Tag Archives: history

‘Tis the season to be …at an art Biennial

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Couple on Venetian bridge by Tim Eastop

Venice has the ability to conjure up a wide variety of imaginings from romantic trysts to historic and cultural forays. With its numerous canals winding their way between the small islands of the old town and joined by little bridges under which the famous gondoliers guide their mesmerised visitors, its magic reputation over-rides anything else.

It’s historic stage also plays host to the largest and most well-known theatre for contemporary art – the Venice Biennale.  The juxtaposition of old and new is a fascinating one and seems to point more to the history of internationalism that Venice built through its history.  As a centre for trade across the Mediterranean reaching toward the eastern markets of Constantinople, the Venetian Republic attracted

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18th century view of Venice by Canaletto.  Wikipedia commons

traders and dazzled visitors for many centuries.  It still does.

Held every odd year and begun in 1895 to celebrate the silver anniversary of the accession to the throne of King Umberto I of Italy and his consort, Margherita of Savoy the Venice Biennale now attracts around half a million visitors for the six months it is open . Showcasing the latest trends in art, architecture, film and dance and the best representative creators for their country – it’s an honour to be asked to participate knowing that curators from far and wide, millionaire collectors, celebrities, dealers and gallery owners are pulled by its legacy magnetism.  This year the Venice Biennale boasts 86 country pavilions with 28 in the Giardini and the rest in the Arsenale, the city’s former shipyard, with the curated main show, titled “Arte Viva Arte”, showing works by 120 artists from 51 countries.  The scope seems unimaginable to most.

Whether it is the scale or the masses who patiently wait in queues to attend the shows and pavilions, it puts a completely different perspective on the art world from our own domestic adventures with sharing contemporary art in our homes. For The Collective it is like looking through a telescope at a vast universe expanding in front of us and yet with definite links and opportunities back to our earth.

It is from the biennials that trends may be set, artists emerge, names are established, think tanks initiate discussion and large sums are circulated in the future global art market determining market prices.  Names of artists whose works we have in the Collective have featured in previous biennials (Chris Ofili and Tracy Emin). Despite the fact biennials are not about the exchange of money for works and the Venice Biennale banned the actual selling of art works in 1968 – the event remains an integral part of the global art market and its increasing commercialisation.

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Untitled by Chris Ofili. Owned by The Collective

The Biennial Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation set up in 2009 as a platform for art biennials around the world, lists a huge global network  – with the crowning event being the Venice Biennale.  Documenta in Germany, not a biennial, but an equally important event is held every five years and runs concurrently with Venice this year.  As the two most eminent art events in the world there is definite competition and curators often come under scrutiny from the art critics for the artists they select.  Other biennials in major cities (eg Sao Paolo, Istanbul or Moscow) compete for well-known artists and established curators understanding their value in terms of their own national art cultures and attracting tourism.

The art world has never been bigger or more international and it’s a good season to get a taste of it if you happen to be travelling to Venice or Kassel.  But at the end of the day it’s also about what works we chose to live with on a daily basis and the journey we go on with the artists to acquire them, and later share amongst the households of the Collective.

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Things to remember

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“Witness” by Tom Dale. Owned by the Collective.

“So you’ve got a new one up” says my son’s friend as he passes from the kitchen and through the dining room.   “it’s got wheels.. what is it?”  A shrug of shoulders as they disappear out pondering what it brings to mind.  Tom Dale’s work “witness” is an eye-catching work for any audience but placed on a domestic wall it tends to attract more comments than usual. Witness to a mix of people both transitory and permanent as they pass through our house.

Growing up with changing art in our home is something our children have got used to – and their friends too.   Sometimes they just nod in acknowledgement, other times they may ask a question about it, but usually they take a quick moment to have a brief look with little more than an “interesting”! But they don’t forget .  However they remember equally, if not more clearly, what I served up for tea – asking my children years later if they can come back and have that meal again!  Tea and art, art and tea – things to remember as you grow up.

One game that was never part of our children’s repertoire of favourite pastimes or memories was “hangman” – the simple pen and paper game where you guess the letters of your opponents “word” suffering a ‘hanging on paper’ if you don’t make it in the number of guesses given!  I remember as a child the feeling of victory when I hanged my opponent who failed to guess my given word, drawing in that final limb to the picture to signify their demise. Or the feeling of defeat when they escaped the gallows and the endless paper we got through to pass the time on a slow afternoon!   Why on earth did we find it so pleasurable?  Perhaps our children had more sense: “death on paper” the punishment for failure to get the word or the spelling right? Is that the best way to encourage our children to become successful wordsmiths?

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Hangman by Mark Wallinger. Owned by the Collective.

Mark Wallinger’s work “Hangman” illustrates the steps needed for the game to be completed.  A victim hung for failing to guess the very name of the game. Taken from Wikipedia’s text description of a strategy that uses the most frequently occurring letters in the english language, Wallinger illustrates how the victim is not spared his punishment, with his simple drawing.

London-based with an international reputation and winner of the 2007 Turner prize for his exhibition StateBritain, Mark Wallinger is perhaps best known as the first artist to be commissioned to do a work for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square – Ecce Homo

Wallinger is not a stranger to social commentary or political statement. But it’s the combination of the sometimes playful exterior of his works combined with undertones that invite much deeper speculation that make them so memorable.   First seen by members of The Collective on the walls of the Drawing Room Biennial exhibition and auction we were drawn to the simplicity of Hangman and the fact its creator was Mark Wallinger – so we put in our bid.   Safely acquired and looking at it everyday on our wall at home I found myself compelled to find out more about the origins of the game.  Why hangman?

Apparently created in Victorian times when hanging was not only commonplace but a form of established “entertainment” that could draw huge crowds (the more famous, the bigger the crowd) hangman was first referenced in 1894 in Alice Bertha Gomme’Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland .  Entertainment that could clearly be replicated on paper in a simple spelling game format for children!

The strange thing is, is that I had never considered the game in any other way than an easy way to pass the time with pen and paper.  If having seen the work in a gallery we’d left it there, I’m not sure it would have engendered the same reaction. But living with it has become a different experience altogether.   As Hangman sits on our wall it reinforces Wallinger’s suggestion that an art work can have the effect of seeing

how far we can get in to the consciousness of someone or something other…”

It was certainly doing just that.

In his video work “Sleeper” Wallinger appears dressed as a bear in the Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin, alone and late at night running, walking and surprising passers-by chancing upon this unusual spectacle. You can’t help but smile at the vision of this light-hearted “prank” in an empty museum at night! But its actual meaning is intertwined with disguise, espionage, surveillance, the history of Berlin and its physical division before the wall came down.  Wallinger suggests the art work was triggered by a childhood memory of “The Singing Ringing Tree” a story about a prince who was transformed in to a bear which originated in East Germany, but was unknown in West Germany. A symbol of a divided country. So perhaps not the first time haunting childhood themes have played a part in his art.

So for me at least Wallinger’s Hangman has become more of a statement, a piece of history, a symbol of an act that impacted our culture here in Britain until August 1964 when the last hanging took place.  But dressed up as it is as a simple word game for children that I played a long time ago.

Things to remember that are often unexpected.