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ARTS LAURA GASCOIGNE SIGNS OF THE TIMES


The theme of the Crucifixion recurs with intriguing frequency at the Venice Biennale, an event which increasingly reflects the globalisation of contemporary art


“W


e have long entered an era of Counter-Enlightenment,” announces a voice from a mot- ley loudspeaker patched


together from coloured scraps of recycled plas- tic. The speaker is not addressing a G8 climate camp, as you might imagine, but the preview audience of the fifty-fourth Venice Biennale (until 27 November). It is mounted outside the Danish Pavilion, whose national contri- bution to this year’s event, Speech Matters, is concerned with issues of free speech and the way “transnational semio-capitalism” impacts on “the notion of national representation”. Capital may not change hands at the Biennale, but artistic stock is valued and deals are struck. Venice is the key date in a calendar of biennials that now stretches around the globe from Guangzhou to Sharjah. Like music and fashion, contemporary art has gone global. In the past few years, “transnational semio- capitalism”, if that’s what you like to call it, has been ironing out the differences that once made national schools of art unique. In an international market manipulated by the big dealers and auction houses, contemporary art has become as subject to global branding as the watches in the booth sponsored by Swatch set up right opposite the Danish Pavilion. In an interview about his new work for


Venice, I, Imposter, British artist Mike Nelson laments the fact that difference has “all but disappeared in the world”. By recreating a Turkish caravanserai within the walls of the British Pavilion, he is striking a quiet blow for diversity, but a noisier protest is being staged in the Italian Pavilion by its polemical curator Vittorio Sgarbi. A maverick who thrives on controversy, Sgarbi doesn’t need a loudhailer to make his views heard. In a chal- lenge to what he sees as the global art mafia, he has hung neon signs reading “L’Arte non è cosa nostra” throughout his exhibition and handed over its selection to a committee of prominent non-art critics. The show includes examples of community arts, such as the chapel traditionally handcrafted from bread for the feast of St Joseph by the women of Salemi in Sicily. Sgarbi, who happens to be


mayor of this former Mafia stronghold, also devotes a section of the show to displays from the Mafia Museum he opened there last year. Artistically speaking, the Italian exhibition is a mixed bag, but iconographically certain themes recur. One that recurs with astonishing frequency is the Crucifixion. Some allusions are veiled: Jannis Kounellis – a favourite of the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Ravasi, and a hot tip for the Vatican Pavilion in 2013 – contributes Untitled, an installation of seven white canvas shrouds fastened to sheets of steel with enor- mous iron nails. Other references are more obvious, and more nakedly political. Gaetano Pesce has installed a chapel with rows of pews facing a cross on which hangs the blood-red boot of Italy; in place of the Bible, a lectern holds a copy of the Italian Constitution open at Chapter II: Ethico-social Relationships. Pesce’s installation is called Italia in Croce; another piece of overt political commentary by Giancarlo Vitali features a painting of feet nailed to a cross and is simply called Duemilaundici, 2011. Gianluigi Colin makes a subtler point by juxtaposing Mantegna’s The Dead Christ (1480) with a photograph of the dead Che Guevara (1967), and Antonio De Luca a more shocking one by super - imposing the Sprite slogan “Obey your thirst” over a photograph of a crucifix in a photo - montage titled Perche I Mendicanti Vivono Ancora – Why the Poor Are Still With Us. On a more ambitious scale, Franco Politano has assembled an iron-masked Army of Souls before an expanded cross bearing seven cru- cified Christs under a banner reading, “Cristi di tutto il mondo unitevi!” – “Christs of all the world unite!”. In troubled times, the old symbols are best.


The Haitians, who have established a toehold outside the Giardini in two freight containers joined together in the form of a tau cross, are holding an exhibition on the theme of Death and Fertility which includes three crucifixes by Port-au-Prince sculptor André Eugène made of scavenged rubbish, studded with bottle tops and bristling with nails. The German Pavilion, meanwhile, has been trans- formed into a chapel recreating the set of the


The German Pavilion, with Cristoph Schlingensief ’s installation


Fluxus oratorio, A Church of Fear v. the Alien Within, by film and stage director Christoph Schlingensief, who died of lung cancer last year aged 49. A former altar boy, Schlingensief set this operatic examination of his own mor- tality in a reconstruction of the church where he served as a boy. The stuffed rabbit alongside the crucifix on the altar testifies to his ambiva- lence towards the faith of his youth, but his irreverence, if such it is, is born of anguish rather than a Hirstian love of sensationalism. It’s a sign of changing times that this cathar- tic outpouring of emotion won the Golden Lion for Best National Pavilion. Also signifi - cant, perhaps, is the central role given in this year’s International Art Exhibition, “ILLUMInations”, to a group of sacred paint- ings by Tintoretto. Walk into the Giardini’s Central Pavilion and you come face to face with Tintoretto’s late masterwork The Last Supper, on loan from San Giorgio Maggiore, flanked by The Stealing of the Dead Body of St Mark and The Creation of the Animals from the Accademia. Presented by this year’s curator, Bice Curiger, as shining examples of innovation, they effortlessly outshine the con- temporary competition. Their undiminished pulling power is wittily demonstrated in a contemporary video, Factor Green, by Swiss artist Shahryar Nashat. Filmed in the Accademia, it opens with a courier unpacking a futuristic luminous green block in front of The Stealing of the Dead Body of St Mark. The courier sits on the green block, then climbs on it and strikes a Baroque pose in front of the painting, then turns and leaves – whereupon the block levitates and, as if by magnetic attraction, attaches itself to Tintoretto’s canvas. As my old painting teacher Leonard Bennetts used to say, in art – as in so much else – the way forward is backwards.


18 June 2011 | THE TABLET | 25


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