Friday, August 19, 2011

Venice Biennale: Anish Kapoor at S. Giorgio Maggiore

I should say right off that I like the work of Anish Kapoor. His "Cloud Gate" in Chicago (which he hates to be called what everyone naturally calls it: "The Bean") seems to me like the most successfully integrated and engaging public sculpture I've seen. And I liked his deeply pigmented works before he went all reflective on us. So I was excited to hear that he would have an auxilary work in this Biennale.

Having finally seen "Ascension", though, I've realized that the sound of eight towering stacks of powerful fans beneath a dome of one of Palladio's masterpieces is every bit as annoying as the canned music that certain other great Venetian churches--such as San Francesco della Vigna--insist on ruining their spaces with.

This explicitly-labeled spiritual work also reminded me once again that while the poor may still possibly be able to find relatively low-cost consolation in Religion, when it comes to Spirituality these days huge amounts of money are required. In place of the more traditional distinctions between these two terms I'd like to suggest what I think is now a more relevant formula:

Madonna, Sting and Oprah are all extremely spiritual.

Someone like Mother Teresa, having taken a vow of poverty, could only have been religious.

In America at least, anything that pitches itself as spiritual typically requires a platinum American Express card. 

In the case of the mystical almost immaterial experience promised us by Anish Kapoor in "Ascension", it requires all those fans burning through unimaginable quantities of kilowatt hours and major corporate funding. (Like the work? Buy the commemorative espresso service!)

It's an extremely strange work of art in that it requires nothing so quaint as a "willing suspension of disbelief" but, instead, an extremely determined kind of tunnel vision. Having seen the posters for the piece around town, which showed the most ethereal of works--nothing more than moody smoke--I was shocked to walk into the church and encounter not just the fans and their din, but a huge circular nearly-six-foot-tall base (whose form and material suggested the reception desk of a contemporary medical center), and a massive curved ventilation pipe extending out into the space below the center of the dome--its size and shape like something out of Dr. Seuss. Comical in the context, a little wacky.

As the photo illustrating this post shows, I was determined to have the pure experience promised by the publicity material. There's no sign of the huge Seussian ventilation pipe drawing the funnel of smoke upward, and the stack of fans are relegated to the edges of the frame.

Only after leaving the church did I realize how completely insane this was. I willfully ignored 90% of the experience of the work in order to capture the more picturesque and completely unrepresentative 10%.

This is the kind of willful self-deception required by politics--and advertising--not good art.

"Ascension" was originally created for a specific site in a very poor street in Brazil. In such a busy setting I imagine the noise of the fans and all the rest of the very material construction required to create the immaterial effects of this work seemed far less intrusive--and, thus, far less absurd. I'm surprised that an artist who has been very outspoken about his belief that most public art is bad precisely because it has no relation to its site (see Charles Ray's "Boy with Frog") would allow it to be installed in a space in which it fits so poorly.

For in the church of San Giorgio Maggiore it seems like a work of unintentional self-parody.  Reminiscent of those traveling spiritualistic charlatans of the 19th and early 20th-century and their elaborate stagecraft, but presented in the grotesquely bloated terms of our own day. Or like some satirical Rube Goldberg-ian contraption whose enormous expenditures of energy, money and materials produces only a little smoke for the viewer--and its own self-perpetuation.


  1. There will still be a few of the Biennale sites open when I get to Venice in November. And, this is one of them! I'll buy some ear plugs, maybe.

    Do they turn off the fans for mass?


  2. They must turn the fans off for mass. And, to be fair, it's not that the noise is particularly obnoxious, it's just surprising to find and hear so much hardware when one expecting some quiet mystical work.

    Of course they need the towers of powerful fans to prevent random cross currents from interrupting with the smoke's ascent to within range of the ventilation pipe above. All those powerful fans basically enclose the work within four walls of their own powerful currents, which other currents can't penetrate.

    Actually the work is best appreciated on a really hot day when those fans really come in handy for guests. I saw an 8-year-old girl twirling happily in place in front of the fans, thrilled at the cool air. I'm sorry I didn't get a picture of that.

    As a nod toward all those professional guilds that once flourished in Venice, an alternate title I'd suggest for the work is "Apotheosis of the Cooling Profession."

  3. I appreciate your review. I could take it as an "the emperor has no clothes" revelation (pillar of vapor, after all), or an invitation to consider the place given this imposition.

    "Forms are not neutral, they have values and communicate identities" (Larry Peters).

    If this "Ascension" was created as a site-specific work, then either a recreation of a "great wind" of the Holy Spirit or an intentional irony may have been among the artist's intents.

    Perhaps, like many other installations, the explicatory text (if any) is the real art, not the three-dimensional object - five with light and sound?. Since correlation must not be confused with causality, I cannot now opine but, with your thoughts in mind, will ponder that when visiting in late September.
    Thank you!

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  5. I'd be very interested in your response to the work when you see it. I'd also like to hear someone who really liked the work say something about how & why it worked for them as that wasn't my experience, but I can imagine that it might be for someone else. Sometimes so much of the experience has to do with what one expects and perhaps artists can be victims of, or victimized by, their own success: because I like other things he's done perhaps I expected too much.