PRINT September 2007

Mark Godfrey

SOMEWHAT PUT OFF by the cheesy ad adorning vaporetto stops, the queue outside, and the general air of disappointment infusing the art crowd in Venice, I entered “Artempo” not expecting much, but discovered the most riveting exhibition of the summer. The show was housed in the Palazzo Fortuny, once home to nineteenth-century collector, scholar, artist, and designer Mariano Fortuny. Some of Fortuny’s own collections and artworks remained on display, but most of the installation showcased the property of Axel Vervoordt, one of Europe’s most catholic collectors and dealers of antiques and art. With the curatorial assistance of Mattijs Visser and Jean-Hubert Martin, Vervoordt had supplemented his own and Fortuny’s collections with museum loans, resulting in more than three hundred objects in all, some dating as far back as the third millennium BC, others from the past few years. Not all the objects were artworks: There were scientific and religious artifacts as well as crystals and corals. And not all the artworks were objects: The curators included videos and performance pieces too. The exhibition purported to explore how “time becomes art,” but with no descriptive wall text or overt explanatory material, it was, thankfully, left to the viewer to determine from the installation the many ideas this phrase might suggest.

On the cavernous first floor, a number of objects displayed the human body in various states of distortion and disarray. A lemon yellow Francis Bacon grabbed attention, but most immediately arresting were the two figures displayed on a plinth. Made of crumbling wood, stitched leather, and large metal spheres, they were unidentifiable in date and function: too gruesome and detailed to be children’s dolls, too anatomically inaccurate to be medical models, too small to be tailors’ mannequins. Next to them, a dramatically lit wax figure by Berlinde de Bruyckere appeared to shed its skin like some contemporary Marsyas. There was also a Hans Bellmer photograph and a fragment of a seventh-century Buddha’s torso. The only false note was a bombastic Anish Kapoor: a serpentine, reflective form that spectacularly warped the viewer’s own passing body. More compelling in this context was the inclusion of Kimsooja’s Laundry Woman—Yamuna River, India, 2000. Projected to fill a wall, the video showed a woman, seen from behind, against an expanse of slow-moving water. Unlike the other works in the room, this one presented the body as stationary and intact. Nonetheless, a sense of gradual dereliction and endless time emerged—just as it did from the room as a whole—conveyed by the detritus drifting along in the river’s constant current.

One flight up in a smaller, lighter room, the focus shifted to faces. Here were photo- graphs, sculptures, videos, but no conventional portraits; faces were cast, abstracted, veiled, and ruined. Antonio Corradini’s allegorical figure Veiled Dame (Purity), 1720–25, lay behind a shroud of marble rendered with Medardo Rosso’s Ecce Puer, 1906, by contrast, was a face almost obliterated by the sculptor’s finger marks. The strangest work was a video by Yael Davids, Face, 2000–2001. Projected straight onto a brick wall, it showed a woman who appeared to be turning her head toward the viewer; but actually, it became clear, her head remained stationary while a wig, fixed to a revolving device, slowly rotated, the parting in its fringe allowing only the briefest glimpse of its wearer’s eyes. The woman’s protracted refusal to return the viewer’s gaze was deeply troubling, and, through this work, one began to sense that the connections between time and figuration explored throughout the exhibition were not just the traditional ones having to do with the transience of human life. Instead, through its bringing together of bodies and machines, the show explored an old Surrealist trope: the uncanny proximity of mechanical and bodily temporalities.

Nothing about the first two floors quite anticipated the third floor. This was a huge space in which Vervoordt’s trophies filled cabinets, hung suspended from the ceiling, and perched atop plinths, with Fortuny’s couches and tapestries serving not just as resting points and backdrops but as additional visual fodder. There was a Picasso sculpture, human eyes painted with disarming simplicity onto a found hunk of rough wood; an Inuit anorak fashioned from intestines; a warrior shield of rhinoceros horn; and a work by William Kentridge comprising a ring-shaped sheet of anamorphic drawings whose distortions were righted by a cylindrical mirror. For all the carved skulls, écorchés, and even monkey hands, the atmosphere was never ghoulish. Devotional objects, magical objects, and sculptures sat near scientific devices like pantographs, their appearance as mysterious as their names. In a cabinet of curiosities along one wall, a shrunken head, African sculptures, antique glassware, and a metal armadillo abutted a Man Ray photograph of a stretched-out neck, but the whole room was a Wunderkammer in which you could find one of Marisa Merz’s smoothed-out heads near a bumpy lump of brain coral, a sliced Lucio Fontana near a cleft Seychelles coconut. It was in this room that the curatorial premise of “Artempo” seemed least important. Yes, there were astrolabes used centuries ago to measure planetary time, and contemporary artworks made with the more recent apparatus of chronometry (Piero Manzoni’s collage of calendar pages, Tatsuo Miyajima’s sculpture of hanging digital numbers). Yes, there was a clump of malachite formed over millennia and a Warhol piss painting made in a matter of seconds—both a riot of crystalline forms. But the most important sense of time here was probably something the curators could not have envisaged. Elsewhere at the Biennale you felt the constant urge to move on; here you could linger for hours, forgetting all about the show’s title and indulging in the installation instead.

The fourth floor, finally, was brighter, more sparsely arranged, but no less captivating. Once frescoed and decorated, the walls here were now faded and chipped, covered for the duration of this show with knife-punctured Fontanas and nail-pierced Guenther Ueckers, works so in tune with the setting that it was hard to tell where the ruined architecture stopped and the scarred paintings started. Alighiero Boetti’s homunculus Io che prendo il sole a Torino il 19 gennaio 1969 (Me Sunbathing in Turin on 19 January 1969) lay spread-eagle on the floor; a bank of black-and-white monitors showed videos of Richard Serra’s hands scraping steel filings and Gordon Matta-Clark’s Conical Intersect, 1975; and a torn-paper relic of a 1955 Gutaï performance by Saburo Murakami served as a backdrop for a live performance by Davids, again, who arranged for a small boy to be stuck inside a beach ball, so his legs and head poked out as the sphere rolled around the floor. The room suggested new temporal registers—the moment in which, for instance, Shozo Shimamoto’s Cannon Picture, 1956, was splattered with paint; the centuries of the palazzo’s slow decline; the repetitive processes of Uecker’s hammering and Boetti’s concrete molding; the constant differentiation and incessant drama of Fischli & Weiss’s The Way Things Go, 1987.

The risks of the kind of curatorial enterprise at work in “Artempo” are well known. Curators invite the criticism of pseudomorphism when they place together things from radically diverse cultures that just happen to look similar; there’s the charge of relinquishing the responsibility to articulate the historical and cultural specificity of the displayed objects; there’s even the accusation that curators promote a transhistorical and universalizing humanism. Such criticisms no doubt will greet Roger M. Buergel’s problematic attempts at Documenta to place Tajikistani bridal veils next to John McCracken mandala paintings, or an Iranian garden carpet beside Cosima von Bonin sculptures, since these contiguities tease out neither the contemporary artists’ interests nor the older objects’ formal complexities. However, none of these charges seemed relevant to the show at Palazzo Fortuny. Far from being contrived, the juxtapositions here seemed effortless, as playful as they were incisive. One was reminded of Georges Bataille, not just because of the emphasis on disfigurement, and of the proximity of violence to the sacred, but also because the exhibition worked to undo the categories that would usually divide its contents. Every juxtaposition worked, so much so that I felt that, had they been alive, the twentieth-century artists would have been thrilled to see their work in this context. On one wall, for example, two black Alberto Burris hung beside a third canvas that at first could be mistaken for another 1950s antipainting. But here the ghostly trace of a figure was just visible, and it turned out that this was in fact a charred sixteenth-century portrait by a student of Tintoretto’s. The choice to show these works as a trio was meant primarily to contrast intentionally and accidentally burned paintings, but it spoke as well to Burri’s historical predicament, to the ways in which painters in the ’50s faced the total immolation of European culture.

For all I was grateful for the free Bellinis, it was possible to have some reservations about the omnipresence of collectors at Venice; wandering through the Scottish pavilion, I overheard one talking to a dealer on his cell phone, eager to buy up the room of drawings he had just left. But seeing Vervoordt guide guests around the palazzo was a different matter. He was as excited to show off his myriad possessions as one imagines he was on the day he bought them. And one felt grateful for his vision, particularly since it is hard to imagine a curator alone putting on an exhibition like this: Few now have the range of expertise to know about Gutaï painting and two-thousand-year-old Meso-American silexes. Vervoordt’s was a collection built through an idiosyncratic sensibility and a refusal to follow fashion or the lure of “investment” opportunities. Indeed, it was as if the greatest contrast provided by “Artempo” was an implicit one between types of collecting—the type that seems on the ascendancy in the art world today, and an older type, exemplified by Vervoordt and associated with such outmoded and contested qualities as connoisseurship and taste. But could these qualities be redeemed? For sure, the kind of superextensive knowledge evinced in the show is the preserve of great privilege and wealth, but when so sensitively put to use, this knowledge offers object lessons for us all.

Mark Godfrey is the author of Abstraction and the Holocaust (Yale University Press, 2007).