Travels…

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Off for a few days…and now returned…from the Venice Biennale – here’s my thoughts.

Coming to the biennale is like putting on an old pair of shoes. They are really comfortable and fit snugly but you can’t help feeling you’d like to try something new that might put a spring in your step.  We started in the Giardini at just after 10:30 & habitually began by trekking up the long avenue towards the very grand British pavilion by way of the Switz, Venezuelan, Russian, Japanese, Korean, German, & Canadian offerings. Thinking back this is the way we always do it & perhaps we should turn about in future – polish off Spain, Belgium & the Netherlands and head straight into the Italian pavilion with the multi national curated section. Where, not constrained by national considerations in the mix, a more eclectic offering results and the options are more intriguing. As it was by16:45 ones critical faculties are pretty stunted making appraisals of – say – McArthur Binnion or reappraisals of – say – John Latham difficult if not impossible.

Finnish art was aided and abetted by someone with Doncaster sensibilities with predictably whacky results. Whackism was generally big this year with Finland coming in ahead of Iceland and Hong Kong in Venice slipping in somewhere behind them. My old pal John Rimmer’s Nutglove would have given them all a run for their money. Of course the Korean pavilion was also whacky but that’s par for the course. Mark Bradford put on a class act for the US whilst the U.K went big and rather overblown and the French cool & classy. The Low Countries & the other Scandinavians just didn’t seem to have their hearts in it. And the Germans lost their way in sub- performance activity that was frankly a bit silly (and was rather surprising given that the ‘action’ takes place in a glass box beneath the feet of the audience). I enjoyed Russia (part 1) and Erwin Wurm was suitably entertaining for Austria with his ongoing series of One Minute Sculptures though I was sorry for t’other rep for them – Brigitte Kowanz – as her quite serious contribution to light art suffered as a result. On the rest of the back lot things were solid but a bit dull. Though I enjoyed Geta Bratescu’s (now 91 years young) survey show of sixty plus years of artistic endeavour (in the Romanian pavilion) – that very controversially – comprised painting and drawing.

Actually age was a theme running through a deal of the contributions in the national pavilions and even more so in Christine Macel’s curated section. I lost count of septuagenarians and octogenarians being given a run out. This started with works by UK artist Rasheed Araeen (82) a piece he originally conceived back in 1968. In the same space Juan Downey (born 1930 and sadly died 1994) showed an excerpt from a video work of the 1970’s. It was good to see Raymond Hains’ work being given enough room to spread out and the curator able to expand my understanding of an artist that certainly to UK audiences is little known. That the work included pieces directly related to the Biennales of the past was a valuable addition to the show. It was lovely to have some genuine quality in drawing from Kiki Smith, though to be honest her room didn’t have (at least to me in this context) quite the intensity of magical charm I’d usually expect. The UK artist John Latham (1921 – 2006) was accorded a ‘mini-retrospective’ too whilst David Medalla (aged 79) showed a piece involving embroidery that he first gave an outing in 1971.

Embroidery was a thread (apologies) running through a great deal of the show, especially in the Arsenale. Though carpets were in shorter supply than a few years back when they swept through a wave of major shows a few hadn’t got the memo that it was now a lighter touch on these materials that was required (to be fair to Petrit Halilaj a Kosovan refugee and one of the youngest exhibitors at 31 his pieces are performative works that inevitably lacked some of their poetry in this context).  Someone who had was Lee Mingwei, a Taiwanese artist (though like many of those chosen by Macel, now resident in Paris) where he sat and sewed visitors garments for them. Other pieces in this vein included the Italian artist Maria Lai (1919 – 2013) whose works included fiddly but rather charming bits and pieces and the utterly solid and intelligent and thankfully cool and calm works from his 1980’s series Wallformation by Franz Erhard Walther (78). Rightly awarded the Golden Lion for best artist.

The bizarre whackist performance piece by Mariechen Danz was represented by a video within the space where it had taken place…a throw it all in work with much nonsensical tosh, by and about the artist, to absorb if you wished. At least its absurdist solemnity gave one a laugh, much needed if you had just made your way through the Pavilion of Shamans into the Dionysian Pavilion, the two most awful of the nine that made up the curated section.

Out beyond the long run of the Arsenale one of the very best (if not the best) national pavilion was that of New Zealand. I’ve not previously come across Lisa Reihana’s work, though it has been widely exhibited over recent years. But her In Pursuit Of Venus (Infected) work that forms the centrepiece of her show Emissaries is simply stunning, both conceptually and visually. It is impossible to do it justice in description but suffice to say it combines idea and execution with the very best use of new technologies to make something truly spellbinding.

If Whackism is in full flow then there was across the city an even more prominent display of Thwackism…the kind of absurdist work that is truly overblown and even more hideously vulgar. Leading from the front – naturally – was our very own Damien with his revolting and trashy Wreck of the Unbelievable schtick. Of course Venice loves this kind of thing…just take a peak in the Venice Pavilion in the middle of the back lot. Whether the old ‘epater le bourgeoisie’ routine can work when the whole edifice is an hermetically sealed game between obscenely wealthy artists and their even more disgustingly rich pals who can say. Perhaps we have to accept that poetry plays no part in contemporary practice but what is certain is that the lad Hirst has wrung every last drop out of it in his Disney meets Ray Harryhausen (on an off day) extravaganza. This kind of thing is just made for its two venues – Punta Della Dogana & Palazzo Grassi – owned by Francois Pinault (worth around 13 billion so Mr. Google reckons) making the two sites and their current contents the most vomit inducing sweetie jar in the contemporary art world – quite a feat. And it seemed that Damien had acted as a magnet for Thwackists of every nation…as represented by the odd displays at Palazzo Bembo and on the top floor of Coin, the city’s luxury Department store (admittedly neither of these officially sanctioned Biennale events).

By this point those shoes were well and truly beginning to pinch. But thats what makes a few days at the Biennale fascinating…every aspect of contemporary practice is present, often jostling for attention when it doesn’t merit that much and quite often getting it whether or not deserved. Every so often as you whizz by work that might or might not reward given more attention you suddenly see something that catches your eye and even more occasionally engages your brain. Just to list two more that took my attention – Julian Charrière and Thu Van Tran in the Arsenale. And both still under 40…so maybe the future is brighter after all.

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The effects of travel…

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on one can be a wee bit disorientating.  One evening you may find yourself wandering along a track across a field in Northern France…less than a few hours since racing through the Alps (excepting the queue for the San Gotthard/Gottardo tunnel).

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In his Anatomy of Melancholy Robert Burton writes that travel is one cure of it “for peregrination charmes our senses with such unspeakable and sweet variety, that some count him unhappy that never traveled, a kinde of prisoner”.  Whether or not one subscribes to that rather extreme view it is undeniable that different perspectives emerge from moving about a bit.  For example setting off from a small village in Pas De Calais this morning (the first round of the French Presidential Election) I was struck by the relative calm of it all.  My straw poll of one elicited a response that it was “tres important” but it would have been easy to miss that fact of it at all.  There was a single billboard in the town centre with a single poster for each of the eleven candidates and only one location in town where someone had fly posted three posters for Francois Asselineau (a hard line Frexiteer).  Even those newspapers that I saw were treating the event with restraint, and though most TV channels at one point or another on Saturday night had coverage it certainly didn’t dominate the schedules as it does here. Indeed there isn’t a sense of hysteria but a sober responsible process at work.  For what its worth though my sense of it is that Le Pen may well do better than expected in Round One and might just do enough overall to cause an upset.

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She’ll certainly pick up Asselineau’s supporters with their very direct secondary slogan (above in yellow…’Frexit – Protection des Salaries’).  And I guess that may well be a significant part of the reason that the Tories will romp home here with a stonking majority.  I was going to follow up this observation with something incredibly rude and partisan about my fellow countrymen and women but I’ll let it be…I try not to do politics here! So instead some nice pictures of locations on our holidays instead!

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Avenue de Lacs, Ardres, France
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View towards Barisello, Lunigiana, Italy
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Vines above Verpiana, Lunigiana, Italy
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Champagne Country, France is a big open landscape!

A time to ponder…

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over times long past.  Many eons ago I was party to an explosion of public art across the United Kingdom…aiding and abetting a variety of schemes that, for better or worse, were intended to ‘beautify’ and ‘edify’ public enjoyment of the environment.  It seems it wasn’t confined to the UK as here in the Lunigiana (wedged in the borderlands between Tuscany and Liguria in Italy) there’s a fair amount of it too.  Including this rather splendid piece in Piazza Cavour in Aulla.  It seems we are witness to a lively game of geometric footie…or calcio as its known here.  Or perhaps, given the garb sported, a game of volleyball or  some such.  Whatever the occasion and the exercise there’s a deal to admire – I’m especially taken with the knees myself.  It got me to thinking about who gets to make these works and who selects them…and that’s a topic on which I’ve quite a few stories from my involvement back in the UK (don’t get me started on the Shoe Last in the pedestrian precinct in Northampton…).  Anyway I rather like this one though I doubt many people give it so much as a glance nowadays.

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And a good holiday is an excuse to have a play about (as well as sit pondering) on projects that as yet maybe don’t make a deal of sense.  I’m cutting out canvas letters to join my sewn canvas shapes using odd snippets of text that I wrote down from poems into a sketch book almost thirty years back.  They are so obscure I cannot begin to recall what the texts were or why I chose them.  But I did it here in Italy and I’m here again (courtesy of my chum Sue) where I’ve been shaping and sowing the canvas pieces over the past few years so there is a connection though what it is and why its significant to me I have no way of articulating as yet.

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But of course time away from your usual haunts is mostly for the simple pleasures of experiencing other cultures and environments.  This part of Italy is framed by the Appenines to the back of us and the Apuan Alps away to the south east, its quite rugged and hilly, and at this time of year looking its best, the blossoming of the vegetation in springtime before the more arid days of summer…though we’ve been blessed on this occasion by warm and sunny weather.

Out & about…

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we were.  My pal Simon and myself at the terrific Yorkshire Sculpture Park.  Back on form and showing one of the UK’s finest cultural exports, Tony Cragg after a year or two of rather desperate material.  I cannot recommend this show highly enough – it demonstrates that there is still a place for work that, in addition to being physically substantial , is also intellectually and – yes – spiritually strong enough to dominate both the cavernous galleries and the landscape in which they are located.  I will review the show over on my Cloughie’s Eyes site after a second visit but go see for yourself it will be worth it.

And now I’m off…to spend some time in Northern Tuscany over Easter…and work on yet another of my various projects – Lavanderia – that has been entirely conceived and (so far at least) executed over there. So sadly I shall miss the opening of Colour: A Kind Of Bliss, showing now in the Crypt of St. Marylebone Parish Church.  But if you can go and take  a look!  And if you cannot…here’s a sneak peek of it with one of my works far left…

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photo credit: Jermaigne Sadie

 

Italian Food!

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I posted before on the subject of Italian food…and had more ‘hits’ than the artwork ever gets!  But it is one of the joys of a trip over to the Lunigiana.  I quoted too, from Marcella Hazan’s book and that went down well so…

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“When Aristotle said that a work of art should imitate the motions of the mind and not an external arrangement of facts, he was anticipating a definition of the art of the Italian home cook.  In Italy the source of the very best Italian food is the home kitchen.”

Marcella Hazan, The Classic Italian Cookbook, Macmillan London, 1980

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Food glorious food…

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“Nothing significant exists under Italy’s sun that is not touched by art…Not everyone in Italy may know how to cook, but everyone knows how to eat…Eating in Italy is one more manifestation of the Italian’s age old gift of making art out of life.”

The Classic Italian Cookbook. Marcella Hazan. 1980  Macmillan London

And eat we did for the weather never really improved.  Only twice did we manage to enjoy that simple delight of sitting on the terrace gazing onto the hillsides all around us.  So much time spent indoors has its compensations.  And chief amongst them is the discussion of and preparations for eating.  It is true that nowadays you can eat great food in the UK…but it comes at a colossal economic cost whether you eat out or source ingredients to cook at home.  In some cases it simply isn’t possible (certainly in an area such as ours) to find raw materials of the right quality.  In Italy I consume quite large quantities of tomatoes – something it never occurs to me to do at home. The reason being taste…if its possible to source the small sweet and juicy, exceptionally tasty tomatoes I’ve been eating for the past ten days in the Shires of England please let  me know.  I’ll happily travel quite a distance for them, or for the courgettes, the artichokes and oranges for that matter.  And whilst I’m at it I also want chicken that tastes of chicken and that lays eggs that are properly yellow…   I marvel at the pasta – the nearest shop, the size of our local coop (i.e. small), stocks three brands and over thirty varieties of each!  So we have eaten often and well.  A recompense for the poor weather indeed.

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Though as this picture shows there is a certain grandeur in the view of the hills and mountains from the terrace even when the weather is dark and gloomy…

I ought to have known better!

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than to have posted a view of Sue’s terrace in the rain…as this was the predominant view that has greeted us most mornings we were away!  For the first three days it rained incessantly (something I have never experienced before) and other than two reasonably decent days it then drizzled or rain steadily or at best provided grey muggy skies!

We had spent the Easter period in a small village in the foothills of the Northern Appenines on the Tuscany/Liguria border. Lunigiana is the region nestling in the Magra river valley surrounded by mountains…the Appenines behind us, the Apuane Alps to the south east and over smaller ridges, due south is the Magra estuary and the Mediterranean coast, just north of Carrara/Massa and a little further down the coast from the Cinqueterra and the Italian Riviera.  Just below the village in the next hamlet, Serriciollo, the Auletta flows towards the Magra.  The ‘torrente’ (rather than being called a river) is aptly named…over the winter it ran so fast it took the bridge away and now there is a five kilometer diversion off of the main road that runs between Aulla and Fivvizano.  We are, unfortunately, the wrong side of the bridge and so have to run the risk of one of the two diversions that will take us to the town and the motorway system. Sadly our favorite Pizzeria is a few hundred metres the wrong side of the bridge too.

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Being Italy the solution to the problem is laborious and tortuous…I like to think that in the UK we would have drafted the army in a few hours after the bridge collapsed and built a pontoon within a couple days or so.  Not so here.  It will be July before the new bridge is built (and thats an Italian forecast so…) so for now there are convoys of forty foot trailers and the like being diverted around the villages of Quercia, Olivola and, our very own Verpiana. They are herded together at either end of the alternative route and brought through in groups with a police car at front and back..the first of them blasting out a tannoy warning for anyone foolish enough to argue with it as it snakes its way across the narrow mountain roads with alarming hairpins and crumbling edges…often with very steep drops.

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And of course these roads were never well maintained in the first instance and the pounding they are getting is seeing them begin to fall apart disastrously.    It all rather beggars belief and one can only hazard a guess at the colossal costs of all kinds involved.  Not unnaturally it has somewhat curtailed our enthusiasm for trips out!  On Easter Sunday (our only day of any decent weather) We drove over the mountains to the beautiful Medieval town of Fostinovo and as pretty much every Italian was having an extended family lunch, had the road more or less to ourselves until late afternoon.  But the journey back once we hit the diversion was toe curling as it seems never to have occurred to the vast majority of Italian drivers that a vehicle just might be coming in the opposite direction!