Saturday, July 20, 2013

All That Glitters: The Russian Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale

Three would-be Danaë stoop to gather up gold coins in part of Vadim Zakharov's work at the 55th Venice Biennale
I consider myself very lucky never to have had to try to see all, or even much of the Venice Biennale in just one or two days, as many visitors do. I can imagine that the experience of such abundance can be marvelous for some, but I can equally imagine it as a nightmare of overwhelming excess--and, either way, it must be exhausting. Like those runners who complete the New York City Marathon, people who manage to make it all the way through the two main sites of the Biennale (in the Giardini Pubblici and the Arsenale) in just 2 days should really get a commemorative medal.

People like to say that the very idea of the Biennale with its different national pavilions is quaintly old-fashioned, but in the staggering quantity of art on display I find something very contemporary. The Ancients used to say that Life is short, Art is long, but I sometimes think that in the case of most cultural products these days the saying might easily be changed to Life is short, Art is even shorter.

Unless we make a conscious effort to avoid our computers and televisions and hand-held devices, and even public spaces with their ever-present video screens, we're likely to see more images in a single day than many of us would have typically seen 20 years ago in what...? A week? A month? We don't need to compare our contemporary experience to those people who came to the first Venice Biennale in 1895 or make any other inter-generational contrast to see a stark difference in levels of visual experience and information, a consideration of about a decade of own lives will lay it bare.

So it's no longer a question of whether Art (great or otherwise) will "stand the Test of Time," as they used to say; it's hard enough for it to survive the all-annihilating crush of the Present. It's not that the work will, with the august passage of Time, become neglected. It's that the sheer incomprehensible volume of imagery in our daily lives will assure that it's forgotten practically as soon as it's seen.

At least that's what I find myself thinking sometimes, and if this is true, or partly true, or a little true, I wonder about the effect it has on the making of art. What kind of art must one make these days for it to hold some place, for however long, in the mind of a viewer? And--coming back to the Venice Biennale itself--I wonder as I crunch along its gravel paths in the public garden what kind of art best survives the cultural death march that a two-day pass to all the pavilions can easily become?

I suspect that the work of Vadim Zakharov in the Russian Pavilion provides one answer. The main part of the work is, well, fun. It requires audience participation, women visitors get to use specially-provided props and even receive a small durable shiny souvenir to take away with them.

The subject is mythological and announced in large letters in the main room of the pavilion: Danaë, the sequestered daughter of an ancient king who was impregnated by Zeus in a shower of gold (to give birth to Perseus). Though it's not mentioned anywhere in the explanatory--overly-explanatory, I'd say--text of the exhibition, the king isolated his daughter after being told by an oracle that a son born to her would kill him. Like nearly all attempts to outsmart one's Fate in myth, the king's ploy failed utterly.

Rembrandt's Danaë
It's been a popular theme in art, usually with luxuriously erotic overtones, and Titian, Correggio, Rembrandt and Klimt all famously painted it (at least 5 times in Titian's case). An image of Rembrandt's work, in its acid-damaged state after a madman attacked it at the Hermitage in 1985, is used in Zakharov's work--but it's easy to miss and, to be honest, contributed little to my sense of the piece, regardless of the insistence of the exhibition's official supporting materials that it should.

It's the simple experience of this work that one remembers. In an unlit room ("womb-like" the exhibition text tells us) of the lower floor of the pavilion, women (and only women) are invited by a female attendant to take an umbrella and venture through a rough-hewn doorway into a larger columned adjoining room lit by a large skylight high above. A mass of gold coins lies in the center of this room (as you can see in the photo) and more coins fall at irregular intervals and in varying amounts from what looks like a huge shower head attached to the center of the skylight.

But women aren't just supposed to stroll beneath the falling coins like Christopher Robin in Winnie-the-Pooh saying "Tut, tut, looks like rain," nor strike any of the alluring poses one sees in any of the famous painted versions of Danaë, but, rather, pick up some of the coins and carry them back out into the darkened first room, where a bucket at the end of a rope is waiting to receive them. A bucket that happens to be situated atop a dark circular monochromatic image of Rembrandt's damaged painting, which no one (including myself) notices, as it's really too dark to make it out unless you've read the school-marmish text and go looking for it.

Klimt's Danaë
Meanwhile, in the central room of the floor above, other visitors can kneel upon crimson kneelers that surround every inch of the altar-rail-like balustrade and look down upon the scene below. Yes, Zakharov is serious about reinjecting an air of religiosity back into this old myth in a way we contemporary folks can understand... I don't know how successful he is with most viewers on that score, but the way the light falls from above on the coins and the space and people below is nicely, memorably theatrical.

To one side of this central upstairs room is a stern fellow in a suit whose job it is to periodically haul the bucket with coins up from the darkened room directly below through a hole in the floor and pitch its contents onto a conveyor belt that carries them to the giant shower head.

On the other side of this central upstairs room is another stern fellow in a suit seated high in a saddle upon a beam who periodically lets peanut shells fall into a large pile below him. Occasionally he strikes a Thinker-like pose up there, and the exhibition text in fact straight out tells us that he is indeed a contemporary version of Rodin's celebrated Thinker, and instructs us on the meaning of this tableau, but I pretty quickly found myself sick of being bullied by the exhibition's official text and its blandly allegorical inclinations.

Saddled up for thought
Periodically, these two stern fellows upstairs switch positions in a serious militaristic changing-of-the-guards kind of way--if the changing of the guards was performed by two salesmen from a Hugo Boss boutique.

There are also a couple of large satellite dishes outside the front of the pavilion whose significance we are lectured about in the exhibition's supporting materials. None of which, you may have gathered by this point, I found very interesting, though the themes of the work (according to the materials)-- greed, lust, desire, the corrupting influence of money--certainly should be interesting. And, indeed, such themes are interesting--in other works of art. But in 3 visits to this pavilion on 3 different days, I've yet to find any of them particularly well-handled here. 

In an interview in the catalogue on display at the exhibition, I happened to flip to a page on which the artist states, "I have lived in the West for 15 years and in all that time have been understood by only five people." Though the artist is accomplished, well-respected, intelligent, I still found myself thinking of Chekhov's various self-proclaimed deep thinkers--Vanya, for example--misunderstood out in the sticks...

But though it did very little for me as a work of art, inspired (for me) none of the play of mind that I associate with really interesting and successful art, it gave every appearance of working quite well as spectacle and experience. I don't know how many others will find themselves moved by it, intrigued or provoked, incited or excited, but I suspect that even after a long day at the Biennale, when one's legs have gone all leaden and one's mind all cotton-wooly, it will be remembered. And perhaps, after all, regardless of any meaning--and the artist's insistence on it--that alone is sometimes enough.


  1. We usually remember sights more than words and experience more than sights. I enjoyed it. My sixteen year old daughter was impressed and was compelled to know more about the ancient myth, questioned about the female and male roles and wondered about the repentance device.We have seen many works of art ( mostly at the Pallazzo Enciclopédico), but Vadim Zakharov's is remembered as much as Jung's, Steiner's and Bispo do Rosario's works. Estrangement is part of the show.

    1. Thank you for taking the time, Anonymous, to provide another perspective and reaction to the pavilion. I appreciate the chance to know how and why it worked for other people, how deeply it registered with others, even if (or especially if) it didn't have the same effect on me.