This is Bro on the Art World Beat Breaking Glass at Venice 2017
This year’s Biennale, the once every two-year celebration of contemporary art is bigger, but not necessarily better, than the more overtly politicized 2015 version curated by Okwui Enwezor. This year’s event, which is running through November, is curated by the Paris Pompidou Center’s Christine Macel and represents in many ways a toning down of the more radical orientation of two years ago. Enwezor’s curated exhibition in the Guardini, the Venetian Guardians, opened with the pavilion in mourning, the entrance draped all in black, for the lingering effects of austerity and the still echoing financial crisis. This year’s Pavilion, design by Sam Gilliam, is draped in bright blue and red flags illustrating Macel’s guiding contention that “in a time of global disorder, art embraces life.”
This is also quietly one of the most feminist or at any rate female art festivals ever staged. The mood is not somber or critical and lies a bit outside the realm of more typical art world creation and celebration of celebrity. It’s more in touch with earthly goals, as in the documentation of Anne Halprin’s “Planetary Dance” staged in California’s Marin County. It abounds in materials that accentuate women’s traditional work such as the male artist Lee Mingwei’s Mending Project that has various threads connecting different parts of the world and Sheila Hicks giant balls of yarn that are given pride of place at the end of the long hall of the larger curated exhibition in the Arsenale, Venice’s former boatmaking complex. And, finally, it less under the sway of celebrity featuring, in its 120 artists, 103 here for the first time.
The Arsenale is itself divided into different pavilions and the Dionysian pavilion is an answer to so many years of women’s sexuality expressed for the pleasure of men. Here sexuality is expressed of, often by, and for women. Hugette Caland’s vagina etchings have the raw elegance of Egon Schiele’s nudes without the commercial vulgarity of Tracey Emin’s. French-Algerian Kader Attia’s installation first presents a narrow hall where the records of various North African and Middle Eastern female musical artists are on display, in the more confining way the industry presents them. The work then opens up into a spacious but dark room with the artist’s videos in a way that suggests their inner being beyond the confines of a male recording industry. Only Pauline Curnier Jardin’s sado-maso porn in a digital video cave that hones too closely to the male image of the dominating female mars this foregrounding of female sexuality.
The Pavilion of the Earth in a deep sense illustrates the continuing rape of the planet in the lust for its raw materials. Julian Charriere from Switzerland highlights the coming gold rush in the new hunt for what is being called “white petroleum,” the lithium that powers cell phones and will power the electric car, with, by the way, huge deposits discovered under North Korea as the Trump administration makes its bid to stake its claim on them. His drab towers of deposits, called Future Fossil Spaces, glow from the inside with the eerie blueish light of the mineral.
Across the way are the Vietnamese artist Thu Van Tran’s depleted and mangled rubber trees which remind us of one of the major reasons for French colonization of that country in the last century’s race for its most precious commodity. Next to these art superstar Gabriel Orozco’s more tepid mangled logs, titled Visible Labor, seemed languorous and overly convoluted. There is in this Biennale little follow-up to the Nigerian Enwezor’s focus on African Art but one of the strongest moments of the Arsenal was the indigenous Inuit artist Kanaginak Pootoogook’s depictions of that besieged community participating in a whale hunt and accosted in the office of a Canadian Mountie. Marie Voignier’s Safari Memories employs the language of wealthy safari hunters, one talks of “clutching a U237 pistol in his belt,” to, as in Ulrike’s Seidel’s film Safari, catch the colonial mentality at work in those hunts, though here the rich privileged mood of the Euro hunters is much more ominously about power than Seidel’s later deluded middle class following in the wake of this earlier wave.
Though there were strong moments, the overall more laidback and in the end less confrontational mood of this Biennale, whose lackluster title is Viva Arte Viva, easily could move from art as salvation to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” with balls of yarn as ultimate signifiers only able to accomplish so much.
More could be gleaned from the country pavilions, those relics of a bygone nationalism, which in overall mood, outside the more typical Western powers, might be seen as a whole to propose in the sum total of their individual practices a more universalist answer than that offered by the curated event to the continuing horrors of capitalism.
In the Arsenale, Georgia’s exhibit of a peasant house filled with rain that you could peer into retained a kind of creepiness that suggested Jim’s finding of Huck Finn’s dead father but also of the continuing decay of the former Soviet countries in the wake of their neoliberal “awakening.” This was echoed in the Latvian What Can Go Wrong where Mikilis Fisers’ etchings of a planetary takeover by space invaders, with the creatures conducting at the Met while dead bodies hang from the curtains and parading up the Champs Elysees, playfully suggest that in our world ruled by the 1% the takeover has already occurred. In the apocryphal vein also was Italy’s Robeto Cuoghi’s Imitation of Christ where all kinds of distorted bodies of Christ on the cross suggest past histories of genocide and a future genocide to come as a Christ roasting in a digital oven echoes the new finding that within 20 years almost half of the U.S. population will lose their jobs to automation.
The strongest exhibition though and the supreme expression of this future terror was Russia’s tripartite hall of first a demon towering over clay workers in a shadowy future that echoed those depicted by Alfaro Siquieros in the World War II fascist period. This is followed in the next room by the writhing body of a woman on whom the modern terror of a fading capitalism is imprinted, and a final brightly lighted room that seems to be the digital answer but instead has bodies implanted in marble imprisoned by the digital coding scrawled on the sculpture. The exhibit constituted a truly horrific imagining of our future present and the world toward which Trump, the Republic neo-cons and the Democratic new Cold War neo-liberals are steering us.
Colonialism in both its old and newer forms is tackled in the New Zealand and Australian pavilions. Lisa Rhihana's diorama Pursuit of Venus traces the interaction between the British James Cook’s colonizing wave and the more peaceful daily pursuits of the Maori; dancing, jousting and preparing food, little dreaming of the holocaust that was to await them. Tracey Moffat equally traces the haunted arrival of Cook in Australia in The White Ships Sailed In through found footage of an arrival of a boat in the early part of the last century, the colonial equivalent of the Lumiere’s Arrival of a Train at the Station.
A second film intercuts scenes of shocked actors in Hollywood films, Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day, with arriving refugees, making the stars’ trauma seem to be about their arrival. Brazil’s Hunting Ground in its first rooms seems to suggest simply urban decay but then a video reveals the hunted are those in the favela’s in this Most Dangerous Game of global inequality. Uruguay picks up the theme of colonial brutality in its The Law of the Funnell where a simple wooden device used to brand cattle suggests the whole colonial system or “jail machine”. A sign on the side warned visitors that it was “forbidden to jump in” which I guess means that some visitors to the biennale, oblivious to their own subjugation, cannot wait to be a part of it and have been hurling themselves into the funnel. The Greek pavilion was the most subtle and narratively involved illustration of technologies of conquest.
The pavilion is a labyrinth through which the audience travels so that on the top floor there is a white-coated scientist explaining over multiple video screens why experimenting on humans is good for them. The pavilion then ends up with filmed debate over whether the results of the experiment should be used. Clearly drawn from the Lost scenario of the Dharma Project, the Pavilion was itself a creepy expression of the role of experts in designing technologies that are leaving human concerns behind in a way that the Greek people have been revisioned by the European Central Bank as a country that had to be reengineered to follow the neo-liberal model.
There are also a number of exhibitions outside the Biennale this year as Venice attempts, or rather is driven to, promote more and more of the city, as the competition between cities for a shrinking tourist dollar becomes grows ever more fierce. So now the back side of the city, called the Dorsoduro, is being promoted as a Museum Mile, a name originally coined by developers to describe New York’s upper Fifth Avenue.
Spearheading this drive is the VAC Foundation, a joint Moscow-Venice group which has taken over Palazzo Zatere and this year transformed the former palace into a three level celebration of Soviet Art at the time of the 1917 Revolution in this year of its centennial and contemporary art that echoed those principles. I will be talking more about this exhibition and other global exhibitions commemorating the Revolution in a later show. Here was a recreation of the Russian photocollagist Aleksandr Rodchenko’s worker’s cafeteria, a print of El Lissitzky’s Constructionist and geometrical illustration of the Civil War, an attempt by the Western imperial powers to wrest the country from the Soviets titled Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, and a soundscape recreation of Vladmir Tatlin’s futurist Tower of Babel.
Alongside these works were Barbara Kruger’s 2015 Connect which presents the iphone as a device for both good and evil with “Pleasure” on one line being echoed by “Fraud” underneath, David Goldblatt’s 1980s photos collectively titled Going Home of weary South Africans returing from work in the apartheid machine and Cao Fei’s animation of Marx, Confucius and Mao kicking around a soccer ball and debating the meaning of a good society in RMB City, his online city of the future where capital’s problems continue to play themselves out. Most interesting exhibit in the city, which you can access online at www.v-a-c.ru.
On until the closing of the Biennale are two exhibits which equally extend the critical thrust of the Biennale’s Country Pavilions. The Prada Foundation’s The Boat is Leaking The Captain Lied has three German artists taking over a Palazzo and installing film, theater and photographic works that question the direction of late capitalism. The Prada at the moment is on the map as its Milan space currently features a Virtual Reality piece by Alejandro Inarritu on immigrants that is causing many to for the first time consider the aesthetic merits and potential of the form.
The film director Alexander Kluge weighs in on the ground floor of this exhibit with a film showing readers of newspapers questioning that content. Elsewhere, photographer Thomas Demand’s office spaces radiate alienation and theater designer Anna Viebrock’s set installations equally recall the sterility of justice in a court setting and technological waste as a discarded computer is surrounded by other less mechanical waste. On the whole, unfortunately, the project while good intentioned was difficult to decipher, and attempted to cram too much information into a space that was poorly organized and demarcated.
Another area of the city that is being developed as an art space is the tiny island of San Giorgio. The church of San Giorgio Maggiore has been given over to the Italian artist and founder of the movement called Arte Povera Michangelo Pistoletto. Arte Povera challenged the dominance in the 1960s art world of Pop Art, positing in its return to materials and in its conceptual frame a consciousness of how commodities had been deformed by capital instead of merely a celebration of their dominance. We can see this in Pistoletto’s early Venus in Rags where a model recreation of the goddess is dwarfed by the tattered clothes of those too poor to worship at her alter. Today Pistoletto creates mammoth art designed to, like Viva Arte Viva, overcome differences and point to an art utopia.
Sometimes this as in his photo posts of Cubans, including the back of a Cuban street sweeper, and sometimes, as in his gigantic projections of the peace symbol of a figure 8 it reads as combination of Christo’s Gigantic Wrappings and Coke’s “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” Art can teach us to sing but at this moment without a notion of discord our songs too easily reproduce the mindlessness of a globe plunging ever more quickly over the abyss.
This is Broe on the Art World Beat Breaking Glass at the Venice Biennale. I’ll be back next week with a report on the Venice Film Festival.
In the elevated quartier of Chantenay, where access to the sea is protected by the watchful eye of Saint Anne, Mary’s mother, a little ways further along the embankment a starry-eyed boy gazes at an intent sea captain with sextant who is himself contemplating the passage to the ocean and to wider adventures. These twin statuary gazes are those of the young Jules Verne contemplating his future most famous character Captain Nemo who will roam the ocean in a submarine in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. One hundred fifty years after Verne’s writings, which predicted the submarine, space voyage and what became deep sea drilling, this summer the city is again populated by “infernal machines” of all sizes and stripes in a green line walk outlining 43 museums and installations as the city continues to remake itself from industrial port to technological, architectural, and cultural center. Sprawled on the grass next to the statue of the boyhood Verne were Africans, themselves emigrated to this former French capital of the infamous “Atlantic” slave route, only this time having undergone an opposite trip from Africa to France to make their fortune.
Nantes, the sixth largest city in France and center of Brittany, which in the Middle Ages and in various ways beyond resisted incorporation into France, is a port city near the mouth of the Loire River, a region famous for its castles, wine and biking routes following the meandering of the river across the region. A shipbuilding center in the 19th century, at the high period of French industrialization, with that industry having closed its doors the city has had to revitalize itself and integrate itself into a global technological economy. Nantes’ future though, as the walk along the trail exemplifies, owes much to its visionary past and is descended from Verne’s sense of adventure and recounting of the thrill of inventors mastering the elements which today is also questioned as former visionary contraptions now must be integrated into a depleted planet.
The contrast between technological prowess and more simplified natural structures is highlighted in Oscillation, where a seemingly shimmering all natural wood pathway calls attention to its difference from the iron and steel girders being raised across the street in a construction of Les Halles, a new mall on the model of the shopping village that replaced Paris’ once lively food market. This installation is one of many on the island in the middle of the city, the Ile de Nantes, which also brings Verne-like animal-mechanical devices to life including a mastodon whose snout sprays passersby and a giant spider, who seems to have materialized out of the backlot of the film version of The Wild Wild West. They are part of the laboratory of designers Pierre Orefice and Francois Delaroziere termed “Les Machines De L’Ile.” The island contains the Architectural School and boasts a series of entertaining exterior wonders including three-way table tennis in Ping Pong Park, a building with a hulking metal skin which whispers in what its creator, Rolf Julius, calls “an audible façade,” and a sculpture composed of food packing crates which contained local produce called Splash protruding from the side of the Atlanbois building which inside contains a replica of a forest where you can wander or sit.
On the mainland in traversing the city, the path begins with the “Lieu Unique” building in the spiraling shape of the LU brand of biscuit or cookies which was a part of the city’s factory heritage but which has now been converted into an arts space this summer honoring Swiss artist H.R. Geiger, most famous for his creation of the monster in Ridley Scott’s Alien and whose mixing of man, woman and machine suggests a latter day version of the ghostly apparitions of the Austrian Artist Alfred Kubin.
Further along, near the Loire, is Boris Chouvellon’s half-eaten Ferris Wheel stuck in plaster peopled by seafront plants titled The Missing Part (Le Part Manquante), an eerie, Coney Island-type reminder that oceans and beachfronts deteriorate. Farther along is the spookier Les Instruments, creepy mechanical animal dolls such at the mouse who giggles as behind him a paintball projectile sprays the wall in a homage to Jackson Pollack’s drip dry technique but also a frightening and chilly retort to the violence behind contemporary games that is the echo of the violence that circulates in society in general.
Two major cultural institutions are also a part of the trial. The Beaux Art, Musee D’Arts De Nantes, has reopened this summer after six years with a new design by the London team of Stanton Williams, award winners for their compact execution of the Sainsbury Laboratory at Cambridge. Their Beaux Art design has delightfully opened up the interior display of the museum’s over 900 objects by segmenting the building into a “cube,” the main area for modern art, a “chapel” for temporary exhibitions, and the rectangular “palais” for the museum’s historical collection ranging from the 13th to the 19th centuries and including two Bruegel landscape miniatures and a stunning Rembrandt portrait of a grizzled and lined old man. Meanwhile the opera house, Theatre Graslin, thrown open to the public in its offseason and which next season boasts nine productions, inside flies the black Anarchist flag which mechanically sways above the orchestra seats in Nicholas Darrot’s BLKNTRNTL where the back and forth wavering duplicates and adds an element of worker participation to the conductor’s commanding of the orchestra in this memory of the city’s worker activist past.
The Jules Verne museum itself is a tender and more old-style look at the Nantes native and prolific author’s creations whose 65 novels, not to mention plays and poems, many of which have become films, besides 20,000 Leagues include Journey to the Center of the Earth, Around the World in 80 Days and the novel which became Swiss Family Robinson. Verne’s novels also dealt with topical issues. His 1878 boy’s adventure Dick Sand: A Captain at Fifteen about a whaling boat which must be navigated by an apprentice is also a late highlighting of the persistence of the slave trade which as the book would have it was still going on in 1876, the year the action takes place in a book that is a softening and popularizing of Melville’s innocence at sea in Billy Budd and the cruelties of the slave trade in his Benito Cereno.
Part of Nantes wealth was accumulated in the Atlantic slave trade, of which Verne was well aware, as the city was said to have launched over 27,000 ships and transported over 550,000 Africans from the slave fort in West Africa to the New World French colonies of Haiti, Gradaloupe and Martinique from which they returned loaded with sugar cane and cacoa harvested by these same slaves. Below the rampart on which stands the Verne museum is the city’s “Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery” where above ground visitors walk on the names of slave ships, a walk of shame and reversal of the Cannes and Hollywood celebrity walks. Below is a tracing of the years each country abolished slavery which in France began under the Revolution but was returned under Napoleon, not to be “finally” abolished until 1848 and then the decree grants the slave transporters an additional two years to implement.
The monument, which does not take up the question of Reparations for the part played by the slave trade in the fashioning of this exquisite city, nevertheless completes the art trail with a stark questioning of the origins of the cultural capital necessary to finance a modern city and a qualification of its historical legacy. This last leg of the journey deepens the art trail experience in a way that makes for not only an adventurous weekend but also a more complex understanding of the nature of the global.
Dennis Broe is a Paris-based art, cinema and television critic for Pacifica Radio in the U.S., Art District Radio in Paris and Crime Fiction Reporter and Cultural Matters in the UK. He is the author of five books including Cold War Expressionism: Perverting the Politics of Perception/Bombast, Blacklists and Blockades in the Postwar Art World.
Every two years in Venice, alternating with the Art Biennale the largest Art Exhibition in the World, is the Architecture Biennale, the largest Architectural Exhibition in the World. This year’s event, which runs until the last weekend of November, is titled Reporting From the Front, supposedly concerned with how architecture and architects and the global firms they represent, are solving (or creating or exacerbating?) local conflicts and boosting local commerce and infrastructure in the era of austerity and of the concern over global warming.
This Biennale, supposedly following from last year’s which was curated by the politically committed Nigerian exhibitor Okwui Enwezor, is curated by the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, who won the Pritzker Prize for architecture this year for his work in designing public spaces that respond to local environmental concerns. The biennale is introduced by Aravena with an overriding metaphor of a German female archeologist Maria Reiche astride a ladder in the desert gazing down at the ground and transforming it through her gaze. This is seen as just the right perspective for architects; close to the ground but above it with a slightly longer view than those below but one that because it is so close to the ground can aid local residents in transforming it.
LISTEN TO THE SHOW HERE
Unfortunately, in light of what actually appears in the Biennale and in light of what it leaves out in its supposed environmental concerns, the metaphor can equally be read as the same old tired European gaze at a world that it still looks upon as transformable by Western capital and which only sees what is below as raw materials. Maria Reiche, in her Euro-German gaze, is not looking at people, only at the ground. Much of this biennale likewise though promising intimate engagement with the local peoples of the world, instead treats them like so many movable objects and returns to a kind of modernist formalism in building design that seems to almost entirely leave out learning from native cultures, a retreat from the 2012 Biennale full of exuberant cultural spaces and even the 2014 Rem Koolhaus biennale, formalist but thorough even to the point of detailing the history of urinals.
Here climate change, impermeability, precarity, and austerity seem to be an excuse for, except in the case of India and Indian architects, excluding the cultural and reducing the mass of the world’s population to merely the materials that they have themselves transformed in creating a culture springing from those materials. The Mexican Pavilion said it correctly in terms of capitalist architecture which in the era of the Anthropocene, the combined human-machine hubris that maintains that all has been transformed by technology, believes it can create a world without people. Mexico instead put forth an anti-capitalist building motto: Architecture does not solve social problems. People working together solve social problems.
More than typical at this Biennale was in the Guardini exhibit the well-meaning open outdoor classrooms for marginalized students in the Andes, which though working against the confining spaces of education, themselves create a cold, anticeptic universe which fails to take into account the vibrant culture the students bring to the school and instead repositions them in a kind of rigid, but now open, modernist space that is utterly uninterested in who they are and does not presume to learn from them, only to impose on them. More typical than not was the blurb of a Norwegian architectural firm about knowledge about sustainability from Thailand: “Who would have thought that the global South was a huge source of strategies for this?” The blurb equally sustains the old colonial distinction between First World knowledge being “theoretical and abstract”, that is of a higher level and Third World knowledge being “empirical and practical”, rather that the two are continually merged and that there need not be a hierarchy. Another example of misplaced creativity was the prize winning Spanish pavilion on the idea of “the unfinished”, which seemed to romanticize the devastation caused by global capital in the housing industry in Spain in the 2008 recession by turning broken dreams into a marketable commodity and into a hyperconsumptive concept that allows architects to flirt with profitable restoration in what Naomi Klein calls disaster capitalism.
On the other hand Indian architects in this biennale seemed to be the exception in their utter incorporation and recognition of culture as important in architecture and their work constituted the real highlight of this Biennale. The female Indian architect Anupama Kundo celebrated the warm earth colors of the Indian soil in her constructions; Kumba Mela pointed to the ephemeral city of a Hindu religious feast, a construction that rises up for the feast, envelops all and then is washed away in the monsoon. Nek Chand people’s his interiors and rock gardens with lovingly eclectic Indian figurines and sculptures while the Polish architect Hugon Kowalski finds in Mumbai garbage possibilities for redeploying culture, for sustenance and for shelter as the detritus of society is redefined. The Brazilian national pavilion, which often coldly celebrates that country as a beacon of modernism, was this year instead dedicated to the contribution of its African population to the look and feel of its building projects and the long history of black involvement in Brazilian construction. In similar fashion, China’s pavilion and exhibits seemed to focus on learning from the peasantry both in village building and in applying some of its age-old sustainability to city dwellings. Outside the biennale, a special exhibit dedicated to recently deceased Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, who was called The Queen of the Curve, stressed her flowing, wavy designs, raising the countercurrent of the third world woman as antidote to first world masculine rationalism.
For a biennale with the title Reporting From the Front, this one seemed to have missed the two biggest issues of construction in Italy and one of those thoroughly outflanked it. Last week’s massive earthquake, 6 points on the Richter scale, has utterly destroyed parts of central Italy, with the center of the quake only about 25 miles from the 2009 devastation in the ancient hill city of Aquila. There is much criticism that after 2009, and in a region that has a history of quakes, structures were not reinforced and valuable medieval and Renaissance churches were again destroyed. The Matteo Renzi government, just off a meeting with Germany’s Merkel and France’s Holland, at first seemed much more interested in instead shoring up Italy’s faltering banks but then did respond by proposing 50 million in aid which the business press was extremely interested in detailing for its clients, including the biennales architects, who will soon be feeding at the public trough. Berlusconi and his media, looking for a way back into Italian politics after his governments displacement of the residents of Aquila helped initiate his downfall, at first claimed it would keep a watchful eye on the funds, a bad joke given the lawsuits for corruption he personally is involved in, and then switched to a tone of maintaining national unity in the face of the crisis.
The other highly overlooked building project is the Moise or Moses, as in parting the Red Sea, construction that was designed to save Venice from flooding and has instead become the locus of a scandal as funds, as is usual in projects in Italy which in a survey last week was labelled the third most corrupt country in the world behind Greece and Turkey, were diverted as the project remains unfinished and the former mayor of the city was forced to resign. Venice instead dedicated its pavilion to restoring the waterfront in the industrial port of Marghera, a more typical capitalist reconversion of a former industrial to a hyperconsumptive space as is now being attempted in Detroit, highlighted in the US pavilion, on the model of the San Francisco wharf. It is important to debate the Moise project because while it is a scandal that these series of gates that keep water from slowly eroding the city are not being built, it may also be a greater scandal if they are built since walling off water may destroy the ecosystem of the canal and the lagoon and may also force more sewage dumping in the canal. That would have been reporting from the front but that kind of reporting was not really what this biennale, more interested in promoting formal solutions, applying bandaids to the vast problems capitalism creates, and functioning as a work fare for architectural firms, was interested in or able to interrogate. Too bad and a wasted opportunity.
Elsewhere in the city, collections and collectors are on display. Peggy Guggenheim is presenting a supposed new look at Italian art in the 1960s which attempts to defuse the radical thrust of Arte Povera, poor art, an answer to what was felt as the imperial expansiveness of the then global dominant American Abstract Expressionism. The exhibition instead presents Italy as a Pop Art paradise utterly linked with New York in its centerpiece Mario Shifano’s “Winter through the museum” with the museum being MOMA, but these pieces are utterly overwhelmed by the reemergence at the end of the exhibit of Arte Povera including most strikingly Mimmo Rotella’s “Posso” a photo montage of a woman at the window of the economic miracle vehicle of the auto beaconing those inside onto other miracles of purchasing, all Posso or possible. The movements leading light Michelangelo Pistoletto was represented with a clay Madonna whose humbleness returned her to the people, an anti-consumerist Burnt Rose, an ugly attack on the bright colors of buying, and most formidably his “Electrical wire hanging from a wall” the Arte Povera version of a Duchampian toilet here calling into question the miracle of the capitalist home as gateway to consumption.
The newly restored Cimi Palace represented collecting of an older kind featuring Canalletto’s debauched scenes of 18th Century Venice which undercut his more known idealized scenes of canal life and a wonderful Botticelli in a restored palace with lots of careful commentary on the paintings. This collector’s exhibit contrasted sharply with the luxury goods industrialist Pinault’s presentation of the German artist Sigmar Polke in his Palazzo Grassi where visitors are exhorted to walk about viewing Polke’s silk screen interactions with four decades of German counter-cultural history in an utterly ahistorical way that made them all part of the hyperconsumptive spectacle. The vaporettos on the grand canal carry adds for both Diesel’s fashion denim and Sigmar Polke in a way that equates the two since each is now simply part of the stream of branded images that are meant to assault a public whose consciousness itself is each moment being rebranded for profit.
This is Broe on the Art World Beat, reporting live from the front lines, of the hyperconsumptive spectacle, at Venice where next week I will be covering the Venice Film Festival.
BOSCH AND THE PEASANT MIND
By Dennis Broe
Hieronymus Bosch, along with Pieter Bruegel the great figure of the Dutch Renaissance, made that Renaissance possible with his break with purely religious imagery, forecast the coming Dutch landscape painting of the century following him, and paved the way for Bruegel’s more intense commemoration of peasant life. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that Bosch made not only Bruegel but also the entire Dutch break with the aristocratic subject in its contemporary and historical painting possible. Yet, because of the heavily moralistic overlay, more the work of the subsequent critics than of Bosch himself, Bosch’s works are often seen as cautionary or condemnatory tales rather than as engaged depictions of the peasant mind and its way of making sense of the world.
These thoughts are prompted by the largest exhibition ever assembled of Bosch’s apocalyptic paintings in the town where he worked, Hertogenbosch, in the Netherlands, on the occasion of 500 years since his death in an exhibition that is running until May 8. (Best way to find information on the web is to search “Bosch 500, The Event,” https://www.bosch500.nl/en/the-event/2016-exhibition). Extant, there are approximately 24 Bosch paintings and 17 are on view in this medium sized town in the Dutch region of Brabant, where Bruegel was born about 10 years after Bosch’s death.
LISTEN TO THE SHOW HERE
Bosch of course has been turned into a superhero, now much larger than life in this art world and cultural bonanza (it is after all called an event not an exhibition) complete with its own patented controversy to also help draw visitors, but it must be said, that unlike Marvel’s direct-to-Netflix superheroes or Batman vs. Superman this really is an event worth seeing.
The town owns none of Bosch’s work but was searching for a way to put itself on the map for this celebration so, in the Information Age where information itself is a if not the commodity in global relations, they forked over 10 million euros to create and fund the Bosch Research and Conservation Project which put together what is supposed to be the authoritative version of Bosch’s works, in the art world, called a Catalogue Raisonne. The foundation also restored and performed spectrographic analysis of the paintings, particularly those in Venice in the world’s first art museum The Accademia of which there is a video in the exhibition and added and subtracted Bosch works from the canon. The group declared a painting stuck in storage in the St. Louis Museum of Art as an authentic Bosch and conversely ruled three Bosch works at the Prado Museum in Madrid not works of the master but rather works of his studio. In retaliation, or so the story goes, the Prado which has the largest single collection of Bosch works and which will have its own Bosch celebration beginning when this one ends and continuing through the summer, refused to send perhaps Bosch’s most famous work The Garden of Earthly Delights. Competition among cultural institutions is intense and much is at stake. The Bosch shows at the Noordbrabants Museum in Hertogenbosch are selling extremely well and the museum has added evening sessions to accommodate the added visitors. Meanwhile the town has supplied its own version of Boschomania, as its being called, with stencils of Bosch’s unearthly human-beast creatures in the designer windows and large plastic replicas of the creatures materializing at various points in the town. It is not certain that Bosch’s visions of hell are yet ready for the Disney/Pixar treatment but the town is trying. Meanwhile, in the town square, the house next to Bosch’s, which is still standing, collapsed just before a film could be projected nearby detailing the history of the square. My artist friend suggested that the rubble might indeed be the spirit of the artist reacting against his own commercialization. (The recent Picassomania exhibit in Paris opened with a giant lumberjack-like smiling Picasso in t-shirt by Maurizio Catalan suggesting that Picasso in these art world extravaganzas was in danger of being turned into Mickey Mouse.)
Nevertheless there is significant scholarship on display in the museum and throughout the town. I came away feeling partly because of the new information that there was a primary set of interpretations missing from the considerations of Bosch. He is seen as a prophet and artistic seer, forerunner of perhaps the Symbolists, certainly The Surrealists, and a very modern medieval painter, a member indeed of a movement called modern devotion that, pre-Luther, opted for individual reading and interpretation of the Bible, in full evidence in Bosch’s paintings. His Last Judgment, not on display here but in the Beaux Arts Museum in Vienna, concerns heaven barely at all in the top corners of only two of the three panels and is fascinated instead with human activity on earth and, in the last panel, in hell. But there is really a short step between Bosch’s depiction of the morals and fears of the workers of this time, the peasantry, and Breugel’s absence of moralism in his depiction of all aspects of peasant life.
A wonderful pencil hatching called the eyes-ears drawing with two huge ears in the countryside on either side of a kind of ominous, cagey owl in a tree trunk titled The Wood has Ears, the Field has Eyes operates on several levels. The drawing puns on the town’s name, in Dutch ogen is eyes and bosch woods but also adds a political level when the other name of the town emerges, with these woods known as “the duke’s woods” and so on the third level the drawing, the woods have eyes and ears is a peasant warning to be careful of the treachery and betrayal that is a practice of the medieval power structure.
Bosch’s breakthrough as a painter, from being a rather good religious painter to a painter of mental forms and aberrations occurs in a Saint John the Baptist painting where the reclining saint is posed looking at a lamb, or the lamb of god, but where he is surrounded and seemingly engulfed, by an early spectacular Boscian venus fly trap of a decaying plant with a bird pecking its insides (so much of this imagery reminds me of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet). The grotesque plant, a spectrographic analysis reveals, is Bosch painting over the wealthy patron who supposedly commissioned the painting. We were later told by a town historian that the reason for the transformation of the patron into the decaying plant may have been because he did not pay for the painting but whatever the reason, this is the moment, visible in striking fashion, when Bosch makes a break with the orderly world of the medieval patron and strictly solemnal view of the church into the underground world of peasant morals and peasant reasoning, the thought of a class caught in the vise of the nobles and the church and trying to survive and take some pleasure in a world they did not create. The artist’s makeover, the announcement of the birth of the iconic Bosch, is also a spectacular moment of the artist biting the hand that in this case isn’t feeding him, something this is too little in evidence today as artist-superstars rush to the private trough.
Also worth visiting in the town is St. John’s Cathedral, a church that has a tortured history of Protestant/Catholic rivalry perhaps nowhere better represented than in the gothic statuary of yowling dogs, peasant musicians and stonecutters and a laconic rural everyperson astride one of the canine beasts from hell; images Bosch would subsume. Worth seeing also is Bosch’s not exactly guild hall but more like a Herterengobosch Skull and Bones group devoted to Mary called the Confraternity of the Illustrious Lady which nevertheless gave the hobknobbing Bosch the financial freedom to create more on his own and the Bosch Art Center which has reproductions of the complete work, a tower with an imposing view of the town, and a exhibit of Bosch/Bruegel Mail Art the most striking piece of which depicts a plane crashing into Bruegel’s Tower of Babel, which summons up the 9/11 destruction of our own capitalist Tower.
Best place to eat among a host of wonderful cafes is one called The Royal, which boasts moderate priced soup-and-sandwich vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals including an out of this world, I guess Boscian, goat cheese sandwich on Dutch black bread with honey and craneberrries. After, conclude your trip with what’s known throughout Holland as the “bosch boll,” hard chocolate outside and white cream inside. The town is situated in the center of the country and best and cheapest way to get there is flying into Amsterdam, Rotterdam Antwerp or Brussels and then take local Dutch trains to Herterengobosch.
Well worth making the trip.
VENICE BIENNALE: ALL THE WORLD'S FUTURES
By Dennis Broe
This is Broe on the World Film Beat coming to you from Venice and this week I will be talking about a very special version of the Venice Biennale, the once every two years festival of art held in the city’s primary park the Giardini full of national pavilions and the old naval yard The Arsenale which is a curated exhibition. The biennale runs through November 22 so there is still plenty of time to come see it.
The title of the combined exhibits is All the World’s Futures and they are curated this year by the spectacular Nigerian curator, the best in the world at putting together politically relevant shows, Okwui Enwezor who curated Documenta 11, a year-long forum for the world’s political artists and an extraordinary show at PS1 in New York also in 2002 called The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994. Thirteen years later, the outlook for the world and the mood of its political artists is much grimmer, much darker and that is very much in evidence in this show which is intensely critical of capitalism throughout—Karl Marx is listed in the guidebook as one of the show’s artists and the centerpiece of Okwezor’s curated show in the Giardiani is an arena with a 7-month-long reading of the three volumes of that artist’s most famed work, Capital. The show is also intensely aware of the despoliation of nature and intensely interested in revaluating and introducing African art and artists.
The audacity of staging an entirely socially critical biennale, and having it end just as the climate conference Cop21, the last chance to save the planet will be beginning, has polarized the art world as you might imagine. In France, Telerama’s art critic spoke for the hermetically sealed element of the art world where it is okay to make veiled references to art as commodity but where everything else must conform to traditional ideas of either aesthetic beauty or, since the post-war, aesthetic ugliness. According to this critic, only Theaster Gates and Chibaru Shiota, of which more later, saved the exposition from “languishing in academism, ennui” and he termed the general level of the work “mediocrity.” On the other hand the Financial Times raved. Edwin Heathcoat, the best writer on architecture in the world, called the festival ‘an anguished cry emerging from an art world driven by global capital that is waking to the realization that it is inextricably complicit in the system it disdains” while also being a biennale that promotes “activist art.” That paper’s main art critic Jackie Wullschlager, also in my opinion the best in the world, called it “the most cohesive, authoritative, arresting, urgent biennale for decades.” By the way, the outpost in Venice for a hermetically sealed art and art world, the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, responded by advertising “Kadinsky, Picasso, Cezanne,” that is, reminding us all to stop this toying with art as relevant to today’s world and instead come home to the art world’s consumptive verities.
Here then are some examples of how the festival has been organized to emphasize its social relevance, some stand-out individual artists, and some positive and negative contributions in the national pavilions.
First, both of Enwezor’s curated exhibits in the Arsenale and Giardini open in this festival’s official color, black. The exhibition space in the Giardini is covered with torn black curtains and in the Arsenale the first few rooms redound with echoes of torture chambers as a comment on the current state of affairs. The first room of the Arsenale features Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed’s stark clustering of knives stuck in the ground with the pastoral title of Nympheas, the title a stark contrast to the eeriness of these weapons. In the same room is one of the mini retrospectives sprinkled throughout the show, this one of Bruce Nauman whose frigid neon conceptualism can be simply sterile but here the boldly flashing contrasts of “death/love/hate/ pleasure/pain” and slogans like “stick it in your ear” and “Your chest, my face” rebounded with the same aggression as the knives, both starkly introducing the theme of the violence of contemporary capitalism. This was followed first by Terry Adkins Muffled Drums, a stitched together group of old colonial drums of war which Adkins had silenced, secondly, by a true torture chamber with instruments of torture on the walls by Qui Zhijie and, finally, by Monica Bonvicini’s and Melvin Edwards’ sinister sculptures. Bonivicini’s phantasms were black tar like waste from the energy industry with titles like “Latent combustion” while Edwards’ sharp fused metal points which bore titles like Texas Tale suggested the history of violence in the American South.
Two of the most stunning exhibits were films by black artists Theaster Gates and, 12 Years a Slave’s Steve Macqueen. Gates’ Gone are the Days of Shelter and Martyr is a forceful examination of the black church that is both critique and lament. Gates film in front of a statue of a monk, has workmen overturning doors inside an abandoned church. The statue and the religious art is a condemnation of a church too tied to conventional oppressive Christianity while the sound of the doors hitting the ground ring a death knell for this important black institution amid so much that is being taken away and echo the disasters of Baltimore and Ferguson. Steve Macqueen’s Ashes with images on both sides of the screen celebrates the life and death of a Granadian young man Macqueen and photographer Robbie Muller filmed in 2002, then the burial of the man in 2010 having discovered drugs on the beach and being killed for having boasted of finding them. The young man, ironically named Ashes’s, vitality is in full display on one side while on the other is his finality but since the soundtrack is the same for each, the effect is to celebrate but also to recognize life in death and death in life.
The Giardini centerpiece of the Arena with the readings of Capital is surrounded by a host of rooms that make that reading echo and reverberate. Probably the best overall room, or combination of artists, has filmmaker Issac Julien’s interview with Sociologist David Harvey on applying Marx’s theories to the art world (at one moment claiming that there is concerted effort by capital whereby the art world is “more and more pushed to produce spectacles”) next to pencil etchings on the walls by Rirkrit Tiravanija called Demonstration Drawings. These consist of 100 drawings of protest from all over the world which collectively present not just demonstrations in the abstract but the coming to consciousness of the Asian developing countries as in front of you they find their collective voice in slogans like “Singapore Bank out of Thailand.” A room nearby turns Alexander Kluge’s three films about Capital, one for each volume, into a triptych with the films playing simultaneously and together restoring real meaning and relevance to the more abstract moment of New York Conceptualism. Thus we get one screen with an interviewee saying “For Brecht each work has a significance,” a second discussing consumerism, and a third with the single title “What is commodity fetishism?”
There was also throughout a tribute to French filmmaking essayist Chris Marker including a very poignant series of color photos shot from 2008 to 2010 two years before his death titled “Passengers,” consisting of all varieties of French women of color riding the metro; tired, sleepy, proud and mainly simply projecting themselves into this space.
A few more of the best of individual artists:
Women’s work as critique of capitalist masculine devastation features in the work of Sonia Gomes and Maja Bajavic. Gomes, a Brazilian artist from the textile district of Caetanopolis, creates distorted fabric sculptures like the body lying on the ground titled Trauma, and in so doing exposes the trauma behind the exploitation of third world women in the textile industry as well as presenting the negative undercurrent of Annette Messenger’s prized childhood dolls which do not open up onto the industry and the women who made them. Bajavic uses weaving and the idea of folk art to criticize the hard facts of capitalism. In one called “Arts, crafts and facts” she constructs a bright quilt patterning of oranges, reds and blues which illustrate not a warm household scene but rather the cold graphs of capitalist expansion since they are representations of the growth rates of JP Morgan, Chase and Societe Generale.
Adrien Piper, whose art won the Biennale Golden Lion and who has done important work in passing and the color line in the US, at Venice created a corporate space for her The Probable Trust Registry complete with reception desks where viewers were asked to swear to 12 binding clauses that would force them to follow slogans like “I will always do what I say I am going to do” and “I will always mean what I say,” a masterful way of illustrating that in the modern competitive corporate boardroom human decency has to be enforced by rigid laws since the atmosphere of the boardroom is against it.
Piper also had a display, blackboard scawlings as in high school detention, over and over with the phrase “Everything will be taken away.” This was in the same room as a math equation that solves nothing which faced the blown up photo of Joseph Goebbels in his visit to the Biennale in 1939, that is, a sign of the final solution. Goebbels is gazing at a work of art in such a way as to suggest he may be thinking about how to steal it and a guide claimed that one tourist took a selfie of her with him, not realizing I guess either who he was or who she was since the unexamination of the selfie crowd has reached new limits.
I must also quickly mention Wangechi Mutu’s three screen film The End of Carrying All with a bushwoman bearing the world’s weight on her shoulders making the audience feel each agonizing step of this historical journey which culminates in her going over a cliff with her burden in a kind of ET animation that also recalls African tales and reminds us the main African tale through history is its supplication by the west to the rigors of day to day labor. Hwayeon Nam’s The Botony of Desire, a film in which floral arrangements and shots of dancers are met on the soundtrack by the barbarous sounds of stock market trading and auctioneering, implicates even the flowers since the first economic bubble and bust was created in the 17th century around the Dutch Tulip. Jeremy Deller’s Factory Records presents a jukebox, a representative form of working class entertainment at the end of the industrial era with instead of pop hits, factory sounds, so the tunes you can play include “Blacksmith working on an Anvil” and “Mill Engine Starting Up,” reminding us also as Adorno says that play was often a repetition of work in the factory mode.
Finally, outside the Biennale, at the Museo Correr in San Marco are Jenny Holzer’s War Paintings, in a space in the museum next to a room housing a history of Italian painting, some of which celebrate monumental triumphs on the field of battle. Holzer’s work is the opposite. It’s about silent deadly moments in the war on terror told in fingerprints, redacted documents and wall etchings of the traces of this war on Muslims and Arabs, the world’s poor, erased without a trace as casualties of an inglorious war fought by heavily armed cowards. One story read, “as a result of beating someone” whose name is blocked out in green blot and continued with “and Jamal was murdered.” This is the most stark moment of a cowardly war, which Holzer fashions into fierce art.
To end, some high and lowlights of the country Pavilions:
Exhibit to best suggest nature was Fiona Hall’s Wrong Way Time in the Australian pavilion, my nomination for best pavilion. Wrong way time is time out of joint and the room opens with spectacular rubber band constructions of various real and imagined animals of the bush. At the heart of the exhibit is an Aboriginal Grave Yard with skeletons on hangers, suggesting that time here is out of joint because of the persecution of the original inhabitants.
This year was the first year at the Biennale for Mozambique and they decided to do a survey of a country where the arts are booming including twin paintings of bunched together but majestically proud males and females. The exhibition announces the country as a major new inspiration for the burgeoning market of African art.
Compare the twin approaches of Tuvalu and the Swiss Pavilion on the idea of water. Tuvalu, formerly Polynesia, is an island country. The stark inside features twin pools of water on either side of a strip of concrete. You walk on the concrete and your feet start to get wet. Water is seeping out of the pools and onto the land beginning to slowly reclaim it and break it down just as Tuvalu itself is in danger of disappearing. The Swiss Pavilion, in a similar vein, mixes red and green pools of water, suggesting perhaps the same phenomenon but in a way that is uninvolved and uninvolving for the spectator who simply is invited to see it as an expressionist mess of color.
It was an eerie feeling watching the unregenerate pavilion of Venezuela, which boldly announces itself as the Pavilion of the Bolvarian Revolution. A projection shows three women with babies, wearing black masks, proud representatives of the revolution, take off their tops but not their masks, feed the babies and walk off triumphant – as the revolution continues. However, one wonders if it will have been toppled by US intervention by the next Biennale.
Best part of the Spanish pavilion was Francesco Ruiz’ newsstand with all the papers including the supposedly left ones with titles like Liberation looking the same and saying the same thing, in blanched faded green and, secondly, behind closed doors a porn stand with another kind of sameness since it was not about multiple sexualities but simply a celebration of male power.
The Isreali pavilion is located right next to the US, meaning perhaps sheltered by it? Work in the pavilion in the past was often an advertisement for the country’s technological prowess and often a bit scarily mystifying in terms of the real problems of the country. This year though was different showing the country acknowledging those problems, at least in the exhibition. Tires outside cover the walls – in way that makes it seem like this space is separated from all other pavilions and which suggests the walling off of Palestine. Inside is a ghetto representation by Tsibi Geva with all articles of ghetto life--and by the way that word was coined in Venice-but ghetto hear meaning the arab ghetto in Israel –washers, TVs showing scenes from everyday life piled up in a cubist photorealist representation of this cramped space. Very effective.
The Russia Pavilion opens on the top floor with a frightening enlarged pilot’s mask, occupying almost the entire room in an intimation of disaster moves to a middle room which darker still thought you can see the ground floor below which is lighted, and concludes in a third more hopeful room of revolutionary red mixed with Gorbachev’s perestroika green. Below is a room celebrating the history of the revolution as subconscious of the contemporary Russian project. Quite effective and hopeful not only in its refusal to turn its back on the history of the revolution but also in its revival in the present of tropes from the Revolutionary Avant-Garde Period in its Suprematist lettering and design.
Most political pavilion was Serbia for its United Dead Nations with piles of clothes strewn as representing now destroyed countries – and the one you see as you enter being Yugoslavia, exposing the now clear US strategy for dealing with oppositional countries in its moment of birth as a grand strategy.
Beautiful, prized, but vastly overrated was Japan’s Chiharu Shiota, the star is born at this year’s festival. The key in the hand, features thousands of tiny keys strung against a red background above decayed holds of ships in a way that could suggest the decay of Japan’s traditional industry or the decay of the empire itself, but in its ultra cutesie presentation actually suggests the emergence of a slightly more heady Jeff Koons. This was the selfie capital of the presentation and contrasted sharply with Tetsuya Ishida’s paintings in the curated exhibit. Ishida was a Japanese surrealist who was afraid of Japanese alienated technology. His works from the 1980s and 90s include Rise and Shine where a boy falls out of bed that is also a truck bed and thus going straight to work and Recalled, showing a worker with defective parts having them reinstalled by factory technicians while bourgeois managers look on. Ishida died in 2005--at 31-- like another Japanese radical the author Takiji Kobayashi whose vision in such novels as Crab Cannery Ship, was critical of Japanese society in late ‘20s and who was killed for it. Ishida and Kobayashi’s work was never feted at the Japanese pavilion.
Most disgusting pavilion was Egypt’s which was called Peace, a lush, green tranquil effacing of everything now going on the country where it has recently been ruled illegal for journalists to disagree with the government. I watched a young woman enjoying the tranquility take a selfie with no understanding that Peace was a front for the military which, with the support of potential US presidential candidate John Kerry, continues its destruction of the Arab Spring.
That is Broe on the Art World Beat signing off from the Venice Biennale.