Modern Treasures from the Venice Biennale

“Underneath Day’s azure eyes, Ocean’s nursling, Venice lies, A peopled labyrinth of walls, Amphitrite’s destined halls.”

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Francis Upritchard’s ‘Yellow Dancer’ from ‘Save Yourself’, installation for the NZ Pavillion, Palazzo Mangilli-Valmarana, Venice Biennale, 2009

As the sun rose and the art-crowds flocked, the great palazzos threw open their doors this weekend marking the opening of Venice’s 53rd Biennale, curated by Daniel Burnbaum and open

for the next four summer months. This showcase of the world’s best and most diverse art talent is the modern treasure within not only the amazing crumling palazzos but also at the ‘Arsenale’, a grand industrial L-shaped sequence of double-height brick warehouses and at ‘Giardini’- a large open park scattered with rambling pavilions and outbuildings.

From the whimsical; Liam Gillick’s installation deliberately plays with the contrast between the pine-wood pristine kitchen-like structure inserted within the grandness of the recently restored German pavillion:


Liam Gillick’s ‘How Are You Going To Behave? A Kitchen Cat Speaks’ for the German Pavillion, Giardini, Venice Biennale, 2009

to Bruce Nauman’s installation wrapping both around and within the colonial look of the USA pavillion, there is a great spectrum of art on show, from the whimsical to the sober, from art establishment to newcomers.

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Bruce Nauman’s ‘Topological Gardens’ for the USA Pavillion, Giardini, Venice Biennale, 2009

We first encountered Francis Upritchard at Kate MacGarry‘s Vyner Street Gallery for the show ‘Feierabend‘ with Martino Gamper and Karl Fritsch.  Save Yourself‘, Upritchard’s show representing New Zealand at the Biennale at Palazzo Mangilli-Valmarana is both entrancing and unmissable.

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Francis Upritchard’s ‘Save Yourself’ for the NZ Pavillion, Palazzo Mangilli-Valmarana, Venice Biennale, 2009

Entering the decayed splendour of the top floor rooms of the palace, you feel like you are aparty to something private, privileged to enter a kind of magical assembly. A bande of beautiful and intriguing miniature figures in a kaleidoscopic array of colours sit, dance around, lie back in ecstacy atop long grey formica tabletops which sail into the antique mirrors lining the walls.
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A beautiful and tranquil-looking figure from Francis Upritchard’s installation ‘Save Yourself’ for NZ, Venice Biennale, 2009

The power of these colourful characters, made with intricate details, tiny hands and fingernails perfectly crafted, is that they permeate a feeling, from meditation, transcendance to personal bliss, we seem to be witnessing all of them in some state of subtle and personal peacefullness.

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Lost in a state of personal bliss- detail of ‘Rested’ figure from Francis Upritchard’s installation ‘Save Yourself’ for NZ, Venice Biennale, 2009

The figures don’t look at us but turn their gazes inwards in some form of compelling transcendence, you can’t help feeling beckoned to join them.

Francis Upritchard explains the subject-matter of her work herself:

“…like dark ages craft adjusted and repainted by some futurist revolutionary caught in a wild dream.”

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‘Richard’ from Francis Upritchard’s installation ‘Save Yourself’ for NZ, Venice Biennale, 2009

Amongst Wolfgang Tillmans’ works exhibited this year are beautiful single chroma-coloured photographs hung simply tacked onto the walls in deftly colour-coordinated clusters spanning the gallery corners.
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Wolfgang Tillmans at the Venice Biennale, 2009

Also in rows behind Perspex vitrines folded, crumpled and scored chroma-coloured photogrphs form colourful sequences.

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Wolfgang Tillmans at the Venice Biennale, 2009

What these photos were of it was impossible to know but you got the sense that you were looking at a detail of something that had been ‘photographed’ as opposed to just a randomly chosen block of colour and part if the enjoyment seemed in deciphering what these close-ups might come from. Your mind can’t help wondering what the image would be if you zoomed out to see the full picture.

Cildo Meireles in the Arsenale presents a series of chroma-coloured walk-through installation. Over a sequence of five rooms, you journey through orange, yellow, green to violet to blue, each room with an enticing doorway giving a sneak into the next saturated super-colour.

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Cildo Meireles’ walk-in installation at ‘Making Worlds’, the Venice Biennale, 2009

The corner of each room at eye-level houses a monitor playing what seems to be a view of the corner behind the monitor, but as we move, the colour flicks to one discordant to that of the room, so orange on blue and yellow on green. As a development from his original ‘Red Shift’ installation from 1967-1984, where the red colour theme of the room is made of a myriad of found objects, all in the same hue of red, this work is like climbing into a techno-rainbow, boxed by Tadao Ando. Your mind can’t help responding to the super-saturated brightness of the colours; effective chroma-therapy for the jaded art traveller.

Our final stop away from the main trail of the Biennale was at the Punta della Dogana, the much anticipated second location of the Palazzo Grassi on the tip of the lagoon on the Grand Canal. Squeezing itself literally into every last inch of it’s triangular plot on the tip of the lagoon on the Grand Canal, Guiseppe Benomi’s 17th century Venetian Customs House has been transformed into a double-height shrine to the very best of contemporary art. ‘Mapping the Studio’ the current exhibition there curated by Francesco Bonami and Alison Gingeras sets the personal art collection of the French magnate Francois Pinault (the man behind the Gucci Group) against the waterside views of Venice. And it literally feels like you are walking through a collection of the best art in the world.

Amongst the amazingly colour-saturated glossy pictures of Piotr Uklanski and the classics such as Sherman and Koons, our favourite was the work of the relative newcomer Matthew Day-Jackson. A row of wax sculls along a series of shelves morph as they progress upwards through the colours of the rainbow from realistic skulls to gradually more hybridised faceted volumes.

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Matthew Day-Jackson’s skull piece at the Punta della Dogana, Palazzo Grassi’s amazing new alternative space at the Venice Biennale, 2009

A duo of highly engineered polished cases with glass fronts and infinity mirror backgrounds display two hybrid-skeletons. Certain selected elements of the bone structures have been replaces such as the ribcage is now a series of polished brass coils. Unfortunately, photography of the collection was strictly forbidden (and strictly enforced!) so we were unable to picture this work. The work however, feels totally fresh and part of a new colourful movement of artists adding a metallic, psychedelic twist to classic celebration of the dark and macabre.

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Haegue Yang’s ‘Symmetric Inequality’ installation inside the Korean pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2009

Bridging our step from colour to works on an interior scale is Haegue Yang’s ‘Symmetric Inequality’ installation inside the Korean pavilion at the Giardini. Made from a series of multi-coloured blinds constructed the pseudo open dwelling, part hut, part temple flutters in the breeze as the fans surrounding it sporadically turned on and off.

‘Ttéia 1, C’ by Brazilian artist Lygia Pape provides a dramatic introduction to the grand spaces of the Arsenale. Passing the threshold of heavy black curtains from the entrance, this, the first of the grand rooms to enter has been transformed into blackened midnight cathedral-like space.

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Lygia Pape’s ”Ttéia 1, C’ for Brazil inside the Arsenale, Venice Biennale, 2009

Golden glowing shafts of light, in fact a series of strings of brass cords have been strung to form the outline of geometric shafts- empty boxes which allude to rays of light piercing from the ceiling diagonally to the floor. This is a work cleverly capturing volume and alluding to the spirit of what’s not there.

One of more quirky installations but one we loved was Chu Yun’s ‘Constellation’, also at the Arsenale. Described as ‘various household appliances divorced from their usual setting’, Yun has created a miasma of flashing, flickering twinkling lights from a landscape of objects whose LED lights flash on standby.

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A modern-day cosmos of domestic white goods/ white Gods Chu Yun’s installation ‘Constellation’ at the Arsenale, Venice Biennale, 2009

To Scottish pavillion and Palazzo Pisani and the work of Dundee-based artist Martin Boyce and his installation ‘No Reflections’. Once on the second floor where the exhibition starts, you are led from the first doorway by a series of octagonal angular concrete steppes which Boyce has set in sequence from one side of the room to the other. Traversing this first space, the palazzo floor either side scattered with angular origami-like leaves cut from scored crispy-brown parchment, engages you physically and emotionally.

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Details of Martin Boyce’s ‘No Reflections’ at Palazzo Pisane, Venice Biennale, 2009

The slightly slippery polished concrete platforms at slightly differing heights demand care to cross safely and it is impossible for the mind not to slip back to childhood thoughts of crossing stepping stones over a pond. It is this minimal yet moving subtlety that shines through all of Boyce’s work. A beautiful geometric lexicon tumbles down a wall spelling ‘PETRIFIED SONGS’. Boyce describes as his starting point for the exhibition as

‘the perfect collapse of architecture and nature’.

And finally, the work of Yoko Ono. Rather like one of pop’s royalty such as Iggy Pop performing at Glastonbury, Yoko Ono’s return to the Biennale this year for a series of performances was marked by her presentation with a Golden Lion at the inauguration this Sunday. Shivers of anticipation were sent through the art crowd this Saturday, when a fast ambling young art-student; a placard held in front of her declaring a performance by Yoko at 1pm. Fast becoming a new Pied Piper of Hamlyn, this girl attracted a band of followers unfortunately way beyond the capacity of the venue for the show. And we were amongst the swarm.

So, once outside the venue, two large monitors confronted us as well as the rather well-dressed Italian doormen. Speculation rose that Yoko was going to perform a remake of ‘Cut Piece’- her notorious work first performed in 1965 where members of the audience are asked to come up and one by one cut away pieces of Yoko’s clothing as she sits on a chair on a stage until she is completely exposed.

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She said of the piece in 1964, how when the fabric around her breast was cut away how she felt vulnerable:

“I felt I had to cover my breasts at the moment of unbosoming”.

We wondered 50 years on from the original how the work would be changed? Not only with context of female body having changed so that nudity is now almost part of the media mainstream but it revealed that the thought of a woman of 76 revealing her body is still shocking.

We were informed on a loudspeaker ‘photography is allowed up to the point where Yoko breaks the chair- after which point it is strictly forbidden’. Outside we felt safe from that embargo though- our view on the screen clearly showing Yoko centre-stage. However, after a short performance where Yoko danced and snaked around a chair on stage to music, she picked up a hammer and attacked the chair and broke it to the floor. A pause. Yoko brought out a new chair. We all waited with baited breath. After an element of contemplation for the act ahead, Yoko moved a new chair onto the stage. But as we waited in anticipation of the performance, Yoko knowingly moved the chair just out of shot of the fixed camera’s view. Apart from the limited few inside the room, we were not able to see the details of what took place. Yoko, just like Chanel, realises the power that a woman has in what you conceal just as much as what you reveal.
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Charles Ray’s ‘Boy with Frog’ ouside Venice’s stunning Punta della Dogana, Palazzo Grassi, Venice Biennale, 2009

Fittingly we concluded our trip, returning by sea with, Charles Ray’s “Boy With Frog”, standing on the further-most point of the island, like a modern Sirenetta (the Little Mermaid, frog in hand, bidding us goodbye.

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All images © Howard Sullivan, Your Studio, 2009

4 responses to “Modern Treasures from the Venice Biennale

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