Saturday, 24 August 2019

Venice Biennale 2019 Part four

As always several artists were dealing with social/political agendas, some I thought were more successful than others. 

Renate Bertlmann

Renate Bertlmann exhibiting in the Austrian pavilion was particularly interesting as her large wall installations were complex collages of drawing, photography and text, reflecting her long term program of “Discordo ergo sum” or “I dissent, therefore I am”. She sets out to ironically subvert and redefine social constructs. In particular she takes symbols such as those for gender relations, role models or power structures and then examines how they can become enmeshed into diagrams for change. The transformative potential of art within a sociopolitical context is something I am personally very interested in and even though much of her work is now over 30 years old, I still found it engaging and watching other people spending time closely reading her images, realised that others still found these complex diagrams for change pertinent to today.  Her work reflects Ingeborg Bachmann’s proposition that, “Representation requires radicalisation and comes from coercion.” We so often forget about the 'coercion' aspect of representation, but if you think about how the present government has been channeling monies away from the arts in education, you can see that they are very aware of the power of alternative representations. The image that was used by the pro-Brexit campaign of thousands of refugees potentially entering the country if we didn't leave Europe being a typical example of how political parties use representations to their own ends to coerce people into thinking like them. 
It is impossible to escape from the socio-political context of art when going somewhere like Venice, every time you step into a national pavilion you are reminded of the various political issues that continue to circulate in readings of situations like these. The art world and its various fairs and associated constructs can at times seem to be at total loggerheads with the reality of day to day political oppression, war, media manipulation, data control, gender inequality and poverty. Especially in a time of post-truth, people don't know where to make a stance, how do you decide what is right and what is wrong? At the end of the day you have to trust in your instincts and have a belief in yourself, if not you would never get out of bed. 

I will leave you with my thoughts on what I found to be a very difficult to stomach art work. Christoph Büchel has had a ship that was raised from the bottom of the Mediterranean transported to the dockside of the Arsenale. Entitled “Barca Nostra” (Our Boat), the ship sank with more than 800 refugees on board, all but 27 of which drowned. I have read various estimates as to how much this decision to move the boat to Venice cost, all of which are in the millions of euros. Büchel says that he wants to raise awareness of the situation, but I find this very problematic. As this blog is about drawing, I would like to compare how one drawing was used to do something similar, but in a manner I find much more effective.

British library: Diagram of the 'Brookes' slave ship,

In the British library is a diagram of the 'Brookes' slave ship, a ship which transported enslaved Africans to the Caribbean. As an image it was used by those that campaigned to end the trans-Atlantic slave trade to raise awareness of the conditions people had to endure when being transported. The associated text by Thomas Clarkson pointed out that traders knew that many of the Africans would die on the voyage and would therefore pack as many people as possible on to their ships - in total there were 609 enslaved men, women and children on board this ship. The diagram communicated the cramped conditions that meant that there were high incidences of diseases such as smallpox, measles, scurvy and dysentery. As a drawing it was fundamental in driving change because it brought home to people what was going on. It also required the work of a good visual artist to visualise the situation, and in conjunction with a writer who was able to highlight the moral injustice and point to the inhumane nature of the atrocity. Thomas Clarkson commented in his History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade (1808) that the 'print seemed to make an instantaneous impression of horror upon all who saw it, and was therefore instrumental, in consequence of the wide circulation given it, in serving the cause of the injured Africans'. 

Detail: Brookes slave ship diagram

Each and every figure in this drawing is 'real', a realisation that coupled with the fact that there is literally no space between each figure, allows our imaginations to fill in the non-existent gaps with the horror of what we are looking at. This is something Büchel fails to achieve in presenting us with the empty boat. There is no way in Büchel's work that we are made aware of the physical conditions and associated horrible impact of this awful moment of tragedy as the ship sank, nothing to give our imaginations purchase beyond a spectacle for taking selfies. There was no text available, no story to raise awareness, in fact as I write I feel I'm giving the work more context than it deserves. I am also aware that if the work did cost as much as I was told, Büchel could have instead put the money to the development of a refugee field hospital or similar venture, something that he could have used to raise awareness as well as actually help people. 

Christoph Büchel: 'Our Boat'

The Art Newspaper has a fairly balanced review of the piece. However I continue to worry about it, I'm not sure Büchel's account of it being something that is an integral part of the media storm, he argues that all of the various commentaries are simply an extended relational practice. This suggests that he is more interested in the work's position as a particular type of art. His decision for instance to have no signage suggests that he has a higher opinion of the general public's awareness of himself and his approach to his work than is warranted. Read the Art Newspaper for a much more balanced view. 

It feels wrong to end my thoughts on a visit to Venice on such a negative note, but in difficult times or as the title for the whole Biennale stated, 'May you live in interesting times', the power of art to change things will always be contested, however hopefully by showing the Brookes slave ship diagram, I can also demonstrate that sometimes images do change things. 

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Venice Biennale 2019 Part three

Some of the work I came across in the Biennale made me think of drawing as a very physical process. For instance Shilpa Gupta's banging gate was an excellent illustration of how a drawing idea can become very physically real. A large gate is hinged on a pivot and motorised so that it swings back and forth. As it does so it bangs into the wall, bringing down layers of plaster and cement as it gradually eats its way through the wall it makes a heavy contact with. This seemed to be a powerful metaphor for ideological boundaries and their repressive functions. (Can art break down walls?) Her practice draws on the interstitial zones between nation states, ethno-religious divides and structures of surveillance. In Gupta's work everyday situations, such as the opening and shutting of a gate are distilled into allegorical gestures, and as I have struggled for many years with a self imposed task of trying to do a very similar thing, I was pleasantly surprised at how powerful an impact her work was having on the people experiencing her clanging gate.

Shilpa Gupta

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s installations solicit tension from spectators because of their apparent threat. The staging of what can be quite intimidating spectacles lies at the core of their working process. However it was the historical associations with drawing machines that initially interested me. I can still remember the first time I can across some of Tinguely's machines. They were big, intimidating creations that you were frightened of. They moved into your space and had a presence that made you feel that if you fell into their clutches you would be done for. Tinguely also made some spectacular drawing machines and often launched them with dramatic effect. His machines also link into that 3D drawing tradition of linearly linking one form with another, all engine parts being at one time an idea in the mind of an engineer, realised initially as a technical drawing, machines therefore have a particular set of associations with technical drawing codes.

Tinguely: Homage to New York 1960

A Tinguely machine

More on Tinguely

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s mechanical installations were targeted at more specific metaphorical concepts than Tinguely's. The painting machine below was built by reconfiguring a second hand robot arm, initially used in a manufacturing process. It 'paints' the floor by sweeping its 'brush' through a dark red blood like liquid, however as it makes its marks they soon disappear as the liquid gradually flows back over the sweeping gestural floor markings. The machine makes a strong impact because it is expending considerable energy on a series of tasks that are in the end pointless. (I wondered if this was also a comment on abstract painting). As an analogy it also pointed to the role of human beings in similar tasks, ones that have yet to be taken over by robots.

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s other installation was perhaps more ambiguous in its allegorical intent, but it was undoubtedly powerful in its effect on the audience. A marble seat, carved to resemble the base of the one that supports the statue of President Lincoln, is kept behind a protective glass wall. Every now and again a powerful blast of compressed air forces a flexible tube to strike out in all directions and as you can see from the marks on the glass in the photograph, strike the sides of the glass walls with severe force like a demented whip.

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu

Lincoln memorial

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu: 'Dear'

Was this a metaphor for the misuse of power? Was it about how slaves were treated and Lincoln's role in the abolition of the slave trade? Whatever it means, standing right next to the glass vitrine as the hose snaked about was a frightening experience, if only because of the sound made by the hose as it whipped around.  
Zhanna Kadyrova was using tiles taken from a hotel in Venice to physically draw representations of clothing hanging out to dry. I took the photograph of her 'washing line' through a window in the central pavilion exhibition space, because the work was erected outside, in a similar way to all those washing lines you see strung between buildings as you walk Venice's streets.

Zhanna Kadyrova Second Hand (2014-ongoing)

As you walk around Venice as well as seeing actual washing lines, you will also find painted images of them as tourist mementos of the city. Zhanna Kadyrova in appropriating this image and connecting it with tiles from a refurbished tourist hotel, creates a particularly complex work that operates on several levels. On the one hand representing an actual clothes line, with identifiable specific types of socks and briefs, it is a form of still-life and on the other by making a solid representation of what is normally made of soft fabrics, it is a monument to something very un-monumental. Historically, only things that were of great importance used to be the subject of the sculptural monument and we are in a historically very important city when it comes to looking at the history of art.

Venice souvenir painting

Zhanna Kadyrova is also commenting on Venice as an art capital, both as something appropriated by tourists and as a place for the high art cognoscenti. Both images of washing lines now belong to the art canon, one read as 'low-art' and the other 'fine-art'; Kadyrova asking us questions as to which one if either, will in the long run survive?

Njideka Akunyili Crosby interested me technically, both as a printmaker and as someone looking at how drawing is used. In particular it was her sophisticated use of collage techniques that drew my attention to her work. 

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

You need to look carefully at the surface of her images because she has a powerful grasp of form, which means that the texture can be secondary to the colour/form and you don't notice that the surface is composed of collaged imagery. She uses a variety of image transfer techniques, as well as stencilling, so that when you get close up to the surface of her work it is a visually exciting and intriguing experience. (The work was behind glass, so my photographs don't do justice to the experience of looking at them)

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

People that live between cultures have a rich complex of imagery to process and Crosby makes the most out of her Nigerian/USA experiences. If you read Homi K Bhabba's classic text, 'The Location of Culture' you can get a better understanding of how this process works. 

Kaari Upson

Finally for this post I'll leave you with the work of Kaari Upson. Upson layers her drawings with observations, thoughts about what she has seen, memories and anything else that can be used as a commentary on the things she is interested in. I was intrigued by the fact that these drawings often evolve over several years. They hang around the studio, and she returns to them over and over again, until their surface becomes overlaid with the complexity of making drawings over time. The great thing about Kaari Upson's drawings is that they are just that. DRAWING. She doesn't need to do anything else. Yes there is text and a lot of it, but the text is drawn into the surface, it performs a dance around the evolving imagery and at times also anchors the composition. Her work is a welcome reminder that you can still do interesting work just with a pencil and a felt tip pen, it as always depends on what you have to say and how you say it. The work in Venice was behind glass and like Njideka Akunyili Crosby's work, I did find the glass obtrusive. 

Kaari Upson

You can get a much better idea of Upson's work by looking at a video of an exhibition presentation where she does not have the work framed, simply attaching her drawings directly to the walls. She made her reputation with the Larry Project. This was a long running project that centred on her chance finding of documents belonging to someone who used to live in an abandoned house near where she lived. Her imaginative investigation of an imagined life is a powerful model for how a project can grow and evolve the more you invest time and energy into its possibilities. 

Kaari Upson

I did take quite a few photographs of the way artists were using framing and will at some point put up another post on this constantly re-occurring subject. It is an important issue and in Upson's case I really think the way it was framed made it much harder to appreciate what her work was about. By putting it behind glass you were distanced from it and her work was about direct responses to the intimate but raw connections she was making with her subject matter. 

Reflections on other Venice Biennales


Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Monday, 19 August 2019

Venice Biennale 2019 Part two

One of the most interesting aspects of the Venice Biennale this year was the presence of such a wide range of artists from what we used to call the third world. Another reflection of change, artists from all over the globe now exhibiting their work with no feeling of inferiority, simply showing work alongside artists from other nations on an equal level. Things have come a long way since the Magicians of the Earth exhibition back in the 1980s.

I have though decided not to identify where the artists I have to picked out as interesting come from, some it is obvious from the content of their work, but for others it is not so obvious and in this ambiguity I think there is an interesting point to be made about how we tend to associate country of origin with how we read the images. If you want to it is of course easy to Google each artist to find out more. 

The photographer Gauri Gill had taken wonderful images of Maharashtrian tribesmen wearing papier-mâché masks that she had had made based on certain individual's own sense of themselves as characters. This activity brought together traditional and non traditional notions of how to make images. For me this was three dimensional drawing at its most elemental fused with photography's ability to bring everything within shot into the same world. Perhaps it was the way these images reminded me of shamanistic traditions, but whatever the reason, I found them totally engaging and they fulfilled my personal need to work with images that dissolved the barriers between people and animals or people and objects.

Gauri Gill 

This is how Gill's website introduces her work: 'Acts of Appearance' assumed its form within a village of Adivasi paper mache artists from the Kokna tribe in Jawhar district. Further inland from Dahanu, it is one of the most impoverished districts in Maharashtra. In Rajasthan, among her Jogi friends during Holi, Gill had first encountered people wearing store-bought masks to play-act various personas as part of the fun of the festival. In Maharashtra, she learned of the Bahora procession, held once a year in many Adivasi villages, in which the entire community participates in a ritual performance over several nights, to enact a mythological tale. The performers are chosen from among the residents and wear elaborate masks made by artists to represent different gods, demons, and ancillary figures. The Bahora masks take weeks to make, are sacred and consecrated, and constitute a moral and imaginative universe, but also conform to strict rules of creation as they represent powerful archetypes refined over generations of storytelling. In 2014, Gill sought out the acclaimed brothers Subhas and Bhagvan Dharma Kadu, sons of the legendary craftsman Dharma Kadu, with a proposal. She wished to commission them, along with their families and fellow volunteers (more than thirty people in total), to create a new set of masks—not of gods or demons as per local tradition and lore, but rather as representing beings existing in contemporary reality. The interpretive creations were to come from them, with the suggestion that they embody different ages, distinctive individuals, the varied rasas (emotions) like love, sadness, fear or anger, and those experiences common to all humans, such as sickness, relationships, or aging. In the course of dialogue, animals were naturally understood to be a part of this universe. Later, precious objects entered the frame, as they are believed have sentience too. Inhabiting these masks, a cast of ‘actor’ volunteers (including the artists) would later improvise and enact different real scenarios, 'across dreaming and waking states’, in and around the village'.
The idea that other things besides ourselves could have sentience was something I have been thinking a lot about lately, as well as my work on issues to do with aging and how we enact our views of who and what we are; therefore I was particularly fascinated by what Gauri Gill was doing. The idea of everything being 'actants' in universal as well as local sets of events and entangled interconnections appeals to me more and more.

Shakuntala Kulkarni 

Cane armour by Shakuntala Kulkarni was another of my favourites, cane as a 3D drawing tool is very expressive and her work highlighted the fact that we wear our clothes as a sort of armour.

Shakuntala Kulkarni 

Kulkarni was able to exhibit her work in three ways, as a sculptural presentation, such as in the image directly above, and as constructed photographs, as well as documentation of performances.

Tavares Strachan

A memorial to Robert Henry Lawrence, the first African American astronaut by the Bahamanian artist Tavares Strachan is of a glowing figure momentarily suspended as it falls to Earth, Robert Henry Lawrence becoming a radiant spaceman midway between drawing and sculpture.

A memorial to Robert Henry Lawrence

Tavares Strachan: Encyclopaedia of invisibility

Strachan's other works in the Giardini are a series of images that have emerged from what he calls 'the encyclopaedia of invisibility'; made up of collaged elements taken from an imaginary Encyclopaedia Britannica, one that has excluded certain elements of history, ones that he feels were excluded because of the hidden agendas of the white editing team that put the encyclopaedia together. Just as Robert Henry Lawrence is often forgotten about, there are many aspects of history that are edited out by any dominant culture.

Thinking about the space race and images coming from a dominant culture there was a contemporary version of The Pioneer Plaque made to reflect the plight of refugees in Halil Altindere's installation, "Space Refugee". In this work Altindere explores the life of Muhammed Ahmed Faris, Syria's first and only cosmonaut. Faris travelled to the Mir space station with a Soviet team in 1987 and was treated as a national hero.However when Faris became a supporter of the opposition movement against Assad, he was forced to leave the country and now lives as a refugee in Istanbul.

Halil Altindere "Space Refugee"

Michael Armitage is mainly known for his large paintings, so I was pleasantly surprised to see a collection of his drawings.

Michael Armitage

Informal drawings that were sketchbook like in their size and format, were collected together to make an installation consisting of white framed drawings made in brown ink wash on white paper. Armitage's paintings weave multiple narratives that are drawn from historical and current news media, internet gossip, and his own ongoing recollections of Kenya. The drawings exhibited being his daily jottings whereby he recorded life in Kenya. This very traditional way of using drawing as a documentation or recording device, is in his paintings merged with imagery taken from websites and other places from within the ubiquitous contemporary image stream. Old and new fusing in a similar way to the fact that village culture in Kenya is in many ways interacting with the effects of global transnational events. The old in the new, the traditional living alongside the contemporary, is a growing reality of modern life.

Frida Orupabo’s collages of black women are made in such a way that they have a sculptural presence. She creates joints between her cut out sections that are rather like those used in certain sorts of puppet making.

Frida Orupabo

Orupabo's awkward body juxtapositions and use of black and white imagery reminded me of how historically black women had been traded as objects, these 'puppets' are though turned to face you, and like Manet's Olympia transcend their position and take on an agency that gives them gravity and a certain presence.

Kemang Wa Lehulere

Kemang Wa Lehulere’s notion of the collective is key to the artist’s practice. As an activist in Cape Town, he established Gugulective in 2006, an artistic platform for performance and social intervention. Both the installations exhibited in the Arsenale and in the Central Pavilion are made from salvaged wood and metal from school desks and chairs. Each element in these works comes together in a web of associations, references, and stories because for Wa Lehulere, personal biography and collective history are inextricable.

Kemang Wa Lehulere

He also has a drawing practice that although not focused on in Venice is usually an important part of his installations.

Kemang Wa Lehulere

Often drawing in white chalk directly onto black painted walls, the various elements of his private associations become mixed in with images taken directly from encounters with the various South African iconic images of nation. His work was of particular relevance because I find myself working between drawing, making and performance, I also find myself storytelling and I need to embrace various and diverse elements if I am to fully engage with the communication of what I want to say.
New technology was also very visible in Venice, I was particularly interested in Ian Cheng's work, because it illustrated how an idea can literally be grown from the implications of computer algorithms.

Ian Cheng

Ian Cheng's work also demonstrated the continuing influence of the comic book on image making. His creation, 'Bob' growing and morphing, living and dying in a computer animation according to rule generated behaviours, as well as having its own comic book story, 'the life of Bob' which was presented as a very large back lit cartoon strip and was also available to buy in comic book form in the biennale shop.

Ian Cheng talks about 'Bob' and other things

See also:

Venice Biennale 2019 part one

Venice Biennale 2019 part three

Venice Biennale 2019 part four

Reflections on other Venice Biennales


Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4