whole new meaning.
What happens to you when you look at art, especially contemporary art? How do you separate the good from the boring? How do you get through security? Do you use a process? Do you have a litmus test? What have you found that is helpful to the rest of us?
There are far too many worlds to explore here and there is much to tell. I will do this Blog in two parts. I feel like Marco Polo. In fact, the artist for the Dutch Pavilion, Fiona Tan, used Marco Polo’s diaries in a large video projection piece. In her installation we watch well made video scenes of exotic Asian treasures as a bored male voice reads Marco Polo’s stream of consciousness memories of his far flung journey. While I liked her projected installations, what caught my eye even more were her small elegant black and white portrait videos. They are made from long anticipated miracles of technology. Thin black wooden frames hang on the wall. The video picture inside on a LCD screen is slowly alive. The technology is invisible. The execution is perfect. They are filled with magic.
The best video, warring for recognition among several hundred here, I would give to the Milanese artist team of Nicolo Massazza and Jacopo Bedogni who call themselves, MASBEDO. The work is described above. It passed all my tests for video art. Is it well made? Is it something I can’t see on TV or in a normal theatre? Does it grab me? Does it in any way astonish? MASBEDO gets A++ on all accounts.
See now the somewhat baroque but curiously processed paintings of another team, Guyton and Walker, based in New York. Their paintings, filled with fruit and op art checkerboards are beguiling smart and fun – a combination I find very sexy.
Maybe its the water logged venue but I adored the giant mollusks of Huang Yong Ping from China. The moody tentacles of these pieces pulled you into a scary water world and slowly engulfed you by their size, their spooky material and their suspense.
Japan’s Miwa Yanagi created a queasy brothel in her exhibition: Windswept Women: The Old Girls’ Troupe. Gigantic black and white photos, of busty strip teasers, tower above you in heavy black ornate frames. They bump and grind and their heavy breasts, in each successive photo, become progressively more distended and grotesque. What starts as an easy seduction has gone completely creepy. Then Miwa delivers a knockout punch. There is a black shrouded yurt over to the side, the size of child’s playhouse. You just know there is a naughty peepshow in there. Voyeur that you are, you have to get down on all fours to peek inside. Inside is a video. What sort of weird Japanese freak show porn will this be? It is a video of a black shrouded yurt (with the troupe inside) scurrying across a white barren landscape like a comical black spider on newly sprouted legs! She did it. She charmed and transformed me. Imagine my delight when the next day Catherine pointed out the entire Japanese pavilion was shrouded in a giant black yurt! How did we miss this? Superb!
I will end part one by inviting you into the larger discussion. This will make part two much more interesting. The problem with writing about this art is it is so “you had to be here.” But isn’t that usually the case with all art? Back to the theme of exploring worlds – how do you prepare for such a journey? This metaphor begs to know your travel style. The humorist Robert Benchley said, “There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.” When it comes to art “voyages” which are you? Do you plan and prepare for a trip or do you just wing it? When you look at art do you let it just wash over you or do you analyze? What hints do you have, especially for the enjoyment of contemporary art, which you find useful? What gives you the most pleasure and what drives you nuts? Where do you draw the line (if you do) and say, “This isn’t art, this is just crap!” In the new art worlds, where the criteria are so much more difficult to define, how do you get your bearings?
I so look forward to your insights.
Until then I remain, happily bewildered and your,