Having recently returned from the art bun-fest that is the Venice Biennale, two main things strike me the quantity of surrealism on display and, as evidenced in the Russian and British pavilions, the importance of souvenirs.
I was pleasantly surprised by the selection on offer at the main exhibition hall in the Giardini from this year’s curator Massimiliano Gioni, which contained a large degree of outsider art to illustrate this year’s theme – The Encyclopedic Palace.
The inspiration behind this being the work of Italo-American self-taught artist Marino Auriti who, in the 1950s, conceived of an imaginary museum that was meant to house all worldly knowledge, bringing together the greatest discoveries of the human race, from the wheel to the satellite. Sadly Auriti did not live to see the invention of the Internet & the World Wide Web, which his ideas seem to presage. His large model for the museum was exhibited in the Arsenale and contains quotes offering good advice written around the outside of the building, in letraset (Watch that you don’t become greedy with your profits is my favourite, see pic above).
Given the theme, it was a unfortunate that Massimiliano Gioni chose not to confront the reality of contemporary life by including art that addresses information and communications technology nor be informed by the increasingly virtual lives we now live on-line, through social networking, etc. The only piece with reference to this (and it was an historic one) was a video montage of work by Stan Vanderbeek at the end. Included within this were pioneering early computer-generated film clips, although from the explanatory panels the audience wouldn’t have known this. Apart from this failing, there were many things to admire here and new names to discover, much of it historic. I have had to rein myself in and show only a small selection.
On view was a selection of 176 models, from Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser, The 387 Houses of Peter Fritz (1916- 1992) Insurance Clerk from Vienna. These intricately detailed models of a wide variety of vernacular architecture were discovered wrapped in garbage bags in a junk shop by the artist Oliver Croy, presumably left there on the death of their creator Peter Fritz. Little is known of Fritz, but he must have spent years working on these constructions using cardboard, matchboxes, wallpaper, foil and other everyday materials.
For the British pavilion, Jeremy Deller’s English Magic examined the notion of what Englishness might mean in the 21st-century by showing an eclectic variety of objects (and a film), some old (like ancient axe heads from the Museum of London), some made especially for this show and controversial, like the giant hawk and Range Rover mural (seen here), an ironic reference to an alleged incident of the shooting of a rare bird by Prince Harry (another work on this theme was pulled).
It was clear that Deller is really more of a curator than a maker, but it was none the worse for that. He also served tea and gave visitors a chance to print (or at least rubber-stamp) their own souvenir. Various bags, posters, books and a vinyl record of the music of the Melodians Steel Orchestra from South London (featured in his film) were available to buy as souvenirs. This show will be coming to Turner Contemporary in Margate next year.
The Russians also produced a souvenir, but only women were allowed to collect it. The artist Vadim Zakharov focused on the ancient Greek myth of Dana , the mother of Perseus by Zeus. Thousands of specially made golden coins rained down in their pavilion (the falling shower of gold referencing the seduction of Dana as an allegory for human desire and greed, but also to the corrupting influence of money). Women visitors, equipped with umbrellas to protect from the torrent of metal coins, were encouraged to collect them up and deposit them in a shoot, thus recycling them back into the artwork. As such, we guarantee the flow of material goods as an ongoing process as the blurb put it.
Gold might have been in abundance in Russia, but Spain showed their disgust with the current state of the economy by filling their pavilion almost entirely with a giant pile of rubble (and no doubt saving themselves money by not having to get special coins minted).
Among offsite projects, the highlight was famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s S.A.C.R.E.D, located in the beautiful setting of Sant Antonin church. Six large, heavy, Donald Judd-like bronze containers filled the space dramatically; inside each one a tableau depicting Mr Ai’s 81 day incarceration at the hands of his government in 2011. The installation was reportedly built in Korea to the artist’s direction, as Mr Ai is currently being kept by force in Beijing. Yes, it was very literal, but it did serve to remind us of the importance of Ai Weiwei keeping his profile high therefore a spot at the Biennale was an absolute must for this dissident artist to protect himself from a Chinese government who is not sure quite what to do with him, but knows that the world is watching. Visitors to the show, looking through the peepholes in the boxes, acted as witnesses to crimes against the individual. It was not too difficult to draw parallels with The Stations of the Cross, a Catholic ritual where a prayer is said in front of icons depicting each act against Christ as he is led to his death. Let us hope that this does not prove a portent for Ai Weiwei.
The 54th Venice Biennale (titled ILLUMInations get it?!) is, as to be expected vast but manages to be largely underwhelming, full as it is of found objects, re-positioned, a la Duchamp. However there are some gems to be uncovered spread around the city, if your feet can take the seemingly unending strain.
The prize for Best Artist, rightly in my opinion, went to Christian Marclay for The Clock, 2010 (previously shown in London). The artist has made a composite of film clips that show clocks and watches; he runs these in real time so if it’s 3.30 pm we might see a clip starring, let’s say, Tom Hanks’ acting in a film in which the fictional time is 3.30; a minute later we might see Nicholas Cage (from a different film) looking at his watch and it’s 3.31. The artist must have used literally thousands of clips from old, middling and current movies; some last a few seconds, others maybe a minute. As an artwork it works on several different levels: It is incredibly seductive to watch. And fun to try and spot the films from which his clips are taken. Marclay also manages to run a loose narrative people from several different films clips run up stairs, for example, or it rains for several minutes in a couple different clips. Even people who don’t like art seem to love it. The time involved to produce this, not to mention the skill, is seriously impressive. Can we please have a DVD, so we can watch the entire 24 hours at home?
Here are some more of my highlights:
The Japanese pavilion displays animation by Tabaimo (Ayako Tabata) a young artist inspired by traditional floating world woodblock illustration and contemporary manga imagery. The result is an imaginary city invaded by a creeping sense of unease; at one point a hair-like mass takes over the city a subversion of her inspirations, but a work that still manages a pleasing aesthetic.
At the Guggenheim Collection (the former home of American art dealer-patron Peggy Guggenheim), is a show of New York dealer/curator Ileana Sonnabend. A delicate Sol LeWitt wall drawing joins a host of other exquisite things collected by Sonnabend during the 60s and 70s, all of which have a connection with Venice (where she too had a home). Wonderful to see this historic stuff exhibited in the same city as the cutting-edge Biennale art, but makes me wonder if we’ll pay to see the work of today displayed in 40 years time.
Apart from the official exhibitions, many other Venice museums and institutions mount shows during the months of the Biennale. To my mind one of the most rewarding of these for the art lover is at the Palazzo Fortuny (entitled TRA. Edge of Becoming). Here on view is a wonderful kinetic art work by Davide Boriani (b. 1936) from the early 60s Superficie magnetica. It consist of tiny metal filaments encased in a clear disc, a hidden magnet rotates behind that moves the grey filaments around creating intriguing patterns. This is just the sort of thing, with its connotations of entropy, that pioneering cybernetic artists would have found fascinating.
Here are rooms full of a wide variety of art and objects from a range of periods and locations collected by the Fortuny family over many years which presumably they lived with and loved, displayed to great effect in a palace which is currently under restoration. What makes this such a marvellous place to visit is not only the opportunity to glimpse a collector’s mindset they were clearly attracted to the weird, the surreal, light and optical illusions (including a James Turrell light installation), but also the manner in which diverse objects are put together with much thought and care as to placement and ideas (a whole floor is devoted to the concept of doorways). An interesting comparison can be made with the Francois Pinault collection on view at Ponta Della Dogana at the end of the Grand Canal. Here we have a fabulously wealthy collector who appears to have bought, almost as if from a catalogue, one of each of the most famous and bankable contemporary post-pop artists (Hirst, Charles Ray, Jeff Koons, etc). This is not to do down these artists particularly, nor indeed the beautiful restoration of the former Venice customs house that houses it all, but the collection clearly lacks that idiosyncratic, personal touch of artwork acquired over a lifetime, that tells us of the collector and makes a collection like the Fortuny so memorable.
But the best thing so seen so far at this year’s Biennale is an exhibition entitled Penelope’s Labour: Weaving Words and Images at the Giorgio Cini Foundation on San Giorgio Maggiore (the same island that hosted last Biennale’s wonderful Peter Greenaway digital installation). This thoughtful and beautifully-curated show explains the importance of the Jacquard Loom, especially in relation to contemporary tapestry art. I particularly like the apt quote from Ada Lovelace to Charles Babbage (from 1843), printed up on one wall which arguably marks the beginning of the digital age.
Alongside antique tapestries are displayed works by British artists Marc Quinn and Grayson Perry, whose Walthamstow Tapestry, (following the example of the Bayeux piece) tells an ironic story of 21st Century consumerist life in Britain and is a magnificently witty contribution to contemporary art that deserves to be put on display somewhere permanently. (I hear some of his work is heading for display at the British Museum later this year, maybe this work will make it?) Perry is a consummate draughtsman and this fine work does justice to a skill sadly too often overlooked in avant-garde contemporary art. Here is a blind Guggenheim being led by a guide dog – Sotheby’s: