Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Funniest Art Currently On Display in Venice

A viewer contemplates one of the large sculptures currently on display in the Arsenale by the creator of the celebrated giant hands installed along the Grand Canal during the run of 2017's 57th Venice Biennale

"The worse your art is," the great American poet John Ashbery once said in an interview, "the easier it is to talk about."

I'm reminded of this remark whenever I encounter a work by a living (if not quite "contemporary") artist whose sculptures in recent years have come to be a pretty much constant presence in Venice.

The very first time I saw one of his pieces it was situated on the long stretch of loading docks that run along the Canale della Scomenzera, amid pallets of construction materials and gravel and garbage bins.

A life-sized tank, it was, held by a hand so over-sized as to make the former appear like a toy and extending upwards just beyond its wrist, where it abruptly and smoothly terminated like Thing T. Thing in The Adams Family.

I had no idea what it was the first time I passed by it on the vaporetto, nor the many times I passed by it afterwards while it sat unmoving and neglected amid the constantly changing array of trash containers and building materials for a period of many months. Could it be art? I wondered at one point. But it was such a puerile piece it seemed too great a stretch to apply the term, in any but the loosest sense, to it.

Perhaps it had once formed part of a promotional display, or an amusement park for children.

Whatever it was, or had been, no one seemed to want it. It sat there uncovered in all weather for what I seem to recall was at least a couple of years before someone, mercifully, hauled it away.

Eventually, I'd discover that, yes, indeed, it had at one time been created as a work of art and had been shown in the 2011 Biennale in the Italian Pavilion.

It was the kind of piece I was happy to forget all about. 

Until 2017, when not just one but two of the same kind of over-sized hands appeared in the Grand Canal, rising up from its water to support the facade of the Hotel Ca' Sagredo. Not to feel up the old pink facade, or to tickle it. No, neither of those things, but--and make no mistake about it!--to SUPPORT it. For that was the title of the piece, displayed in large letters on a banner hung from the hotel's main balcony, lest anyone succumb to the temptation to tease any other meaning from the spectacle.

And what a spectacle it was! Front page of the New York Times! Backdrop for innumerable selfies!

Now this was an important piece! Why, it told you so itself! Exhaustively, in an artist's statement that told you precisely the piece's significance. And that significance was huge, it was massive, it was profound and very moving, and many people were, as they should have been, very moved indeed. Why, it was all about saving the fragile city of Venice, supporting it in all its ancient beauty.

Who in the world could disagree with such a statement?

Nobody. Absolutely nobody.

After all, a whole century had passed since those trouble-making Futurists suggested just the opposite: that the old city of moldy stones, with all its oppressive history and romance and "magical moonlight" be pulled down: the canals filled in and the lagoon transformed into a mecca of modernity, with fast motorcars and trains and aeroplanes. Murder the moonlight! they cried. Put the tired old tart of a city out of its misery, worn out as it was after centuries of prostituting itself.

Well, no one says such horribly nasty things today!

Not even the very people themselves who are most avidly prostituting the city, most busy destroying quite literally its very foundations, most frantically wringing the last juice of profit from the old rind. Every single one of those people and companies, from Venice's non-resident Mayor "Cruise Ship", to all those pigs fattening themselves from the trough of the corrupt and ever-inoperable swindle known as MOSE, to all the speculators, large and small, who have turned 6 of every 10 apartments in the city into a tourist rental--every single one of these entities will, with one voice, assure you they are supporting Venice.

So what does it mean to actually "support" Venice?

Well, that's a rather complicated question: one which a simple exhortation, no matter how big the banner, no matter how selfie-worthy the spectacle, no matter how explicit and even moving the explanation of the work offered by the artist himself may be, doesn't even manage to acknowledge, much less raise. 

The popular success of those two giants hands, in fact, stemmed precisely from the fact that their ostensibly bold exhortation, for all its bullying over-determination, proclaimed quite simply nothing. 

In a culture in which everyone seems to be just waiting to take offense, it managed to offend no one at all, because, in the end, for all the artist's over-explanation, "support" is one of those words, like "freedom," which can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean. (Every American, for example, enjoys total "freedom"--they just can't afford to quit their job and lose their health insurance lest an illness wipe out every cent of savings they have and drive them deep into the abyss of debt, if not death.)

But, regardless of my own opinion of that work, it was a smash. Of such magnitude, in fact, that the Hotel Ca' Sagredo parted with it reluctantly, and only after city authorities informed them that the exhibition permit needed to display the work on the Grand Canal had expired and could not be renewed.

After the hands were hauled away, the hotel soon installed another work by the same artist in the same location, and it is there still. A work which, though much smaller, exhibits what I consider an equal level of... artistry.

This smaller sculpture by the creator of the giant "supporting" hands has been situated in the same place outside Hotel Ca' Sagredo ever since the removal of the former, alongside the traghetto station Santa Sophia

Indeed, if the work of this particular artist floats your boat, you're in luck, as there's a display of his works currently running at the Arsenale that includes not just a new expanded version of those giant hands but smaller (though still monumental) works involving the entire human figure akin to that currently posted outside Hotel Ca' Sagredo.

I encountered them a couple of weeks away quite by accident, having gone to the Arsenale to see the boat show. The boat show ran for just a few days, but the art on display is slated to run, I believe, through the end of the Biennale in late November.

The newest monumental work by the artist of the giant hands "improves" upon Support by multiplying the pairs of hands from one to an even half dozen, and supplying not just, indoors, a smaller (though still large) working model of the gargantuan work situated outdoors, but extensive and detailed wall text explaining the precise meaning of each and every pair of hands.

Explanations of a current work on display at the Arsenale by an artist who seems intent on leaving nothing to the viewer's imagination

The pairs of hands, it seems, are nothing less than emblems, not just expressive of something or other, but actually educational and inspirational, according to the very specific wall text.

Again, I was reminded of a quotation. In his dialogue entitled "The Critic as Artist," Oscar Wilde has one of the participants declare: "There are two ways of disliking art. One is to dislike it. The other, to like it rationally."

I'd change this slightly to: "There are two ways of disliking art. One is to dislike it. The other, to create and post explanatory wall text beside it." (And there's no shortage of these at the actual Biennale itself, by the way.)

The problem I have with this particular artist whom, to my amusement, seems to be becoming as associated with Venice as Tintoretto, is that, ultimately, his works are just so limited, so earnestly self-defined, such dead ends, in other words.

If living in Venice teaches you anything it's that you shouldn't put too much faith in road maps-- especially those that try to tell you just which way you should go.

But mine may be a minority opinion, perhaps entirely idiosyncratic, or even idiotic--and I'm as okay with that as I am with those who enjoy the works. Indeed, they did seem to be enjoyed by people at the boat show.

And I have to admit that he's one of the few artists now on display in Venice whose works invariably make me laugh out loud upon first sight of them. Though that may not be their creator's intention, I very much appreciate the effect anyway.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde again: "One must have a heart of stone to look at this work and not laugh."


  1. That's rather my own reaction to the many body-based "sculptures" of Anthony Gormley. The Ca' Segrado hands did have an impact, but all "one trick ponies" eventually manage to create a certain ...indifference, in time?

    1. I can see what you mean about Gormley, Ella, but I'm not sure I find them quite so, well, cheesy as the work in this post--not quite so perfectly suited to, say, adorn the Las Vegas home of Wayne Newton, for example.

  2. I enjoyed your vitriol; but be glad you have not been overtaken by the the dog with the camera and the bunny on the scooter.. AKA Gillie and Marc!

    1. I had to look up the artists you meant, Kent, I hadn't heard of them, and now that I have...well, yes, I am very thankful indeed!

  3. Astute observations and wry commentary: I searched the internet for those hands sculptures you wrote about. All I can say is "Seriously?"
    P.S. That opening photo is priceless. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks very much, OPQ, but a lot of people (not to mention some publications) seemed to like those hands, or at least find them picture-worthy (which I suppose may be the same thing these days). I really loved the color of the woman's swimsuit, hat, and sheer beach cover up in that setting--the sculpture only really seemed to come alive with while she looked at it.

  4. The hand of a child holding a tank was installed at the fermata of S. Servolo, not inside the Biennale. The stuff was left at S. Marta for about a year. The artist tried to leave the hands of Ca' Sagredo as a "gift" to the city of Venice (too expensive to move the junk off the Canal Grande) but finally had to clear it.
    I didn't find the name of the artist in your post (am I blind? sorry) it's Lorenzo Quinn, son of Anthony.

    1. You're definitely not blind, Brigitte, that's for sure--I didn't name the artist as I didn't want to make it seem like a personal attack on him, just a response to a doggedly persistent presence in the city that I happen to find tiresome, but plenty of other people seem to enjoy. (I happened to interact with his father a couple of times in a bookstore in which I was the bookbuyer/mgr in NYC--let's say he wasn't exactly charming.)