Turin, Italy

the 2nd Turin Triennial

Various Venues

LESS A THEME AND MORE A MOOD, the saturnine was the tragic muse of the second installment of the Turin Triennial, curated by Daniel Birnbaum. Subtitled “50 Moons of Saturn”—one for each artist included—and spread across three sites, this triennial was symptomatic of a spate of recent exhibitions that seem to have developed feelings in place of concepts. Last year’s group exhibition at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, “Eclipse: Art in a Dark Age,” and Massimiliano Gioni’s “After Nature” at the New Museum in New York were similarly despondent and dejected, while at the other end of the emotional spectrum, the Fifth Liverpool Biennial took “Made Up,” a vernacular phrase used to express happiness, as its title and conceit. Birnbaum, however, was more cautious, mindful of the way in which sentiment can supersede thought or occlude contentiousness—and perhaps also aware that his exhibition would inevitably be read as a dress rehearsal for his Venice Biennale this summer. Instead, as Birnbaum astutely explains in the exhibition catalogue, Saturn served as a dialectical sign under whose auspices his curatorial choices could be both “dark and depressed, yet inspired and radiant; passive and fundamentally negative, yet sometimes rebellious and gloriously productive.”

The exhibition got off to a promising start in the first room of the Palazzina della Società Promotrice delle Belle Arti, where Spencer Finch’s constellation of dusky lights, Study for Outer Space, 2008, floated disconsolately above Wilhelm Sasnal’s paintings of planets (including Saturn, of course). This opening gambit certainly set the tone, if in a slightly overdetermined fashion. But even here, with Finch’s fluorescent halos and aureoles—which, as the catalogue pointed out, have elsewhere attempted to approximate the light in Emily Dickinson’s garden, Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn,” and twilight chez Ingmar Bergman in Stockholm—doubts about the value of proffering “mood” as an aesthetic goal began to surface. Like mood lighting or music, such endeavors often tend to be void of the very qualities they trumpet and the deep content they hope to project.

The rest of the hang at the palazzina, while a little slapdash, had its captivating moments, as the works struggled to convey emotion without trying to orchestrate it. The room occupied by Ragnar Kjartansson’s video installation God, 2007, with walls draped in swishy hot pink satin, was also one of the few sites to leaven the show’s downbeat tenor with a sense of irony, thus capturing the paradox of elation and despair that true melancholy rests on. Indeed, Kjartansson’s video brought to mind Victor Hugo’s epigram “Melancholy is the pleasure of being sad”: The work depicted the artist, posing as a singer and accompanied by a big band, repeating the litany “Sorrow conquers happiness” ad infinitum. Elsewhere, the interplanetary theme of Saturn peppered the show, with Jennifer Bornstein’s homemade films of domestic objects doubling as astral phenomena (Celestial Spectacular, 2002); Rivane Neuenschwander’s 2008 constellation of confetti derived from the text of The Arabian Nights; and Wolfgang Tillmans’s homages to Aby Warburg’s “Mnemosyne Atlas” in Venus Transit, 2004, and Saturn Table, 2008. Although effective, the cumulative grouping felt strangely cold, with little to unify these works besides a pseudoiconography of celestial motifs.

Some of the most startling aspects of the triennial were intermittent moments of dissonance and nostalgia that ricocheted through the dirgelike drone. Jordan Wolfson’s Untitled False Document, 2008, featured a mise en abyme of images relayed in the outmoded medium of 16-mm film, which continues to enjoy a widespread renaissance due to its ability to impart a fashionable veneer of obsolescence. But it was the accompanying sound track that stuck with me, a dispassionately uninflected computer voice-over narrating how “technology meets nostalgia in a marriage of tension, building a house of generational spooning, inverting, fucking and mutating.” This theme stole the show wherever it surfaced—whether in Paul Chan’s aesthetic of 1980s computer games, apparently busily engaged in devouring themselves; in Robert Kuśmirowski’s re-creation of a now obsolete computer laboratory, seemingly suspended in time since the cold war; or in Rosa Barba’s eerie film of automated solar panels chasing the sun in perfect unison amid the Arizona desert, again narrated by a mechanized voice. These past visions of the future were the most vital and present works included, their pointed investigations of obsolescence far more convincing than the broadly furrowed brow and lachrymose atmosphere elsewhere in the show.

Another strategy to escape the trap of introspection and apoliticism that Birnbaum was keen to avoid was evident in Akram Zaatari’s installation Untold. Stories and Letters of Nabih Awada, 2008. The piece documented the imprisonment and eventual freedom of the eponymous subject, who had been incarcerated in an Israeli prison for his involvement with a Lebanese resistance group. A project in the vein of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, it laid bare Awada’s experience through photographic documentation, letters, and two videos. Zaatari’s contribution was both one of the most strident and the most estranged from the rest of the exhibition; other artists seemingly sought to comply with the brief of the triennial, and came off the worse for it. I had the double misfortune of encountering Loris Gréaud’s Cellar Door installation project, 2008– , in both its Paris and London incarnations last year, and its inclusion here (albeit much and mercifully abbreviated) seemed gratuitous. The supposed melancholy of Gréaud’s sci-fi extravaganza felt contrived, more akin to adolescent sulking than to true angst. At least Gréaud’s work, a dreamy environment dedicated to the obsolete notion of male genius, dovetailed neatly (if unintentionally) with the exhibition’s exploration of the outmoded.

THE LONG, NARROW GALLERY of the manica lunga (or “long sleeve”) at the Castello di Rivoli can be a particularly unsympathetic space for art, with its hyperbolically attenuated format pulling the viewer through the space rather than encouraging contemplation. Ulla von Brandenburg’s installation 5 Folded Curtains, 2008, overcame this restriction with a distinctly anticlimactic mise-en-scène. Passing through the sequence of five elaborately folded and draped drop cloths proved slyly disruptive; viewers felt unsure whether they were poised on the threshold of taking the stage or scuttling away from it. Elsewhere, a preponderance of petite paintings and works on paper—Donald Urquhart’s ink drawings of ennui, Benjamin Saurer’s diminutive grisailles, Ian Tweedy’s studies of archive fever—filled the walls of this awkward gallery with a salon hang of small-scale works that encouraged reminiscence and longing.

Whether by accident or design, some of the work on display railed against the structuring logic of the exhibition as subversively frivolous offerings. Lara Favaretto’s showstoppingly flippant installation of eight swirling multicolored car-wash brushes, oscillating furiously and to no avail, was chief among them in its wry pointlessness. Other artists occupying the attic space of the Castello di Rivoli strayed into the territory of the occult or mysticism, with varying degrees of success. Like Kenneth Anger and Mike Nelson before him, Joachim Koester, with his 2005–2006 contribution, evinced a fascination with Aleister Crowley’s Villa Santa Barbara near Cefalù, Sicily, while Pietro Roccasalva’s Myrrhina, 2008, was an environment that chucked together Marcus Aurelius, the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and the Bible in a valiant effort to make something stick.

If the profusion of different shades and typologies of disquietude at the Castello di Rivoli resulted in a blurring of focus, the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo was dominated instead by the work of Chan, one of two keynote artists included in the exhibition (the other being Olafur Eliasson, represented by his familiar smoke and mirrors). Chan’s contribution was perhaps the most com- pelling moment in the exhibition’s trajectory, able to articulate many of the triennial’s central theses with an extreme economy of means. Here, the artist’s animated videos— displayed on double-sided suspended screens and stuttering and flickering from beginning to end and back again—were joined by a new video project, Untitled (after Lacan’s last laugh), 2008, a Sadean spin on his previous explorations of memory and politics.

“Why does melancholy sound so good?” The opening sentence of Arto Lindsay’s essay in the exhibition catalogue posed a (largely rhetorical) question that underscored the exhibition’s allure and unwittingly exposed its flaw. Birnbaum’s adoption of a superabundance of melancholia follows in the wake of his book with Anders Olsson published last year, As a Weasel Sucks Eggs: An Essay on Melancholy and Cannibalism, which in turn builds upon foundational studies in this domain such as those by Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky, Fritz Saxl, and Margot and Rudolf Wittkower, not to mention more recent exhibitions, such as Jean Clair’s 2005 blockbuster at the Grand Palais in Paris, “Mélancolie: Génie et folie en Occident” (Melancholy: Genius and Madness in the West)—all of which mapped iconology onto the realm of the allegorical. Telescoping and transposing this constant art-historical trope into a contemporary trend risked merely aestheticizing misery. (Are we really more dejected than we were a few years ago? Shouldn’t we analyze the cause of such disaffections rather than the mood they put us in?) The result of such a proliferation of despair was akin to a grammatical double negative. In the final analysis, one longed for a more ruthless investigation into melancholy and its discontents—one that examined its often lushly beautiful aesthetics but also its fictions, cynicisms, and artifice. Left unchecked, pathos can quickly belly flop into bathos. Birnbaum avoided this, but still created an exhibition that was richly suggestive and intelligently faulted—no doubt making audiences all the more eager for Venice.

Nicholas Cullinan is an assistant curator at Tate Modern in London.