The Merchandise of Venice
Art Monthly 243, September 2011, pp. 44-45
Venice’s place in the history of art mirrors its prominence in the history of capitalism. Assured by its pivotal role in international commerce, and buoyed by a setting of unsurpassed visual spectacle, Venice was, for a time, the world’s most dazzling emporium, illuminated by rare and the precious objects from all over the world. Early modern merchants may have made way for handbag megabrands, but it is a history that remains indelibly stamped on the city. Venice’s obsession with the material world never shied away from the extremes of capital accumulation. Alongside the theft of St Mark’s remains from Alexandria, or the sacking of the treasures of Constantinople, the Venice Biennale is equally devoted to the most immoderate pursuit of worldly pleasure. The art maybe be international in scope, but the material excess of this event seems so eminently Venetian.
Whether by design, or by the subsuming force of the locale on the objects it contains, many of the strongest works in this year’s Biennale engage with this history. Several works, for instance, nod to Venetian glassmaking – from Some Like it Hot, the partially naked glass furnace performances by Austrian performance group Gelatin (“their hottest sculpture ever”, read the spiel), to the Dayranta Singh’s Murano-style totem fashioned from coloured plastic drink bottle curlicues. The psychedelic kitsch of Pipilotti Rist’s Canaletto video tableaux, and Katherina Fritsch’s oversized day-glo religious trinkets, both milk the fabulous vulgarity of modern Venetian tourism. And now that feeding the birds in Piazza San Marco has been banned, Maurizio Cattelan’s expanded revival of an earlier Biennale work, comprising 2000 odd taxidermied pigeons bored rigid above room after room of art, seemed to speak not only of the stultification of art, as its catalogue essayist claims, but also to the museumification of Venice.
Though ever-impending art fatigue tends to keep most Biennalers from the grand museums of the city, which must rightly feel estranged by the flood of video installations and furni-sculpture, this year the old masters were harder to avoid. At the heart of the main pavilion at the Giardini, were installed three large canvases by Tintoretto, including his extraordinary The Stealing of the Dead Body of St Mark (1562-1566), with its exaggerated painterly verve and vertiginous perspective. “The inclusion of these paintings in the Biennale,” explained curator Bice Curiger, “is founded on the conviction that they still possess the power to engage a contemporary audience.”
It barely requires saying, but they are indeed as electrifying as ever; their power only increased by the relatively ineffectual presence of painting elsewhere in this Biennale. There is plenty of stuff on the walls, but otherwise the real action seems to be mainly happening in the spaces in between, and the objects they contain. Shahryar Nashat’s video installation at the Arsenale embodies the mood. With the paintings of the Accademia serving as the mute wallpaper for his spatial drama, the film’s protagonist unwraps a chroma-key green rectilinear form from its bubble-wrap package, and places it on the terrazzo floor. He sits on it, meeting the gaze of a museum visitor, and then stands on it, posing like a mischievous neoclassical faun. Finally, the form miraculously floats into the air - a minimalist apparition that outdoes any painted miracle with the transcendence of special effects. Unsettling the visual regime that museums and their pictures uphold, Neshat’s film is complemented by carefully placed faux bois sculptural benches which implicate the audience the renewed spatial awareness it enacts.
Tintoretto’s dealer didn’t seem to make much of his prestigious Biennale invitation, but his presence was a conceit that, according to the press materials, did inspire other artists. James Turrell’s entirely typical glowing room, we were told, “echoed” Tintoretto’s palette, while Nicholas Hlobo’s suspended gothic creature was “quoting” from Creation of the Animals (1550-1553). Christopher Wool’s serial silkscreens of Rorschach blots (figure 2) – not quite paintings, but as close to good pictures as I saw at this Biennale – were apparently made such that “one can instantly believe that he has been studying Tintoretto’s works for years on end.” Perhaps, but such certainty seems worryingly dictatorial. And that Monica Bonvicini’s beautiful tiered sculptures clad with lit and reflective surfaces were “inspired by the great stairway in Tintoretto’s The Presentation of the Virgin” seems about the least interesting thing one could say about her theatrical array of Deco-style cascading amphitheatres.
It was up to several large sculptural installations to engage with Venetian history in altogether richer ways. Song Dong’s ‘Para Pavillion’ (one of several artist-designed spaces conceived to contain other artworks) in the first room of the Arsenale was among the most compelling (figure 3). Dong constructed a snaking wall of wardrobe facades - the already thin bedroom furniture from the mid-twentieth century sliced into flimsy flats that snake around the gallery like a film studio street scape. These eminently modern and western looking pieces of domestic furniture have thus been transformed into a kind of folding screen, a reference reinforced by their distinctly local decorative additions - the lining of doors in lurid green or teal silk, or others with painted motifs derived from traditional screen painting. The resonance of this aesthetic synthesis of the European and the Chinese in Venice – the home of Marco Polo, and the famed gateway between east and west – seems most poignantly reflected in the aging mirrors on the furniture. Contemplating the scene, we stare at ourselves in the amazing Chinese invention that, once perfected by the Venetian glassmakers, became one of the most sought-after luxuries in Europe.
Ma Jun’s luridly yancai porcelain objects on show at Palazzo Bambo might be beautiful, but Dong’s visualisation of cultural synthesis seems more nuanced. The wardrobe construction also apparently refers to use of this sort of furniture outside cramped Chinese houses as a sneaky form of storage. Dong extends his examination of private property in China with an even more dramatic intervention into the space: the relocation of his 100-year old family home to the Biennale. A newly constructed extension adds further significance. The catalogue describes its liminal status: “Forbidden from building extra floors on their houses other than to accommodate carrier pigeons, families living around communal courtyards would acquire pigeons simply to gain the extra living space.” In Beijing as in Venice, spatial limitations are little match for human ingenuity.
One of the more compelling instances of overt historicism is the solo exhibition of busts by American sculptor Barry X Ball in the lavish period rooms of Museo del Settecento Veneziano. Computer modelled and machine milled, the works are made from rare marble, onyx and lapis lazuli – the sort of prized lapidary specimens with which St Mark’s Basilica is encrusted. Included in the exhibition are three identically shaped Chinese ‘scholars rocks’, their time-worn crenulations digitised for endless reproduction. But it is Ball’s portrait busts that are the most powerful, their surreal manipulations, mirror images and anamorphic distortions intensified by the highly figured materials. Two of these appropriate already strange busts from the museum’s collection: Orazio Marinali’s grotesque La Invidia andAntonio Carradini’s drippingly veiled La Purita. The subject of most of the other works are artworld celebrities – artists, curators, gallerists and collectors – achieving for them the sort of glamorous immortality towards which so much Venetian art is oriented, and which profoundly suits the personality driven culture of the Biennale.
Karla Black’s installation for Scotland (figure 3) served not only as an ethereal visualisation of decorative sensuality, but it sensitively responded to the mild rococo interiors of the Palazzo Pisani, filling the elegant and airy space with an eruption of atomised pastel colour. Her expansive gelato-hued forms were constructed from soap, powdered paint, sugar paper, clear plastic and polystyrene, with lipstick, nail varnish, eyeshadow, concealer stick and spray tan reimagined as painterly materials. The result is something like an explosion in a Lush cosmetics store, complete with the intrusion of dirt as the antithesis of all Black’s efflorescent femininity, and just like the street seeping scent of these cosmetic stores, its sickly atmosphere is overwhelmingly odoriferous. This abstracted apothecary reeks of Venetian luxury, the sweet stench of sensory decadence personified by Casanova and Lord Byron.
Materiality is deployed to all together more cerebral ends by several other sculptors whose works play with the borders between abstraction and figuration. Outstanding among these is our own Hany Armaneous, whose hard rubbish collection is a triumph of illusionism masked by convincing crappiness. (This junk aesthetic seems uniquely appropriate for our soon to be discarded pavilion.) Sprezzatura, “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it” as Renaissance scholar Castiglione defined it, seems an entirely accurate description of the spirit of this work. Armaneous’ references to Picasso, Giacometti and Brancusi are sharp, but it is the materiality of his imitations of woven cane, rusty metal, sawdust, carpet, cardboard, polystyrene, duct tape and other materials of similarly distinctive sheen, density and texture that makes this exhibit so astonishing.
Similar mastery of material is evidenced in Michael Joo’s Expanded Access, a gaggle of glass museum bollards protecting nothing in particular, drooping like an Eva Hesse sculpture, entirely rendered in mirrored blown glass, on display at the Glasstress exhibition at the Instituto Vento di Scienze, Lettre ed Arti. The tropes of high modernism are more explicitly considered by Rebecca Warren, whose bulging figures (figure 4) and severe props heighten the gendered binaries of mid century sculpture. Thomas Houseago’s large lumbering figure titled L’Homme Presse installed on the Grand Canal in front of Francois Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi, also convincingly revisits modernist concerns, with its Picasso-esque planes and absent antique limbs shape shifting as one skims past in a Vaporetto.
Music and sculpture are combined to highly theatrical effect in several national pavilions. Michael Parekowhai’s installation for the New Zealand pavilion at the Palazzo Loredan dell’Ambasciatore centres on a Steinway grand piano carved with Maori patterns, on which performances occur throughout the exhibition. Titled On first looking into Chapman’s Homer, the title of John Keats poem about a Spanish explorer imaging the riches of the Pacific, Parekowhai’s instrument lands in Venice like the famous piano of Jane Campion’s cinematic meditation on cultural hybridity. “Music fills a space like no object can”, Parekowhai more cautiously comments in the catalogue, and though his elaborate carvings (figure 5) can easily outdo even the most baroque musical composition, it is in an insight that resonates elsewhere in the Biennale. For the Hungarian Pavillion, Hajnal Nemeth’s superb Crash: Passive Interview is an “experimental opera”, featuring two sculptural components: a smashed black BMW, dramatically baroque in its mangled contraposto, and chorus of music stands displaying the textual ‘scores’ that read like car crash cross examinations. The work culminates in what may be one of the most gripping rooms at the Giardini: a screen-based opera in which these texts are vocalised into a rhapsodic improvisation, replete with all the glorious bravura that characterises the art. Music also wafts from the American pavilion next door. Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s Gloria triumphantly tied together several fields of American achievement: technocracy, militarism, competitive sport and the global leisure industry. With Olympic atheletes performing on polychrome carvings of airline seats, a sculpture of the Statue of Freedom (from the dome of the Capitol building) lying in a tanning bed, and an operational ATM machine whose transactions activated a 20-foot-high pipe organ, its pointedly ideological juxtapositions were most spectacularly materialised outside the pavilion, where an the upturned military tank was surmounted by an exercise treadmill (figure 6). At the Polish pavilion, and also using music to dramatic effect, Yael Bartana’s And Europe Will Be Stunned… manipulates tropes of propaganda and national belonging to profoundly politicised ends in its incredible call for establishment of a new Jewish homeland in Poland. Australian audiences can see the work at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art later this year.
If the accessibly awesome implications of Christian Marclay’s Gold Lion-winning Clock and Omer Fast’s Five Thousand Feet is the Best were the other screen-based works which much attracted positive attention, it was the work of Nathaniel Mellor that, despite its manifest frivolity, seemed more fertile. Ourhouse is a grippingly absurd family drama set in a crumbling English manor. The eminently polite Drayson Maddocks Milson purchases a sculpture on ebay (“on the line”, in the film’s idiosyncratic idiom) – a carved Venus he believes to be an ancient form of “pornology” or some kind of “fertility device.” His father is displeased, regarding the crude fetish as a sign of the dangers of the internet. But when Drayson’s sister makes a sculpture from Lego and a potato, and another, surely with a nod to Martin Creed, from Blu-Tac and a cotton bud, the patriarchal father is impressed. “So what were you thinking”, he asks, pondering its apparent genius. “I was thinking a constellation”, she ruminates, “… a structure… a fegatious energy system… the rhizome.” “I think that comes across terribly well”, he agrees. In this parallel dominion, and in spite of all the artspeak, one is left with the powerful impression that making art really matters.
In a sense, it was Urs Fischer’s three sculptures in wax that most obviously combine the history of Italian art with the spectacle of art consumption that is the Biennale. The central piece recreates Giambologna’s monumental marble sculpture The Rape of the Sabine Women (figure 7), but adds wicks that turn it into a giant candle. A suited art viewer and a bland gas lift chair complete the trio of melting sculptures, all slowly performing their disintegration from figurative excess into formlessness. It is a clever nod to the largely forgotten traditions of wax sculpture in early modern Europe, and more obviously, to the ‘lost wax’ method of bronze casting. But obviousness is perhaps the problem here – the result makes even the over-the-top twisting mannerism of the original look polite, and its visualisation of the act of art viewing somehow seems altogether too straightforward. But sheer spectacle of the work is undeniably seductive. The world, as they say, is still deceived with ornament.