Alright, alright I’ll admit it. Takes one to know one, and when it comes to pretention I’m almost certain I’ll have sometimes been guilty of it, albeit most of the time unknowingly. In fact I can think of an artist who uses the negative quotes about his work from the public, such as ‘pretentious drivel’ as the titles for his next paintings. Ha, ha! Brilliant! And when it comes to being ‘a bit’ pretentious then nothing I saw during my time in Venice fitted as aptly as ‘Prima Materia’ at the Punta Della Dogana. This is by no means necessarily a derogatory opinion, as I aim to prove in this blog post, for whilst, yes, the work was inflated in its importance by its minimalist aesthetic and slick contemporary art gallery surroundings, it was those qualities that also made it a much more meaningful and subdued experience than that of the relentlessness of the Biennale.
Firstly, the gallery, Punta Della Dogana, itself is spectacular (hopefully some of my photos below will give you a sense of the scale/openness of the building). There are relatively few ‘new’ buildings in Venice (part of its appeal) which means architects have had to come up with creative solutions to restore and redesign the interiors of many buildings so they can continue to have new purpose/function. Punta Della Dogana was the city’s former customs house in the 15th Century, now the two floored, triangular building is a brick walled, concrete floored and oak beamed ‘temple’ to contemporary arts, transformed by architect, Tadao Ando from the François Pinault Foundation in 2006. Stylistically, it all reminded me a bit of the Saatchi Gallery back in London, housing one extremely wealthy man's art collection of large and ambitious contemporary art works by some ‘big’ art names such as Bridget Riley, Bruce Nauman and Piero Manzoni as well as plenty of new and emerging ones.
Visiting the Biennale for two days straight before visiting the Punta Della Dogana had left me with a major art hangover. I’d binged on non-stop art in the day and the cheap local prosecco by night, now at day three my tolerance and susceptibility to the prospect of viewing yet more art were slowly beginning to wane. A deep sense of art fatigue was setting-in and who could blame me? The only plausible cure was also the one that came most naturally and that was to just keep going.
The problem with this of course was that the sudden change in ‘art viewing pace’ I was met with at the sparser Punta Della Dogana which came as a shock to the system but also as a welcoming one as I was forced to return to the discipline of having to make an effort to read/understand when viewing the works in the exhibition.
A brief digression: In the catalogue of the ‘Bloomberg New Contemporaries’ 2013 exhibition Ryan Gander writes of the work selected in this year’s exhibition, ‘there are things that mean things and things that look like they mean things’. How true a statement of most contemporary art today, I found myself thinking and I particularly like that statement because it also summaries how I feel about the work in ‘Prima Materia’. The theme, ‘Prima Materia’ is broad in its possibilities and attempts to cover,
‘...the prima materia—essence, everything and nothing, everywhere and nowhere—takes many forms... separate from, or encompassing, earth, air, fire, and water; or the formless base of all matter; containing the soul and the body, the sun and the moon; love and light, imagination and consciousness; or urine, blood, or dirt. It was searched for in the darkest soil of the forest, and inside the body. It is the primal chaos that exists before time and all possibilities of the future...in science, perhaps the dark matter that makes up most of our universe. The definitions of this medium that carries all of the elements are diverse by cultural perspective or personal identity.’
I often think though that anything that tries to be ‘everything’ ultimately ends up in being about nothing. Is that a fair statement to make, so is this an exhibition about everything and yet nothing? No wonder I found it a bit pretentious. Such is the paradox of art with similar examples of art having to render itself useless in order for it to be seen as useful. It’s damned confusing if you think about it too much in the same way that over analysis of the bible ends up highlighting all the ways in which it contradicts itself. Then again maybe there is no other way to curate contemporary art as there are so many plausible meanings/interpretations to a piece of work, making the art of curating an art of editing and providing an overall framework that influences how we view a given piece of work in the context of a particular themed exhibition or space. Thus one piece of work can be shown in many different themed exhibitions taking on different interpretation each time it is shown.
The work in ‘Prima Materia’ has the feeling of being familiar, as though I’ve seen some of the work before but in different exhibitions. One of the opening rooms (pictured above) features several works by artists from the Japanese, Mona-ha (never heard of it until now) and Italian, Arte Povera movements. A fairly minimalist looking array of sculptures whereby often philosophically large concepts to do with phenomena, the environment and/or existentialism are re-imagined into their most simplistic/essential visual form. The important distinction that I have always struggled to achieve in my own work is that it is not necessarily the aim of art to illustrate these concepts as it is to re-present, explore or communicate them. There's a difference, that has something to do with intention and possibly integrity, that illustrating is more of a 'presenting' and art is more of a 'figuring out'....I'm intrigued, so I speculate, answers on a postcard please!
Rocks are placed on pre-smashed sheets of glass (Lee Ufan’s ‘Relatum’) to symbolise the constant search for equilibrium in the physical world. Or in Susumu Koshimizu’s ‘Paper’ we see a paper cube with a stone placed inside which plays with the perception of heaviness and lightness. I’m nervous that I’m finding it difficult to write about this without sounding too sardonic, when I really don’t want to be because when I actually think about it, if someone were to ask you to represent the concept of ‘the light of human intelligence’, ‘infinite space’ or ‘equilibrium of the physical world’ with any materials/forms of your choosing how would you do it? It’s incredibly difficult but also as equally important to have these ideas presented visually as they are a much more accessible way into some of the ‘weighty’ concepts they deal with.
I counted over 28 artists exhibiting in this exhibition demonstrating, as you would expect, a wide range of mediums including painting, installation, sculpture, film and light. It was fantastic to see the work in this gallery quietly, away from the busy crowds that plagued the Biennale and whilst I don’t feel the work was as good as some of the stuff I’d seen there, I did have more time to experience it. For example, the large painting pictured above, ‘The Land so rich in beauty’ by Zeng Fanzhi doesn’t do a lot for me, but it’s gutsy, ambitious and dynamic so despite not personally having ‘a liking’ for the colour palette or way it was painted I was still impressed at seeing it in the context of the gallery because it couldn’t fail but to generate a sense of awe for its sheer scale and sense of expression/conviction. James Lee Byars’ installation, ‘Byars is Elephant’ (pictured below) is another similar example, the ball of rope in the centre is actually made from hand-woven camel hair with golden lamé (fabric with woven threads of metal in, I later learnt) draped floor to ceiling. You’re guess is as good as mine as to what this is all about, I got as far as the knotted rope being a metaphor for the insoluble questions and riddles of human existence and maybe something about ritual a la the camel hair and ‘story of the weeping camel’ (maybe not related). The accompanying blurb mentions Byars’, ‘luxurious sculptures, works on paper and performances question the boundaries between art and life, and the importance of living intensely.’ Most people'd probably tell you that I live pretty intensely enough as it is without having had to experience a gold lined room with a ball of camel hair in it and I've never seen this as a particularly important condition of living either until now so maybe there's some wisdom to be had in this semi-poetic, theatrical-looking installation after all.
At the opposite end of the interpretation scale of art reading would be Adel Abdessemed’s ‘Décor’ where four life-sized sculptures of Christ after the Crucifixion hang in a row on the gallery wall. They are made of razor wire which straight away transforms the meaning of Christ as, traditionally a symbol of faith/love into one of danger. Similarly the plurality of having four depictions of ‘one’ God is turning preconceptions of representations of Christ. It is brilliantly made, but too obvious for my liking.
When it came to the painting in this exhibition there was quite a variety, from the painterly, almost Futurist style abstraction of Mark Grotjahn, to the more controlled Op Art of Bridget Riley and satirical/political imagery of Lynn Foulkes, but for me however, the two painters that stood out were Marlene Dumas (pictured above) and Roman Opalka (pictured two images below). It’s debatable whether Opalka is a painter or more of a conceptual artist and is probably somewhere in-between, but more of that later. I had heard of Marlene Dumas and seen images of her work on many occasions but until now had never before seen any of her work in person. Pictured above, is ‘Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia’, not the best painting out of the series of five/six displayed but it’s the only one I photographed for some reason. I’d describe Dumas as a real painters’ painter, like Bacon or Saville you can see, almost feel, the brushstrokes, the layers, the wash upon wash which creates a ghostly-like transparency, window or veil over the image. This 'veil' beckons you to look closely and ponder on the vacant, often expressionless faces of the figures depicted in her paintings, the figures and their stories often disguised by this quiet sense of mystery.
The mystery apparent in Opalka’s paintings reveals itself more simplistically and upon first glancing upon his canvases you’d easily be forgiven for thinking they were left blank or painted white. It is only on closer inspection that one sees thousands upon thousands of numbers painted systematically upon the canvas’ surface. It is quite stunning and a real testament to human endurance and patience, or at least this one artist’s endurance, which he started in 1965 in an attempt to paint 1 to infinity which he carried on everyday for the rest of his life until 2011. He also began to take photos of himself at the end of each day’s painting each image taking an increasingly lighter tone so eventually his image began to fade away into nothingness. This work feels beautiful and quite sad at the same time, as it is an act of obsession/meditation performed everyday but also quite futile as in no human lifetime could one ever actually paint every number up to infinity. Its pointlessness is admirable which sort of gives it ‘a point’ after all.
Another work that felt similarly ‘zen-like’ was Roni Horn’s ‘Well and Truly’ (pictured above) where ‘water is depicted as solid in the form of ten cast-glass blocks in different shades of blue, blue-green, grey and white’. It was the perfect morning to come across this work, the gallery was quiet and the sun was shining right on top of each of the glass blocks creating a shimmer and sheen on the glass so that it really did appear as though it was liquid. The colour of each block glowed and radiated subtly on the grey concrete floor of the gallery and I wouldn’t have thought much more of it unless I hadn’t read it was by Roni Horn and the title of the work, ‘Well and Truly’. The phrase’s primary meaning is contradicted by the connotation of well (as in a water well) being associated with water which acts as a symbol of changeability, flow and uncertainty. “Watching the water,” says the artist, “I am stricken with vertigo of meaning. Water is the final conjugation: an infinity of forms, relations and contents.” Once again it strikes me that this is another work sort-of about ‘nothing’ in what has been a morning of serene minimalism and profound, metaphysical anomalies.
Phew! And this was just the start of my day! I'd still stand by my comment of it all being a bit pretentious. The act of viewing art, I think, should be an internal conversation between the viewer and the art work, effort is required on both sides in order for work to convey meaning and in turn the viewer (who already brings their own history, experiences, 'baggage' to the conversation) responding/taking time to experience the work. In other words, it would be impossible to have to think about all the work in this exhibition in the amount of depth each individual piece of work demanded. I'm as fickle as anyone else and sometimes there are just some pieces of work you don't feel like 'talking to' or even worse that you feel intimidated by because you 'can't speak the language' but confusing metaphors aside, you are more often than not rewarded for making the effort of trying to understand a work art than not bothering at all (as I hope some of my observations in this post showed...). On the whole I'm often more surprised and learn more from the art I 'don't like' or find difficult than the stuff I enjoy. Who ever knew that conceptualism could generate so much conundrum?
If this hasn't been quite enough pretention for you and you happen to be in Venice then why not check out 'Prima Materia' at Punta Della Dogana until the 31st December!