Saturday, November 5, 2011

Venice Biennale

Since its inception in 1895, the Venice Biennale has been featuring international avant-garde contemporary art. With just one afternoon at the Biennale, an event which is spread across the entire city, I set priorities.

Upon hearing that I would be in Venice, Lynda Zycherman requested that I report on the condition of Katharina Fritsch’s Stilleben, a group of sculptures made from polyester coated with pigmented lacquer. MoMA recently acquired a very similar sculpture grouping by Fritsch.

I roamed the main sculpture garden on my way to the pavilions. The overall feel was almost amusement-park like, with a hodge-podge of bold sculptures all competing for the viewer’s attention. However, the more time I spent among the works, the more connections I could draw between them. For instance, the giant sprouting bean placed next to clouds spewing mist created a tongue-in-cheek reference to Jack and the Beanstalk.

As I entered the Italian Pavilion, I was surprised by the informality of the exhibition. I had expected to see sterile white walls with pictures centered at 57 inches, a convention that modern art institutions have burned into my retinas. Instead, I encountered works tightly hung in a salon-inspired manner laid out on a floor plan that arched around sculptures and instillations. The Italian artists were clearly out to shock their audience. Christ donning Dolce- and-Gabbana briefs, purple and pink yarn figures fornicating in lewd positions, and zombies withering in blue neon light were standouts.

The Chinese pavilion shared a wall with the Italian pavilion’s structure, but the brick-and-mortar structure was the only thing the two exhibits had in common. Empty Incense by Yuan Gong dominated the space. Towering, cubic COR-TEN steel vats contrasted with the delicate ovoid pottery over which it loomed. Every five minutes, the vats released fumes. Viscerally, I was struck by the resemblance to the misting cloud sculpture outside the pavilion and was conflicted as to whether the two works complemented or cheapened one another. It was only as I left the Chinese pavilion that I began to appreciate that which the Biennale has to offer – different worlds, a saunter apart. Sadly, the day was drawing to a close and I only had time for one more exhibit, which had to be on the way to the water taxi.

An installation of Tim Davies’ work caught my eye from across a bridge, as it was nestled in a 16th - century ex-convent that now functions as a community center. The artist was representing his native Wales. Among works from his portfolio, including his much-celebrated Bridges series of altered postcards, Davies exhibited two new video installations that referenced his experience in Venice. I felt fortunate to see these works in their original context, as I worry that they may not translate well into other spaces due to their site specific nature.




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