Direct from Venice: The Encyclopedic Palace
word and pics
by Tiziana Borghese
Venice! Venice! Venice! That Disneyland and wonderland of the visual image, that blend of the traditional and cutting edge, that sense of excitement and expectation, bewilderment and frustration, and that elated expectation of food for the soul just out of grasp in the narrow dark streets built more than a thousand years ago for altogether different purposes.
In Part 1 I wrote of the compression of time and space I felt when walking in the footsteps of past illustrious icons. Although I was speaking then of Florence this is even more apparent in Venice. History and the “here and now” converge in a synchronic blend defying any lateral chronology. Here I am in 2013 walking the same streets and cobbled stones as had Tintoretto, Titian, Veronese, Giorgione, Bellini, Carpaccio, Canaletto, and in more modern times Peggy Guggenheim, Duchamp, Ernst, and Vedova. At every corner there are plaques on antique palazzos inviting you to partake of its history. This is where Mozart lived as a 15 year old, where Goldoni wrote and directed his plays in the Teatro San Luca, where Verdi’s La Traviata first opened in La Fenice, in 1853 (visiting La Fenice I watched a contemporary version of Carmen being rehearsed and noted that La Traviata opened the season here in August 2013), where Vivaldi played in San Vidal. (I was lucky to get front row seats in this very church to experience the Interpreti Veneziani give a passionate encore performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Cello concert RV400 in C major.
Venice has an artistic, intellectual and cultural vibrancy which is impossible to miss. But one of the most interesting discoveries in my walks through this city of Renaissance glory was the house of the first woman to graduate from a university in the world. In 1678 Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia graduated in Philosophy (Theology) from Padua University. When other city states were dependent on courtly patronage, Venice was already opening up its doors to theatre, music and education to those beyond.
With such a wonderful setting as background it is understandable that visitors who only spend a few days in Venice can be totally overwhelmed. By the time this article is published readers will still have time to pop over to the 55th Venice Biennale which closes in November. But if you do, allow at least a week to fully embrace the spirit of Venice and the Biennale. In a month of dedicated research I was unable to see all the national collaterals and unofficial galleries organising exhibitions around this major art event … It is huge!
In this article I have selected my personal favourites. For those coming over to the Biennale you need to allow at least one full day for each of the two major venues, the Arsenale and the Giardini, and as many days as you can for the many, many national and local collaterals scattered all around Venice. Then, of course, there is the charm of Venice herself (She is known as La Serenissima).
This year’s Biennale curator is Massimiliano Gioni, one of the youngest curators to have been invited to head such an important global event. He divides his time between Italy and New York and has attracted a polarized response to his curatorial vision. Many welcome his fresh approach to exhibiting, which some say steers away from the theatrical, the polemic and the scandals of the past, in favour of the archival, the collectable and an emphasis on art as a receptacle for universal knowledge. Others comment that the feel of the Biennale is too scholarly, conceptual and ‘perfect’, or too much like a museum, with the works of more than forty dead artists on show instead of highlighting the living.
In fact the theme of this Biennale is the “Encyclopedic Palace”, with its emphasis on the historic, the spiritual, the conceptual, the archival, and outsider art. Gioni embraced this idea based on a patent that Italian-born American, Marino Auriti, filed with the U.S. Patent office in 1955 of an imaginary sixteen blocks, a 139 storey museum in Washington DC, that was meant to house all worldly knowledge bringing together the greatest discoveries of the human race from the wheel to the satellite.
In this Gioni has succeeded in bringing together a collection of known and outsider art, which is not the usual fare of such events. Compared to other Biennali, this year’s offerings have more of a museum feel than an art gallery. Walking through the Arsenale and Central Pavilion is like walking through a contemporary ‘wunderkammer’, a collection of wonderful and bewildering objects. Gioni seems to have tapped into contemporary debate initiated by Jean-Hubert Martin in the 80s when he curated Magiciens de la terre at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and more recently and closer to home the Theatre of the World exhibition last year at MONA, where the divide between high and low art, art and craft, primitive and evolved art, and the introspective, private and personal versus the commercial, public and exhibitionist has been blurred, freeing the artwork from the restrictions of historical and cultural categorisation.
Some of the artists have never exhibited and have created their art privately from an inner compulsion that they kept secret. The Carl Gustav Jung’s watercolours were a delightful discovery, Shinichi Sawada’s clay figures and masks revealing a personal mythology from someone with severe autism, Peter Fritz’s 387 model buildings found in an op shop by artists Croy and Elser a serendipitous find, and Morton Bartlett’s anatomically correct, handcrafted dolls which he kept hidden are just some of the many secret collections which were brought to light for this Biennale.
And there are other delightful inclusions of artists who have exhibited, or been part of major historical art movements but could not be traditionally categorised, such as Ed Atkins’ video of archival footage of Andre Breton’s personal microcosm – a voluminous collection of rare books, paintings and tribal artefacts – Levi Fisher Ames American Civil War wood carvings of fantastic, mythological creatures which he exhibited in circuses during the 1880s, or Spelterini’s black and white 1890s photographs of his hot air ballooning expeditions, which he exhibited as slide shows all over the world and, Rudolf Steiner’s blackboard drawings which seem to pre-empt and resemble the more famous ones of Joseph Beuys.
Some blockbuster artists are also included but in a more minor role than in previous Biennali. Golden Lion award winner, Buce Naumen, is only represented by his 1991 Raw Material with Continuous Shift MMMM video. Richard Serra has three small sculptural blocks in tribute to Pasolini. Charles Ray has a scaled up sculpture Fall 91, and Cindy Sherman, featured last Biennale, has taken a curatorial role. Her exhibition in the Arsenale includes high profile art such as Rosemarie Trockel’s Living means to appreciate your mother nude (2001) and Paul McCarthy’s Children’s Anatomical Educational Figure (1990) and also a collection of her personal 1970s photographic albums found in op shops, featuring transvestites in domestic scenes.
Other notable contributors to this year’s Bienalle are Robert Crumb and his ambitious graphic novel of all 50 chapters of the book of Genesis (270 pages of black and white drawings), Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s 250 humorous clay commentaries Suddenly, a Revelation, and three separate exhibitions of Ai Weiwei’s work.
I could write many, many more pages about this amazing fest of art, but for the sake of expediency I have concentrated on a general ‘feel’ and my personal ‘best’ of the 55th Venice Biennale. You may nevertheless be interested to know that The Golden Lion went to Tino Sehgal for his ephemeral human sculptures who continue the trajectory of aural tradition in art; Marisa Merz for a lifetime achievement which began with the arte povera movement in the 60s; Maria Lassnig for her artistic investigations of over 60 years entitled The Body Awareness Paintings; The Angolan Pavilion, first entrants this year, whose photographic project captured the complexities of their capital, Luanda. And the silver medal went to Camille Henrot for her video which linked the Big Bang Theory with rap culture.
Next month I will write about the Arsenale and Gardini in more detail, with a section on the Australians in Venice.