by Sandra Orellana Sears, November 2011
When in Venice, the Palazzo Grassi is considered a compulsory destination on the map. Over six years ago, François Pinault took over the palazzo and hired Japanese architect Tadao Ando to renovate the building to house his modern and contemporary art collection. The museum now produces some of the most jaw-dropping temporary exhibitions of the day, rivaling even the Biennale with its bells and whistles. What makes the palazzo so distinctive is the unexpected display of contemporary artworks in a sumptuous, neoclassical setting. Pinault’s spectacular collection doesn’t hurt either.
The current exhibition on display, The World Belongs to You, is curated by Caroline Bourgeois and aspires to reunite artists with contrasting origins, histories and practices fragmented by the ceaseless globalization of the modern world. Bourgeois attempts to capture everything from “the breakdown of symbols, to the temptation of self-withdrawal and isolation, to the attraction of violence and spirituality in a troubled and globalized world.” While Bourgeois’s dictum is compelling, it is overly ambitious and too vague to thoroughly anchor the exhibition. Subtle inklings of these themes do appear throughout the palazzo, but perhaps not with the conceptual gusto that Bourgeois had envisioned.
Instead, the artworks carry on a subdued conversation amongst themselves. They whisper to each other within the secluded galleries—various conversations take form in an articulate dialogue, on other occasions, an indecipherable hush. The astute correspondence between the works and architecture is enough to capture the visitor’s attention, and bring to mind the historical significance of the collection within the revamped structural design.
Thomas Housego’s L’homme Pressé initiates an interaction long before the viewer enters the physical space of the museum. The sculptor’s massive bronze on steel figure is positioned on the landing stage of the Palazzo Grassi mid-stride, reaching the monstrous height of forty feet, and visible from the vaporetti drifting by on the canal. From any perspective, the masked, machine-like beast’s towering presence and exposed metallic infrastructure starkly contrast with the marble façade of the building. Many areas of the sculpture appear unfinished, and the more fleshed out sections seem to fall away as the ape-like effigy launches a hurried step forward in space.
Inside, the viewer is confronted with another kind of monster, equally triumphant in scale. This time it is in the form of Contamination, the Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos’s patchwork embodiment of a tactile, metamorphic virus. The creature’s carnivalesque appendages wrap down and around the grand marble staircase, sweeping out onto the main hall, confronting each visitor upon arrival. Vasconcelos knits, sews and crochets objects to assemble together with a brightly colored array of materials collected during visits to a variety of countries over the past three years. With each subsequent installation, the artist continues adding to the proliferating structure. Its immense scale relentlessly dominates the environment, contaminating both the viewer’s field of vision and the shared exhibition space with additional artworks. The pervasive sculpture riffs on Bourgeois’s notion of the ever-expanding exchange of artists, materials and practices across the globe as it visually overlaps with other work.
One of the most compelling of these intersections occurs between Vasconcelos ‘s piece and two oppositely facing galleries with works by Ahmed Alsoudani and Adrian Ghenie, two contemporary favorites of Pinault. There is a kind of face-off between painters, mediated by Contamination‘s tentacles, with the theme of violence as both artists’ weapon of choice. Alsoudani, who is originally from Iraq and living in New York, paints disturbing scenes of war and destruction. Charcoal-drawn scepters become tangled with the leftover body parts and organs, creating a nervous tension of suffering and loss. Ghenie produces an equally unnerving composition through subject matter and technique. Directly across the atrium doctors hover over human figures stripped of their flesh, exposing the tissue and muscle fibers beneath. The unsettling scenes refer to studies conducted by the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology that aimed to provide scientific support to race-related social policies during the Nazi era. Ghenie’s bold, smeared brushstrokes obstruct the otherwise sharp and precise forms, suggesting the allusive nature of both history and representation. These visceral images arrest one’s gaze, but never completely. Contamination‘s ubiquity is a constant distraction.
Another striking interchange occurs between El Anatsui’s metallic tapestry woven from aluminum bottle caps and copper wire, and David Hammons Flies in a Jar. The latter is a small sculpture consisting of four zippers standing in as pesky flies, delicately poised on a brittle twig and trapped by a small sheet of mesh wire. Anatsui’s New Layout is enormous in comparison, covering the entirety of the opposite wall, but somehow striking a balance with the tiny sculptural ecosystem propped on a discreet pedestal before it. The contemplation of poverty and waste reverberates between the two. Both artists have discovered unexpected ways to transform refuse into entrancing objects of beauty and value.
To Pinault’s credit, the curators could display any arrangement of his collected works and they would, without a doubt, be a spectacle to behold. Though The World Belongs to You is a bit abstruse in its overarching conceptual theme, we can still explore the variety of implications of the visual relationships of these works to each other. More often than not, the aesthetic tension alone is enough to overwhelm our mind and senses. It will be interesting to see how the curating unfolds at Pinault’s recently opened Punta della Dogana, a triangular shaped center for contemporary art that separates the Grand and Guidecca canals. As a former customs house of Venice, the building has been restored by Tadao Ando to maintain the original masonry and protect the base—and the collection, of course—from rising water levels. Bourgeois is also behind the conception of the current exhibition, Praise in Doubt, which contains works by Maurizio Cattelan, Sigmar Polke and Donald Judd among others. The new gallery will expand the Pinault Foundation’s presence in Venice, which is growing stronger by the hour it seems. The city may be sinking, but Pinault’s made his mark clear—he’s in Venice to stay.
The World Belongs to You
2 June 2011—21 February 2012
Palazzo Grassi, Venice