Thursday, 27 February 2014

Beautiful Boxes: Custom Space, 1

Things Discussed: Punta della Dogana; Prima Materia; Perks; Collections; Light; Holes; Bricks, Wood, Textures; Exhibitions Built to Last.

written by f

One of the perks of being a resident in Venice, Italy, is that you get to go places for free. Musei civici, that is: those directly dependent from the municipality. An impressive array of institutions that goes from the Doge's Palace to the Correr Museum, from Ca' Pesaro to the Museum of Natural History, from Ca' Rezzonico to Palazzo Fortuny

The deal is: you pay taxes to keep us alive, in turn you can come visit us whever you please. Gallerie dell'Accademia, alas, is not one of those, because is state-owned and it's not run by the city. And so aren't the famous private ones: the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, and the two venues of the collection of François Pinault.

But wednesday is a special day. Wednesday is the day you go to Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana for free. If you're a resident, of course. That's still part of the perks.
No surprise I usually go there on wednesday, then. But there's another reason: for most of the exhibitions held there so far, if I had to pay I'd rather not go.

The exhibitions are rarely the main attraction: the place itself is worth the visit. This is true for Palazzo Grassi. But never so true as for the Punta della Dogana: a masterpiece of measure, textures, and taste.

Not expecting much, this was perhaps why I was so captured with the beautiful, beautiful Prima Materia exhibition they have there now. To me, it’s the first one since Punta della Dogana reopened that gives justice toa critic may say “holds a dialogue with”the space. And so beautiful the space is that every elementthe building ingredients: bricks, wood, and concreteis there to be cherished.

via Wikimedia Commons
Punta della Dogana was, historically, the office of the Custom of the Republic of Venice: all ships entering the lagoon should stop there for inspection and taxes. Overlooking a 270° cut of the Canale della Giudecca, and being the gateway to the Grand Canal, it has the most impressive view of the whole city, with Saint Mark's Basilica and Bell Tower on the left, the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in front and the Giudecca island on the right. 

It's an isosceles triangle with a rounded tip (its beautiful outline is kept in the museum logo). Inside, it's divided in nine horizontal slices and a central cube. In all its constrained geometry it's a very dynamic space.

© François Pinault Foundation/Palazzo Grassi S.p.A

More often than not, the temptation of looking at the structure is more powerful than the allure of the works. Luckily, this show makes no effort to distract you from the space: the works inhabit it in a discrete and meaningful way, almost whispered, content, sometimes, to simply blend in. 

The sense of wonder and sacred space starts at the very beginning: you close behind a very heavy grey curtain to cut the sound of the fist work you meet, Bruce Nauman's 1987 clown video No No No No!, New Museum just past the entrance door. Now you're in the cloakroom, and soon hear a quiet cascade of sounds: it's Raining by Dominique Gonzales-Foerster, borrowed from her 2012 Tate Modern installation TH.2058.

Left the room, you lift and drop a second heavy curtain. And once you do that gesture, you're also cutting out any sound from the external world. And it's a completely artificial world you're thrown into right away, the chaotic video-furniture-backyard joint installation by Lizzie Fitch & Brian Trecartin: 2011's Local Dock and Public Crop, and 2012's Porch Limit. A somehow playful, hallucinatory start with the syncopated video in the style of a reimagined 1960s. 

This show is a flow from the start, and it never stops. 

There's stuff I didn't like, as it always is, and I'll rather get that out of the way immediately. On the upper level there's a room filled with eight big vertical paintings by Mark Grotjahn. A geometric pattern that seems repeating underneath, a blend of colors that keeps changing ever slightly. I find it all rather uninteresting. Starting from his manneristic and unnerving titles: Untitled (Turkish Forest IV Face 43.93) and on and on along those lines. Why "untitled" and the actual "title" in brackets? Even in the Sixties the idea wasn't pretty anymore.

As for the works, you keep staring at them expecting more, and nothing comes back. It's really just colors.

A very smart museum guide I talked to told me the setup was wrong in her opinion: those paintings should hang closer together, in a tighter space, with no natural light. Only then their patterns and colors would start making sense, breathing atmosphere and letting you in. I concede she may be right. But still.

Now: that was perhaps the only thing I didn't like there. Because the exhibition feels all in all so true to the space. In the words of Martin Bethenod from the Introduction to the exhibition catalogue:
Prima Materia questions the very premises of Punta della Dogana, perhaps even more so than the previous exhibitions presented since it reopened in 2009. It offers the occasion to rethink the spaces, to modify the perception of them.
And since we're here, this has to be said: the trilingual catalogue is a thing of beauty.

The format, the essential graphic gridwhat font is that?the tactile sensation of the paper chosenrecycled, grey, to give the idea of a first, if not primordial, matteras in one of the cores of the exhibition, the Arte Povera+Mono-ha roomsand a wink at the great grey concrete tiles that's the signature of architect Tadao Ando.

The graphic choicetrue as it is that some items may be pieces of hipstericais consistent throughout: every flier, pamphlet, guide, ad, caption follows the rules of the game. All this thanks to the work of Tassinari/Vetta design studio. 

For this and other more important reasons we'll soon explore, it seems that, here, the exhibition gets everything right.

The trademark room of Prima Materia is on the ground floor: a meaningful encounter of Italy's Arte Povera and Japan's Mono-ha, two movementsnot always clear of the suspect of being just fads or stuntsthat gave the matter used preeminence to the work on the matter. The implications of some of the works may be tired or enlightening depending on taste and inclinations of the viewer, but the pieces are, often, beautiful. 

In these rooms, Alighiero Boetti, Lee Ufan, Koji Enokura, Mario Merz, and others, provide the historical ground on which the whole curatorial project is built.

Some of the works are so silent you feel bound to play with them. You may not touch, but nobody stops you from looking at works through other works: holes, reflections, refractions are the playground for your eyes. 

(My visit to Punta della Dogana exhibition Prima Materia continues on part 2, and concludes in part 3.)


  1. You took awesome pictures, they are great to meditate and watch deeply these pieces of artwork, and find "correspondances". I've just read this post, and I think that as always, contemporary art seems really bare. Everything stays on the surface. Infact, the catalogue is a virtuous example of modern graphic, as you said, but extremely poor in content. There are just few good textes. I belive contemporary art is rich, deep, and complicated ad much as simple, but I am worried of the idea people have of it.

    1. Thank you for your comment, C. Much appreciated.

      What you say is true to a large extent - at least in my opinion. Most catalogues are just another piece of publicity stunt in the whole show promotion and marketing.

      I don't know whether I consider the content of this particular one that shallow: there are quite a few insights here. But I do agree that catalogues of contemporary art rarely stand out, and, when the show is good, almost never stand up to it.

      As for the bigger picture - depth and complexity of contemporary art vs. perception of it by the wider audience -, I think it's such a delicate issue that one can't possibly hope to even scratch its surface here.

      But I do share your concern. People behave like consumers in contemporary art shows precisely because many exhibitions behave like shopping malls.

      In this blog we try - without any pretense of completeness or authoritativeness - to tackle those issues that excite us most, rather than the ones we don't like. In simpler terms: we use a selective eye - and most often selective guts - to talk about things we like.

      Contemporary art - all art, indeed all human creative enterprise - is such a varied and multifaceted landscape that one must with all the possible strength and determination, select and look through the selection to create a path of sorts among all the infinite variations.

      Apart from the market push acting as a uniforming taste-making machine, it's also true that many artists struggle to get whatever they have to say across, and we viewers must cooperate to make the works what they want to be. Only this way is possible to know when there's no content in there, or whether the emotional or intellectual depth were just hidden to our eyes.

      The constant shower of stimuli attacking like neutrino beams from every possibile direction can be overwhelming, resulting in either numbness, indifference or shallowness.

      And I think the urge of selection may also be the only way in which art can really plant its seeds in us, and really mean something to us.