Venice Biennale

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The Venice Biennale, which opens to the public next month, has always been a place where art world trends are born. But this year’s event is already having an impact, even before the exhibits have opened.

While some people are upset because the French government is giving free rein to its artists to do what they want in the Palazzo Franchetti, others have raised their voices against a flood of work that is arriving as part of the Biennale’s collateral events.

Many say that the two-week exhibition inside the Palazzo, known as Utopia Station, is providing a platform for what could be called “interactive media art,” or “digital art,” or “conceptual art.” These terms are not always interchangeable and are sometimes used pejoratively by those who consider them lacking in real artistic content and too focused on technology.

The idea of Utopia Station’s curatorship is to gather works from all over Italy and invite artists inside and outside Italy to add their own projects to the mix. The result is a cornucopia of visual delights and conceptual games ─ but also an overload of information that may appeal more to scholars than art lovers.

The art world has been having a lively conversation in the past few years about whether or not Damien Hirst’s paintings are actually “art” or just “things.” Well, if you’re in Venice for the Biennale, you’ll have plenty of time to ponder that question yourself. Because Damien Hirst is not only showing his own work at the show, he’s also been selected to be part of a group show—under his own curation.

The exhibition, called Brilliant! and billed as “the first major exhibition of British Art in Italy since the Renaissance,” showcases over 60 works by 20 artists—including Paul Noble, Gary Hume, and Sarah Lucas—from Hirst’s private collection.

And while that sounds like a pretty impressive collection on its own (and it is), it also means that one of the most visible and important international art exhibitions this year will include only one artist who isn’t represented by Hirst’s own dealers, Gagosian Gallery.

The 2016 Venice Biennale opened today with the unveiling of the participating countries (not all countries, just those that pay to be there). The Italian pavilion, which is always the first pavilion you see when you enter the Giardini, featured a show by Angela Bulloch called “It’s Not a Rumor,” which basically consists of Bulloch’s response to rumors about her in the art world.

The most famous is that she gives less-than-honest reviews to artists who bribe her with gifts and favors. She calls this rumour “false and ridiculous.” In regard to the rumour that she has been sleeping with the director of the Venice Biennale, she calls it “false and defamatory.” Bulloch’s “explanation” of these rumours consists mainly of showing off how much money she makes from being an artist.

But as I walked through Bulloch’s pavilion, I thought about whether her ostensible rebuttals of these rumours were honest or not. And I realized that I was facing a question about contemporary art that I had never before fully considered: is it even possible for an artwork to be honest?

It’s not just that I think Bulloch is lying about these particular rumours; I don’t even

There is a piece of art in the Venice Biennale by an artist called Jannis Kounellis. It is a dead lamb hanging from a hook.

Dead beasts are not uncommon in art. What makes this one unusual is that it is a real dead beast, recently slaughtered; and it was slaughtered specifically for this purpose.

On the evening of its first day, animal-rights activists turned up to protest and tried to remove the lamb from its hook. The police were called and they removed the protesters instead.

The next morning, attendants tried to remove the lamb themselves because it had started to smell; but again the police were called and they removed the attendants instead.

That afternoon, no one showed up except a TV crew who recorded the proceedings without comment. They left too, when night fell. The next morning neither lamb nor hook had been disturbed and nothing had changed except that there was now blood on the floor around where it hung.

For three days in all, this went on: no one paid any attention to the dead lamb; no one made any effort to remove it; no one even looked at it or commented on what was happening. Something like a hundred people must have walked past that spot in front of San Marco’s glorious facade without

The Biennale is a great idea. A lot of people have been saying that it is not what it used to be. Let’s see if they are right.

Venice has long been the place to go for culture. Part of the reason is that it is the right place to go for culture, but part of it is also that Venice is a beautiful city and its palazzos are decorated with art and well suited as venues for art shows. This year, though, I was struck by how many of the exhibits were in unadorned halls, basically just empty rooms. Nothing against bare walls; you can make them work. But if you are going to put on an art show, I would want to see something on them: murals at the very least, more likely paintings or sculpture.

Here we come to what I call the “Venetian Problem,” which occurs whenever a medium makes an inadequate material substrate look good. It happened at first with movies projected onto big screens (silent films), then with movies projected onto small screens (talkies), then with movies projected onto big screens again (3-D), and now with movies projected onto small screens again (digital projection). In each case the illusion is that moving images are so powerful

The U.S. pavilion, the first to open, is the weirdest: two rooms filled with weird furniture and strange videos that are supposed to represent “the landscape of the United States.” I am not sure what they mean by that, except that they want you to know that there is a lot of space in America, and it is dangerous.

I am not sure what they mean by that either.

The rooms are filled with art objects, but they are hard to describe, because they don’t seem intended to communicate any specific meaning. The most obvious thing about them is their extreme ugliness. But are they supposed to be ugly, or are they just ugly because the designers have no talent and no sense of design? And does it matter?

Were the artists trying to communicate something about American culture by displaying hideous things? Or were they trying to make statements about themselves? Or were they just trying to make money and get famous? I don’t know. It seems unlikely that anyone knew what they were doing; a biennial seems like a good place to go crazy and see what happens, so long as you can still draw a paycheck when you get back home.

Telling someone how bad this pavilion is would be hard if he didn

There is much to make us question our own assumptions about what is art and what isn’t. Is it enough that someone calls something art for it to be so? Or must we judge the worthiness of the work in its own terms? If the former, then surely anything can be art by fiat. If the latter, then we must understand a work before we can judge whether or not it is art.

If we don’t find a painting beautiful, can we still enjoy it as an intellectual puzzle? Is beauty an essential characteristic of art, or just a nice add-on? If you hate opera but love Wagner’s music, are you still appreciating his art? What if you hate them both? Is there any way to decide between them without asking what Wagner thought he was doing?

If you think that all “modern” art is a fraud because it has nothing to say, who would you say was the last great artist of the past century? If it’s Pollock, how does his work compare with that of Giotto or Beethoven or Michelangelo or Shakespeare? Are their works no longer considered great because they are “too old”?

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