Sunday, September 13, 2009

Biennale: Lithuanian Pavillion, East-West Divan

I went to the Scuola Grande della Misericordia to see the Lithuanian Biennale Pavillion and, upstairs from it, the East-West Divan show with four artists from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Aside from the art, I have always been curious about the Misericordia. Since I have lived here it has been derelict; a hulking brick structure with no ostensible purpose. The Palasport sign over the side door is a remnant of its brief incarnation as a gymnasium, and the upper floor was home to the local basketball team. The plain brick exterior gives you no clue about what is inside.

The building is attributed to Jacopo Sansovino, who was the the favored architect of the Venetian Republic in the sixteenth century. Outside the brick is spare and unwelcoming; inside, the scale is luminous and transparent. Crossing the brick portal, you step into the high renaissance. The Renaissance ideal was to breathe life into ancient Rome, from the lifelike frescoes to the monumental architecture. The enormous double-high space is a recreation of the Grandeur that was Rome. The idealization of the past is romantic in its essence; but the buildings are, in fact, perfect. One pass through the Pantheon settles that question forever. Only the heavy weight of the church, aggressive in policing against the pagan spirit of Rome, prevented the renaissance architects from recreating the Roman temples for their churches.

The art inside was interesting in several different directions. The primary Lithuanian installation was "Tube" by Zilvinas Kempinas, built amid the triple colonnades of the first floor. The tube, big enough to walk through and as long as the space, is comprised of horizontal stripes of thin metal alternating with transparent spaces. To walk through is to enter an Op Art world. The effect is mesmerizing.

But I found the art upstairs even more fascinating. The show is called "East-West Divan: Contemporary Art from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan." Their literature describes the exibition as follows:

The exhibition will present recent works by ten artists from three countries, better known in the West for stereotypes of terrorism and Islamic extremism than for their rich artistic heritage and vibrant contemporary cultures.

East-West Divan meditates upon links between the artistic traditions in Venice and the Persian artistic heritage shared by these countries, revealing the tightly knotted relationship between East and West - both in life and the imagination.

The artists vary in style, but all share the integration of traditional techniques with today's content. If you look at some of these, and their accompanying statements, in the GALLERY, you will get a sense of the mission of these artists, to express the identity of real people who are more than stereotypes, who are not driven by a lust for world domination, and who simply want to live their lives in their way in peace.

It is a beautiful and startling revelation. The art is gorgeous, never provocative simply for the sake of being provocative, but always thoughtful and therefore persuasive. Culturally diverse people dream the same dreams.

Art can do that. At its best, that's what it does. It is an expression of our common humanity.


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