Thursday, June 11, 2009

World Wide Web

Day Two, continued:

Padiglioni de Italia, Giardini:

Although as I mentioned before, I found the "It's a Small World, After All" platitudes of the main thematic show underwhelming, I did like a number of the works. The broad groupings I noted were:

Gego meets Buckminster Fuller grids & rhizomes, small tchotchke assemblages (yarn, toys, ceramics, trash, etc.), and Concrete & Neo Concrete meets monochromes.

Here are some of my top works:
Tomas Saraceno - Gego's Reticularea meets Buckminster Fuller, you could walk through this enveloping web, it was lovely, disorienting, a failure of the web, a spatial representation of its disorienting and productive unforseen paths of possibilities.

Susan Hefuna - Gego meets Mona Hatoum: Grids of drawings of meandering, chaotic grids and webs. Some included labor-intensive passages where the drawn lines were enhanced by sewn-on yarn or string.

I have to acknowledge that the curator showed quite a few artists that I was unfamiliar with, from countries all over the world. But over all, I was not engaged either by the curatorial theme or by much of the work.

Roberto Cuoghi's installation in a garden featuring bamboo and other Asian plants and panels with speakers airing what sounded like Chinese Opera but was a 1930s Shanghai pop song sung in the manner of the classical form made all of my biennialista team long to linger, but the long march for art had to go on.

The Giardini Pavilions:

In the Russian Pavilion there was a fabulous installation by Alexei Hallima consisting of a room that was all white until you were surrounded by a projection of an image of a crowd - a soccer match? a political demonstration? and the deafening roar of the mob. The image was projected in black light, and I found the space sinister and hypnotic, I stayed for a few rounds.

Quite a few of the pavilions were closed, including the USA, France, UK, and Germany, thus freeing me from having to see Bruce Nauman. I realize that I could be fired for admitting this, but frankly I was more interested in the Mexican Pavilion. (more on that later)

Copito de Nieve, Barcelona's iconic primate

Feeling obligated by my Spanish citizenship to stop by our pavilion, I was appalled by the kitsch inside. When did Miquel Barcelo become the court painter of Spain? I was buffeted by a feeling of deja vous (not in a good way), remembering my student days in the 1980s, when a huge viscous rendering of a paella lorded over the entryway of Madrid's defunct Museum of Spanish Contemporary Art. Were we back in the time of the Movida? Why is Miguel Zugaza commissioning Barcelo to make works at the Prado, as if he were a latter-day Picasso. Are there no contemporary Spanish artists? Paintings of a white monkey from Barcelona's zoo, thickly impastoed mural sized canvases evoking the caves of Altamira and Cy Twombly's bloated gestural macho Eurocentric imperial nostalgia completed the ensemble.

Hitting a literal brick wall, we headed to the Arsenale.


Lygia Pape appeared twice, once in the Giardini, her Book of Creation was paired with a series of small monochrome paintings by Blinky Palermo, a pairing evoking one suggested by Lynn Zelevansky in her "Beyond Geometry" show at LACMA several years ago. And a breathtaking room installation made of wire also by Pape, that was practically impossible to photograph because the room was pitch dark and the wires glistened.

Gonkar Gyatso's works were invented charts and graphs having to do with tracking the relationship between Tibet and China (the artist is from Tibet), with beautifully intricate drawings.

Also in the Arsenale was the Latin American Pavilion - Instituto Italo Latinoamericano. My favorite work there was by Alberto Bayara, "Expedicion Venecia," an amusing send up of European ethnographic displays, as if Venice's crafts were exhibited in a anthropology museum.

Just like in 2007, when they first had their own pavilion, the PRC was at the Arsenale. I loved the branching floor installation on the grounds outside, made up of dominos, by Qui Zhijie.

It's a Small World, After All: Biennial Feel-good Branding

Day two:
After a stroll through Venice and a late night dinner with our international crew, we woke up with renewed energy to head over to the Giardini, the Epcot Center of the artworld. Dotted with simulacra of national architecture throughout large gardens, lined up like prefab homes in a suburban development. Some Modernist, others MacMansion-like (such as the hideous US pavilion, which I compared 2 years ago to a rest stop near Maryland/Virginia/Washington DC along US 75 meant to evoke Colonial architecture) , the pavilions competed for our attention like eager Miss Universe contestants.

In lieu of national costumes, we get the pavilion totebags. Each time we go, my friend and I award imaginary prizes for the best ones. This year, top prize went to newcomer United Arab Emirates, with runner-up People's Republic of China also following the model of bilingual English-national language, featuring a catchy self-help/Relational Aesthetics slogan and beautiful typography:

UAE: It's not you, it's me - Dysfunctional Relational Aesthetics meets US Self-Help rhetoric?

PRC: You and me, forget about the 20th anniversary of Tianamen Square?

We began with the central theme exhibition curated by Daniel Birnbaum "Making Worlds." Branded to evoke globalization (it reminded me of the Disney ride "It's a Small World After All"), the title was written in English, Italian, Russian, Chinese, and Arabic. This nod was just for show's posters and handout covers, the rest of the texts and wall labels were only in the first two languages. The repertoire of abstract shapes was intended to remind of us the universal language of art, the comprehensibility of abstract forms, and the use of such components in flags all over the world. Really? No one had never thought of this?

Selection of the "It's a Small World" ride at Disney World. The argument behind the ride is that the world is global, and similar, at once. They were so avant-garde! The finale is really sinister, because it is a melange of little dancing dolls from each of the contients/countries all singing in unison, and they all look WHITE.

The "argument" only went downhill from there - formalist, banal, platitudinous.

The exhibition contrasted dramatically with Rob Storr's much more compelling offering of two years before: few videos, a lot of painting and drawing, a few installations, and no politics. Although as Jerry Salz said, two years ago it was a bit of the "curator as anchorman" - the horrific news of the world passing by like the disjointed CNN news ticker, at least it featured ideas, and works that were interesting at the levels of form and content. I literally counted about a dozen works that I liked total.

There were recurring types of images: geometric abstraction, webs and grids, installations featuring iconic images or little assemblages of tchotchkes - often evoking trash, mass culture, or craft - that made reference to self-contained universes, still others included books or pages from books.

And speaking of universal languages, let's talk about my favorite one, fashion. As is usual at these artsy fashionista gatherings, there was a lot of black. But I saw a lot more flowery and geometric prints with VERY short skirs (the rich collectors or high level museum people as usual rocked the classic Pucci garments, I seethed in envy). The big surprise was the proliferation of metallic sandals. I set the precedent two years ago with my silver platforms. In any event, I was shocked to see that a Puerto Rican neutral would find such a warm reception with the pretentious art crowd. Another notable element was the vertiginous high heels worn by many women. How they managed to navigate the rocky, sandy, grassy terrain of the Giardini and Arsenale, get in and out of vaporetti, and walk the long distance, often up and down bridges, often after several Bellinis served at the openings all over Venice is a mystery to me. But props to them. The men tended to wear either suits or the Euro trash standard of jeans, tailored shirts, and English cut blazers, with driving loafers (sockless) or nice English looking oxford shoes. Of course there were the requisite designer bags, one or two Hermes Birkins, and always the accessory of the status tote bag (most popular by far was the UAE model).

My friends -male and female- and I opted for a more international feel, mostly Dutch wax cloth prints from Senegal, Mali, and Cote d'Ivoire. We had some custom-made dresses, including one with a pattern honoring President Obama -- that was quite a hit with jaded international Biennialistas, who stopped to ask to take photographs. We met one other woman also sporting the elegant African fabrics and she turned out to be starchitect Rem Koolhas's wife!

The Venice Biennial is just like Miss Universe


For the second time I was lucky enough to get invites to the preview of the Venice Biennial. The Long March for Art, meeting place for Euro trash, reporters, and biennialistas from all over the world was as much of a marathon as I had managed to forget. (I have been told that women have children more than once because they conveniently forget what labor is like, this is a bit how the Biennial works) This time, I'd gone into training - my building's elevator was broken, so I sprinted up the stairs, I hit the gym, and I went on a diet. And I was ready for any eventuality - held hostage by crappy concessions beset by huge lines, much like at Disney World, I packed almonds, anticipating any eventuality, I had: Neosporin, Advil, sun block, a sweater, an umbrella, and all were used by my international biennialista team at one point.

Day one:
After an almost 9 hour flight filled with art world luminaries - one noted director wore what I can only describe as a blue flowered robe akin to something my abuela would wear around the house, over her clothes - their mostly black garb protruding like a pile of carbon from the crowd of wide-eyed tourists in sports themed sweatshirts or Juicy Couture terry-cloth ensembles, I landed in Venice, relatively well-rested. The ATV bus to vaporetto gauntlet went surprisingly well, and my maleta arrived promptly. I felt guilty for saying that next to Italy, Spain was Switzerland. But soon, events would prove my catty comparison right! Our hotel, also biennialista filled, was an Augustinian priest run dormitory for students. Spartan monk's cell type rooms held a Byzantine-ish crucifix on one wall. Very appropriate in a way given the Via Crucis of art that we were embarking on.

A refreshing mid-morning breakfast at Campo Santo Stefano, where I observed older, leathery Italian ladies with unnatural shades of yellow hair, Prada or Gucci sunglasses the size of factory goggles, and suave Italian men wearing English cut linen blazers and cuff links (!), I met my biennialista veteran and extremely glamourous Italian friend, who took me to a super VIP press conference and opening of an exhibition called "A Gift to Marco Polo." Organized in conjunction with the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art, the show was at a remote island called San Servolo, and the event began with a 2 hour long press conference in Chinese and Italian.

The eight Chinese luminaries whose work sells for over one million US dollars were being feted at this event. It turned out to be a promotion for the 8 museums being dedicated to each of them. This was the first of several events I saw that had to do with launches of museums or exhibitions outside of Italy that used Venice as a platform. Many platitudes about the greatness of China's national artists, the appropriateness of returning the gift that Marco Polo had made to China by displaying China's great art in Venice, and the need to rebut stereotypes that prevail in the West ensued. Each time an artist or functionary spoke, there was applause, several of the artists wore sunglasses, one of them, Zhang Peili (pictured, far right), literally sank under the table in frustration at the ridiculous nature of the comments. Afterwards, crowds of young girls flocked to the artists, asking for autographs. Some of the artists dramatically changed the style and subject matter of their work - from sinister smiling crowds or cynical comments on the convergence between capitalist advertising and Communist propaganda, to work evoking Chinese landscape painting, pottery, and dynastic architecture.

Zhang Peili's work was by far the best. Comprised of an inflatable San Marco tower that rose and fell, it was accompanied by a photo in a lightbox, that at first glance depicted the iconic Venetian Piazza. On closer inspection, one saw a series of odd details - a modern access bridge, a generic building on the far right featuring Chinese characters. This turned out to be a replica of the Piazza created in China by real estate developers. An ironic commentary on the reciprocal commercial relations between Italy and China - historic and contemporary, and simultaneously on the current Chinese economy, the real estate magnates building a museum that would enshrine his own work as a "Master," (the audience kept addressing him and the other artists using this loaded term), he constructed an ironically humorous work.

The artist observing his tower in its fully erect state.

The tower, collapsed and deflated.