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The Pazzi Chapel & the Biennale: Where are we?

Think with the Senses, feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense, the 2007 Venice Biennale

Debra Brehmer

Blank Canvas

Venice can be overwhelming. The summer heat bakes the life out of the hoards of pasty-faced tourists. And the abundance of art during the biennale is as compelling and exhausting as the abundance of Murino glass. Not only does the biennale fill its huge “official” sites, but it sprawls into nooks and crannies and unsanctioned spaces everywhere.

This year was the 52nd Venice Biennale and the first ever to be organized by an American, Robert Storr, of the Museum of Modern Art. The fair is centered in two locations. The Giardini (or garden) featured one large building that was essentially a group show of selected international artists; and then individual buildings for solo shows of selected artists from each country represented.  There were no crowds, no confusion, no commercial din. It was lackadaisical in contrast to its size. The other half of the show was at the Arsenale, nearby, which was an old rope and ship building facility. This was also an international group show that felt like a superhighway of art staged within gloriously rich “ruins” of old buildings. More countries were presented this year than ever before, with Storr giving Turkey its own national pavilion and adding Africa, bringing the total to 76 different countries.

One of the biennale’s catch phrases was “There are no foreigners in art,” a trenchant statement considering world immigration issues. Can art really cross boundaries that politics cannot? It seems that the answer is yes. Politics may enter into the choice of artists and countries represented, but it was encouraging to see each country asserting itself in freedom of expression, in rich and complex ways, opening doors to mindsets more subtle and eloquent than what we could absorb from the news.

The Venice Biennale, despite its excessive diversity, offered a clear picture of a changing worldview. It is shocking to think how quickly boundaries and borders have been eradicated by the marketplace and the internet. In no other time period, other than the Renaissance, has man’s view of his position in the world so thoroughly shifted. All of the art in this exposition spoke of this new world order, to a daunting and often dreary degree. But if it hadn’t, it would have appeared that the art world had its head in the sand. This is not a good time culturally to be an artist. The world is too messed up. This mess gives art a moral job to do. Art functions better when it is less burdened. But this is not the case right now.

One BIG digression:

pazzi chapel
canvas with white

Just to provide some perspective on how our view of our place in the universe has changed so abruptly, we should slip back 600 years and visit the Pazzi Chapel.  The Pazzi Chapel at the church of Santa Croce in Florence was designed by the famous architect Felippo Brunelleschi around 1442. Although he died before its completion, the plan was more or less followed. The adjacent, huge church of Santa Croce is the site of famous burials — Michelangelo, Galileo, Alberti. In the courtyard sits the small charter hall called the Pazzi Chapel, built of  “Pietra serena,” the gray marble known as “severe stone.”  With this building, Brunelleschi designed the  quintessential Renaissance structure — cerebral, rational and serene. It is, essentially, a minimalist sculpture, so far ahead of its time that it is surprising there are no theories of alien intervention applied to its creation.

The Pazzi Chapel is little more than a square base surmounted by a circle dome. In contrast to the excessive ornamentation of Gothic architecture, the Pazzi  represents as radical a leap as art ever takes. The caretakers of the chapel have left it empty so the visitor can step into the architecture and try it on like an article of clothing with nothing to distract from the relationship between human and form.

We (my colleague Natanya Blanck and I) stood at the center of the Pazzi Chapel under the oculus (ceiling opening), with natural light shining down in Star trek transporter fashion.  This position placed us symbolically at the center of the heavens (the circle of the dome) and at the center of the earth, represented by the square of the floor. Each individual who stands here becomes a centered conduit between heaven and earth, as human orientation and form become perfectly synchronized with universal proportions and God’s plan. The Pazzi Chapel is part theatre, part Installation, part sculpture, part conceptual brilliance, part spiritual metamorphosis. Brunellschi’s chapel realigns man’s position In the universe according to the newly conceived philosophy of  Renaissance neo-Platonism.  The Pazzi Chapel serves as a diagram of a time when a culture celebrated the greatness of man and put him at the center of all existence. As in the words of the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola: “ is the intermediary between creatures…The familiar of the gods above him and the lord of the beings beneath.” And this is pretty much where we stood until recently. It’s been a rather seamless 600 years of human greatness and superiority to nature.

vetruvian man

Leonardo’s da Vinci’s drawing, the Vitruvian Man,  succinctly shows how and why Brunelleschi selects the language of  geometry (circle and square) to unite man, God and the material world. Renaissance thinkers re-discovered the cosmic map encoded in the human form. Stretch out your arms and legs and a perfect circle and square emerge. God was aesthetically a minimalist and geometry is the code of all existence. Buildings with these harmonious proportions physically bring the human form into sync with these universal/spiritual phenomena.

I stood at the center of the Pazzi Chapel with my arms outstretched just to see how it would feel. The Renaissance was such an advanced age of thinking and philosophy that even though we might “know” and intellectualize its issues, the deeper sophistication and profundity of how these new ideas took physical form in art and architecture is sometimes only incrementally absorbed. But I “got it” at the Pazzi Chapel. I felt it and it felt far beyond where we are now in history. It felt smarter and greater and more humane. When you stand under the dome in the Pazzi Chapel and stretch out your arms and look up, the distance from you to the ceiling creates the illusion that your finger tips align with the perimeter of the dome, ala the Vitruvian Man. Why don’t they mention this in the art history books?

With this Renaissance picture of how man saw his place in the universe so clearly presented by the Pazzi Chapel, it was interesting to try to get a sense of how we see our current human place in the cosmic order, via the biennale.

The biennale: no center, only fluctuation:  “panta rei”

First, of course, there is no longer a center; no sweet spot where humanity stands proud under the oculus.  Man no longer holds a notion of himself as God’s pet project. Instead, our current status feels squashed by the natural forces of the universe and intimidated by our own technology.  We’ve been in control of nature since the Renaissance, but we are quickly losing the reins only to return to a medieval mindset of mysticism and mercy. The formula is inverting as we become increasingly helpless and ineffective. Globalism provides no center, physical or philosophical. Only a sense of geographical limitation lingers from the historic model (as we have not yet found other inhabitable planets). Fini mondo. The earth’s circumference: still 24,900 miles. Check.

My mental, personal map of the biennale did, however, gravitate toward a central force from which all else seemed to radiate — a solar beacon so to speak.  I don’t know if Robert Storr, the curator, consciously built-in a heart beat, but I thought one was evident. It was actually more than a mechanical (pumping blood throughout the show) kind of center. It was also a spiritual, almost non-corporeal power source. And the name of it was none other than: Robert Ryman.

Ryman gallery

I’m no Ryman fan, so his work here took me by surprise (Well, l am a Ryman fan now. Both Robert and Cordy). But of all the work at the biennale, I kept returning mentally to it…for days, weeks, longer.  “How old-school,” I chastised myself. Ryman was one of the few older artists represented in the entire biennale.

Within the huge group pavilion at the Giardini was his Island of calm: a  large white room with a new suite of white paintings on blue grounds. It wasn’t the individual works that struck me but the blinding, compelling beauty of how the paintings and the space worked together like a chapel. If religious architecture tried to manipulate light to act on us metaphorically, Robert Ryman’s essential purity here felt as close to heaven as we could get on earth. As the cool, intense snowy white panels blazed with fields of light, the room seemed to offer a speechless universal plea for enlightenment in a time of disaster.  And if Ryman’s installation indeed did offer a kind of core experience for the entire sprawl of the biennale, let’s dutifully note that it was PAINTING that could still carry the charge, yes, oil on canvas that cut to the chase.

Surrounding Ryman’s space were a few other old timers: Sigmar Polke’s enormous translucent stretched silk panels; Gerhard Richter’s pulled, streaked and layered abstractions and Susan Rothenberg’s large, freshly painted and still-smelling-of-the studio compositions. The Polke’s, in their enormity and delicate, coppery, shimmery, ethereality, seemed to strive toward a Ryman-type essentialism, but a sense of the human ego undermined their poetry. No, it was Ryman who served as this biennale’s Wizard of Oz.

From here, I felt satisfied enough to spend the next two days wading in  disparity. Whenever I started to feel exasperated, I mentally returned to the clean fields of Ryman’s minimalist pasture.

David Altmejd

The individual pavilions were a lot of fun. Opening each country’s door offered a new surprise. Step into Canada and artist David Altmejd had created a sprawling, crazy house-of-mirrors environment of the “wilds.” Germany’s Isa Genzken offered a messy and disturbing installation of suspended space men and trashy futurism. The American building was the most disappointing. It featured a retrospective of the deceased artist Felix Gonzalez Torres. While many critics seemed to find this installation superb, I thought that Torres’ work looked awful in the space. It’s the ugliest building in the garden, a neo-classical abomination, and Torres’ expansive, emotive minimalist work felt compressed and cheapened here. Even one large room devoted to his 160 pounds of black licorice, arranged in a huge rectangle on the floor and feeling like a grave, which should have been breath-taking, felt stagy. It was nice, however, to see the Gonzalez-Torres stack piece, “Veteran’s Day Sale,”  owned by the Milwaukee Art Museum, on loan to the exhibition.

Take Care of Yourself

The country whose pavilion stole the show, in my mind, was France with Sophie Calle’s installation called “Take Care of Yourself.” The French artist had received an e-mailed break-up letter from her boyfriend last year. She took the letter, sent it out to 100 or so female acquaintances around the world and had them submit analyses/responses. Calle’s installation documented and deconstructed the letter and included video clips of various “friends” reading the letter and interjecting their comments. This was one of the few installations to take a particular moment or idea and expand it effectively to operatic proportions, allowing the germ of idea to diffuse into universals. Her video components were remarkably captivating and well-staged.

This cannot be said for so many of the other video projects that dominated the exposition. Video and film are obviously the media of choice globally, but from a viewer’s point of view, they don’t work effectively when presented en masse. Why? Because the images are fleeting and require a kind of patient observation that large exhibitions cannot support. Which brings us to the other half of the show in the Arsenale.

The enormous space of the Arsenale provided the most unified viewing experience of the biennale. Almost all of the art here dealt with politics and cultural issues in rather documentarian ways. The notion of evidence and truth seemed at the core. Art became a means of exposition and exploring injustices. Again and again, the viewer was asked to read, de-code and absorb tremendous amounts of information at each installation. Some were effective such as the American Emily Prince’s wall of small portraits of the American soldiers who died in the Iraq war. She color coded their ethnicity and arranged the drawings in the shape of the United States map. Many others were less effective, but what emerged was the shifting contour of the world. As a boy in Italian artist Paolo Canevari’s video kicked a human skill like a soccer ball, it became an act of universal frustration. So much of the politically charged art in the Arnsenale found various means to reach out geographically or conceptually as an integral part of the artistic/production process.

And unanimously, this work did not put man at the center of the universe. It offered no center, no clear path, no positively “correct” interpretations. Instead, the art had a feeling of displacement or looking askance. The rejection of easy answers and George Bush determinism took form in a certain loss of point-of-view. But what replaced it was very interesting:  I would tend to describe it as a new demand on the viewer to think and sort, a new model of interaction that encompasses a notion of moral responsibility.

The message of these contemporary artists was quite loud, clear and bleak. And then there was Robert Ryman. Perhaps his vision was more post-apocalypse, a cleansing, sentient emptiness replacing humanity at the center of existence.

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