May
11

Biennial, schmiennial

By
I haven't been able to decode this construction.  There is a bucket inside the wicker sphere, and a batch of ropes, and a piece of fabric.  Make of it what you will.

I haven’t been able to decode this construction. There is a bucket inside the wicker sphere, and a batch of ropes, and a piece of fabric. Make of it what you will.

“Biennial” means “every two years” in, I suppose, every language from Amharic to Tongan. Even in Italian.

But in Venice, “Biennale” has come to mean “The Voltron of international modern art exhibitions put on every single year to draw more people here for longer so they’ll, you know, spend money.”

The original event was inaugurated in April 30, 1895 and was dedicated solely to art.  Back then, that meant painting and sculpture.  But scheduling it to skip a year meant losing momentum, and limiting it to painting and sculpture was dangerously droll.

By now some Venice Biennale opens every spring, so they have worked around the logistical and etymological complications of “bi” by having created an assortment of choices — there is, alternatively, the Biennale of Art, Architecture, Dance, Music, Theatre, and the Venice Film Festival, which has always been once a year, though I suppose if there were a way to have one every four months the city would rejoice.

The opening weekend of the annual Biennale, of whatever sort, as I have chronicled in other years, is a spectacular spasm of art objects and art people in the zone of the Giardini, where the national pavilions are.  You have to pay to see what’s in there, but for these few triumphant days the neighborhood is bestrewn with art of the performance and/or concept variety.  Or something.

Your eyes do not deceive you -- this is a young woman folded into a net several feet above the ground.

Your eyes do not deceive you — this is a young woman folded into a net several feet above the ground.  The day after, the chrysalis was empty, leaving just a big clump of tangled twine strung up there. More art.

I regret to report that I didn't linger for the final performance so I don't know what it entailed.  Perhaps the young woman de-cat's-cradled herself back to earth in some way.  Or maybe disappeared.  Anyway, what she did had a title, which I appreciate.  The wicker sphere didn't bother with giving itself a name.

I regret to report that I didn’t linger for the final performance so I don’t know what it entailed. Perhaps the young woman de-cat’s-cradled herself back to earth in some way. Or maybe disappeared. Anyway, what she did had a title, which I appreciate. The wicker sphere didn’t bother giving itself a name.

On the other side of the Viale Garibaldi was this.  Was it an echo of the girl in the twine?  That's all I can think of.  That, or the Maypole Dance of the Huldufolk.

On the other side of the Viale Garibaldi from the twine-entangled girl was this. Was it a visual echo? That’s all I can think of. That, or this is  the Maypole Dance of the Huldufolk.

It’s hugely entertaining to see this gathering of the art clans in their startling garb, as well as the blithe spirits who come to demonstrate their feats of skill and daring.  They’re here to exhibit something about themselves, about the world, about what’s wrong with the world, about what’s wrong with everything, about I don’t really know what the heck what.

I dimly recall that perplexed unenlightened viewers used to be sneered at because they didn’t understand the work before them — peasants!  But now I have the impression that artists have ceased to concern themselves with being understood.  If these artists were people who had undergone years of therapy, I’d think that this state of mind represented progress.

As it is, I don’t know what it represents.  My grasp of the convoluted symbolism now in vogue is extremely feeble, and certain exotic forms of irony are evidently beyond my mental or emotional capacity to comprehend, much less appreciate.

But I’m cool with all this now.  If they don’t care about being understood, I’m not worried about not understanding.

These women understand it all, especially the lady on the right, who is in touch with her inner Peggy Guggenheim.

These women understand art, especially the lady on the right, who is in touch with her inner Peggy Guggenheim.

And these women two steps away understand a whole lot of other things.

And these women two steps away understand a whole lot of other things.

Two thoughts have taken up permanent residence in my brain.

One: That much of contemporary art has gotten trapped in the Dadaism Room and can’t get out.  (The room has no doors, being Dadaist and all, ha ha).

Here’s the five-second rundown on Dada, helpfully summarized by Wikipedia:

The term anti-art, a precursor to Dada, was coined by Marcel Duchamp around 1913 when he created his first readymades.[2] Dada, in addition to being anti-war, had political affinities with the radical left and was also anti-bourgeois.[3]

The beginnings of Dada correspond to the outbreak of World War I. For many participants, the movement was a protest against the bourgeois nationalist and colonialist interests, which many Dadaists believed were the root cause of the war, and against the cultural and intellectual conformity—in art and more broadly in society—that corresponded to the war.

Dada activities included public gatherings, demonstrations, and publication of art/literary journals; passionate coverage of art, politics, and culture were topics often discussed in a variety of media.

So if it seems that art and politics and social causes have thrown themselves into a hot-tub together and are drying off in the Biennale, there is a long history of this already.  Nothing new going on here, folks, sorry.

The usual procession of extreme luxury yachts came to the Riva degli Schiavoni.  Little me thinks I'm looking at boats that cost too much.  I wonder what a Biennale artist sees?

The usual procession of extreme luxury yachts came to the Riva degli Schiavoni. Little me thinks I’m looking at boats that cost too much. I wonder what a Biennale artist sees?

Two:  That much of the art seen here, and anywhere else these artistoids go, doesn’t refer so much to culture as it does to other art.  It’s the visual equivalent of novels that are really about language.  Conclusion: As it gets broader and covers more conceptual territory, art is becoming shallower and shallower.  Western culture itself may be in the process of shallowization, but art is only making it worse.

Paul Gauguin noticed something of this already happening in the late 1800’s: “The history of modern art is also the history of the progressive loss of art’s audience,” he observed.  “Art has increasingly become the concern of the artist and the bafflement of the public.”

We wandered, baffled and bemused, around and through the throngs over the weekend, and below are some examples of what we saw on Friday and Saturday (Opening Night!).  The Biennale will go on till November 22; this divertissement gets longer each year.  If they continue at this rate, eventually it will just be simply the “Ennale.”

A couple stops to examine (and admire?) the fragments scattered on the ground.  Again: If you have to ask, you've just embarrassed yourself.

A couple stops to examine (and admire?) the fragments scattered on the ground. Again: If you have to ask, you’ve just embarrassed yourself.

They are bits of paper folded in a fiendishly clever, origami-like way.

They are bits of paper folded in a fiendishly clever, origami-like way.  I can tell you nothing more.

I can explain this: It's a young person (man?) dressed entirely in black holding a red balloon in the shape of a heart.  That's my explanation.

I can explain this: It’s a young person (man?) dressed entirely in black holding a red balloon in the shape of a heart. That’s my explanation.

A cactus with two ovoids on each side.  Witty and irreverent and so much fun.  You know who appreciates this piece of art eh most?  The barge driver who got paid to ride it around.

A cactus with two ovoids on each side. Witty and irreverent and so much fun. You know who appreciates this piece of art the most? The barge driver who got paid to carry it around.

A girl is strapped into an old electric chair; of course the headpiece needs to be adjusted by a helpful collaborator.  The hair must be perfect.  If you want to know what this is about, you'll have to subject yourself to the explanation at www.samarcandaproject.org.  Hint: It's ponderously loaded with the most intricate art-babble I've heard in a while.  Bottom line: It's a protest.  Art as social megaphone.

A girl is strapped into an old electric chair; of course the headpiece needs to be adjusted by a helpful collaborator perhaps from the hair and makeup department. The hair must be perfect. If you want to know what this is about, you’ll have to subject yourself to the explanation at www.samarcandaproject.org. Hint: It’s ponderously loaded with the most intricate art-babble I’ve heard in a while. Bottom line: It’s a protest. Art as social megaphone.  But blah-blah-blah doesn’t sound any better either loud or soft.

I've slighted the glamorous people in this piece, but I couldn't resist this woman.  As far as I'm concerned, walking in those shoes qualifies as performance art.

I’ve slighted the glamorous people in this piece, but I couldn’t resist this woman. As far as I’m concerned, walking in those shoes qualifies as performance art.  The unusual color combination plays an important part in the entire presentation.

I was startled -- as was everyone else in the neighborhood -- to come across this extraordinary quintet on our very own little bridge.  You think this is about naked and semi-naked people posing in public?  Peasant!  It's a Protest, of course!

I was startled — as was everyone else in the neighborhood — to come across this extraordinary quintet on our very own little bridge. You think this is about naked and semi-naked people posing in public? Peasant! It’s a Protest, of course!

I had to look it up, but this concoction of leaves and skin is intended to draw angry attention to the cutting of the olive trees in the region of Puglia.

I had to look it up, but this concoction of leaves and skin has a name, and is is intended to draw angry attention to the uprooting of the olive trees in the region of Puglia.

The artist got everybody's attention, but I wasn't aware of any explanation of the deeper significance of the endeavor.  Do white-painted naked girls wearing a rabbit mask  naturally symbolize the deforestation of olive trees?

The artist got everybody’s attention — anybody with a camera was snapping madly away — but I wasn’t aware of any explanation of the deeper significance of the endeavor. Do white-painted naked girls wearing a rabbit mask naturally symbolize the destruction of olive trees?

Apparently yes, it does.

Apparently yes, they do.

The bunny-faced girl took a break later, freeing herself of her frondy friends but still accepting huge numbers of eager snapshots.  She just walked along the street like this: white, nude, and rabbit-headed.  It all sure makes me think of olive trees in Puglia.

The bunny-faced girl took a break later, freeing herself of her frondy friends but still accepting huge numbers of eager snapshots. She just walked along the street like this: white, nude, and rabbit-headed. It all totally makes me think of olive trees in Puglia.  As photographer Ansel Adams once remarked, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”

Or we dispense altogether with the concept and just stick with the sharp image.  These are nightmare pictures, which have left frivolous little Dada behind and plunged into the abysses of Surralism. Luis Bunuel would have been proud.

Or we dispense altogether with the concept and just stick with the sharp image. These are nightmare pictures, which have left frivolous little Dada behind and plunged into the abysses of Surrealism. Luis Bunuel would have been proud. This is on a hideous hoarding on the nearby fondamenta with a number of appalling partners.

Like this, for example.  It will probably be there till the end of November, or till next year's annual bi-annual event.

Like this, for example. It will probably be there till the end of November, or till next year’s annual bi-annual event.

You can send me ten reams of single-spaced explanations, but you will never convince me that this has any meaning whatsoever.  But hey!  They walked out on Brahms, so what do I know?

You can send me ten reams of single-spaced explanations, but you will never convince me that this has any meaning whatsoever. And the girl’s right foot is freaking eerie.  But I do admire the folds of her skirt.  I wonder what they mean?

 

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Comments

  1. John Flint says:

    Dear Erla,

    Thanks so much for your comprehensive digest of what we will be able to see or avoid when we arrive in Venice next Monday. And we have only three weeks to get round it all! Please let bunny head know that we’re coming, though you should warn her that rabbits are a national pest in Australia and she could be shot on sight.

    We so much hope that there will be additional symbolism to experience on the Zattere as we step out of our door there, something for instance like the “display” some years ago of table napkins nailed to the walls of a restaurant in Campo Angelo Raffaele, while the nervous creator paced outside, wearing a suit several times too large, worn over a bare chest. Possibly he was hoping to see the public flocking in to view his masterpiece.

    Meanwhile, we went on enjoying our meal.

    We will certainly be checking to see if they’ve replaced the noses of Wagner and Verdi in the Giardini.

    Best wishes for your sanity at this puzzling time, John & Nora.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      You should be prepared to see that the noses are still missing. Two slightly damaged statues don’t rank very high on the Venetian-Problems list.

  2. Gi says:

    Wonderful post, Erla, with brilliant considerations on today’s art and artists.
    “If they don’t care about being understood I won’t worry about not understanding” is, IMHO, the right attitude: thank you for that and I’ll quote you!

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I’ve waited for over 10 years to re-visit Venice this August. If I had realized that the Biennale was this year I would have waited another year! Guess I’ll need another map, one to avoid the exhibits. Thanks for the great blog! Do you think the same five women will be ‘bunnies’ all summer?

    • Erla says:

      There’s a Biennale every year, so not much chance of escaping all the madness. But you can get a Biennale map (or look at their website) to plan your trajectory. The woman with the bunny mask and her frondy friends disappeared about an hour after they were sighted, and have never been seen since. They have evidently returned to their native habitat on Planet Look-at me, Look-at-me.

  4. Debby
    Twitter: Misswang
    says:

    I haven’t laughed so many times through an article, ever!