Thursday, 22 May 2014

"Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th century," at the Metropolitan Museum

For years, possibly decades, I have fumed and ranted about the labels in many of the exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When I visit exhibitions of art from outside Europe especially, I find myself confused and frustrated, confronted with labels full of unfamiliar names of things and places I can’t locate. With Italian Renaissance exhibitions (my Ph.D. is in Italian Renaissance art) I understand the labels but am at a loss to figure out why the label writer chose to use  irrelevant, obscure, or evaluative statements, for example describing an obviously mediocre painting as one of the most beautiful of the artist’s career.

Last year’s Asian textile exhibition was an example. While I was copying one of the labels from that exhibition, another visitor lingered by the work. I explained that I wasn't copying the label because it was important, but because it was awful and she replied that she had just read another label that was useless to a general audience. She suggested that no one reads the labels and that’s how the Met gets away with it. It’s a shame, because the Met has access to the most important objects through its ability to get loans and the highest level scholarship in its curators.

A year or two ago when the Islamic galleries opened I couldn't understand what the labels were telling about the art; they were about historical periods and movements and geography and rarely connected the object I was looking at with anything that helped me to understand its purpose or design. I have multiple examples in my notebooks that could be used in teaching as examples of the worst labels imaginable.

I rant about this because some of us actually look at labels to get a hook into seeing the work of art more clearly. I often wonder what some figure is doing or what the story of the image is. Or I want to know why the artist used a color, a material, a style, whatever. In the best of circumstances, labels help create the narrative, the story of an exhibition. And some exhibitions at the Metropolitan have succeeded in this, especially those in the 19th-century department. But in other Met departments they seem to be opportunities for graduate students to show off their erudition and knowledge of arcane terminology. Why does the most visited art museum in the country have some of the least helpful educational materials?

O.k., so in April, after reading Holland Cotter’s rhapsodic review in the Times, I made a point of seeing Lost Kingdoms, the exhibition of pre-Angkor Southeast Asian art atthe Metropolitan. In this instance I had the advantage of having been to Southeast Asia several years ago and having a soft spot for art from Cambodia. For the first time in decades, I was able to follow the basic organization of the exhibition, to understand that one room was dedicated to Buddhas and the advent of Buddhism to Southeast Asia, one contained images of Vishnu, one of Shiva and his associates, one of Bodhisattvas and even, through the introductory labels, to have a sense of the role of these religious figures in the power structure of the different cultures. At the same time, I have no real concept of the cultures that created the sculptures or their pre-modern entities, and the labels identified the works primarily by their modern source countries, the geographical sites where they were excavated, rather than associate them with the pre-modern political entities responsible for their creation.

Many of the objects in this exhibition are remarkable. A wonderful thing the Met has done is to put images of ALL the objects in the exhibition on its website, with their labels, as well as offering the works in their exhibition groupings with the appropriate introductory labels. This does not make it unnecessary to visit the exhibition, however, mainly because the images give little idea of the scale of the works and don’t in any way reveal their placement in each gallery, which really helps make connections between them.  Even showing photographs of several views of some sculpture cannot substitute for the experience of walking around them. And while photographs may give a hint of the beauty of the objects, in person they are astounding. 

I can give a few examples of the objects I found most memorable. The first one that caught my eye was a strangely posed figure with exaggerated features, arms akimbo, crossed ankles, curly ringlets and leaves around its head. It is identified as a yaksha, a figure from the “animistic spirit cults” common in this region before the arrival of Buddhism. The space held several other yakshas and I was able to grasp and remember the concept of a nature-based animistic religion with these caricatured embodiments of spirits that predated and perhaps set the stage for Buddhism in Southeast Asia.

In the next section, addressing the arrival of Buddhism in Southeast Asia there are, understandable, a number of Buddhas. I got very interested in three standing figures, all made of stone and approximately the same size, about 39 inches high. At first glance they are similar, but closer inspection reveals differences. The first, from the Musee Guimet in Paris, is considered quite important for the inscription on its back. I must admit that the label did not enlighten me about the reason the inscription is so important: “The sculpture’s importance is enhanced by a contemporary Prakrit inscription on the reverse proclaiming the Ye dhamma “stanza of causation” in a version of the text from northern India. It is among the earliest known uses of the Ye dhamma stanza in early Cambodia, foreshadowing its widespread appearance across Southeast Asia from the eighth century onward. The style, like its counterparts in Dvaravati Thailand, looks to the Saranth school of north India.“ I don’t know what Prakrit is, have no idea what Ye dhamma “stanza of causation” means, and don’t remember what Dvaravati Thailand has to do with it and never heard of the “Saranth school of north India.” I did see the brief inscription on its back and duly noted that it must be important. The figure itself is rather static and I think of it as symmetrical, broad shoulders, small waist, a robe that falls in two layers, and two feet solidly planted on the ground, with a peaceful expression and a sensual, smooth surface.

One thing I noted in the exhibition was that most of the object labels noted where and when the work was excavated or found, something I really appreciate, partly because it lets me know how long the object has been known to scholars, and partly because it gives a clue that the work was legally excavated. I don’t see these notes in the online label copy.

So I noticed with interest that another Buddha image quitesimilar to this one, from the Met’s own collection, had no indication of where or when it was excavated, only the accession number that tells me it was given to the museum by Florence and Herbert Irving in 1993. Also quite symmetrical, this one has neither feet nor hands and seems somehow more schematic than the Musee Guimet version. Although this figure appears in the exhibition later than the Guimet one, the label gives a clue as to what Sarnath is, a monastic school in India with a prolific Buddha-making workshop.

A third standing Buddha, this one from the National Museumin Cambodia, caught my eye because its drapery was asymmetrical, something that seemed very unusual. Also smoothly carved with a peaceful expression on its youthful face, it had other characteristics that differentiated it from the others. Like the other two, the man’s legs are visible through the drapery, but I noticed a slight bulge in his belly above the belt. Then I saw that one leg was just slightly in front of the other, one foot supporting just a little more weight than the other, so he gives the sense of movement. Likewise, one shoulder is slightly forward. The artist who carved this figure gave it an exquisitely subtle sense of movement and life, while maintaining the Buddha’s characteristically peaceful expression and overall mood. I kept coming back to this sculpture, comparing it to the others, marveling at it. It is the object I will remember from this exhibition.

Four seated Buddhas in the next gallery - from Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia - were fun to compare and impressively monumental, even if the one from Vietnam is only 18 1/2 inches high. I needed help to figure out which label was for which one, as the four labels were in a square on one wall. And on the website they are not shown together so it is not possible to imagine the mood they create, each on one side of a large structure, in a low-lit room.

Then Vishnu, Durga and Garuda figures fill the next space, with one strikingly movemented and dramatic figure of Krishna, its shadows accentuated by the strong lighting. 

Shiva and his associates, also connected with the rulers, fill the following gallery. A couple of charming Ganeshas and a very phallic linga attracted me here. But this is where I realized I was getting tired. There’s not much to explain a relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism anywhere in the exhibition, for example whether the two religions intersected or characterized specific and separate cultures, rulers, or kingdoms.

In the next gallery, State Art, I did stop and wonder at the clay head of Buddha with eyes closed
I think this was about the importance of Buddhism for the state in ancient Thailand, as opposed to Hinduism, but at this point I remembered that most people can’t distinguish the two completely different religions from each other. Then a room of boddhisatvas, nicely identified by their princely dress, changed the pace a little and revived me, looking for the attributes of Maitreya and Avalokiteshvara.

In the end, I was not able to get much sense of the cultures of this period in Southeast Asia, which actually led me to find the subtlety and complexity of the sculptures all the more wondrous. The exhibition is full of aesthetically amazing works of art and one of the best things I saw in New York in April. But I sure wish the Metropolitan Museum staff would work on those labels.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Little Prince: A New York Story, at the Morgan Library till April 27

My mother’s favorite book was Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. She talked about it often, but I only read it after her death. And I loved it.

I don’t know when they gave me The Little Prince but I feel like I’ve always remembered the drawing of the elephant in the boa constrictor and “Dessine-moi un mouton.” Maybe it has something to do with my own inability to draw anything that the book reverberated with me, and still does. I bought the 50th anniversary edition, still have a couple of other editions, including one in French. I have a 50th anniversary t-shirt and kept a French 50 franc note that depicts the little prince.

So, the 70th anniversary (is it there already?) exhibition at the Morgan Library, focusing on the New York component of the book, was the event reviewed in the January Times that gave me the April 27 deadline to get to New York before the show closes. I had no idea that Saint-Exupéry was in New York when he wrote the book, or that the little prince was a character he used often to illustrate his letters and notes. The exhibition is fascinating, with various versions of the prince plus bits and pieces of the book - including characters and planets - that eventually were not included in the final manuscript. I really wanted a catalogue or publication, but all the show offered were a 70th anniversary edition, mugs, plates, postcards and other tchotchokes, and paperbacks of Wind, Sand and Stars.  At least I had hoped for a copy of Flight to Arras, his book of war recollections that is mentioned in the exhibition and I haven’t read, or Vol de Nuit (Night Flight), or even just the little guide handout that accompanies the exhibition but is not available for purchase. 

What touched me most though, and I found unforgettable, is Saint-Exupery’s ID bracelet. After trying for several years, he was finally permitted to rejoin the war, with the Free French Air Force. He left his Little Prince manuscript with the publisher in New York in April 1943 and returned to the war. In 1944 he took off on a reconnaissance mission from Corsica. He was never seen again. The ID bracelet was found by a Marseille fisherman in 1998, caught in his net. Only the ID part and half the chain was on view and no photographs were allowed. But the story, and an image, can be seen in the Wikipedia article on the writer.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Jasper Johns "Regrets" at the Museum of Modern Art

I wonder how many artists can call up the Museum of Modern Art, tell them they have a new series of work, and get an exhibition. That’s what it appears that Jasper Johns did for his exhibition there titled “Regrets.” I saw the notice in the NY Times and couldn't figure out what the images were. He took a photograph of Lucien Freud that was made in preparation for Francis Bacon’s portrait of Freud, the triptych that sold for some $142 million recently. In the Times article I couldn't really see the photograph or make anything out of the Johns painting illustrated, a wide grey thing with a black shape that looked like the back of a chair or maybe a pinafore and a thin ragged cluster of forms in various bright colors climbing up one side of the shape.
So it seemed like a good idea to go to the show. Not all of Johns’s work has been comprehensible to me, in the same way this newspaper image made no sense. Paintings are said to depict objects that I can’t discern, and I hoped the exhibition would help me understand how that works. It did. The exhibition walked viewers through Johns’s working process. First there was the photograph of Lucien Freud, legs crossed, head in one hand with the other arm across his body, sitting on a bed with a patterned bedspread. His face is not visible and the pose suggests distress. The photograph is badly torn across the bottom and at the lower left, apparently vestiges of Bacon’s method of using photographs.
The first Johns images are recognizable drawings of the photograph, but very soon he added a mirror image to make the format horizontal instead of vertical. There are several variants of both early versions. Eventually he re-drew the mirror version on mylar, noted in the labels as a technique he had enjoyed using recently. In these the entire work is sectioned in irregular shapes that still describe the image, sort of like puzzle pieces or “paint-by-numbers” sections, and each piece appears to have a pool of monotone liquid in it; amazingly the pool never touches the edge of the segments, so the white ground shows through.
The chair I thought I saw in the newspaper photograph was actually the blank area of the torn photograph doubled. Johns added eye sockets above the chair back, making an image I thought of as a face with aviator glasses, but the museum identified as a skull. Seen in the gallery, in the flesh, the figure of Freud is clearly discernible in almost every painting, drawing, and print, but in reproductions it is very difficult to see. In fact, the figure is so consistently the same that I wondered if Johns had made a template in order to be consistent in its form, and to help him repeat the mirror image well.  
In the first big painting, Johns used the grey segments of the mylar works, the dark “chair back” shape, and the skull, then he colored in some of the segments to the right of the chair. They don’t make the shape of the figure of Freud, but they do use some parts of it. It’s no wonder I couldn't figure out how the painting related to the photograph because the process had removed the imagery while still maintaining it. One could still make out the seated figure in the grey segments, but it wouldn't be discernible in a newspaper photograph, and it is difficult, if not impossible to discern in online images, for example the image on the MOMA website or the few reproductions associated with the Times review.
The labels explain that “Regrets” is part of a stamp Johns had made, “Regrets/J. Johns” to use in rejecting the multitude of proposals and offers he received. So, on the one hand it just refers to his daily life and the repeated process of refusing offers. But of course one also has to think of it as alluding to whatever one might regret, particularly as one nears the end of life, and perhaps to the options one might have taken, or not taken, in making these very works of art. And possibly Johns associated regrets with the pose of Freud in the photograph, which certainly suggests regret. Adding a skull, a frontal face, to the mirrored compositions certainly adds to this sense, although as I said above, I thought it looked more like a guy in aviator glasses than a memento mori.

All Johns’s versions of the subject seem to be variations on a visual theme, playing with the composition of the photograph, segmenting it and transforming it into other types of images, much more a compositional exploration than a delving into the possible feelings that the photograph might evoke. I came away fascinated with the artist’s process but not at all emotionally touched.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Jonagold apples

Everything seems to have stopped now that it's apple season and we have a pretty decent crop this year. We're into the time when most of the apples we pick are basically yellow - Jonagold, Goldblush, Golden Delicious, Fuji. We're still picking Rome and Jonathan and Red Delicious, but the yellow ones are bigger and very abundant this year.

Jonagolds are a cross between Jonathan and Golden Delicious. They are delightfully sweet and a bit tart, sturdier than Golden Delicious. For years we've had difficulties with them. In our south orchard they seem to get more bitter rot than some others, and they also have been subject to cork spot. We've added lime to them and the cork spot is better, but still shows up in a few.

But more notable than that is the fact that they are oddly shaped. They can be very bumpy, lopsided, enormous, or somehow resembling small pumpkins, all the while tasting delicious. Unlike Red Delicious, Jonagolds do not demonstrate the importance of appearance over taste. They are beautiful in their unique way and taste wonderful.

Last night while I was sorting a couple thousand Jonagolds, I started loving the colors of ours. At first we pick them almost green, but as the season progresses, they add more colors, and I was seeing that last night. Some are almost completely red, some still pretty green, some yellow. But most are mottled red, orange, pink, green and yellow in different combinations. A few were the palest yellow with a pink cast. Some are greenish yellow with red blotches.

Randomly, I took a picture of one, pumpkin shaped, yellow with green, pink and red.

Last night I wanted to keep them all and just look at the colors all year.

Tomorrow we take a bunch of them to the market.
Jonagold apple

Friday, 6 September 2013

Venice Biennale: National Pavilions in the Giardini

After enjoying Portugal so much, the various national pavilions in the Giardini held some interesting works. The Biennale is a lot like visiting Chelsea in New York or any other gallery-rich city district: each gallery has a single or small group of artists on view. Some are familiar, some are new, but it's always a learning experience and always one where you respond to some works and are left cold by others.

Geographically in the Giardini, the first pavilion is Spain and I was charmed by the installation there by Lara Almarcegui, curated by Antonio Zaya. Perhaps because its starkness is in complete contrast to the lush extravagance of Vasconcelos's ferry boat, I took the time to read the explanation of why there was a huge pile of rocks dominating the main space. (Of course, in order to give each artist and each installation its due, one needs to read quite a bit as well as look.)

Almarcegui, engaged in assessing recycling, waste, and building materials and deconstruction themselves, assessed the Spanish pavilion building and installed the equivalent materials inside it: bricks and mortar broken up make the largest pile. The others are glass shards, pulverized  steel, and wood chips.

I was fascinated by the concept of deconstructing the building and putting it inside itself. Tom not so much, muttering something about Theaster Gates at Documenta.
In addition to the installation, Almarcequi produced a booklet assessing the history, condition, and possible future plans for a large island, Sacca San Mattia, that is part of Murano and was formed by deposits of rubble from the glass industry, dredging from the lagoon, other building construction, and industrial waste. I had no previous awareness of this large part of Murano and the booklet called attention to more of the infrastructure and bureaucratic issues that make Venice much more complicated than the magical place we see in travel brochures. 

Spanish Pavilion, Giardini, Venice

Next door, at the Belgium Pavilion, Berlinde De Bruyckere had installed Kreupelhout, or Cripplewood, a huge gathering of tree trunks and branches attached together as if with bandages and crutches. This single structure took up the entire main room of the pavilion. I believed it referred to a particular genus of tree, but it's a made-up species.

Tom was very taken by this installation, especially, I believe, because of the beautifully poetic label that accompanies the sculpture (reproduced above - click on it to read it). When I noticed that the label was written by J. M. Coetzee, the 2003 Nobel-Prize winning writer from South Africa, I needed to see what that was about. I found the book documenting the process. The artist wanted to collaborate with Coetzee, but they did not meet, but rather exchanged emails. I was interested that she decided to change the project to this single powerful image after realizing that the audience for the Biennale does not spend a lot of time in each pavilion, so the impact has to be strong and quick. I was also interested that she chose to use a huge tree as her damaged or at least not who subject when for the most part her sculpture depicts partial human or animal forms.

At the Dutch Pavilion, Mark Manders had covered the entrance door and windows with faux newspapers on which  the headlines and text consist of all the words in the English dictionary, not in any sensible order. Inside his various sculptures, like the one above, were quite lovely heads, divided by boards. While to some this would suggest anger or violence, to me it seemed he was assessing them geometrically in some way. His idea of reproducing one of his sculptures and displaying other versions in other locations, including a Venice supermarket, was lost to me.

Several of the national pavilions seem much more interesting in the descriptions than in person. I was eager to see the French Pavilion (in the German Pavilion, with "Germania" rubbed out) with the videos of two pianists playing Ravel's Concerto for the left Hand and two of a famous woman disc jockey trying to synchronize the two recordings, and the artist Anri Sala's  descriptions were most intriguing. But the actual work was easy to ignore. The German Pavilion (in the French Pavilion, with "Deutschland Pavillion" backwards to the side) included Ai Wei Wei and three other non-German artists, whose work addresses political issues in their countries in photographs and video. Korea's Kimsooja alternated an iridescent transparent main space with a totally dark room where only one or two people were admitted at a time. I'm kind of tired of black spaces. Apparently, sound was an element of the installation, but I didn't notice it. While the online images of the pavilion look striking, my photographs are pale reflections of the effect, which is also my recollection of the space itself. Japan had remains from the 2012 architectural biennale that seemed to relate to the Fukushima earthquake disaster, but it was difficult to discern what they were doing. We couldn't find the entrance for the Danish pavilion, a reminder of the year the Spanish pavilion was closed to anyone not Spanish.

At the Russian Pavilion I was happy to take my umbrella and stand with other women (men not admitted) under Vadim Zakharov's shower of gold coins, referring to the classical myth of Danae and the Shower of Gold, and I even enjoyed being able to take one coin for myself. But again, the idea of doing it is much more intriguing than actually doing it. And upstairs, where everyone was admitted, the mechanics of moving the coins up and down and the inscriptions "Gentlemen, time has come to confess our Rudeness, Lust, Narcissism, Demagoguery, Falsehood, Banality, and Greed, Cynicism, Robbery, Speculation, Wastefulness, Gluttony, Seduction, Envy and Stupidity" all seemed pointless. Also upstairs was a guy sitting in a saddle on the rafter, eating peanuts.

Jeremy Deller's English Magic at the British Pavilion incorporated a large number of installations, all politically charged, but so diverse as to defy brief description. We loved the huge hen harrier carrying off the SUV, as a revenge for Prince Harry reportedly shooting two of these protected birds on his estate, Sandringham, in Norfolk.
What Deller calls "The Small Faces" are a group of Neolithic hand axes from about 4,000 BC that were on view around this opening gallery., each with a soft colored background.

More ancient axes and flints arrowheads were installed throughout the pavilion. Another huge wall project has William Morris, raised from the dead, tossing Roman Abramovich's 377-foot yacht, Luna, into the lagoon after it blocked the view while moored beside the Giardini at the 2011 Biennale. There is a touching series of drawings of British army life in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of David Kelly, the UN weapons inspector who killed himself after being revealed as the person who questioned the accuracy of reports on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. While I don't have images of them, I was moved by the juxtapositions of photographs from David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust tour with the protests after British soldiers shot and killed 26 civilian protestors in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, all at the end of January, 1972. There was lots to see and think about, and the best part was that they served tea on the back deck.

The American Pavilion was given over to Sarah Sze, whose gatherings of all types of fragmented, recycled, found, and created objects made a bewildering installation. I'm surprised that there haven't been many exhibitions of artists who use recycled materials, and I would love to know if they have had any impact on the landfills. At an exhibition in London a couple of years ago it seemed as if the goal is to move everything from the landfill to museum storage vaults.

In this light, the pavilion reminded me of an anonymous installation I documented several years ago. The use of color here is perhaps somewhat more subtle, but the relationship between forms is instinctual:

This year I paid more attention to the architecture of the pavilions than I have before, perhaps because there was so much press suggesting that the concept of national pavilions is outmoded in this world of fluid globalism. Although I have always had difficulty with the entries in the Australian Pavilion, above, I was sorry to learn that they plan to demolish and rebuild it. With its balcony over a lower space and open sky, it must be a difficult place to show art.

I'd never really thought about the fact that Brazil, top, and Austria, below, are quite similar in style.

My favorite pavilion has always been Hungary, because of the iridescent tiles and early 20th-century style of its portal and facade. The exhibition there, one of the last we visited, is "Fired but Unexploded," and as the title indicates, it consists of videos, some of which look like still photographs, by the artist Zsolt Asztalos, documenting unexploded projectiles found in Hungary. The objects are identified by type or weapon and date, giving a surprising history of wars and conflicts in 20th century Europe. The link above takes you to an exhaustive web site addressing a full range of issues involving this unexploded ordinance. We found this installation both moving and enlightening. Tom wondered if it's art, but I didn't think it mattered.

There are several more pavilions I might like to tell about, but I want to get this posted. It's taken a huge amount of time because of difficulties with Blogger and pictures, and then with the entire text disappearing after I thought I had saved it. Then I went to Santa Fe and New York and apple season started. So this is the best I can do to reconstruct what was lost. And it's giving me trouble again....

Friday, 2 August 2013

Venice Biennale: The Giardini - Portugal

When you've been to several Venice Biennales, you begin to associate some areas with distinctive objects you've seen in them. In 2005 I was struck, and impressed, by a beautiful chandelier in the Arsenale. When you looked at it closely, you discovered that it was completely made of tampons! I remembered the artist's name, Joana Vasconcelos (b. 1971). Two years ago she had an installation at the Palazzo Grassi, Contamination, that also caught my attention. With all kinds of objects stitched together, along with crocheting, it clambered up and down the stairs, protruded in many directions, and was said to be expanding during the course of its exhibition. I found it fascinating, a little scary, and quite funny.

So this year I was definitely looking for the pavilion from Portugal, which strictly speaking, is not in the Giardini, since Portugal does not have a permanent pavilion and Vasconcelos's entry is a refurbished Lisbon ferry boat, Trafaria Praia, docked just outside the Giardini entrance. Since this type of ferry was much used in Lisbon to transport commuters across the River Tagus, she compares it to the Venetian vaporetto, the boat bus that is the public transportation system in Venice.
Vasconcelos's images, accessable via the link, are much better than mine, but I'll put a few details here as well. Around the hull of the boat is a monumental blue and white tile (azulejos) mural of the city of Lisbon, in the style of traditional painted tiles.
When we boarded, a friendly crew gave us some literature and invited us on the noon or 5 p.m. half-hour sailing of the boat, which makes the round trip from the Giardini to the Dogana twice a day. While we never made the trip, we enjoyed seeing the ferry crossing the lagoon several times.
Vasconcelos has converted the interior of the boat into a sort of dark funhouse, using crocheting and patchwork, primarily in blue and white, with twinkling LED lights and protruding sections, to cover the entire inside of the boat. Dark and mysterious, but beautiful and enticing, it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of the Biennale. I didn't think of a womb, or Jonah and the Whale, or the undersea, as the brochure suggests, but I did feel it as a definitely feminine creation because of the materials. It's mysterious, visually exciting but also comforting, and strong.

Once we traversed the interior, we could go up to the deck, which she had outfitted with cork stools and bar, cork being a major Portuguese product.
Display cases showed Portuguese products and we could enjoy the view of the Riva and the lagoon from above. The curator of the Portuguese pavilion is Miguel Amado.

Vasconcelos is one of the artists in one part of the Biennale who reappeared in another. In Glasstress she showed a work in a similar medium, a chandelier titled Babylon, with tentacles, crocheted mostly in red, orange, and yellow and incorporating pieces of blown red Murano glass.

I'm impressed that the label indicates it as one in an edition of 10. She'll make more! Although I love seeing these richly organic and colorful constructions, I'm afraid they would be a bit of a dust catcher.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Venice Biennale 2013: The Arsenale national pavilions

The Bahamas. Entering the Bahamas pavilion was puzzling. It took a while and a bit of label reading to understand that Tavares Strachan (b. 1979) is from the Bahamas, although he lives in New York. The relatively large pavilion, titled Polar Eclipse, is dedicated to the exploration of the North Pole, with particular reference to . or unacknowledged aspects of the 1909 expedition. He addresses the invisibility of Robert Peary's African-American colleague Matthew Alexander Henson, who is credited by many as the first to reach the pole. In videos of Strachan's polar exploration, he posits the difficulty of identifying exactly where the North Pole is, since the ice shelf that covers it is in motion.  

To connect the North Pole with his home country, Strachan brought 40 schoolchildren from the Bahamas and taught them an Inupiaq song that is untranslatable, which they performed at the opening and which is recorded in the gallery. There's also a  pair or blocks of arctic ice in freezer units (Me and You [North Pole Ice and Cloned North Pole Ice], 20,13).

It took a while to figure out what was going on with the objects in this gallery, which included a suspended figure in polar gear, a glass human figure barely distinguishable in a glass vitrine, huge drawings of an arctic bear, owl and walrus with number and figure annotations, and three scattered neon installations that read "I Belong Her, You Belong Here, and We Belong Here." After looking for a while, I became immersed in the subject and the irony of this as the Bahamas first ever Biennale entry.

Indonesia. The Indonesia Pavilion, titled Sakti (which "refers to the primordial cosmic energy and the personification of diving, feminine creative energy, as well as indicating change and liberation) displayed the work of 6 artists, whose names were hard to locate. There was an elaborately carved wall and other installations combining personal narratives, historical events, myths, and religion by Entang Wiharso.

Titarubi's work is a room of tables with large stylized blank open books and dark charcoal drawings of trees. The tables are intended as desks and he refers to the juxtaposition of learning with the colonial past and environmental destruction. I was pretty sure it didn't mean anything good. 

Albert Yonathan's amassing of small clay stupas and Sri Astari's pendopo [traditional Javanese pavilion] occupied by nearly lifesize Javanese puppets evoked the experience of classic Indonesia. They seemed to belong together, but probably weren't intended as one work. 

The dark setting, large installations, and fine craftsmanship made this large gallery an exotic respite from the series of challenging installations.

Latvia. I liked Latvia, with Kriss Salmanis's huge dead tree swinging back and forth from the ceiling, obviously referring to deforestation in Latvia, whose population strongly identifies with its woodlands and rural landscape. I was intrigued by the videos and black and white photographs by Kaspars Podnicks, of rural people standing facing the viewer, apparently 15 feet above the ground. The label says they stood on a tiny platform, which inhibited their motion, but I still can't figure out how it's done. I was just fascinated by the portraits of rural people in unlikely relation to rural settings, who moved slightly, standing in the cold.  

The United Arab Emirates' artist Mohammed Kazem created an installation that simulated the effect of being at sea, standing on rolling water. It was like an amusement park ride that leaves you unsteady on your feet when you leave it. A surround video of the ocean.

The Lebanon installation was much more interesting as a subject than as an art work. The Letter to a Refusing Pilot refers to a 1982 incident in which an Israeli pilot dropped his bombs into the sea rather than on a school. As a plea for peace and understanding, this was worthwhile project, but we didn't have the patience to watch the video.

Very similarly to two years ago, a group of Latin American countries shared one large gallery. Most of the contributions here were videos - about 10 of them - and we watched only a few. I was taken by Martin Sastre's video of the creation and advertising of a perfume made from flowers in the garden of the president of Uruguay and intended to be auctioned at the Biennale to initiate a national arts fund. 

Another Uruguayan artist, Christian Jankowski, blindfolded participants and had them climb the hill that gives Montevideo (translated as "I see a hill") its name. The video show the participants gathering and then holding hands in a line, slowly walking up the hill.

Sonia Falcone from Bolivia's installation Campo di Colore is a field of spices and pigments, each a conical pile in a clay bowl, grouped in the center of this Latin American space and sending off the scents and heat of the various spices. 

The introduction to this Latin American pavilion refers to the history of colonialism, the interconnectedness of the geography of Latin America and Europe, the transfers of artists from one continent to the other, and the blending and exchanges of artistic and cultural awareness among countries. Each object has its own history and often far-readhing resonances, which are impossible to explore adequately in a brief review.

Argentina showed Nicola Costantino's odd multivideo installation of a woman playing multiple versions of Eva Peron walking, sitting, talking on the phone, dressing for a party, looking in a mirror, and other activities, juxtaposed with black-and-white documentary photographs of Eva, a contraption said to have been used to support her so she could make standing public appearances when she was fatally ill, and a table what represents unending tears. Titled Rapsodia Inconclusa, it left me humming "Don't cry for me Argentina," but still ignorant about Eva Peron's life, but here's the Wikipedia link.

Chile. I looked forward to seeing what Alfredo Jaar would do to represent Chile, but found it seriously disappointing. He made a detailed model of the Giardini and placed it in a big tank of greenish water. Every three minutes it would slowly rise out of the water and then submerge again. press release says this had to do with the archaic idea of national pavilions, "which have lost their meaning in the fluidity of today's world culture," but I thought it seemed a more likely reference to Venice sinking into the sea. Whatever the concept, it seemed a lot of work for little effect, from an artist I have respected enormously for decades. And the cross-nationalities of so many artists showing at on-and-off-site national pavilions seems a more useful way to address the "fluidity" of the contemporary art world.

South Africa. The work of most of the artists in the South Africa pavilion referred in some way to apartheid and the country's racial history. And many of them required a certain amount of decoding. For example,  Cameron Platter's huge black and white drawing, The good Shepard Presents Dr. Bombaka, has its sources in similar works created by artists associated with the Rorke's Drift Art and Craft Centre, especially John Maufangejo, whose black and white drawings are similar in style, but without the satire and irony.

Sue Williamson's For thirty years next to his heart, 1990, consists of multiple color copies of Ncithakato John Ngesi's apartheid dompas, or passbook (translation, dumb pass) documenting all his movements and tax payments, a hated relic of a time finally past. I remember learning about apartheid 50 years ago in high school and being horrified by it. 

Andrew Putter (b. 1965), interested by the ethnographic black-and-white photography initiated by Alfred Martin Duggan-Cronin in 1904, used Duggan-Cronin's style to photograph South Africans in supposed indigenous dress in black and white, then photographing them again in their clothing of choice. My images select two single images from the larger groupings. Looking into Duggan-Cronin and his mission, he seems very similar both in style and in goal to Edward S. Curtis, and his work seems to have been similarly controversial. The link from the artist's name should take you to the whole series.

David Koloane (b. 1938) showed a series of acrylic and pastel dark and sad drawings of the last hours of the anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko, who was tortured to death by police in 1977. While the images were not horrific, the concept was.