The Venice Biennale is the oldest, and remains the grand dame, of the international art expositions for contemporary art. This year it encompasses 89 national pavilions, 37 official collateral shows and other parallel events, on view through November 27. The exhibition is spread between the Giardini, the Arsenale, the six administrative units of the city plus the nearby islands. The Biennale is a complex weave of aesthetics, politics, competition and mercantilism. It strives to be meaningful and historic. The contemporary art plays against the legacy of the great Venetian masters such as Tintoretto which adds to the visual tapestry of it all.
Prizes are awarded for the best national pavilion and the best individual artist. The Golden Lion for the best pavilion went to Germany for the haunting installation by Christoph Schlingensief, who passed away in August 2010. The installation involves a recreation of his piece, “A Church of Fear vs The Alien Within” originally conceived in 2008. Schlingensief portrays his illness, using his own painful experience to examine the existential cycle of life, suffering and death. Engaging film and music as well as key influences such as the art of Joseph Beuys and the Fluxus movement, maxiumum effect is achieved. The environment is rarified.
The Golden Lion for best artist went to Swiss-American, Christian Marclay, for his astounding film, “The Clock”. Composed of thousands of movie clips that feature clocks, watches and the conjuring of time, it is literally a 24-hour clock that corresponds exactly to the viewer’s real time. It is a huge love letter to the movies while being the quintessential work of appropriation art. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art recently acquired one copy of the film from the edition of six for their permanent collection.
In addition to the German Pavilion, other standouts are the pavilions of the US, Egypt, Poland and Korea. Death and politics emerge as shared themes. While the sun shines and the water laps against the docks, challenging content reigns.
The US is represented by the team of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. The presentation focuses on unedifying aspects of American military presence, domination, and commercialism. For sheer audacity and ingenuity, it makes an impact. The installation involves several performative pieces and an interactive piece. Outside the pavilion an overturned tank is crowned with a treadmill. Each hour an Olympic athlete runs atop the tank to a cacophony of sound that cannot be avoided or ignored. Inside a large harp-like structure houses a working ATM machine from which a user can extract euros. Upon the dispensation of money, music rings out. While the metaphors are witty and the execution is unique, for this American the whole felt somewhat embarrassing and certainly elicited no pride.
Egypt is represented by Ahmed Basiony. The artist was shot and died in January amid the protests against the Egyptian government in Tahir Square. This tribute exhibition includes footage of his last performance in 2010, “30 Days of Running in the Space”. He jogged for an hour each day for 30 days in a plastic suit. His sweat levels and the distance traveled were converted into a digital display. The video of this piece is displayed alongside footage he filmed during the revolution before he was assassinated. It’s a powerful duo. The artist running in his suit with echoes of the Olympian running on the tank nearby created an unexpected and eerie dialogue.
Israeli-born Yael Bartana represents Poland. She is showing three films based on her provocative invented entity, the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland. The movement calls for the return of millions of Jews to their Polish homeland. The startling concept is presented with complete conviction and veracity, so that one questions its reality. The possibilities give full sway to the imagination.
Lee Yong-baek represents Korea with a mixed media installation titled “The Love is Gone but the Scar Will Heal. “Broken Mirror” is a room of mirrors that engage a high-speed camera and complex electronics. The mirrors shatter by shot from flying bullets and then dramatically and repeatedly reconstitute themselves. Two large-scaled sculptures have a non-threatening presence but perpetuate a theme of death and violence.
In addition to the remarkable Christian Marclay work, Arsenale pieces by London-based Urs Fischer and sisters Shadia and Raja Alem from Saudi Arabia are memorable. Urs Fischer created a full-scale wax copy of the 16th century sculptor Giambologna’s “Rape of the Sabine Women”. Facing this work is a wax portrait statue of friend and artist, Rudolf Stingel. Both works have wicks integrated within them. When lit, the pieces gradually burn down and assumedly will be a puddle of wax. When I was there, the head had come off the Stingel figure. Both pieces were rendered majestically and had a commanding, ephemeral presence.
Shadia and Raja Alem are officially representing Saudi Arabia with a sculptural stage-like work titled “The Black Arch”. The work integrates the artist’s collective memories of blackness from their home in Mecca. The references of blackness originate from the black silhouettes of Saudi women, the black cloth of the Al Ka’ba and the black stone which is said to have enhanced their knowledge. As a counter point, the second part of the installation is a mirror image, meant to reflect the present and the light of Venice. Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive a car. They must seek permission from their husbands to attend school or to travel. And yet, the government finds women suitable to represent their country in this international exhibition. Is it a comment on the insignificant regard in which they hold contemporary art? Or perhaps they have overlooked the power inherent within it.
COLLATERAL EXHIBITIONS: THE MUST SEE
International mega-collectors have pushed the public/private sphere onto center stage in Venice. Since 1980, Peggy Guggenheim’s spectacular collection of European and American art of the first half of the 20th century has been an anchor in Venice. The museum’s current exhibition of the late Ileana Sonnabend’s collection is a splendid view of another astute female dealer’s personal choices. Featuring Italian and international artists, it makes an informative complement to the other collateral exhibitions.
Privately Funded Initatives
In 2005, Francois Pinault, one of the largest collectors of contemporary art in the world, acquired the Palazzo Grassi. He has subsequently presented three distinct exhibitions showcasing works from his collection there. In 2009, Pinault opened a second location, the Punta della Dogana, where his collection will be on permanent display. Works of seminal artists, impeccably installed, fill both locations and offer an excellent picture of some of the top artists from the last two decades in contemporary art.
In 2006 Ukrainian billionaire, Victor Pinchuk, established the PinchukArtCentre, the first and largest contemporary art center in Central and Eastern Europe. In Venice, the PAC presented the Future Generation Art Prize, the first global art prize to discover and offer long-term support to a future generation of artists. The show is strong on video, including international favorites, Nathalie Djurberg and Cao Fei. Of the works on view, 13 were made especially for Future Generation and 7 were premiered at the venue. This may not be a must-see for the art, but for the ambition of the venture, take note.
Key among the privately funded initiatives is the Prada Foundation. Housed in a restored 18th-century palazzo, the exhibition highlights the collection and the architectural plans for the Foundation’s new headquarters in Milan, designed by Rem Koolhaas. Italian Art from 1952-1964 forms the core of the presentation. Individual works by Anish Kapoor, Jeff Koons, Thomas Demand, among others, glorify the spaces. A discerning sense of choice and acute sensitivity pervades the exhibition and it is wonderful.
The Palazzo Fortuny transformed its’ four floors into a treasure trove of viewing, titled “Tra.Edge of Becoming”. Organized by a curatorial team that included Rosa Martinez and Axel Vervoordt, the exhibition is a seductive cross-section of time, cultures and aesthetics meant to encourage the viewer to read the world through art. If you love objects, this is your show. Some of the artists included are Rodin, Abramovic, Fontana, Kapoor, Tapies, and Neshat, juxtaposed in a manner that enlivens them anew.
Ca Rezzonico is one of the most beautiful museums in Venice, dedicated to 18th Century Venice. As part of the Biennale contemporary artist, Barry X. Ball, integrated his classically inspired sculpture into the collection. With exquisite execution and placement of the work, his sculpture creates an even more gratifying experience.
One cannot depart Venice without a visit to the rich collections of the Accademia, the Frari Church and the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Two other favorite churches are Santa Maria della Salute near Puntal della Dogana and Il Redentore on the Guidecca, designed by Palladio.
Ciao Venezia! On to Basel!
Once again, the Basel Art Fair proved to be recession-proof. The first days were a frenzy of buying activity. Buyers at the fair are highly educated and selective. The early vibes are intense and competitive. The quality, variety and depth of the work on show is simply breathtaking. Since many acquisitions are made in the first hours and days of the fair, dealers come prepared to change their booths. New pieces are put on view daily throughout the fair. In addition, dealers are selling works that may be at their galleries or in other exhibitions. Every dealer has an iPad – the most effective presentation tool on the planet.
Art Statements, the venue for large scale sculpture and video, has become one of the most compelling sections in the Fair along with Design Basel. Both venues open the day before the main fair, so increasingly the audience arrives in advance for these first views. With nearly 300 galleries, it takes two days to make a single, focused pass through the entirety of the Fair. With all of the lectures, films, satellite fairs and local museums, check off a few more days.
The Basel museum exhibitions were not as exciting as in other years. However, a visit to the Beyeler Foundation is de rigueur. The current exhibition “Constantin Brancusi and Richard Serra” seeks to create a dialogue between these two giants of sculpture. I found the concept to be a stretch, but either artist alone inspires. The Brancusi’s were sublime.
Among the satellite fairs, Liste is the most salient for me. It’s a good place to identify new talent, whether or not you’re buying and even if works have been sold out. Mark Barrow’s paintings on linen that deal with the structure and geometry of weaving sold out at Elizabeth Dee. The Zurich gallery, RaebervonStenglin, was making their debut at Liste and won a prize for the best booth which included the sculptor, David Keating.
FRANZ GERTSCH/KUNSTHAUS, ZURICH
The Franz Gertsch Retrospective is on view at the Kunsthaus in Zurich through Sept 18. The Kunsthaus is considered one of the most important museums in the world for modern and contemporary art. It is always part of my Basel itinerary. Gertsch is counted as one of Switzerland’s leading contemporary artists. The exhibition features approximately 30 large-scale paintings and woodcuts, culminating in his recently completed “Four Seasons Cycle”. Initially the exhibition seemed quiet and unsurprising. But it opens up with a great fullness. The meticulous work and thoughtful installation rewarded a contemplative viewing.
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