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CACCIA AL TESORO
by Walter Robinson
 
After 45 minutes of searching through the bewildering maze of Venice's pedestrian byways, we finally found our goal. "Caccia al tesoro!" -- "A treasure hunt!" -- exclaimed Mariacristina Parravicini, the Italian-born New York dealer. Treasures indeed were to be found at the Palazzo Fortuny, a splendidly dilapidated, four-story gothic building just off the Grand Canal, midway between the Rialto and Accademia bridges.

There, the Belgian designer and collector Axel Vervoordt has installed a contemporary kunstkabinett, mixing together over 300 objects from the prehistoric to the contemporary, much of it from his own holdings. The trove does inspire fantasies of collecting, that's for sure. Why would anyone save Alighiero Boetti's sculpture, a figure made in 1969 of hand-formed clay lumps arranged on the floor with a yellow butterfly positioned on the chest? To collect!

One highlight is a huge s-shaped freestanding funhouse mirror by Anish Kapoor, installed in a gallery devoted to the human figure and also containing a rather exotic pair of artist's posing mannequins, a 1st century Roman torso of a youth, and figurative works by Francis Bacon, Hans Bellmer, Yves Klein, Berlinde De Bruyckere and Kimsooja. Upstairs, a large elephant's ear is positioned next to a cabinet-sized "piss painting" by Andy Warhol, and five pale paintings from 1965 by Roman Opalka -- who was then somewhere mid-stride in the project of counting from one to infinity via dense skeins of hand-painted numbers -- hang near a serene Sung Buddha from 1,000 years ago.

"It's the best thing in all of Venice," exclaimed Parravicini.

An impressive show of works by the Antwerp-based artist Jan Fabre (b. 1958) is located right around the corner at the Palazzo Benzon, organized by the Galleria d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Bergamo. Fabre is his own best subject, and the show features life-sized imagoes of the Flemish artist spitting on a field of toppled black marble gravestones, banging his head against an Old Master painting (with blood dripping from his nose and pooling on the floor) and hanged by the neck in a closet (this last made of gold tacks).

Several smaller sculptures depict the artist's brain, horror-movie style, in the throes of various difficulties -- emitting smoke from a tin chimney, for instance, or with a small figure of the artist riding it like a bucking bronco. Still more sculptures show taxidermied cats hung by hooks and otherwise harrowed, and a pair of snow-white mannequins, pierced by knives, holding clear glass objects. 

All this has "meaning" that is perhaps too literal, and in the end Fabre's sculptures are more impressive as acts of fabrication than philosophy. I do like the bronze tableau of the artist sitting in a suit in a tub, attempting to write on the surface of the water with his finger. "A gesture of impossibility, but a metaphor for the metamorphosis of creating," as it says in the catalogue.

Across the Grand Canal in Venice's San Polo district is the beautiful Palazzo Popodopoli, a fantastic ruin with frescoed ceilings and baroque decorations, site of the Ukrainian pavilion. Something of a punch line, the pavilion largely included works by non-Ukrainian artists, though presumably their works address questions about the Ukraine and its relation to the world. It was organized by Peter Doroshenko, an American who now is director of the Baltic Center in England (and, truth be told, also president of the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev).

Works by a few actual Ukrainians were on hand, notably color photos by the Berlin-based "critical realist" photographer Boris Mikhailov (b. 1938), who focuses on images of his fellow citizens on grimy Ukrainian streets in an effort to "communicate with low things on a close distance." He provides as well a more optimistic image, a mural-sized triptych of a young girl in her underwear, wearing very contemporary pink flip-flops, looking out onto a lush green landscape as towards a hopeful future. The girl's pose is a quotation of Salvador Dalí's famous image, Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by the Horns of her Own Chastity (1954), once in the collection of Playboy magazine [see Artnet News, Jan. 23, 2003].

More tangentially Ukrainian is the slo-mo vid by London YBAer Sam Taylor-Wood that shows a Ukrainian dancer with the London Royal Ballet holding his position while suspended motionless in the air (by invisible wires, presumably), as if frozen mid-leap, for more than four minutes, while another figure lies back on a sofa, resting her head on her hand. The nonchalance in the face of the miraculous -- I identify the reclining figure with the artist -- is the essence of avant-garde cool, no?

Also included in the pavilion is the London "billboard" artist Mark Titchner, who has installed an oversized roto-relief visible from the Grand Canal, designed to draw attention while remaining fairly cryptic (and cheesy), and the Chicago graffiti artist Dzine, who contributes a gussied-up "low rider" tricycle attached to a boat trailer, painted and upholstered in the colors of the Ukrainian flag and placed in the landing dock. These artists, where do they get their ideas?

Upstairs is a whole suite of voguish photographs by the high-fashion photographer Juergen Teller, perhaps using Ukrainian models -- now there's a comic thought. The photos are typical of their type, and look even stupider than usual in this context. But there are some sexy nudes. At last, just what has been lacking in these stately Venetian precincts, a touch of trashy contemporary porn!

Further south in the Dorsoduro section is the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a pair of buildings around a nice garden. By most accounts Peggy Guggenheim was a silly woman. One thing visitors to her museum may notice are the two gravestones among the ivy, marking the site where Guggenheim's own ashes are interred alongside those of her 12 dogs. That silliness served her well in the art world, and the Guggenheim is following faithfully in her footsteps with its current exhibition pairing Matthew Barney with the late Joseph Beuys, an artist who is admittedly one of Barney's inspirations.

"All in the Present Must Be Transformed," as it is titled, is one of those horrifying "Emperor's New Clothes" exhibitions that makes you wonder what everyone is studying so intently (and why those young gallery guards are so devotedly making damn sure no one takes any pictures).

The elegant gallery rooms are filled with the sort of junk you might find in an abandoned warehouse, accompanied by videos of the artists in fervid performance. Long narrative captions serve to clue in bewildered visitors to the significance of it all. Beuys pumped honey through museum galleries to spread enlightenment through the world, for instance, and Barney smeared Vaseline in his navel in order to show the potential for metamorphosis.

The show makes strikingly clear that first Beuys and now Barney are engaged in attempts to devise new cosmologies that are both literal-minded and ridiculous. Beuys' pursuit of utopian politics via a poetry of objects and actions, as charming as it is, hardly has any practical meaning today. As for Barney's elaborate theatricals, they seem to be barely sublimated sexual fantasies of a peculiarly neurotic sort. What was it Freud said about "desiring machines"?

At best, you might call this stuff "quixotic."

Up in Venice's Cannaregio district on the north side of the island, in the hard-to-find Palazzo Papolavo, Damien Hirst has installed a rather extensive selection of works that take Christianity as their theme. I had gone expecting to see the £50-million diamond-encrusted skull with new teeth (but no gold grill?) -- but of course that's on view in London. What we had here were skulls made of silver, along with lots of other product.

One piece shows the holy trinity as a pie chart, with god the father, god the Holy Spirit and god the son each taking up 33 percent of the whole. Other items include large photos of pharmaceutical pills matched with names of the apostles (Judas Iscariot is a Tiazac 360 capsule -- is that significant?) and a giant crucifix formed of six medical-style photographs of wounds on hands and feet, and a shot of open-heart surgery. A wooden cross with grooves filled with pills sits on an altar below a photograph of a taxidermied dove with spread wings.

Hirst has wit and a certain poetry, to be sure -- who wouldn't prefer a dove to a man nailed to the cross -- but does he have any faith? Or does it even matter? Certainly not to the art market, who sees in Hirst's work the perfect creed of Capital.

Another question: Does Hirst's esthetic amount to more than the kind of wisecracks that might be bandied about in a pub? As good as he is, I prefer Max Ernst's 1922 painting of the Virgin spanking a bad Baby Jesus, please, or any of the sultry Marys around Venice, with their mantles all too clearly cloaking a real woman's body. What, God should go for a Popsicle stick?

Art in Venice in 2007 is clearly obsessed with morbid bodies, whether it admits it or not. The Canadian pavilion in the Giardini, for instance, features a triumphant installation by the London-based artist David Altmejd, with more mirrors, more stuffed squirrels and birds, and more crepuscular tchotchkes than ever before. One highlight is a rooster-headed mannequin in a suit that looks rather like Barney's "Cremaster." Another is a kind of crystal stalagmite explosion made of faceted mirrors.

The pavilion climaxes with a Surrealist figure of a reclining giant, his naked body like a vast Gulliver whose parts have been hollowed out and put to use by a race of tiny forest creatures. Does anyone remember Charles Simmonds

Next door at the German pavilion, the German artist Isa Genzken has also chosen to line the walls with mirrors, which I always find presumptuous. Genzken's sculpture is arguably among the most raucous and boundary-breaking being made today, at least within the avant-garde's circumscribed reality. It's nothing but assemblage, really, ordinary objects put together without much added fuss from the artist. "Racing Thoughts," indeed.

At the entry is a cemetery of carry-on suitcases draped with posters of cute kittens and dogs. Nearby is a row of skulls on plinths -- there's our friend Death again, beginning to wear out his welcome -- dressed with Carnival masks and looking up at a some hangman's nooses, from which a couple of stuffed monkeys gaily swing. High above are suspended three mannequins of astronauts, seemingly floating in outer space. All these mannequins are trying to tell us something. . . maybe that Surrealism is back?

On the walls are multipanel "artworks" made of sheets of mirror, minimally inflected with tape and photographs. One even contains several reproductions of the Mona Lisa, a clear reference to that other assemblagist, Robert Rauschenberg. Everywhere are expressionist renderings of the hollow human -- collapsed figures nestling in designer chairs, silver-painted baby dolls laid out on little collapsible stools, a pair of mannequins stretched out on the floor as if man-and-wife in bed -- he in astronaut's gear, she covered with tin foil.

Are the aliens on their way? That's the overall feeling, I'm afraid, a unique sensibility that strikes me as unhinged, not just in terms of the artist laboring under the sign of Saturn, but as subject to a very modern schizophrenia. But then I remember too well a decade ago or so, when the artist ran loose in New York for several months, clearly unbalanced, until she was gathered up and stabilized by her friends and colleagues. Strange.

Shall we end with something nice? At the Palazzo Malipiero near the Palazzo Grassi, the Republic of Cyprus set up its pavilion, which included a series of large photo-realist paintings of luscious fruit on the vine by Mustafa Hulusi, part of a series called "The Elysian Paintings." The London-based Cypriot is described as "an image-based conceptual artist," whose paintings combine "the techniques of fascist propaganda, the bucolic ideal in communist propaganda, and the double nature of kitsch."

Drat, I thought they were nice pictures of fruit.


WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.