Dysfunctional Confrontations

Ca’ d’Oro, Venice, May 2019

There is a tendency to organize contemporary art shows in historical settings, such as palaces, churches and museums. This sometimes provides an interesting opportunity to alter our viewpoint on the work of a particular artist, or to engage into a fertile dialogue which reveals aspects of the work we had not thought about or we had neglected. Exhibitions of major artists such as Sugimoto in Versailles, or Kounellis at Palazzo Corner, just to make a couple of examples (see articles herein), belong to this category.

And there are confrontations which are more difficult to organize or justify. Some artworks which one could deem entertaining, bold, pleasant, or innovative in the famed “white cube”, leave you with a sense of unease when placed near genuine masterpieces of art. This is precisely the fate of the exhibition strangely named Dysfunctional which is organised at Ca’ d’Oro in Venice, on the occasion of the Biennale. The initiative is far from silly, to the extent that large segments of the public will not have any consideration for the said masterpieces, and will concentrate on the contemporary pieces, most of which belong to the realm of design, so that ultimately one walks away with the feeling that Titian, Signorelli and Tintoretto help sell the work of designers.

In a side chapel of the palace where Mantegna’s fresco of San Sebastian is set, Studio Drift installed as part of its Fragile Future series a kind of cascade of light bulbs finely inserted into a brass or bronze three-dimentional grid. The cascade in itself is elegant; it is well made, consistent with the paving, and visually harmonious. But it hardly withstands the confrontation with Mantegna. One reads that the “series questions whether the rapid technological developments of our age are really more advanced than the evolution of nature?”, a question clearly deprived of any meaning unless you postulate a teleological program of nature, and most certainly unrelated with the saint protector against plague.

Similarly, on the first floor, one faces the Venus with a mirror of Titian, while the floor is covered with tens of small rotating mirrors, which some electric device constantly moves individually left and right, up and down. Again, the mirrors are not bad as an installation. They intermittently reflect the face of the visitors in what is perhaps an intent to recall, or re-enact, in real life the vanitas painted by Titian.. Audience explains: « the object … manifests a unique character and personality…Audience proposes a relationship with others, it reacts to the presence of people. This is a work of art that chooses the spectators and watches them. » The encounter is truly subjective; do objects really have a soul? « We question the encounter between the onlooker and the piece, this is a truly contemporary preoccupation, we are living in a time of virtual connections, it is through experience that the eternal questions as to our existence, preservation and behaviour are posed. ». The rotating mirrors are just made paltry by the mere confrontation with the Venus of Titian and four majestic busts which watch the scene as if in disdain

Changing room again, we find a number bronze sculptures by Atelier Van Lieshout, and titled Renegade; one of them resembles a giant rat, another one a salami, all transformed into lamps because, did I overhear, the artist was tired of being asked what they were for; a large sofa with a grossly-carved wooden base completes the set up. The only problem is that you have two magnificent busts by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the corner.

Returning downstairs you have another philosophical piece by Maarten Baas consisting of a large clock inside which a man – whose shadow is seen through the translucid dial – constantly erases and draws new hands as time passes, replacing the clock mechanism. In itself, the idea could be interesting: time is not an objective, exogenous variable but depends on the observer, and varies as we know from relativity. Time passes more slowly when man gets tired. The whole clock tells you that time has changed our relationship with artwork of the past. And so on. But these ideas conveyed through simple though amusing means, and which belong to the realm of allegory, are expressed next to one of the great and most moving wooden Pietà of the 15th century, expressing much deeper mysteries in its own language. And yet, you cannot help watching the man in the cube, erasing and redrawing. Faced with two incommensurable objects of human ingenuity, the one that requires less effort will not disappear, but partly invade the space.

I am not writing this to dismiss the artists or designers, who certainly have interesting words to say about their work. But the common thread among all these works is perhaps that they are attractive in some playful manner, even when their intended purpose is serious or even dramatic. Set against works which elicit awe, concentration, contemplation, or similar feelings which mobilize both your intellect and your sensitivity in an exclusive and intense – even if short – relationship, such objects exert a form of diversion, of hijacking of one’s attention. The confrontation both reduces the strength of the masters, and belittles the less formidable artists. However, this confrontation is in itself useful, insofar as it questions the continued relevance of the past as a source of meaning, rather than as a mere ornament, atmosphere, or memory.

A young gentleman from the Far East summed it up with clarity when he focused his camera exclusively on the light bulbs cascade, leaving Mantegna aside completely. It could have been set against a brick wall, as far as he was concerned.

The question perhaps involuntarily asked by the exhibition is about the fragility of the cultural “ecosystem”, and how we should treat it.

The introduction to the exhibition provided on the internet site of Dysfunctional is rather worrying. Let me quote just a couple of sentences:

DYSFUNCTIONAL rethinks the boundaries of art (Capital letters not mine);

Art is that which an artist makes

Art demands an emotional response.”

Please note the delightful aporia: art is that which an artist makes, but who determines who is an artist ?  Because an artist cannot be defined as the person who makes art, in which case the proposition would be a meaningless tautology, he (she) must be designated by someone as an artist. This someone may be a third party, such as the gallerist or merchant wishing to sell his work, or the expert wishing to exert the power of his expertise. But then, how do we know that this expert is legitimate ? Who confers upon him his legitimacy ? The game is endless… Or, last but not least, the artist himself is the source of this designation. I am an artist and therefore what I do is art.

When Muslims are asked how they know that the Quran is the word of God himself, they tend to say that the book is so miraculously admirable and perfect in all its dimensions that it is beyond humans’ abilities to write, and that no one has ever produced anything comparable, before adding the occasional word of contempt against anyone mad enough to refuse to agree with this statement. This is actually a better argument, whatever you think of the message of that particular sacred book: an artwork speaks for itself. The argument is actually weakened by the – usual – word of contempt and derision, because this word seems to say that you need verbal violence to prove a point which otherwise would not come through. Art tells you that it is art if you are sensitive or clearsighted enough to acknowledge that, and it also tells you about the fragility of art, as it depends so much on the eyes that admire it, or not: like love, like faith, art is both an experience and a relationship. Which is why the last of the three sentences does not require any comment.

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