Venice, Italy. October 2, 2011.
Knee-high polka dot stockings, sharply-angled hair, dreads and Birkenstocks, and Louis Vuitton bags and sunglasses: we must be in the right place. Having wound our way through canals, over bridges, and down narrow streets, we had finally made it to one of the entrances of the 54th Venice Biennale. This huge international exhibition of contemporary art featured two main venues with room after room of sculpture, installations, video, and painting of both individual artists and particular countries. The theme of the show is “ILLUMINAZIONI,” or “Illuminations,” inspired by the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud and the essays of Walter Benjamin. In the words of curator Bice Curiger, this theme emphasizes “one of art’s intrinsic characteristics: it is a unique and illuminating experience.”
1) Urs Fischer’s life-sized candles.
Urs Fischer, a swiss artist, plays with the relationship between an object and its function. The official Biennale catalogue (smallest version 9 euros) describes that in his work “common objects take on unfamiliar properties” as he draws from “high” influences (famous 16th century art) and “low” or mundane influences (his friends, his studio chair). Around an open room he has placed life-size candles of different shapes: One takes the form of the monumental “Rape of the Sabine Women” by Giovanni Bologna in 1583; another his friend, artist Rudolf Stingel; and, at least two others, take the form of his own studio chair. Each huge candle is lit and the wax melting. Statuesque arms and legs lie on the floor next to the mountain of melted wax atop the wax statue base. By changing the properties of the statue from marble to a melting wax candle, Fischer seems to question both the value of a monumental statue over time (why is this important, then and now?) and its function as “high,” public art (what is a statue, and even his own work, actually doing?). Also, life-size candles? Stuff burning and melting? The inner-pyro in us all loves it.
2) Christian Marclay’s 24-hour video.
A 24-hour video? Oh yes. Christian Marclay’s The Clock is a day-long video that splices together (what must be thousands of) clips from movies from black and white westerns to Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny. Each clip contains some kind of timepiece—watch, alarm clock, tower clock, etc. and—get this—every time a timepiece is shown in the video, it corresponds with the actual time of the day. The official Biennale catalogue notes that the artist “explores recorded sounds and the materiality of film, reshaping it to unexpected ends.” I don’t know what that means, but for me, Marclay has used film and timepieces as a running theme to question several aspects of contemporary culture.
Part of the fun of the piece is to see how many movies you can identify. That fact in itself—that Marclay uses a variety of film clips as his material—made me wonder about the nature of our shared cultural identity: What does it mean that movies constitute a large part of what we view and share as a culture? Most of the stories the ancient Greeks and Romans shared were their myths; we have the stories shared by these films. Furthermore, what does it mean that these clips were just short snippets? What does it mean that we are moving through media and material faster and faster—that through the internet and our iphones and androids we experience the world in bouts of tiny clips of an infinite array of material, instead of slowly and one at a time? Lastly, the work questions how we make connections between two things: What are we, consciously or unconsciously, associating together? Are we attracted to someone because we like them or because they remind us of a dear friend? Are we actually hungry or responding to a color or time of day? But most importantly, as we fumble through life and the variety of mediums which constitute it, what resonates similarly as ‘true’? Regardless, I enjoyed this work on all levels. Glows for being fun, creative, and thought-provoking.
A few things took away from the show. Honestly, for an amateur art-viewer like myself, a lot of the work was inaccessible. There were signs naming the artist and the work, but rarely was any other information provided. This is especially frustrating with contemporary art, which seems to be composed of anything, anywhere, anytime. Also, it was way too difficult to find the exits and bathrooms (never leave artists—or Italians for that matter—in charge of organizing practical things). Not that I should judge, considering we planned our time on the last day so poorly that we were sprinting through the packed streets with our luggage, bowling over tourists (literally), to catch our train back to Rome. All in all though, it was great. Yay for the Venetian Biennale!
Want to check it out?
The Biennale goes until November 27, 2011, so you still have time to make it there. Open from 10am – 6pm, but closed on Mondays.
Getting to Venice from Rome: We took the train and you have several options. The fast train is about 3.5 hours and usually costs about double the price of the slow train (about 6.5 hours). We took advantage of the MINI fares (check them out at http://www.trenitalia.it), and took the fast train to Venice on a Friday @ 45 euros / seat. We booked a slow train back to Rome on Sunday @ 45 euros / seat as well.