If you find “conceptual art” mystifying, you aren’t alone. The trends that have dominated art for the better part of a century are often so complicated — sometimes obtuse — that they require decoding. Sometimes, traditional values of talent, technique and sheer beauty seem to have dripped off the canvas.
But “conceptual art” is nothing new. Visual arts have never been merely about the picture before you. Even behind centuries-old images lurk messages that aren’t always obvious. Mercantile influence, religious majesty, royal power, rebellious intent and flattery are often conveyed in symbols and conventions widely familiar in their day but sometimes lost in our own.
This fall, the perfect city for art of ideas is Venice. Through Nov. 26, visitors can take in the massive country pavillions and labyrinth of smaller, but worthy, installations at the world’s most prestigeous international art exposition, the Venice Biennale. A colossal “treasure” — though some would call it “wreck” — by Damien Hirst is on display through Dec. 3. And of course, there’s the city of Venice itself, a spectacularly beautiful testament to ambition and political intrigue.
Think of the Venice Biennale as the World’s Fair of art — a one-stop opportunity to see cutting-edge art from around the globe in a single place. Because none of it is for sale, the works often reflect an adventurous attitude free of undue commercial pressure.
Not only is the Biennale one of the world’s most prestigeous showcases, it is also the oldest, harking back to 1895. As its name suggests, it occurs every two years, making the 2017 fair the 57th. While visual art is the centerpiece, musical performance, dance, film, architecture and workshops all help to bring in the estimated 500,000 visitors over the fair’s five-plus-month run.
The fair centers on the Giardini, a few vaporetto stops from San Marco, and the Arsenale, a massive former shipworks. Giardini is where you’ll find the bulk of the country pavillions: 29 architecturally significant freestanding exhibition spaces, each occupied by a different country exhibition. Most countries showcase work by a single artist.
More country showcases are housed within walking distance, at the Arsenal. Much of the long space is devoted to installations by 120 individual artists who have been invited to create works centered on specific theme (this year, including the earth, traditions, color and time.) Artists this year include well-known names like Kiki Smith, McArthur Binion, Gabriel Orozco, Ernesto Neto and Karla Black, and others who are “discoveries.”
One of the enchanting — some might say maddening — aspects of the Biennale is its sprawl. Through central Venice, exhibitions, showcases, installations and even country pavilions are tucked down alleys and across canals. Such is the case of the Cuba exhibit, for instance, which showcases work by a dozen artists in Palazzo Loredan, tucked between the Rialto bridge and San Marco.
Weekends are crowded — but also the only time to catch some performances. Don’t worry if you miss something; even a two-day ticket won’t give you enough time to see it all.
Among the highlights:
▪ U.S. pavilion: Guests enter the Monticello-esque classical structure through a side door — the servant’s entrance, if you will — into a tangle of emotions created by Los Angeles-based Mark Bradford conveyed in massive, abstract forms made from bleached and molded paper titled “Tomorrow is Another Day.” It’s a remarkably hopeful statement by a black, gay man who struggled, as he told the New York Times, to represent a country when “he no longer feels represented by his own government.” To do so, he has created a space that feels like a ruin, plastered with the remains of cellphone ads that target families of prison inmates, and “snakes” of Medusa-inspired coils wrapping the interior dome that recall his own mother’s hair-styling business. If at times visitors feel almost suffocated by rage, by the final room they can breathe again as they stand amid huge canvases in an airy space. The story isn’t over, not yet.
▪ Korea pavilion: The garish neon “motel” sign featuring iconic Asian symbols of tigers, dragons and peacock promises “Welcome!” “Free Peep Show” “Pole Dance” and “Free Narcissitic People Disorder” — obvious unflattering influences of the west. The interior, featuring work by Cody Choi and Lee Wan in a exhibition titled “Counterbalance,” explores modern Korean identity and the forces shaping it. Among the most fascinating is Lee Wan’s “Mr. K and the Collection of Korean History,” a wall filled with some 1,500 photographs, clippings, brochures and writings chronicling the life of a late journalist who supported the assassinated leader Park Chung-hee. The items, purchased for a pittance in an antiques market, trace the history of a nation through a single individual.
▪ British pavilion: Sculptor Phyllida Barlow “Folly” reflects the historical British penchant for decorative, functionless architecture and the joyfulness of color and baubles. But all is not cheerful here; giant brutal gray sculptures with those in pinks, yellows, reds — the colors of Venice facades — forcing viewers to question what is real and what is not, both in the exhibition and today’s messy political landscape. But the real reason to come here is the feeling the space evokes.
▪ German pavilion: In its static phase, this open white space has little to offer. The attraction here is the performances of Anne Imhof’s “Faust,” held amid the relative few that make it inside from the long queues without, on gray and rainy days. Performers dressed in everyday tatters — torn jeans, T-shirts — march broodishly on a clear floor, the space surrounded by link fences. Two bodies batter against one another — one black, one white — amid visitors who have made it inside, while others climb over the fences as showgoers outside the queue crane for a glimpse through a glass panel. The theme of who’s in and who’s out — of nations and economies — recalls the Studio 54 days, but with far more serious and menacing implications.
▪ Japanese pavilion: Forget the main entrance. The best way to experience Takahiro Iwasaki’s “Turned Upside Down, It’s a Forest” is from below. A small staircase beckons from beneath the building. It’s worth the wait to stand in the queue. Climb the steps, and SPOILER ALERT — the viewer becomes the viewed as you look up into the exhibit above, becoming part of the installation. Don’t miss the view from the above, featuring intricate architectural works.
▪ South Africa exhibition: Despite occupying a small space, South Africa packs a wallop with two video presentations. Mahau Modisankeng’s “Passage” involves three huge video projections — self portraits — representing a country in the midst of transition and redefinition. In a video by Candace Breitz, Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin powerfully take on the personnas of refugees fleeing danger, poverty and injustice.
▪ Arsenal hall: Individual artist presentations related to earth, natural forces and spiritual beliefs are so engaging that you might well find yourself spending an entire afternoon here. Among them: Ernesto Neto’s “Sacred Place,” a webbed tent of serenity amid the clamorous hall; Shimabuku’s surprising video “The Snow Monkeys of Texas,” which explores how Japanese snow monkeys reacted to their desert relocation and Pauline Curnier Jardin’s “Grotta Profunda (the moody chasm)” bsed on the vision in a grotto of Saint Bernadette.
Information: Open daily except Mondays, with tickets starting at 23.50 euros (discounts for students). www.labiennale.org/en/.
DAMIEN HIRST’S SHIPWRECK
Jetlagged visitors unfamiliar with Damien Hirst should be forgiven for thinking that his “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” comes from a real shipwreck. The 190 works are intricately executed, from films of the “finds” underwater to the “corals” that encrust Buddha figures, a Cyclops marble sculpture, Pharohonic busts, bronze bowls and funerary jewelry. The sheer size of “Demon with Bowl” that rises three stories through the center of the Palazzo Grassi is impressive, to say the least. No surprise that it was 10 years in the making.
The show is posited as the result of a vast, 1,000-year-old shipwreck discovered off the coast of East Africa in 2008. It is fiction, a multimillion-dollar conceit designed to reinvigorate the career of the artist best known for his pill cases, tiger shark in formaldehyde and the giant golden mammoth skeleton displayed in a glass vitrine on the terrace of the Faena Hotel in Miami Beach.
It is also grotesquely obvious. Here are statues of Micky Mouse and Goofy, covered in corals unknown in even the most vibrant reefs.
Several critics have panned the show. “A disastrous Damien Hirst show in Venice,” writes ARTnews. “Damien Hirst’ Shipwreck Fantasy sinks in Venice,” wrote hyperallergic. The Observer of London was somewhat kinder in “Damien Hirst: Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelieveable review — beautiful and monstrous.”
Still, the show asks some important, if overly pointed, questions, about the values of society, both past and present. For its exacting detail and sheer audacity, it’s worth a visit.
Information: Through Dec. 5 at the Palazzo Grassi, Venice. Open daily. Tickets 18 euros; discounts for students and those over 65. www.palazzograssi.it