For this year’s Venice Biennale, the renovation of the Arsenale buildings has been extended to an area just across the little manmade pond called the Darsene Grande to include the spacious warehouses referred to as the Novissimo Arsenale. These new exhibition halls are host to numerous smaller shows (or, in Biennale-speak, “collateral events”), and I’ve found that the most pleasant way to approach the Novissimo Arsenale is to take the vaporetto to the Bacini stop where you disembark onto a beautifully manicured sculpture garden before winding your way through the greenery into the halls. The ride itself yields several spectacles perched on the edge of nearby Isola Certo, the most notable of which is a magnificent view of artist Swoon’s “Swimming Cities” project docked on the pier.
Inside the Novissimo Arsenale, I toured an excellent group exhibition titled “The Fear Society,” organized by the cultural and tourism council of Murcia, including works by Tania Bruguera, Hans Haake, Alfredo Jaar, Regina Jose Galindo and Rainer Ganahl, among others. Jaar made a fantastic documentary about the life, writings and philosophies of Pier Paolo Pasolini, combining clips of his films, footage of interviews conducted with the famous director, and news reports of his murder. I recognized Ganahl’s installation from the t-shirt the artist was wearing the night before when I met him at the Palestine c/o Venice reception. He was sporting an altered “I Love NY” t-shirt with the words “Bernard Madoff” scrawled over it. His installation displayed more of the altered shirts bearing catchphrases of the current economic crisis such as “toxic assets,” and “subprime mortgages.” It was the first time I encountered an artist making an overt comment on our society’s collective fears about the current economic climate. In an accompanying video, the artist, having just learned Chinese, pretends to be an ex-AIG employee who has just lost his job and has to resort to his previous career, that of an artist.
Once you tour the warehouses of the Novissimo Arsenale, an eager captain offers you a short ride on a water taxi back across the Darsene Grande to the main exhibition halls of the Arsenale. As a funny aside, the jesters who form the artist collective Gelitin staged an exhibition at the Novissimo Arsenale two years ago, where they used a raft to sail visitors across the little pond, sneaking them into the Arsenale free of charge. It’s interesting to see Gelitin’s tactic appropriated by the institution this year.
After leaving the Arsenale, I made my way over to the Punto Della Dogana, Tadao Ando’s gleaming new renovation of Venice’s old maritime customs warehouse. The building is owned by the Francois Pinault Foundation and has been transformed into a highly fashionable showcase for his first-rate, museum-quality contemporary art collection. Ando has kept the building uncluttered and lofty, accentuating its tall walls and high ceilings in certain pivotal viewpoints such as the main entrance, thereby also providing a suitable backdrop for the impressively large-scale works in the Pinault collection. One particularly impressive room fit seven massive Sigmar Polke paintings so perfectly it appeared to be custom built for them. Another atrium-like space with high ceilings was home to an elegant sampling of Rudolf Stingel’s paintings, all of a very substantial size.
Pinault chose curators Alison Gingeras and Francesco Bonami to pick works from his collection for display amongst two buildings belonging to the foundation-the new Punta della Dogana and the pre-existent Palazzo Grassi. The result is an exhibition titled “Mapping the Studio.” Gingeras and Bonami have made some very nice pairings between the works displayed in the Punta della Dogana and the Palazzo Grassi. Most notably, the new building housed a spectacular, room-sized installation by brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman, consisting of nine display cases with dioramas that show the most abhorrent and intense depictions of hell made since the Byzantine mosaics lining the interior of the Basilica San Marco. The Chapman brothers’ illustrations of Judgment Day also make their way into the more historic and architecturally ornate exhibition venue of the Palazzo Grassi as a series of eighty pieces reworking Francesco Goya’s Los Caprichos. Cartoon characters and cheerful colors augment Goya’s original etchings, but such contemporary references by the Chapman brothers merely edge the horror closer to home.
In another well-considered parallel that traces the development of an artist’s oeuvre, a relatively recent series of photographs by Cindy Sherman is on display in the Punta della Dogana, while the Palazzo Grassi houses two earlier bodies of work. A series of early black and white self-portraits titled Murder Mystery People (1975-2000) shows Sherman dressed up as characters straight out of an Agatha Christie novel, while an animation, Doll Clothes, (1975) casts Sherman as a paper doll trying on different outfits. It was a veritable treat to encounter these rarely shown works in Venice — I’m sure other visitors to the collection will make similar discoveries. Working with Pinault to secure the display of his collection in Venice is a coup for the city. Open all year round, the hope is that the two buildings will form an important link within the cultural fabric of this city, serving as a beacon for art world insiders and cultural tourists alike.