Bookending the Biennale

May 28, 2017

Hirst claw foot copy

Clawed foot of Damien HIrst’s “Demon with Bowl” (Exhibition Enlargement) 2014, painted resin, in the courtyard of the Palazzo Grassi from the exhibition “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable.”

It’s next time again.

Ah, the blank page – or, in this case the blank canvas. Is there anything more exciting? Is there anything filled with more potential? It is in this frame of mind that I once again come to Venice looking forward to another Biennale of Art. This small, unique city on the water transforms itself every two years into a torrent of contemporary art. You float along with the official Biennale exhibitions and events and, as if this were not enough, every museum around town (and there are many) also do equally stimulating tributary exhibitions. The Financial Times extolls what I have always believed, “the (Venice) Biennale remains far and away the most significant and defining event, the “must-see” of the contemporary art world.”

This year, 120 artists faced that blank canvas moment, hoped for inspiration and, with that artist’s magic knack, created something out of nothing so they could fulfill their Biennale contracts. I come here to explore those fertile ideas. I love having the opportunity, in this magical place, to explore something original and undiscovered; to frolic in fresh ideas. It’s exhilarating.

Biennale Giardini copy

Main entrance to the Giardini in Venice where the Art Biennale has been held every two years since 1895. This year’s exhibition is underwhelmingly titled “Viva Arte Viva” which you might translate as “Long Live Art.”

This year’s title was well-intentioned but underwhelming. Viva Arte Viva. (!?) What is that? Long Live Art? You can do your own translation and please let me know if you come up with anything vivid out of this ho-hum-platitude of a title. I had high hopes for the ideas of this year’s curator, Christine Macel. She has been at the Pompidou for more than a dozen years and writes for every Art magazine on the planet. I always look to the curator’s statement for key ideas that unify the intellectual thrust and I’m afraid this year the concept seems a little self-evident. She says, “art bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human, at a time when humanism is precisely jeopardized. Art is the ultimate ground for reflection, individual expression, freedom and for the fundamental questions.” I must be missing something. The most generous description I have heard of her is that she is, at her core, a humanist. Aren’t we all? But, before I get bogged down in my own cynicism let’s move on to some of the stuff that was provocative.

HIrst full torso copy

Looking up at HIrst’s colossal bronze, “Demon with a Bowl” in the courtyard of the Palazzo Grassi.

Damien Hirst. Yep. Always good for a provocation. You love it or hate it but it sure makes a statement. A 60 foot bronze, naked, very male, headless undersea half man/half monster striding forth (with little elbow room and clearly no where to go) in the center of the Palazzo Grassi? Well, yes, you are correct, technically, he (meaning Damien Hirst) was not part of the official Biennale but, who cares? He is here, in force, in two museums with 54,000 sq. feet of exhibition space and 189 sculptures that were supposedly pulled from under the sea. Hirst’s reported 60 million dollar project is a vivacious crowd-pleaser of an art show. The title has all the appeal of a Disney blockbuster: Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. He, for me, represents one “bookend” holding up the variegated library of ideas at this year’s Biennale.

The work is slick, well-conceived, playfully shocking, and highly commercial. He is here to make a statement and the long years of hard work and significant investment have the Disney sheen of a well-organized, high-quality/high-price entertainment franchise. The exhibitions feel a bit like the art world’s most colossal gift shop. Almost everything comes in various sizes and copies to fit any art oligarch’s wallet.

Time lapse video of the installation of Hirst’s colossal bronze “Demon with a Bowl” at the Palazzo Grassi. 

The NYT reports, “The large bronzes are $5 million; a four foot long Sphinx in Copy format is $1.5 million.” I can’t imagine all this effort being anything but a smashing commercial success. It’s too well-conceived to be a flop. Who doesn’t like a visit to the Magic Kingdom? Damien Hirst stands as tall as his bronze giant. He is one of the Art World’s most significant brands – and his image packs in all the jet set flair of “art as smart investment” for the savvy, well-heeled, trend-conscious connoisseur. I honestly enjoyed what I saw and I confess to being a fan.

 One of the 189 sculptures in Damien Hirst's exhibition which "tells the story of the ancient wreck of a vast ship, the ‘Unbelievable’ (Apistos in the original Koine Greek), and presents what was discovered of its precious cargo: the impressive collection of Aulus Calidius Amotan – a freed slave better known as Cif Amotan II – which was destined for a temple dedicated to the sun."

One of the 189 sculptures in Damien Hirst’s exhibition which “tells the story” of the ancient wreck of a vast ship. The appeal of sunken treasure is hard to resist.

Mark Bradford painting copy

Mark Bradford’s painting “Tomorrow is Another Day” mixed media on canvas, 2016, from the U.S. Pavilion installation of the same name. His work is abstract but carries a mood which connects to his dedication to social justice.

At the other end of the bookshelf is my other bookend, and this year’s official Biennale United States artist entry, Mark Bradford. He seems to me to be Damien Hirst’s polar opposite. There were lots of articles this year about commercialism in the Biennale and I want to be clear this is not my beef at all. I love it when art is successful. I love it when artists make tons of money. When it comes to supporting culture and valuing artists I say, “Viva Arte Viva!” Mark Bradford also commands hefty six-figure prices for his work and is by every measure a trend-setting, sought-after, investment-worthy art producer with significant celebrity in the art world.

Bradford’s art is abstract and the meanings are veiled. Hirst, in contrast, seems barefaced and representational and the impact, in this latest undersea work, is literally brought to the surface and exposed for all to see. Both artists are promoters but, in this their roles are reversed. It is Hirst whose motives seem perhaps less obvious. Surely there is more going on here than the price tag? Exactly what that is, is hard to define beyond a sort of beguiling irony. In contrast, Bradford is boldly outspoken about what he is promoting; he shamelessly (and admirably) exploits his art to draw attention to social justice. He uses the bright light of his art world celebrity the way a photographer uses a bounce card or shiny reflector. He deflects his considerable charm and charisma to spotlight all sorts of worthwhile causes and he talks about all this with disarming honesty and passion.

The new buzzwords, in the art world, about art with a charitable purpose are, “social practice.” I’m usually not a fan of this sort of thing. I don’t mind at all that art is essentially useless (to use Oscar Wilde’s famous phrase). Mark Bradford’s art, and his impressive personal example, have me questioning my cynical reactions to art born of higher purpose (social practice). Also, to be fair, I took a look and Damien Hirst contributes to all sorts of charitable causes, (find out more here). My point is, unlike Mark Bradford, I don’t think Mr. Hirst’s art, at its core, is dedicated to social practice.

Anita Hill and Mark Bradford copy

Mark Bradford and Anita Hill at a press conference in front of the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The rubble behind them is part of Mark’s installation.

It was Mark Bradford’s comments during the Press Opening that started me down this path. He was standing there, all six foot eight of him, next to an unlikely colleague – Anita Hill. What in the world are they doing together? These two really smart people met at Brandeis University. They have an easy banter born of shared interests. This is an unusual pairing of an artist and an activist.

It was really fun to see Anita Hill in this context. There they were, out in the open air, at a press conference staged in the space framed by the Jeffersonian architecture of the American Pavilion which had been purposely trashed with rubble as part of Bradford’s installation. None of us will ever forget Anita Hill and her shockingly closeup, and very personal, tightly-framed testimony in the Clarence Thomas hearings. Seeing her looking up to “the impossibly tall” Mark Bradford, she appeared as in Scott Turrow’s memorable phrase, “like a trick of perspective, seeing someone at a distance who you had only previously known at close range.”

From the little I heard of it, their conversation at the Biennale seemed a bit superficial but, I tracked down an earlier conversation with them, from 2015, to see if I could better understand the ideas that unite them. Mark’s art is abstract so it requires research to uncover the politics. With some of his previous work he has asked the question, “What else can Art do?” In his case, because he has been so successful – it turns out quite a lot. Mark is involved in countless community activist projects for prisoners, foster children, community centers and many others. He has put much of his prize monies and revenues from his multi-million dollar art sales into these projects. All this is remarkably generous and admirable. Anita Hill commented that he seeks projects which “do great things for the art world and then brings that success back to the community.”

He talked about how interested he is in seeing how language gets put into the public discourse. Anita Hill was a role model for him. He saw her courage and found strength in her example. He, for example, does not like to “cool off things that should remain hot.” Anita Hill agreed wholeheartedly and then said something which impressed me deeply. In referencing both Mark’s art and her own testimony she said, “You are telling the truth about what life is like for you.” She added sometimes those truths are not easy for people to hear. Seems like a very succinct and profound observation about her legacy and also about what certain kinds of art can do.

Art completely transformed Mark Bradford’s life. He now wants to share that experience with others. I thought about what it must be like for a foster child or someone in prison to receive encouragement from someone like him? This is powerful stuff. It is certainly close to the positive humanistic core of art’s potential. But, in Mark’s art (because it is abstract) these ideas are kept at a distance. You only really become exposed to his “social practice” if you research his biography or investigate the ideas behind his art through other channels than your own eyes.

Green Light copy

A worker assembles one of the lamps designed by Studio Olafur Eliasson which are sold to benefit an NGO to aid mass displacement and migration. Performance art with a direct link to “social practice.”

Not so with Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s Green Lamp project. Eliasson is known for dramatic, tech-saavy, aesthetically impressive installations. Here, at the centerpiece of Christine Marcel’s curated Biennale pavilion, his co-op based art project arrives as sort of a worthy puzzle for you to assemble along with all your prejudices about co-op made art. See them now, refugees, immigrants and asylum-seekers putting together geometric formations out of wood. Turns out these are LED lights designed by Eliasson that you can buy for €250 to aid an NGO. Nothing hidden or abstract about it. This is in-your-face social practice through performance art and my first reaction was “ugh.” I felt very awkward taking the pictures to illustrate this. But, (and I give Mark Bradford and Anita Hill all the credit for this insight), on further reflection, what might it mean to someone to participate in an event like this? Eliasson is a sophisticated well-seasoned artist and he found all this to be very meaningful. Why can’t we just roll with his good intentions and give him some credit? This experience could be an incredibly positive force in someone’s life. So what’s the problem? Mark Hudson in the Telegraph said it perfectly, “the event feels like an uncomfortable updating of the kind of colonial-era exhibition in which well-heeled westerners watched life in transplanted ‘primitive’ villages.” He is not the only one feeling this way. Everyone I talked to about this piece had the same sort of queasy discomfort. The Financial Times called it a “human zoo.”

Faust catwalk copy

The German Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale featured a performance titled “Faust.” The project is by Anne Imhof and is curated by Susanne Pfeffer. It won the Biennale’s top prize, the Golden Lion, for best National Pavilion.

This becomes the perfect conceptual launching pad for the German pavilion which brilliantly exploits the idea of the human zoo and in its edgy execution Anne Imhof and her team win the Biennale’s top prize – the 2017 Golden Lion. The Fascist era architecture of the German Pavilion is surrounded by a fence and the interior perimeter is patrolled by lean, black, scary-looking guard dogs. Inside a troupe of dancer/performers methodically writhe in a sometimes sexy, sometimes scary, slo-mo ballet to the haunting avant garde music conceived and produced by Billy Bultheel.

Mickey in Crowd copy

Two of the actors from Faust surrounded by a watchful audience perform a slo-motion modern choreography with intense concentration.

The title of the piece is Faust. The performance is hypnotic. The actors are sometimes right next to you and at other times perched on catwalks or on the roof, behind windows or under the glass floor at your feet. It’s like a human ant farm or an aquarium. The guard dogs sometimes interact with the actors. Imhof often works with animals in her installations. As you watch, the line blurs between spectator and actor. The observed are also observing you and there is a moody feedback loop here echoed in the organic repetition of the music that swells and fades as your attention shifts back and forth between performer, audience, surveillance and intense self-awareness. The vibe of the actors’ tenacious concentration is reinforced by the watchful eye of plain clothes security bouncers who circulate among the crowd. One of the performers who is responsible for much of the choreography told me he works hard to train the attitude of the newer actors. Their blank expressions are in their own way very beautiful. They are studied and very deliberate.

Dancers under glass copy

The raised glass floor installed at the German Pavilion provides a see through low-ceiling stage for the choreography.

Curator, Susanne Pfeffer, describes part of the intent of the piece, “The dog in the kennel, the dog and its master, the dog and its companion — these pairings are evidence of how cultural change has altered power relations. They are a symbol of the changing constructions of nature: Where there used to be a dualism between nature and culture, the world now presents itself as a kennel. In a society that conceives guilt not in religious terms but as a matter of individual responsibility, that considers ill health not as divine punishment but as a personal failure, the body becomes capital and money the measure of all things.”

Entrance to the NSK exhibition inside Palazzo Ca' Tron. NSK State Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2017. Photo: Maria Giulia Sofi

Photo of the entrance to the NSK exhibition inside Palazzo Ca’ Tron combined with the NSK’s citizenship recruiting message. NSK State Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2017. Photo: Maria Giulia Sofi

I was very moved by Susanne Pfeffer’s statement in the context of recent news about heath care in the United States. How could I not think about these things when confronted by another very political art installation? The NSK State Pavilion posed well-formed questions in darkened rooms with wickedly sloping floors and illuminated panels, “What do you want to take with you from your country’s heritage (as you understand it) to help build a new and better world?” and “What do you want to forget or delete from the heritage of your own country (as you understand it) to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past? Heady stuff you can’t help but ponder as you read the newspaper. What a joy to entertain all these creative concepts and extract meaning from them. Back to Damien Hirst for a moment, I cannot resist quoting Holland Cotter’s very droll, very astute, very cutting remark on the project, “experience has taught me that damning criticism can be as useful, promotion-wise, as praise. So I don’t have much to say about “Treasures of the Wreck” except that it’s there; that some people care; and that it’s irrelevant to anything I know about that matters.

Hmmmm. Art disconnected from things that matter? This begs all sorts of inquiry. May I revise my snarky opinion about Christine Macel’s comment above? For me, it seems this year’s Biennale did exactly what she described. Should art be so overtly political? Why not? Art has often been the tool of propaganda. Should art involve itself with social practice? Again, why not? It certainly did for thousands of years in service of religion. Does anyone think the art of Fra Angelico or Giotto is second rate? Or, should art be something else? Something pure and untainted by the need to do anything at all.

Two pages from the original letter written by Oscar Wilde explaining what he meant by the phrase, "All art is useless." Courtesy Morgan Library

Two pages from the original letter written by Oscar Wilde explaining what he meant by the phrase, “All art is useless.” Courtesy Morgan Library

Swimming around in all these ideas (and sinking fast) I grabbed on to Oscar Wilde’s concept of the uselessness of art. I decided to look up the full quote so I didn’t get it wrong for you. Leave it to Oscar Wilde to throw me the perfect life preserver. Look what I found! Did you know about this? The actual letter, penned in his own hand, is in the Morgan Library. This is his delightful response to a gentleman inquiring about Wilde’s comment “all art is quite useless” from his famous novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.


My dear Sir

Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.

A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse. All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.

Truly yours, Oscar Wilde


He is so right. The subject is a long one. With apologies until next time.

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  • Jeremy Bell says:

    Great and balanced review of Damien Hirst. But I is Mark Bradford who I am looking up now. Thanks for the introduction!

  • Jerry Patton says:

    Always thought provoking. Appreciate you going the extra mile on the Oscar Wilde research.

  • lois bonfiglio says:

    What a pleasure. So great to be able to see
    ‘venice.’ You’ve given us the opportunity to
    see the art, a real service. thanks!

  • Joe garry says:

    Bravo..potent..immediate..insightful..What an iconic experience..brilliant reporting.
    I felt like I was there.
    Many thanks for sharing your razor sharp impressions.
    Joe Garry

  • Tom Upton says:

    Oscar was so right: “A work of art is useless as a flower is useless”. Similar to what Satchmo said about jazz . Something to the effect of “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”

    Thanks for being my art quide.

  • Tom, this is an other powerful and riveting read! As they say in my country “complimenti”. You brought the Biennale to life for me. I had read so much about Damien Hirst’s “opera d’arte” as well as Mark Bradford’s politically charged statement, and in both cases I was engaged. While Mr Hirst’s project is numbing in its detail and grandness, Mark Bradford’s work brings to the fore a sadness and disconnect with his country’s leadership. It takes courage to present your views to the world and I personally admire anyone who can do this. As to “Viva Arte Viva” perhaps it really does apply particularly in today’s increasingly cynical climate. We need to connect with our humanity more today than ever before and if art can be a vehicle for change then more power to it. Just a thought! Keep on writing…

  • Bob Woods says:

    Tom, Your site is worthless, yeah right. It’s always fun to see what you’re up to and what’s going on at the Venice (jealous) Biennale. Mille grazie! Bob

  • Georgia Murray says:

    Another terrific blog, Tom – thanks for bringing the Biennale to life for those of us who only dream of going. And loved your description of Anita Hill – one of the most amazing women in our recent history – and one who is finally getting the recognition she so deserves. You captured her perfectly.

  • Linda Butler says:

    Tom, this is simply a great post. I generally feel a little lost in most contemporary art exhibitions and would almost certainly have felt that in Venice. You not only let us see some of the amazing highlights, but also provocatively inquired what this was all about. Thanks so much for including me. Linda

  • Jane Bredendick says:

    Greetings from your little sister!
    Two quotes came to mind:
    The first about art being political. “…as society’s nature is to herd the mass imagination down predictable lines, the artist’s job is to find ways of avoiding those well worn grooves.” -Nick Bantock
    The second seems to celebrate that giant demon with the bowl. “Devils come to earth briefly transformed to stop you from being artistic, from becoming artists. And they have a magic question: ‘What for?’ – but art is not FOR anything. Art is the ultimate goal. It saves our souls.” -Young-Ha Kim

  • Brian Hamill says:

    I am always impressed with the verve and enthusiasm you put into your blog even if I disagree with some of your opinions. Your sentences are always sharp, literate, and crisp. And I so respect the effort and clear thinking that goes into those opinions. When I do agree (mostly do) it is way cool !

  • cassandra henderson says:

    Wonderful article. I very much enjoy and look forward to your receiving your blog.
    Have great summer,

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