“Venice excels in blackness and whiteness; water brings commerce between them. Italians excel in the use of black and white, white stone and interior darkness. Colour comes between, comes out of them, intensely yet gradually amassed, like a gondola between water and sky.”
This was the first paragraph to Adrian Stokes’s prologue to Venice: An Aspect of Art, which he ends with John Ruskin’s most beautiful passage:
“Well might it seem that such a city had owed her existence rather to the rod of the enchanter, than the fear of the fugitive; that the waters which encircled her had been chosen for the mirror of her state, rather than the shelter of her nakedness; and that all which in nature was wild and merciless,—Time and Decay, as well as the waves and tempests,—had been won to adorn her instead of to destroy, and might still spare, for ages to come, that beauty which seemed to have fixed for its throne the sands of the hour-glass as well as of the sea.”
Having read Stokes’s writings again just before our trip to the 56th Venice Biennale, I was reminded of Ruskin’s social reformist view: instead of the fatal conceit of a distinct division of the thinking person and the working person, where, “As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers and miserable workers,” he proposes, “it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.” Consequently, as soon as my partner and I arrived to the beloved city we decided that for each day of our stay we would spend the first few hours looking at the magnificent Venetian masters such as Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto at the Galleries dell’Accademia and the Scuola Grande di San Marco, before embarking to the new art showing at the Giardini, Arsenale, and collateral palazzo. The balance prevented visual overload, oddly enough.
Okwui Enwezor’s curatorial vision of All the World’s Futures is the exact opposite of Rob Storr’s 2007 Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind, and to choose a preference for one or the other is beside the point. It’s simply interesting to note their stark differences in every respect. This year, the hard-won pleasure was to see what actually could be seen, and digested. My impression is based largely on what have remained for me memorable encounters. In spite of the overarching political content, there were undoubtedly wonderful pairings in the Arsenale among several artists, whether it was through a shared idea such as Bruce Nauman and Adel Abdessemed (which sets up the light and dark of ominous atmosphere, as well as the instability of forms created by strong and repetitive diagonals, in both welded knives on the floor and the neons on the walls), or through mere visual intelligence like that of the late Terry Adkins’s vertical stacked drums against Melvin Edwards’s horizontal welded sculptures. This in turn was embellished nearby by Pino Pascali’s canon, as it continued the thread with artists of younger generations like the wondrous Propeller Group, Abu Bakarr Mansaray, Hiwa K, Ayoung Kim, Petar Bauer, Sonia Boyce, Cao Fei, and Helen Marten, mixed in with older artists such as Chris Marker, Christian Boltanski, Chantal Akerman, and Adrian Piper, just to name a few. Similarly, several pavilions revealed an exhaustive repertoire of responses to social/political issues in overt presentations, including Russia, Serbia, the Philippines, Armenia, and the India/Pakistan collaboration. More subtle displays were found in the pavilions of Montenegro, Albania, and Israel. Patricia Cronin’s Shrines for Girls (thrillingly, the latest Rail Curatorial Project, curated by Ludovico Pratesi) quietly compelled thoughtful yet pernicious messages in Venice’s smallest church, deconsecrated, just off of Palazzo San Marco.
I should mention that being in Joan Jonas’s low-tech, handmade installation of her landmark hermetic repertoire at the American pavilion, was utterly miraculous and delightful. It was as though an Emily Dickinson poem was being read out loud to you in Venice! Similarly, Jonas Mekas’s Internet Saga at the only Burger King in town was the most transcendental yet subversive intervention I have seen in recent years. Emerson’s philosophy of individualism comes to mind immediately. The performance of Jason Moran and his trio The Bandwagon quenched the over-extended visual thirsts of a lucky few. Sarah Sze’s quiet and lyrical sonnet of forms and sound in the garden was equally enchanting. Mika Rottenberg’s pearl piece was exceptional. And the Rousseau show in Palazzo Ducale was of first-rate curation (organized by Gabriella Belli, Guy Cogeval, Laurence des Cars, and Claire Bernardi). I commend the curators for such playful and intelligent contextualization.
On the return flight to NYC I thought of how indispensible poetry is in our culture. Not everything has to be spelled out. It’s the permanent mystery of nature that is identical to what can be imagined. Baudelaire was sensible when he declared imagination as “the queen of faculties.” So was William Carlos Williams, as he wrote in one of my partner’s favorite poems, from Kora in Hell:
After thirty years staring at one true phrase he discovered that its opposite was true also. For weeks he laughed in the grip of a fierce self derision. Having lost the falsehood to which he’d fixed his hawser he rolled drunkenly about the field of his environment before the new direction began to dawn upon his cracked mind. What a fool ever to be tricked into seriousness.
P.S. The Rail welcomes Laila Pedro as our new Managing Editor.
This issue is dedicated to the memory of two great artists,
Rosemarie Castoro and Chris Burden.
Phong H. Bui is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.