The Art in Travel: Venezia

Every two years the art world descends on Venice, spinning the entire city into a whirlwind of arts-based festivities. In addition to the two special areas in Venice and multiple islands housing the international pavilions, the Biennale di Venezia operates satellite exhibitions all around town. I came to Venice with the intention of merely spending a day or two checking out and enjoying the art fair, entitled All the World’s Futures and curated by Nigerian Biennale-newbie (though an established art-world figure), Okwui Enwezor. Instead I found myself not only traipsing through the Biennale at its Giardini location, but also spending time at the Palazzo Mora, an offshoot of the Biennale where artists from around the globe, some of them representative of their countries, show their work. I was also fortunate enough to visit the Peggy Guggenheim Museum; a true testimony to the art of art-collecting, the space has been preserved in almost exactly the same way as Ms. Guggenheim herself had lived in it. Here is a short download of my Venetian experiences, accompanied by pictures of my own taking:

The Biennale

A quick vaporetto ride away from the train station, the Biennale can be easily accessed at its Giardini entrance from almost anywhere around the city. Prior to our visit, we had been recommended by an artist and family friend to focus on this particular incarnation rather than on the Arsenale section, and guided to visit certain specific pavilions as opposed to others. Though a certain amount of spontaneous roaming of the grounds took place in the afternoon hours, our morning began with a structured, guided tour of the Central Pavilion, where the main exhibition curated and controlled by Mr. Enwezor is displayed. I was unaware of the widespread critique for Mr. Enwezor’s curatorial techniques prior to my visit to his venture, which is why I can say with no bias that the disparity between the works and the lack of substance in an exhibition whose titled bequeathed it much potential points to failure on the part of the most distinguished Mr. Enwezor. Entering the space (you’ll know it by the words “Blues, Blood, Bruise” emblazoned on the entryway), I had the sense that all the depressed, melancholy, pseudo-environmental, futuristic, and almost Dadaist concepts that Enwezor brought to the table made for a bad show of works. There was nothing unifying the pieces (e.g. a Mexican pornographic collage, a fallen tree with mirrors on each side, as well as a finger-painting style work by an Australian artist with dementia) except for perhaps their melancholy tone; though the type of melancholy that complains observantly about the state of the world, without desiring to do anything about it (a live, participatory recitation of excerpts from Karl Marx’s manifesto occurs on the hour). Voicing existential and terrestrial complaints through art isn’t anything new or subversive, and is not complementary enough to the notion of the world’s futures or at the very least, cannot mark the reach of the theme’s full potential. Perhaps most interesting in the Central Pavilion was the graphically colored and wallpapered café just outside its doors; the redeeming visual appeal of this restaurant satiated the senses in such a way that would make Yayoi Kusama, master of the schizophrenic print, proud. Further redemption came in the form of some of the other exhibitions feet away from the disappointing Central Pavilion: on your hit-parade should be the Japanese Pavilion, the Korean Pavilion, the British Pavilion, and the Uruguayan Pavilion. Summaries of each are below.

Japan

The show ranked most instagrammable at the Biennale proves no visual disappointment; with the theme of a child’s first memory in mind, Berlin-based artist Chihatu Siohu installed a web of red yarn dangling aged keys that people around the world donated specifically for this project. The keys also composed several sculptures in the installation, symbolizing tools we use to access memories from childhood and beyond.

Korea

A new-age video installation explores the life of a young Korean female stuck in the future who is unable to escape the confinements of her house, yet winds up traveling back in time to the Renaissance. Cool optics and an amazing use of technology in anticipation for what is to come. One highlight? The girl exercises by running on a hamster like wheel onto which a video of a country road is projected.

Britain

Controversial English artist Sarah Lucas based her show, I Scream Daddio, on past works, all of which are imbued with themes of sexuality, sexual identity and practice of sex. The sculptures (and single collage) in the multi-room exhibition, were mostly in a pastel-like, daffodil yellow color (called “Deep Cream” by the artist) that also lined the walls. Inspired by a character known as “Maradona,” the artist crafted works alluding to a number of body parts, some of which are rumored to be modeled on those of society ladies who have posed for the artist. The pieces are seemingly binary as there are many who fall instantly in love with Lucas’ debauchery and share her passion for shock, while others consider it vile, inappropriate, and demeaning to both men and women. However, I identify with neither of these two reactions; I applaud Lucas for the boldness of her pieces, but I don’t feel any sort of pull towards it otherwise. Nevertheless, this pavilion is a sight to behold, even more so because it notes that perhaps the quite reserved sensibilities of the English makes for a brashness in the work its artists produce.

Uruguay

The dainty white stickers that dust the walls of this pavilion create, on a closer look, small-scale civilizations. Quiet and anonymous, the stickers are only noticeable in the light, making the installation all the more magical. My family and I mused that the late queen of art and artists, Peggy Guggenheim, would have purchased the whole thing in one fell swoop. More on her soon.

Special mention goes out to the Canadian Pavilion, the Dutch Pavilion (Herman de Vries), and the wonderfully bizarre Spanish Pavilion. 

America

Finally, Joan Jonas’ fantastically awful video installation representing the U.S., that, with its Hare Krishna cultish vibe (think narration by a soft-voiced older male), felt not only outdated but offensively idiotic; she and her sponsors poured much time and money into a presentation that read as inane and ignorant in light of the truly dynamic and fresh works emerging from the contemporary American art scene. Ms. Jonas is well past her prime, and her work seems to echo that fact with its irrelevance. An installation by Kara Walker, the African-American artist who had shot to prominence with the presentation of her massive, sugar-coated Sphinx-like woman, known as A Subtlety, at the former Domino Sugar Factory just last year, would have felt more pertinent in the context of the inflammatory racial issues (citing Michael Brown, Eric Gardner) facing America today.

Editor’s Note: in fact, Ms. Walker was showing in Venice, though not at the Biennale. I was recently informed that the artist was commissioned to do set and costume design for the Bellini Opera, Norma, at the Feniche Opera House. Click here for more.

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection

This marvelous museum overlooking the Grand Canal is chock full of works that have defined and continue to define the Modernist period in art history. The brevity of Ms. Guggenheim’s personal collection demonstrates her prowess in choosing to invest early on in soon to be superstar artists. Whether it was her clout as an art-world figure that helped propel the success of myriad 20th century artists or the possibility of finding success that initially attracted Ms. Guggenheim to these artists is still questioned today; a sort of chicken versus egg theory, simply put. Nonetheless, Peggy Guggenheim did seem to discover certain future winners such as Jackson Pollock, for example, as evidenced by her purchase of one of his first important works; the recently restored (and they very proudly devote a whole exhibit to this restoration at the museum) Alchemy, and considering that Guggenheim would eventually go on to support Pollock financially by providing him with food and a stipend for years to come. Lesser known elder Pollock brother Charles receives his own retrospective at the museum in addition to the permanently displayed works on view in Ms. Guggenheim’s former home. And should you have difficulty processing the sheer epicness of the collection (numbering paintings and sculptures by Picasso, Braque, Kiefer, Kelly, Calder, and Stella), turn to your nearest “Ask Me About the Art” intern for guidance, or play a little game known as picking the one piece in each hallway or room that you would simply have to have for yourself (kleptomaniacs beware). Alternatively, head out to the balcony for some fresh air and beautiful views of the city beside a bronze statue of a little boy riding a horse while bearing an erection (Marino Marini’s 1948-9 Angel of the Citadel). The waiting area past the museum’s gates but just outside the visitor’s center is also filled with art; in the Nasher Sculpture Garden, pieces by Arp, Brancusi, and Noguchi are camouflaged behind greenery of all sorts. Their very presence at such a groundbreakingly brilliant site empowers or enables even the hidden objects to speak for themselves.

In Venice for awhile? Make sure to check out the Henri Rousseau exhibition at the Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale), which has been extended through September 6th. Expertly curated, the Rousseau: Archaic Candor show, and even the very notion of going to see art in the Duke’s apartment alone, should be enough of a reason to brave the San Marco tourist trap. Trust me on this one.

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