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Seeking Out Art, Near and Far

Thu, Jul 2, 2009
Catharina Manchanda, senior curator of exhibitions, hit three art (and architecture) hotspots in June: Chicago, Venice, and Munich. Following are some musings and highlights from those trips.

Punta della Dogana on the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy
(Image via Mike Blanchette on Flickr)

First stop: The Art Institute of Chicago's "Modern Wing," designed by Renzo Piano (who was awarded the Wexner Prize in 2001), which opened with great fanfare in May. The new building has an elegant and bright central hall, and visitors can appreciate the museum's collection of modern and contemporary art in spacious new galleries, offering also dramatic views of the city skyline. Some of my favorite installations include Picasso's maquette Head of a Woman in front of one of the windows. It sets up a dialogue with the urban environment since the monumental version of the Picasso sculpture is a downtown landmark. In the contemporary galleries, I lingered in a gallery with early works by Eva Hesse and Richard Serra. The installation poetically underscored the element of fragility in both artists' works. If you visit the Art Institute this summer you will also find an entire gallery devoted to works by Kerry James Marshall, who had a solo show at the Wexner Center last year.

The opening celebration was festive but I equally enjoyed coming back the following day when crowds of people strolled over the new footbridge that connects Millennium Park to the top floor of the new building. Visitors enjoyed the view of the city skyline and then poured into the museum to explore. It was a truly civic celebration.

Hans-Peter Feldmann, Palazzo delle Esposizioni
(Image via :conversation:intercom: on Flickr)

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Venice Biennaleopened in early June, curated this year by Daniel Birnbaum. Here are a few things that stood out to me: In the main exhibition pavilion (formerly known as the Italian Pavilion): Hans-Peter Feldmann, who is best known for his deadpan artist-books and magazine interventions, had a large installation. Feldmann is also a collector of toys and everyday objects, and for the biennale he mounted a selection on crude cardboard discs which rotate at slow speed. Each of the moving arrangements was backlit, casting fantastic shadows on a long wall, conjuring associations with Plato's cave.

Nathalie Djurberg, Experimentet
(Image via The Freak Magnet on Flickr)

At the same time, the basement of the pavilion was quite literally turned into a fantastic cave. Here Nathalie Djurberg created an enormous and somewhat menacing flower garden that visitors traversed at their own risk. Unlike a sunny summer meadow, this garden was dimly lit, with the ceramic flowers almost as tall as the viewers; the figures in the claymation videos that played in various corners of the installation lightheartedly enacted all sorts of deviant sexual behavior. (I heard more giggles here than anywhere else at the Biennale.)

Mike Bouchet, Watershed
(Image via stunned on Flickr)

A surreal sight in the outer perimeter of the Arsenale was a small American suburban house by Mike Bouchet that was floating in the waters. If you read it as a metaphor for the housing crisis the predictions are dire since the house has sunk, which, by the way, was not intended by the artist.

In a small building at the periphery of the Arsenale, Bill Forsythe created an interactive installation that required considerable dexterity and skill: Gym rings were suspended from the ceiling at various heights, and the intrepid explorer was invited to dangle and swing through the space. If you aspire to navigate this installation above ground, I recommend brushing up on your gymnastic skills. (Make sure to stop by the Wexner Center if you have not had a chance to see Forsythe's exhibition Transfigurations yet. It is still on view until the end of July.)

Bruce Nauman, who represented the United States this year in Venice, was honored with the Golden Lion for Best National Participation. In addition to the exhibition of his work at the American Pavilion, he had two installations in the city; both set up an intriguing dialogue between the works and the surrounding architecture. Finding these and other pavilions in the city can, however, be tricky. Venice streets are notoriously convoluted and looking at the "official pavilion map" provided by the Biennale organizers, I wondered if it these were instructions for a Situationist exercise in détournement: Imagine a rough topographic outline of the city that looks like an abstract study. Black markers indicate where the pavilions are located, but there are no street names. Clearly, the idea was to get lost and discover other things along the way—most likely plenty of cappuccino and gelati and some enchanting backstreets. For those less adventurous, a GPS device will come in handy.

Among the country pavilions in the giardini, the Romanian presentation was memorable. During the preview, the lines were long and slow but the patient few were rewarded by a series of digital videos and installations which pondered individual, collective and state power. Also noteworthy was the Czech Pavilion, which contained a beautiful installation by the conceptual artist Roman Ondák. The artist took down the building doors and added skylights, creating an indoor garden that was entirely continuous with the surrounding vegetation of the giardini. Part garden, part greenhouse, part ruin, the pavilion became a quiet passage for repose.

If you should travel to Venice this summer or fall, try to see the Wunderkammer installation at the Palazzo Fortuny. This exhibition is an exercise in aesthetic indulgence inasmuch as it is an elegant arrangement of beautiful objects from completely different time periods (and, remembering Lawrence Weiner, you may feel slightly guilty for enjoying the arrangement of beautiful objects). The highly idiosyncratic exhibition covers all floors of the old palazzo, which has the feel of a collector's home. Some rooms are dimly lit, others are bright with open windows. You are invited to sit on antique sofas and chairs. In short, there is an atmosphere of intimacy that invites you to relax, contemplate, study, and explore, and I found that people began to enter into conversations with complete strangers.

Maurizio Cattelan
"Untitled" 2007
Punta della Dogana Venice
Taxidermic horse, natural dimension
Photo: Zeno Zotti
(Image via ---ZENZOTT--- on Flickr)

A very different and entirely contemporary museum experience can be found at the Punta della Dogana building, elegantly restored by Tadeo Ando, where François Pinault's collection of contemporary art is spaciously installed. Located at the tip of the island, the triangularly shaped building also offers some spectacular views. A free boat will take you up the Grand Canal to the Palazzo Grassi where many other works from the Pinault collection are on view.

Thomas Schütte
Mann im Matsch, 2009
Styrofoam, plaster, wood
580 x 800 x 800 cm
Photo: Florian Holzherr
(Image via muenchenblogger)

P.S. For anyone travelling as far as Munich, I can highly recommend the powerful Thomas Schuette exhibition at the Haus der Kunst. This is a rare instance where an artist with a critical view towards history and a keen understanding of architectural scale (especially the monumental variety) successfully engages and destabilizes the building's history and aesthetics.
PARKING UPDATE: Construction at 15th and High. For more information click here.

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