Venice Biennale 2019 –– “A wound in a dance with love”

Lorenzo Quinn (Italy), Building Bridges (2019).

I think that art is a wound in a dance with love.
And if the wound and the love are the same size,
they can dance well.

–– Sean Scully

At the 2019 Venice Biennale, “May You Live in Interesting Times,” nearly 200 artists from around the world engage and illumine the human condition and the historical moment in a multitude of creative and challenging ways. By the time you complete a multi-day journey through two large exhibition spaces as well as dozens of installations in churches, palazzos and warehouses throughout Venice, you will have been repeatedly delighted, deepened, bewildered, provoked, amused, annoyed, educated, bored, enriched and inspired.

“Perhaps art can be a kind of guide for how to live and think in ‘interesting times,’” says Biennale curator Ralph Rugoff. “It invites us to consider multiple alternatives and unfamiliar vantage points.” And the meaning of art, he adds, does not reside principally within a given work, but in the conversations which the artist’s intuitions and labors bring into being.

I visited Biennale a couple of weeks ago (it runs from May to November), and found a wealth of imagination, conviction, and––even in these dark and troubled times––beauty and hope.

Lorenzo Quinn’s “Building Bridges” (pictured above), with its six pairs of arms reaching across a watery divide, is a powerful monument to connection and communion in a world obsessed with borders and uncrossable difference. Its immense scale, dominating both the eye and the public space, registers as playful and celebratory rather than gigantically repressive. And with no two hands meeting in the same way, there is union without uniformity.

 

A contrastingly somber approach to boundaries is an untitled kinetic work by Shilpa Gupta: a residential security gate swings back and forth, slamming into a wall every 30 seconds. Gupta, who lives in Mumbai, uses her art to address the dehumanizing divisions between nations, ethnicities, religions and classes. The wall makes it a gate to nowhere, but over the seven months of the exhibition the wall is gradually being broken down. Is this a metaphor for pointless violence, or the persistent and patient work of liberation?

Gupta’s other installation at Biennale, For, in your tongue, I cannot fit, has rows of metal spikes, each one piercing a piece of paper with the names and words of 100 poets, from the 7th century to our own time, who were imprisoned for their works or their politics. A microphone is suspended above each of these pages, as though waiting for the poets to speak again. These microphones have been turned into speakers, so that we hear a multitude of the silenced voices, filling the dimly lit room with poetic speech and protest.

Shilpa Gupta (India), For, in your tongue, I cannot fit (2017-18).

Words of an imprisoned poet in Shilpa Gupta’s installation, For, in your tongue, I cannot fit (2017-18).

Some of the texts were anguished, but many of the poets refused to mirror the violence they suffered. “Sing, Tar, sing,” wrote Musefig from his cell in 1937. “How can they forget you once they’ve heard you sing?” Of all the lines I read, my favorite was this by Dennis Brutus (detained 1963): “But somehow tenderness survives.”

Murielle Argoud (Switzerland), Homage to Heraclitus . . . everything flows (2018).

In such a damaged social imaginary as ours, art which is unapologetically beautiful and/or spiritual may suffer critical suspicion, but Murielle Argoud’s ravishing canvases offer a persuasive––and deeply moving––reacquaintance with the transcendent. Using an “alchemical” mixture of oil, sand, lava and gold leaf, Argoud strives to convey both the world’s liquid materiality and the hidden depths within it. On her website she describes her art practice as a search for the beginning of everything, an opening of the heart to receive the mystery of the world. In a poem accompanying her Biennale paintings, she says:

Where words cannot touch, the life of colour can
merge with the heart of the beholder. . .

Creating stillness for the song of the painting
to become audible.

Creating stillness for deeper contemplation ––
no wish to analyse or understand. . .

Mario Basner (Germany/USA), Beelitz Heilstätten Sanatorium (2016).

Mario Basner’s haunting photographs of a 19th-century tuberculosis sanatorium, now an abandoned ruin south of Berlin, are infused with his deeply personal response to the spirit of place: “This is a place where people faced life and death, love and loss, hope and despair; it was a structure where people fought for their utter existence.” The elegant beauty of the building reflected a compassionate respect for the dignity and worth of its patients. Their struggle for life was honored by the nobility of the architectural design.

To see that grandeur in decay moves us twice over, not only by memorializing the aspirations and ministrations of a vanished age, but also by imaging temporality so tenderly. The room in the photograph is full of human absence. The floor––littered, wet and muddy––indicates long neglect. Like the pool of water in the middle, the room seems cut off from life. The space is suffused with the pastness of things left behind.

And yet the room is not utterly dead or devoid of beauty. The light from outside is soft and comforting. The watery floor, like the moist and dripping interiors in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, is a richly ambivalent symbol. It can indicate stagnation and decay, as nature begins to erase the structures of human habitation. But it can also be a maternal sign of life-giving power, a source which sustains and nurtures. The triptych of windows resembles a church, with the central bay the chancel and the lone cot the altar. The pool of water, like a baptismal font, suggests purification and rebirth.

Shoplifter / Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir (Iceland), Chromo Sapiens (2019).

The Icelandic artist known as “Shoplifter” (Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir) takes us to a place of pure happiness, a technicolor cave made of synthetic hair. The artist describes the riot of color as “euphoric kinetic synesthesia.” Deeper into the cave, more soothing whites and pastels replace the neon hues to make “a fluffy heavenly nest that cradles you into a sense of serenity and sublime gentle bliss.” You can’t spend time in here without smiling.

Alexander Sokurov (Russia), detail of Prodigal Son installation (2019).

Alexander Sokurov’s installation inspired by Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son, was my most powerful Biennale experience. It will be the subject of my next post, so I only mention it in passing here.

Federico Uribe (Colombia/USA), Plastic Reef (2019).

Environmental degradation is a recurring subject at Biennale, but Federico Uribe’s Plastic Reef is unique in its whimsical approach, using recycled plastic items to make a playful undersea world.

Federico Uribe (Colombia/USA), Plastic Reef (2019), made from recycled plastic waste.

When you enter the gallery, filled with lighthearted ambient sound, your initial reaction is delight. Then you look more closely, and the irony hits home. The plastic parody of marine life prophesies the potential collapse of the earth’s largest ecosystem. 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the sea every year, and there is now more plastic than plankton in our oceans. The joy with which you entered begins to seep away.

Elizabeth Heyert (USA), The Idol (series, 2018-19).

American artist Elizabeth Heyert critiques contradictory (male) gazes of women in her pairing of close-ups of old Marian statues from southern Spain with “bad girl” images from American pop culture. When I showed this particular example to a priest friend, he wondered how the meaning might change if the quote came from the saint instead of the actress.

Raoul “Iggy” Rodriguez (Philippines), detail from Hallowed Be Thy Name (2019).

This hellish imagery from Raoul Rodriguez mimics the genre of Catholic altarpieces, with saints replaced by grotesque figures who worship a swine-like beast hovering above them. The beast’s halo is made of bullets, and his throne is the crushed form of one of its victims. Some of the figures are harming themselves––doing the beast’s work for him––while another takes a selfie of his own agony, unable to envision any alternative. I couldn’t help seeing this horrifying canvas as a portrait of Trump’s America––that evil carnival of absurdity and self-destruction.

Daniel Pesta (Czech Republic), Chain (video, 2018).

Even more disturbing was Daniel Pesta’s video of eight men seated around a table in a deserted factory, their hands and forearms thickly bandaged. They are as still as monks at prayer, inexpressive and wordless, bound together by some secret purpose. Then the man at the head of the table holds one hand over a candle until his bandage bursts into flame. This fire is passed from hand to hand around the table until all their hands have become torches. Finally, they beat their hands on the table, an infernal drum circle, until the flames are at last extinguished.

Daniel Pesta (Czech Republic), Chain (video, 2018).

A group of white men with torches immediately conjures the collective madness of Nazis past and present, but here the hands themselves are the torches. Hands are supreme emblems of individual will––reaching, touching, making, choosing, taking, receiving––but at this table of demonic communion the hands are surrendered to a terrible force which consumes human freedom. Pesta wanted to depict the mindless dynamic of totalitarian societies whose “servility, weakness and desire to allow themselves to be controlled, testifies as to how far a person is prepared to go in pursuit of his own humiliation or self-destruction.”

Had I had enough of hell by now? Not quite. Accompanied by fellow artist/priest Neil Lambert, an English vicar and kindred spirit I first met in a Prague beer hall, I went in search of In Dante Veritas, a multi-media experience of the Inferno by Russian artist Vasily Klyukin. Using sculpture, video, sound, and a wide variety of materials and objects, Klyukin reimagined Dante’s nine circles of hell in terms of environmental collapse amid the chaos of misinformation and malignant desire. Through his vivid presentation of a world gone wrong, he poses the question, “Are we capable of change?”

Arsenale Nord, site of Vasily Klyukin’s Inferno installation at the Venice Biennale 2019.

The installation was said to be in a huge warehouse at the edge of Venice’s old shipyard, the Arsenale. Neil and I made a circuitous journey by boat and on foot (there are few direct routes in labyrinthine Venice), but when we finally reached the entrance to hell, it was locked. We peered through a crack in a curtained window. The vast space was totally empty. Hell had gone out of business. Or moved to a new location.

Abandoning all hope of experiencing Klyukin’s vision, we wandered the byways of Castello, one of the quietest and emptiest parts of Venice, conversing as we went. At one point I was describing to Neil a film I made years ago about a man assigned by a modern-day government to investigate a potential troublemaker named Jesus. As he hears about Jesus from various people whose lives have been touched and changed by him, the investigator becomes intrigued. But before he can ever meet him, Jesus is executed.

Distraught, the investigator goes to the soup kitchen where Mary Magdalene works (we shot this at the Catholic Worker on L.A.’s skid row). “I so wanted to meet Jesus,” he tells her. “You will,” she replies, and takes him to an upper room where Jesus’ friends are sitting around a table sharing bread and wine. The film ends with one of them offering the investigator a piece of bread.

This film was made to create conversation in church settings, but congregations with minimal sacramental life complained that there was no risen Christ at the end. Sacramental churches, on the other hand, embraced the image of the offered bread as a satisfactory sign of the Resurrection.

And at that precise moment in my story, we were passing a little church with a bronze plaque by the  door. We stopped to read it: “The Church of Christ the King. Adoration of the Eucharist daily.”

Plaque at the entrance to the church of the Franciscan Sisters of Christ the King, Venice.

Inside, the Franciscan Sisters of Christ the King had begun their daily adoration of the Blessed Sacrament just minutes before. We had arrived at the right place at exactly the right time. Unable to gain admission into hell, we had stumbled on heaven instead––whether by accident or grace I cannot say. We slipped inside the small church. A dozen nuns in white robes sat in silence before the monstrance displaying the consecrated Host. One of the sisters looked around when we opened the door, casting a stern glance to warn off heedless tourists. When we knelt to pray, she relaxed, returning her attention to the Host.

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Last Supper (1592-94), and Sean Scully, Opulent Ascension (2019, in San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice.

Earlier that day, we had seen Tintoretto’s great Last Supper painting which flanks the altar of San Giorgio Maggiore. The very air in that painted upper room seems charged with angelic energy and Godly presence, manifesting the infusion of divinity into matter which Christ and his eucharist are all about. Tintoretto’s painting represents the present as well as the past. The world continues to be charged with the grandeur of God, and every eucharist makes this explicit. The Host we adored in that little church of Christ the King was a sure sign of continuing presence, but not exclusively so. For the attentive soul, the signs are everywhere.

But divine presence is elusive, and the social imaginary of our secular age makes it especially difficult to perceive. We can spot hell easily enough, as so much of Biennale attests. Heaven, however, can be harder to find. But spiritual longing, however sublimated or misdirected, remains. And Sean Scully’s “Opulent Ascension,” a temporary installation in the same church as the Tintoretto, expresses that longing perfectly.

Sean Scully (Ireland/USA), Opulent Ascension, in Andrea Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice.

Inspired by Jacob’s dream of a ladder to heaven (Genesis 28:12), Scully’s stack of colored slabs rises more than ten meters toward the luminous dome of Palladio’s Renaissance church. Amid the subdued grays and whites of the interior, the miraculous colors exude the vitality of spiritual aspiration, like spring flowers renouncing winter’s drabness. But such faith in a welcoming and obtainable transcendence is not universally shared.

Alexandra Bircken (Germany), Eskalation (2016).

Another Biennale installation, Alexander Bircken’s Eskalation, posits Jacob’s dream as ladders to nowhere. Forty figures, made from calico dipped in black latex, are scattered from floor to ceiling on rungs and rafters. Their collapsed and lifeless forms bear witness to the futility of the ascent.

Alexandra Bircken (Germany), Eskalation (2016).

This solitary figure at the base of one ladder is an indelible image of spiritual death. Its back is turned to the ladder, as if rejecting even the dream of transcendence. The ladder of ascent no longer holds any meaning. It has become illegible. The figure slumps into despair. No, not even that. Despair requires hope, a memory of paradise lost. Here we have sunk deeper than despair, into the abyss––absent all traces of desire.

Let us counter this bleak image with Scully’s Opulent Ascension. Does this juxtaposition set before us a strictly binary choice between utterly separate narratives, or is the human condition more complicated than that? Scully says that art is a wound in a dance with love. So, perhaps, is life.

Sean Scully (Ireland/USA), Opulent Ascension (2019).

Do not fear: Reflections on the Venice Colloquium

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The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion – all in one.

– John Ruskin[i]

I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas.
I’m frightened of the old ones.

– John Cage[ii]

John Ruskin, the influential Victorian oracle on all things pertaining to the visual arts, had a particular passion for Venice. As a young man, he made repeated visits to analyze and record, in words, drawings and watercolors, the endangered architecture of the place he described as “a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak, so quiet, – so bereft of all but her loveliness, that we might well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City, and which was the Shadow.”[iii]

A city floating on the sea, a mirage of reflections and watery light, an endless play of surfaces and mazes, seems more imagined than built. Ruskin’s fevered description of San Marco celebrates this fantastic evanescence:

… as if in ecstasy, the crests of the arches break into a marble foam, and toss themselves far into the blue sky in flashes and wreaths of sculptured spray, as if the breakers on the Lido shore had been frost-bound before they fell, and the sea-nymphs had inlaid them with coral and amethyst.[iv]

Artists, writers, and dreamers have long made pilgrimage to Venice not just to admire its beautiful treasures, but to be immersed in its spectral fancies, a provocative analog for their own imaginative processes. When a small group of Christian creatives gathered there for the Venice Colloquium in late October, we arrived with that same longing for inspiration and discovery.

Our collective intention was to “dream the Church that wants to be.” It was born of a shared sense of urgency about the state of imagination in the common life of God’s friends. In my last post, I wrote that “the practice of holy imagination is like a sanctuary lamp in the life of the Church. If not duly attended to, it is in danger of going out.” In a week of group conversations and Venetian wanderings, we tended the flame as best we could.

We had little interest in being theological spin doctors, cranking out persuasive messages or illustrative answers. Art is not argument or propaganda. Its purpose is not to answer questions, make a point, or silence doubt. The artist should not know what is going to happen when she goes to work. One of our group, a painter, said, “I am not trying to get a message out with my work, but to evoke a deep experience. What right do I have to impose my meanings on the incredible lives of other people?”

“Church,” said another, “has become the place where you go if you know, rather than the place to find out. It has become the place of the answer instead of the question.” Could we possibly abandon the project of collecting the best answers and devote our attention to curating the best questions? Where would that lead? Would we just get lost in the maze of unknowability? Or as the Psalmist says, is there anywhere we can go where God is not?

Where can I escape from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in the underworld, you are there.[v]

When we discussed the drag imposed on creativity by the institutional rage for order, the young leader of an “emergent” Christian community spoke up: “I want a wild church, where things are out of our control.” For Christians concerned about communal stability and institutional sustainability, that might sound like a recipe for chaos. But as our sacred stories remind us, chaos is prelude to creation. And if anyone thinks the Church is not in need of some serious re-creation, they aren’t paying attention.

The worship spaces of Venice, with their monumental forms of marble and mosaic, their exuberant decoration, their Bellinis, Titians, and Tintorettos, express a religious confidence that is nearly incomprehensible to our own time. More frequented by tourists than believers, they seem like gorgeous tombs for an expired past. Then what shall we say when the prophet asks: Can these bones live?

Jaume Plensa,

Jaume Plensa, “Together”

One Sunday morning I attended mass at San Giorgio Maggiore. There were less than forty people present in its vast interior. But as soon as the liturgy ended, many more people began to stream into the church. They had come not to worship, but to experience a contemporary art installation, part of the Biennale art exposition taking place throughout the city. A giant head, made of thick wire, faced the altar from the nave. Consisting of far more empty space than substance, it was a ghostly, immaterial presence, in but not of this world. A great golden hand, suspended over the crossing, bestowed upon that serene and mysterious face a perpetual blessing.

Jaume Plensa,

Jaume Plensa, “Together”

The contrast between the sparsely attended mass and the popular artwork could be interpreted as a simple duality of irreconcilable opposites: religion vs. art, old vs. new, moribund vs. vibrant, neglected vs. popular. But that would be too facile, ignoring the deep connections between the artwork and the worship space it inhabited.

It was not accidental that the head, modeled on a girl of Chinese and Spanish ancestry, faced the altar from the nave, like any common worshipper, or that the blessing hand mimicked the gesture of countless priests who had presided in that place for a thousand years. The work couldn’t be detached from Christian ritual without evacuating much of its meaning.

At the same time, there was something universal about a blessing hand and a receptive face. The extreme magnification of head and hand functioned like a cinematic close-up, focusing on the act of blessing in isolation from any specific ritual context or tradition. We didn’t see the vested body of a Catholic priest, or encounter the sociology of a local congregation. We only saw a hand that blesses and a face that receives. For me, the elemental humanity of this universal gesture reinforced rather than replaced the meaning of Christian blessing.

So instead of a rivalry between art and religion, there was a conversation, in which each informed and enriched the other. An explanatory text said that Jaume Plensa’s artwork, entitled Together, employed “a metaphorical language that will connect people of many faiths and of no faith.”

The conversation between art and religion, and among artists of many faiths and no faith, can only be tentative and experimental in an age of fragmentation and doubt. It will also be wild and unpredictable. If any of our small group came to Venice thinking we might collectively forge a vision of what the Christian artist is called to be in such a time, in such a Church, we were soon awakened from that fond dream. There will be no manifesto from the Venice Colloquium. We have returned to our homes with no answers, only more questions. And some lasting images.

Another Biennale work, Rashad Alakbarov’s The Union of Fire and Water, provided particular inspiration. As part of an installation evoking the turbulent political history of Azerbaijan, an array of swords and daggers was arranged in such a way that a message was created from their shadows: Do not fear. The instruments of violence and death had been transformed into an utterance of encouragement and hope. It was reminiscent of the Arma Christi, where the implements of Christ’s suffering become symbols of salvation.

Through the play of light and shadow, the handwriting on the wall was there for all to see. For artists out on the road of unknowing, with the voices of caution and order tugging us backward lest we lose our way, it seemed like a word from heaven. Do not fear.

Rashad Alakbarov,

Rashad Alakbarov, “The Union of Fire and Water”

[i] John Ruskin, Modern Painters III (IV: 333), abridged and edited by David Barrie (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), 404

[ii] q. in Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (New York: The Penguin Group, 2012), x

[iii] Ruskin, The Stones of Venice I, 9:17, quoted in Ruskin’s Venice: The Stones Revisited, ed. Sarah Quill (Farnham, Surrey: Lund Humphries, 2015), 41

[iv] The Stones of Venice (10:82-3), ibid., 55

[v] Psalm 139: 6-7