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Transcript #62 Live From Venice: Our Take on the Biennale

Alex Da Corte, Rubber Pencil Devil (2019) in the Arsenale

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Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask. Welcome to our Venice Biennale special, which we recorded live in Italy last month. Together with Allan Schwartzman—who’s returning to his roots as an art critic—we’ll take you on a tour through the art on view in this, the floating city.

Allan Schwartzman: “When I first saw it, I thought ‘We do live in interesting times, but do we live in times of interesting art?’”

We recorded our audio both in the biennale and beyond—so expect to hear sounds from the shows as well as different commentary from Allan and I taking place in the galleries, in restaurants and in hotel lobbies of Venice.

For those who want to visit or return to the Biennale, the exhibition “May You Live In Interesting Times” runs until 24 November. And, if you’re curious to see images of the works we discuss in the episode, check out our website

Now, onto today’s show.   

Allan, for people who haven’t traveled to Italy, can you explain a little bit about what the biennale is, and what people should look forward to, and maybe what they should avoid?

Allan Schwartzman: The Venice Biennale is a truly significant exhibition that’s been mounted for more than 100 years, and we usually look to it as a kind of weather report on where art is today—certainly of what’s been the most interesting and compelling art over the last several years.

The concentration of the show is principally in a curated exhibition by a curator who’s appointed for that purpose, and this year that’s Ralph Rugoff, who is the director of the Hayward Gallery in London, and international pavilions representing many, many countries.

Initially those were all located in the Giardini, in permanent buildings that are used for that purpose every time these is a biennale, but now that they’ve expanded to so many other nations there are at least as many countries represented off-site as on-site.

Charlotte Burns: Sometimes people come and go, and that’s kind of an interesting geopolitical history itself—which new pavilions come in, when they leave, where they move, which ones become important—and that’s part of the Venice history, too.

Allan Schwartzman: It’s also part of the pleasure of exploring the biennale, is you don’t always know where the most interesting shows are going to be, and it becomes a journey of sorts.

In addition to that, there are also ancillary exhibitions that are in some way affiliated with or approved by the biennale that are done independently of the biennale and then, in addition to that, there are simple independent exhibitions, some of which are quite good and substantial.

[Audio from Teresa Margolles, La Búsqueda (2) (2014)]

Charlotte Burns: We went to the biennale a few weeks after the opening, and we’d heard other people’s impressions, the people who had been for the very start of the show. One of the main takeaways that other people had was that the main show, “May You Live In Interesting Times”, the show curated by Ralph Rugoff, it’s split between the Arsenale and the Giardini—there’s two venues—and he had made the unusual decision, or maybe even unprecedented, of having a smaller list of artists who were showing in both venues, as opposed to having larger group of artists showing in each of the two. There were different opinions on whether that was successful or not. What did you think?

Allan Schwartzman: I think it was more successful than not, and where it may not have been successful, it was truly interesting. First of all, dealing with a smaller number of artists—and by the way the 70 or 80+ artists that are in it is hardly a small list—allow for a kind of curatorial precision that you don’t always get in a biennale. And he did have a very specific viewpoint that he was exploring.

I think also in recent years, there has been a kind of ambition on the part of many curators—a kind of bragging rights—of discovering new artists. Of getting on the plane and traveling to places where people hadn’t gone before to discover truly interesting contemporary artists. When curators started doing this, let’s say 25 or so years ago, we were indeed discovering art we had never seen before, and this brought new voices into the discourse of art, and they broadened the way we looked at the world.

At a certain point, it seemed more a way of populating exhibitions with information that sometimes got repetitive or that was already familiar. The notion of discovery was less common.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah

Allan Schwartzman: And yet in the show, even while paring down the number of artists, there were quite a number of “discoveries”, and it did have a truly international character.

I think the smaller number of artists benefited the exhibition in terms of the clarity of the curator’s thinking, and at the same time, the idea of having the same artists in both venues was both compelling and perplexing to many people.

In the Arsenale, most artists had a substantial amount of space in which to display work that was on the scale of a solo exhibition, even though one led to another, and there was certainly a narrative that was being told through the accretion of works.

Inside the Giardini, most of the artists were represented by a substantially different work than they were represented by the Arsenale. There was a lot more of an intentional jumble of artists. In some instances, this felt almost arbitrary, based on almost random or superficial qualities, and in other instances they seemed to be very intentional collisions.

Before we went, we heard a lot of people complain—in fact, it was probably pretty much a unilateral reaction—that the Arsenale was really interesting and beautiful, and that the former Italian Pavilion [the Giardini] was chaotic and didn’t make sense.

I entered it with the assumption that: “This is a very smart, informed curator: there is some sense to this even if it’s not so obvious.” The conclusion I reached is that I think he was intentionally putting together both the clarity and the chaos, and the cacophony, and the range and diversity of voices that exist today, and what they’re saying, and what the issues are that interest them. And it does indeed become a meeting place of all of these voices. I actually did find it, in it’s kind of almost anti-curatorial installation, to be quite compelling, and to make a point.

Charlotte Burns: One of the artists who pulled together the Giardini show for us was Arthur Jafa and here is some audio Allan and I recorded shortly after watching his work The White Album (2018).

Allan Schwartzman: The work that became the anchor for me was Arthur Jafa’s The White Album, which strategically is located in one of the corners of the pavilion. And that piece, which is the other side of the racial divide that is American history and experience, it becomes a kind of microcosmic parallel to the rest of the entire exhibition. It’s everything in life, whether it’s the brutal, the poetic, the pure, the violated. Somehow, the show started to make sense to me—

Charlotte Burns: Yes, sitting in that room. Same. You started realizing it’s about cultures, how we see them, how we share them.

Allan Schwartzman: It’s about all the voices that make up our time and where there’s harmony, where there’s collision, where there’s conflict.

Charlotte Burns: Here is some audio from the work. It’s a part in The White Album where there is a to-camera confessional from a man who calls himself a reformed racist.

[Audio from Arthur Jafa, The White Album (2018)]

Excerpt from Arthur Jafa, The White Album (2018): “Our culture is racist. Our white culture is racist. I ain’t saying all white people are racist. I’m not saying that. But it’s all that indifference. It’s all that inaction. It’s all that “turn a blind fucking eye”. That’s the real fucking problem. Step up, get out of indifference. Do something. Say something. Let’s take our white America back. I love America and I love white America. Let’s take it fucking back. Let’s be proud of ourselves. I’m not proud of white America anymore.”

Allan Schwartzman: It’s a work that grabs you at any point that you enter it. It just grabs you and it holds you throughout. It was the one time-based work that I’m certain we sat through in its entirety, that we felt we couldn’t afford to walk out of. It was this confounding combination of the most disturbing political racism, and the most, kind of, beautiful and interpretive and poetic views of people.

It was so many things, and in that, I felt that it really captured the spirit of this biennale. It touched upon the documentary, the interpretive, the painterly, all within the language that’s very much that artist’s own.

Charlotte Burns: It was a response to a work he’d made a few years ago, Love is the Message, the Message is Death (2016), which had been one of the most standout works of the last year or the year before, and I read in the press that he felt a degree of discomfort around it, that so many people had come and understood African-American culture in this different way that made him, in some sense feel slightly queasy, so he decided to sort of flip the lens and look at European American culture instead.      

Here is some more audio from the work where Arthur Jafa has sampled Iggy Pop’s somber singing:

[Audio from Arthur Jafa, The White Album (2018)]

Excerpt from Arthur Jafa, The White Album (2018): Someday, I swear, we’re going to go to a place where we can do everything we want to. We can pet the crocodiles. Love.

Charlotte Burns: The randomness of this pavilion seems to be making some kind of point about the disconnectedness and the loneliness of all those different people.

Allan Schwartzman: Part of the point is that here, people have voice, and so much in the world is about people not feeling like they have voice. And even some of the photographic work here that’s more documentary in nature is about bringing a face to what would otherwise be an invisible voice.

Charlotte Burns: It’s about who has power.

Here’s some more audio from the Arsenale exhibition at the Biennale, a sumptuous three-channel video installation by Korakrit Arunanondchai entitled No history in a room filled with people with funny names 5 (2018), a work that both Allan and I liked a lot.

[Audio from Korakrit Arunanondchai, No history in a room filled with people with funny names 5 (2018)]

Charlotte Burns: There were some really great painting in this year’s show. Who stood out for you?

Allan Schwartzman: I thought Avery Singer’s paintings were great and, by the way, those are based in technology even though they’re very much painted, but all the information is technological in nature. Njideka Crosby I thought look fantastic, both the large-scale collages in the Italian Pavilion, and the small-scale portraits that were in the Arsenale—

Charlotte Burns: —I’ve never seen portraits like that.

Allan Schwartzman: I hadn’t either. I think they were exquisite. They were monochromatic, each one a different color. Sometimes the figure was almost faintly emerging from the surface, kind of in a play on grisaille or monochrome. There was an extraordinary sense of humanity to each of those portraits. I found them very, very moving. To me that was one of the high points of the whole biennale.

I found Nicole Eisenman’s paintings in the Italian Pavilion to be fantastic.

Charlotte Burns: They’re slightly surrealist, her paintings, in a way.

Allan Schwartzman: Well, surrealist, and realist. Let’s just say it’s almost like a magical kind of realism.

Nicole Eisenman has been an interesting artist since she emerged several decades ago, but nonetheless it feels to me like she has reached a whole new level within her painting. Really taking on painting, and the history of painting, whereas in the past it may have looked more like she was following—intentionally following—in lineages of Socialist Realist painting, but here you felt the poetry, and the personal entered into, whether the subjects were personal or political.

Michael Armitage; I found his paintings in the Arsenale to be very compelling. The fusion of landscape and figurative painting, and how they become veils that merge together in a single space, I found to be very engaging, not like anything I’d seen before. He was able to capture atmosphere and the feeling of being in the environments he was painting, in a way that wasn’t that of the tourist or of the observer, but of somebody who felt embedded within that nature. And somehow the cultural stories and the nature stories got fused in a way that I found very compelling.

Charlotte Burns: He also seems to capture that sense of, the simultaneous society. How do you say that?

Allan Schwartzman: Simultaneity.

Charlotte Burns: Simultaneity of how life happens.

Allan Schwartzman: Exactly.

Charlotte Burns: That you would look at the paintings and everything was happening at once. While there were still really strong focal points—that he used painting techniques to draw your eye in—he still somehow managed to have a picture pane that was crammed with movement in a way that was really interesting.

Allan Schwartzman: And the palette was extraordinary. There were so many colors in there, and yet within the intentional complexity of how they were embroidered in the canvas, there was also, at the same time, a clarity. I feel they too, even though they’re very much about the hand and about painting, they also suggest a kind of knowledge that comes through technology, or at least that gets processed through so many different ways in which we experience the world.

I found Henry Taylor looked great. The work had great, great presence.

There was a Uruguayan painter I had not been familiar with, living in Los Angeles, Jill Mulleady. I found those quite beautiful in a kind of post-Munch-ian way.

Charlotte Burns: There was an interesting thing with color too. The color in her work was that sort of slightly Norwegian ennui, somehow, or that sense of anxiety. We just spoke about Michael Armitage with his color. There was a lot of work this year, after a period in which painting seemed restrained somehow in its use of color, or the painting we were presented with, it was quite lovely to see all of that free experimentation with interesting color palettes.

Allan Schwartzman: Yes. You could say the same of Avery, and for that matter of all the other painters we’ve discussed.

Charlotte Burns: Agreed.

And then some of the other works we were talking about were, this idea of being touched by technology is something that’s come up. It came up in our podcast with David Zwirner: he said it was one of the most interesting things to him as a gallerist looking at trying to identify what the next generation is about. He felt cheered and encouraged by the way in which the artists he saw in the biennale were inhabiting technology as just another thing.

Allan Schwartzman: It ran the gamut, which was quite interesting. There were artists who were very much immersed in technology and what it can produce, such as Ian Cheng, and then there were artists who used it for the familiarity of the Pop cultural references, but to tell narrative stories, which could have just as easily been told in painting for that matter or photography. In that case I think of Alex Da Corte.

[Audio from Alex Da Corte, Rubber Pencil Devil (2019)]

Charlotte Burns: I love that work.

Allan Schwartzman: This wonderful, animated, half-animated, half-figurative…

Charlotte Burns: —installation.

Allan Schwartzman: —cavalcade of short stories, which were so poignant, and seemed to be as connected to the history of humor and film, as to the present, and to everyday existence.

Charlotte Burns: I could have watched them all day.

Allan Schwartzman: I wish we had the time to.

Charlotte Burns: I know, I agree. We also talked about the work of Ed Atkins, represented in the Arsenale and the Giardini, with works on paper on the Giardini, and in the Arsenale with a big installation that was, again, this mixture of technology, video, installation, objects.

Allan Schwartzman: There was this wonderful, I don’t know if versatility is the right word, but cohabitation of all these different mediums to create a complex multivalent, and very moving installation. It was almost like walking through theater.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah, but like, more confusing.

Allan Schwartzman: Yes. I go back to the title, “May You Live In Interesting Times”, and indeed the exhibition made clear we are living in very interesting times. I think that this exhibition did a better job than most other exhibitions we’ve seen over the last several decades in bringing together so many different voices of different viewpoints, different cultural realities, different mediums, and so on.

When I first saw it, I thought ‘We do live in interesting times, but do we live in times of interesting art?’ Because there was a lot of work there that I found more interesting that exciting. More interesting for its information, and the perspective of the artist, than for the aesthetic experience or let’s just say the experience of the artwork.

While it was clear that the curator was not using the art as sentences in his own essay—in this case it felt like that’s what the art was—but then as we reviewed this, there were a great number of standouts that stick in the mind. Interestingly, even though it was a show that was not principally about painting in the way that many other biennales had been, a lot of the really strong work was painting, equally to the amount of strong work that was involved in technology and other medium.

[Audio from the performance work at the Lithuanian Pavilion, Sun & Sea (Marina) (2018)]

Charlotte Burns: The standout national pavilion this year was the Lithuanian Pavilion, which won the prize for being the standout, and it was the most featured on Instagram, and every other form of social media.

It was essentially an opera about climate change, about the ways in which horrible crises happen so softly and sweetly in daily life that you don’t really notice, sort of like a frog boiling, and seemed to be suggesting that this was our fate, as humans living on the planet right now. Did the sense of knowing that work in advance alter it for you?

Allan Schwartzman: No. In the end, it’s a moving experience. There is a tenderness and an intimacy to the work that you cannot describe, or at least wasn’t described to us. It’s those abstract elements that I think bring it a kind of structure and organization.

The fact that we’re in a building, standing on the second floor, looking down over a parapet at people on the beach: that perspective is a truly compelling one. To see all these people lying around on towels on the sand as if they’re at the beach, just kind of doing what you would do—which is pretty much nothing while you’re lying on the beach—and people would start singing, and more than half the time it was unclear to you where the singing was coming from. It wasn’t theatricalized. They weren’t featured. They were just regular people.

Charlotte Burns: Inner monologues.

Allan Schwartzman: Exactly, and it brought a sense of… it brought complexity to a theatrical presentation of a sculptural and narrative idea in a way that we hadn’t seen before. That was exciting.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, I liked it a lot.

[Audio from the performance work at the Lithuanian Pavilion, Sun & Sea (Marina) (2018)]

Charlotte Burns: The Jannis Kounellis exhibition at the Prada Foundation, was out there in my single best art experiences ever. He is an artist that I’m completely biased towards, so I was definitely primed to be that person before we went in. I’m biased, but how did you feel?

Allan Schwartzman: Oh, it’s an extraordinary show. Jannis Kounellis is one of the most wonderful voices in art in the last 50 years. While a giant within the history of post-war European art, and to a European audience, he’s become relatively invisible in the United States—as have all of his peers except for Alighiero Boetti, which I guess I understand, but seems quite random. To see Kounellis presented with such strength, and an extraordinary installation—kind of a fusion of art and architecture—was fantastic.

Charlotte Burns: So, as already explained, I’m particularly biased when it comes to this artist, so here’s Allan talking in the Fondazione Prada in front of one of Kounellis’ best known works, Untitled (Tragedia Civile) from 1975, and it’s a work that speaks with power and poetry about tension, crisis and loss.

Allan Schwartzman: Okay, so we’re standing here in front of a gold wall—one of Kounellis’s most known and singular works of art consisting of a wall covered with gold leaf and in front of it, a hat rack with a coat and a hat hanging from it, suggestive of the person who has left, whether that’s the artist or human presence in general, he’s not specifically identified.

Here, it’s in an exquisite room which is nearly close to a perfect cube in dimensions. It’s just extraordinary. It’s truly wed to the architecture: the squares of the gold leaf take on a kind of geometric grid that I never really looked at before. I always thought of this in terms of gold wall.

There’s a kind of tension between this sense that the artist has left the building, or maybe the artist has left the history of art, in a sense. And yet, it is so clearly made. There is such a—

Charlotte Burns: —presence

Allan Schwartzman: —a care. There is a presence in that first wall, there’s a depiction of the absence of the artist. It’s this kind of volleying dialogue that I think runs through so much art that is born of artists from the generation that came of age in the 1960s.

Charlotte Burns: So, after the show I asked Allan why he thought the show was so special. Here’s what he said.

Allan Schwartzman: It was an exhibition that had some of the artist’s greatest early works, and many extraordinary late works. It brought clarity to the later works, and personality. One thing that kept standing out for me as we were walking through is that I always felt there was a sense of sound to the work. Most of the work that was in the Kounellis show is sculpture, that’s what he’s principally known for, like so many artists of his generation he began as a painter, but inevitably found his way to sculpture. You could say that of Donald Judd, you could say it of all the Arte Povera artists, and many American artists of the post-Abstract Expressionist, post-Pop period.

But what I found really interesting is that in one of the wall labels he referred to himself as a painter, even his sculpture. So, we’re looking at sculpture that is made by a painter who is very aware that, even if painting is not his material, it is his language and his way of thinking. And we saw static sculptures that nonetheless had a sense of sound and vibration to them.

There were works that involved fire coming out of gas canisters, that were sometimes on and sometimes off. And, in an odd way, some of these more time-based works—like the works with fire—had as much presence when they were off and not operating, as they had when they were aflame, where they make the extraordinary sound of lit gas coming out of torch.

Charlotte Burns: With some ferocity. It was something about the sense of… you felt the hand of the artist, as if he just walked out the room, in so many of those sculptures. And I think that’s why, for me, with the gas works, like you’re saying, it didn’t matter whether they’re on or off because you always felt like you were just sort of following Kounellis around, like his thoughts lingered.

Allan Schwartzman: And what gave the work its greatest presence was how it existed with an architecture.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, absolutely.

Allan Schwartzman: And you couldn’t find a more ideal environment for it than the Prada Foundation. You couldn’t find a more informed curator for it than Germano Celant. So, it was a pleasure.

Charlotte Burns: It was absolutely a pleasure.

Allan Schwartzman: The Burri exhibition I thought was quite beautiful, it had great works in it. It was a relatively small show, but it packed strong punch, which is not so easy to do in the shadow of the exquisitely perfect retrospective that was at the Guggenheim Museum several years ago, but I enjoyed that a lot.

There was that wonderful glass show.

Charlotte Burns: That was beautiful. What was the artist called?

Allan Schwartzman: Maurice Marinot, who was a painter, and eventually turned exclusively toward making glass, and I just thought that was an extraordinary life of experimentation in a medium.

And then there was the Luc Tuyman’s show at Palazzo Grassi, which I thought was exquisite, and perhaps the most powerfully curated and installed show that we’ve seen at the Palazzo Grassi yet.

Charlotte Burns: It was a beautiful show. It was incredibly well installed. It was mixing works. It wasn’t chronological. It seemed more chromatically organized than chronologically organized, and I felt like I learned a lot about the artist from that show.

Allan Schwartzman: It felt like every room had its own character and unique content, and that none of them were literal or formal in that sense but, as you say, there was one room where there were several amazing paintings of exterior street scenes at night that had kind of a dark greenish palette to them. Then in the next room there were these wonderful bright blue paintings. And so, in that instance, you got to see the role of color in the artist’s work, and what impact that has on light, which has always been one of the central qualities of the artist’s work. But then, in other instances, it was about content or it was about framing.

I think he combined the early and the late extremely well, which is not so easy to do; the large and the small. Scale has always been an issue in Tuyman’s work: all of his early work, pretty much, was small and intimate in scale. It seemed when he tried to make large paintings early within his artistic development that that became more of a challenge—but, it’s a challenge that he worked through in more recent years, and that was very clearly present here, including in the painting that to me represented the moment where he broke through in being able pull off large scale.

Charlotte Burns: That’s sort of Cezanne-ish still life.

Allan Schwartzman: Yes, that’s sort of still life that looks like Cezanne-like, fruit lined up on a surface that you can’t quite see with a ground that kind of evaporates or becomes immaterial or anti-architectural. It was a total pleasure.

Charlotte Burns: It was a real pleasure, and it was partly a value for me because it’s always quite lovely to see an exhibition of work by an artist and understand that they’ve been thinking of these things the whole time. That, when you’re looking in the present moment, it can be hard to see sometimes how things link, but with the Tuymans show you can really understand that some of these things—whether, like you say, that’s content or the colors or the formal concerns, whatever it was—you could see that these are things that he’s just been going over and over, and over, and expanding on, and be grappling with for his whole career.

Allan Schwartzman: I also think that to see this show at the same time that we saw the biennale gave it a kind of framework in which to see it that was distinctively different from the biennale. So, whereas the biennale was so much more about information—whether it was in the media work or in painting, it was all about information—the Tuymans show is… he’s a much more classical painter, and there wasn’t so much space for classical painting within the biennale or, where it existed, its presence was asserted much more for its content than for its hand. Not to say that Tuymans work doesn’t have content and hand, because it has all that and a lot more too, but this is an artist who you would not have seen in this biennale, and yet seeing a show of a very great painter spanning several decades of his work, selected with a kind of precision that’s necessary to draw out the greatness of the artist was a treat.

Charlotte Burns: So, at the end of it all, I asked Allan to give us his grand summation of this edition of the Venice Biennale. Here’s what he said.

Allan Schwartzman: I think in summation this is an exhibition that gets richer the more time you have to think about it. Its strength is in the memory, and that’s pretty powerful. Often one walks away from these exhibitions eliminating from the memory the works that didn’t stand out. And in this exhibition, there is more information that keeps coming forth for me. As I go back through the catalog, there are artists I discover whose work is looking a lot more interesting to me the more time I’ve had to think about it. I think that certainly does prove the title.

Charlotte Burns: Well, may we live in interesting times. The exhibition “May You Live In Interesting Times” is open until 24 November this year. Thank you, Allan.

Allan Schwartzman: Thank you, Charlotte.

Charlotte Burns: This was a pleasure.

Allan Schwartzman: It was.

We had some good food too.

Charlotte Burns: I know. So does my waistline.

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