Monday, 25 November 2013

Venice Biennale 2013

Welcome to the second of a miniseries (although on saying that I think I’ve already gotten carried away writing) of posts on the Venice Biennale. This post looks at the experience of visiting the Biennale as a whole focusing on a few of my personal favourites and thoughts (pictured).

I’ve been to the Liverpool Biennial four times over the last eight years and can confidently say that when it comes to Liverpool I’m somewhat of a seasoned Biennial explorer. I love it! Armed with a map one hits the streets in search of artistic treasures ever searching in eager anticipation that the piece of art which is going to profoundly change or shape your life is around the next corner. The art, located in dozens of different galleries and locations showcases the best, 'the worst' and weirdest of contemporary national and international art. To me, the Venice Biennale is like the holy grail of biennials, the ‘mother of all art shows’ and such is its height on the metaphorical pedestal of admiration in my mind that the premise that one day I may actually go visit this hallowed place seemed almost mythical or some fantastical dream.

 On Tuesday 19th of November that dream became reality.

 Thus ensued an almost biblical-like pilgrimage by coach, plane, boat and foot as we* plastic mac and welly-clad chartered our way through the flooded streets of Venice toward 'Il Palazzo Enciclopedico' translated as 'The Encyclopaedic Palace'...

Held across two permanent venues in Venice, the Giardini and Arsenale (as well as in dozens of temporary locations throughout the city) the Biennale features 88 participating countries each housed in their own pavilion/venue, hundreds upon hundreds of artists both professional and outsider, spanning all mediums, art forms, materials and scales making the Venice Biennale, now in its 55th year, one of the biggest of its kind.

 The curator Massimiliano Gioni wanted this year's central pavilion to explore the ‘world of artists’ or particularly what it means to be an artist working in the world today. He says artists today are,  ‘Not satisfied by imagined realities but conceive global realities...moved by aspirations to an all-embracing knowledge and sensitivity’. The theme of the Encyclopaedic Palace was first created by American artist Marino Auriti who filed a design for, ‘an imaginary museum that was meant to house all the worldly knowledge, bringing together the greatest discoveries of the human race...’ It’s an appropriate theme for what did feel like a walk-in cabinet of curiosities, bursting with everything from the quietly considered and mystical, to the sublime, the loud and the ambitious. Each artist in this central exhibition explores individually their own or collective/global obsessions, imagination dreams and aspirations, aptly described in the catalogue as internal images ‘in an era besieged by external ones’. I particularly like that statement when wandering around noticing how many people are experiencing the art through their phones more than their eyes. And where does most of our history of human knowledge come from? Books of course, so what better way to open the encyclopaedic palace than with a book, in particular Carl Jung’s ‘Red Book’ an illustrated manuscript of self-induced visions and fantasies created by the psychologist. It sets the scene between the idea of internal images and self meditation as a way of acquiring knowledge (be that self knowledge or world knowledge) which each artist has created work that responds to that idea differently.

 Admittedly, I didn’t make as much effort to interpret this reading into any of the works I saw as I wondered round in a state of complete wonderment thinking, ‘that was the real Carl Jung’s ‘Red Book’, ‘I’m in Venice!’ and ‘My god this place is huge!’ Then again, maybe being in a state of rapt awe was exactly the right mindset to go investigate art works that have been curated around the inquisitive nature of knowledge and creativity...

How refreshing to be this excited about art!

Right from the start the Venice Biennale was not the gluttonous heap that I experienced at Frieze London. This was far more considered, less consumerist and more inclusive to a wider spectrum of both professional and outsider artists. It is a kind of showcase of the art world and human creative endeavour rather than trying to sell it to you or make it appear ‘cool/fashionable’. I was amused to find the layout of the Giardini, in its own park with over thirty individual permanent pavilions acted  like some sort of anthropological Disney Land for art,
‘See you later’ I’d say, ‘I’m off to Germany to go see the Ai Weiwei stools’.
Or, ‘Have you been to Spain yet? It’s full of piles of rubble.’
And, ‘Meanwhile in Russia it’s raining money!’
Of course it was a lot less kitsch (believe it or not) and corporate than Disney (not that I’ve ever been) but had a comparable layout by having many separate locations all in one area as well as a similarity to the wonderment that Disney has to children that art has to artists. There is definitely an air of spectacle in all of this and it is so difficult to retain a meaningful sense of focus on the situation and have a qualitative experience as to a quantitative one. I opted for the latter and indulged myself in a torrent of visual stimuli. This doesn’t mean I abandoned thinking altogether as for the art which really ‘struck a chord’, I’d hover around longer and revisited during the course of the day. A few of the many, many artworks that had that affect are presented below, but it would be near impossible to mention them all.

All of this and in the context of the mysterious and beauty soaked streets of Venice, it was sometimes hard during the day to tell the difference whether I was seeing art or whether I was in it!

Ai Weiwei 'Bang' 2013 ,886 wooden stools
The German Pavilion in the Venice Biennale features four artists from different countries (to reflect that contemporary artistic production relies on 'multi-layered forms of international production') one of whom is the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. The problem with success is that the more well known you become as an artist, the more sometimes you're work/style of working can begin to become a bit of a cliché. Whilst, the ambition, use of repetition, local hand-made production and themes of 'the many supporting the many' (the work has the look as though remove one stool at the bottom and the whole thing may collapse) is becoming almost trademark Weiwei (think of the sunflower seeds in the Tate Modern) it is still exciting to see how that same idea can be re-presented in a different form. The political unrest that Weiwei contends with in his work is still present in 'the real world' so it makes sense that those themes still fuel the thinking in his art practice. Somewhere  in this suspended collage of wooden stools is a stool standing on its own, an act of defiance/liberation, the symbolism is easy to recognise but I think perhaps a lot more subjective to interpret. Unlike the sunflower seeds however, there is more tension in 'Bang' (as the title would suggest) as if to say that any moment all these stools (that you are invited to walk in around and under) may come toppling down on you. Visually, it reminds me of the collection-based art works of Arman (who would make large vitrines filled with collections of objects from typewriters, paint tubes, shaving brushes to cigarette butts), Cornelia Parker's exploded shed and Fischli and Weiss' balancing tables/objects. Again, whilst it sort of has an obviousness to it all, there is still something incredibly joyous at seeing it/being in it which makes it unforgettable.  

Jose Antonio Suarez Londono 'Franz Kafka Diarios II 1914-1923 (13 x 20cm each page)
On a personal note, one of the most exciting artists I found was in the 'Encyclopaedic Palace'. Quiet and understated in a horizontal glass case in the middle of the room lay hundreds of tiny drawings/paintings on paper, a different one for every day of the year. Regular Spanner in the Workz blog readers may remember that I am currently embarking on my own 'drawing a day' journal which is now a month from completion. It is almost impossible to photograph the whole of Suarez Londono's work because the 'whole' is lots of individual remarkable drawings that were arrestingly captivating. Things got even better when I read that the work was a drawing each day by the artist to a corresponding text, the work I was seeing in response to Kafka's diaries. 'Extra points I'm thinking for the use of Kafka and immediately go back to looking in the case for a drawing of a beetle or strangeness with a new dark, disturbing sense of wonder. I appreciate the photo above is hard to see, but I promise you, these drawings were exquisite (there was a drawing of a folded sheet of paper, how banal you say, but it was brilliantly drawn) and had all the makings of purpose and meaning that left me reflecting what I am currently lacking in my own drawings. [Note to self -think of ways to use text to create (not illustrate) images]
This is an excellent link to a book of his drawings:

Shinro Ohtake 'Scrapbook' 1980
Similar to the above, it figures that the things that excite me the most were bound (pun intended) to be book related. I had always thought my sketchbooks were huge as they are many but mine are mere pocket notepads compared to Ohtake's scrapbooks which fill an entire room and are completely bursting at the seams. They are a reflection of mass media and urban life and I particularly like the description of them referred to by the Biennale catalogue as being 'purposefully chaotic' which I also think is pretty synonymous of modern life generally. Presented in this way the books become like sculptures as well as a feverish documentation and collage of one person's interpretation of all the paper and 'stuff' we accumulate.

Laurie Simmons and Allan McCollum 'The Actual Photos' 1985 photographic prints (20 x 25cm each)
Take one small plastic model railway figure, one microscopic camera and what do you get? A series of disturbingly disfigured portraits that sheds an alternative light on the idealised world within the model railway. I can remember a photograph of a model railway figurine, an artist painting on his easel on a fabricated green mound beside an artificial river taken by my friend and local artist, Sue Palmer on a public art project we did in Taunton. It had a caption with it that commented on 'what will we see when we paint the river?' as a way of referring to the proposed redevelopments of Taunton's riverside. I admired the ironic humour to this little idealised railway world as a way of commenting or critiquing our own reality. This work has a similar affect.

Gianfranco Baruchello 'La Grande Biblioteca' 1976/86 Assemblage of six wooden boxes with glass mounted in metal frame (200 x 210 x 15cm)
Yet more 'bookish' related art now with Baruchello's miniature library installations of which the photo above is a small section of what was a much bigger whole. The books are artificial as are the shelves and have a sort-of amateur or 'low tech' feel to them as they are completely made from paper, sometimes rolled or folded. What is exciting about the work, for me, is the idea of 'the library' as a fort of collective human knowledge being condensed into a tiny replica that's part of the bigger whole that is the Encyclopaedic Palace. It has that macro/micro feel to it, knowledge within knowledge and the infinity of the bigger universe that we still have much to discover. Or in other words, the library becomes a metaphor for human knowledge, its limits, fragility and capabilities. Upon reading the faithful accompanying text, I learn he was friends with artist, Marcel Duchamp and writers, Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges (whom I'm reading at present and writes much on libraries and Babel) who influenced his work and planted the 'notion that art is a form of faith in the ability to transmute everyday objects and activities into something greater'. Amen!

Joao Maria Gusmao and Pedro Paiva 'Columbo's Column' 2006 film
Man attempts to stack eggs into a tower. What's not to love? Will he succeed? This is one of a series of mesmerising silent films by Portuguese artists Gusmao and Paiva on show in the Arsenale. It is ridiculous, amusing but also incredibly watchable. This particular film, takes the myth that Christopher Columbus proclaimed he had the ability to make an egg stand on its end and makes it reality, with the protagonist creating a column of stacked eggs on screen. I'm not so much interested in this one film as I am the collection of films that was exhibited by these artists as part of the Biennale, they all use traditional film (either 16mm or 35mm) and techniques such as slow motion or layering negatives on top of one another. I think you can tell the difference and the sound of the cinematic reel and slightly grainy quality of image and its speed have a distinct look that tells them apart from digital. In another film, an elephant's trunk reaches, slow motion, to pick up a peanut off the floor except it is moving so slowly it appears more like a giant hairy slug and it is not at all obvious as to what it is. The artists, who were heavily influenced by the Surrealists and writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Victor Hugo and Rene Daumal (who wrote 'A Night of Serious Drinking' -I think I'll give it a read!) to create what they describe as "poetic philosophical fiction, suggesting that the world may not be simply more mysterious than it appears, but perhaps more inscrutable than we can even conceive."

Peter Fischli and David Weiss 'Suddenlt This Overview' 1981-2012 Unfired clay approx. 250 sculptures
More wit now from Fischli and Weiss in the form of, well, what it says above really, 250 unfired clay sculptures which depict events, phrases and objects in clay form. Cassius Clay after a fight in the hands of Fischli and Weiss becomes a mashed up lump of clay, the concept of theory and practice (pictured above) becomes more malleable, Brunelleschi invents perspective, a mouse emerges from out a clay mouse hole titled 'The Subtenant'. This is silliness taken very seriously and is quite literally a room of one liners.

Guillermo Srodek-Hart
Located in the Latin America Pavilion in the Arsenale is the work of Argentinian photographer, Strodek-Hart. The connection as to why I'm interested in his work should be pretty obvious least of all because this was virtually the only art work that contained any tools (the USA's Sarah Sze had a few but nothing to get too excited about). The images are always devoid of people so the work becomes about the stuff we leave behind, the places we live/work/make and the stories those places hold and 'makes us who we are'. This idea that objects leaving traces of human presence is something of a regular theme with tools, in particular hand tools or tools with a history and nostalgia to them. I'm glad to see that it is still topical! These images are great, but don't leave much to the imagination; I'm looking at them hoping that they are actually an animation and not just a photo and that at any moment the tools may spring to life and animate the stage-like scene depicted in the photo. does give me some ideas though...              

*'We', as in the fair and illustrious Fine Art degree students from Somerset College. To whom I'm incredibly indebted. Thank you to any of you reading this. 

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