I’ve been to Venice many times and there is nowhere in the world like it. But Venice is no longer a producing city. It offers itself to the world as a provincial museum and theme park. To cut the sweetness and insularity, every two years the city presents what is arguably the most important exhibition of contemporary art in the world, the Venice Biennale.
The Biennale takes place in a large wooded garden where many countries have pavilions. There are “collateral events” all over Venice, but the primary exhibitions this year were organized by Robert Storr, the former curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His title for it, Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense, sounds a bit airy, but Storr shows us real intelligence and depth of feeling.
My reason for writing this report from Venice is to point out that even though Monterey County might seem a world away, it is no more remote in relation to the “high art” world than, say, Nigeria, Turkey, Azerbaijan or Moldova, all participants in this year’s Biennale. This exhibition proves that it may no longer be possible to be provincial by way of location. We are only provincial by way of our attitude and our awareness of the wider world.
Just as important and vibrant art might be made anywhere today, it might also be made from any material. The presentations are tremendously diverse, from neon signs to leather logs, heaps of candy to photographs and videos. Robert Storrs, however gives center stage in the Italian Pavilion to huge paintings by the German artist Sigmar Polke and in an adjacent room, six abstractions by Gerhardt Richter—as smart and sensuous as anything in Venice. His touch as well as his sense of composition and color is unmatchable. The point that Storrs seems to be making is that there is still the possibility of real gravity in paint and canvas. And yet he also shows us a witty installation by Bruce Nauman and a lovely and thoughtful black and white animated film about a meeting of Pascal and Rousseau by American Joshua Mosley.
In the Arsenale, Storrs’ choices become less abstract and more political. There is a video loop by Italian Paolo Canavari of a boy in front of some bombed out buildings kicking a skull like it was a soccer ball. There are gorgeous large color photographs of ruined buildings in Beirut by Gabriele Basilico and then, very quietly, thin wreathes of barbed wire by Adel Abdessemed. Russian Dimitry Gutov presents text paintings, one of which reads “Reason has always existed but not always in a reasonable form.” Absurdism is a big deal in the art world today but under Storrs’ control there was little of it to be seen. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t poetry, however, like the leather log by Italian Giuseppe Penone or a boulder covered with padlocks by the French Tatiana Trouvé
No matter what the material or concept, there was a high level of craft. Several works were simply astonishing: two huge (30-by-40-feet) hanging “tapestries” made from bottle caps by Ghanian artist El Anatsui, and large indigo fabric works by Angelo Filomeno with sewn images of skeletons on horseback that looked like huge engravings, covered with sequins. And then the Russian group AES+F with their amazing film, The Last Riot, which, through dazzling digital imaging, shows a very balletic and stylized “riot” between boys and girl. This film co-opts and then raises the slickest commercial media to an operatic level.
The American pavilion featured the late Felix Gonzales-Torres. His cascade of strings of electric lights and his large rectangle of cello-wrapped licorice candies that could be taken if one wished, subverts the weighty iconic sculpture of someone like Richard Serra (not seen in this Biennale).
Seeing an exhibition like this underscores the point that all art is now conceptual, that is, no matter whether an artist is making paintings, videos, photographs, installations or physical performances, it is the quality of the idea that is the most important and, second, the skill necessary to carry out that idea.
In the marketplace of ideas we are not left out by being tucked away on the left coast. Even if we can’t all travel to Venice, we can see an amazing amount on the Internet. Just the site from London, saatchi-gallery.co.uk alone opens a whole world of works.
If possible, do go. It runs through November 21st and Venice is most pleasant in the fall. But if that isn’t possible then take Robert Storr’s advice and “think with the senses, feel with the mind,” but do it with real knowledge of the world and of world art.
David Ligare is an artist working in Monterey County and exhibiting worldwide. Aparchai, an exhibition of his recent work, opens Sept. 6 at the Hackett-Freedman Gallery in San Francisco.