Thursday, 25 June 2015

Tongue tied or speaking in tongues?

If you are lucky enough to visit ‘Slip of the Tongue’ at Punta Della Dogana in Venice this year there will be some points during your viewing where you will look possibly at a stone axe head sticking out the top of a block of clay and question ‘what does this all mean?!’ ‘uh....’
That’s right! This post marks the glorious return of ‘the bit pretentious one’ art gallery, Punta Della Dogana, Venice. Hard to believe it was almost two years since my last visit during the 2013 Biennale when I initially dubbed the contemporary art gallery as the ‘more pretentious’ of its Venetian counterparts [see]. June 2015 and I am not deterred, as before, first opinions can be misleading and I was excited to see what was in store second time around. In fact my visits to PDD are becoming some of the most insightful experiences into art I have ever had at an exhibition. This post reflects on some of those thoughts.
People should not be afraid to not understand art. I think the image of authority projected by the galleries we place art in can often dictate otherwise and there is a pressure or intimidation found in their reverend silence and cathedral-like viewing spaces that fills people with a sense of the unknown. I don’t think this is the fault of gallery spaces who go to great lengths to ensure their buildings are as welcoming, user-friendly and accessible as possible and it is a double-edged sword, galleries need to be authoritative to give the work a kind-of cultural backing or approval that gives conviction that, for example, this sheet of gold leaf on the floor is ‘art’. However I do not see any of this as a bad thing and think it is as important to not know, expect the unexpected as much as it is to-know something. With art particularly the complexity of each individual piece and ways in which meaning is constantly shifting over time can mean that no one could ever claim to understand it all, often not even the artist. On that note the introduction to the exhibition at PDD states, “Each of the objects and works of art (around 120) presented in the exhibition “Slip of the Tongue” seem to partake in this idea that the activity of the artist is aimed at the preservation and afterlife of objects rather than of their interpretation.”

Hubert Duprat 'Volos' (2013)
Equally it would be wrong to assume that our soul engagement or pleasure from art should be in attempting to understand/interpret it. Asking what a stone axe head in a lump of clay is all about is a perfectly reasonable question, but may actually have nothing to do with arts knowledge or experience brought to the work by the viewer, but highlights that there must be something intriguing or something possibly worth knowing about the art work. Conversely, when I find myself in an exhibition asking myself what various works are about, I then ask ‘why/what is it about the work I’m looking at that makes me interested in it?’ In the case of our axe head I was initially attracted, of course, because it featured a tool and there was something totemic-like or primal about the way in which it was quite ‘simply’ stuck in the top of the clay block that aroused suspicion. I wanted to know why the clay had been kept in its clear shrink wrap casing as to being left to dry and whether this made it, due to the condensation formed under the wrap a bit like a ‘breathing sculpture’. It raised connections in the art history part of my knowledge of Arte Povera, the ready-made as well as something more tribal or ancient. Even without this assumed knowledge I think people would pick up on the clues in the work but admittedly it requires more effort than some work. The work is part of a series in this exhibition by French artist, Hubert Duprat. Titled ‘Volos’ it is in fact named after the Greek island where in an archaeology museum a  pre-Cycladic polished axe head replaces a human head in a  terracotta sculpture of a human chest. The specifics of this may have taken some deducing or would require knowledge of pre-Cyladic sculpture, but the essential ideas of something ancient, and a breathing or flesh-like form could be read by most.

Nairy Baghramian 'Retainer' (2013) Cast aluminium, silicon, polycarbonate, chromed metal, rubber.
Despite its more demanding nature ‘Slip of the Tongue’ is one of the more digestible exhibitions in this year’s Biennale in which Danish artist, Danh Vo curates. Featuring some 39 artists from throughout art history; mediƦval miniaturists, Rodin, Picasso, Francesco Lo Savio, Carol Rama, Paul Thek, Nancy Spero and Lee Lozano, Marcel Broodthaers, Hubert Duprat, Elmgreen and Dragset to Fischli and Weiss it is still pretty sizable but in true Punta Della Dogana style the works featured are at times difficult to spot given, at times vast quantities of space to single works of art. Art Tourists expecting a similar Biennale style art binge will relate to its ‘bit pretentious’ reputation as was my similar false judgement from two years ago. However in contrast to the relentlessness and scale of the Biennale central exhibition itself, PDD stands out for demonstrating that by giving artwork more space (irrespective of its scale) it forces us to consider/notice it more. This is an exhibition that rewards thoughtful interpretation for those who take the time to look for it.
 Elsewhere a row of yellow, cheese-like melting plastic squares are supported into a row by a wire structure which arguably regiments them as much as it supports. Therein lies our beginnings to interpreting this work, a dynamic visual puzzle in the language of materials, shape, form and meaning. The wire denotes some kind of forcible correction and reminded me of braces or an abstract wall. The plastic yellow sheets then become teeth-like or the object which is being manipulated by the wire, their shiny surface mimicking a feeling of wetness associated with the teeth/mouth idea. The work, titled ‘Retainer’ is by Nairy Baghramian and in directly avoiding a representation of a set of braces/retainer it is meant to conjure ideas of the mouth as a space that changes when it is open or closed.  The whole thing does look fairly awkward and not exactly aesthetically pleasing but to quote the catalogue rather, ‘reveals the ugliness that proceeds correction’.
Baghramian also has two other works in the show, one of which the title piece for the exhibition, ‘Slip of the tongue’ (continuing the mouth theme). The work itself a combination of epoxy, resin, polystyrene and concrete series of phallus looking sculptures which are meant to be more tongue-like but in their uncertainty convey the idea of Freudian-slips and stumbles of language and how it shapes our identity.
Danh Vo 'We the People'  Detail (2011-2013) Copper.
In relation to the curator Danh Vo’s work the theme of the broken and the mended, the beautiful and the delicate is referred to not only in the artists he has selected but also his own practice which in some cases combines fragments of classical sculpture with modern-abstract concrete or wooden forms that both appear to hold-together and prop-up the original sculpture and interfere with it at the same time. In Vo’s sculpture, ‘We the People’ a set of giant broken and joined chain-links, is derived from a painting showing a cross-section inside the Statue of Liberty by Martin Wong (also in the exhibition). The links also refer to a piece Vo did about the Statue of Liberty in New York five years earlier. The idea of making links and literally depicting them is woven throughout the exhibition so that the work can be read both individually and then a second time in relation to the work surrounding it.  
Danh Vo 'Untitled' (2015) Gold, cardboard, various iron and farm tools.
Where this particular exhibition also challenges expectations is in that it has been curated by an artist. Whether it is perhaps because ‘artist as curator’ is more intuitively visually aware than a curator is, I don’t know but there could be argument in saying that this exhibition overall feels far more cohesive and more reflective of Vo’s practcice in its selection of works than that of the theme-based grouping of the Biennale ‘All the World’s Futures’ curated by Okwui Enwezor. Even down to the presenting of work aesthetically together is well thought-out with similar neutral tones, sepia hues and scales and sizes that vary from the elegantly small to the ambitiously large. From the late 19th century chandelier from the ballroom of the former Hotel Majestic in Paris which functioned as the headquarters for the German military in WWII to Sigmar Polke’s potato house and Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’ there is a LOT of art in this exhibition that begs to be thought about and how it talks to the other pieces that surround it paints a complex set of ideas around identity and biographical links to Vo’s mixed heritage of being a Vietnamese-born Danish artist that I’m still left unravelling weeks after having seen it!

Assisted in this plight visitors are burdened with what is an almost alarmingly comprehensive accompanying twenty-three page document which I think reads better as more of a catalogue to read after the exhibition rather than during. Tip; never find yourself reading the text in the gallery longer than you are ‘reading’ the work itself.

Lee Lozano 'No Title' (1964) Graphite on paper. 36.5 x 46.5 x 2.5cm.
The juxtaposition of works throughout history, such as a Picasso next to a Lee Lozano is another example of two artists whose work may have never been seen together; Picasso amassed his wealth as an artist during his lifetime, Lozano famously rejecting the idea of being an artist forcibly removing herself from the art world in ‘dropout piece’ in the late 60’s. Politically and historically they are two completely different artists, so in one way it is joyously rebellious to put them side-by-side but visually it also allows us to compare their work as paintings and celebrate the differences/similarities within the work. This exhibition does feel a little like a Lozano retrospective and for me personally, the real gem was seeing several of her ‘tool’ inspired drawings from the 60’s. Compared to the similarly sexualised, intense drawings/prints of Jim Dine (who was also working at same time as Lozano in America) very few people have heard of her. This is in part due to her self-inflicted infamy of wanting to disappear from the art world, but I think her drawings have so much to offer as being the female reaction to what are traditionally very masculine and at times phallic-looking objects. As drawings they aren’t very detailed or refined, but they are very aggressive, dark, imposing and direct responses to these objects that are openly sexualised and confrontational. In their expressiveness and exaggeration they also remind me of Philip Guston’s drawings and although I did not spot it they have also been likened to Claes Oldenburg's sculpture drawings of enlarged or distorted common-place objects . Watch this space as a more detailed post on Lozano is worthy an imminently due on this blog!

Lee Lozano 'No Title' (1964) Graphite on paper. x4

Overall this exhibition does draw attention to some of the treachery and misleading nature of language as well as challenging the purpose of art objects once they have finished being created. Art undergoing an existential crisis, 'what does art 'do' once it has been created?' It is one of the most concept riddled shows I have ever seen and I think the fact that I have struggled to summarize it succinctly only proves just how it defies simple explanation, but in doing so is also incredibly rich and rewarding. You’ll leave perhaps more confused than when you came in and that is a good place to start. What a difference two years can make!
 ‘Slip of the Tongue’ is on at Punta Della Dogana, Venice until December 31st 2015.  

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

I always believed in futures

The stage is set as eighty-nine countries across the world present their pavilions from the 9th May until 22nd November in the 56th Venice Biennale. This year’s central exhibition has been curated by Okwui Enwezor, titled ‘All the World’s Futures’ and  at its core features live performances and underpinning ideas expressed in Karl Marx’s ‘Das Kapital’. The future doesn’t come across too brightly in this Biennale and as consequence has already drawn criticism for being highly political, sombre and ‘more depressing’ than in previous years. ‘All the World’s Futures’ is however, ambitious and enables for a broad capacity of works like its preceding Biennale theme, ‘The Encyclopaedic Palace’ whose title covered pretty much anything! I am reminded of when I was a child and creating an imaginary ‘everything in the world backpack’ which travelled with me on all my childhood adventures as well as frequently appearing in my written stories. It was a way of encompassing everything one could ever need as well as a sort-of lazy alternative to having to imagine something specific- rather a means of imagination subject to necessity, if I needed a ladder, saucepan, compass or rowing boat in the course of play, anything one could possibly ever need would undoubtedly be covered by the ‘everything in the world backpack’. The 56th Venice Biennale feels a little the same, in its efforts to cover the all encompassing breadth of existence from human endeavour to the social, political, environmental, symbolic and aesthetic. So much so that if you were to wonder, ‘is there any work here featuring string?’ you’ll undoubtedly find it –everything from bones, tyres, shops, keys, bread, earth, trees, glass, flags, fabric, instruments, boats, video games, immersive installation, sound, chalkboards, ready-mades, recycling, text, neon, driftwood, conflict, film, opera, war, eating, sexuality, identity, the sea, archiving, minimalism, technology, stone, metal, newspapers, fans, walls, doors, suitcases , history, people, paint, place is represented making it an almost impossible task to surmise just what isn’t included either conceptually or in material! Does it fall flat of being too disorganised, too crowded? Or is it too specific in being overtly political or depressing as the reviews seem to claim? I am less sure of the latter as it moderately depends on what glasses you are wearing when viewing the work as I certainly found there to be enough variety, curiosity and uplifiting/depressing/confusing wonderment to fill a lifetimes worth of futures.

Over the course of three sizzling Venetian days I attempted to visually munch my way through as much of the Biennale as possible across its two main venues (the Giardini and Arsenale) and around the city so I can present what is hopefully a digested view of some of the highlights of this year’s Venice Biennale 2015! Burp!

Top Five Biennale Pavilions (in no particular order)

Netherlands – herman de vries ‘to be always to be’ How could you make reference to ‘Das Kaptial’ without having plenty of tools scattered throughout? This year’s Biennale certainly had more than I recall seeing last year which is never a bad thing! The Netherlands pavilion was no exception and as one of the first I visited, was a delight to see dozens of sickles laid out on the floor so that each of their shapes is emphasised highlighting their similarities yet their differences at the same time. This was one piece in the body of work by herman de vries whose contribution to the Netherlands pavilion took the form of a series of natural/earth-based works that are experienced by the eye, ear, body and nose. Leaves, shells, plants, soil, stones, flowers are collected, isolated and displayed drawing attention to the oneness and diversity of the world surrounding us. The sickles create an association between the tool as an extension of the body and mediator to the crops and land in which it comes into contact with. Aside from my obvious bias in this pavilion featuring tools, I found the compartmentalisation of each of the elements, soil, stone, plant, tool etc. to be immensely satisfying which may stem from my interest in typology of tools and tool catalogues. Aesthetically there is something pleasing about the order of grids/isolating objects in this way as well as the psychological implications of grouping/collecting things to form a bigger sense of control or unity even more interesting when done so with natural objects like plants/leaves which by their very nature defy the man-made perception of order and control. It was a very gentle exhibition and not fascinating because it was necessarily anything new, but was more reassuring as it confirmed what I’ve seen so many people do (both artists and non alike) using natural materials and a connection with documenting, noticing, looking at natural world. It also underlines a very basic belief that an appreciation of understanding, engaging in the world around us begins with noticing it.

Israel –Tsibi Geva ‘Archaeology of the Present’
Hundreds of disused car tyres encase the outside of the Israeli pavilion whilst inside window panels and shutters line the walls. Perceptions of inside, outside the functional and the representational are manipulated creating new assemblages, installations and sculptures that in some cases block or create a sense of sometimes confrontational discomfort for the viewer. In complete contrast to the natural tone of the Netherlands, Israel presents an altogether urban, industrialised pavilion of bicycles, ladders, weapons, metal girders, wire, and wood.  Not so much an environmental or recycling statement as a formal, aesthetic one where wheels become circles, ladders –lines, fencing –grids and street signs –squares. Together their formal qualities and crudeness create interesting compositions, tones, surfaces, imagery and spatial ambiguity. Echoes of the Bauhaus, Rauschenberg and Johns alongside what could only be described as Israel’s version of a Tapies would suggest that whilst Israel isn’t bringing much originality to proceedings but non-the-less it is an aesthetic I am glad is still being explored and utilised as made manifest in this pavilion.

 Canada –BGL ‘Canadassimo’  
The BGL artists collective comprising of three Canadian artists present the visually glorious and great fun, ‘Canadassimo’ installation raising issues related to economics and the art system centred around the notion of ‘unproductivity’. Humorously, they attempt to do so with a three part installation set as a shop, living space and studio the latter of which couldn’t be any more extravagant and in its sheer abundance of paint cans, shoes, tools, palettes and other artistic paraphernalia appears in some ways the complete opposite of unproductivity. However the point being that out of all this paint, all these brushes and all of this mess no actual ‘art work’ has been produced. There is a huge sense of artificiality in this work from the kitsch colours to the fact that it has been staged to look as though work has taken place when in a way it hasn’t. We do not see the product of all these half empty paint cans, merely the mass of their existence. It is taking the idea of the consumerist, product-based Westernised nature of being an artist and exaggerating it to make a point that we are conditioned to buy all of these things in order to ‘make art’ when these objects often sit taking up space inadvertently becoming the art themselves. The whole thing is very visually pleasing so much so I am sceptical that I really whole-heartedly ‘believe’ in it as a piece of work that will resonate with me for years to come. Is it a bit of a one-liner and does it really offer anything new in how I think about the system of ‘what it means to make art’? Certainly in the short-term it is a joyous thing that will quietly rekindle that simple pleasure of painting without a cause and that’s never a bad thing.  

Poland –C.T Jasper and Joanna Malinowska ‘Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01”W’
What do you get if you take the principle idea behind Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, a Polish Opera and Saint-Domingue in Haiti? Answer the Polish Pavilion video installation which takes Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, a mad/romantic anti-hero who attempts through all manner of frustrating human endurance build an opera house in the Amazon. Sharing a motivation in the faith of the universal power of opera C.T Jasper and Malinowska attempt to similarly bring opera to the island whilst remaining ‘not uncritical to the aspect of cultural colonization’. The result is a large ‘in the round’ video projection of a performance of the Polish opera ‘Halka’ in Saint-Domingue uniting a Polish opera with the land in which Polish soldiers fought to defend its independence during 1802. I have to admit part of my enjoyment of this piece comes from having seen Fitzcarraldo and similarly, like many artists I expect, relating to the idea of perseverance in the face of adversity for the motivation of a love of the arts. In the film the impossible struggle to make this dream a reality doesn’t bare fruition so taking that idea and enabling it to happen, in the very modern way of not being restricted by having a theatre in which to perform in, Fitzcarraldo’s dream is made into reality. It is not done with an arrogance that the Westernised version of opera is necessarily better or what is needed for a place like Haiti but speaks more of the universal language of music and storytelling across two different cultures in which we as the viewer are watching both the performance and audience at the same time. I actually found myself watching the reactions of the audience and movements of the children, animals and passersby more than the performance itself.

Romania –Adrian Ghenie ‘Darwin’s Room’ First spotted in the 2008 Liverpool Biennial, I would cautiously go as far to say that Adrian Ghenie is one of the best painters in this year’s Biennale even though, sadly there aren’t many to choose from (Marlene Dumas coming in at a close second). Titled ‘Drawin’s Room’ the Romanian pavilion features three rooms of Ghenie’s paintings and a few of his drawings, the majority of which are portraits of Charles Darwin throughout various ages of his life. Purely from a painterly view, these are really voluptuously painted portraits which share a darkly, distorted layering and manipulation of paint on canvas as though it were a fleshy surface. They remind me of more thickly painted and colourful Francis Bacon’s but sharing some of their flatness so as not to become as thick as an Auerbach. What they offer in terms of a perspective into Charles Darwin, his work and or ideas feels significantly less.  I often think portraits of figures such as Darwin, Einstein, Freud etc. don’t really work as portraits as such, as the people they depict, apart from being dead are so iconic and recognisable we don’t really see them as people anymore, but more as a symbol of their ideas/discoveries. Hence, when I look at Ghenie’s paintings of Darwin, I either think; in their distortion they are so unrecognisable that it could be any face, any person; or, I recognise it as being Darwin and so begin to look for things in the painting which allude to ideas of evolution. If anything in distorting historical figures in Ghenie’s paintings is perhaps an attempt to convey the true nature of these people and not the myth. In the Darwin portraits I think they speak more of the subconscious than the scientific and it is perhaps that juxtaposition what makes it interesting.

Other highlights:

Fiona Hall –Australian Pavilion*  
In a cabinet of curiosities meets Pitt Rivers style installation, Hall marks the opening of the brand new Australian pavilion with an installation of hand sculpted objects made from sardine cans, drift wood, cuckoo clocks and wound-string. Her presence in the Biennale brings a celebrated sense of optimism to proceedings, in the artists words, "Our contemporary mindset has resulted in widespread paranoia over this perilous state. But it's a world that's also resilient and wondrous. The body of work I'm presenting is a personal attempt to reconcile a state of gloom and chaos with a curiosity and affection for the place where we all live."

Steve McQueen –‘Ashes’ 2012-2013*
The Turner Prize/Oscar winning artist/director makes a moving Biennale appearance with a very simple but very direct film about a boy on a boat and the story of his murder.

John Akomfrah –‘Vertigo Sea’ 2015 *
Increasingly becoming one of my favourite film makers, Akomfrah first came to my attention with the ‘Unfinished Conversation’ at the Liverpool Biennial in 2012. His work defies categorisation being part documentary, part installation, part cinematography: using three screens and edited using sound, stock and recorded footage, ‘Vertigo Sea’ presents a meditative experience on the environment, whaling and our relationship with the sea drawing on Moby Dick as one of its many cultural references.
Nicola Samori –Italian Pavilion ‘Lienzo’ 2014 Oil on table
Renaissance style images of saints and Christ are depicted traditionally as oil on canvas/board whose top halves are then peeled back or pierced as though the painted surface becomes flayed skin. I have always been drawn to art works that are very self-aware, in the sense a painting which knows its a painting, in example when the painter has manipulated the painted surface so that it ceases to act as a representational image or illusion and becomes an object in its own right. In Samori's paintings this peeling back adds extra meaning and deformation to the icons depicted. 
Ricardo Brey*
Nested boxes are presented in anthropological glass cases containing parchments, drawings, materials, items and totemic-looking, shamanistic objects made and in some cases found by the artist.  A library of curiosity that begs closer inspection.

Melvin Edwards
Wonderfully intricate, complex sculptures to draw comprising of welded together scraps and parts (yes, including tools!).
Chiharv Shiota –Japanese Pavilion ‘The Key in the Hand’ 2015
For the amount of threads (some 50,000) literally involved in making this piece it is ironically also ending up becoming a bit of a one-liner in that ideas of association of keys, to memory and threads is a little bit too easy and for my liking a bit chocolate-boxy. However it is still a triumphant spectacle to behold and is worth seeing for being one of this year's most crowd pleasing works.

 Was this year’s Biennale original or innovative enough overall? I think so. I think there is far greater emphasis on film and digital technologies this time around, with even less painting which led me to feeling as though the previous years left more to the imagination. At times in this year’s Biennale there were so many films it would be in fact impossible over the time limit of two days to watch each one in their entirety which is where the distinction between good and outstanding film makers really becomes important, with artists like John Akomfrah, Steve McQueen, Chantal Akerman, Mika Rottenberg (reminiscent of Matthew Barney/David Lynch) and Peter Greenaway (who has a massive video installation in the Italian Pavilion) standing out amongst the bunch. In the central exhibition it is true that there were more swords, weapons, flags and skulls than perhaps ever before which is understandable reasoning for the Biennale being more political, war torn, morbid and sombre this year, but then this was always counter balanced by the media-friendly and perfectly pleasing works of the likes of the red threaded keys of Japan and the mechanised moving trees of the French pavilion so the whole thing is too complex to make a fair overall assessment. In Enwezor’s view the aim of this year’s Biennale was to ‘Bring together publics in acts of looking listening, responding, engaging and speaking in order to make sense of the current upheaval’. The world may have become a little darker in recent years, but whether the presence of swords, canons and broken window panes really reflects a bleak world view of future dystopias is more a matter of perspective than prophecy. The Biennale’s greatest asset is also its biggest burden that in being so big and diverse it suffers from the loss of an overall sense of coherence, message or understanding though it remains a terrible, bordering on gluttonous, binge of the best and worst of the art world and for that alone makes it worth celebrating. For a breath of fresh air the Punta Della Dogana exhibition ‘Slip of the Tongue’ curated and featuring work from Denmark’s Danh Vo offers a welcome rest bite to the cramming of work and space of the Venice Biennale, but more on that next time...

Yum, yum, yum! Please art binge responsibly.

The 56th Venice Biennale, ‘All the World’s Futures’ runs until November 22nd 2015. More details found at: