I'm a dual national, so, in more prosperous times, I'm often lucky enough to spend some time in my hometown (Melbourne) as well as Rometown (Rome).
Obviously, COVID19 has thrown all that out the window.
I've spent almost a year now working mostly from home - feeling a bit Hitchcocky constantly looking out my rear window - as I work away on my day job and my writing.
With Australia's closed border policy, and restricted movement in Italy due to the ongoing high number of COVID19 cases here, there are times when I feel neither here nor there, a sentiment that I think we've all been feeling this last year.
That said, with the lifting of some restrictions here in Rome, I managed to escape out to the Palazzo delle Esposizioni to check out the 2020 Quadriennale.
I did have a date back in October to see the Quadriennale with two of my most dedicated gallery loving friends, but we were sent into lockdown the day before we were due to see the show.
It's billed as Fuori (=out in Italian) and, as pan-contemporary exhibitions often do, it left me delighted and perplexed (and sometimes just plain unimpressed).
But that said, I was so hungry to get out of my living room and experience some culture first hand, that even when I found the artwork underwhelming, I was just happy to be seeing things through someone else's perspective for a change.
As a huge exhibition designed to push the boundaries over two enormous levels, there were obviously still some gems in the line up.
Among the highlights for me were Irma Blank's gorgeous indigo blue panels. They sent me back to Japan and the old ukiyo-e prints that I studied at uni.
Also enjoyed the playful nature of the work by the Tomboys Don't Cry collective and the adjoining room in which Diego Gualandris did things with painting and textiles that I've never seen someone do before and Raffaela Naldi Rossano had my fatigued little brain working overtime until it eventually decrypted her powerful textual messages.
Getting out and about to take in some culture or feed off of other people's ideas is not an easy prospect at this point in time. And maybe you're neither here (Rome) nor there (Melbourne). But wherever you are, you can take a free virtual tour of the Fuori show if you're interested.
It's a lovely 360 of the huge exhibit that allows you to take in the cavernous spaces and representations of all the artwork in the show.
Want to get out? Do it here.
I think I am entering into my seventh week of lockdown.
Before that, I was allowed to ricochet into the office and back, but this has pretty much been the situation since early March.
What have I got to show for my time in lockdown aside from an even bigger paunch?
According to my camera roll:
a lot of memes,
some selfies of me and my partner and facetime moments with those I hold dear.
More interestingly are all the aspirational screenshots; the Kim Jong Un GIFs [to which I now attribute a sense of guilt]; recipes [none of which I have attempted]; places in New York I was due to finally visit this month [attribute more guilt - bad enough here in Italy but my heart goes out to NY state]; screen grabs of things I am reminding myself to get when we finally get back into some semblance of normality.
Basically, it's a camera roll full of both guilt and hope.
Giardini, home to both soft and super powers is usually a safe starting place for a Biennale visit. With 30 pavilions to visit, typically more than half of them usually play host to interesting and engaging shows.
This year though, the odds are not in your favour. You’ll find some good talking points but you won’t often find exhibits that successfully marry concept with aesthetic this year.
The press release for the Biennale confirms more than 50% of this year’s artists are women but what it should also mention is the similar percentage of video art in the exhibits. At Giardini I counted approximately half of all shows as having a major- if not completely filmic element.
Does that matter? Well yes. Firstly, videos come in all forms. They can be documentary or experimental stand alone pieces, or be secondary or supporting material in a wider show. Sometimes there’s sufficient artistry to the video to warrant it being at an art show. And at other times that’s just not the case.
My two favourites from Giardini were video installations in settings that were adapted to suit or carry on the themes of the videos so they were completely appropriate to the context.
But I also saw a lot of video that I would argue would have been better suited to a film festival setting or even online.
Both Canada’s Isuma and Finland’s Miracle Worker’s Collectives addressed their native peoples’ plights although Finland’s show was more a more complex and multi layered project. It managed to link the past to the present.
In these cases I would say that the Isuma work felt too documentary in style for the Biennale context while Finland’s exhibit was appropriate (and occasionally funny).
Humor was in short supply elsewhere at Giardini; the Belgian Mondo Cane show by Jos De Gruyter and Harold Thys went down well with my friends but I saw it more a talking point than anything else.
It had a macabre kind of humor to it all (it was like a mean Spitting Image style show full of mechanical puppets each with their own nifty back story) but I wasn’t a fan even if I could appreciate the smaller scale recreation of our current day grumpy society.
There was also the unintentional humour of Egypt’s exhibit which left me feeling the same way a visit to that pavilion always does. Why???
Sphinxes with monitors for faces? Why????
There are so many talented Egyptian artists that would benefit from the exposure that the Biennale can offer so why does the commissioning team always try to shoehorn tacky, Egyptian tourism instead of giving more authentic work a chance.
Speaking of shoehorning, Russia as always exists on its own plane. It’s terms of reference and aesthetics are a world of their own that it often subjects the Biennale to. This time the Winter palace (the Hermitage) and its Rembrandt (and Flemish collection) act as the muse.
This to me was post postmodern appropriation: Russia appropriating the West.
Again my cohorts loved it but the dark Rembrandt room of screens and clay models upstairs and the pulley system and wooden ballet downstairs left me scratching my head a bit.
I did however decide that Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai (who along with Alexander Sokurov created this year’s work- hell its AlexanderSquared) has the best pseudonym in the business.
There were a half dozen or so pavilions that I thought almost completely pulled it off or at least hosted some exceptional work among the artworks they presented.
South Korea and Japan are usually fail safes; it could be my time living in Japan makes me bias towards East Asia but I enjoyed the Japanese show which was a riff on their animist origins.
Cosmo Eggs by Motoyuki Shitamichi＋Taro Yasuno＋Toshiaki Ishikura＋Fuminori Nousaku is a mythical retelling of human settlement done through video, installation and automated music. It’s a little kooky but it’s so rewarding to travel around the elements and collect the pieces of the story being told. There’s an environmental bent to the story as well as some really evocative magical thinking.
Korea hands the keys of the pavilion over to video makers and its here that the case for multi-channel video (on three screens) being the most common element at this year’s Biennale is proven to the best effect.
With History Has Failed Us, but No Matter * Korea plays the gender card and picks up the motif of Korea’s forgotten all female theatre troupes.
The three female artists siren eun young jung, Hwayeon Nam, and Jane Jin Kaisen essentially redress who gets recorded in history and how.
(2019) by siren eun young jung is perhaps the most exhilarating video I saw at the Biennale.
Past winners Germany this year continue the theme of containment and isolation with Natascha Süder Happelmann’s multimedia installation. I was pleasantly surprised by the second half of the installation which I won’t spoil for you here. The old gallerist in me took one look at it and immediately had pangs for the staff who are going to be tasked with its eventual removal. My heart goes out to them.
Yamundú Canosa’s La Casa Empaticà was a lovely and very welcome offering at the Uruguay pavilion. Borders and walls are a recurring theme at this year’s exhibit (and our daily lives) but Canosa makes such an impersonal topic feel human with her paintings and collection of objects that look how arbitrary our notion of borders and their effectiveness are.
Romania, Poland and Israel were all talking points for me this year; good solid exhibits that looked at themes such as unequal wealth, social injustice and national identity. Roman Stańczak’s Flight is the strongest offering out of this group.
For me though, the two clear - and by a country mile- standouts at Giardini this year were from the Australian and Danish pavilions.
For Assembly, Angelica Mesiti looks at the architecture of political power and all its trappings; whether through the way that politics plays out (in the historically significant circular Senates) or the very way that history is recorded moment by moment (stenography and other mediums) even as the democratic values that created these tools and traditions are fragmenting and collapsing all around us. I’m going to look at the work in more detail in a separate post because it really is an amazing work; so well conceived and realised.
The same can be said for Larissa Sansour and her work at this year’s Danish pavilion - Heirloom. Here it’s not political power that we are clinging to but memory itself. And how useful is that memory? In one of the most impressive videos I have seen both for concept as well as aesthetic, Sansour addresses the artifice and sinister nature of memory and what it means to cling to a past that may or may not belong to us.
Again this was such a powerful work that I will be looking at in another post because it really deserves more than a passing comment.
So in a (long and subjective) nutshell you’ve got your must sees at Giardini 2019 and a couple of should sees and should avoids too.
It’s that time of year when I put my curator hat back on and try and give you the benefit of my experience (and very subjective opinion) to make sure you get the most out of your visit to the Venice Biennale.
The Venice Art Biennale is one of few fixed events in my calendar that I make sure I never miss.
Every time I go to Venice it takes my breath away. I don’t know whether that’s because of the extortionate prices they charge for practically anything, because the city’s just so fucking beautiful or because these days I only go there for the Biennale and I find myself lost in my thoughts when I’m there.
Factor in the bonus of some artporn and a few spritzes and the Art Biennale usually makes for a perfect weekend away for an art nerd like myself.
For me the anticipation often starts a few months’ earlier than the actual visit. If I haven’t already begun sleuthing of my own accord I usually start getting excited about it all when I receive a couple of texts to translate for promotional purposes or for the gallery wall panels.
This year’s May You Live In Interesting Times- the fifth consecutive Biennale I’ve attended- had all the same build up of Biennales past but the actual reality of the visit marked something of a change for me.
Usually after each visit I really struggle to whittle down the national pavilions to a concise best of the best. I have to go through my notes and reflect a lot in order to get my head around what I saw and what spoke the most to the curator and the artist in me. (You may or may not know that I was a curator and gallerist once upon a time).
I inevitably end up feeling like I’m short changing a few artists because so many had something exceptional to offer.
Worse still, I normally spend so much time being enthralled at a national level that the central, combined exhibitions feel like an obligation that I have to get through, carefully managing what little time I have left to search out the gems and filter out the distractions and all the noise.
This year was almost a complete reversal for me. I found myself struggling to enjoy many of the national presentations and instead more enthralled by what was on show in the collective exhibits which under Ralph Rugoff’s curation felt unified, cohesive and engaging where in the past they were often a rambling, time consuming mess.
I won’t go into Giardini and Arsenale just yet- they’ll get separate posts as per the tradition of this blog.
But I will say this: if you’re planning on heading to the Biennale this year you’ll do well to manage your level of expectation, especially if you’ve visited Biennales in the past.
This year there’s very little that’s playful or fun and humour is in very short supply. This year is a serious Biennale and worse still, very few artists who had a national showcase to play with managed to really hit the mark.
So you’ll have to be patient and pace yourself until the highlights present themselves (and sometimes re-present themselves) and make the long, expensive vaporetto ride seem worthwhile. And of course get a leg up with my tips and suggestions.
Last year a friend of mine had to sit me down and explain what ASMR was.
Knowing the kind of bubble I live in between work and writing, he was worried I was losing my touch.
I'm the first to admit I'm unable to keep up with what makes Millennials tick.
I didn't even know ASMR existed let alone that it was making noisy (and not so noisy) people rich. Mashable have an introductory video into the phenomenon in case you're not yet across it.
I ended the conversation with my friend incredulous and certain of only two things;
(i) my various career paths have all been poorly chosen
(ii) I need to keep up with the most savvy generation earth has seen.
To that effort, I was proud when I discovered yet another Gen Y staple: reactions.
Now there are a lot of Reactions on youtube (I guess they're made by Reactors...or are they just influencers? God help me.)
In case you don't know what they are, they're basically filmed reactions to videos or moments. It goes well beyond those viral hits of people's OTT reactions to scenes from Game of Thrones that had everyone feeling things a couple of years back. Reactions have become more sophisticated and exhaustive since their Viral beginnings.
Nowadays there's a growing number of (mostly) Millennials who film their commentaries on daily pop culture, but also those who trawl back through the 80s and 90s to "discover" and "react" to classic content.
They have channels and followers, and often Stans (=major fans) make suggestions of videos or albums they should watch/listen to and then react to.
There's a fair bit of disingenuity going on in a lot of reaction videos; people pretending to watch something for the first time or reacting in a way that suggests they're doing it for the comments (or the likes or the follows).
But just like anything else on the web, for every uninformed, implausible video there's an equally honest and fascinating take on Gen X culture.
2019 is proving a huge year for looking back after all this year marks the 30th anniversary of some of the pop world's touchstones.
To my mind, Madonna's Like A Prayer was 1989's most important pop artifact.
It may've been snubbed by the Grammys, but the press today is unanimous; Like A Prayer is a masterpiece, a game changer and currently the focus of a lot of praise.
I could bang on about how for years Like A Prayer was my favourite Madonna album but we live in a Millennial world, and it's increasingly up to them to decide what from our past was significant and important.
To that end, I've rounded up some of the most insightful and entertaining reactions to Like A Prayer's main videos after the jump.
I hate to tip my hat to Taylor Swift, but she really was onto something.
1989 really was a watershed year for pop music.
As the months roll on this year, you'll find that your social media feeds will be brimming with 30 year anniversary posts.
Some key albums from 1989 have had a lasting impact worldwide; others proved transformative in their local markets.
There was something about 1989 that pushed a lot of eighties acts to lift their game; to do something to justify your attention into the next decade. So many eighties pop acts seemed to come of age that year.
In Australia, as in some other countries in the colonial world, we were still coming out of a bit of a rock music haze. We certainly had lapped up the work of the international superstars, but we were a bit late to the pop party locally.
For better or worse, genres other than rock really only started to gain traction in the mid eighties in Oz. You were more likely to find yourself down the pub watching a bunch of frizzy haired guys in acid wash making their air guitar dreams come true than you were to be having a little shuffle in the middle of a heaving dancefloor back then.
There were certainly some great Aussie pop acts that emerged in the eighties (mostly for a flash) in Australia, but for the most part we had to wait until the end of the decade for female artists to be given the space to break the rock (chick) mould.
Before then it was unheard of for a record company and the media to really get behind a local lady and really give their work the kind of attention usually reserved for the blokes.
If you have even an ounce of Australian in you, then you know that Kate Ceberano is a national treasure; a versatile singer who effottlessly jumped across jazz, pop and funk as she paved out an unorthodox career that now spans three decades.
In 1989, she released her first proper pop debut; Brave, and for a year she and her Ministry of Fun were everywhere. She achieved great commercial sucess with her solo debut.
But more importantly Kate really ushered in a new era for Australian music.
So happy to have made it back to Lecce where I lived for two years.
I arrived just in time to catch the closing two dates of the 7th annual Bande A Sud festival.
My friends in Trepuzzi, just a stone’s throw from Lecce, started the festival - whose offerings are free - out of a desire to acknowledge the southern Italian tradition of big band, public performances in public squares.
The tradition arose out of the belief that culture should be accessible to those who couldn’t afford to see culture in traditional venues (like theatres).
Bande A Sud grew out of a grassroots approach; although the program culminates in the summer with a full program of almost nightly events, it is now a year long commitment. It has grown to include events for children, music students and the approach has been adopted in other southern Italian towns.
This year Bande A Sud plays an important part of a wider adopted initiative- Il Suono Illuminato -which offers similarly themed events in nearby towns, extending the reach and accessibility throughout the summer months.
We can’t underestimate the importance of these kinds of initiatives- before I came down south I was out in the outskirts of Rome one night watching Teatro di Roma’s performance of Rigoletto - carried out on the back of a truck and much appreciated by the locals on that balmy summer night.
So as a spectator, a thanks to all those (especially the volunteers) who make these events possible, and make the Summer in south Italy that much more enjoyable.
I haven’t been hiding.
I’ve been pious. I’ve been dedicated.
I’ve been swept up and away by a lot of things.
By work, writing, travel. Sleep deprivation. Thoughts. Plots... and an obsession with a lot of Lorde’s Melodrama. Particularly her lyric writing which is phenomenal by pop standards and amazing in general.
Although as each song on Melodrama plays out I tend to become less interested in the sonics, the lyrics are increasingly absorbing. The potential outcome of drink driving on Homemade Dynamite in particular has stayed with me this week but as has the loveliness of The Louvre. In the back, but it’s still the louvre. ❤️
Me and my crew spent the train ride over to Arsenale chewing over some story doing the rounds on social media. I don't remember what it was but it was the reason we ended up having a pretty heavy morning chat that day.
The crux was how in Italy too many people are quick to reduce the ultimate role of women down to mother/potential mother. There's no alternative on offer and worse still, no acceptable argument against it. We noted that the obsession with woman as creator is well, lazy and limited and especially overused in the arts.
I know, we could've spoken about the croissants or the scenery but some days you see something on social media and it takes you out on a tangent.
Not all that different to what's on offer at the Biennale- where lots of artists are following their own tangents spurred on by themes that will be familiar if you're on social media or if you read the press.
Arsenale has less national pavilions than Giardini, so there are a few honourable mentions in this round up of what I think are the ten (+1) pavilions you should focus on.
Reality is the huge group show (90+ artists which will get a separate post) is going to gobble up most of your time so you'll want to make the best of whatever time is left over.
I'm starting somewhere unexpected- New Zealand to be precise. Lisa Reihana (Emissaries) gets a tick for the best use of space at Arsenale.
She's made a kind of panoramic video that mimicks the old scenic wallpapers popular in Europe once upon a time and fills the long narrow space that NZ has been allocated this year.
The video is interesting if a little heavy handed for the Biennale. Reihana has basically brought the conversation gripping a lot of former colonial countries to life: the one in which we are starting to articulate imperialism by bringing the darkness of the acts of colonial founding fathers to light.
The scale of the work is impressive and it's not too dissimilar in theme to the work of Claudia Fontes (The Horse Problem, Argentina). Fontes is using the symbols of Argentina's founding myth to address angst and frustration. Colonialism, paternalism and the overarching state narrative are not so much the white elephant in the room but a white horse who is chomping at the bit and ready to explode from frustration with the state (as represented by the national pavilion).
My friends think I've taken the easy option in choosing Fontes as one of the highlights: her work here is bold, pretty and striking but I also think it's one of the more intelligent uses of space and a pretty powerful subervsive statement about the spectacle of nationalism that makes the Venice Biennale both fun and ridiculous.
Spare a thought then for Tunisia. It's not had an easy time of late politically or socially.
I'm giving it a special mention because despite political obstacles, they (like the NSK collective) have managed to bring a political protest to the Biennale. The Absence of Paths is an installation: a booth where attendants will issue anyone a passport (a feesa). Its value is questionable and its blue ink (required for your fingerprint) frustratingly difficult to remove afterwards.
Its a simple bureaucratic act- a passport or a visa issued instantly - which offers comment on the refugee crisis and it happens so quickly that you wind up thinking (and trying to wipe off the stain of bureaucracy) only afterwards.
There are few things that I love more in Italy than the Venice Biennale.
I feel an immense sense of privilege that I have been able to visit it four times since I've been here.
Each year I do my best to write up my thoughts in the hopes that my impressions can help other visitors make choices about what to focus on- or give people who have no plans on visiting a down to earth curator's view on things. There are 29 national pavilions in addition to the group show at the Venice Pavilion here at Giardini and this post is dedicated to my favourites. A separate post about Arsenale- the other main complex of pavilions will follow.
About a third of the national pavilions at Giardini were offering up what I thought were brilliant or thought provoking work. The ten that I've selected here are more or less in line with the selections of my Biennale crew- this is the fourth Biennale we've visited together and although we usually bicker like sad old toffs on the train ride home this year we pretty much had consensus with our choices.
There were a lot of disappointing exhibits on offer at Giardini- especially from Great Britain (too art school), Spain and Holland (too much video and not engaging at that) which are usually my favourites- leaving me with the idea that this year it's Arsenale that is really worth the extra time and effort.
But a visit to Giardini will still blow you away if you spend more of your time at the following national pavilions (in no particular order):
3. South Korea
10. Czech Republic
More detailed comments about these pavilions and the artists after the jump.
Last month I made my usual pilgrimage to Venice to check out this year's Biennale - Vive Arte Vive.
Overall another great exhibit but you have to know where to look to skip the content will otherwise sap your time and rob you of the chance to concentrate on the good stuff.
I've put together some tips on what to seek out both at Giardini and at Arsenale. If you're planning on making the trip you've got til the end of November to be awed, wowed or meh-ed.
What a busy year. My job has eaten away much of the time I usually spend writing and researching, but a boy's gotta pay the bills... and have something that resembles a social life.
A boy's also gotta travel. See things. Get inspired.
Aside from having a bit of a Roman summer, I'm moving around the country a bit, visiting people and places and getting back into the swing of seeing as many exhibitions as possible.
Recently I finally got around to visiting Macro's Street Art exhibition Cross The Streets. I had rocked up to the opening night but it was a mess and there were too many people and too little organisation to make it worth my while. So I headed back and visited - curious to see the work of a friend of mine who has a substantial number of works in the exhibit.
As chuffed as I was for him, I'm a bit indifferent about institutions hosting street art, and about how selective the exhibit was. All I will say is that you can't have a major street art show in Rome, which in recent years has become a major centre for open air/street art and not include the works of Hogre. That said, I did love the work of Lucamaleonte (pictured). His tumblr feed here.
So I'm back in Rome and getting back into the swing of things.
And thank god I'm here, otherwise I wouldn't have had the chance to see Annette Messager's amazing show at Villa Medici, one of Rome's undisputed jewels.
If you head down you'll be confronted by Messager's playful, witty installations that look at look at themes of identity and femininity (with a look into masculinity as well).
Messager is a prolific artist who has been working for decades, and her non conformist attitude shines through.
Recommend you visit while it's still on: bonus are the amazing views you get of Rome's historic centre.
Dave Di Vito
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Dave Di Vito is a writer, teacher and former curator.He's also the author of the Vinyl Tiger series and Replace The Sky.
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