My Hunt for Relics and the People I Met along the Way
Alise Tīfentāle
The 51st Venice Biennale: a difficult task, a mental exercise on an almost superhuman scale, a cabalistic stimulus to discover and establish my own position not just in relation to art, but to the world as a whole. For a person to take a delight in everything is undignified. To reject everything is even more undignified, since it's ultimately a rejection of oneself. The search for one's own kind is a search for oneself - not always a simple or enjoyable quest. To discover strangers, to finally perceive what it is that separates us, and why. Mediocrities and misunderstandings constitute an absolutely essential basis and background. My own kind: these are the ones who say what I wish to hear. Exaltation, slightly grotesque, pseudo-religious catharsis or a condition resembling it, something "larger than life" - this is precisely how I've always imagined the experience of art. It does not include wearying attempts to decipher some complex individual's private cuneiform or mountains of didactic A4 pages, behind which one may get a glimpse of a feeble video. This constitutes the background. And then there are the strangers. Those saying things I'd perhaps like to hear, but cannot comprehend. Amid flourishing globalisation and cosmopolitanism, one senses ever more forcefully the emptiness of the "cultural interaction" concept. Though we hold joint exhibitions and even partly inhabit the same cultural space, we'll never come to a mutual understanding unless our worlds come into contact at the basic, root, historical level that gives rise to common jokes, stories, systems of reference and common intentions. Possibly, this exhibition became such a complicated personal task because there was a great deal of personally-oriented art, with intimate experiences, inner dialogues and bodily sensations translated into the language of art. Almost every work demands that I engage with it and at the same time with myself. Of course, there's no avoiding social and political antics at any Biennale, but there is an impression that, this time, art has approached me in order to get acquainted, chat about the meaning of life and have a good time, instead of me meeting up with art in order attend a party congress or a gathering of cultural terrorists. Most valuable at this exhibition seemed to be the human factor: after all, contemporary art, too, may be appropriate for comprehension, perception and utilisation, just like, for instance, good architecture or good food. One might say that such art is childish, playful, old-fashioned or sentimental, but equally one may say that it serves to awaken that part of the soul of every individual which, ever since Adam, has been longing for religion, ritual and exaltation.

  One's own kind among strangers

These are my own kind. The ones I can call soulmates. Some of them are angry, marginal figures who've been cast out of society or who've voluntarily left it; some are sentimental, seeking all the faults and/or the happiness of the world within themselves; still others are lonely, loving, mourning or sometimes boozing, somewhat monstrous and superficial, naïve and witty, all at the same time, in that old-fashioned way. Something urges me to take another look at them and hold my breath: I'm seeing something more beautiful and larger than what I could have imagined. On my return from the exhibition, I felt for a moment like a medieval traveller relating the wonders seen along the way and vividly describing the exotic beings - as in the notes that make up Umberto Eco's novel "Bodolino". My travel notes would make repeated mention of the images created by Leigh Bowery (seen at the Arsenale in the exhibition "Always a Little Further", curated by Rosa Martínez). Bowery, who was born in Australia in 1961 and died in London in 1994, is a phenomenon: an incarnation of reckless, creative freedom, an artist of the body, of dress and movement, himself a work of art. A star of London's clubs from the early 80s, a fetishist obsessed with the cult of costume, certainly not a "normal artist", someone for whom image and dress represented the meaning of life, who needed dressing up and role-playing like air to breathe, and moreover not with the intention of "looking better", but rather with the idea: "What could I do next?" This is not a case of an exotic or pitiful transvestite or an unusual ragman. Rather, Bowery's art lay in his ability to use his body and his unlimited imagination in order to generate surprising visual images, of a kind that might fit some unrealised carnival "Star Wars" world. Colourful, perverse, joyful and beautiful beyond the bounds of reason, such are these images recorded in photographs and in a few videos of Bowery's performances in London clubs. Moreover, collaboration with Nick Knight, Annie Leibovitz and other influential photographers guaranteed Bowery greater attention and saved him from the oblivion of the underground. The dress, photographs and performances shifted from the clubs to the art galleries, and he modelled for painter Lucian Freud (an exhibition of whose works is also being shown this summer in Venice). Bowery was no supermodel with an indifferently attractive body; he used the forms of his body in his favour, turning the "dressing up" characteristic of club nightlife into a form of art, so that his works might provide material for a whole handbook of aesthetics, elegance, sexuality and associational role-playing. In contrast to Vivienne Westwood, for example, who built a lucrative business on the remains of punk subculture, Bowery worked only with and for himself, and his heritage will never be available in a "prêt-à-porter" version. Perhaps this is why his mad fantasy is being shown at an art exhibition now, more than a decade after his death. This is art for people who are almost insanely free, a festival of unlimited and uninhibited imagination, even retaining indecently sweet aesthetic qualities and astounding the viewer with its "nothing is impossible" attitude. Bowery may be found on the internet, too, at Created in an 18th century Baroque oratory (a small room with an altar, intended for playing and enjoying religious music) was the Argentine exhibition: the performance/installation "The Ascension", by artist Jorge Macchi and musician Edgardo Rudnitzky. Even before viewing the exhibition, all the circumstances - the venue, part of a religious building, and the title, derived from the Catholic calendar - indicated that there would be some connection with Christian dogma, Argentina being a country with a strong Catholic tradition. The exhibition was in fact one of the most powerful experiences of this Biennale. The oratory ceiling has a fresco depicting the Virgin Mary ascending to heaven in the company of angels, in the finest Baroque traditions and enclosed within a Baroque frame. The artists have placed a trampoline directly beneath the fresco, precisely reflecting the form and size of the ceiling piece. In the course of the performance (or "intervention", as the artists prefer to call their work), two musical instruments are played: a work by Rudnitzky is recited on a viola da gamba, with an acrobat on the trampoline providing the rhythmic accompaniment: the creaking of the springs and the beating of his feet against the elastic surface. The sounds created by the acrobat are organically integrated into the music as an element of the composition and the ritual as a whole, which presents absolute perfection, a closed circle. It incorporates a multitude of paradoxes, the discovery of which, even without pretending to define them, is a source of enjoyment to a detective of art. Trampoline jumping as an ascent to heaven? Is this blasphemy? In a Catholic country, faith and ritual are no doubt rooted deeply enough in everyday life for the use of these as material for art not to appear as a transgression or crime against faith, whether or not you're a practicing Catholic. Another aspect: the fresco is called "The Assumption of Mary", as is customary within the Catholic tradition, while the work is entitled "The Ascension", and there lies another paradox created by the authors. In accordance with Catholic dogma, Christ himself climbed to heaven as a man and as the Son of God, while Mary was taken up to heaven in accordance with the will of God, rather than her own will, a privilege that distinguishes the Mother of God among all other mortals (who may enter heaven only after the Last Judgement). The trampoline serves as a visual aid, revealing Man's wish, born of his pride, to "climb to heaven" by himself, and at the same time his inability to do so, since gravity draws him back to earth, only to kick off for another futile jump. Movement, sound, rhythm, the room with its original function and fresco, as well as the broad context of the work's content, together make "The Ascension", to my mind at least, one of the most powerful works of this Biennale. Its outward lightness and simplicity disguise an existential significance of a kind that may be ignored if the particular viewer so wishes. Here lies the difference between this work and the countless documentary videos that seek a cheap effect, just like those annoyingly-repeated scenes of refugee life, shanty towns, etc., that we see in the news. One very powerful work was "Breath", by the classic Samuel Beckett (in the exhibition "Always a Little Further", curated by Martínez). "Perhaps life is a short cry on an empty stage, occupied only by a little rubbish," wrote Beckett. We hear rhythmic breathing in a great, dark, empty room, in which the only source of light is a projection on the floor, rushing past with the inhalation and fading with the exhalation. The effect is hard to describe in words: the colourful projection rushing past (a panoramic view of rubbish) has an immediate effect of total disorientation, giving the impression that the floor really is sliding away, with the dark walls rapidly approaching. A physiologically powerful technique, which might be practiced to good effect as a kind of brainwashing torture, or in some secret initiation ritual, so that the eyes of the initiate might be opened and he might see the light. Of course, such an effect can always be disparaged as a cheap fairground stunt, but it can just as well be seen as an example of brilliant simplicity: the rhythmic breathing and the head-spinning, sliding floor permits an instant of revelation of the relative insignificance of human life and its illusory importance, suggesting physicists' versions of the "breathing" Universe, and likewise the allegory about one day in the life of the God Brahma, corresponding to about 43 million (or billion) human years.  Among other favourites at the Biennale, special mention should be made of the Ukrainian exhibition. Artist Mykola Babak has chosen as the motto for his work "Your children, Ukraine!" a quote from Milos Forman: "Don't shout of the entire world - tell about your village". And this is literally what he does: he tells the whole world about his childhood village of Voronintsi. The author begins his sincere story with old, documentary photos showing the children of Voronintsi in the 1920s-50s, his own parents as children, as young adults and at various important family occasions that bring together all the relatives: weddings, funerals and christenings. There are also old, handmade toys, embroideries and other family relics. Everything is the way it is in the countryside: real, handmade and old. A humane and quiet work, slow to take effect. And yes, sentimental as well, since the exhibition concludes with a video of the revolutionary events in Ukraine, where, among the crowd we also find the now grown-up children of Voronintsi. Shown in the Japanese pavilion is the work "Mother's 2000-2005 - Traces of the Future", by photographer Miyako Ishiuchi. In some ways, this work approaches the very limits of heart-rending openness, since the photographs show her deceased mother's shoes, underwear and wigs, her half-used lipstick, a comb with her hair still in it and even her false teeth, while the refined Japanese minimalist aesthetics and ritual politeness permit the viewer to keep sufficient distance, not letting the work and the story it tells too close to their hearts. The work relates a deeply intimate, almost physically tangible experience, but the cold aesthetics do not permit any emotional candidness. You might say that "Mother's" is a refined, superhuman and even slightly perverse work: at the first instant, it seems that only a hardened man, living in accordance with a strictly determined ethical code and completely unfamiliar with any ventures into the world of emotions, might work in such an alienated, documentary and insensitive way.  Strange, but this work surprises one more by its ruthlessness, discipline and clinical coldness than by the presence of human feeling. If feeling was indeed present, then it is not intended for art or public viewing. The photographs show things. And that's all. In terms of aesthetic qualities, the photographs correspond almost to advertising pictures, perfect in their simple composition. Nothing reveals the presence of the human being as an artist and a daughter. The photographs might equally have been made by a robot programmed to create certain kinds of images. However, these are "Mother's Things", and the rest takes place only in the viewer's head. The work "Hospital", by Greek artist George Hadjimichalis, also sticks in one's mind by its simple, universally humane invitation to become a blood donor, with an installation presenting a miniature imitation of a hospital, created using long, angular metal pipes. Looking into the pipes, one sees long, white corridors, some of them with groups of tiny human figures, others empty. In a sense, a discreet, but very effective work: gradually the viewer comes to perceive the dreadful feeling of the hospital as an antechamber of death. It's only that this threat has been reduced so much in size that the viewer, feeling great and powerful, and thus also responsible, is urged to help. I don't know how much art is actually present in this exhibition, but it does serve to generate compassion even without superficial effects and shocking scenes. For reasons not quite clear to me, the Serbian-Montenegrian exhibition also caught my attention, although art experts derided it informally as a "schoolboy effort". Against a background of much more tragic mediocrity, the works of these two artists certainly attracted attention, since they mark a whole trend in contemporary art: younger generation female artists from Eastern Europe and the Balkans who succeed in expressing in art a sense of love in a precise, fragile and moving way, even if the form of expression is certainly not the most expressive, modern or stylish. At the centre of the video installation "In Case I Never Meet You Again", by Natalija Vujoševič (born 1976), is a slow-motion video of a woman and a man looking endlessly into one another's eyes, while the adjacent monitors show a quick succession of snapshot photos, scenes from a life together that may or may not have happened, adventures and dreams. This simple work is based on the inexpressible and indefinable, but profoundly comprehensible and, in fact, typically feminine idea that the whole meaning of a woman's life can be to love a man. "Joy of Life", by Jelena Tomaševič (born 1974), consists of simple, primitive comic-book scenes, drawn directly on a wall, like the drawings of a contemporary caveman. Depicted are people with certain objects that serve to characterise the situation in space and time (for example, there is a man with crutches, the setting being denoted only by an open manhole under his feet). You might say that it has an element of black humour, but sadness predominates: these are not caricatures or drawings of the kind made by Topor.

The comfort unintelligible to a stranger

This Venice Biennale provided certain introspective pauses, offering a confrontation with art that must inevitably remain incompletely understood and unread on account of basic ignorance. All those of us who have not been engaged in the profound and sincere study of the history of world cultures, civilisations and religions are currently being held in the thrall of partial knowledge and misinformation with regard to all that is "alien": non-white, non-Christian and non-ours, and such ignorance can induce perceptual paralysis even at an exhibition of visual art. Much-proclaimed globalisation acts only at the level of market relations, while the background of so-called cultural contact and interaction consists only of stereotypical, misguided ideas and the fear engendered by these - the most vivid example being the current anti-Islamic campaign initiated by the USA. It is always easier to imagine the unfamiliar than to explain it. So it is in the context of art, too: when I'm brought face to face with the art of Central Asia and the Near East, I'm stopped in my tracks. These artists have perfectly mastered the traditional instruments and approaches of contemporary art, making deft use of the videos and installations that are outwardly recognisable and correspond impeccably with what we've come to expect from contemporary art. However, the content is written in a different alphabet, a different system of thinking, and I'm never going to comprehend what these authors wished to say, even though the media are familiar. Of course, to a large degree, these artists, who've all studied and/or lived for some time in the West, continue to maintain that superficial, fragmented CNN-headline style; they continue to shape an understanding of themselves and their roots within the frame that they've been placed in by the world's leading news services. But these fragments of understanding don't really tell you anything, just as the news headlines and two-minute reports don't give you any true understanding of processes, causes and consequences. For the first time at the Venice Biennale, Afghanistan presented its own national exhibition. One of the authors, Lida Abdul, was born in Afghanistan, but grew up and studied art in the USA. Her work is presented on two video screens placed facing each other. One of them shows a woman in the middle of a stony desert painting a house white, while the other shows several men collecting stones. The work is Western in terms of the form of expression, while in terms of content it relates to her ethnic roots, which renders it incomprehensible, and if the viewer lacks information about the visual code and system of references according to which the artist is working, then it can only play on the viewer's feelings and ignorance. The other artist, Rahim Walizada, is a local "hero" from our European perspective. He is not only an artist, but also provides work for several women living nearby, who are for various reasons (?) forbidden to leave their homes. Thus, Walizada commissions carpets from them. The project "The Students of Faizabad" permits us to see the carpets woven by these women who are apparently prisoners in their own homes. One thing is abundantly clear: the project screams at us the news headline "The problems of Afghan women", and this theme evidently touches on such a broad realm of culture, tradition and history that the few general sentences in the commentary for the exhibition are not likely to reduce in any way the viewer's ignorance. In the background is the impression of the suffering of war that we've seen on TV and perhaps heard or read about in the reminiscences of those called up in the Soviet Army and sent to fight in Afghanistan. The exhibition has a few phrases giving an impression of oppressed, unhappy women living in obscurantism and privation, awaiting the legion of their liberators. It sounds like a Batman comic, because I doubt there's any sense in beginning a discussion of the ethics of a foreign cultural tradition if one's position at the outset is that it's "wrong" and must be changed. With all my baggage of ignorance, I harbour suspicion of any theory that urges the destruction of the existing, functioning system in order to replace it with another, "one's own", the "right" one. This is the way of barbarians, conquistadors and all the other invaders and destroyers in the history of humanity, who leave only ruins for future generations. The Iranian national exhibition offered one of the visually most effective works: the installation "Chelgis II", by Mandana Moghaddam. Here, too, we see exactly what the sensation-seeking Western European crowd is eager to behold: "women's problems". In the middle of a small room, an enormous concrete block is suspended, and approaching closer, we see that it hangs from ropes braided from women's hair. Does the women's hair hold the concrete, or is the hair in the captivity of concrete? - such are the questions posed by this work. Does feminism prevail here? I don't know. I don't know enough about Iran and about the country's women, men, children, livestock and plants to gain the slightest notion of the political, religious or social background of Mandana Moghaddam's installation. I can only appreciate the impressive simplicity and the effective contrasts: heavy, rough concrete coming into contact with the tender, fragile woman, and then it turns out that concrete is not all that heavy after all, and that woman is not all that fragile. And that's all. One of the most intriguing promises of this Biennale is the debut of the Central Asian Academy of Arts, or Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, among the national exhibitions at this Biennale of contemporary art. The curator of this exhibition, Viktor Misiano either really believes in the art that he himself has chosen, or else he's presenting an elegant jest to delight this refined audience: savages, a circus and entertainment, from countries you've never even heard of! The second version seems more credible, although certain works in this exhibition really might be seen as accomplished, rather than simply "exotic", "laughable" and "naïve", as the general mood of the exhibition seems to suggest. Seemingly a story about savages: the arrival of the Djigits in a cultural centre, an effect that several artists play on very skilfully. In such a way that you sense something unfamiliar, and yet accessible. The young artist Almagul Menlibayeva (Kazakhstan) uses simple means to create an emotionally potent work: one room of a Venetian palazzo is turned into something like a demo version of the steppe: the floor has been strewn with a thick layer of earth, and dispersed monitors show scenes from a kind of soft porn film whose main protagonist is a lonely beauty in the endless steppe. Especially promising seemed the project "Northern Barbarians", by Rustam Khalfin and Yulia Tikhonova (Kazakhstan): theoretically postulated as a representation of "Neobarbarian" culture are expressive drawings and a film showing ritual lovemaking on horseback, seemingly in accordance with ancient pagan tradition. Neobarbarism is also mentioned by Yerbossyn Meldibekov in his socio-political work "Pastan", with a video showing symbolic violence (slapping) and the futuristic concept of Pastan, a post-Soviet union of Central Asian states, involving a mergence of identities, a common past and different nationalities.The installation of Vyacheslav Ahunov (Uzbekistan) "Transsiberian Amazons" tells of crusty market traders: their monologues are seen in the ubiquitous video monitors, hardly visible among the immense red-white-blue carrier bags, hung in large numbers along the walls.These works, and certain others in the Central Asian exhibition, attest to the amazingly healthy thinking of these artists: the European viewer was given the opportunity of smelling the earth, admiring steppe winds in the locks of the beauty and feeling the breath of the shamanistic pagan, mythological past. Most importantly, the viewer was not wearied by the obligation to agree or disagree. Central Asian artists probably live in large, beautiful cities, use the internet, read the same journals and watch the same films as we, but something slightly wild, something of their nomadic past in the steppe was perceptible here. Only the suspiciously extensive use of video seems an unnecessary obeisance to the Western viewer's idea of a proper art exhibition. The quality of the footage, sometimes filmed with a shaky hand-held camera, detracts somewhat from the mystery and mysticism of the well-devised story. On the other hand, these artists have unique potential for development: the charming concept of Neobarbarism seems to me exactly what's needed to create at least a small contrast to the present snobbish, bourgeois, sophisticated tradition of Western contemporary art. Also leaving a respectable impression was that part of the exhibition about which one might venture to say that the curator believes in it as art: the retrospective showing of 1990s video art from all three Central Asian countries. We might include in the category of curator Viktor Misiano's "elegant jests" all those works whose authors have either striven to repeat all-too-literally that which we've seen in Western contemporary art, or else have looked to the heritage of Soviet pseudoculture, which, in my view, has not been topical in the context of art for some time now. (Although Boris Mikhailov, for example, does enjoy a respectable international reputation, in his case the approach to this theme is somewhat intellectual.) Certain of the works seen here seemed childish and unsuitable not only within the context of the Biennale, but for any kind of public showing. I'm not sure this was the right occasion for another showing of Sergey Maslov's "A Survival Handbook for Ex-USSR Citizens", with typical post-Soviet anecdotes in the style of "If you're ashamed to steal, but you want to survive, you can always start collecting empty bottles", and so forth (no matter that the author is already a deceased classic). Just as surprising was a schoolboy attempt at irony: a purportedly documentary, inept story about a not very handsome and certainly no longer young local dreamer who wanted to become a film star and sent his photo and letters of application to various film studios in Hollywood and, of course, received only rejections (Alexander Nikolaev (Uzbekistan), "I Want to Hollywood").

Apart from some convincing Neobarbarians, we'll never really understand true "aliens", at least not without serious cultural studies in advance. The formalism, hypocrisy and commercial resourcefulness of contemporary art does not befit these artists. The techniques are used as a mould, a convenient vessel for holding content that remains indecipherable to us. Neither will we ever derive a more or less adequate understanding of a culture, because we see and hear precisely what we wish to. From this point of view, the news services employ exactly the same classical principles and recipes for creating images as the Hollywood film industry: our subconscious fears are kept alive by what seems to us shocking news of public death penalties or the stoning of unfaithful women. Such headlines are torn from any context and give an impression of a terrifying, hostile microclimate, of fanatical sects, truly barbarian traditions and a "wrong" attitude to life and the world, serving in the end as an excellent excuse for a global ideological war - as in the Middle Ages, when the Pope's messengers travelled through Europe, exhorting people to join the crusade aimed at liberating Jerusalem and killing all the "infidels" living there, because Jerusalem, after all, should rightly belong exclusively to the Christians.

Tearful goodbyes

"Do not stay longer than 2 minutes!" warns a message over the entrance to the wind tunnel in the Russian pavilion (the work "Idiot Wind"!, by Galina Myznikova and Sergey Provorov). "On the floor are parts of a work of art. Enter at your own risk!" is the frightening message at the entrance to the Czech and Slovak pavilion (where the floor is strewn with metal balls). Is art becoming dangerous? I think not. Rather, artists have become overly polite and intimidated. In order to avoid the possibility of any accident, the best thing is not to let the viewer anywhere near one's work of art: this is exactly the approach taken by German artist Olaf Nicolai, invited by Martínez to participate in her exhibition. His work "Welcome to the Tears of St. Lawrence. An Appointment to Watch Falling Stars" is not really his work at all, and in early June at the time of the opening of the Biennale it was actually not even visible. Nicolai has created cards, booklets, posters and an internet homepage inviting people to watch the sky on 8-13 August in the direction of the constellation Perseus for the meteor shower also known as the "Tears of St Lawrence". The booklet shows the exact location of the constellation, with a timetable showing when and in which countries the "tears" will be best visible, and explaining the connection between all this and the martyr St Lawrence, in other words, exactly the same information anyone else might obtain from an amateur astronomy book. It concludes with a request for people to send information about what they see to the International Meteor Organisation. Very abstract, but promising, isn't it?

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