Letter From Venice Off-Season: Art between the Biennialsby Robert C. Morgan
Despite the growing number of biennials on various continents throughout the world, (excluding Greenland), Venice appears to be the one that attracts the greatest attention on an international scale, and not merely because it was the first of the breed. Its occasional pitfalls, conflicts, and deficits notwithstanding, most serious art observers still regard Venice as the most pleasurable, even the most prestigious. Whether it succeeds in being the best is another matter. Still, the dark luminosity of the canals serve as a constant backdrop to the history of this extraordinary city—a global center of trade, art, and architecture—and of the nearly century-old Biennale di Venezia. However, this also happens to be a summer season when there is no biennial—at least, no biennial of contemporary art. The architectural biennial and the film fest—both under the aegis of the Biennale di Venezia—will make their quixotic appearances in September, when the weather has tempered a bit, including the lowering of heat, humidity, and chance of flash storms.
With its aura of royalty and decadence, this is the place where art lovers love to be. In addition to the historical regalia, Venice—like most of Italy—is a great place for coffee. Even Parisians agree that Italian espresso is far superior to the standard French variety. You may find MacDonald’s near the Rialto Bridge, but you sure as hell won’t find Starbucks. Word has it that the latter showed up five years ago. Nobody came. They closed after six months. As I write these notes, sitting at my favorite outdoor café drinking a double macchiato, I discover an email from an artist in Eastern Europe asking if the Accademia is crowded. There is a particular Titian he wants to see. I wrote back saying the Accademia is virtually empty. As far as I can tell, most tourists this summer are not here for art but for shopping and restaurants. Younger visitors—many of whom are foreign students—go to Piazza San Marco for the evening rock concerts, where Elton John played last week. But mostly they hang out around the Rialto, which has become a perpetual scene, like the Lower East Side—like the Summer of Punk in former years. As for exhibitions of advanced art in Venice during the off-season, I was hard-pressed to find a venue with more than a handful of visitors, depending, of course, on the time of day.
At the Fondazione Querini Stampalia there were two installations by two women both living in Venice, Maria Morganti and Mariateresa Sartori. Morganti is a painter, a kind of monochrome painter, who shows regularly at the Florence Lynch Gallery in West Chelsea. For the exhibition at the Querini, she has painted five canvases, entitled Diario Cromatico, each measuring 90 × 125 cm, for five sequential rooms of the museum. Each gallery was devoted to a single Venetian painter from the Baroque era. I clearly recall two galleries: one full of Pietro Longhi who, in spite of his surreptitious aristocratic leanings, still fascinates me, and another with paintings by Palma di Giovane, who is less satisfying. What Morganti did, however, vastly interests me in terms of transforming the viewer’s awareness of the thematic use of color within each painter’s work.
Each of Morganti’s monochrome paintings were installed over the doorway on the reverse side of the entrance. Instead of seeing the artist’s color field painting upon entering, you saw it only after scanning the ensemble of works already in the collection. In each case, her layered monochrome painting encapsulated the color spectrum of these Baroque works; you find yourself looking more abstractly at them, with color rather than narrative as their vital attribute.
Mariateresa Sartori’s work is more conceptual and less visual. Whereas Morganti is concerned with color, Sartori is interested in sound, namely, in the sound of language. She selected the work of eleven poets in eleven languages, ranging from African to Germanic tongues, and reversed the consonants in the words (so that Hamlet’s “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” becomes “Ther-way sit lobb-ner hin the dime so fut-ter / The glinks in wor-ros of toe-gray-ous tor-fune.”) Then she invited eleven performers to read the nonsensical words. These recordings are remarkable in the sense that, as listeners focus on the various poems in various languages, even though the words have been altered beyond recognition, what remains is the language’s integral sound. Even as the words have no meaning, their sound recalls the culture, whether African or Germanic, or, for that matter, English, Arabic, or French. Sartori’s installation has two components: one is heard in the darkness of a separate gallery, while the other is heard using headphones in one of the study rooms of the library. Her work immediately recalls the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty or the French Lettrist Isadore Isou, who both experimented in different ways with the sound of language independent of meaning. What gives Sartori’s work its authenticity is that she has ineluctably reduced meaning to a phonetic system, thus suggesting that, historically or anthropologically, the sound of a culture may be its most reductive and distinguishing characteristic before we even approach the issue of identity.
One of the most distinguished exhibition sites for contemporary art in Venice is called Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa—based on the name of the donor from an old Venetian family. There are, in fact, two locations—one at the Piazzo San Marco, and the other on the fondamente leaving Campo San Barnaba, toward Campo Santa Margarita. The summer exhibition at the first location included photographs, drawings, models, notes, videos, and an installation by the German artist Gregor Schneider entitled Cube Venice: Design and Conception, which refers concomitantly to Malevich’s Black Square and to the Islamic Ka’ba in Mecca. Although awarded the Golden Lion for his installation at the Biennale in 2001, Schneider’s more recent Cube was perceived by the city officials in Venice as too controversial. As a result, the work was never realized as an installation in Piazzo San Marco where he intended it, but as a “conceptual” work for viewers to imagine.
Conceptualist Victor Burgin’s exhibition at the San Barnaba space included two new video works, entitled Alle 8. Solito posto. and Voyage to Italy, and a series of related still photographs. In these works, Burgin evokes isolation, history, memory, and a quiet sense of desperation as the camera pans the empty spaces that are normally filled with people. Burgin deals with the psychological motivations and interactions between a man and a woman as a narrative overlay without having any people actually appear in the film.
One of the best new private exhibition spaces, Galleria Michela Rizzo, at the Palazzo Palumbo Fossati, features sculpture by Giuseppe Capitano made of woven hemp that suggests humorously contorted “primitive” relics, faces, and figures. However, the most interesting installation was at Rizzo’s more modest storefront space behind San Marco by the artist Gianni Moretti, whose colorful torn fabric pieces extend from the wall and drape across the floor in a subtly lyrical, rhythmic confluence. The luxuriant patterns offer an erotic worldview embedded in the indelible human trace, one that resonates as truly Venetian.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.