Thursday, January 9, 2014

Notes, Thoughts and Impressions from the 55th Venice Biennale

Before we move on to 2014, I'd like to catch you up on my wonderful November trip to catch the end of the Venice Biennale (First published on  I didn't get a chance to write it up until just before New Year's Eve, due to finishing off the radio projects, and more intense editing of the TG4 documentary, which is hopefully "coming soon" - I'll keep you posted.  But how is the following for some new year inspiration?  Bonne Annee to you dear reader! Here's to more great and inspiring adventures in 2014 :-)
From the minute I read Waldemar Januscak’s article in Sunday Times Culture Magazine in May about the weirdo line-up this year, I knew I had to get there.  The 2013 Venice Biennale had me firmly in its grip.  At the time I was toiling on my WB Yeats Radio series [see previous two VULGO posts], and immediately thought how relevant the magical, obsessive oddball themes were to WB Yeats.  Plus – if not now – when?  Who knows where we’ll all be in 2015…  [The Aer Lingus direct flight was reasonable too, at €130 return].
Appropriately drenched in the subconscious material of endless Venetian WATER, the Venice Biennale is the most important art exhibition in the world, involving 88 countries, and sets the tone in the art world for the next two years.
So, the curator must aspire to the role of diviner.  Utopian Venice, floating in so much water that you have to either board bus-boats (vaporettos), or swim to simply get from A to B, is the perfect hostess for this dreamy metaphor. 
Forget “subtext”.  This Biennale’s curator Massimiliano Gioni dredged up the subconscious, and even the unconscious from the substrata where they usually skulk, [low-key but volcanic], into the forefront of our awareness.  Where does art come from?  This was flagged unambiguously right from the first portal as he inserted Swiss psychotherapist Karl Gustav Jung’s extraordinary “Red Book”,  strategically at the entrance to the Giardini [strongly] suggesting the frame in which everything was best considered. Pages of Jung’s private illustrated manuscript glowed in lowly-lit glass cases.  Like Turner Watercolours at National Gallery of Ireland, we were requested not to photograph them however.  The famous psychotherapist’s drawings depicted self-induced visions and fantasies he had worked on privately for over 16 years. This was Jung’s debut in the art world as Gioni juxtaposed his little known Red Book with works of contemporary art for the first time ever – inviting a meditation on inner images and dreams throughout the entire exhibition.
Just to add an Irish twist here - while this sounds joyous indeed, it perhaps wouldn’t have been to the delight of Lucia Joyce, who got on notoriously with Jung when she was his patient.  Her famous father didn’t exactly click with Jung either. [This is on my mind as I have just read Carol Loeb Schloss’s biography “To Dance in the Wake”].  The Joyce’s might wonder, as Olwen Fouere [the only Irish artist who featured in Gioni’s selection – in “Camillo’s Idea” by Aurelien Froment at the Arsenale] did, why Aran Island visitor Antonin Artaud [esoteric and theatrical visionary who was deported from Ireland in a strait jacket in 1937] or WB Yeats weren’t featured more, or indeed at all? In another incidence of Jungian synchronicity (or even just "plane" old synchronicity), Fouere, who I was lucky enough to collaborate with on the aforementioned Yeats radio documentaries, and a forthcoming TG4 documentary on Erina Brady shot last May, happened to be on the same flights to and from Venice to Dublin with me.  But I digress.
While an adjacent room to Jung's Red Book housed Art Deco Tarot Cards by “the wickedest man in the world” Aleister Crowley and his partner Frieda Harris, the main thoroughfare led through to a large, bright room adorned with philosopher Rudolf Steiner’s famous blackboards, ‘mystic outpourings’ that were an obvious major influence on Joseph Beuys. A manifestation of philosopher as artist trying to explain the universe to us “the blackboard diagrams of Rudolf Steiner feverishly relate the idealist dream of grasping and conveying the universe as a whole”.  But does Steiner, founder of the Steiner School system qualify as an artist? If so, it must be in the Beuysian sense that everyone is an artist.  The definition of an artist was very blurry in this exhibition. 
Even the line between journalism and art was blurred, for example in the Iraqi Pavillion Jamal Penjweny’s deeply poignant documentary film ‘Another Life’ which tells the story of Kurdish traders eking out a terrifying sub-existence smuggling alcohol from Iraq to the Iranian border on donkeys.  But I digress again.  The Venice Biennale is like that – as labyrinthine and easy to get lost in as the inner ear of Venice itself. 
Back to Steiner, whose blackboards were also the backdrop for Tino Senghal’s fairly forgettable installation [at least I have forgotten it already].  Steiner was a Theosophist, an organisation you may be familiar with thanks to its founder “Madam Blavatsky”, as championed by our own WB Yeats, AE, and other lesser known figures in their esoteric circle. Dreams, hallucinations, and visions.  Where do they come from?   Incidentally, Steiner was not only a Theosophist, he was also an Anthroposophist (I invite you to google that term).  So you can imagine how a sense of cosmic awe permeated the whole Exhibition – like a shimmery reflection of the spooky and marvelous city of Venice itself. 
Of course there is nothing like a random encounter to remind you of the everyday nature of the theories being put forward by Steiner, Gioni, et al.  Jungian synchronicity, for example.  When I was diligently photographing Rudolf Steiner’s blackboards (for later scrutiny), I heard a voice behind me.  “You seem very interested in those”. 
“Oh yes, I am” I replied.  I turned towards the source of this voice for a chat, and as the conversation went on I became more and more sure that this was a Dublin accent I was hearing. Indeed it was. This voice was from Cabra, no less.  Seamus Hughes introduced himself as dancer/choreographer/artist, originally from Dublin but now residing in Switzerland.  He had his own dance company in Australia for over a decade, trained with (Abbey School of Ballet- trained) Des Domican in Dublin, because he was good at lifting girls, and ultimately got a scholarship to London.  He then went on to dance in the Geneva Ballet.  What are the chances? This encounter could have been part of the exhibition!  We discussed the outsider theme of the exhibition, and Seamus [Jim] Hughes declared himself happily to be an outsider where the Irish art scene is concerned - though he did speak highly of the late Dorothy Walker, who introduced him to Joseph Beuys in the 1970s. 
Here is a picture I took of the same Seamus Hughes in the Giardini, though really I should have taken his picture in the Rudolf Steiner room just to get the background absolutely right. 
Seamus was keen to get involved with the Tino Senghal performers in their performance, and when I heard that, well, I let him to it and proceeded to the next room, which contained the work of the extraordinary Swiss artist Emma Kunz.  Seamus, who is also now a qualified practitioner of Bert Hellinger’s Family Constellations Therapy [chiming perfectly with the exhibition], highly recommended her.
Swiss Emma Kunz [1892 – 1963], believed that her drawings, as products of “the most profound interiorisation of the outward and the purest exteriorisation of the inward”, allowed her to discern and transform negative energy.  
Kunz practiced “healing art” and certainly is a manifestation of what French philosopher Bernard Stiegler termed  “Artist as therapist” at a recent talk run by Gradcam at DIT Mountjoy Square. 
To give you an idea of what I am talking about, here is an excerpt of her biog, as presented alongside her geometric drawings at the Giardini:
“Born into a family of impoverished weavers, Emma Kunz became aware that she possessed paranormal abilities – telepathy, extrasensory perception, and healing powers – when she was just a child.  During her school years she developed an interest in radiesthesia, a form of divination that uses energy fields, and began to draw extensively in her notebooks.  It was not until 1939 however that she began her healing practice, and began to make elaborate geometric drawings in pencil and colour crayon on millimetre graph paper.  Guided by a pendulum, Kunz produced each work in a single session, sometimes working continuously for more than 24 hours.  Despite their aesthetic appeal, Kunz’s drawings were not meant to function as art.  Rather, they were an integral part of her healing rituals, in which she would lay the drawings on the floor between herself and her patient in order to divine energy disruptions”.
[hats off to the great illuminating, enlightening and very well written programme notes throughout the exhibition]. 
For me, the piece de resistance that still has me thinking, has to be “387 houses by Peter Fritz”, the Arsenale installation of unknown Austrian insurance clerk Peter Fritz’s model buildings – found in 1993 meticulously wrapped in black garbage bags in a junk shop.  And here they are in all their glory for the world, and its mother, to behold in the Venice Biennale, curated by Oliver Croy (the artist who found them), and architect Oliver Esler.  Little is known of Fritz [1916 – 1992] himself, but his exquisite model buildings, which never saw an exhibition spotlight during his lifetime bear testament to his extraordinary unheralded talent – and what some would term his obsession. Art to some, obsession to others.  The moral of this?  Keep going to junk shops, keep making art in your garage, and keep hoarding.  Much of Gioni’s line-up rang to me of a glorious paean to hoarding.  I grew up with hoarders, and I’m not sure if I should tell them about this.  [Stop reading, Mum!] Does this mean they were right all along?  Must get in touch with Gioni who boasts his selection is “idiosyncratic, obsessive, and motivated by the same desire to catalogue the world around us that led aristocratic collectors to keep cabinets of curiosities in centuries gone by”, celebrating “the human imagination as a wild, untameable beast.” Meanwhile, over at the Arsenale, the Encylcopedic Palace itself, by Italian émigré to the US Marino Auriti was also never seen in his lifetime, though he patented it, and had high expectations of world domination. I love the purity of basing this entire exhibition around a person who by many standards would be considered to be a “failure”.  As Beckett put it, “Fail again, Fail better”. Well Auriti certainly is failing better here at the entrance to the Arsenale, having this great world exhibition named after his "failed" vision. 
My thoughts meandered.  Hm, might Marino Auriti’s 1955 notion of The Encyclopedic Palace be like that of VULGO’s utopian founder Charles Wilson Peale [pictured in "The Artist in his Own Museum", right, on the main VULGO page] and his utopian [albeit realised] Philadelphia Museum?  Hmm, perhaps.  At least the similarities outweigh the dissimilairities. 
The curator, Massilmiliano Gioni offers guidance:
“Auriti’s [utopian] plan was never carried out, of course, but the dream of a universal, all-embracing knowledge crops up throughout the history of art and humanity, as one that eccentrics like Auriti share with many other artists, writers, scientists, and self-proclaimed prophets who have tried – often in vain – to fashion an image of the world that will capture its infinite variety and richness.  Today, as we grapple with a constant flood of information, such attempts seem even more necessary and even more desperate”. 
Once you've passed that Palazzo, toying so mercilessly with our desire, and indeed our expectation to know everything [especially now, in the age of the internet] it's just a matter of time before Gioni's onslaught - films, photographs, videos, archives, bestiaries, labyrinths, performances, installations - renders you delirious!  Or speechless.
It's actually impossible to really see everything, let alone to catalogue it, so I'm not even going to try.  After Auriti's "failed" Palazzo, Robert Crumb’s Genesis, and a series of more than 40 black-and-white photographs taken by JD ‘Okhai Ojeikere recording fluctuating fashions in the hairstyles of Nigerian women from the Sixties to today. Even at this early point in the Arsenale the dizziness was beginning to set in. 

Here is Steve McQueen, in his anthropological slideshow presentation:
There is the spellbinding and exhilarating archive rap “Grosse Fatigue” by Camille Henrot (Paris, 1978):
Lots of Archive work and research throughout…
16mm projectors and record players…
The Arsenale was populated with artists who were charming characters too.  For example, overlooked parachutist and aerial photographer Edward Spetterini [1852 - 1931], whose beautiful black and white clouds were given an airing:
 A charismatic multi-lingual performer, Spetterini presented his balloon expeditions through state of the art slideshows.  By 1928 however, he had already become an anachronism and died in obscurity.  Technology overtook him and left him behind.Until 55th Venice Biennale! [Does this sound like a potential movie script to you?]
Also there was genteel Eliot Porter - Harvard lecturer turned photographer who began photographing when he received a present of a Brownie in 1921. 
The other claptrap art work that stopped me in my tracks, and still has me espousing its virtues, was that of Brasilian Arthur Bispo di Rosário [1910 – 1989], who believed he had been called upon by God to inventory the world. It was thrilling to see what closely resembled a shopping trolly you might see a homeless person pushing around with all their worldly possessions on it vindicated as “high art”. 
Rosario made his opus obsessively, in preparation for Judgment Day during his five decades in Rio de Janeiro Psychiatric Hospital. In case that makes you as curious as it did me, here is a very short excerpt of “Prisoner of Passage” by Hugo Denizart, a documentary about Rosario shown recently  at V & A Museum: 
The Prisoner of Passage [extract] - video documentary by Hugo Denizart from Victoria and Albert Museum on Vimeo.
 Incidentally, keeping on an Irish theme, I reckon someone like Mark Patrick Hederman [Abbot of Glenstaal Abbey], would dig this exhibition, its celebration of the unconscious, and the myriad of ways artists find to tune into that vast reservoir.  [Check out his interesting book “Tarot: Talisman or Taboo'].  You may think this stuff is “heathen”, but according to Hederman, it isn’t. 
And here, from Kilkenny, via Konrad’s Heart of Darkness, The Congo, beautifully shot in infared military film, Richard Mosse doing us proud at The Enclave:
The stills were stunningly beautiful – we have seen them before at Photoireland Festival.  But the film installation on several screens, synchronised with exquisite dramaturgy, with killing, guerilla soldiers posing, and innocent children dancing was hard-core.  A C-section at the end was most visceral of all.  Like the aforementioned Iraqi film, this blurred boundaries between current affairs and art, giving us a window into a never-seen world.  But how did this camera get so intimate, win such embedded access with these most outside of all outsiders I wonder?  

The Enclave was the talk of the international press, including the Guardian newspaper, and deservedly so. 
There was undeniable magic too, albeit “British Magic” in Jeremy Deller’s multi-room left wing extravaganza at the British Pavillion over at the Giardini.  What had this London born, 47 year old winner of 2004 Turner Prize to offer? 
Well, after being welcomed by a domineering British Harrier Falcon with his wings magnificently outstretched, I walked through rooms with several photographs of David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust phase, one of “Londonderry”
– in the same series; a very British film featuring freemasons and British blah blah etc, was offered British tea [civilised], and a mural featuring the mighty William Morris,
for all the world like Big Jim Larkin [who was, after all, from Liverpool] throwing a boat at Roman Abramovic’s obnoxious superyacht which was audaciously and shamelessly moored in the canale at the 2011 Venice Biennale.
On the facing wall, there were the archaeological remnants of the great socialist revolutionary Morris's very democratic printing plates, designed for deliciously egalitarian mass consumption;
something about roubles and framed archive Russian currency on the adjacent wall. 
In the final room, true to Morris's philosophy, you were democratically offered to ink up and print your own original print [hand-made by yourself!  Everyone an artist! of the same Abramovic meets Thor moment on the way out.  How amazing was that?  Well, I have to admit – it really was quite amazing. 
Personally, especially by the end of day three, my head spinning from all the art, I was definitely receiving some messages.  Hearing voices.  Someone was channelling something, for sure.  I had to get out of there. 
What I needed was a magic moment of ethereal calm: this came, as if someone had waved a magic wand, in the form of a small white boat drifting slowly across the final harbour of the Arsenale bearing a crew of musicians playing a graceful lament by the Icelandic composer Kjartan Sveinsson. Icelanic fishing boat, "SS Hangover".  It returned and departed endlessly, even into the mists of November, long after all the super-yachts had departed, playing Sveinsson's music at the end of the Arsenale.  Gorgeous. 
I have heard lots of references to the main themes of this year’s Biennale at various art talks since my return from Venice.  And that was only one month ago. That word “the uncanny” keeps popping up.  As well as “outsider”.  Listen out - you will hear them pop up again and again too.  So watch out for this Zeitgeist, it’s blowing your way from this great Venetian Lagoon of the Unconscious.
And one caveat, just as the conscious in relation to the unconscious, what you read here is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg.  I would safely say that this was the most inspiring exhibition I have ever been to. I hope I have given you some idea of what you missed!!!!
 Here are a few more exhibitions and artists of note.  I heard of more, eg Corin Sworn at the Scottish Pavillion from others who got to things I didn't make it to.  You catch things on the wind like that.  And then look them up online - our own private flatscreen encyclopedic palace.  If you want to know more email me and I may give you a private consultation with mini-ipad images.
·       Dorothea Tanning (1910 – 2012): “Self Portrait”
·           Sarah Lucas - looks like a difficult yoga pose to get out of!
·       Mother obsessed garage-artist Achilles G Rizzolli (1896 – 1981) lived at home with his mother, drew cathedrals, drafted symbolic buildings “YTTE” [Yield to Total Elation]:
Kohei Yoshiyuki “ThePark”, 1971 – 1979: covertly photographing voyeurs of sexual trysts [and the trysts] with infared film and a modified flash.  Hm what does that make him?
·       Eva Kotatkova, “Asylum”, 2013
·       Shinichi Sawada (Japan 1982) suffers from severe autism.  Ancient primitive art meets masks of Noh theatre meets Manga cartoons?
·       Danh Vo (1975, Vietnam), Cultural Anthropologist & Family Historian: imported remains of colonial era Catholic Church.  Imperialism as a war of dreams; colonisation of myth & imagination
       Cindy Sherman - but I'm now delirious and drifting into the obvious.
 "Venetians" at the Arsenale, by Pawel ...
Real Venetians at Maria dell Saluti Festival
The exquisite, immersive Korean Pavillion was the perfect place to end.  "To Breathe".  Phew.
Deirdre Mulrooney
Post-script: As far as I can deduce, the Biennale never stops.  Even en route to the airport at Lido Vaporetto stop in the height of low season, I ran into two Swedish artists - Carl Michael Von Hausswolff and Leif Elggren - who had just been to Lazarus Island where they staged an art event to coincide with the end of the Biennale.  They had also held a beach party art event to coincide with the opening on Lido Beach.  It just consisted of eating, drinking, and having a good time, talking to people.  Lazarus Island, they told me had been a leper colony, and was also Armenian speaking.  Lord Byron had gone there to learn Armenian.  Carl Michael Von Hausswolff had been to Limerick, where he was a featured artist in EVA many years ago, and would love to come back to Dublin. That's the sort of place Venice is I guess.
But right now I've got to go and get a life [get out of my garage or equivalent] and go to a party here in Dublin!  Allow me to make my excuses [for any imperfections in these notes], and leave... And incidentally congratulations if you have read this far!

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