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Loris Gréaud, Does The Angle Between Two Walls Have a Happy Ending?, 2013.

 The 55th Venice Biennale

by Deanna Sirlin

The Venice Biennale has always been a kind of delight for me, a time to travel to the beautiful city of Venice to immerse myself in contemporary art in the water-based place where so much art was both conceived and born.

The North American team from The Art Section arrives in Venice on Sunday, earlier than most of the art critics, but we are only a small team and we wish to meet up with our correspondents from Europe to decide who will be writing about what, deadlines, photos and the rest. 

So on Day One, we do not yet have access to the Biennale but many collateral exhibitions are about to open. We begin at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia with an installation by Jacob Hashimoto hung from the ceiling of this attic space are almost 10,000 elliptical kites. The work, Gas Giant, is all lightness and air, with delicate drawings and primary color swatches filling the space. I had seen Jacob’s work thirteen years ago at Studio La Città in Verona where his dealer, Hélène de Franchis, had introduced me to it. I must say I was dismayed to see that his work has not developed much in the past decade. We met the American artist, who acknowledged his good fortune to be invited to create installations in places like this. He seemed happy with the installation and he told us about his new New York dealer, Mary Boone. He also told us about his seven assistants who glue and paint and wire to the many modular pieces. Jacob Hashimoto is indeed charming and charmed, all the more so because he readily acknowledges his success. I only wish all this promise would take off in some way.

Robert Motherwell, View from a High Tower, 1944-45. Photo: Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a small jewel of a museum, is across the canal and we take the vaporetto or waterbus. The garden of the museum is cool and green with many sculptures that I love, especially the Jenny Holzer benches, which are ageing well. The texts seem more poignant than ever.  But we are here to see Robert Motherwell’s early collages. I had been working in collage all year without giving Motherwell a nod, and here are works from 1944. The works are where Motherwell claims he found his identity. I have always thought certain works from this period were very significant to him especially in his color, the ochre and grayed out cerulean blue that really come into play so brilliantly in this exhibition. I think of these colors as belonging to Motherwell; he reinvented them in these collages. The presence, quality and opacity of the oil paint on the paper and the physical sense of these works are very strong.

Next on our agenda is the Pinault Collection at Punta della Dogana, a beautiful space filled with troubling works of art in an exhibition titled Prima Materia. Okay, so with that title you can do anything you want. Anyway, this show sort of gave me an early morning headache because the juxtaposition of particular works seems like a forced dialogue rather than a natural conversation. For instance, Sherrie Levine’s beautiful clear glass skulls each in its own exquisite vitrine were nearby an installation of searing bright white light by Loris Gréaud, Does The Angle Between Two Walls Have a Happy Ending?, 2013, while in the next gallery were some big juicy landscape paintings by Zeng Fanzhi. At 98 1/2 × 413 7/10 inches, This Land so Rich in Beauty no.1, 2010, is a huge work that blends Western ideas of oil painting With eastern ideas of fluidity and landscape. These are three of many quite fabulous works of art in the show, but they do not have much in common.

Sherrie Levine, Crystal Skull, 2010.

Seeking an antidote, we make our way over to the Prada Foundation, which is a bit difficult to find, but we manage with a gelato stop. The exhibition When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013 curated by Germano Celant “in dialogue with Thomas Demand and Rem Koolhaas,” is a reconstruction of Live in Your Head. When Attitudes Become Form, curated by Harald Szeemann at the Bern Kunsthalle in 1969. The four floors of objects ranging from Sol Lewitt wall drawings to Carl Andre’s floor pieces did indeed prove to be the antidote we sought. I smirked a bit as a viewer who had not read the title of the show or anything about it wandered uncomprehendingly around the gallery. However, if you did know what you were looking at, this re-examination of an exhibition that heralded post-Pop and post-Minimalist art worked very well, though it also pointed up how dated much of this work now appears. At the top level, where we came in, newspapers from 1969 were laid out to remind us of what was going on in the world at the time and of how groundbreaking these works and this exhibition were. When I saw the show, I walked right in but I heard that later in the week word of its significance had taken flight by cellphone and there were lines as long as four hours to get in. For many, visiting this exhibition was an opportunity to worship heroes. 

We did see many other shows that day: Roy Lichtenstein and, in a separate show, Vedova at his foundation. But not to be missed is a solo show of artist Marc Quinn curated by Gerano Celant for the Fondazione Giorgio Cini on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. It is a large show with over 50 works. Although Breath is not exactly a new work since it is a replica of Alison Lapper Pregnant, first installed in September 2005 on the fourth plinth of London’s Trafalgar Square (2005-7), placing it outside at the tip of the island casts new light on the artist’s monumental work. One could see this body from many viewpoints in Venice. I had not seen it in London or even on television at the end of the London Olympics, but it sits so well in on this corner of the island. I find the work an icon of beauty, even though the figure is of a woman born with no arms and severely shortened legs (a fellow artist and friend of Quinn’s). Inside the gallery as well, large paintings of raw butchered meat painted in a photo-realist (although sort of a digital photo realism) style are quite beautiful in their luscious color and movement.   

Marc Quinn, Breath, 2013. Photo: Evelyn Saleh.

On the same Island is an exhibition of the Swiss artist Not Vital: 700 Snowballs, an installation of yes, 700 hand-blown glass snowballs arrayed on the floor of a long gray corridor with a mirror at the back. The balls were blown by Murano Vetreria Pino Signoretto; the work is a collaboration between the artist the glass studio. Each ball is very lovely with glass surrounding a snow-like center. The installation is quite meditative but it also evokes sinking Venice’s watery troubles. 

The following day, the 55th Biennale opened to the press. The curator Massimiliano Gioni titled the exhibition Il Palazzo Enciclopedico/The Encyclopedic Palace.

Massimiliano Gioni introduced the choice of theme evoking the Italo-American self-taught artist Marino Auriti who “on November 16, 1955 filed a design with the US Patent office depicting his Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace), 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. Auriti’s plan was never carried out, of course, but the dream of universal, all-embracing knowledge crops up throughout history, as one that eccentrics like Auriti share with many other artists, writers, scientists, and prophets who have tried - often in vain - to fashion an image of the world that will capture its infinite variety and richness. (from the Biennale’s Website)

The Encyclopedic Palace,” concludes Gioni, is a show that illustrates “a condition we all share: we ourselves are media, channeling images, or at times even finding ourselves possessed by images.”

At first I thought, isn’t this just the idea of the Cabinet of Curiosities all over again, an idea that dates back to the Renaissance? Is Gioni trying to erase the white box that has proved unbreakable since Szeeman?  At the very least, there are many, many interesting works in the Palazzo--decidedly too many to write about here .

Upon entering the Italian pavilion one sees a large knee-high table set with a hundred small houses made of found materials on the scale associated with toy trains. Many of the artists included in this exhibition are outsider artists and their work blends seamlessly with the contemporary art on show. There was a large Jack Whitten work in tile on canvas of a pyramid shape that I like better than any of his work I’ve seen to date.

This is not an intellectual Biennale. This is a Biennale devoted to stuff people can look at purely to enjoy. It dwells on surfaces. 

Upstairs on the top floor of the Italian pavilion are over 100 little unfired clay figures in vitrines in an installation by the Swiss art team of Fusilli and Weiss. They are representational, depicting animals and cartoon characters, but they are set in clay backgrounds reminiscent of the natural formations in Chinese scholars’ rocks. The installation is accompanied by two significant Dorothea Tanning paintings.

The white box has been eliminated, but in favor of what?

The Italian pavilion continues in the Arsenale. It’s a huge space, filled with miles of video, photography, painting, sculpture, and performance still under Gioni’s curatorship and his concept of the Encyclopedic Palace. There is a new influence of contemporary culture on the work displayed here. Bombardment of the visual sense. Hip-hop, graffiti. 

Mohammed Kazem, Walking on Water, 2013.

The National Pavilions

For those who have never been to the Venice Biennale, there is a giardini  or garden with permanent pavilions owned by each country. A few have been added over the years. Each country curates its own pavilion. Our writers are covering three in this issue of The Art Section: the US, the UK, and Macedonia. Below are a few comments on other pavilions.  

There were some mysterious things that happened, one being that the Germans and the French swapped pavilions to mark the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty between their two countries. I guess the commissioners also think they can make art. Ravel Ravel Unravel (2013), a video and sound work by Franco-Albanian artist Anri Sala is a punningly beautiful work of four videos presented in two rooms. Each film is focused on the left hand playing a piano. There is a complicated mix of both musical and body parts that can be appreciated and listened to and seen. 

Mathias Poledna, Imitation of Life, 2013.

The Austrian pavilion is tucked over the bridge at the back of the park. Artist Mathias Poledna’s installation includes a three-minute animated film titled Imitation of Life in the style of classic Disney animation. It features a donkey in a sailor suit who sings “I Got a Feelin’ You’re Foolin’” and dances like Fred Astaire. This extraordinary and exquisitely sounded film is playing a delicious and delightful game with us, imitating film from the late 30’s but also making an amazing leap into the present in the way this work was made by following and appropriating the movements of movie dancers. There was a wonderful work on YouTube that analyzed all the donkey’s movements and revealed their cinematic sources, but it appears they were asked to take it down. More’s the pity… knowing more about the relationship of Poledna’s film to its sources only enhances appreciation of it. 

The new UAE Pavillion with an up escalator is in a building in the Arsenale. Walking on Water features a commissioned installation by Mohammed Kazem, a 360-degree projection of a very intense blue ocean. You enter the space and you feel like you are at sea. The artist wants you to feel lost at sea, symbolically breaking down geographical barriers. However, I thought the work was simply about being on a boat in the middle of this wonderful cobalt colored movement of water and--no pun intended--to be immersed in its beauty. At the end of the day, isn’t this enough?

There are eighty-eight pavilions at the Biennale this year, including ten new ones.  So some ideas here are to be continued….

The 55th Biennale is on view until November 24, 2013


Deanna Sirlin, Editor-In-Chief of The Art Section and Evelyn Saleh, Biennale Photographer. Evie will be starting her art career at Georgia State University in the Fall.

Deanna Sirlin recently published a book, She's Got What It Takes: American Women Artists in Dialogue with Charta Art Books