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John Baldessari, I Will Not Make Anymore Boring Art, 2009. Photo: Alain Hamon.

The Art Pilgrimage

by Deanna Sirlin

I am on the boat, as so many say into their cell phones. I am on a vaporetto moving slowly down the Grand Canal in Venice. I listen to two young Italian teenagers reading a banner on the outside of the Palazzo Ca' Giustinian. Very slowly they read the words of John Baldessari, “I will not make anymore boring art.” They laugh but then start discussing what this means, and they are really thinking about it. This is the ideal moment with which to begin my preview of the 53rd Venice Biennale.


I always like to go to the Venice Biennale. August 1993 was my first time in Venice, a trip I took with my mother-in-law, a brave lady to go looking at art with me. The heat and humidity were unbelievable as we moved slowly through the Biennale’s two main venues, the Giardini and the Arsenale, carefully looking at the immense amount of art gathered in each place. We saw everything, even taking a boat out to the Armenian monastery to see a wonderful exhibition titled The Treasure of the Journey; for me, the art pilgrimage was born.


Of course, there are always lots of annoying works which try to be the most abject, or sexual, or political, or loud. We have all suffered through our share of really dumb and tired and irritating shows. I remember one in particular from the Russian Pavilion at the 51st Biennale in 2005 called "Idiot Wind" (also the name of a song by Bob Dylan—really, Bob, Please get them to stop!) where every 3 or 4 minutes a great gust of hot air was blown at you from a big fan. Worth the journey? Not so much.


But it is also at the Venice Biennale that I first saw Pipilotti Rist's video installation (two overlapping projections) called Ever Is All Over (1997), which is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. I wanted to watch this video over and over again to see our heroine smashing car windows with a fireplace poker as she glides down a city street juxtaposed with fields of red-hot pokers, the flower. And it was in 1999, at the Arsenale, that I played with Chen Zhen’s percussive installation made of chairs and skins, and smelled Ernesto Neto’s fragrant, giant, spice-filled hanging white panty-hose sacks in biomorphic shapes. In 2001, I was sucked into the world of Pierre Huyghe at the French Pavilion. In 2007, I first saw the sublime work of El Anatsui and his gorgeous tapestries made from the screw tops of liquor bottles.


This year’s exhibition in the Arsenale, Making Worlds curated by Daniel Birnbaum, left me rather cold, I’m sorry to say, and ironically made Baldessari’s statement so poignant. There is nothing in this show that makes us stop and see in a new way, as Ron Mueck’s giant naked child did in 2001, just a lot stuff that does not look very curated at all. Mr. Birnbaum what art does not make a world?


This year the artist who makes all others fall to the wayside is Bruce Nauman, the artist representing the US in the Giardini. Since I’ve never considered myself a fan of Nauman’s, I did not expect to react to the work as I did. I respected him, of course, but I must admit I would sometimes become downright annoyed with his work. Nauman and his curators have juxtaposed four decades of his work in three separate sites in Venice, and this trio of exhibitions reached inside my gut and made me understand and see that his work is filled with humanity, humor, pain, and eloquence.


This triptych of shows, one in the American Pavilion at the Giardini and two more at local universities, Ca’ Foscari and IAUV, is a triumph. I found the neon works from the 1980s, in which two different statements alternate, more poignant than when I saw them in their permanent home on the campus of USC in San Diego. On the Jeffersonian façade of the American pavilion, the dichotomies became all the richer as I saw their political meanings more clearly than ever before. The new sound work Giorni (2009), which fills a hallway at Ca’ Foscari with the sound of the days of the week recited in Italian, is at once annoying and compelling. Over and over again we hear the days of the week repeated over and over in Italian—annoying, no? But wait . . . as I stay with the work I am sucked into its rhythm. I walk down the hall and continue to listen to the chant over and over again coming from paper-thin speakers on each side of the grand room. What at first was annoying has now become like a mantra deliciously going on and on. Nauman’s Fifteen Pairs of Hands, from 1996, is like a ballet of hands as they balance on each other at the fingertips, so fully formed that the bodies are not missed. Four Pairs of Heads (Wax) from 1991 are thickly made, slightly translucent wax heads shmushed together, a harsh image that is paradoxically delicate in its rendering of interconnected parts becoming one.


Seen in the context of his other work, his performances on video are meaty interludes. I loved the work where he moves around the floor like clock hands with his body on a sketched circle. This is the sort of juvenile expression that transcends the comic into the real and present.


I love it that Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times said, “Bruce Nauman commands center stage unlike any American representative since perhaps the young Robert Rauschenberg, 45 years ago.” Nauman deservedly received a Gold Lion for Best pavilion; in Venice, he has shown himself to be the maestro that he is. The other “A” artist in Venice is the self-same Robert Rauschenberg, represented by Gluts at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Rauschenberg, who won the Grand Prize for painting at the 32nd Venice Biennale in 1964, is a force to be reckoned with, even posthumously. This exhibition of his wall relief work spanning several decades allows us to experience the greatness of this artist. We see Rauschenberg as both a colorist and a sculptor, traits that are difficult to join and use together. Each work is very beautifully presented; the galleries are organized by color and style rather than date and articulate the artist’s touch and vision. There are even several surprises. Work this good and fresh should be savored.


Back at the Giardini, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset won a Golden Lion for curating a lively and fun show for the Danish and Nordic Pavilions about collectors and the bankrupt state many are in right now. British actors were hired to play realtors and show you the “house” of the “collectors” who had to vacate abruptly, perhaps for financial reasons. The actors were marvelous and the curation fun. I’m not sure that it added up to all that much, but it is flawless in presentation.

Images (from top):

Bruce Nauman, Fifteen Pairs of Hands, 1996. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.
Magdalena Fernández, 1pm006 (Ara ararauna), 2006. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.
Miquel Barceló, Le Choix des Moyens, 2005. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.
Anatoly Shuravlev, Black Holes. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.
Fiona Tan, Disorient, 2009. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London.
Andrei Molodkin, Le Rouge et le Noir, 2009. Courtesy: Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow.
Hector Zamora, Blimps over Venice. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.

I found the work of Dutch artist Fiona Tan to be quite a sensual evocation of historical journeys between West and East. The work in the large room is two screened videos, a larger one on the back wall in which the camera slowly pans backward to reveal more and more of a stuffed-to-the-gills collection of Asian antiques, and another somewhat smaller one with a voice-over recounting the journey of Marco Polo as we look at scenes from the east. This is a delicious work to experience in Venice, Marco Polo’s home, but I think it transcends place and speaks to the traveler in us all. Others of Tan’s works shown here are as well made and remarkable, but the portraits, as lovely as can be with their stately pace and movement, are too strongly reminiscent of Bill Viola.


Since I have been telling you only about the things I liked I should balance this text by mentioning some of the more unfortunate works passing for art at the Biennale. The worst, I think, is the German Pavilion. “Now that we live a in global world, nationalities do not matter,” I was told by one of the individuals working in the pavilion. Departing from this premise, the German pavilion contains nothing German: it was curated by a Dutch curator, who selected the British artist Liam Gillick. Gillick filled the pavilion with IKEA-like kitchen cabinets that break up the space, and there is some rhetoric about anti-fascist space and a taxidermy cat that is perched on top of one of the cabinets. I think Gillick should be made to recite Badessari’s words from the front of Ca’ Giustinian, or perhaps get a wind machine.


Here’s a short list of artists, who are new to me and whom I hope will not fade away; perhaps this Biennale will mark the beginning of long careers for them. Venezuelan video artist Magdalena Fernández made a video using the language of modernism: A Mondrian-like composition squawks like a parrot. Also, Andrea Faciu’s wonderful videos of dog puppets that are so dark and human in the Romanian pavilion. And Russian artist Andrei Molodkin’s juxtaposition of the Winged Victory of Samothrace with oil and blood is a stunningy beautiful work. The Icelandic artist, Ragnar Kjartansson, was terrific, though I preferred his videos using mountains as a backdrop to musicians playing to his live performance. The artist working with his male model in real time in the pavilion as if it were his studio did not intrigue me as much as it did many others.

Artists at the Biennale: Lygia Pape and William Forsythe in the Arsenale. Photos: Steve McKenzie.

At the end of the Arsenale (or the beginning, depending on your direction) stands a work by the Brazillian artist Lygia Pope, who died in 2004 at the age of 77. Her strands of golden string that become rays of light are one of the strongest works at the Biennale. While hardly new, they are certainly not boring. They alone are worth the journey.

Deanna Sirlin is Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section.

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