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Report from Venice: Mediations on Light and Death

View of the Grand Canal at sunset, Venice, 2006.

Spanning the venetian lagoon, the city of Venice, Italy is an amphibious web of one hundred and seventeen small islands that seem to barely remain afloat under their own weight and that of summer tourists that flock there in their millions. Add the entire contemporary art world to that and it becomes nothing short of overwhelming. But La Serenissma persists and hosts the art biennale every other year without fail and often without too much disappointment.

The concept of illumiNATIONS, chosen by this year’s curator Bice Curiger, speaks to any number of thematic cultural relationships at play during such a high profile international event. The exhibition’s title pays homage to the international nature of the event that invites the world’s leading countries to exhibit their top artists, illuminating the multitude of artistic practices across the globe. However, what is most interesting about this year’s concept is the referential quality of the theme to its host city.

Venice is a city renowned – by artists and tourists alike – for its dramatic natural lighting. Regardless of the time of year, at sunrise or sunset the Grand Canal glows like a river of gold, reflecting the multicolored palazzos that flank its banks. This is not to say that the sun doesn’t shine anywhere else, but the quality of the light in Venice is something quite rare. It induces self-reflection, desire, sadness, and happiness all at once.

Wandering the grounds of the Giardini and the Arsenale it can be easy to forget where you are. There aren’t any gondolas or mask shops to remind you. As well there shouldn’t be, so it is a bold and welcomed effort by Curiger (whether knowingly or not) to nod to the home of the historic Biennale, especially through one of its best natural resources. Her main exhibition in the Central Pavilion of the Giardini include a number of works that bring you right back to the place in which you are standing.

Jacopo Tintoretto, Last Supper, 1591-92. San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice.

Included in the exhibition is Venetian virtuoso Jacopo Tintoretto, who is represented by three masterworks on loan from Venetian institutions: The Last Supper, The Removal of the Body of St. Mark, and Creation of Animals. The inclusion of Tintoretto’s works in such a contemporary setting may have come as a surprise to some. They certainly aren’t what you are expecting when visiting the Biennale. Hanging in the center wall is the dynamic Last Supper, originally commissioned by the Benedictine Order of San Giorgio Maggiore – a 16th century Benedictine church on the island of the same name- for 180 ducats (its home for the past 419 years).

However, the paintings look very much at home in their new temporary setting. Tintoretto, known for his gestural brushwork and dramatic use of lights and darks, is a perfect fit for the Central Pavilion. He is a reminder of Venice and art history. During his time, Tintoretto was fiercely committed to artistic freedom, so it goes to reason that among his new peers, he can still hold his own.

The nearby works of Jack Goldstein and Gianni Colombo echo the dematerialization of Tintoretto’s canvases. Just as Tintoretto’s signature brushwork dematerialized the surfaces of his canvases, Goldstein’s The Jump (1978), dematerializes the human body in action into a hypnotic orb of moving energy. Colombo’s Spazio elastico (1967) dematerializes the human body into a black space interrupted by fluorescent elastic chords. The sensation of standing inside is like a disembodied being floating in a computerized no man’s land.

Pipilotti Rist, Antimateria, 2011.

In a three-screen installation that includes Laguna, Prisma, and Antimateria, Pipilotti Rist superimposes her candy-colored projections onto Canaletto-esque Venetian cityscapes. The artificiality of Rist’s colors and the hyper-reality of her make-believe worlds sit well over the doll-like manicured settings. Venice is after all both a place and a playground.

Maurizio Cattalan, Others, 2011.

No work reminds us more of our geographic location than Maurizio Cattelan’s Others. A modification of Turisti, (his installation for the Italian Pavilion in the 2007 Biennale), Others is an installation that infests the entire Central Pavilion with hundreds of taxidermied wide-eyed pigeons scattered over the entrance and throughout the rafters in the building. Fusing humor with absurdity, Cattelan’s installation relates the swarms of visitors in Venice to the pesky birds that stalk Piazza San Marco.

While British artist Nathaniel Mellors’ three-part installation Ourhouse does not remind us of Venice or its light, it does offer a kind of enlightenment into the same dark humorous world expressed by Cattelan. Ourhouse is a two-video projection separated by a two-headed animatronic sculpture. The videos’ sitcom-style narrative is shown in two episodes with a “motley cast” that includes a salty father, his ditzy artist girlfriend, and his two confused sons. “Daddy” is a ragged, angry philosopher type that is shown in scene after scene waxing poetic about everything from the Internet, to what it takes to be an artist… according to him “a British pub is a creative hub!”

Nathaniel Mellors, Hippy Dialectics, 2010.

Mellors’ wildly popular Hippy Dialectics are animatronic heads connected by a languid manacle of hair that is a combination beard and comb over. The two heads are locked in an ongoing meaningless string of compliments to one another. At one point each repeating the same phrases back and forth, such as “you are very nice and everything you are doing is interesting.” Utilizing an even more meta-mode of representation than Ourhouse, the uncanny heads (whose faces oddly resemble Daddy) highlight the kind of thoughtless social chatter exchanged during events such as these.

Notions of mortality are also rampant at this year’s Biennale. Two countries chose to exhibit recently deceased artists and another captures the haphazard nature of life and death.

Christian Boltanski, Chance, 2011. French Pavilion.

The French Pavilion is an experience of Christian Boltanski’s Chance, an existential view of mortality. The center room of the pavilion houses a mechanical construction that looks like an over-sized film spool. The loud clacking sounds of reels in motion and photographs of newborn babies moving rapidly along the tracks fills the room and your brain with noise. But there’s a point to it. In either room alongside the machine are two digital clocks attached to some omnipresent statistical world-o-meter that counts the number of births and deaths happening in real time. The installation highlights the mechanical production of human life. The hopeful part (depending on your position on world population) is that at the end of every day, the number of births is consistently always higher than the number of deaths.

Egypt chose to screen the late Ahmed Basiouny’s 30 Days of Running in the Space, a video documenting a performance of Basiouny running in spaces throughout Cairo, alongside footage he shot during the recent revolts in Tahrir Square where he died as a result of asphyxiation from tear gas. While sincere in approach, and honorable (Basiouny is a great artist), the installation felt less like an example of the artist’s work or the hardships faced by the protesters, and more like something that was grasping onto newspaper headlines for profundity. But I commend the effort because it really has become increasingly difficult to display work within these contextual frameworks without falling into the rabbit hole of media saturation.

Germany won the Golden Lion Award for Best National Participation for their multi-media installation retrospective of artist/filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief. Schlingensief passed away in August 2010 after a long bout with cancer that became a key subject in his work. His installations and films have always contained an acute understanding of Fluxus action and the stylized quality of B-movie aesthetics.

Christoph Schlingensie, A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within, 2011. German Pavilion.

The retrospective is separated into three parts; the main room is a revamped recreation of A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within, the second installation in Schlingensief’s illness trilogy. The room is transformed into a neo-fluxus church; complete with pews, faux stained-glass windows and an altar with a hospital bed, medical equipment and bunny rabbit… all visual cues to anecdotes from Schlingensief’s life. The other two components include a screening room for Schlingensief’s film projects and a third room devoted to Schlingensief’s project for an opera house in Burkina Faso.

While the installation was a post-mortem retrospective for the artist, it did not smack of insincerity beyond Schlingensief’s own dark humor. It wasn’t a plea for sympathy or a cry for awareness, but rather a mediation of the nonsensical nature of mortality. As entertaining as the room was, it was also discomforting. Schlingensief wasn’t just documenting his own demise, but ours as well. Works about death inevitably remind us of our own, so of course many people can’t stay inside to long.

Sitting amongst gawking visitors, listening to recordings of the artist speaking, watching home videos, and taking in the multi-sensory experience, I was once again reminded of being in Venice. Not in any direct way as in the Central Pavilion, but by another side of the Venetian aura. An aura that is haunted by ghosts, remembrances of plagues, wars, famines, lust-fueled murder and our own fragile existence. I thought of another German artist, Thomas Mann and a famous line from his novella Death in Venice: “It is most certainly a good thing that the world knows only the beautiful opus but not its origins, not the conditions of its creation; for if people knew the sources of the artist’s inspiration, that knowledge would often confuse them, alarm them, and thereby destroy the effects of excellence[.]

This post was contributed by Melissa Diaz, winner of this year’s Miami Writer’s Prize.

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Report from Venice: Mediations on Light and Death