Rudolf Stingel at Palazzo Grassi
Picture the scene. You've been in Venice for three days, seen hundreds of art works as part of the Biennale ranging everything from flayed rats sewn together to mountains of rubble and perhaps more shockingly of all, even the occasional painting; you've walked miles through floods, over bridges, under bridges, over and under again, eaten olives (even though you know you don't like them) and cheese and bread and ham for breakfast, noon and dinner, drunk profuse amounts of prosecco willingly (it was hardly a chore) and all the while wandering with purpose in search of your next art fix.
Then you arrive at the Palazzo Grassi...
If life were a movie (in my head it could well be) then about now there'd be some kind of musical cue, something classical or brassy, and there'd be an arial shot of the protagonist (you) as you stepped unknowingly onto the Prussian/Oriental red carpeted floor inside the central atrium of the Palazzo Grassi only to look up, cue panning shot, as your eyes follow upwards three layers of balconies, that same red carpet wrapped floor to wall all the way up and up til you reached the ceiling. Dramatic pause for sense of awe.
Ahem, but surely something as mundane as a wall-to-floor carpeted interior of a seventeenth century building couldn't possibly fail to be exciting no matter how you analyse it afterwards....? It was such a strange sight to come across, that when you were actually stood there amongst it all none of it felt like it was actually real, hence my need to provide the prior background context to what was already a heightened, magical experience of just being in Venice itself. There was a sort-of breathtaking absurdity to having this entire space given to the work of one artist when relatively each floor was pretty much the same as the one that proceeded it, the same red carpet (approx. 5,000 square metres of it!) covering floor/walls with a single silver monochromatic painting by the artist in each room (more on that later). Normally Palazzo Grassi is a contemporary gallery filled with hundreds of singular artworks at one time; you now had the entire space dedicated solely to the work of one artist. That artist is, Rudolf Stingel somewhat of a local, originally from Merano, Italy (but works mostly from New York) and whose work explores how art can intervene with ‘the exhibition space’/context it is shown in by displaying his paintings in environments that respond to/unsettle that space. In turn it attempts to answer how we view or perceive paintings based on their context and how an environment, its materials, textures, colours, patterns, climate and how does that alter how a painting is created/act of creation.
The literal definition of the Persian word for carpet means, ‘to spread’ which has a wonderful irony in this installation due to the sheer amount of carpet it uses and as a result it certainly makes you more aware of the building itself, the architecture (the geometry in the carpet pattern echoing shapes within the building's design), its height, layout, scale, period features (the ceiling has been left untouched) and amplifies the gallery's sense of grandeur with its new found luxurious, red carpet coating that both protects the building from its inhabitants and vice versa. Carpeting naturally also acts as a way of slowing you down, in the way that carpeted surfaces generate more friction and both literally slow us down as well as creating a softer, more homely sense of ease. The smell of it and texture that envelops you as you walk around the rooms and acts as both an insulator and sort-of ‘suffocator’ at the same time, I wasn’t sure whether I felt comforted or trapped by being surrounded in so much carpet! The acoustics, or lack of, were interesting too and everything became quite soundless and muffled. It all made me increasingly aware of the archetypal gallery as a context for viewing art and how we are distracted by the noise of our feet, the coldness of the rooms, the familiarity of the whiteness of the walls and how it can sometimes mean you don’t really ‘see’ the art work on the walls properly at all. On saying that, the paintings that we were now in a supposedly more slow and aware state-of-mind to view, were in fact pretty average. On the first floor were large abstracts whose surfaces were silver monochrome textured with prints and traces of the pattern present in the red carpet. I thought these were actually more successful than the paintings on the upper floors and had some subtly intriguing surfaces. On the other floors they were, on the whole, smaller (see bottom picture) depicting silver monochrome photorealistic portraits of the artist’s friend, Franz West and portraits of sculptures (yes, you read that correctly, portraits of sculptures like a cherub or saints). These paintings are often hung solely in a massive room on their own and you couldn’t help to notice their silvery glow standing out against the redness of the carpeted walls but I just couldn’t really figure out why they were there, why the things depicted in them were chosen, it seemed a little too random for my liking. One possible solution may lie in the curating of these works which does, however, suggest a journey from abstraction to the figurative but also the inner journey that the viewer undergoes as they unknowingly at first become part of the installation as well as viewing it. There is some theoretic rationale too that accompanies this idea (in a pamphlet on the work you’re handed at the start) referring to Freud’s study in Vienna with its oriental carpets on walls and floors as, I think, a rather tenuous link to ‘the feeling of containment and the sensory experience that we discover when entering this labyrinth guide us into the Ego, with its representations and illusions...’ Maybe (raises one eyebrow).
Perhaps the Freudian reference was taking affect and I was becoming increasingly paranoid and sceptical about this whole installation/work of art by simply not really and wholly trusting the intended interpretation that this was an artwork about the redefinition of the meaning of a painting and its perceptions because the crucial thing, the crucial part in that concept, ‘the paintings themselves’ was the one thing that was a bit cold, unimportant and fighting against its’ surroundings. If this was anything to go by then the artist is surely saying that 'redefining the meaning of a painting and its perceptions' lies within the context in which it is hung-in and not with the actual painting itself (am I repeating myself?). So why bother to paint at all or perhaps why bother to paint unless one paints for a particular space? Point indeed. I am beginning to be convinced that Stingel is an artist who is interested more in how we perceive the art we are looking at than the painting of the actual work itself, although often I thought the two went together? I did admire how this whole installation quietly forced me to ponder and ‘got into my head’ with its befuddling of the senses, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ meets ‘Arabian nights’ style, where, up was no longer up and down was no longer down, smells, sounds and textures generated a contradictory magical and disturbing intimacy. To some extent that sense of displacement and unfamiliarity is exactly the right mind-set to perceive a painting, as you are much more unaware of what to expect and more open to interpretation. Either that of course or this whole time I had actually accidently walked into a branch of Carpet World in the middle of Venice...!?