You recognise this face. You know who he was. Why? Because of his undeniable talent and prolific work ethic? Yes. Partly. But also because Salvador Dali was one of the first artists to use modern media to transcend the art scene, and become a persona with a distinct public image. He did this by navigating his way across the international media, creating not just a name for himself, but an enduring, symbolic presence. The blurring of the line between public and private. It was a blue print that super artists like Warhol would later adopt.
One of the things I hated about studying art history was the preparedness with which one had to accept the dogma of art historians. There are certain belief systems in the field of art that have very clear rules to them, and not adhering to them, or supporting established theories is frowned upon. This I found ridiculous of course, as history is made by people but written by historians, and therefore subject to subjectivity and prevailing fashions and beliefs.
Why the rant? Because in visiting the Spanish pavilion at the Biennale, you need to be prepared to read between the lines. Like art history, society, and in this case, European society, is dictated by a set of norms: of codes that are written and unwritten. But they can't account for everything. We as individuals can't simply be defined by definitions that are imposed upon us. We bend and break and especially for those of us on the margins of society, are capable of seeing things that the masses cannot.
This is the premise for Los Sujetos (The Subjects), an ambitious collective show curated by Marti Manen. It's a show that breaks the Spanish pavilion's recent run of solo and pair shows to bring together artists from different corners of the Iberian peninsula. And where does Salvador Dali fit into this? He's the muse and ringmaster for a modern take on his influence: not so much as a Spanish art great, but more as a master of the media and public image. After all, with figures like Dali and Warhol, what they said (offstage) and did was often just as important as what they produced (on-stage).
What's happening in the Spanish pavilion this year seems to be about the arbitrary boundaries that we push against suggesting that society's one size fits all approach is no longer working. In Helena Cabello and Ana Carceller's contribution The State of the Question, Dali's one time lover/cohort, Amanda Lear, is referenced, both in the showcases and a video piece where her song I'm A Mystery is performed by a group whose identities are fluid and in flux. Transgender? Gay? Different race? It doesn't matter...none of these tags can define them.
Cabello and Carceller have long incorporated questions of gender into their work. But what place does this have in Venice you might ask? Well, Italy is gripped by a new wave of obsession with gender and civil unions. Just this past weekend, almost a million conservatives, convened by the Catholic church, marched through Rome in protest under the guise of "Family Day". It seems existence beyond the traditional family unit remains a no go for the right wing parts of this society. The message? Conform to the norms or remain invisible and keep you mouths shut
The reality is that minorities don't need to be acknowledged. They just need to slot in to the bigger system which otherwise alienates them.
But if you look carefully enough, there are instances where they make unhealthy partners. Look at the press for example. Beyond the mainstream, weeklies/monthlies like comics compete with crossword rags to remain mainstays in Italian culture.
I don't know anyone here who hasn't read Dylan dog or done the puzzles in La Settimana Enigmistica. Francesc Ruiz explores the mirroring systems of the alt/mainstream press and the crack between them.
Each of these media types has its own outlet and commercial system in place, and if you've visited any mainstream newsstand (Italian: edicola) in Italy, you'll have seen how much written content competes for shelf space in them.
In Edicola Mundo, Ruiz creates two newsstands, each brimming with content. In the mainstream stand, Ruiz recreates blank publications and displays them in repeated patterns, our eye attracted to things that look familiar but say nothing to us. Like codes that have no meaning. Of the little text available is one which alludes to Berlusconi's infamous virility and bunga bunga parties.
In the other stand, a different kind of sexuality is being peddled. That for gay men, but behind the cover of a concealing tarp, which gives its customers anonymity but further separates them from the masses. Inside, more repetition, a trademark of Ruiz''s work, but an explosion of color. More codes and hidden meanings, and references to Italy's erotic comics, but rather than unmet desire, here sexuality is amped up and ready to blow.
These cultural fault lines are everywhere and have entered into our unconscious thinking.
With Dali and Warhol, we never got the satisfaction of knowing when the show started and where the show ended. We've come into a phase of our being where our obsession with celebrity has led to us creating celebrities of our own, letting their reality shows into our lounge rooms.
We watch as participants run through semi scripted activities for the camera and endure the endless replays of seemingly pivotal moments. More than glittering success, pop culture loves a spectacular fall from grace.
We waited with baited breath for it to happen with Michael Jackson, were resigned to it eventually happening to Whitney, but still bear the traces of our shock when Britney went postal.
The menacing nature of on stage and off stage worlds seems to pique the interest of Pepo Salazar, an artist and writer who works across a variety of mediums who contributes two seemingly intertwined installation pieces to Los Sujetos.
At face value it's cheeky and irreverent. But look closer and you'll see that Salazar is actually motivated by the chaos that is brewing between [on] stage and off stage worlds. The ripple effect caused by the sheer anarchy of the breakdown of a popular figure. In this case think glass cases of cheetos, mirrors, shaved heads and wigs strewn about, while in the partner piece abandoned microphones are mechanically dragged around in circles, creating disc shapes on an industrial floor.
And Dali? He's taken his bow but is still at the centre of it all. His own interviews with the press playing away on the video screens, in the centre of the pavilion. The ringmaster, in historical footage of him courting celebrity, but at the same time, risking the creation of a ripple in the grander order of things by blurring the lines...and allowing us to reconsider his influence beyond the usual art historical prism.
Dave Di Vito
Subscribe to the mailing list for information about upcoming releases and a free excerpt!
Dave Di Vito is a writer, teacher and former curator.He's also the author of the Vinyl Tiger series and Replace The Sky.
For information about upcoming writing projects subscribe to the mailing list.
Dave hates SPAM so he won't trouble you with any of his own. He promises.