[Venice is] a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak – so quiet, – so bereft of all but her loveliness, that we might well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City and which the Shadow.
This is the description of Venice that the British writer and art historian John Ruskin gives in the incipit of his famous three-volume The Stones of Venice, published in London from 1851 to 1853. In the following lines, the author expresses the real reason of a treatise about Venetian art and architecture: I would endeavour to trace the lines of this image [the fading, feeble reflection of the city on the sea] before it be for ever lost, and to record, as far as I may, the warning which seems to me to be uttered by every one of the fast-gaining waves, that beat, like passing bells, against the STONES OF VENICE. The purpose of the book, therefore, is a warning, an alert… but against what? Mr. Ruskin (an eccentric bearded Victorian gentleman) seems to condemn the aesthetic decadence and the moral corruption of the Italian city, a process started in the XV century with the Renaissance, which provoked a decline rather than a rebirth, giving rise to an art degenerated into formalism and devoid of the righteous truth of the Gothic style.
Of course we do not agree with this radical point of view. However, I can’t help but reflect – once again – on the double-sided nature of the city of Venice, as it is revealed by Ruskin’s words: ghostly and real, faint and mighty at the same time. But Venice is a town made of rocks, rather than of phantom ruins; the stones of its churches, palaces and buildings tell the story of the city. Even Ruskin’s warning – premise for a Gothic revival in art – comes from the walls and the domes of Venetian architecture. That’s why I would like to mark the best collateral events and exhibitions in Venice during this Biennale starting from the palaces and buildings that host them – the STONES to which John Ruskin devoted his passionate, zealous essay.
1. Dogana da Mar (Customs of Sea)
Like a bow of a ship, the XVII century building of the marine customs – now housing one of the two Venetian locations of the François Pinault Collection – slices through the sea surface and points towards East, the place where silk and spices came from. The voluminous and curved mass of Santa Maria della Salute seems to control the triangular shape of the structure; the white tower at the far end of the triangle has on the top a golden bronze sphere, sustained by two exhausted Atlases. “Prima Materia” is the title of the show inside Punta della Dogana: it refers to the primitive mythical substance from which everything originated, to the alchemical matter necessary to the creation of the philosopher’s stone. The Prima Materia contains everything, the body and the soul, the sun and the moon, the organic and the inorganic – prime base of the universe, essential principle of existence. Even though the curatorial concept of the exhibition – conceived by Michael Govan and Caroline Bourgeois – is quite generic (the term “first matter” is an all-encompassing container for diverse, miscellaneous works), the breath-taking spaces of the building (recently restored by Tadao Ando) present extraordinary artworks. First of all, the huge installation by Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch, composed by three different “sculptural theaters” – improbable domestic-like settings – and a video showing the crazy feats of characters halfway between male and female gender, folly and eccentricity. I also appreciated the series of three-dimensional figurative paintings by the American artist Llyn Foulkes, the dazzling installation by Loris Gréaud and, in particular, the room with works of the Japanese movement Mono-ha and the Italian Arte Povera, both developed in the same period (late 1960s-1970s). It’s the first time I have seen pieces by Lee Ufan and Giuseppe Penone, Mario Merz and Kishio Suga next to each other; they perfectly dialog together, in a game of echoes and resonances, revealing the same concern – the importance of matter and the experimentation with poor materials.
2. Ca’ Corner della Regina
The facade of Ca’ Corner della Regina, built by the architect Domenico Rossi in the first half of the XVIII century, spreads a sense of balance and harmony. The line of pointed arches and the series of squared windows gives the building, which hosts the Prada Foundation, a neoclassical demeanor. You can hardly imagine, watching it from the outside, that a show held in Bern in 1969 takes place here again, after forty-four years, inside the historical frame of the palace. “When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013” is a curatorial experiment conceived by Germano Celant, with the collaboration of Thomas Demand and Rem Koolhaas. It reenacts the exhibition “Live in Your Head. When Attitudes Become Form” curated by Harald Szeemann at the Kunsthalle Bern in the late 1960s: the latter has been a landmark exhibition, since it originally featured the incredible creative energy of a group of artists from Europe and America whose artistic practice emphasized a processual, anti-formalistic approach and the use of modest materials. The two floors of the Kunsthalle have been grafted into the historical architecture of Ca’ Corner: here we can find again not only the art works and the installations exposed in Bern, but also the walls, the floors and the staircases of the exhibition space. The show at Prada gathers together works by Carl Andre, Robert Barry, Joseph Beuys, Alighiero Boetti, Daniel Buren and many others; the pieces originally exhibited in Bern but no longer existing or unavailable for loan have been pointed out through rectangular shaped silhouettes on the floor, associated with old photographs. It looks like a philological investigation, a sort of archeological attempt to disclose and reconstruct a past event that has been fundamental in the recent history of art. What I found engrossing – more than the artworks displayed – is the operation itself, not just a remake or a copy, but (to mention Celant’s statement) a “ready-made” of a show. Like Duchamp’s Fountain, the re-proposal of “When Attitudes...” in another location, completely different, almost half a century later, produces a strong sense of oddity, estrangement – the same you have while looking at a urinal in a museum. This peculiar feeling is accentuated by the combination of the basic walls and floors of the Kunsthalle (totally reconstructed in the palace) with the beautiful ceiling frescoes of Ca’ Corner: a weird, interesting mix which confers the exhibition a slightly nostalgic tone.
Rudolf Stingel, Untitled, 2012, Installation view at Palazzo Grassi, Oil and enamel on canvas 3 panels, each 300 x 242 cm; Pinault Collection / Photo: Stefan Altenburger /Courtesy of the artist.
3. Palazzo Grassi
Designed by the Venetian architect Giorgio Massari and completed in the last quarter of the XVIII century, Palazzo Grassi was the last palace to be built in town before the fall of the Republic. With its elegance and austerity, which apparently make it a symbol of power and prosperity, the building represents a misleading prelude to the decadence of Venice. It’s quite ironic that its current owner is a French tycoon, François Pinault – French as Napoleon Bonaparte, the person responsible for the Serenissima’s decline in 1797. The impressive installation by Rudolf Stingel that covers the entire surface of the palazzo’s walls and floors – meters and meters of oriental-motif carpet – possesses a decadent quality. The rug refers to the history of Venice (and to its trades with the East); this hyper-decorative skin makes the building packed, almost suffocating. The rooms also contain paintings by the artist, from the big abstract experimentations to the photo-realistic portraits (an amazing one is that of his friend Franz West), and the black and white representations of ancient wooden sculptures. In this exhibition, Stingel reflects on the relationship between abstraction and figuration, two-dimensionality and the third dimension, painting and architecture. An unmissable stop-over for the visitor who drops by Venice.
4. Former Dreher Brewery at Giudecca
I want to conclude my Venetian tour through the Biennale and its collateral events in a modern building, quite different from the magnificent palaces located along the Canal Grande: the former Dreher Brewery, built in the early XX century and renovated in the 1980s by Bruno Minardi. It is a majestic structure in red bricks situated on the Giudecca island, a quiet and long strip of land in front of the Dorsoduro district. There, inside the ample spaces of the factory, is the Spazio Punch, which hosts the project winner of the XLV Contemporary Art Prize issued by The Fondation Prince Pierre de Monaco: "The Joycean Society" by the Spanish artist Dora García. The installation is composed of a film, books amputated and transformed into sculptures, and a wallpaper made of notebook page fragments. The fil rouge of García’s intervention is language; in particular the video work documents the long hermeneutic process of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake inside a reading group. This is the last book by the Irish writer – his most difficult text, crossed by a polysemous and hardly decipherable language. The artist’s interest in Joyce’s literature resides in its “deviant” property – it is similar to a schizophrenic speech, close to a mystic glossolalia. García’s investigation of language – so deep and brilliant – becomes a way to uncover the non-conventional, aberrant side of human living.
To read more of Federico Florian's impressions of Venice, follow his Biennale Diary, published on KLAT magazine - Special Venice Biennale:
Biennale Arte 2013 Diario #01
Biennale Arte 2013 Diario #02. Arsenale
Biennale Arte 2013 Diario #03. Giardini
Biennale Arte 2013 Diario #04. Padiglione Italia
Biennale Arte 2013 Diario #05. Francia
Biennale Arte 2013 Diario #06. Libano
Biennale Arte 2013 Diario #07. Gran Bretagne
Biennale Arte 2013 Diario #08. Olanda
Biennale Arte 2013 Diario #09. Irlanda
(Image on top: Installation view of “When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013” From left to right: Richard Long, A Walking Tour in the Berner Oberland, 1969; Claes Oldenburg, Model (Ghost) Medicine Cabinet, 1966; Richard Artschwager, Blp, 1968; Claes Oldenburg, Study for Pants Pocket, 1963; Joseph Beuys, Ja Ja Ja Ja Ja Nee Nee Nee Nee Nee, 1968; Fondazione Prada, Ca’ Corner della Regina Venice, 1 June – 3 November 2013 / Photo: Attilio Maranzano / Courtesy: Fondazione Prada.)