Sunday, June 14, 2009

Venezia / Catalunya 2009

The completion of the transformation of the old Customs House, the Punta della Dogana, into a showcase for French billionaire Francois Pinhault's contemporary art collection also means that once again you can walk all the way around the point, which you couldn't do for a very long time. Among other things, we have regained perhaps the perfect view of San GIorgio Maggiore, but it is also exciting to have a new museum by the same team that brought us Palazzo Grassi.

So in need of a walk on a blazingly sunny day, I decided to walk around the Punta della Dogana. I had done it last night in the dark and it was spectacular, with the colored lights of the mega-yachts moored in the Giudecca Canal in the lee of the Dogana casting reflections on the water.

Today, in full sun, it was another sort of pleasure. But more exciting was my stop into the Catalunya/Venezia pavilion, the Catalonian pavillion for the Biennale, located in the Magazzini del Sale, the old salt warehouses behind the Punta della Dogana. The magazzini have become many things of late, including a Vedova Museum and the offices of the Venetian Rowing Club; they are great spaces, almost three stories high, their walls brick and their ceilings beamed as in all Venetian warehouses of the period.

The Biennale is overwhelming. No longer confined to the Gardini and the Arsenale venues, it bursts all over the city. It will take six months to see and digest it, six months of casual visits when the time allows. The pavilions in the Giardini take a day or two, ditto the installations in the Arsenale, and then there is the wonderful serendipity of wandering into a pavilion set up somewhere in the city that you didn't realize was there, which is what happened today on my way to the Dogana.

The content of the Catalonian pavillion could take a couple days to see because, as is now all the rage, art exhibits feature computers packed with interesting information which require that you sit there and spend a lot of time. I am opposed to this. Just give me the URL and I can to that at home. What I want from an exhibit is the immediate and visceral impact of confronting a work of art head on in real time.

That finally happened first with a video piece, entitled "Honor." It works from the visual motif of a US Marines recruiting commercial, the men in polished ceremonial uniforms. Then it segues into a violent computer war game, intercut with young American soldiers, dressing in combat gear and getting ready for action in convincing cinema verite. In one sequence a helicopter driver gets suited up, and then the image shifts again to the computer game of a brutal helicopter attack.

The impact is shocking. It is compounded by the stark anti-American (anti-Bush-American) attitude. The artists and thinkers of the rest of the world, who don't have to listen to the insane ravings of American talk radio and have no nostalgia for Cold War America, look with a savage and critical eye.

Upstairs, in the mezzanine, is an even more powerful exhibit. It is a wall of hundreds of very slick advertising-type posters, but of a kind you don't see in magazines or subway stations or vaporetto stops. You will have to go to the gallery to see a few of them, and where the text may not be clear I have tried to include it in the captions.

I spent a long time with these posters. It was the kind of experience you hope for when you walk into a 21st century art exhibit: it was engaging, provocative, funny, beautiful, bursting with ideas.


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