Monday, June 15, 2009

Death in Venice

Day Three:
My last day at the Biennial was a cross between Primer Impacto and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Mostly Primer Impacto though. This guilty pleasure for any Latino household is a TV show featuring "sucesos" or current events, happenings, that are actually more like gruesome, spectacular, grisly, disgusting, violent, sexy, and out there events. Usually the hosts are buxom women with low-cut shirts and the stories are bloody and involve shootings, gangs, criminals, and the like. My art-viewing day began with crime victims' remains and ended with a near-death from Russian-Roulette, followed up by a glamorous multicultural party on a Venetian canal, to take the edge off the shock.

I think curator of the Mexican Pavilion Cuauhtemoc Medina is very smart. And I am fascinated, and challenged by, Teresa Margolles' work, which to my mind skirts the line between ethical and unethical participation of an artist in an everyday conflict. To what degree is her brave immersion in the world of crime scenes, morgues, poverty, and horror in Mexico City an effort to force us to confront this reality -or to aestheticize it for elite audiences thus creating a spectacle? Her work pushes me literally to the limit- I have had two instances of visceral reactions to it. Once, in the horrible Mexico City group show at PS1, I was too nauseated to enter the room from where steam created from water used to wash corpses in a Mexico City morgue emerged. I became outraged, but this outrage made me want to understand the work more, especially after I met her, and saw some her earlier work with SEMEFO. The other piece was a video taken of her as she washed a dead baby's corpse. As it lay inside of a plastic bin she first gently cleaned it with her hands, then scrubbed it with a hard brush. I wanted to scream but I stayed to the very end. According to the text distributed by the curator, the baby's mother was too poor to bury it, and gave the body to the artist to use in the performance.

In Venice, a beautiful Neo Classical (?) Century palazzo, somewhat the worse for wear, was a decadent contrast to the visceral imagery of a series of her canvases.

One of my biennialista team members knew the owner, apparently the family wants to restore the building, but for Medina, its faded grandeur was perfect just the way it was. Consisting of canvases (sheets?) painted with blood taken from crime scenes, strung up like yesterday's laundry in various rooms, the sepia colored tones, layered and textured, reminded me of Ad Reinhardt or Mark Rothko. It looks monochrome but looking longer and more carefully rewards you with the revelation that there are densities of light, thickness, and color. Like a series of Veronica's shrouds, the blood-stained sheets appeared in various rooms, while others remained empty, delicate flower patterned panels, mirrors, and plaster exposed.

In one room, a mop and pail stood, and a sepia stain pooled on one side. In another room, a woman mopped the floor with the viscous liquid.

One of the red-stained cloths fluttered outside a window, a flag in place of the Mexican one.

In yet another room, a series of other canvases extended in a row, here the text said that the pigment was from mud found beneath corpses.

My friend was underwhelmed, she felt this was creating something beautiful and inscrutable and that one needed to know the artists' trajectory and/or read the explanatory texts to get the full picture. It was hard for me to say because of course I came to the work with just such information. I wanted to think that looking alone would suggest blood and that the room with the pool and mop would also further that association, that the shapes on the muddy canvases would remind one of the outlines of a human body, like the black contours that are used to train you to shoot someone with a gun. Even if one did not get those associations, is it enough to enjoy looking at the color, texture, roughness of the support, contrast between delicate spaces and raw pictures? We argued all the way from St. Mark's to the Arsenale, stopping to shop for handmade books, olive bread, croissants, and pannini.

At this point we split up and I heroically finished the main exhibition. But what I really wanted to do was go to the Arsenale Novissimo to see the Fear Society group show, organized by the city of Murcia as a preview of the upcoming Manifesta which will be held in the region. I was especially looking forward to the show because one of my favorite artists, Fernando Bryce, was in it. He showed his latest series of drawings "Die Welt" - the world. Amusingly coincident with Birnbaum's title, the work actually demonstrated the kind of thing the curator could have selected, which would have complicated ideas like international links, networks, identities, and histories. Bryce constructs new archives through laborious processes of historical and visual research, reproducing pages and selections from pamphlets, advertisements, newspapers, political propaganda, or illustrated magazines. Through his editing he creates a new archive in which connections between historical events are underscored. In this series, which fits in to his larger body of work, in which he has traced the historical development of modern colonial expansion through its current consequences such as the war in Irak, he reproduces newspaper and magazine covers from Germany, Paris, and Peru, focusing on key historical dates.

Typically, the small distance -less than 5 minutes- to get across from the Arsenale to the new Arsenale (a much more spectacular space for exhibitions, different shades of brick, arches, a lot of natural light, immensely high ceilings, and much of it was empty!) had to be traversed by a small power boat that could hold just 25 people. You stood in a line for an average of a half hour. Only at the end of the day did they get a larger boat from somewhere, not as big as a vaporetto, but at least able to hold about 50 people or so.

In any event, I was eager to arrive so as not to miss the performance by Tania Brugera.

Brugera's performance consisted of her unpacking the gun, loading it with a bullet, holding it to her head, pulling the trigger. Then she launched into a didactic, pedantic monotone lecture about the role of the artist in society, with the usual platitudes about avoiding the capitalist market, being engaged with real world politics, and passing the baton to everyday people rather than remaining in the elite world of art. Meanwhile, the beginning referred to earlier events as if they were current which had to do with the fact that she'd presented the event in France in March and had forgotten to edit this bit out. I found it ironic that she was presenting this to an elite artworld audience of biennialistas in Venice but my friend, editor of a major art publication, said that she did not think Brugera meant it in that tone. At two other times she pulled the trigger and at the end, she shot a bullet in the air.

Here you see Brugera being interviewed by a journalist beside part of Bryce's work. She claimed both after the performance during the question and answer, and to the journalist, that there was a real bullet in the gun.

So a day that began with crime victims' blood turned into pigment, ended with an artist's "Auto-Sabotage." And a Biennial Via Crucis that began with a Chinese promotion of 8 museums devoted to contemporary art masters, continued with another boat crossing to an unusual location - the amazing Arsenale Novissimo - to promote Manifesta in an off the beaten track Spanish site.

The grand finale was a party to launch - on a ferry - a Biennial in HK. Thanks to my glamorous Italian biennalista we had invites to a swank party to launch a Hong Kong Shenzen Architecture Biennial. Bellinis, wine, Italian nosh, fashionistas, starcurator Ho Hanru, starchitect Rem Koolhass (and his fabulously dressed wife, sporting another custom made Dutch wax cloth African print blouse), and handsome Italians held court. Some of my party managed to avoid the dramatic high water that flooded San Marco and Rialto, as we departed for the tranquil timeless and stately elegance of Vicenza. But that is another story.


Narciso Espejo said...

Gracias por este superreporte. Una maravilla. Tu deberias publciar esto en otros sitios. De verdad. Un besote.

Petite Maoiste said...

I am very flattered. Somehow I don't think reputable art publications that read like the ingredients in cereal boxes will accept my delusionary prose including comparisons between the Biennale and Primer Impacto, along with breathless fashion reportage. LOL!!!!!!