Living in Memory – War of the Worlds Part II

August 16, 2009

Promotional still from the bacchanalian art installation: Unconditional Love by the technically brilliant and fashionable Russian team AES+F at the 53rd Venice Biennale.

It’s next time again.

You gotta love the Biennale. It’s an orgy of creativity. All this art, great and small, was imported to tiny Venice. I love to think about how all this weird and wonderful stuff cleared customs?

Art is supposed to impact you in some way. Isn’t it? It should make some difference in your outlook. If it’s good – it should somehow touch you. With this in mind, and with some trepidation, I beg your indulgence for the second part of the remembrance of the 53rd Biennale. Remembrance is the key. I want to remember these highlights and if I write about them, I will. I realize this is a personal motivation and I will strive to make it as interesting as I can and raise some issues that will hopefully take this beyond a travelogue.

The first issue concerns the idea of memory itself. One of my favorite comments about any Biennale came from my friend Howard Freedman. When some were complaining, a few years ago, that this Biennale was not as great as that Biennale, Howard said, “Sure it is, you just remember all the great stuff from that Biennale. You’ve forgotten about all the crap you saw and you are only remembering the really good parts.” This strikes me as a perceptive truth and it connects to the core of what art is supposed to do. What you “take away” from an art show like the Biennale is only a small part of this larger story.

This idea was further described by the great landscape architect Peter Walker. I interviewed him for a program done about Cleveland Clinic’s new expansion and landscaping which includes a minimal-art-inspired fountain. Peter Walker said his goal was to create a project that would, “Live in memory.” How erudite is that! He was incredibly articulate about this and I feel as though it is a core principal of his art. How significant this idea must particularly be for him since we are surrounded by landscape all the time and yet the medium of his art is to somehow take the everyday landscape and make it special. He said, “We see stuff all the time but much of it is just stuff. It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t stick.”

Do you see the “memory test” as any sort of significant criteria as you evaluate art? It has been a life changer for me. Now I think about this all the time. This is much more than just the aftershocks of “the shock of the new.” What lives in memory may indicate something very elusive and profound about the nature of art. It certainly impacts the fields of advertising and modern politics. I’m extremely curious about what you articulate souls have to say about this? Do you artists think about this (as Peter Walker does) when you create?

For what’s its worth, here is what I remember from this summer’s Biennale as so many artists fought to claim a little piece of memory among the brain clutter.

Is it a forgettable swamp or is it artistic genius? Lara Favaretto brings artful mud to the Biennale and makes it totally provocative.

See now the sprawling swamp of Ms. Lara Favaretto. She lives and works in Treviso which is a handsome town built around a slow river and charming canals. It looks nothing like her work. Lara’s awful garden is hiding in plain sight just outside the China pavilion in the Arsenale. The gardens themselves, in this part of the Arsenale, are overgrown and a bit mysterious. I wouldn’t blame you if you walked right past Ms. Favoretto’s work, after all, you might not have been here before and there is a really good chance you would just assume this part of the garden is in total disrepair and sort of a brackish mess. Not at all. She likes it like that. She imported all this slime! It took a ton of careful work for her to get it to look like something most people would ignore.

She describes her work evocatively: “A graveyard of the missing ones, that holds and hides objects, memorializing such infamously “lost” figures as writer Ambrose Bierce, artist Bas Jan Ader and chess champion Bobby Fisher.”

It’s the rare person who would actually see this art. It is a bog of woes. It speaks to the filters we all use to screen ourselves from ugliness as we stay on the lookout for beauty. I wonder what in the world Peter Walker would think? My gut tells me there is something profound going on. Maybe you can tell me what it is?

Trickster mastermind Hans Peter Feldman delights with an orgy of shadows.

I have followed the work of Hans Peter Feldman for several years. He has haunted me from a show he did in New York, where he pinned up tacky color Xeroxes, all the way to Muenster, Germany where he refurbished a public underground toilet with brightly colored tiles and Venetian chandeliers. Hans is one-half trickster, one-half conceptual artist, and wholly unforgettable. The question is, would I have loved his Biennale piece if I had not known it was his? The answer is yes! I loved the piece before I saw his name and when I did, I confess I loved it more. See now turntables filled with esoteric and iconic junk. Marilyn Monroe. The Empire State Building. A toy gun. Gnomes. A plastic clown. A pitchfork. A fake banana. Spotlights shine on the junk-filled slowly spinning turntables and cast a chaotic orgy of shadows. It is simple magic. A flickering shadow puppet of memory.

Mona Hartoum’s floating cube of taught, straight and suspended barbed wire.

There is a lot of bad art at a show like this and it can wear you down. You start to wonder if your perceptions have dulled and if your cranky mood is skewing your judgment. At times like these, when you then see something transcendent, your heart just wants to burst. The courage and nobility of the contemporary artist shines bright. Mona Hartoum to the rescue. Take 700 eight foot pieces of barbed wire stretched taught and perfectly straight. Dangle each one vertically, a few inches apart, from a grid in the ceiling until you have a cube eight feet square on all sides. Suspend the cube two feet off the floor. It reminded me of a treacherous forest of birch trees. It was breathtakingly fragile and completely vicious.

Giacomo Costa’s “Private Garden” defies attempts to figure out how he does it? The answer is simple: very carefully.

Another uplifting and memorable piece was composed from Giocomo Costa’s back lit Sci Fi landscapes. The piece is a hallway of back-illuminated panels titled, Private Garden. It employs the display technology you see in airport advertising. Giocomo lives and works in Florence. Private Garden has the rich texture of Angkor Wat set in an overgrown future.

This incredibly detailed landscape foreshadows a time when electronics and technology no longer function and unbridled nature is in a lengthy process of reclamation. The imagery is part architecture and part rain forest. Saying it is computer generated doesn’t mean it is somehow automated. This is masterful technical painting worthy of a Dutch still life.

Dario Escabar slashes bicycle tires and hangs them like really creepy Spanish moss.

Dario Escabar from Guatemala took bicycle tires and, in an orgiastic fit of creative frenzy, strips them lengthwise in half and hung them like gigantic tangled tresses from the 20 foot ceiling of the Arsenale’s stone space. If you’ve ever changed a bicycle tire you know how tough they are and you also know that pungent and distinctive rubber smell. Dario’s installation reeks of it. He slices through the mental clutter with a great idea. His redolent rubber tentacles grab you and won’t let go.

“From the Feet to the Brain” is a massive series of installations by Jan Fabre. They must have woken him in the night like nightmares from Gulliver’s Travels.

Jan Fabre gets the tenacity prize. I’ve shot large scale installations and I know how much work they are to create. The amount of work and effort which went into these monumental pieces in these soaring monumental spaces is astonishing. I loved the theatricality. You came up a large brick stairway and this gargantuan archeological dig smacked you right in the face. Seeing the artist himself in his black trench coat was a total shock. Don’t walk on the art for god’s sake! Is he real or is he a hyper-realistic manikin?

I don’t know if this art is good or bad. I do know it sticks in my mind. Does that make it great? I don’t think it does. I’m not saying memorability defines great art, I’m saying it is one characteristic. I’m also fascinated by the idea that an artist would consciously use the idea of memorability and attempt to “imprint” their work with this in mind. Jan Fabre seemed to me to be working very hard to accomplish this. Judged only by memorability – he succeeded, but I still have some reservations.

One final piece I have to mention was an orgy on film created by a team from Russia. The team fell in love with a clever quote:

“If somebody says, ’I love you,’ to me, I feel as though I had a pistol pointed at my head”
– Kurt Vonnegut

They used this quote as their mantra and created a wild party of a piece titled: Unconditional Love. This work is really hard to describe. Let me quote from the press release.

Unconditional Love by AES+F plays on gigantic curved screens creating a theater in the round. Balletic sexy imagery cut to blaring Tchaikovsky.

AES+F (Tatyana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky, Vladimir Fridkes) Russian, live in Moscow

Unconditional Love will feature the premiere of The Feast of Trimalchio, a new video project by the Moscow-based collective AES+F. The work updates and abstracts the story of the Roman plutocrat Trimalchio from Petronius’ Satyricon, transposing the orgies of masters and servants to the setting of a modern-day luxury hotel. The Asian maids perform services for their white male clients, and then the clients return them the favours. The loop of reciprocity suggests the frozen temporality of glamour, where only the present moment of youth, beauty, and hedonistic pleasure is valid. The Feast of Trimalchio caresses the contours of ephemeral passion, and in doing so it throws into relief the profundity of unconditional love.

AES+F imagines the impossible, films it, and then edits it together with computer generated architecture and landscapes. They then present their high fashion orgy on curving screens of the highest quality. Ideas are one thing. Exquisite execution is another.

I loved this piece because it was so well made. So much video art is slapped together and badly done. Many of the video installations in this year’s Biennale only worked for the first week and then broke down. It was a professional thrill to see an installation so artfully constructed. Unconditional Love surrounded and smothered you with competence. It was like a finely photographed Prada billboard come to life. It was perhaps too slick, maybe it was too self consciously fashionable, but it certainly was not boring. It put you inside a voyeuristic orgy of sight of sound with eight channels of Dolby Digital audio (expensive speakers blaring Tchaikovsky) and super high quality High Definition video projected on to theater quality curved screens. You sat on the floor in this theater in the round. It was sensuously made, wondrous and never to be forgotten.

As my friend Henry Adams muses – the artists in the 53rd Biennale created “meditations on Beauty, Danger, and Serenity.” Henry is an Art Historian and he likes to use the word instinctual as he describes the nature of art. He connects something powerful, something archetypal in the Jungian sense, with the power of Art to tap into the innate urges of our collective past. He believes the pre-historic cave paintings (which he has actually seen and not just read about) demonstrate an evolutionary survival mechanism of jaw-dropping force: imagination. What concerns me is how and why some art jangles this nerve and some art does not? By what primordial magic does art stick in your mind and yet become more than just a token souvenir?

Until next time with much love, I remain your,



  • Bev and Stan Fisher says:

    Dear Tom:

    I must admit we were in awe as we watched this–it was outstanding and I am forwarding to our artist daughter and others


    Bev and Stan Fisher

  • Juan Bastos says:

    Dear Tommasso,

    Back from Bolivia, and finally able to read your fabulous blog and its great responses. It’s the first time that I return to La Paz in winter after 20 years, and I have almost forgotten the beauty of the August light at 11,500 feet. Yes, I have many memories of that particular light, but experiencing it again, made my fingers itch to capture my morning walk in the downtown area of the capital. Harvey Buchanna mentions rightfully Proust, and I should mention Bergman’s “Wild Straberries”..Although I am not as old as the main character in the movie, entering the main Square in a bright morning, made me happy I was carrying my camera. The streets and light of yesteryear, in such a colorful setting, with Indian women colorfully dressed wearing hats, braids and shawls, made me realize the frozen memories I had that had inspired me to appreciate the unusual.Photography gives us the proximity to capture a moment, and if one is lucky, the photo can transcend into a mirror of recollections. The associations one can have with beauty that affects us, are certainly ingredients for a wonderful recipe to make our lives richer and more substantial. From more than 400 pictures I took on my trip, one remains in my head.

    Juan's La Paz

    The selectivity of imagery is very important to enrich one’s own universe.

    I just wish I had the chance to see the Biennale…From all the pictures you shared, the one of the shadows by Hans Peter Feldman is the one that I am most attracted!

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful thoughts.


    Juan Bastos is a brilliant painter and lives in Los Angeles. His work can be seen at

  • martina says:

    This is a great mystery. I appreciate Harvey’s thoughts on this subject. I disagree that we live in time more than in space. I have been thinking about how I love my garden in all seasons, and sitting on the deck in late summer, watching the roses bloom, and remembering the plums which made the tree so heavy-laden last June, but never grew this year. I love the resonance of being in the same place over and over again, with changing seasons, like a toccata and fugue.

    This morning, the beach was so foggy, we couldn’t see from the shore to the houses. People materialized in the pea-soup fog, as their dogs bounded out toward us from the grey infinity before we could see anything else. I know there were whales dancing and diving just beyond the breakers, but they were hidden by fog.

    This is a mystery of place– known well, and loved over time. There is something about what we are most familiar with– the way the room looks when we wake up in the morning, or when we are falling asleep, or the way the moonlight hits the window– which makes a deep resonance of memory, familiar and comforting. Like Proust’s madeleine. I was thinking while reading Harvey’s commentary, about the color of the sand in the painting I loved best by Gaughin at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. I had previously seen copies of the painting, but the sand was not that shocking coral which is one of my favorite colors. When I saw the painting, on visit to the MET, I was stunned. If I could have taken the painting home, I would have. I was deeply coveting it, and was filled with relief that they had a print on sale in the gift shop– and the color was more faithful to the original– a true coral-pink– the color one would use to make a sunset look more Hollywoody-unreal, but knowing that sometimes it is true. Unbelievable as sand, but in the painting it was perfect, and believable. The skin of the nude Tahitian women was also magnificent– an olive-brown living color, which had a tinge of green, and like real trees, a brown which was warm and not at all grey. Hard to match in a print. I took the biggest print they had home, and bought paint to try to make my whole bedroom that color of coral. Waking up in that room was joyful, even in medical residency with chronic sleep-deprivation. Waking at dawn, when the rosy dawn color enhanced the wall color, to really make it the color of the sand in the painting filled me with gladness– akin to Joanie Mitchell’s song– Chelsea Morning. The copy of the painting held the walls in synch with the memory of the real thing. I have used that color in every home I have had since– it is still my favorite color, and I love it in clothes, on walls, in sunset photos, and when it is just right, I remember the gorgeous full impact of Gaughin’s sand.

    It is interesting to think about what sticks in our memory– and then what reawakens it. When an artist hits the resonant chords in us, we remember through all the touchstones of that experience, our own similar experiences. I always loved a quote from Van Gogh– “the best way to know life is to love many things”. I think memory brings us more vivid emotional attachments when we have deeply loved the things we remember.

    I was recently reading a review by one of the leading OB-GYNs of our time, on Charlotte Bronte. I thought it was strange that he was writing about her, in an OB_GYN review. What he wanted to say was that she probably died of hyperemesis gravidarum– the terrible unremitting vomiting which occurs in some pregnancies. She died at about 16 weeks pregnant, starved to death, with total electrolyte imbalance, in her first pregnancy, just before her 39th birthday. She had been so happy to be married, and joyfully was looking forward to motherhood. In those days, there was no remedy– now we can give fluids intravenously, and potent medications to help. The mother would not have felt the baby move until about 20 weeks; so she was still unsure if she were pregnant, and whether the child was alive. Now, with ultrasound and dopplers, we can hear the heartbeat at 10 wseeks of pregnancy. Charlotte was the only child in her family not to die of tuberculosis. Pregnancy was still very dangerous, and she was at a more advanced age for a beginning mom. I thought of the Rodin statue in the sculpture garden at Stanford University, called “Hope”. Because I am an OB-Gyn, I could appreciate that the belly of the woman in the bronze statue was not just chubby, it contained a pregnant uterus, at between 16-20 weeks. The time when one would be feeling that she is probably truly “with child”, but still not feeling movement of the fetus yet. The time of hope. That is precisely the time that Charlotte was dying. I will never see a pregnant woman with hyperemesis again, without thinking of Charlotte dying, with her hope and her creative skill being so unfairly lost. “Through association and involuntary memory” we gain a wider human experience, said Harvey. I wonder now whether one of the semi-reclining nude female figures on that hot pink/coral sand that I loved, was pregnant!

    Thanks again, Tommasso, for the wonderful reflection!

  • Harvey Buchanan says:

    Several months ago (last spring) I remember vividly visiting an opening at Cleveland MOCA and discussing an exhibition you considered the best work in the show. a film of a performance artist living in a transparent box built on a traffic island in lower Manhattan. The actions of the woman were banal, routine and modest, but the high level technical competence shown in every aspect of the work turned the ordinary into something unique and even beautiful – urban and now. Although I have forgotten the name of the MOCA artist (shameful) the work has stayed in my memory because you shared his insight and experience with me, and I understand what you say about the impact made on you by the eight works in the 2009 Biennale. You suggest that if art is to make difference, it must have an impact, and that memory – remembrance – is a test of impact: does it have staying power? Does it stick in the mind?

    Is memory, as a consequence of “impact”, the test for judging the power (if not the quality) of a work and a way of working through the visual and sensual overload of something like the Venice Biennale or indeed of encountering any new work of art? Is the encounter memorable? Does the work have staying power? This is of course a subjective test because what is memorable to one is not memorable to all – although certain works become (are) memorable to greater numbers and a consensus is reached. They have staying power over time.

    If memory is important in experiencing a work of art, does memory also play a role in creating – a work of art? If a work it is to be remembered it must evoke in the viewer some aspect of his own experience and connect that memory with the work. What one remembers from an encounter with art is only a small part of a larger experience. Peter Walker suggests – implies – that larger function when he says that a successful work is a work that “lives in memory”. He wants to take our experience {encounter} of everyday landscape and make it memorable. This is a conscious and deliberate goal in his work. Is Walker’s and Tom’s “memory test” a necessary or significant {criteria} for making value judgments about art? Is it a general principle or too subjective to be useful? For Tom, this insight was ephiphanic, “life changing” he thinks about it all the time, even, presumably, when doing his own creative work. For him the staying power of art is a litmus test. Do artists – some, all – think about this as they work? Is art a way to immortality? Obviously yes for Bellini , Poussin, Cezanne , etc – – but performance artists ? Or are performance artists like actors, ballerinas and violinists re-creators, interpreters, not primary creators –“artists”, and does impact have a different meaning for them?

    How does the memory test connect with our larger human experience? Because we live in time more than in space our spacial experiences acquire meaning and reality only in the context of time and memory. That is why memory is central in all human experience and why art is important to our humanity and sense of self.

    The role of memory has been explored extensively in literature, theater and music. One of the best known and most profound is Proust’s in his vast novel “In Search of Lost Time” , where he describes and connects experiences that are recalled – brought back to the present, remembered – through involuntary association; a tea cake (Madeleine) he ate as a child, a phrase from a violin sonata, the sound of a teaspoon hitting a cup during a reception, a patch of yellow in a painting by Vermeer, etc. : tasting, seeing, hearing feeling – all the senses which involuntarily bring the past into the present, and push the present into the past. Memory creates depth in time, it links the past with the present to create what we experience as reality. Without memory the present has no depth, is one dimensional – or better merely three-dimensional . Memory – evoked by the senses through association – fills , magnifies , enriches present experience, gives it dimension, makes it real. So the eight works in the Biennale (and the film in Cleveland MOCA) have impact because the memories they summon up from Tom’s past, his work (technical distinction, etc) and more, that have been absorbed into the texture of his life.

    So what he calls his memory test is really a two-way experience. It is a necessary way of connecting with the complex mix of experience and memory in the work of art. Great artists are great in experience and insight and have much to share We don’t remember much from artists whose memory/experience is small, who have little or nothing to share. (Such experience is qualitative, not quantitative; one thinks of Giorgione, Mozart, Rimbaud) Thus memory plays another important function for the viewer, reader, listener – it offers us a way, draws us into the work of art, is a means of sharing in a larger experience and memory. The works of art we remember give depth to our own reality through retrospection or anticipation.

    Memory is a solitary act. We experience the universe of emotions it provides most deeply in solitude. Memory gets us out of ourselves and permits, persuades, seduces us to experience the world through the shared experience of another (the artist), whose world is not the same as ours; and thereby our world is multiplied. We have as many worlds at our disposal as there are artists (or even works of art. Through association and involuntary memory art offers us the possibility of multiple selves; that is essential if we are to experience the world (reality?) in a truly human way.

    Recently I came across a story by the late John Updike, “Grandparenting” , with this last sentence” “Nobody belongs to us except in memory.”

    Harvey Buchanan is a distinguished Art Historian and the former “much beloved” Dean of Arts and Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. – TB

  • hello tommaso,

    thanks again for igniting those synapses. i am in the daily process of making marks with a camera, with light, with gelatin silver emulsion and now with inks. and a lot of what i am doing is editing where i have been and what i have seen. it’s only what rises to the surface again and again that will make the grade since almost all those other time space intersections–the way more numerous misses– are only stations on the way to the occasional moment of grace, and that can never be planned. that which sticks to the memory dendrites can sometimes, with luck, be conveyed to the other. maybe that’s the realm of the memorable.

    as always, thanks for your very provocative insights, tom

    Abe Frajndlich is a brilliant photographer who lives in New York City. He opens a new show in Frankfort, Germany this month. – TB

  • martina says:

    Bellisimo, Tommaso! The one that got me the most was the theatre in the round, with the perfectly filmed master/slave dynamic. I would like to see it from the curved theatre floor. In the photo, it reminded me of pregnant couples at the LaMaze classes, getting ready to do the breathing exercises. Just at first glance– that moment, recognizing couples, trying to deal with pregnancy and get ready for a big event, in shadow, as something is projected onto the screen for them to learn. It also was interesting to see the arcade filmed in a semicircle, then projected flat in your photo here. I also really loved the archeological dig, with the humanoid head. And the artist standing on the pate.

    Your question of memory is lovely, haunting. I will try to think about it and say something coherent later. Right now, I am thinking about Charles Michener’s gift to me, of the Lorraine Hunt Lieberson arias. I so love the Theodora one, “as with rosy steps the dawn, advancing, drives the shades of night; so with virtuous toil well-borne brings the hope of endless light…”(track 7) that I want it played at my funeral. I know it “by heart” now, having listened to it over and over and over again, day in and out for several months now — it has become one of the most treasured strands in my brain, coming and going to work, driving in my car. One might do well to think of this, in relation to your question about memory.

    I love her CDs very much, and am blown away that Bach wrote that fugue “I am looking forward to my death”. Perhaps that is a touchstone for memory — where the highlights of one’s life have illuminated us, in such a way that we live them over and over, when we hear a beloved piece of music. Also, the “Ich habe genug”– which reminds me of Faust– who can say at that moment, “this is enough”– to which moment in life??? When would I say “ok, stop the merrygoround, I want to get off? Once I heard from an artist that he would like to die at 4:30 in the afternoon under a cherry tree with the blossoms falling, in the evening light. If one imagines it over and over, would it suffice, even if it is not the final moment one can remember?

    I just saw the movie, “The Time-traveller’s wife” which I loved. I loved the brief poignant ways they glanced at each other, trying to hold on, as he slipped in and out of her life. I loved the scene when she is pregnant, with her fully pregnant belly seen just tipping over the rim of the bathtub as they discuss the names for the baby. It is like dawn, with the sun just rising over the horizon. They decide to name the baby Alba, which means dawn. I doubt I will forget that scene, even if the rest of the movie falls into forgetting. Thanks, as always for a provocative idea and beautiful blog!!

    Martina Nicholson posts here faithfully. She is an Ob/Gyn living in Santa Cruz, California. Her new poetry book is titled: Walking on Stars & Water. – TB

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