Monday, May 22, 2017

Report from Venice

So in addition to the 

• Urban filter

• The passage of time and the perception thereof
• The graphic symbol of Barcelona, and
• My sculptures

there are two other things I want to add to my list of subjects to discuss in this-here blog, both of which are questions asked by my readers. These are

• Why don't we just rent a studio in which to do some work here in Barcelona? (question asked by Wylie Elson) And, 

• What is my personal position on the Catalan independence movement? (question asked by my brother, Trevor Ristow)

These are good questions and both deserve answers, in part because the answers to them illuminate other related topics worthy of note, but before any of that....


Wow, that was fun!

OK, first off, Venice is fucking amazing. I've been there before, but it's been more than 20 years. I barely remembered it. And wow, it's amazing. It's been voted the most beautiful city in the world, and I can't disagree. 

The history of the city begins in the 5th century AD, when Italians fled barbarians and Visigoths coming down from the North in the wake of the fall of the Roman Empire. They left the mainland for the relative safety of a series of marshy islands in the Venetian lagoon, which afforded them protection from land-based invaders, but the islands were not fit for actual building. So - and this is pretty incredible - they stripped parts of the forests of nearby Slovenia and Croatia of their Alder trees, floated these logs to Venice, drove them down into the mud, cut the tops off to form level platforms, laid more wood planking on top, and then built a huge city of stone churches and palaces on top. No wonder it's sinking! It's built on wood, in clay mud. Seriously. They say the lack of oxygen, the mineral-rich waters of the lagoon, and the water-resistance of Alder have combined to more or less inhibit rotting of the wood and somewhat petrify the timbers. But still... clay mud. Seriously.

Up until about the 15th century, Venice was one of the richest, and intermittently the richest, city-state in Europe. It's for that reason that pretty much every building in the more well-travelled central areas is a sumptuous palace or over-the-top church. There was wealth pouring into this tiny city for hundreds of years, and the wealthy were spending it on art and on buildings. Many of these are now museums and foundations; many house events related to the Biennale. 

After a few days in Venice, some things begin to stand out. First off, the aforementioned spectacular architecture. Secondly, there are no wheeled vehicles. No skateboards, no bicycles, no cars. There's nowhere to drive a car, bicycles are banned, and you'd be stupid to try to ride a skateboard there. The city is small enough for walking, and when you can't walk you take a boat. All of this translates to an incredibly quiet city, especially at night. Our little flat, at night, was as quiet as the Toas mesa... maybe quieter. Lovely. 

And all that boat traffic was something to behold. Barely controlled chaos. Water does not act like pavement; boats are all over the place bouncing around on waves, barely missing each other. To the pilots of these boats, it probably all seems normal and under control, but Christina and I kept wondering how often they crash. 

Almost every type of vehicle that you find on a normal city street has its own analogue on the canals of Venice. 

The gondolas are like Rickshaws.

Instead of crane trucks, you've got crane boats...

Instead of medium-duty delivery trucks, you've got medium-sized delivery boats... Instead of city buses you've got boat-buses (that's actually what they are called! This photo was taken from a boat-bus and shows another at right)

If you want to spend a bit more, and get there faster... get a taxi boat...

All this, and everything in between....
(The picture below is not mine... thanks Google)

But OK now, enough about boats... We went to see some damn art.
First, a warning... if you are easily offended, if you are the type of person who is made uncomfortable by the mention of human body parts, then you may want to stop now. There were a lot of body parts on display in Venice, and I plan on discussing some of them here..
And second, a note... What follows is highly personal, as all art and reactions to art are highly personal. I make no claim as to the validity or superiority of the following statements / comments / opinions. I was able to see only a fraction of the art on view in Venice; I'm sure there was a lot of amazing stuff I missed. What follows are just my thoughts.

There are several categories of "art-viewing" opportunities available during the Venice Biennale. The official Biennale itself is broken down into two categories. The first is the curated section. For this part, a single curator is chosen and he or she selects artists, according to his or her preference and chosen theme, from all over the world to be included. This year the curated section was called "Vive Arte Viva," and was consciously directed away from the "political" and more towards the "perceptual" and "sensual", being further divided into sections called The Pavilion of Joys and Fears, The Pavilion of Color, The Pavilion of Infinity, etc. The second category is the National Pavilions, in which approximately 75 of the world's nations each mount a show featuring one or more artists. This part is of course much more varied, as the viewer here is seeing the curatorial visions of 75 different individuals, rather than just one. 

With only a few exceptions, I thought the curated section, Vive Arte Viva, was extremely weak. The curatorial approach seemed completely bereft of any willingness to tackle anything challenging, dark, or provocative. Much of the art in this section was about surface, technique, and perception, and most of it didn't do a damn thing for me. Other pieces were more narrative, requiring an investment of time to "get into" them, which I sensed wouldn't be worth my while, and for which I didn't have the time anyway (more on this later).

I thought this display of old athletic shoes being used as flower pots was emblematic of the ridiculousness of this entire section...

And I took the following picture to illustrate that, to me, the old freight elevator in this formerly industrial building was far more interesting than the abstract and theoretical works of art flanking it...

On the other hand, as I mentioned, there were one or two things I liked. But really, only one or two. 

These are doodles, blown up to the scale of wallpaper, by a man called Edi Rama.

He is an artist as well as the socialist prime minister of Albania. I like the drawings because I sometimes wonder what is fair game for artistic practice other than representation and abstraction, and these doodles seem to fall into some third category, both of the above and yet somehow neither. 

What I liked even more though were the drawings of Luboš Plný from the Czech Republic. His drawings appear to be labors of love, filtered through an idiosyncratic, eccentric, and obsessive sensibility. These anatomical studies apparently document important times in his life, such as the birth of his child or the death of his parents. 

This one is a sexual diagram of some sort. In this one, as in the others I saw, I appreciate and value the detail, the anatomical awareness and the willingness to subjugate it to a personal narrative, the private language, and the provocative subject matter. I would say that his work was my favorite from the Vive Arte Viva section.

Also noteworthy from that section was an installation by Liliana Porter, if for no other reason than that it offered some great opportunities to play around with perspective. Here are two images, showing radically views...

The National Pavilions were much more varied, as I mentioned, but contained some great stuff among a lot of other not-so-great stuff. A really surprisingly high percentage of it was video based, and my feelings about this are mixed. Video, especially when it is narrative, requires an investment of time in order to understand the piece, and get the payoff. Even in the best of situations (when one has nothing else to do, nowhere else to be), this is sometimes a big "request" by the artist. But in an environment such as this one, where there was SO MUCH to consume, a video would have to really stand out in order to catch my attention. Most of them didn't, but there were two that did. 

Greece's pavilion involved a storyline about a fictional scientific experiment in search of a cure for Hepatitis from the 1960's, allegedly recently discovered by way of incomplete video documentation. It was presented in sequential snippets, slowly drawing you in to a narrative about a human liver cell culture that was suddenly threatened in the lab by the unexpected appearance of a "mutant" cell population which might potentially be the key to the experiment's success, or might alternatively threaten it. It was a not-too-veiled metaphor for the refugee crisis, and I feel it worked as a piece of art because of A) it's engaging production value and good acting, B) the fact that it never resolved, and C) most importantly, it hooked you in early, before you really knew what it was about, with a lot of lofty and idealistic talk about taking risks, acting according to your beliefs, and securing a better future for humanity. You found yourself rooting for this fictional researcher and his team before you even knew what they were doing.

Finland's pavilion was so incredibly strange and fantastically hilarious that I don't know where to start. Although it was video, it worked because it was so fucking weird and funny that once you watched 5 seconds of it, you couldn't stop. 

Here is a screen-shot of one of the film's protagonists, a head on the ground, having just caused a "Men In Black" type muppet agent to go crazy using "bad magic". I don't know what else to say.

Other notable National Pavilions include the following: the work of Fiserš Mikelis from Latvia, entitled "What Can Go Wrong," was great. This piece was titled "Intergalactic Avatars Dismembering Themselves Before Final Departure From Earth"

I liked this piece from the Korea pavilion, by either Codi Choi or Wan Lee...

 I also liked the work of Japan's Takahiro Iwasaki. To me, this piece seems as if a traditional Japanese architect had been teleported to "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" and tasked with designing the Empire's new star cruiser... out of wood. I'm sure there are other, more meaningful cultural interpretations, the indicators of which are not totally lost on me... but hey, just saying...

The pavilion shared jointly by Sweden, Finland, and Norway was gorgeous. I would live there. I don't know the artist.

The Bosnia and Herzegovina Pavilion, featuring work by Radenko Milak and friends, entitled "University of Disaster," was unsurprisingly dark and heavy and powerful. The text on this piece reads "IN THIS WAR YOUR UNIFORM WILL BE YOUR SKIN AND YOU CANNOT TAKE IT OFF"

But in my opinion, the best work in the National Pavilions was probably the installation by Roberto Cuoghi of Italy, certainly if one were to use "thought-provoking," "provocative," bizarre," and engrossing" as the judgement criteria.

One enters a large dimly-lit room and encounters a life-size mold in the shape of Jesus crucified, such as one might use to make multiple copies of a full-scale crucified Jesus sculpture. The mold is sitting within a large machine which appears to be medical in nature, so from the outset it's unclear if this is a living Jesus, or a sculptural one. Moving through the room one passes many more Jesuses laid out on stainless steel medical tables, some covered in plastic sheets. The viewer is then directed into a decontamination-style plastic tunnel, wherein one sees even more Jesuses, becoming more and more decayed, molding, and dismembered (the mold was real, and smelled bad). Finally, at the far end of the room, yet more Jesuses have been fixed to the wall in various states of decomposition. The flow of the room and the processes clearly posits this as the end result, but the "finished product" upends any normal sense of what something finished should look like.  I loved it.

OK, phew. 

I know that was a lot.

But there's more.

I said earlier that there are several categories of ways to see art during the Venice Biennale. We've already covered the event itself, with its curated section and its National Pavilions. The Venice Biennale is of course one of the premier art events in the world, and so one other way to see art there is at one of the MANY ancillary events, some of which are semi-officially connected to the Biennale, and some of which are just riding on its coat-tails. These events happen at galleries, foundations, palaces, and museums. I went to a few. 

First, I saw an exposition of the three Hieronymus Bosch paintings which have been in Venice since the 1500's. The paintings are good, but frankly the more interesting part of that show was the collection of about 50 other paintings by other artists who are related to Bosch either by style and subject matter or by association. My favorite was this one...

titled "Purgatory" by an anonymous artist of the 16th century.

I also saw a memorable new work by Paul McCarthy, an artist I love for his disturbing and bizarre work. This piece was a work in virtual reality, so I was not able to take any pictures. After donning the goggles one finds oneself in a room with old-west style carpet. Suddenly a brunette woman appears, followed by a blonde. They start by asking innocuous questions, but before long the figures begin to multiply and the questioning gets more intense. Soon the figures are abusing each other sexually, and the whole thing quickly becomes uncomfortable and overwhelming. Being virtual reality, you can walk among the figures, approaching or retreating. In a nice touch, several of the figures follow you with their gaze as you move, making you feel implicated in the subtle violence. To some people this might sound like some sort of male fantasy... but it's way too claustrophobic and uncomfortable for that. Predictably... I loved it. 
Photo courtesy of Google.

Christian Lemmerz's virtual reality floating, golden, cracking, groaning, dripping super-jesus was also great.

At this point I will spell out something which I am sure you already basically understand, if you've actually read this far. In my opinion, there is a continuum in art which ranges from, on one end, pieces which require a big investment of time and energy to get into, and on the other end, pieces which have an immediate impact. Often the "Investment" pieces are video, or presented as a "puzzle" of some sort, and often revolve around a narrative element, the understanding of which is the key to appreciating the work. "Impact" pieces on the other hand tend to hit you hard, producing an immediate reaction. Sometimes that reaction can lead, by way of clues in the work, to an understanding of a "story" or "narrative" that enhances the understanding of the work, but not always.  In some ways this divide breaks down along the intellectual vs. emotional continuum. The punchline is this: I prefer "Impact" work, work that provokes emotion and awe. In fact, I prefer "Impact" work on any day of the week, but especially in the context of this sort of festival, in which one is trying to consume SO MUCH art. By our second day in Venice, if the work did not speak to me in the first 30 seconds I moved on. I imagine that the kind of work which requires an investment of time by the viewer is probably capable of conveying important and moving content, but come on... pull me in somehow. The Greek Pavilion did it, and so did the Finland. If it can't hook the viewer in the first minute, maybe it belongs in a movie theater or a dramatic theater; at least in those places the viewer is prepared for the investment.

To that end... my favorite work of the Biennale... Damien Hirst's new show "Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable." I have preferences for shock and iconoclasm, for humor, for nudity (especially female), for epic sculpture, and for work that plays on emotion. Hirst's show hit on all of those. 

For those who don't know, Damien Hirst is one of those "super-artists" like Jeff Koons who have stretched conventional notions of what it means to be an artist. He is not personally involved in the production of most if his work; rather he is the "idea-guy" and has his work fabricated by other talented craftsmen and artists. He is easy to hate for this (and other) reasons, and as a person who takes pride in crafting my own work I certainly do hate him for that. But I also admire and envy him for it. Imagine the amount of work one could "produce" under such a system, imagine the freedom and flow of ideas one could have if that were the only job. 

Anyway, "Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable" is a monstrously huge show of sculpture, some of which is monstrously huge. There is an imaginary storyline built around the show to give it a "frame," which is that a freed slave from the times of the Roman Empire managed to accumulate obscene wealth, with which he collected sculptural treasures of the ancient world. At some point he loaded them all onto a ship (appropriately called Apistos, or "Unbelievable"), which then proceeded to sink in the Indian Ocean where it lay undiscovered for 2000 years, until its rediscovery in 2008. This show purports to show the bounty of that discovery, and is complete with video footage of divers pulling these pieces up from the sea-floor. It's a fairly simple ruse, exposed as ridiculous by the jokes and anachronisms in the work itself, but it works deliciously well as a tongue-in-cheek coverall for the broad range of work, some of which is informed by real history and some of which is patently and hilariously incongruous. Basically, let's say that you want to build a sculpture of the multi-armed Hindu Goddess Kali fighting a Greek Hydra. Sounds like a ridiculous mashup, but give it a bit of official-sounding contextualization and claim it was built thousands of years ago, and why not? In essence, the framework of the show has given Hirst license to present an incredible array of work with an incredible array of subject matter (whatever damn thing he felt like building, I can only assume), with a decidedly post-pubescent fixation on nipples and genitalia, all tied together with this flimsy narrative. To me, it was hilarious and awesome.


Most of the work is presented as if still encrusted with barnacles and coral, fresh from the sea floor. What you are actually looking at is a large bronze sculpture with the coral and barnacles sculpted and cast in bronze just like everything else, then painted for realism (or hyper-realism). This sculpture allegedly presents the ancient Greek maturation ritual of Arkteia, in which young women imitate bears while performing rituals. Amusingly, the ritual is real. 

Here we have "Female Archer," giving an early indication of Hirst's willingness to unashamedly depict sexy female figures, complete with erect nipples, all "legitimized" as psuedo-historical artifacts.

This is supposedly a tomb, complete with physical damage from the passage of time. The inclusion of graphically depicted genitalia is certainly one joke here, but the sculpted coral and barnacles, which are not even painted for "accuracy," are ridiculous. It's as if the ancient sculptor had decided, just as Hirst has, to sculpt the sea-life as part of the work. It legitimizes Hirst's aesthetic decisions while also acting as another sly giveaway to the farce of it all.

Here we have "Penitent," a suitably timeless title for a sculptural bust pulled from the sea floor with encrusted sea-life intact. But it's wearing an S&M mask.

"Aspect of Katie Ishtar ¥o-Landi."

"Hathor." You can really see him aiming for different echelons of collectors here.

Detail of "Marble Slaves Used for Target Practice." Note the way the fingers have been "broken." Note also the anachronism of having a marble sculpture which was allegedly lost on the sea floor 2000 years ago bear the damage of target practice from apparently large guns. It doesn't make sense. Hirst apparently doesn't care. There are so many jokes and riddles in this show; I'm sure I missed most of them; and they were fun to find.

There's a tradition of realistic depiction of fabric folds in classical and Baroque sculpture (who doesn't love Bernini?), as well as of tombs featuring sculptural representations of their inhabitants. But leave it to Hirst to commingle sex and death like this...

This headless bronze (edit: I read that the original bronze was too difficult to move, and this one is resin) sculpture really is as big as it looks. Getting it into that building presumably involved the use of barge-cranes in the canals outside the museum, and the removal of the atrium's roof. It would have been fun to watch.

"Andromeda and the Sea Monster." Huge. Love it. 

Another view.

But my favorite sculpture of the show, my favorite sculpture in the world actually (until further notice), was "Hydra and Kali." 

I've always had a love of Kali. She is on my motorcycle. I love this sculpture for all the reasons stated above. It's sexy. It's iconoclastic. It's ridiculous. It's huge. It depicts danger, and prompts fear. It's ambitious. And it, like Hirst, doesn't seem to care if you are bothered by the ways it doesn't fit the tradition it pretends to belong to. 

Here is the explanatory text. It states that the imagery was "conceivably" informed by imagery of Hecate on the Altar of Zeus at Pergamon, which really exists. So, the source material conceivably informed whom? Anonymous sculptors of the ancient world? Or Hirst? The whole thing makes me smile.

Two more views, the final one showing the "encrusted" version in the background.

OK, that was really a lot. 
Thanks for bearing with me.

Goodbye, from Venice


  1. Wow !!!!!!! Had not realized that the Greek Pavilion was so terrific ....bravo Hellada !!!!!! Your observations and critiques are worthy of further publishing .....maybe TIME or LIFE ( whoops..that's gone ) or the NYTimes should send you around the world to do just that !!!! Love Hirst's irreverence too ! And why not ?

  2. Don't forget Trevor's and Wylie's questions !

  3. Awesome read. Thanks for the tour.

    1. Thanks Sam!
      (I love the feedback!)