Although I'm reviewing the 2017 Venice biennale, the themes and technologies I'm looking at often reach far back into history. For instance abstraction has a long history, Tantric art in particular having an ancient abstract lineage and research into abstract entoptic forms can take us all the way back to pre-history.
Abstraction in this year's biennale was represented by several artists, it obviously still has an important place within contemporary fine art practice. The two artists I have chosen to represent abstract practices however come from opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum. Dan Miller is autistic and drawing is his main means of communication. He draws words and images over and over again. Each drawing is gradually lost under a surface of marks as new drawings replace it. Superficially these drawings look like Abstract Expressionist works, but they are not, they are records of someone's life, a life that is perhaps hard for us to understand, but by the sheer perseverance of Miller trying to communicate, we are presented with powerful images that seem to have been 'abstracted' out of his various attempts to communicate, each surface becoming a palimpsest of seismic energy, which itself is more powerful than words.
Dan Miller: detail
Close-up of the framing of one of Dan Miller's drawings
Sopheap Pich sits at the other end of the abstraction spectrum. His drawings are meditative responses to particular processes that he has set up. The drawings on exhibition were made by systematically pressing a stick of pigmented bamboo onto a sheet of watercolour paper. As each print is made more or less pigment is deposited, the process always being done to ensure a bi-lateral symmetry is maintained, carefully and systematically working a way out from the centre to the edges.
Sopheap Pich: Window mounted drawing
It is interesting to compare how Miller's work is framed to Pich's. Miller's drawings float off their backing board behind a shallow box frame. The edges of the paper can be clearly seen and you get a sense that Miller works around his paper in such as way that the edge is very important. The paper in this case is presented as a physical object. In contrast Pich's work is window mounted, this heightens a sense of separation from the world, we are given a space within which to meditate on the process.
Several artists were using textile materials and I have posted before on the stitched line and the relationship between drawing, grids and weaving. Of the artists using textiles I was particularly drawn to Maria Lai's work.
Maria Lai: detail of stitched writing
Maria Lai was given a posthumous retrospective, her stitched maps and books coming across as still being relevant and aesthetically potent when viewed at a time of international disruption, when there is a great need for empathy, but little coming from our world leaders. Sewing gathers threads together and her books which at first sight appear readable, dissolve back into a language of fits and starts, black blobs of caught cotton, standing for the words on a page, becoming the texts of forgotten languages of appeasement; as people babble and misinterpret each other’s languages as possible threats or aggressive sounds. Her books are soft; their unspoken words soft whispers for weary minds worried about world events, and a welcome distraction from the newspapers.
Compared to Lai's work I found Achraf Touloub's textile hangings overly mannered and portentous, and although I could get the chain references, I wasn't really convinced. However as a way of furthering ideas in relation to the stitched line the work occupies that territory between 2D and 3D, the stitched lines incised into the surrounding padding, making these pieces into relief sculptures.
His small drawings, that were sort of Futurist in feel, were much more convincing and when I looked at some of his other earlier work, decided that his drawings were nearly always more sensitive and concise.
Sparse and sensuous drawings by Huguette Caland were presented alongside three costume and mannequin works the artist made during the 1970s and 80s. The drawings were of particular interest as they demonstrated how minimal you can be and yet still be very sensual.
Huguette Caland: Mannequin
I spent quite a long time in the Chinese pavilion, one of the reasons being the juxtaposition between old and new technologies.
ang Nannan, ‘what’s the sea’ with school children. This began with stories about the sea and workshops whereby the artist supported the children in making images about the sea. These images were then collected together and storyboarded so than an animation could be made, children sometimes then asked to return to their images so that they could draw the in-between frames. I should perhaps have put this post in with the one about relational practices, but because of the nature of the Chinese pavilion, this felt more about passing on a continuing cultural tradition than an artist acting as a catalyst for the development of a relational practice.
Tang Nannan, ‘what’s the sea’ workshop
The whole point of the Chinese pavilion was the interconnection between the past and the present. Old craft techniques and ancient stories, combining with new technologies and people both from inside and outside what could be called the 'fine art' bubble. Crafts people were working using traditional materials alongside fine artists, both equally valued. This attempt to demonstrate a continuing aesthetic tradition was I presume also a political statement about the coherence of Chinese culture, even so I thought it a powerful statement and one that had a lot of resonance for myself. I have often thought that if my own work is to have any traction, I need to make sure it sits within a tradition that makes it accessible and understandable to a wider public than the 'art cognoscente'. But what that is, is difficult to define. Because I'm interested in narrative, I tend to look at a tradition that goes via William Blake and Hogarth, via Rowlandson, 'folk' prints, comic book art and Steve Bell, and has its roots in Pieter Bruegel.
Qiu Zhijie, The Map of Continuum.
I'm always drawn to maps as images and Qiu Zhijie's map of “Mountain/Sea” and “Ancient/New” representing “Yin/Yang” was presented as the framework around which the exhibition was built. Two well-known Chinese fables, The Foolish Old Man Removes the Mountains and Jingwei Filling the Sea, provide the imagery for the exhibition and the concept of “Bu Xi” (continuing tradition) is used to give coherence to the idea of bringing together two folk artists and two contemporary artists to convey the meaning of the narrative.
I really enjoyed the presentation of traditional 'light box' images, these worked in a very similar way to stained glass and relied on the simplification of images and their articulation in a similar way to shadow puppetry. You could make very similar figures out of stained acrylic sheet.
A traditional animated story, presented as a video with English text overlaid
This complex cutout was used in exactly the same way as a stained glass window
Detail from the window above
Another detail from the window above
Nevin Aladağ: Traces
Finally I would like to recommend Nevin Aladağ's playful sound video, 'Traces'. She had edited together a series of short takes of various ways of getting things to play their own sounds. See this a how it was made documentary. You might wonder what this has to do with drawing, but I would argue that the editing process is itself a type of drawing. Aladağ would have had to storyboard the idea and organise each shoot so that eventually all would fit together and in doing this I believe she would have had some sort of overall plan or map to work to. You can see how Traces worked as a three screen installation here.
Nevin Aladağ: Traces