Sunday, December 1, 2013

Live by Your Work

A display of Carl Jung’s opus, The Red Book marks the opening of the 55th Venice Biennale’s The Encyclopedic Palace. The tome reflects Jung’s sixteen-year journey into the depths of his unconscious in an attempt to reconnect with a primitive collective energy (the soul) that had been suppressed by the limitations of modern rational thinking. The Red Book serves as an apt signpost for an exhibition focused on the spiritual and communicative powers of art and the utopian impulse as expressed through visionary and obsessive manifestations of the creative act.

Carl Jung's Red Book, 1914-1930

While The Encyclopedic Palace has been criticized for being apolitical and out of step with contemporary art trends, I found the tone and nature of the show to be refreshing in world populated by art-about-art and work made through superficial gesturing, what Mira Schor has referred to as “recipe art,” work made in an “endless loop of appropriation” and “meant to be incorporated into the market and the discursive stream of the academy.”

Maria Lassnig, You or Me, 2005, oil on canvas

In many instances, The Encyclopedic Palace avoids the art market loop and favors works generated through authentic expression untainted by the tropes of the art world. Models influenced by relational aesthetics flood the contemporary art scene, but often fail at their promise of democracy. Many works in this vein are opaque and inaccessible except to a select group of the already initiated. The Encyclopedic Palace poses an alternative (albeit an old-fashioned) model for an exchange between the artist and viewer based on an intimate one-on-one communication, not unlike the experience of reading. The exhibit proposes that art can be a universal language accessible to anyone and that formal training is not required to make or interpret art.

 Frédéric Bruly Bouabré from the series, Knowledge of the World 1982-1996

There are books throughout The Encyclopedic Palace, some remain whole and bulging with the energy of the artist as collector, while others have been gently pulled apart and laid out as mystical taxonomies. Books offer a quite beckoning, a haptic intimacy that is often blotted out in the big, shiny, and new of contemporary art. Books hold and may be held and speak to the transmission of knowledge.

José Antonio Suárez Londoño, Franz Kafka, Diarios II,  2000, mixed media, 13 x 20cm, each page

Art has become intensely professionalized and distanced from both spiritual and utilitarian functions. It may be unpopular to embrace the utopian vision that art can serve as a powerful means for both communication and healing, though, in a time when many systems are failing, perhaps we should move away from the frenzy of the current art market to a model that recognizes the value of authenticity and singular expression. “Live by your work” one of the phrases inscribed on the walls of Marino Auriti’s visionary museum model (and namesake of the exhibit) The Encyclopedic Palace, could serve as a creed for my hopes for the future of art.

Marino Auriti, The Encyclopedic Palace of the World, c.1950s, installation view, Arsenale.
 Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Francesco Galli

My recent participation in Micol Hebron’s collaborative project Gallery Tally: a call for gender equity peaked my interest in the gender break down for the Biennale. While a May Art in America article announced “Women Dominate the Biennale’s 2013 International Jury” the odds for female artists showing in the Biennale were not so glowing. Of the 159 artists listed on the official site, 120 were male with only 39 female that puts the odds at 75% male vs. 25% female. While 25% is a vast improvement over the 9% of women included in the 1995 iteration of the show, the number has actually dropped from the high-water mark of 40% in 2011. While women are not equally represented in the show, works by women were some of the most memorable pieces in the show. 

Dorothea Tanning, Self Portrait, 1944, Oil on canvas, 24" × 30" 

Dorothea Tanning’s Self Portrait from 1944, reflects a solitary, humble figure looking outward to the vastness of nature. While the woman is tiny, she possesses a strong presence as she stands on the precipice of her future. Tanning speaks of the work that was made in the studio not in the alfresco style often associated with the landscape painting “…in the studio alone with my dream I would record it like a diary entry, just like that.”

Emma Kunz, Drawing No. 086, n.d. © Anton C. Meier, Emma Kunz Foundation, CH-5436 Würenlos, Switzerland

While in her late teens, Emma Kunz discovered her gift for telepathy and premonition and began using a pendulum as part of a healing practice exercised on behalf of herself and her patients. Kunz’s large-scale renderings were produced in a single-session and were divined through her sensitivity to shifting energy fields and the paths produced by the motion of the pendulum. Kunz didn’t view her work as art, but as a manifestation of her activity as a healer and researcher in the field of alternative and natural medicine.

Linda Fregni Nagler, The Hidden Mother, 2006–13. 997 daguerreotype, album, photo and ferrotypes.
Photo: Francesco Galli.Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia.

Linda Fregni Nagler’s Hidden Mother series features nearly a thousand daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, ferrotypes, albumen prints, and polaroids produced between the 1840s and the1920s. The images depict infants and young children floating against veiled mounds or a top hovering curtains that conceal the comforting presence of their mothers. The decidedly haunting images came out of the necessity to keep children in place through the long exposure time of early photography. The collection’s repetition of the concealed maternal form speaks to the suppressed agency of women at the turn of the century and evokes the weight that hangs heavy over all mothers to protect their offspring from danger and it’s most extreme variation, death.

Viviane Sassen, Belladonna, 2010, Courtesy Motive Gallery Amsterdam and Stevenson Cape Town/Johannesburg 

Viviane Sassen’s modestly scaled photographs exist at the intersection between performance and ethnographic documentation. Trained as a fashion photographer, Sassen’s images teeter between the real and the theatrical. Her images, often shot in remote parts of Africa possess a quite magic and intimate stillness.

Cathy Wilkes, Untitled, installation, 2013

Cathy Wilkes' untitled sculptural installation included haunting figures, fabric, and fragments of debris. Through her arrangement of bodies and modest objects, the artist developed a community complete with interrelationships, power dynamics and methods of exchange. Pieces of junk are laid out with precision and indicate an investigation into the often-arbitrary system of valuation.

Andra Ursuta, T, Vladimirescu Nr. 5 , Sleeping room, 2013, wood, metal, glass, fabric, paint 18” x 13” x 20”

Andra Ursuta’s dollhouse-sized replicas of rooms from the home where she grew up in Romania memorialize a private experience of a place that was demolished and now remains only in the artist’s memory. The abandoned rooms are solemn places of loss and decay as the remnants of the former inhabitants rust upon dusty tables and shelves. The works speak of Ursuta’s private nostalgia and reference Romania’s Post-Cold War struggles to modernize.

Eva Kotatkova, Asylum, 2013, la biennale di venezia© blarco + hunt kastner 

Eva Kotatkova’s Asylum, incorporates a display of hanging objects, metal sculptures, and paper fragments arranged upon a large table. The images and objects reference the absent bodies of asylum patients and display symbols of loneliness and confinement. Fragile pages, seemingly drafted by patients list “all my fears” or “all the contents in the room.” The chilling handwritten scraps speak through a voice that is personal and disembodied. Through her careful archive, Kotatkova renders the chaos of madness into a visual narrative on the universal human longing for connection.

Sharon Hayes, Ricerche: three, 2013, Single channel HD video 38 minutes

Sharon Hayes’ video Ricerchethree addresses the complexities of female experience through a discussion with a group of students on the campus of a New England women’s college. Hayes asks direct questions about sex and identity and allows the conversation to develop organically as the young women react and respond to one-another. There is a clear tension and intensity as the women struggle to articulate their views on issues with both personal and global resonance.