Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Top ten Venice Biennale highlights-A completely biased view

  1. TRA – Edge of Becoming at Musee Fortuny was as an exhibition that built upon the magnificence of Infinitium in the same venue two years ago. It is a great achievement to be able to marry contemporary art with art and artefacts conceived and produced across centuries; a far greater one to be able to manage this, whilst not being swamped by the intrinsic interest of the building itself. Instead everything feels as if it belongs here, fantastic juxtapositions between artworks and the building abound, often in most surprising and unexpected ways. The first encounter was an inspired pairing of Michael Borremans’ Red Hand, Green Hand with an early Giacometti. The dominance of the hue in the hands of Borremans’ painting was transferred more subtly to the similar pose of the Giacometti sculpture, which were similarly echoed in the careful lighting to conjure a third shadowed hand centrally placed between painting and sculpture. Each corner produced further artistic treats for the visitor, Shirin Neshat’s captivating Passage was a particular highlight, the brooding Phillip Glass soundtrack drifted down a corridor leading you to ante-chamber of crumbling plaster and brick, where the imagery unfolded and built to the spontaneous semi-circular eruption of the fire finale.Climbing the stairs one was led to the faded opulence of once rich, but now worn tapestries of Fortuny’s palace. One side room was exceptionally curated with Fortuny’s tempera murals providing a backdrop for a suitably theatrical relationship of themed works. Hans Op De Beek’s Staging Silence playfully defied expectations as cliché theatrical/cinematic mise en scene were broken by the artists hands moving miniature scenery around to construct new staged settings. Opposite sat a large scale model by Fortuny of a theatre that had a casual companion in the form of Bonomini’s Allegory of Deception; a painting of an old woman holding before her a mask of a younger woman. Curiously this old woman had green hands, not dissimilar to Borremans’ opening painting. On a further adjoining wall Matthew Barney, in full vaselined garb, looked on from the splendour of a theatre, not unlike Fortuny’s unbuilt model. In another side room one could find a smaller version of the James Turrell in the Arsenale, without the hour long queue, and all the more satisfying for that.Before one ascended the stairs to the second floor, one entered a quiet room where the theatrics of the room mentioned earlier had been stripped back to the single angled spotlight. In Lygia Pape’s Faca de Luz one could enter a small cubicle to become enshrined in a flash of light, created by a slash on the top. And most magically of all Franciabigio’s 16th century painted panel, Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata was lit to echo the Pape piece, with a companion shaft of light only falling upon Assisi as if divine intervention had taken place.
  1. Christian Marclay’s The Clock has justifiably received critical and popular acclaim since it premiered last year, rightly ands widely proclaimed an instant masterpiece. It became a most welcome halfway house in the Arsenale leg of Brice Criger’s LLUMInations (though I was not alone in thinking that it would have been more perfectly located outside the aforementioned constant Turrell queue.) I have little to add to the discussion of Marcaly’s masterpiece, it is one of those rare things, a perfect artwork. Everything is contained within the work itself, to render accompanying text redundant and it rewards the attentive and persistent viewer with building complexity of structure and narrative, there is much behind this deceptively simple idea.My only comment to add is a comparison to the way Marclay appears to have found his imagery and that of the cinema projectionist. I would imagine that they both share an alternate way of viewing a film, one that side tracks the plot in favour of their own particular take on what they need to take from the film. I can imagine Marclay watched hundreds (thousands?) of films with one purpose only, a reference to the time within the plot; whilst a projectionists traditionally would view the silver screen perched high up in the projection box, hyper alert for the tiny cue dot in the right hand corner of the screen. Both know a film intimately for these moments, but would struggle to relate the plot of the whole film, a little like watching Marclay’s infinitely compulsive film.
  1. There were a number of national pavilions that I particularly liked that do not appear to be getting a huge amount of press attention, perhaps making my expectations before encountering them lower. Angel Vargara, representing Belguim, had an interesting take on contemporary painting. The seven deadly sins were all depicted on a huge screen spanning the pavilion’s main hall, displaying appropriated footage from news reports and the like. Over these hurriedly moving images the artist attempted to capture the image in painterly gestures, doomed to failure as the subject chopped from one to another. One was left with an orgy of painterly marks, that occasionally came into focus as the footage looped and an abstract form was married with the representational twin.

4.The Czech/Slovak pavilion had perhaps the most touching and understated display of work. Dominik Lang has been working with his late father’s bronze figurative sculptures to connect them to his own practice with strange juxtapositions to domestic furniture. Broken shards of bronze are united across empty space by their careful placement in adjoining cabinets or a figure is divided and multiplied by it’s relocation within a chamber of mirrors vertically puncturing the bronze. The relationship between son and father and the marrying off their two practices was both poignant and in complete harmony.
5. Marcus Schinwald strange paintings (and newer engagement with film) offer a quietly disturbing sense of the uncanny and curious. Curiously passive painted faces are punctured by outdated medical instruments, attached in painfully matter of fact ways. In the wings to the pavilion two large projected films showed a group of people all trapped in weird cycles of activity. A man struggled to free his foot from a crack in a wall with frantic balletic movements, whilst another tap danced through an army of coloured electrical wires, attempting to dislodge one from his foot. The pavilion was navigated through a labyrinth of walls hovering three foot over the floor, allowing glimpses of dissected audience that interacted with Schinwald’s exhibiton.
6. Thomas Hirchorn produced perhaps the most arresting pavilion with his customary tin foil and packing tape calling attention to and binding together a cross section of contrasting images and objects. On two giant mushroom-like tables were magazines covering the surface. The contrast could not be greater between the two surfaces; on one Jordan and Tom Cruise vied for attention with meaningless tales of their life in copies of Now, Heat and Closer. On the other side were reportages of war and suffering from Time magazine and the like. As one wandered the pavilions the excesses of our western capitalist consumer culture built up as aeroplane seats, coke cans and other detritus were consumed by Hirchorn’s cheap packing materials.Most dominantly of all were the human images consequences of torture, war and corrupt states that dangled bunting-like around the edges of the space. Our response to these images was most pertinently captures by the Swiss artists over the multi-screen panels of a finger insistently scanning through atrocious images of human suffering on an ipad, never able to escape them. How many times have we seen these images on news reports from the comfort of our homes far away from where they are happening and  felt suitably appalled before the next episode of X-factor or Celebrity come dine with me comes on. We are as cheap, shallow and tacky as Hirchorn’s tin foil and parcel tape.
7. Of the British national pavilions I think I was most captured by Karla Black, who was representing Scotland. Her sickly sweet installation (the pungent wafts of fragrant soap was like walking past Body shop or Lush on the high street!) was in perfect harmony with the palazzo that housed it. She had carefully selected materials, colour and the overall placement to fit perfectly with the surrounding. This was achieved to such an extent that it felt like she had painted all the walls the pastel colours associated with her work. When I asked an invigilator if  this was the case, she answered that they had thought the same and had to check images from Martin Boyce installation of two years ago to confirm she had not. I could have sworn the Boyce installation had white walls; such was the complete contrast of the feel of that to Black’s installation. For me it was the detail of her work that won over, in one room a single double loop of clear plastic sheet hovered centrally. As one explored the surface a tiny flick of green appeared in the middle of the two loops, perfectly matching the walls, this was no accident. Is the stuff of a Turner prize winner? As I read this I do start to wonder if I preferred the Mike Nelson after all so I shall stop writing before I scrub out all the above.
8. I could not help but admire Lech Majewski’s digital tapestry-like films that re-imagined Bruegel’s apocalyptic paintings. The church environment certainly helped on appreciate the work and this was not only a technological remake but also one that made you question how much we have moved on as a society when the brutal torture seen in Bruegel and Majewski’s work is still happening today, and still in the name of religion. Poignant stuff that was intensely captivating, if not to my own personal taste.
9. Sigmar Polke’s suite of paintings in the Punta Della Dogana were as arresting as when I first saw them in 2007 in the room now housing the Tinterettos within the Padiglione Centrale. These paintings are truly a masterwork, containing so much richness of subject and painterly gesture; painterly perfection in short. However there is something intensely irritating about viewing Pinault’s collection of art. Inside two fantastic monuments to Venetian architecture are housed a wealth of fantastic art (David Claerbout’s tour de force Algiers and Yang Jiechang’s cheeky update of Chinese scroll paintings also deserve special attention) and yet it is all rather distasteful. It all comes across a bit like that annoying child at school who had everything that he wanted given to him and who appreciated nothing; one gets sick if one eats too many sweets. Or is it just sour grapes on my part? Above all though it is such a treat to be able to sit and admire such masterful work as Polke’s Axial Age.
10. Ok, so there were some other highlights in ILLUMInations and I was pleased to see Haroon Mirza had claimed the Silver Lion for his contribution. The comparison between his two pieces in the exhibition was interesting to note, particularly in terms of his recent representation by the Lisson gallery. In the Padiglione Centrale was a more familiar looking piece of work with trailing wires and Heath Robinson shelves holding up speakers. A throbbing electrical thud accompanied each pulse of a stuttering projected image. In the Arsenale the powerful influence and confidence of the Lisson hinted at an exciting future for this young British artist. In space that mimicked the Monika Sosnowska para-pavilion that housed the other work, Mirza had constructed a much slicker space. Here the effect of his work was even more palpable and tense. A blinding throb of an circular lighting rig built in parallel intensity to an whining drone, before silence of sound and light triggered nervous giggles of the audience.
Elisabetta Benassi’s The Innocents Abroad similarly intrigued, with a darkened room punctuated by the faint glows of several microfiche machines. Each one insensately and mechanically searched for information, that the viewer barely had time to take in. One struggled to link apparently random information of drive-in movie theatres or gambling raids that were revealed to be the back of press photographs. In Shahryar Nashat’s Factor Green a strange green cube, of the variety used in green screen filming, hovered in front of several Tinteretto’s paintings. As the loop began again, a little was explained as we saw the artist (or another protagonist?) open, with a rasping soundtrack, a container that was revealed to contained the green box. He proceeded to manhandle this, until being satisfied with the magician-like hovering. The film had just the right amount of the fantastical, without descending into the overtly theatrical.
Back in the Giardini’s main pavilion Omer Fast’s fascinating film, Five Thousand Feet is Best  played, in the pit below Sosnowska’s previously mentioned star-shaped space. The action switched between the interrogation of a former Predator drone operator and the filmic re-telling of his stories. As more time was spent with these stories we begin to realise that there is a mis-telling and/or mis-casting taking place. So, for example, the colour of the skin of a man changes, “Hey I didn’t mention race”, halway through one episode or the interrogation room changes location after the protagonists cigarette break; whilst odd beeps interrupt and cover over parts of the dialogue, leaving us only guessing at the missing content. The viewer is intrinsically part of Fast’s film, and the film is hyper aware of itself as a construct, “Do these guys have to be here? I didn’t know you’d be filming” is repeated at the start of each story giving a brooding sense of déjà vu.
One was aware of two types of guard in the pavilion. Above our heads Cattelan’s taxidermy pigeons looked down at us, playfully critical of us as viewers and possibly also the organisers, for changing the exhibition so little since their first airing in 1997. The other guard was the more traditional gallery invigilator. Bizarrely whilst one stood permanently on guard of Ryan Gander’s 25 Euro coin, next door school children groped and gouged at Fischli and Weiss’clay works, a strange contrast of value by the audience and organisers. Most present of all was the constant chorus of “NO PHOTO” by the trio of guards in front of Tinteretto’s masterful Last Supper. Something was not right here though. What should have been the masterstroke of Criger’s exhibition was tarnished by that most obvious of things, given the exhibition’s theme. Removed from their church homes and represented low down on the white walls of the hijacked shipyard warehouses the paintings were obscured by the glare of the spotlights lighting them. Ironically given the illuminations of the title and theme, I was left less illuminated by encountering the Tinteretto’s here than within their usual context. A brave move by the curator for sure, but also one that needed a little more sensitivity of the original Venetian master of light.

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