REFLECTIONS FROM THE BIENNALE DI VENEZIA 2011
November 27th marked the ending of ILLUMInations, the 54th international art exhibition known as the Venice Biennale. This was my first biennale. I was fortunate enough to visit the event twice; the first time in mid September and again just this last weekend to witness the final two days of the 25 week affair. I must regretfully note that I was only able to see what Arsenale and Giardini had to offer, as I couldn’t make it to any of the collateral events or other pavilions sprinkled around the island. I know, I know, I know.
Similar to other biennales that exist on this fair planet, it is known that the general function is to showcase the asserted best of what the contemporary art world has to show for itself, pushing boundaries and conventions of other institutions like the gallery and museum. Here is a bit from art historian, critic, curator, and director of this year’s exhibition, Bice Curiger:
ILLUMInations presents contemporary art characterized by gestures that explore notions of the collective, yet also speak of fragmentary identity, of temporary alliances, and objects inscribed with transience. If the communicative aspect is crucial to the ideas underlying ILLUMInations, it is demonstrated in art that often declares and seeks closeness to the vibrancy of life. This is more important now than ever before, in an age when our sense of reality is profoundly challenged by virtual and simulated worlds. This Biennale is also about believing in art and its potential. Artists work without a safety net, and people who work with artists cannot help but be inspired, question their own assumptions, and constantly strive to do their best.
The Biennale possess the potential ability to globally summarize the qualities within contemporary artwork that curators from all over essentially value. Will patterns emerge when looking at the work geographically/regionally? How is material and hands-on execution regarded to each invited artist and to curator? Among the 89 participating countries (the number of artists each country represents is not standardized- some have one, some have a million [e.g. Italy]), and the 83 additional artists showcased in the international exhibition, I was really hoping to find some work that would speak to my interests in the maker and the thinker as one—evidence of artists able to harness the seemingly impossible duality of contemporary cultural significance through visual art and meanwhile made by hand by artist themself.
Ok, ok I’ll just say it; I was looking for signs of life within the “contemporary jewelry” world and other similar work perhaps labeled as “furniture”… just to find out whether our fields as makers are somewhere, even just a tiny blip, on the radar of these bigwig curators. I’m not talking about design and I’m not talking about craft. But I am talking about artworks that utilize craft-based traditions to communicate ideas that speak to today. I know that I haven’t so far done the best job articulating what I really believe in as far as where contemporary “jewelry” and the like meet the fine art world— but hopefully by now we do know I believe there is a semantic problem that perpetuates a disparate relationship where it is believed that one cannot be the other… but let’s not get too involved in this just yet. Instead, let’s look at artists who seemed to have figured out the secret formula to better illustrate what I mean, artists who straddle the line of which I abstrusely speak.
I’ll start with Guatemalan artist, Regina José Galindo, part of Between Forever and Never (Arsenale), presented by the Instituto Italo-Latino Americano. I will mention that I really appreciated this section of the exhibition, as each artwork included writing next to the piece itself. My opinion of communicative info next to the work has really yet to be determined- this may sound elementary; and although I do like when the work speaks for itself, I appreciate the value of the writing as a tool to understanding. Here, it is an added bit of intellectuality that in this case, assists the viewer greatly… and I also didn’t have to lug around the catalog.
At first glance, Galindo’s work provides a sense of conventional familiarity- two ordinary black pedestals with vitrines stand side by side. I can’t recall any other artworks in the entirety of the Biennale that utilize such presentational standards. The cases are reminiscent of typical display conventions seen in museums and in my opinion, passé contemporary jewelry shows that close off the work to those who wish to understand it, while also giving it a sense of preciousness and distance. It may seem that I am speaking negatively, but here we find qualities beyond that of unoriginal jewelry displays that commonly use the same devices. The blurb next to one of the works entitled, Looting (2010), affirms my suspicions that the pedestal is not just a means of display, but also is part of the work itself (this is indicated by the size description, 136x38x38 cm), a step up from the detrimental qualities this same convention afflicts on objects made within the realm of jewelry.
Inside, one can see eight little gold nuggets, interestingly described by the artist as eight tiny sculptures themselves. Also described by the blurb, Galindo “asked a dentist in Guatemala to make three openings in her molars, and inlay them with national gold of the highest purity. In Berlin, a German doctor extracted all the good fillings from her teeth. Thus, with her own body, Galindo reincarnates the operation of plundering that characterized the Europe-America relation during the period of conquest and colonization…”
This act is also described as a performance, one in which the body is a participant. As Galindo is not a dentist, it is obvious why she needed someone else to “make” the integral components of the piece. Yet here she is, using gold, her body, and formal conventions of adornment displays to communicate an idea. I wonder if Galindo knows who Lauren Kalman is. Is the consideration between these two people as artists the same? Probably not. Although I feel that Kalman to be a great exception in the studio jewelry sphere, an artist that transcends both material and labels, she ain’t in the Biennale. And even more, Galindo actually won the Golden Lion for best artist under 35 years old at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005. Humph.
Speaking of which, Falso León (2011), shown below and also in the exhibition, is a replica of the previously won award commissioned by Galindo, made by a workshop in Guatemala. Galindo had to sell the original for money and as such, responded with this performance of getting a cheap reproduction made to comment on the practicality of being artist for a living, trying to survive as such, possession and dispossession, etc, etc.
What Galindo is doing closely resembles themes and limitations fundamental to those making good work classified as jewelers, (or in my opinion, artists that make jewelry. Will this ever be less complicated to explain?) For example, the body is inextricable to the success of the first piece. The use of material is similar, and the narrative of the piece is something that cannot escape any work made under the trope of jewelry (value, class, economic history… you name it). Yet Galindo is an artist. The choices that are being made are highlighted by the way she “outsources” the physical objects, insofar that her idea is stronger and speaks much more than the objects themselves. The objects are stand-ins for a greater narrative. THIS IS WHAT “WE” NEED TO START PAYING ATTENTION TO AND WORKING TOWARDS.
The next noteworthy sign-of-life was curiously in very close proximity. Rolando Castellón’s (Nicaragua) Joyas de Pobre (2010) actually includes the word jewelry in the title!! Leaps and bounds, guys. Athough Castellón is no “jeweler,” this series is part of an ongoing project; this is not the first time he has made work that is highly associative to the contemporary jewelry sphere; whether he is aware of that is its very own question.
Let’s break the work down a little bit. Like Galindo, Castellón uses the same sort of unconventional display- a big case with a glass top you look down into with the work sitting on red velvet. Classic. It is indicated as an installation, similar to Galindo as well. In each of these cases, the artists are both making choices. They feel that choosing what I and other contemporary jewelers would call a fall back, a last resort, an “isn’t there anything else we can use?” type presentation standard, to aid in their message that maybe we should be associating these things to precious objects… ornament…….. jewelry.
It’s a tricky thing, really, because how one chooses to let the work live in the world (here, it is inside these cases) is synonymous to creating an environment which either successfully aids to the work’s conceptual nature, or unsuccessfully binds it to unapproachability and misunderstanding (which I feel happens all too often in my field). As non-jewelers, both Galindo and Castellón need (for lack of a better word) these cases, and in a backwards sort of way, they can lead by example when artists like me (again, “jewelers”) need to think about what kind of environments we need to be giving to our work so others better understand the message. What I guess I’m trying to say is this: while artists like Galindo and Castellón rely on display cases as tools for people to understand this work of theirs, contemporary studio jewelers need to start thinking about getting rid of them (conventional cases) and finding other ways for the work to live. For the artists, the cases are in fact not just cases– they are environments, content, associational tools, and part of the piece as a whole. How can we do the same?
Here is what Castellón’s blurb says about the work- I am going to bold the things I think area a bit… shaky:
“The series of sculptures Joyas de Pobre [Jewels for Poor People] by Rolando Castellón is a set of decorative objects, elaborated from precarious materials such as tree branches, seeds, frayed fabrics, laminated coconut, stones and rusty metallic scraps that are shaped by the artist’s hammer into new assemblages, creating a series of modest jewels…”
Ok, stop. Wow! What a concept. Immediate ways of making! Found objects! Modest jewels! Sounds awful familiar. Within our world as makers, this blurb so far doesn’t really say anything new or different…WE’VE ALREADY BEEN DOING THIS INHERENTLY SINCE THE 1960’S! But because this man is an “artist”, those playing the contemporary art game are going to give him a lot of credit for this, aren’t they? And the artist’s hammer…what is that? And just how the display cases are conventions we don’t like to resort to, the language that Castellón uses is language we as real makers should also stop using; it relies too much on material and process… meat certainly, but not the whole meal. The only thing we absolutely should take away from this writing, is the word sculptures. As naive as this all sounds, and as much as I really do hate hate hate labels and boxes, we have to start using more of this vocabulary to describe our work. Let’s try to get it outside just the jewelry realm when it can go so far beyond. After all, Castellón was not the first to do this and it is a concrete example of how contemporary jewelry is completely off the radar. DOES ANYONE IN THE FINE ART WORLD KNOW WE EXIST?
“…Castellón’s project involves the recovery of the creative mechanisms of the informal street commerce in Central America, where small groups of artisans offer their objects, which though constructed by humble means from cheap materials nevertheless add color and creativity to the commercial environment of the cities. While the street commerce presents an alternative for small producers and a means of earning a living for the poorest sectors of society, Castellón’s work criticizes the region’s socioeconomic inequality, placing the jewels of the poor in counterpoint to the jewels and privileges of the rich.”
Ah, ok, now here is the concept. Castellón aims to emulate jewelry pieces or the objectives of decorative objects through scrap material and straightforward application to ultimately comment on economic inequalities, social history, lack of education, etc… I read —->elsewhere that by placing the work within the context of contemporary art spheres like the biennial, it adds to the overall concept; Castellón views these “commercial exhibition systems” as globalization. WHAT A PRIVELEDGE to be able to make a comment like that! But of course, one must be accepted, chosen to participate in the biennial for this to happen, right? What a shame, really, because those within my field not only know, but cannot ignore the fundamental relationship jewelry objects have to socioeconomics. We have to deal with it every time we make anything. It’s there and there ain’t no way around it. And it’s the same with notions of value, sumptuary, class, and the like. – And as much as I have sounded like I’m knocking down the work… well actually, yes I am knocking it down. On the verge of being redundant, WE ALREADY DO THIS. WORK LIKE THIS ALREADY EXISTS. To see more of Castellón’s Joyas, click here<—The way he deals with space here is considerably more sensitive than most “jeweler’s” have the guts to go for… but then again we rarely get solo shows, and if we do, we rarely get big spaces to play with.
Here is a short list of diverse artists that I think make work similarly, or at least highlight the main themes both Galindo and Castellón touch upon. Some use cheap materials like Castellón and some are working more traditionally with precious materials… (is material a good enough connection though?). Some are old vets and others are fresh and innovative up-and-comers. But the main difference between the following artists and artist like Castellón is the way we write about are work. “We” usually try to avoid writing textual summarizes that so clearly articulate the object’s relation to the history of value, material as concept, and socioeconomics, etc because… it is…… redundant. The object already carries with it these connotations. Let’s pretend Castellón actually was a jeweler. If read his blurb knowing that, I would think his explanation to be quite sophomoric, especially in the way he talks about process. The tiles of the piece is succinct enough.
What is interesting is this: Castellón needs to say his sculptures are jewelry-like objects. But because the following are in fact jewelers, how often does the work speak for itself in that regard, or must they also tell you what the objects are? Perhaps if we used the word “sculpture” more often, people on the outside would consider the work we are doing to be similar concrete choices, not just making jewelry because we were trained as such. We must start to articulate bigger and better reasons for the things we make. And here we have once again, the problem that is vocabulary, when pinning labels and talk of process. Let’s think more about the way we frame our work, shall we?
I encourage those that read this to look around. The images below are in the order that follows, and the names are all links: Adam Grinovich, Karl Fritsch, Ashley Wahba, Lisa Walker, Iris Bodemer, and Lauren Tickle.
STAY TUNED FOR #2