Monday, June 22, 2009

Nathalie Djurberg talk at the Venice Biennale

For one of the Conversazione during the Venice Biennale preview, Nathalie Djurberg and her musical collaborator Hans Berg (right) talked with Massimiliano Gioni (left), co-curator of the Berlin Biennial and a curator at the New Museum. All three were young, relaxed, and enthusiastic, though what was most surprising about Nathalie was her quiet, understated, almost nervous self-effacement. Several times, Djurberg giggled and interrupted herself, as if she realized she were revealing too much. Which was actually the biggest surprise of all: in an hour-long talk, Djurberg went into surprising detail about her video work, stop-motion claymation, and her 130 huge flowers on display at the "Making Worlds" exhibit. Many artists remain stingy when talking about their work, but Djurberg showed confidence in the power and unique vision of her art, by unblinkingly "giving away" her methods, her moods, and her process.
Djurberg revealed a tenacious work method that explains her prodigious output: a self-described workaholic, she starts with the puppets, then works chronologically in constructing the story, background, and props. When the film is finished, everything but a few boxes of props is destroyed. Hans Berg starts composing the music electronically, in an abstract dialogue that accompanies the evolution of the storyline. Their relationship, both personal and professional, is endearingly complementary: she works too much, whereas he calls himself lazy and in need of outside pressure. In a very contemporary manner he has no problem following her lead, both in conversation and in activity. And yet the end result feels unmistakably like a collaboration: the odd unplaceable sounds and rhythms of the music underscore the twisted-fairytale nature of Djurberg's scenarios. You never know if the over-the-top gore, sadism, and sexual perversity is Jungian and within all of us or a byproduct of her own imagination.

Djurberg described how initially she studied sculpture in art school, and when she tried to paint was told the result was awful, so in revenge she made a sunset in Super-8 film, and discovered the joy of not having to choose one image or painting. I'm glad she stuck with it, as the resulting videos are all of the above--vivid color, twisted forms, and along with the soundtracks highly watchable stories that unfold in unpredictable ways.

Gioni (top), Djurberg and Berg goofing around after the talk.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Best "In This Economy" Outfit

Judy Glantzman, at the opening of her exhibition at Betty Cunningham Gallery, June 18, 2009.

Perhaps as a follow-up to its recent article on what galleries are doing to cope with the new economy, the New York Times should list what innovative strategies artists are using to market themselves. Gold spangly dollar signs? I like it.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Venice Biennale: National Pavilions

For a first-time visitor, the 53rd Venice Biennale is a thrill of traipsing through the city in search of art in churches and palazzos among the tourist throngs. This year there were 77 national pavilions, with some new inclusions from Asia and Africa, but because of the cost, there was still a glaring under-representation of anything in the Southern Hemisphere. During the Biennale’s press conference, Italian artist Pino Boresta interrupted with a blood-curdling scream of “what do I have to do to get into the Biennale?” before being escorted out by security. But what soon became apparent was the arbitrariness of national commissions. A Brit impersonated a German (Liam Gillick), an American of Greek origin held court at the Greek pavilion (Lucas Samaras), and the Danish and Nordic pavilions were united by a group of 20 artists staged elaborately by the duo of Elmgreen and Dragset.

The hit of the Giardini, in terms of number of people waiting patiently to enter, was "The Collectors", the two houses staged by Elmgreen and Dragset. The first house was actually a collection of rooms of artwork and installations by other artists, with a fake real estate office providing tours, a timely jibe. The second pavilion was a tightly curated high modernist house of a gay collector, whose dead body floated in the pool outside. Skinny fey boys lounged like perfect objets d’art, as if they had just come from the nearby Hernan Bas painting. “The Collectors” also sold a bag of goodies, including a calendar of “handwritten” select events such as art fairs and auctions. Overall there was much fun to be had exploring both houses’ attention to detail.

The USA pavilion, one of three around the city with work by Bruce Nauman, had a perennial long line, as even in the rain people stood with trash bags on their heads. But after the long wait, and guards telling me not to take photos, I was curiously left feeling blank. Either because it had a “greatest hits” feel, or perhaps because Nauman’s work for me works chiefly as a slap to the face, and upon further encounters, simply a room of Nauman signifiers: neon, casts of heads, animal parts, hands, mechanized, assaulting, aggressive. The most powerful was the simplest: neon words, one on top of each other, alternating good and bad, such as "Temperance/Gluttony" flashed on the cornices of the pavilion. That’s America: we strive to be the purest, the ideal, but end up being blamed for being the worst.

On a more pleasurable note, the sounds of language, human and otherwise were everywhere at the biennale, from Uruguay’s video of a man mimicking birdsongs to a live version of four men bird-calling in unison, creating an amazing symphony at the Turkish pavilion. The sounds were amplified by the pavilion’s acoustics and were intoxicating, adding yet another sort of performativity to the biennial. In a strong Serbian pavilion played a video of a British man trying to lose his accent with the help of a coach. Sound also transformed the French pavilion by Claude Leveque. Viewers walked through a symmetrical room covered in silver glitter, lit by vanity lightbulbs, and jail cell architecture confused the viewer of their position as jailer or prisoner. At the end of each of four hallways was a room painted black, with black grates, and the sound of a black flag flapping in the wind. Fascism, anti-Americanism, the paradox of freedom as lack of liberty, and other visual abstractions echoed its title, “Le Grand Soir”. A French expression for a moment of revolution and societal change, it could be seen as a highly topical interpretation of numerous current events, perhaps a prescient note on the Iranian election?

The Russians presented a strong pavilion, full of visually and conceptually rich material, including a room of whimsical watercolors by Pavel Pepperstein (right) titled “Landscapes of the Future”. His particular world showed the inventiveness of his imagination and a pointed sense of humor, the latter usually lacking in many portentous and often pretentious pavilions (ahem - Romania!). It was refreshing to see conceptual work, weaving in Constructivist art with utopian vistas, with an enthusiasm for lightness of touch.

Another potentially charismatic conceptual pavilion was marred by a maddening cat. Liam Gillick filled the four rooms of the imposing German pavilion with perfunctory unstained pine kitchen cabinets, and an entryway of multicolored flaps as used in British shops. Like many artists, he was working with the architectural ideology of individual pavilions. But the end result, while equally imposing, was laughably lifeless: an animatronic cat sat atop one of the cabinets reciting a nonsense text that had no impact, despite the artist’s intent of disrupting modernism and social utopias.

The Austrian pavilion featured a feminist takeover of quirky paint galloping over the walls and windows. Elke Krystufek (left) showed paintings of a feminine male nude, and covered the walls with an often funny exploration of the Biennale’s historically masculine emphasis. Canada and Australia had video work back-to-back: Mark Lewis’s filmic explorations and Shaun Maxwell’s uber-masculine Mad Max-related series.

I was strongly rewarded by exploration of the off-site pavilions. Estonia featured a fascinating exploration of the political power of symbols by Kristina Norman, who showed footage of riots and installed her own cast of a Soviet monument, whose replanting was the cause of the riots. Singapore’s Ming Wong reinterpreted cinematic tropes with his 50's-era “Life of Imitation”.

Several pavilions around the city took fabulous advantage of the surplus of baroque Venetian churches. New Zealand's Judy Millar (right) stacked giant billboard-printed canvases among the Doric columns and orange and white checked tiles.

Lithuania's Zilvinas Kempinas made a tunnel entirely of magnetic tape, whose material delicacy conversely conveyed a claustrophobic space within, and billowed threateningly from the nearby canal's winds.

(see below left, and right).

The Central Asia pavilion was also worth the boat ride, with strong work in video and photography. Jamshed Kholikov (below) presented a photo series of bus stops in three “stans”—Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek. As a combination of Muslim symbolism, Soviet chunkiness, and local quirkiness, it was a great visual essay on how culture and history merges, is transported, translated, and transformed as local specificity defies our Bush-42 era need for simple categories. The graphic for the Pavilion could also be a sly dig at American lack of interest in geography: with no country borders, it had only the capitals of certain central Asian countries, defying the visitor to acknowledge that a vast area of the world was mostly a mystery.

Also far afield, the Iceland pavilion predictably provided a great opening-night party. Alas there was a superficiality and immaturity to its exhibition, titled "The End". The artist--Ragnar Kjartansson-- was painting the same model for the duration of the biennial, every day, transforming an empty ground-floor palazzo into a disheveled studio. I returned a few days later to find beer bottles left from the opening, stacks of records, ashtrays, and all the usual symbols of artistic decadence. After a break where the bath-robed model smoked, the artist resumed his work. It was all very smirk-ridden, and as the paintings were so dully second-rate, like a mediocre art-school student, nothing about the whole enterprise surprised or even excited. An adjoining room showed a more evocative suite of video performances of the artist and his buddy performing one musical number, on a variety of instruments, in wintry arctic landscapes. Even then, my aha moment was spoiled by seeing within the frame several cars go by on a nearby road, indicating that instead of being in “the middle” of nature, the artists merely parked their car and walked a few hundred feet. Another disappointment was that the videos were filmed in the Canadian Rockies: enchantment with the wilds of Iceland can hardly be matched by any second-world country. Nonetheless, the idea of two bearded fur-hat-bedecked blokes playing a folk-country dirge in the snow, eagerly listened to by French and Japanese art fans in an emptied palazzo on the canals of Venice, epitomized the appeal of the Venice Biennale.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Venice Biennale: "Making Worlds"

The Venice Biennale has two main areas: the Arsenale and the Giardini, each with large group exhibition spaces around the theme of “Making Worlds”, curated by Daniel Birnbaum, the Biennale’s youngest curator. This year, there are 90 artists represented. The former Italian Pavilion has been converted to the Palazzo delle Esposizione, whose facade John Baldessari covered with a blown-up view of perfect blue ocean, clear sky, and palm trees. One of the winners of the Golden Lion lifetime achievement award (the other being Yoko Ono), Baldessari first wanted to include a postcard saying such as “Greetings”, but wasn’t allowed, so the backdrop transformed into a flat joke. “Dive into La Biennale” it beckoned, an exhortation for people to walk into the ocean of the Palazzo. With the horizon so high above the visitors sitting on a bench, the art world looked like it was engulfing the mere mortals.

If Baldessari wanted to wink at La Biennale, the art inside disputed any such reflexive irony. The Palazzo’s largest room by Thomas Saraceno was a world made entirely of black elastic, a combination of cobweb, constellation, or atomic forms, trapping viewers and multiplying high above their heads like fractals. Mostly the Palazzo presented singular artistic visions, with more of an interest in the varying ways artists work today. Birnbaum spoke of an intergenerational biennial, with such stalwarts as Lygia Pape, Bruce Nauman, and the Japanese collective Gutai included; and he emphasized that some of the strongest works were by women, i.e. Nathalie Djurberg, who received the Silver Lion award. Djurberg’s dark room was filled with gory oversized flowers, all looking like they could out-do the Venus flytrap. Showing on the screen were her delirious stop-animation films, a Brothers Grimm meets Freud world of nightmarish ids gone wild.

Hans-Peter Feldmann created another kind of cast of characters, straight out of a surreal circus, using rotating dolls, kitchen utensils, plastic bottles, kitschy objects like the Statue of Liberty, and creating an entire wall of shadowy overlapping silhouettes.

Tobias Rehberger, another Biennale award winner, constructed the cafeteria as social space, manic and maximalist. Its mix of bold black and white stripes punctuated with neon colors was as trendy as anything in Top Shop. The space displaced and confused with an odd two- dimensional flatness. The baristas dressed in matching orange, were reflected in mirrors set in multiple planes behind them, so that the illusion extended through human form.

At the Arsenale, the first work of art I saw was Hector Zamora’s gigantic zeppelin, literally stuck between the narrow walls of a long passageway. Part of a larger project of art as social intervention, it was humorous and oppressive, but also could be a metaphor for how art aims high and yet sometimes falls flat and gets stuck on its own outsized ambitions. Much less impressive were his small cardboard models of dirigibles inside the exhibition, and with no plaque to describe it nearby the Biennale staff were clueless.

Another intervention of a smaller scale was Miranda July’s awkwardly rendered sculptures with humorous sayings, discovered in the gardens behind the Arsenale. At her reading, she explained that she hoped the work would live on by visitors taking photos of themselves with her sculptures and blogging or sharing them online—art with an extended and murky temporality.

Inside, the first room of the Arsenale was by Lygia Pape, titled “Tteiu”. Ethereally lit copper and gold wires filled a room like abstracted beams, beautiful, simple, and solid, creating space with the most basic of elements. Strong work by Marjetica Potrc also perfectly echoed the theme, using childlike drawings about cities and their power of transformation (i.e. post-Katrina). Pascale Marthine Tayou, from Cameroon, described how his work was not really specifically about Africa, but the interaction of life. His piece could have used some editing but was a great example of the theme: sounds, tree-house-like structures, aggregates of “people” huddling by old-fashioned lamps, piles of straw, videos of village activity, all took over the space.

Cildo Meireles had a series of monochromatic rooms in rainbow sequence, with a video of the color in one corner, showing what Birnbaum called a “painterly gesture”, as a defensive explanation of the lack of actual painting in the show. The dearth of painting didn’t exclude a richness of color and mark, whether in video, photography or sculpture. In general there was a clear attempt to be inclusive, and portray the very real profusion of media in today’s cosmopolitan art world. As I walked through the rooms, I was almost always drawn by the idea of each work first, rather than question the formal qualities of each chosen medium.

The two-channel video by Sara Ramo, a Spanish artist working in Brazil, showed two views of the brick alleyway behind her childhood home, where playful occurrences such as feathers falling, or a ball of paper gently rolled into the frame. A personal world of imaginary childhood events unfurled. Its haunting simplicity was a counterpart to the nearby Paul Chan piece “Sade for Sade’s sake”. Squares of color became black boxes being lifted and restacked for no purpose, with naked men in various jittery states of sexual activity. The artist said he was surprised to hear people laughing. “When you see the Arsenale there is a longing to ambush the space, and you have to NOT do that.” An abstract and oblique metaphor, it was perfectly scaled to the Arsenale’s physical and curatorial space.
By day three I had scored a ticket to the Steve McQueen film, the Great Britain entry, and arrived towards the end of the day for my screening. The stark and existential film resembled a nature documentary at times with its slow close-ups of bugs and raindrops, but its most powerful sensory experience was the sound of the weather. Depicting the Giardini in the winter, devoid of any human presence except the occasional scenes of men looking for a nighttime encounter, “Giardini” was a post-apocalyptic world of nature taking over culture, of the dated grand architecture of the pavilions overshadowed by piles of trash, insects, and packs of stray dogs. The herds of art-devourers, silenced, divided, and squeezed into the small theater, watched their own phased obliteration.