Emilio Vedova, Senza Titolo (als ob) (1996-7). Venetian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2007
By Deanna Sirlin
I am always interested in the human quality of art. When the evidence of an authentic human presence is there, my interior bells go off. I often say that I suffer from Stendahl Syndrome--you know, the 19th century disease that causes one to faint when undergoing intense aesthetic experience. Those who know me know I am not faint of heart, yet my reaction to works of art is often powerfully physical as well as intellectual. I have had this experience a few times this summer, but it has also failed to happen in some places where, arguably, it should have.
For example, rather than swooning at Document XII, I merely felt insulted. The exhibition seems to have been curated on the condescending premise that the audience is hopelessly dull and won’t be able to make connections among works unless the curators spell them out by placing related works next to one another. The result was so poorly presented as to appear amateurish.
The Venice Biennale was far more satisfying, though it prompted some reservations. While I acknowledge the greatness and importance of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, the artist chosen for the American Pavilion, I do think it is preferable for the country to be represented by a living artist. On the other hand, in this time of political unhappiness towards Americans and all things Bush, it was a brilliant idea to present an artist who died 10 years ago of AIDS and whose work is about the fragility of life. (I overheard some young Italian curators say they wanted to take all the candy that makes up Gonzalez-Torres's work out of the American pavilion to make new works of art with it around the Giardini--a delightful idea.)
Another work at the Biennale produced a bit of that Stendahl reaction in me. The posthumous tribute to the Venetian artist Emilio Vedova (1919-2006) consisted of a single major work of his at the center of the Venetian Pavilion. This circular, painted sculpture marries painting and the third dimension with a powerful physical thrust into the space. Surrounded by this work, and in conversation with it, were monumental black ink drawings by Vedova’s longtime friend German artist George Baselitz. This was a touching tribute to an artist whose work as truly undervalued in his lifetime made all the more powerful by the assertion of Baselitz’s personal and artistic relationship to the artist.
The work at Skulptur Projekte 07 in Münster that made the deepest imprint on me was Susan Philipsz’s sound installation under twin bridges across the Aasee, an artificial lake in one of the city’s parks. She sang “Barcarolle” from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, her double-tracked, recorded voice going back and forth between the shores of the river. She sings the story of Giulietta, whose spell men cannot resist but makes them unable to see their own reflections. No one can recognize the men, and they cannot see themselves: a very human predicament indeed.
Armen Eloyan, Disaster (2006). Courtesy of Bob van Orsouw Gallery
A powerful rendering of the human predicament does not depend on direct representation of people or the literal presence of the human voice. I recently saw the work of a young Armenian artist, Armen Eloyan, at Parisol Unit in London. Parisol Unit is a foundation that presents contemporary art in a gallery that I believe can be referred to as a museum space. Eloyan ‘s large paintings of cartoon characters and dancing hotdogs are lusciously painted in a way that lends weight and seriousness to the comic storytelling and verve of his work. His limited palette and strange articulation of known characters pays homage to the late, great Philip Guston. His dripping surfaces and muted colors define these characters for us in ways that make us feel the pathos of our human selves. Many artists have delved into this territory but few have understood and painted it so well.
Also in London, I saw the minimalist work of the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica (1937–80) in his exhibition The Body of Color. The choices of color and its particular variations felt and found by the artist are given as if a gift to the viewer. Oiticica has come belatedly to be known as a significant figure in contemporary art; this stunning exhibition features over 150 works, many which have not previously been seen. The show, which was organized for the Houston Museum of Fine Arts by Mari Carmen Ramírez, is so uncannily beautiful in the London light that you should check out the exhibition at the Tate even if you have already seen it in Houston. All Oiticia’s subtleties of color are clearly visible even to those not particularly attuned to seeking out works that are this poetic. I felt a personal connection to this artist as if I were exploring his manifesto along with him as we moved from room to room, from works on paper and canvas to a more dimensional resolution to performance.
It is this sense of human presence and connection that I look for in art; it is this that brings on the emotional and physical reaction Standahl described: “Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty ... I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations ... Everything spoke so vividly to my soul” (from Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio, 1817).
Hélio Oiticica, B14 Box Bólide 11 (1964). Oiticica Collection, Rio de Janeiro.