Thursday, August 25, 2011

Blue Lido, This Evening, 8 pm

For 12.50 euro per day you can rent one of these umbrellas + chair (7.50 euro for each additional chair) and experience a little bit of Venice's capanna culture: the central part of many native Venetians' summer experience, with its own very particular traditions and laws. It deserves a post all its own, which I am hoping my wife, who has much more experience of it, will soon write.

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.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Lions and Dolphins and Cherubs...

Or are they sea monsters? Whatever they may be, there are enough of them arrayed around the choir of San Giorgio Maggiore for a Busby Berkeley musical extravaganza--awaiting only the arrival of Esther Williams to get started.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Wall of Commedia dell'Arte

Arlecchino, Pantalone, Brighella, Colombina, Pulcinella et al hang out at Zacaria's, a small shop right beside La Fenice in which all the objects (including the pictured figures, as well as large fully-functioning marionettes) are handmade by the owner.   

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Venice Biennale: Unofficial Venice Pavilion: "Nude Outside Bath"

I don't mean to slight the official Venice Pavilion in the Biennale but the installation I saw (and posted about) Sunday in the Brazil Pavilion by Artur Barrio reminded me of another, well, exhibition I recently saw on the edges of the Giardini Pubblici.

One of the focal points in Barrio's site specific installation is a scaffold which, with its dirty sheets and two sacks of grain for pillows, its variety of empty bottles and glasses, scraps of building materials and other waste, attests to the process of the work's creation and the former presence of the artist. Messy life, or at least traces of it--some of them still rotting (the fish in the crates of salt near the make-shift cot), some of them just the usual plastic waste of our society--defy and disrupt the pristine order we might expect in an exhibition space.

Does it surprise us and pull us up short? Well, no, in this context it's kind of what one expects.

Unlike the work pictured below. Another site-specific installation, on the edge of the Riva dei Partigiani, right next to Carlo Scarpa's once-floating/now stationary Monument to the Women Partisans.

Like Artur Barrio's most famous works, his "situations", the above installation is constructed of the most modest materials and yet has a disorienting impact upon its surroundings. But the above work is not by Barrio. Nor is it, as far as I can tell, intended as art. 

A man really does seem to live here, at least part of the time. Like most residences, the decor changes periodically. For a time there were two chairs (a visitor was expected?). Before the tricolore appeared last week, there had been a large umbrella. One afternoon I saw the older man whose place it is sitting in a chair beneath the umbrella reading. For a while I thought that perhaps it was just his terrace away from home. It's a great location, with a great view, unmatched even by those with an apartment on the Riva (in Manhattan it would rent as a one bedroom for $2,000 per month). When some people get tired of being indoors they have a favorite park bench they like to sit on. I thought this might be something like that, only expanded and more intensely domesticated.

But I now think this is his only, or at least primary residence. I say this because while I have never passed by in the evening and seen him sleeping there, I did pass by a few weeks ago and see him at his morning bath. He was standing in the middle of his living area--that is, the slightly lower level with the chair--completely naked except for a blue towel draped over one shoulder. A white haired man, probably in his 60s, with a round belly. He had a hand mirror and was shaving, facing in the direction of the Partisan sculpture.

It was about 9:30 in the morning and he seemed entirely at ease, perfectly natural. Nothing insane or squalid or threatening about him. Just another naked guy shaving in what seemed to be the privacy of his own bathroom. As if the walls and roof of what had once been his own little house had suddenly vanished, but he hadn't noticed.

Others did notice. While I stood watching him a crowded vaporetto passed by less than 50 yards away. But while I could see the vaporetto passengers watching him with amusement, he seemed completely unaware of them.

Vaporetto traffic is just one of the facts of life in such a location; live there long enough and I'm sure you reach a point where you don't even notice it anymore.

This is the kind of display that would get you in trouble in the United States--and perhaps in any other Italian city in which homelessness is more visibly a problem than Venice. But the man and his residence remain, undisturbed by the authorities as far as I can tell. I should probably try to find out more about him, what his situation is. But for now I simply hope that his run extends beyond that of the Biennale.  

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Venice Biennale: Brazil Pavilion

It's a hard thing to be an artist these days. Especially in something like the Venice Biennale.

At one time I'm sure it was supposed to be a great honor to be selected to represent your country--but that phrase alone, to "represent your country," involves the contemporary artist in all kinds of problems involving nationalism and politics and representation of any and all sorts.

A walk through the Biennale can sometimes seem to me like a walk through an ingenious system of exquisite torture, in which artists find themselves in the most impossible of positions, struggling mightily to maintain their credibility as subversives in the most institutional of settings.

It's a losing proposition. Back when the Biennale began an artist could simply exhibit his (mostly) or her (sometimes) work. But many contemporary artists feel the need to call into question the whole notion of "exhibition" and "national pavilion" and a lot of other once seemingly straightforward terms that can only be handled safely within quotation marks now, lest the artist become infected by them.

 The Brazilian installation artist Artur Barrio bravely does without the quotation marks in his work, but the setting of the Biennale seems to present particular challenges for him. Barrio specializes in subverting the ordinary contexts of the everyday by preparing odd unidentifiable sacks of things--for example, a raggedy bloody bag about the size of a human torso, filled with bones and entrails and other unappetizing things--and leaving them anonymously behind on a sidewalk in Rio, for example, then recording the reactions of passers-by. One of the two rooms in the Brazil Pavilion documents two such works from the early 1970s.

At at time when "para-police forces" in Brazil were "cleansing" the streets of delinquents and poor children--that is, murdering them and dumping their bodies outside the city--Barrio's "placement of five hundred plastic bags containing blood, nails, dung, waste, and other debris in downtown Rio during the peak of the dictatorship’s repression” (Ramirez, Mari Carman and Olea, Hector, Inverted Utopias: Avant-garde Art in Latin America, Yale University Press) was a way of marking these disappearances, of trying to engage Brazilians personally in what their government was trying to keep out of sight.

These were brilliant works by an important artist--but how much can he possibly do within the Brazil Pavilion at the Venice Biennale? He has created a site specific installation but the setting of the Biennale works against him. No one is really surprised to find dried fish heads in crates of salt or an ersatz bed and refuse, empty bottles of wine, writing on the wall, scraped-off plaster, ropes and so forth; we're used to seeing a bunch of junk scattered around in contemporary art. There are so many other pavilions to see, viewers don't even slow to take it all in, much less react in any way.

He knows what he likes
Except for one viewer, that is. A pigeon happened to walk in while I was looking at the installation and he became very engaged with the piece. Specifically with a plastic sack of dried corn kernals hanging on the frame of the cot.

He watched the corn and I watched him. Then he leaped onto the plastic bag and, wings flapping, tried to break into it. He tried this a number of times with no luck.

He spent far more time with the piece than any human who passed through while I was there. Then, finally giving up, he walked out of the pavilion through the same door he came in.

It was the most intense interaction with any of the Biennale art that I've witnessed in my half dozen visits to the pavilions and, no surprise, it was by a creature whose appetites remained undimmed by the aesthetical institutional setting. If I were the artist it might not have been all that I'd hoped for but, considering the context, I'd be pretty happy with it.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Venice Biennale: Finland Pavilion

I went to the Venice Biennale late Sunday afternoon. I'd been writing, looking at words for over 5 hours, and the last thing I wanted to do was have to look at more of them. In such a frame of mind one is struck by just how many damn words there are to take in at the Biennale as part of the works themselves (not just as catalog copy). So much text to read, and even to hear--both spoken and sung.

But not everywhere. Below are images from Vesa-Pekka Rannikko's work in the Finland Pavilion. In fact, the below images represent only the video portion of the work, as the work as a whole also involves obscuring the outside of the original building designed by Alvar Aalto with "construction elements" (panels, 2x4s, etc).

So, in truth, the below images, presenting just part of the work, should be considered "details" of the whole, which when seen in its entirety plays with 2-dimensionality and 3-dimensionality, architecture, painting (as object and act), and exhibition space. But enough with the words already!