Fischli Weiss, Roal Admundsen Asks for Directions to The North Pole from Suddenly This Overview, 1981-2006
Sooner or later I’ll change direction, I’m sure, but while I’m on a run of dog-related posts and while I’m drawing on the work I saw in Venice last summer (and autumn, though I managed less actual art that trip) it would seem a shame not to sneak in a post about Suddenly This Overview, Fischli Weiss’s collection of unfired clay sculptures, a body of work that always makes me laugh. I confess I was sure there must be a dog in there somewhere, and of course there is though the Husky in Roal Admundsen Asks for Directions to The North Poleis actually the only one I can come up with.
Sarah Lucas, in The Encyclopaedic Palace, Central Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale, 2013
I’m a firm believer in the idea that art can come from anywhere and be made of anything. And that means that just as an artist can turn everyday materials into art, so they can also choose to materials that have been the stuff of high art for centuries. But, to state the obvious, there’s a bit of a difference between nylon tights stuffed with kapok and bronze. Sarah Lucas has been working with tights for nearly two decades now. Her Bunny sculptures of the late 1990s and the more recent Nuds – often oddly sexual abstract forms – can be both funny and a bit disturbing. Either way, I like them a lot.
Bill Culbert, Bebop, 2013 (installation in the New Zealand Pavilion in the Istituto Santa Maria della Pietà at the 55th Venice Biennale)
Ai Weiwei wasn’t the only artist using seating as the building blocks for an art installation in Venice last year. The works in the entrance to the New Zealand Pavilion – held in the Instituto Santa Maria della Pietà – featured suspended chairs and fluorescent tube lights. Culbert, whose work I didn’t really know very well before chancing upon the New Zealand pavilion and wandering in (admittedly I was hardly off the beaten track here, the space was on the waterfront almost no distance from Piazza San Marco), has been working with light since the 1960s. In the work on show in Venice, Culbert used light and domestic objects to create an extraordinary series of installations and smaller sculptural pieces that occupied the space in a really interesting way.
Ai Weiwei, Bang, 2013 (installation in the German Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale)
The first thing that confused me about the German Pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale was that it was in France. Well, not France the actual country, but in France’s pavilion: the two countries swapped buildings for the 55th Venice Biennale as a cultural exchange. Walking into the building the first work on show – in a large central space that generally dictates the tone of anything shown there – was Bang, an installation made of an exploding forest of wooden three-legged stools by the not even a bit German artist (and subject of my last couple of posts) Ai Weiwei. What did it all mean?
Ai Weiwei, S.A.C.R.E.D., 2013 (installation view, Chiesa di Sant’Antonin, Venice as part of Disposition organised by Zuecca Projects and the Lisson Gallery)
Walking into a church in Venice and finding six large black crate-like boxes would be a fairly odd regardless but add couple of dozen other art lovers into the equation, wandering around the space and climbing on little black boxes to peer intently into the crates is a distinctly strange and somewhat unsettling experience. Like most churches in Venice, Chiesa di Sant’Antonin, a fourth century building extensively reworked in the Baroque style in the mid seventeenth century, has a rather ornate interior. The austere black boxes that dominate the floor of the space are an incongruous sight; once one gets beyond the immediate visual confusion, the context raises some interesting questions.
When the 54th Venice Biennale opened in June 2011, Ai Weiwei had been under arrest in China for two months, his absence as powerful a presence in the art world as his work. Museums and galleries rallied; petitions were signed, posters hung and badges worn. Banners questioning Ai’s whereabouts or calling for his release hung from the galleries that represented him; his Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads sculpture was on show in London and New York, the Sunflower Seeds had only recently gone from the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. In Venice, Ai was largely absent; he had no work at the Biennale and was scarcely mentioned in any official capacity.
Somewhat confusingly (and, some argued, insultingly), his absence was acknowledged as part of a collateral exhibition by a large sign which read, in four foot tall illuminated letters, ‘Bye bye Ai Weiwei’ positioned prominently on the waterfront on Giudecca island, an, at best, ill-judged work by artist Giuseppe Stampone. Cut forward two years and, though still not allowed to leave China, Ai’s presence was rather more apparent at the 2013 biennale. And this time we got to see his work, some of it in the very building that sign stood outside two years ago, the Zuecca Project Space.
Koki Tanaka, installation view of exhibition in Japan Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2013
One of the frustrations of art fairs, biennales and the like is the intense time pressure of trying to see everything you want to see in a day (or contemplate buying another ticket to go back, an unappealing option even if one has an extra day free to make it possible), making video and performance works really tricky. On the plus side, the excuse to have a bit of a sit down is often welcome so it’s not all bad. Certainly at last year’s Venice Biennale some of the works I enjoyed the most were time based including a number I really wanted to go back and spend more time with given the chance (didn’t really happen in the case of the things I most wanted to revisit, unfortunately, but that’s the way it goes really). I’ll write more about some of the works that have stayed with me most clearly in the coming days, I hope, but I’ll start with a show that mixed video and objects in a space that still bore the traces of the previous year’s architecture biennale. None of which is what interests me most about the work.
Given that this is the season on sparkly lights, it seems timely to remind myself about Joana Vasconcelos’s Trafaria Praia, the Pavilion of Portugal at the 2013 Venice Biennale. Part art installation, part ferry, this was an unusual space even for Venice. Vasconcelos transformed a Lisbon ferry into an installation that made regular tours of the lagoon. The boat was moored close to the exit of the Giardini – one of the two main Biennale sites and home to many national pavilions – but those who timed their visits right could take a short trip around the lagoon on the Trafaria Praia.
Given more time, I suspect I’d have enjoyed the trip well enough but the pressure of trying to see everything I want to at biennale is such that time based works are inevitably tricky and this is a city where being on land is the novelty so my visit to Trafaria Praia was restricted to visiting the boat at its mooring point. Until I boarded the boat I’d kind of forgotten about the excess of Vasconcelos’s work but, even if it’d been really fresh in my mind, nothing of hers I’ve seen before would have quite prepared me for this.
John Pawson, Perspectives, 2011 (installed in San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, 2013)
So, having lost my blogging mojo in 2013, it’s clearly time for a bit of a fresh start and a resolution to get back to writing random stuff about art on a vaguely regular basis in 2014.* It seems appropriate to start with a bit of a catch-up on things I’ve seen or been preoccupied by recently but not rambled on about. In some ways I quite like getting a bit of distance on stuff before posting so expect a preponderance of posts about the things that have stuck in my mind most clearly from 2013.
Yael Bartana, An Europe will be Stunned, exterior installation view, Polish Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2011
Given the subject matter of identity and nationhood that lies at the heart of Yael Bartana’s And Europe will be Stunned and the way the trilogy explores the possibility of return and the dangers of nationalism and totalitarianism, the context in which I first came across the work – in the Polish Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale – was a fascinating one. It is unusual but not unheard of for an artist who neither lives in nor comes from a country to be selected to represent it at Venice and this was the first time Poland had been represented by an artist who wasn’t a Polish national. And, of course, the history of the Venice Biennale along with the architecture of the national pavilions, the positioning of them within the Giardini and factors like when different countries built or acquired their pavilions offers an interesting, albeit inevitably incomplete, picture of the politics of Europe in particular. Add to this the fact that in 2009 Poland was represented by Krzysztof Wodiczko, who left Poland in 1977 and has been a Canadian citizen since 1984, with Guests, a work about migration and the status of immigrants who remain forever ‘guests’ in their new homes, and the Polish pavilion becomes a fascinating, and intensely loaded, location for Bartana’s installation.