A Hasty and Unsolicited Take on an Arbitrary Smattering of Collateral Exhibitions at the 2019 Venice Biennale by JP Peralta
Being in Venice during the Biennale Arte 2019 was one of the most unique experiences of my life. You can’t go anywhere in the city without stumbling into a church that’s been converted into a buzzing sound installation, or a vacated palace that is now home to a nest of oversized meerkats made from candy-apple red plastic. No matter where you go, art is in front of you and behind you and you’re getting yelled at for standing on it. That sort of constant immersion is transportive in the best ways. You see poetry in the overgrown plants. All the crumbling plaster on the walls becomes sculpture. Each time someone slips on the marble-topped stairs becomes a performance piece. I looked at, listened to, and at times ran my fingers through more art than you could cram into a cruise ship and crash into the city. I have thus far had no platform to share my unasked-for opinions on some of the fine work at the world’s greatest art exhibition, but the time has come. What follows is the least-anticipated piece to ever be written about any Biennale: A Hasty and Unsolicited Take on an Arbitrary Smattering of Collateral Exhibitions at the 2019 Venice Biennale by JP Peralta.
I want to begin with a disclaimer. I am not an art critic. I am not even a journalist at all. I am a young Clevelander with a bachelor’s in Art History working in museum education who has way more opinions than he has any right to have, a priceless opportunity in a beautiful city, and Microsoft Word. To contextualize my art-viewing experience in Venice, you should know that I had two full days off each week to go around the city and see the exhibitions. One of those days was Monday, when a lot of exhibitions are closed. I also had about six hours a week that I was free to go about Venice and see whatever shows I could. I was not able to see everything the Biennale had to offer and with so little time and so much to see, I did not spend nearly as much time in each exhibition as it deserved. Good art writers will spend hours poring over every detail in every room of an exhibition. I spent about one hour in each show on average. Luckily, I have never claimed to be a good art writer. I just have Microsoft Word, remember? Anyway, let’s start with my favorite part of any travel experience: the lowlights.
1. Förg in Venice at Palazzo Contarini Polignac
“Förg in Venice” was the result of a collaboration between the Dallas Museum of Art and Günther Förg’s Estate. The works on paper and small sculptures that constituted the show were stunning on their own. Förg’s unearthly command of line and color are on full view in this retrospective exhibition. Pieces like Untitled (2007) are striking examples of exploratory, contemporary painting. His petal-like blotches of paint adhere to a discernible pattern of brushwork, but their seemingly-random placement on the canvas feels more like Förg has eliminated the barrier between thinking and making, leaving the viewer with an unaltered view into pure consciousness. Each painting on its own was an absolute joy to look at, I just found it hard to stay looking at any of them. The reason being that the intimate, domestic setting of Palazzo Contarini Polignac felt completely inappropriate for the work it housed. I found it difficult to even find some of Förg’s paintings because they had been completely swallowed-up by the space. The architectural decoration, ornate furniture, and expansive canal views in this fifteenth-century palace completely stole the show, which left me conflicted. You would think I’d just be glad to see great art in a beautiful space, but I saw a lot of that exact combination in Venice and nowhere else did I have this problem. It was a shame, and maybe not a pure “lowlight,” but I was disappointed, at least.
2. Renata Morales and Marina Abramović at Ca’Rezzonico
Let me start by saying that I feel bad for lumping Renata Morales’s immersive project Invasor (2019) in with the lowlights. I quite enjoyed both rooms of her installation. The junkyard stacks of gold-plated tires peppered with dinosaur figures and beheaded cherubs were refreshingly sardonic. The chunks of concrete piled into the center of the second room did feel like the rubble of a freshly-desiccated shrine, where the stone souls of girls were ascending from the dust like phantoms. Invasor was one of the few projects at the Biennale that gave me a true sense of discovery, and I loved that. My issue with this show came quite unexpectedly with the work of Marina Abramović. Now, I am a big fan of Abramović’s. The work she has done for art and for performance is peerless. She is one of the few geniuses of our time, so my expectations for her show in Venice were high. Perhaps too high, even. Her work, titled Rising (2019), was a tremendous disappointment.
To start, the VR was not good. Spotty motion tracking and flashing indicators on the screen ripped me out of whatever little immersion I scrounged to find. My in-game hand kept spazzing out, and at one point it was 30 yards away from the rest of my body, spinning around an invisible point in space, which I personally didn’t find very realistic. When I saw the in-game avatar for Abramović, trapped in a tank of water, instead of feeling a deep sense of dread as she seems to have intended, I had to stifle a laugh. Her avatar looked like a Madame Tussaud’s model that got left in the backseat of a hot car at a Best Buy, while some intern bought the VR headsets. I didn’t understand what my role in the artwork was at all, and the message I came away with was, “sea levels are rising. We have to care for the planet.” Which, as important and true of a message as that is, it was ineffective among the other, more compelling artworks about climate change at this year’s Biennale, such as Sun and Sea: Marina (2019) at the Lithuanian Pavilion. I was immensely disappointed with Rising, but between the two of us, Abramović has already made history with her countless, ground-breaking performances, while I have wasted enough of my life doing VR that I have a lot to compare this work to. So I think she still comes out on top.
But enough of the lowlights! I think it’s time to look at some of my favorite shows:
3. La Pelle at Palazzo Grassi
At an art event where so many exhibitions draw visitors with immersive, sensory installations, I did not have especially high hopes for a show exclusively made up of paintings. But I already had a ticket from a prior visit to the partner show in Punta Della Dogana’s Luogo e Segni (the best value ticket in the city), so I figured I would be losing money if I skipped La Pelle. But I was dead wrong. If I had skipped La Pelle, I would have been losing much more than money; I would have been robbing myself of one of the most visually arresting and engrossing shows I’ve ever been to. La Pelle is a retrospective exhibition of work by Belgian painter Luc Tuymans. Tuymans’s practice is defined by an at-times unwilling collaboration between painting and photography, in which he will paint and thus monumentalize photos that we might not otherwise give a second thought. Me (2011), for instance, is based on a photo that looks like it was accidentally taken with an idling webcam. Other paintings might be based on a polaroid but capture the visual corruption that many images experience as they are banished from real life onto VHS tapes, then blasted on the screen of CTR TV, and finally photographed off the CTR screen with a cheap polaroid. Tuyman’s paintings surround themselves with the same unnerving mystique as found footage videos. The stoic architecture of Palazzo Grassi is even a fabulous backdrop for the cold effect of Tuyman’s work. Throughout the show, he presents ghastly subject matter in a matter-of-fact way that only intensifies how disturbing each thing is, and this experience of facing the raw humanity implicit in so many horrors will stick with me for a long time.
4. JANNIS KOUNELLIS at Fondazione Prada
Fondazione Prada’s encyclopedic retrospective of pioneer Jannis Kounellis was breathtaking. The Greek-born Italian artist’s sculptures from every point in his career are installed across three entire floors of the palace’s dilapidated interior. As one of the founding members of what is now known as the Arte Povera movement, the materiality of Kounellis’s works is a real draw. Everything from his experiments in coffee grounds, to his burlap sack and bean sculptures, to his blue-gas flame installations are on view. Of particular note to me was his piece, Untitled (2004), made from 452 rolls of lead and fabric, stuffed into a doorway functioning as a single unit, integral to the building’s structure. One of the biggest successes of the show is the way it so clearly demonstrates Kounellis’s elevation of industrial materials to art media. Similar to La Pelle, the building served to reinforce the material nature of Kounellis’s artworks. Crumbling marble, chipped plaster, and hard-wrought beams fit perfectly alongside the rusted iron flowers and decaying bronze bells in the show. Every aspect of Prada’s exhibition this year was full of reverence for the artist’s memory, and the show served his practice well.
5. Human at San Giorgio Maggiore
When I first walked into San Giorgio and saw Sean Scully’s sculpture, Opulent Ascension (2019), I was floored. The brightly colored felt tower, measuring a mammoth thirty-three and a half feet tall, is placed directly at the center of the nave, beneath the dome. The saturated colors of the felt play off of the shallow range of cool grays, blue-greens, and natural whites of the surrounding marble architecture to create a truly otherworldly experience. The closer you get to the sculpture, the more appropriate it feels as a gateway to heaven, and the view after entering the sculpture feels completely divine. You have to crane your neck completely up to see the oculus of the dome, which acts like a tunnel to heaven, while the striated colors of the tower zoom you along. I spent what felt like an hour with Opulent Ascension, completely involved in the work. And that is just the first piece in the show. Human is a retrospective exhibition on the Irish-born American artist, Sean Scully, that features a few new works, among them Opulent Ascension. As I moved through the sacristy and cloisters of the abbey of San Giorgio Maggiore, I came to a special peace, along with the help of Scully’s emotionally-packed canvases. I think Scully achieved his goal in showing contemporary artworks for the enrichment of the Catholic faith. The meditative quality of his large-scale paintings and sculptures within the context of a more traditional religious setting did not feel at odds at all. I felt calmed, like each of his pieces was a nun with a quiet fortitude. Human was among my favorite shows in Venice, and likely among my favorites ever.
So that’s my Hasty and Unsolicited Take on an Arbitrary Smattering of Collateral Exhibitions at the 2019 Venice Biennale. These are not all the shows I saw, but they are the ones I was most excited to write about, for one reason or another. If you end up going to Venice, remember to wear sunscreen, stay hydrated, and don’t drink the canal water no matter what. I promise it’s too salty. Trust me.