TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT September 1995

LETTERS FROM VENICE

Jean-Pierre Criqui

AT THE TOP OF THE LIST of shows I’d urge a visitor to the 1995-vintage Venice Biennale to see, I would especially mention three, unconnected but for their persistence in my memory. If truth be told, just as Alexandre Dumas’ three musketeers were actually a quartet, there were actually four such exhibitions: though the paintings in the now-closed “Splendori del Settecento Veneziano” (Splendors of 18th-century Venice) at the Ca’ Rezzonico (a show complemented by drawings at the Accademia and costumes at the Palazzo Mocenigo) fell outside the Biennale’s province of the modern, it would be schizophrenic for me not to mention my immense pleasure in the show. As one might expect, there were first-rate works by Tiepolo, Canaletto, and Piazzetta; there was also a small but astounding set of landscape views by Bernardo Bellotto, as well as Jacopo Amigoni’s Group Portrait, 1750–52 (now in Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria), featuring the castrato Farinelli, the most famous singer of his time. He is surrounded by friends, among them the artist, who has portrayed himself with one hand on his famous model’s shoulder and the other holding his brushes, on one of which he has signed his name on the handle.

SILENT MUSIC. There are more images of musicians forever silent in Christian Marclay’s installation in the Church of San Stae. (With the Fischli & Weiss show in the Swiss Pavilion, this installation represents Switzerland at the Biennale.) Six large scrims of gauze, loosely hung in the space, reproduce, on a monumental scale, some anonymous photographs Marclay found in a flea market. All these photos (three in black and white, three in color) involve the nonprofessional performance of music: a little girl plays the recorder by the light of a dining-room lamp; an old woman sits at an upright piano and works her way through sheet music; and so on. The photos are seen again, set in small, neutral frames, on the church’s various altars, at once maquettes for and footnotes to the enlargements floating above them. The installation is titled Amplification, referring both to the visual process Marclay has used here and to the musical context of all his work. Playing on the photograph’s latent nostalgia for sound, Amplification is a variation on the principle behind one of Marclay’s most successful pieces, The Beatles, 1989, a pillow literally covered, through a case crocheted out of audiotape, with the songs of the Fab Four. Operating in a rather euphoric Proustian mode, The Beatles condenses the dreaming of sleep or rest with that of bygone youth. (Born in 1955, Marclay must have grown up to Beatles music.) At San Stae, the tone is graver, and more “spectral.”

THE DREAM OF THE MUSEUM. Museum, the imposing piece built by Katharina Fritsch in the German Pavilion, is a 1:10 scale model, or so the labels tell us. There is therefore both what we see—an octagonal platform the size and height of a boxing ring, on which a sort of angular mushroom shape with an acidulous-colored cap rests amid a dense network of giant mascara brushes—and the project for which this is the design. In an accompanying brochure, Fritsch presents the thinking behind her museum in a brief but dense text. Her primary motive is a dissatisfaction with most of the spaces devoted to art today. (“You try to do something right, to make it work in every respect, and then you have to put it up in an ugly space, where nothing is right.”) Fritsch’s contemporary-art museum would have no permanent collection. Its exhibitions would be conceived especially for it, and would remain in place for a year or two. Fritsch is inspired by the Vierzehnheiligen—a Baroque church in Germany, designed by Balthasar Neumann—and by Walter De Maria’s permanent installations for America’s Dia Center for the Arts. To buttress her idea of the perfect museum, she also invokes Henry van de Velde and Donald Judd.

Fritsch writes, “A museum is supposed to be a special place. A place of sudden turns where we sense, as if mirrored, the strangeness and melancholy of things through the absolutism of artistic decisions made in the face of the ineffability and unfathomability of being. This is an experience that should be important to everyone, in everyday life and life in society. There is no ‘neutral’ arrangement of space (I think it is an illusion anyway); there is only a sculptural concept of a building. I want to make a stand that is beyond ‘design,’ which is the greatest weakness of most museums.” In fact the strength of Fritsch’s piece—its point of interest, and also of ambiguity—is the mental to-and-fro it establishes between her maquette, which is successful as a work of sculpture (even if less obviously dramatic than Fritsch works like Rat King, 1993), and its potential realization as a museum that, by contrast, has a decided quality of the uncanny. Once realized, could the building be more than a folly, in the architectural sense of the term? How would the artists invited to work there succeed in giving it a measure of their individual identity? (“The artist’s work should not be autonomous but incorporated as part of a whole,” Fritsch asserts.) These intriguing questions remain unanswered.

A juicy coincidence throws light on Fritsch’s show—an exhibition at Venice’s Peggy Guggenheim Museum, curiously titled “The Museum in the Expanded Field” (symbolic royalties owed to Rosalind Krauss) and devoted to the branch of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, now being built in Bilbao by Frank Gehry. This is an exuberant, immoderate, sumptuary project; what does it have to do with Fritsch? Looking at the plans and models for Gehry’s building, and at photographs of the site, I remembered Cézanne—also a complainer—asking, “When the hell are they going to make a painter, a real one, the head of the Louvre?” Fritsch’s project must be built, if only so that the museum’s detractors and defenders will be able—at least this once—to change sides.

MATTER AND MEMORY. Allying a re-creation of the space of the Belgian Pavilion to a truly singular temporal density, Didier Vermeiren’s installation of sculptures and a photograph is the best example in Venice of an artist’s grasp of space. Eight of his nine sculptures have their origins in works by other sculptors—historic figures like Rodin and Canova, for example—and particularly in their bases. These Vermeiren transforms according to the logic of his own work: the idea that, looking at objects from the past, our gaze might extend to their edges, grasping in what is directly contiguous to them—and thereby all the more unrecognized—an unexploited esthetic potential. This can cause typological collisions or short circuits. To discuss Vermeiren’s work in relation to Minimal art, for example, requires us to consider the simultaneity of his morphological closeness to and radical distance from the Minimalist esthetic. This transfer of matter from the artifact historically recognized as “sculpture” to its base, with the latter somehow absorbing the substance of the former in order to bring about a new sculptural object, is an original answer to a fundamental question: how can we keep alive the trace of what we can no longer repeat?

Jean-Pierre Criqui is the editor of the Cahiers du Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris.

Translated from the French by Warren Niesluchowski