War of the Worlds

June 8, 2009

A gripping and edgy double screen projection by the Milan-based team MASBEDO

It’s next time again.

A man in a black suit and tie has landed by parachute in a snow covered mountainous landscape. A roaring wind buffets and violently twists his billowing parachute. He grimaces in pain as he tries to control it before it kills him. Will he survive? On the adjacent screen, a striking woman with long hair in a water logged black coat is almost drowning. The half submerged camera is bobbing with her in the water as she gasps and screams. The water is choppy and treacherous. The loud music (mostly plaintive guitar and deep booming percussion) makes these scenes tense, elegiac, and somehow heroic. Welcome to the 53rd Venice Biennale of Art.

Almost every other year since 1895, the art community, like an invading armada in search of a new world, has voyaged to Venice. This year, a new young director, Daniel Birnbaum, 46, has declared a sort of war of the worlds. “A work of art is more than an object, more than a commodity. It represents a vision of the world, and if taken seriously must be seen as a way of ‘making a world.’” This is his theme: Fare Mundi – “Making Worlds.” Over 90 artists in the main exhibition will make their worlds at this years Biennale. They are in a war for your attention. To cover the battlefield over 6,000 journalists have invaded the city. Total attendance is expected to be over 300,000. Venice is well prepared and uniquely situated for this onslaught. Always a crossroads of people and ideas, Venice has seen everything. Nothing surprises her. What I adore the most is new art in an old town, and the old town is well-armed, primped and primed.

See now the newly restored Peggy Guggenheim Museum. The facade has been completely cleaned. Viewing it from a small boat in the middle of the grand canal my friend tells me they had watered the plants on the upper party deck with fertilizer containing copper sulfate. This made ugly green stains all over the white Istrian stone facade of the building. Now the stone is blinding white and looks years younger. But the Peggy Guggenhiem is not the only building refreshed by a face lift. The Palladian church of San Giorgio Maggiore has been polished with money from Prada. The scaffold on the Ducal Palace has been removed. It preens with wonder-of-the-world status. My favorite church here, San Salute, a billowing ship of a building, is now out of restoration and her abundant domes gleam. Even the old customs house, one of the most famous landmarks in the world, The Dogana, has been completely refurbished by Japanese master architect, Tadao Ando, and has become a new contemporary museum funded by the king of the French luxury brands, François Pinault.


The domed church of San Salute and the newly restored Customs House (Dogana) at the mouth of the Grand Canal. The Dogana has become a new museum of Contemporary Art featuring works collected by François Pinault.

Traditionally, the Biennale has been held in specially made gardens (the Giardini) which contain small permanent buildings built in the 1920‘s by the participating countries. In more recent years, as the Biennale has grown, new venues for art are scattered all over the city. This year 70 countries participate with over 40 collateral events. Half the fun, in this palazzo-filled half sunken paradise, is a scavenger hunt as you consult your map to try to discern where the art has been tucked away.

A behemoth military building of legend – the Arsenale has now become a massive gallery of art. Traditionally, this fortress protected and defended all of Venice’s treasures and created her world-renowned fleet. Guarded by a diverse collection of stone lions brought back from the crusades, the Arsenale, at the height of its powers in the 1500s, was a bustling shipbuilding complex of 16,000 workers. They churned out a massive warship every day through perhaps the largest and most audacious assembly line ever constructed. For the next several months, the vast high-ceilinged and brick columned spaces will crank out an endless stream of art enthusiasts. Mostly dressed in black, they come by the thousands to be transformed.

The massive interiors of the Arsenale in Venice now construct art memories instead of warships.

Being here is an overload of the senses. The old city captivates you with a timeless beauty you feel in your bones. Then you enter into the mouth of this international art factory and are slowly chewed and processed by clever artists all of whom want to blow your mind. Some of them assault, some seduce, all are craven for attention.

I think it is fair to say, when the Biennale began over a century ago, art all over the world was easier to recognize. It was often picturesque. It was delivered in a gilded frame and it usually involved the representation of a narrative. I’m thinking of Greek myths or Bible stories. Often the art was judged by how well and convincingly the artist depicted nature. In the 20th century, some artists found it more fun to hide the art. To use the metaphor of this years director, some artists make their world with a handy map and others don’t. Some art sticks out its hand with a smile on its face and seems to say, “It’s so nice to see you. Welcome to my world!” Other artists deliberately put up barriers to keep you at bay. You don’t get in without a visa. It feels more like an airport screening. “Take off your belt and your shoes. Is this your passport? Where is your boarding pass? Take that change out of your pocket. Open your luggage and let me paw through it. What’s wrong with you? You can’t take that bottle of water in here!”

Some art is wide open. Other art is closed and secretive and it is next to impossible to find your way in. Some of it is like a puzzle and too often a one trick pony. Once you get the trick – the mystery evaporates and takes the art along with it.

How appropriate the Biennale’s two major venues here are an arsenal and a garden. One, the Arsenale, was all about protect, defend and attack. The other, the Giardini, was a refreshing green foliage labyrinth promising a playful game of hide and seek. Today, art of all kinds is contained in both and overflows into the rest of the city. The world makers have taken over. Getting lost in Venice takes on a whole new meaning.

What happens to you when you look at art, especially contemporary art? How do you separate the good from the boring? How do you get through security? Do you use a process? Do you have a litmus test? What have you found that is helpful to the rest of us?

The Dutch Pavilion featured a Marco Polo theme and video installations at various scales by Fiona Tan

There are far too many worlds to explore here and there is much to tell. I will do this Blog in two parts. I feel like Marco Polo. In fact, the artist for the Dutch Pavilion, Fiona Tan, used Marco Polo’s diaries in a large video projection piece. In her installation we watch well made video scenes of exotic Asian treasures as a bored male voice reads Marco Polo’s stream of consciousness memories of his far flung journey. While I liked her projected installations, what caught my eye even more were her small elegant black and white portrait videos. They are made from long anticipated miracles of technology. Thin black wooden frames hang on the wall. The video picture inside on a LCD screen is slowly alive. The technology is invisible. The execution is perfect. They are filled with magic.

Fiona Tan’s elegant video portraits are in a small corner of the Dutch pavilion.

The best video, warring for recognition among several hundred here, I would give to the Milanese artist team of Nicolo Massazza and Jacopo Bedogni who call themselves, MASBEDO. The work is described above and linked here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTgm3HSBPEI#t=34  It passed all my tests for video art. Is it well made? Is it something I can’t see on TV or in a normal theatre? Does it grab me? Does it in any way astonish? MASBEDO gets A++ on all accounts.

Paintings by Wade Guyton and Kelly Walker make up an installation at the Biennale Pavilion (formerly the Italian pavilion) at the Giardini.

See now the somewhat baroque but curiously processed paintings of another team, Guyton and Walker, based in New York. Their paintings, filled with fruit and op art checkerboards are beguiling smart and fun – a combination I find very sexy.

One of two giant mollusks by Huang Yong Ping are composed of a material resembling moon rocks.

Maybe its the water logged venue but I adored the giant mollusks of Huang Yong Ping from China. The moody tentacles of these pieces pulled you into a scary water world and slowly engulfed you by their size, their spooky material and their suspense.

In the Japanese pavilion artist Miwa Yanagi combines drama and humor to make a feminist statement.

 Japan’s Miwa Yanagi created a queasy brothel in her exhibition: Windswept Women: The Old Girls’ Troupe. Gigantic black and white photos, of busty strip teasers, tower above you in heavy black ornate frames. They bump and grind and their heavy breasts, in each successive photo, become progressively more distended and grotesque. What starts as an easy seduction has gone completely creepy. Then Miwa delivers a knockout punch. There is a black shrouded yurt over to the side, the size of child’s playhouse. You just know there is a naughty peepshow in there. Voyeur that you are, you have to get down on all fours to peek inside. Inside is a video. What sort of weird Japanese freak show porn will this be? It is a video of a black shrouded yurt (with the troupe inside) scurrying across a white barren landscape like a comical black spider on newly sprouted legs! She did it. She charmed and transformed me. Imagine my delight when the next day Catherine pointed out the entire Japanese pavilion was shrouded in a giant black yurt! How did we miss this? Superb!

I will end part one by inviting you into the larger discussion. This will make part two much more interesting. The problem with writing about this art is it is so “you had to be here.” But isn’t that usually the case with all art? Back to the theme of exploring worlds – how do you prepare for such a journey? This metaphor begs to know your travel style. The humorist Robert Benchley said, “There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.” When it comes to art “voyages” which are you? Do you plan and prepare for a trip or do you just wing it? When you look at art do you let it just wash over you or do you analyze? What hints do you have, especially for the enjoyment of contemporary art, which you find useful? What gives you the most pleasure and what drives you nuts? Where do you draw the line (if you do) and say, “This isn’t art, this is just crap!” In the new art worlds, where the criteria are so much more difficult to define, how do you get your bearings?

I so look forward to your insights.

Until then I remain, happily bewildered and your,


  • hello tom,

    you are such a clear thinker and writer. thank you for having me on your list. of course i try to take art in as part of my daily diet. and of course i am sorry that i have to see, feel and taste this year’s biennale through your eyes only. but such is life. there are now art fairs in every corner of the planet at any moment of the year, and photography fairs are mushrooming at the same rate. and by living in new york, you absolutely have to pick and choose what you will give your attention to. so i give an example of my visit to the guggenheim yesterday. the frank lloyd wright show was up. an impressive career. but apart from the mile high proposal for chicago and the guggie itself, i gravitated to their 60th anniversary show of paintings and certain little gems. there was a gorgeous raw matisse of a nude in a primal landscape, maybe only 14×17 and it still glows in my cortex. sometimes one image in a building is all you need–just the amuse bouche, and i can sometimes walk away from the rest of the 8 course meal.

    thanks again. and soon let’s catch up. it’s been a whirlwind spring and summer, but lots of fronts move forward.


  • Juan bastos says:

    Dear Tommaso,

    Thank you once again for an insightful and beautifully written blog. This time you invite us to your experience going to the Biennale of Venice and what’s happening there! I wish I had the chance to see it personally. I recall the Biennial at the Whitney Museum some years ago, and sadly, I barely remember anything framed. Most displays were installations, which they are fine, but the fantasy of imagine having it “at home” evaporates quickly. Whenever I go to a Museum, secretly I fantasize owning my favorite art work and living with it, regardless if we have ten foot ceilings at home. OK…maybe fourteen feet ceilings would do. My imagination is tied to some realistic issues, so I had never imagine owning “Las Meninas” of Velazquez, no matter how much I love that painting! It’s then, hard to imagine to live with installations, and the visit to these type of shows becomes more detached for me. Still fun, I am sure, but in order to get my dreams chained to a more doable fantasy, I rather visit the newly restored Peggy Guggenheim museum…I can imagine even Peggy’s dogs wagging the tails when I walk in..!

  • martina says:

    Wow, for the end of this month, that the New Yorker has a whole article by Alex Ross about Marlboro, (called “the Music Mountain”)and mentions Joshua Smith wrestling with Elliott Carter’s “Eight Etudes and a Fantasy,” which sounds like the devil to play. I was so happy, since I now feel connected through this diary to Joshua! The whole article is enchanting, and carries the atmosphere of Vienna in the summertime– how one would go to the woods, the mountains, and get to play music; with birds singing and sun shining on the bright and beautiful musicians playing through such an abundance of pieces! I loved how Mitsuko Uchida mentions the way time there can be slowed or accelerated. Also, the rare wonderful beauty of sharing time with older and younger musicians, sharing the immense love of the music, and insights they have worked out and gathered over a lifetime. It was especially marvelous to hear the vignette from Yo Yo Ma, about watching Pablo Casals, looking close to death in his 90’s, rising with joy to conduct Beethoven’s Fourth– for Ma, it was clear evidence that there is a mysterious gift and force in music, greening the soul, bringing deeper and richer life forth, even at such advanced age– which helped when he was young and unsure, to confirm his own vocation.

    Alex Ross has the most marvelous line of his I have ever read– speaking of Uchida’s laughter– “wildly oscillating, that sounds like a flock of songbirds ready to be transcribed by Olivier Messiaen.” And also her way of giving hope to women artists–

    “It’s the way women can be now– happy, good, beautiful, powerful”: and how glad I am that Rebecca Ringle could answer

    “She’s so elfin, but really powerful, and definitely feminine and totally intelligent”. God, what a marvelous way to spend a summer! I am jealous, but also grateful for this little window into that musical world!!

  • Michelle Moehler says:

    Enthralling! Thank you for sharing your experience, both inside and out. From the breathtaking view of the renovated Dogana to the grotesque and captivating giant mollusks (I can only imagine these in person!)… your senses must be truly overwhelmed.

    On a separate note, I’m really enjoying the little tidbits of “inspiration” on the right side of your blog. Keep them coming.

  • martina says:

    Dear Tommasso,

    The scenes from the water-height of a Venetian rowboat or barge are marvelous. To imagine such a huge collection of international art work is mind-boggling, and to imagine it occupying that city of the lemony evening light on the water, and with the huge collection of permanent art and architecture, makes it hard to think of anything useful to say, or even to get one’s bearings. I can believe that you are gladdened and maddened by the provocative display! You asked about preparing to receive the art one sees. It depends on many factors, on different moods and days. Sometimes I walk in to something absolutely unprepared, to be surprised; and sometimes it is a beloved work, seen over many years, which deepens my appreciation every time I see it. I feel that way walking into the Frick in New York. There are some things which make the room they live in more alive, and grab my heart.

    There are some places I know that my heart will be waltzing around in, just to see the way the light fills the room. ALSO, we cannot discount the company we are with when looking at the art work. There are some people who see more, deeper, finer, more interestingly, and can bring out more riches for me to glean and gather. I was delighted to have you send me a note about looking up in the evening from the canalettos, and seeing into rooms where Henry James could have been writing. It gave me such a clear picture, that window into the twighlit world of Venice. I prefer beautiful things to ugly things, or to utilitarian things. I usually don’t like things which are so abstract that there is very little emotional content or suggestion. I love the way light and rain land on spiderwebs. I love the wrinkled hands in one of the photos you posted. I am intrigued by the Japanese porn Valkyries. I like the idea of the yurt inside a yurt, inside a yurt. I like it that the military Arsenale is now a giant art space. It gives me hope for the world. BLESS YOU for sharing the kaleidoscopic work with us! Thanks!!

  • warren ilchman says:

    Tom: I am truly grateful for this edition. Provocative and Wise. Warren Ilchman

  • How great to get a vicarious visit to the Biennale! Thanks!

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