Exhibition review: the 51st Venice Biennale, The Experience of Art / Always a Little Further,

"My Quest for Relics and the People I Met along the Way." Review of the 51st International Art Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia: The Experience of Art, curated by María de Corral, and Always a Little Further, curated by Rosa Martínez. Venice, June 12 — November 6, 2005.

Published in Studija 43, no. 4 (2005).

Download article pdf.

View article on Studija magazine online archive.

Learn more about the 51st biennale, curators, and participants on the Universes in Universe website.

This is the biennale in which my photo of an installation (by Pascale Martine Tayou) ended up on the cover of the magazine.

Photo: © Alise Tifentale.

Excerpt:

[. . . ]

My travel notes would make repeated mention of the images created by Leigh Bowery (seen at the Arsenale in the exhibition "Always a Little Further", curated by Rosa Martínez). Bowery, who was born in Australia in 1961 and died in London in 1994, is a phenomenon: an incarnation of reckless, creative freedom, an artist of the body, of dress and movement, himself a work of art. A star of London's clubs from the early 80s, a fetishist obsessed with the cult of costume, certainly not a "normal artist", someone for whom image and dress represented the meaning of life, who needed dressing up and role-playing like air to breathe, and moreover not with the intention of "looking better", but rather with the idea: "What could I do next?" This is not a case of an exotic or pitiful transvestite or an unusual ragman. Rather, Bowery's art lay in his ability to use his body and his unlimited imagination in order to generate surprising visual images, of a kind that might fit some unrealized carnival "Star Wars" world.

Colorful, joyful and beautiful beyond the bounds of reason, such are these images recorded in photographs and in a few videos of Bowery's performances in London clubs. Moreover, collaboration with Nick Knight, Annie Leibovitz and other influential photographers guaranteed Bowery greater attention and saved him from the oblivion of the underground. The dress, photographs and performances shifted from the clubs to the art galleries, and he modelled for painter Lucian Freud (an exhibition of whose works is also being shown this summer in Venice). Bowery was no supermodel with an indifferently attractive body; he used the forms of his body in his favor, turning the "dressing up" characteristic of club nightlife into a form of art, so that his works might provide material for a whole handbook of aesthetics, elegance, sexuality and associational role-playing. In contrast to Vivienne Westwood, for example, who built a lucrative business on the remains of punk subculture, Bowery worked only with and for himself, and his heritage will never be available in a "prêt-à-porter" version. Perhaps this is why his mad fantasy is being shown at an art exhibition now, more than a decade after his death. This is art for people who are almost insanely free, a festival of unlimited and uninhibited imagination, even retaining indecently sweet aesthetic qualities and astounding the viewer with its "nothing is impossible" attitude.

[. . .]

Created in an 18th century Baroque oratory (a small room with an altar, intended for playing and enjoying religious music) was the Argentine exhibition: the performance/installation "The Ascension", by artist Jorge Macchi and musician Edgardo Rudnitzky. Even before viewing the exhibition, all the circumstances - the venue, part of a religious building, and the title, derived from the Catholic calendar - indicated that there would be some connection with Christian dogma, Argentina being a country with a strong Catholic tradition. The exhibition was in fact one of the most powerful experiences of this Biennale. The oratory ceiling has a fresco depicting the Virgin Mary ascending to heaven in the company of angels, in the finest Baroque traditions and enclosed within a Baroque frame. The artists have placed a trampoline directly beneath the fresco, precisely reflecting the form and size of the ceiling piece. In the course of the performance (or "intervention", as the artists prefer to call their work), two musical instruments are played: a work by Rudnitzky is recited on a viola da gamba, with an acrobat on the trampoline providing the rhythmic accompaniment: the creaking of the springs and the beating of his feet against the elastic surface.

The sounds created by the acrobat are organically integrated into the music as an element of the composition and the ritual as a whole, which presents absolute perfection, a closed circle. It incorporates a multitude of paradoxes, the discovery of which, even without pretending to define them, is a source of enjoyment to a detective of art. Trampoline jumping as an ascent to heaven? Is this blasphemy? In a Catholic country, faith and ritual are no doubt rooted deeply enough in everyday life for the use of these as material for art not to appear as a transgression or crime against faith, whether or not you're a practicing Catholic. Another aspect: the fresco is called "The Assumption of Mary", as is customary within the Catholic tradition, while the work is entitled "The Ascension", and there lies another paradox created by the authors. In accordance with Catholic dogma, Christ himself climbed to heaven as a man and as the Son of God, while Mary was taken up to heaven in accordance with the will of God, rather than her own will, a privilege that distinguishes the Mother of God among all other mortals (who may enter heaven only after the Last Judgement).

The trampoline serves as a visual aid, revealing Man's wish, born of his pride, to "climb to heaven" by himself, and at the same time his inability to do so, since gravity draws him back to earth, only to kick off for another futile jump. Movement, sound, rhythm, the room with its original function and fresco, as well as the broad context of the work's content, together make "The Ascension", to my mind at least, one of the most powerful works of this Biennale. Its outward lightness and simplicity disguise an existential significance of a kind that may be ignored if the particular viewer so wishes.

Read more — download full article pdf.

Some more random photos from the 51st Venice Biennale:

Art critic at work, or selfie before the invention of the selfies. Photo: © Alise Tifentale.

Photo: © Alise Tifentale.

Photo: © Alise Tifentale.

Photo: © Alise Tifentale.

Photo: © Alise Tifentale.

Photo: © Alise Tifentale.

Photo: © Alise Tifentale.

Photo: © Alise Tifentale.