2013 November: Bausch, Wearing, and the Venice Biennale

I was moved by a couple of pieces of work I stumbled across recently. Pina Bausch’s The Man I Love (above); a choreography of lip synced sign language to the song by the same name by George Gershwin – watch here. And Gillian Wearing’s Dancing in Peckham – watch here.

In relation to my videos, such as the Credits I am working on, or the idea I had of learning to sing “Fly Me to the Moon”, I have formed the idea in my mind that as an artist I may be some kind of one-woman-circus. My art is me whipping out all these pretended talents and attempting to entertain. There is a degree of amateurism in all these cases due to my dispersion and lack of expertise, but the attempt to juggle, dance and sing for an audience, full of ardour nonetheless, is what interests me. Perhaps my profession is in fact ardour itself… I am jesting about being a jester. According to Kuno Fischer, making a joke serves the purpose of uncovering ‘the ugly’ “in the light of the comic way of looking at things; if it is noticed only a little or scarcely at all, it must be brought forward and made obvious, so that all lies clear and open to the light of day” (1889). I am taking this quotation from the introduction in Freud’s “Jokes and their Relation to the Subconscious” (1905) as he discusses the joke’s role in marrying dissimilar concepts, and providing the opportunity for “playful judgement”, as Fischer refers to it.

I have not the confidence I think to educate on issues that my own judgements continually waiver on, through my art. But perhaps my art can provide room for playful judgement, that may dare to marry things vaguely, but perhaps importantly, connected and in this way shine a ‘comic light’ on them for further discussion.

Also, here are just some illustrations from a lovely children’s Book I found at Foyles. “Rules of Summer” by Shaun Tan.

The Venice Biennale

Last week I took a trip to Venice organised by college for the Venice Biennale. The experience was impressive and thought provoking, and served in educating me a little more on what the art world looks like. I soon realised that the Venice Biennale was not only a collection of international pavilions in one particular place; but that the whole of Venice turned into a grand exhibition, around which numerous pavilions were scattered. The biennale was concentrated in Giardini and Arsenale, where I discovered that there was also a massive non-national exhibition curated by the biennale organisers themselves (the 55th of its kind), and the name of this exhibition was “The Encyclopedic Palace”. I was blown away by the scale and enthusiasm that characterised the event, and was fascinated by numerous artworks. I will take note of some of these below, but first want to point out that although I enjoyed many artworks, I think the 55th Biennale had greater (curatorial) success than perhaps any individual set of works by an artist. Oftentimes, the way gallery exhibitions have a museum-like quality to them, irritates me. The gallery has a tendency (at least that’s how I feel) of sterilising and fossilising art, turning it into a relic or artifact that must be carefully preserved behind ropes or in glass boxes. It is no wonder then, that an item presented in such an exclusive and delicate way, should be victimised by auction houses that value them largely based on a historic evaluation. But the museum-ness in the case of The Encyclopedic Palace was an enticing thing to me, I suppose mainly because the work was chosen to intentionally lead us through a contemplation of the history of human knowledge and discovery. Here is an excerpt from the Biennale website itself, explaining the background to the 55th exhibition: ‘Massimiliano Gioni [curator] introduced the choice of theme evoking the Italo-American self-taught artist Marino Auriti who “on November 16, 1955 filed a design with the US Patent office depicting his Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace), an imaginary museum that was meant to house all worldly knowledge, bringing together the greatest discoveries of the human race, from the wheel to the satellite. Auriti’s plan was never carried out, of course, but the dream of universal, all-embracing knowledge crops up throughout history, as one that eccentrics like Auriti share with many other artists, writers, scientists, and prophets who have tried – often in vain – to fashion an image of the world that will capture its infinite variety and richness.”’

Marino Auriti’s Model of The Encyclopedic Palace at the Biennale

When I read this printed on the entrance wall of the exhibition, I was carried away with the ‘eccentric’s’ ideas and promptly reminded of a love for humanity, prepared to relish in the richness of the world. When I entered, I was taken through a mysterious dim-lit room with 20th century illuminated manuscripts, halls of drawings that seemed to be figuring something out about the universe, enigmatic paintings, cabinets of curious objects, documentary-type films that traced technological developments of our history, massive books of magazine collages, drawings by shamans, photographs taken in distant lands, real and fictional anatomies; I felt subconsciously educated as I was led through this odd archive of older and more contemporary art. I left with a revived affection for the museum, and the educational journey they are capable of leading you through, as well as a refreshing admiration of the products of mankind; for which there has been so much occasion for criticism during the last century or two.

So I think the experience of visiting the biennale was partly due to good and interesting work being presented, but in my opinion all this was definitely heightened by the choice of work and the veil of fantasy that the theme casts over the show. I’ll go through some of the things that caught my eye, whether I thought they were really interesting in themselves, or a useful inclusion in the vast exhibition. (There is no particular order in the artists mentioned below).

Ellen Altfest

A room full of small detailed paintings of sections of a man’s body, green plants, and domestic environments. There is an immersive fascination in the details of hair, faint blue veins, and fruit skins that is definitely intriguing as to skill, but also as to the atmospheric quality of such a collection of paintings. As a viewer you are given pieces of a peaceful domestic scene. For some reason I presumed that the artist was a man and that he was painting from photographs of himself.. but the artist is a woman, and in fact paints from life. This is surprising to me, as the paintings feel photographic; particularly in the way they are framed. Altfest has said that, ‘The paintings of men seem to have an inverse relationship to still life, with the men becoming less like human subjects and more like still life objects.’ I quite like the ambiguity between the male figures and surrounding still life.

Uri Alan

I’ve already mentioned that I’ve somewhat tired of the museum entering the gallery; of seeing a concoction of found objects displayed in glass cabinets. That was something of the feeling I had when I entered this room, but then I found that there was something I liked about it. The whole room seemed childish (especially with the interplay of the two artists showcased in it, discussed below); there is a mess of collectables and useless objects that (presumably) only a child might find value in. Uri himself says that this work is about “topography and typography”, of objects being assigned a value through their representation of something else; much like toys are in child’s play. At the same time there is a forensic kind of obsession in the amount of objects collected and the feeling that they all belong to some single narrative that adds something sinister to the notion of child’s play. A video played on the wall, of a grown man’s hand eagerly examining a row of small animal figurines, calls to my mind a desperate invitation by a mentally challenged older man, to play with these toys, and a certain anger with the loneliness he experiences. Some melancholic, nostalgic piano music reminiscent of Chopin’s nocturnes played in the background, further encouraging this uncomfortable simultaneous sense of adulthood and childhood. The “Death By Snake Bite” poster is one of the pictures on the wall. The innocence of stringing beads together turns into a vicious affair, and details like this reinforce the aforementioned impression of the installation. It was certainly strange and intriguing.

Hugo A. Bernatzik

On the wall opposite to Uri Alan’s installation were a series of framed drawings which at first appeared to me as those of a child’s. On closer inspection I saw that thematically the drawings were too violent, too attentive to details of garb, tools and genitals, to be those of kids. I then thought that this was an artist who tried to draw like a child, but thought it impossible, because the drawings were too successfully childish in technique. This emphasized the clash between adult and child that I had felt in the whole room, but soon found out that these works provided a new take on that. The artist had in fact been visiting a Southeast Asian island between 1932-1937, and was fascinated by drawings inhabitants made on beach sand. He then asked locals to draw something for him of their choice. He provided pencil and paper, which were equipment that people living there had never used. Some drew tools, some drew people, but most interesting to me were the depictions of the spirit world of their culture. Above is a drawing by a shaman named Pirinisau, depicting two fighting spirits.

Ed Atkins

This was a film which I did not very much enjoy. It was a feature of the museum-like feel of the exhibition, and showed footage of some interesting objects in a room, with a solemn documentary-like voice narrating it. At the time of watching, I was uncomfortable with what seemed like a forced poeticism in the narration… perhaps I am wrong. Later I found that the footage used by Ed Atkins was the final film after Andre Breton’s death, of his studio and the strange objects within it that would very soon after be auctioned off. Ed Atkins says that the film is “a meditation on this loss […] but also the fact that these objects will never be brought together [again]”. This idea I quite liked, and I was indeed taken by the wistful and gloomy atmosphere in the film, and the archiving surveillance of the panning camera. But the narration somehow didn’t enhance this effect.

Roger Caillois’ Collection of Stones

Contributing to the sense of collection and archiving of human endeavour and discovery, is Roger Caillois’ collection of magnificently beautiful stones.

Domenico Gnoli

I found Gnoli’s surreal drawings very fascinating; I love the ridiculous and sinister animal hybrids in domestic situations. The fish with the female face on its belly gives me strong associations to this brilliantly disturbing scene in the children’s tv show Courage the Cowardly Dog, by John R. Dilworth.

What makes the creepiness of this show so effective (and all the more unbelievable that it was aired on Cartoon Network), is the way in which the classic drawn animation of the cowardly dog “Courage” going on his adventures, is interrupted by antagonists rendered in a completely different media, such as clay stop-motion, or CGI. As the Youtuber “Watcher Of the 2000s” explains in his popular video “Top 10 Most Disturbing Courage the Cowardly Dog Episodes“, the switching of animation technique creates an eerie and disturbing effect because it “breaks the laws of physics” that we have learned to accept in the world of Courage the Cowardly Dog. The idea of training a viewer in the rules of a fantasy world, and then breaking them, is very interesting to me.

Click here for the unsettling scene from Courage the Cowardly Dog

Further research on Gnoli revealed that he did a lot of surreal close-up paintings of domestic, ordinary things reminiscent of Magritte, and they are quite interesting, particularly the one of the couple in the bed.

Ryan Trecartin

Something I REALLY never expected to see, or like, was Ryan Trecartin’s overwhelmingly quickfire and bizarre film, “Movie Mural”. I put the headphones on in a blue neon lit room, surrounded by three projections simultaneously playing the most excessive images of what seemed to be exclusively men in drag. A frantic and screechy-voiced guy with a black bob and glittered cheeks shouted orders at the rest of the eccentric gang, and seems to be trying to make a music video with a group of prima donnas, all dancing and cooing at the situation. I ended up sitting there watching it until my eyes just couldn’t bear the flashing up-in-my-face craziness any longer, but was pleased to see something so interesting and new! The control freak directing the supposed music video dips into raging anxiety when no one listens to him, and ecstatic happiness when everybody is partying on poles, stages and showered in glitter. The ridiculous drama and overwhelming overlapping of high pitched, cooing Californian accents is very reminiscent of the “culture trash” reality TV shows that now dominate MTV and other channels, and that are a significant part of Western pop culture, particularly in the USA. Whether considering America’s Next Top Model, The Hills, or lower grade versions of these, the story is always about starry eyed young men and women on a pilgrimage to fame and glamour, and the excessiveness of their ecstasy or failure only seems to increase over time, as these shows compete. Trecartin’s work is certainly critical of this culture, and there is a distinct sinister undertone to it, but not purely so. With all the dress-up and screeching and dancing, I cannot say that the video ridicules this kind of “trash culture” or the people that make it up. The complexity of the message conveyed on a topic that is so easy to dismiss, is something that caught my eye. This, in addition to the very idea of bringing such a theme into the high-art world of the Venice Biennale, and putting such “trash” under the intellectual scrutiny that comes with such an audience as that which visits the Biennale. I am having trouble myself understanding Trecartin’s psychedelic videos, but am fascinated by them.

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