Venice art exhibit dazzles
• Photo gallery: The Venice Biennale
By Bonnie Friedman
Special to The Advertiser
I'm going to just say it. On first pass, I found the 53rd International Art Exhibition safe, uninspired, precipitously close to boring. The theme — Fare Mondi (Making Worlds) — seemed ridiculously noncommittal, open to any silly interpretation. I realize these are sweeping generalizations.
I'm done whining. I'm grateful beyond measure to have attended my second consecutive Venice Biennale. With 77 participating nations and hundreds of exhibits, there's a lot of spectacular art. I simply needed to venture away from big venues, big countries, big names. Small is beautiful — and provocative and intellectually stimulating and amazing.
So, let's dive in. Which is appropriate because one of the most impressive displays is in an unused swimming pool. It's a striking venue for German artist Matthias Schaller's "Purple Desk," 30 photographs, all looking squarely at empty desks of Vatican Cardinals. Portraits without people. Opposite are three large "Disportraits." Astronauts' helmets wholly confining and utterly necessary for humans to travel beyond Earth.
The old pool-cum-gallery is about as far afield as one can go. It's on the tiny "outer" island of San Giorgio Maggiore, a quick vaporetto ride from Venice's most famous square. Made up almost entirely of a restored Benedictine monastery, it houses two more exhibits.
A John Wesley retrospective is staggering in scope and style of installation. (Leave it to exhibit sponsor Fondazione Prada.) The 80-year-old Angeleno's art looks simple. It is complex — strong, flat graphic images dreamlike and cartoonish, combining animals and eroticism, Art Noveau style and Japanese iconography. With more than 150 works, it's the largest and most complete exhibition of Wesley's art anywhere, ever.
The critical reviews of British filmmaker Peter Greenaway's contribution were, to put it kindly, mixed. I found it thrilling. His reproduction of Le Nozze di Cana (The Wedding at Cana) is a stunning marriage of 16th century art and 21st century technology, allowing one of the world's greatest works to return to its original home. Painted by Paolo Veronese in 1562-1563, it hung in the refectory until Napoleon plundered it 200 years later. Greenaway's digitized facsimile now occupies the space. He has breathed life into it with filmmaking techniques, dramatic lighting, conversation among the wedding party and guests, including Jesus. It's a breathtaking encounter in a massive space. You can walk around, sit, lie down, experience it from every angle. The day I went, there was a grand total of seven visitors.
Two big names need acknowledgement: Golden Lions for Lifetime Achievement went to California multimedia artist John Baldessari — he covered the front of the official Biennale pavilion with a gigantic photo of a palm tree-studded beach — and Yoko Ono. In the official venue, several of her 1960s typewritten poems are taped to the wall. Very nostalgic. I was never a fan ... until I saw her solo show, "Anton's Memory." Photos, drawings, sculpture, video, audio, interactive installations demonstrate how we can make the world better. Yes, she still wants us to imagine and to give peace a chance. Emotionally exhausting ... in a very good way.
MY OWN UNOFFICIAL GOLDEN LION AWARDS
Next door, things are even worse. The gay homeowner drowned himself in his pool, leaving a page of his unfinished pornographic novel in his portable typewriter; his young "friends" slouching in bubble chairs, languishing in bed.
The Venezia Pavilion at Giardini is also dedicated to glass — a tribute to Murano, its artisans past and present.
Subliminal message — the need/desire for transparency? I'm just sayin' ...
Bonnie Friedman is a publicist, freelance writer and long-time Maui resident. She visited Venice in June.