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HyperPavilion | Arsenale Nord

Covering a massive amount of space, HyperPavilion, situated in the northern side of the Arsenale, takes place in three historic warehouses. All the pieces were created specifically for the show and focus on the advent of the digital in the art world. The artists selected from diverse backgrounds include Aram Bartholl (Berlin), Vincent Broquaire (Strasbourg), Claude Closky (Paris), Frederik De Wilde (Bruxelles), Lab NT2 (Montreal), Lawrence Lek (London), Claire Malrieux (Paris), Theo Massoulier (Lion), Julien Previeux (Grenoble), Paul Souviron (Strasbourg) and Theo Triantafyllidis (Athens).

They have used impressive technologies, including 360-degree immersive cinema, large-scale projections and hologram theatres. The digital and physical world have merged so deeply that they have formed a new kind of hybrid phenomenon. The artistic outcome is therefore boundless on one hand but also quite limited if one chooses to observe the other side of the coin.

In this era, we have almost moved past the impressive whirl of the internet. Now we must reckon with its advent and use it for its rightful purposes. The show’s curator Phillippe Riss-Schmidt, based in Paris and Paimpol, is concerned with how this new world affects the curatorial process, although this is not the main focus of the show. He is more interested in the humanising impact it has on the observer.

The HyperPavilion is attracting so much attention this year that it dominated the conversations that I happened to eavesdrop on during opening week. It is amazing to think how art in such a historical city has been overrun with the advent of another one of man’s inventions, primarily envisioned outside the world of art.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Biennial & Museum Acquisitions #41, page 104.

Iraq Pavilion | 57th Venice Biennale

The Iraq Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale explores the country’s rich heritage and the realities of its ongoing conflict

The Iraq Pavilion at the Venice Biennale returned in 2011 after a 35-year hiatus. This year it is presenting the work of eight modern and contemporary Iraqi artists in dialogue with ancient Iraqi artefacts, supplemented by a curious intervention by Belgian-born artist Francis Alÿs, whose installation on the subject of war and trauma was organised after an expedition to refugee camps in and around Mosul and northern Iraq in 2016.

The rest of the works in the pavilion take as a point of departure the concept of “archaic,” which the organisers define as “an ancient cultural and geographical heritage and a fragile contemporary political entity.” An adjective used interchangeably with old-fashioned, out of use or obsolete, the term archaic also has specified art-historical meaning, related to objects from the country’s historical ancient past. It is this dual understanding of the term archaic — as something at once subjective and timeless and old fashioned and material — that the exhibition uses as its central motif.

The Pavilion is curated this year by Tamara Chalabi, current chair and co-founder of the Ruya Foundation, an Iraqi cultural organisation founded in 2012 that has been instrumental in aiding and enriching culture in Iraq by building cultural bridges with the rest of the world. The Ruya Foundation has been critical to Iraq’s Venetian return. This year’s pavilion is co-curated by Paolo Colombo, an art adviser from the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art. Together, Chalabi and Colombo invited a wide spectrum of Iraqi artists living both in the country and the diaspora, including Luay Fadhil, who is based in Baghdad, Sherko Abbas and Sakar Sleman, both of whom are based in Sulaymaniya, and Ali Arkady, based in Khanaqin.

In addition, the exhibition presents the work of Iraqi born artists of the diaspora including Sadik Kwaish Alfraji and Nadine Hattom, as well as deceased modern Iraqi artists Jawad Salim and Shaker Hassan Al Said. Tying these artists and the exhibition together is a shared concern for drawing out and exploring the idea of ancient heritage, juxtaposed with the conflict raging across Iraq today. It is through bold artistic statements that the artists develop critical responses to the issues facing present-day Iraq. Presented through the lens of Iraq’s ancient heritage, the exhibition is one of the most politically urgent at this year’s Biennale, connecting the country’s remarkable past with its unnerving present.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Biennial & Museum Acquisitions #41, pages 94-95.

Richard Serra | Drawings 2015-2017

American minimalist auteur, Richard Serra is known for his large-scale, industrially informed sculptures. In the ground-floor, windowed gallery of Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (MBVB), a pair of sculptures by the artist titled Waxing Arcs (1980, second version 1999) resides permanently. These two imposing sculptures were purchased over two decades ago and have gone through various changing placements as the museum has evolved and expanded. At one point, they were integrated as part of the entrance, much to the artists’ dismay.

The current exhibition Richard Serra: Drawings 2015-2017 continues MBVB’s longstanding commitment and support for the work of Serra, and presents around 80 drawings from five different series, Rambles, Composites, Rifts, Rotterdam Horizontals and Rotterdam Verticals, many of which have never been seen before publicly, and some that were made specifically for the city. Alongside these works are a selection of Serra’s notebooks and films offering insights into his thinking, approach and process to art making.

The first works you encounter are his sketchbooks which welcome you into the space and commencing room to room, the viewer is led on an intimate journeying into the core of Serra’s investigations into minimalism and abstraction. The palette is entirely monochromatic drawing one’s attention to the varying degrees as to how Serra has worked on the surfaces of these works on paper. Some are denser than others with either a presence of more black or more white, or rather black consuming white surfaces violently, and in other cases, lighter mark making which feels much more subtle and softer.
Using a combination of etching ink, silica, litho crayon and black oil paintstick, the surfaces of these drawings become exaggerated making them appear as if out of nature akin to a tree’s bark perhaps comes to mind due to their textured qualities.
A highlight of this exhibition is the series large site-specific works all of which were made from handmade paper and relate to the space around them: the viewer, the architecture, to the floor, the walls and to the ceiling. With these works, Serra, truly pushes the concept of drawing to its limits and in that they are monumental and completely fills the viewer’s field of vision bar the single white jagged lines that break up these vast works. Serra’s drawings like his sculptures continue his questioning of notions of time, working process and materiality.

Richard Serra: Drawings 2015-2017 will be on show at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (MBVB) until 24 September 2017

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by Jareh Das

Encounters In-Situ | Tino Sehgal at Fondation Beyeler

From May until November, the artist Tino Sehgal will be presenting a series of six artworks, what he calls “constructed situations,” at the Fondation Beyeler in the picturesque Swiss city of Basel. The starting point for the exhibition is a work acquired by the institution in 2015 entitled This You (2006), the only one of Sehgal’s works intended to be staged outdoors. The work consists of a single performer—or “interpreter” as Sehgal calls them—who confidently serenades passersby with a recognizable pop song, after which the interpreter announces the name of the artist and the title of the piece. This You is installed in the blossoming Berowerpark area on the museum’s grounds in the Basel suburb of Riehen, overlooking sweeping vistas of corn fields and vines covering the Tüllinger Hills. Above all, This You brings into focus the idea of the park as a place where social interaction takes place, the substance of which becomes a series of performative interactions expanding the traditional notion of an artwork beyond something immovable, silent or fixed.

Once inside the museum, purpose built by acclaimed architect Renzo Piano in 1997, one of Sehgal’s most intimate and sensuous works, Kiss (2002), is on display alongside a sculpture by Constantin Brancusi entitled L’Oiseau (1923/1947), a work selected from the Fondation Beyeler’s collection purposefully by Sehgal. Its placement alongside the Brancusi—a sculpture referencing movement—is both thoughtful and well placed. In Kiss, two performers are immersed in an ongoing frolic of blissful intimacy. The cavorting couple move in slow sequences—fully clothed fondling and petting each other intimately—seemingly unaware of those around them, thereby creating a discernible distance between them and the audience. Unlike most of Sehgal’s other works, such as the work installed outside, Kiss requires no audience input whatsoever, it’s completely self-contained, internally immersive, languid and erotic. I saw it as an homage not just to Brancusi but also to other artists from art history as well, notable among them Gustav Klimt, the Austrian Symbolist painter who became iconic for depicting the immersive language of embrace in a work on canvas bearing the same title.

The intricate choreography of Kiss thereby becomes like a garden of amorous relations in the museum. It’s one of Sehgal’s most pioneering works, rousing a libidinous sense of desire in the viewer, effectively transforming the Fondation Beyeler into a kind of temporary erogenous zone. Expressively, this quality—acute in Kiss more so than the artist’s other works—unleashes a seductive force into the Beyeler like a potently strong aphrodisiac. And it is in this context that the show—and Sehgal’s works in general—become genuinely experiential, transgressing the idea of spectatorship and the cult of the object as it has spread across centuries of art history.

Tino Sehgal continues at Fondation Beyeler (Baselstrasse 101, 4125 Basel, Switzerland) through November 12.

Editor’s note: The author’s lodging and travel expenses were paid for in-part by Fondation Beyeler arranged by Goldmann Public Relations.

Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, Damien Hirst

Palazzo Grassi and Punta Della Dogana

Spanning the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta dela Dogana, Damien Hirst’s show Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable was a definitive hotspot for all visitors to the Biennale during opening week. It was the talk of the town in both a complementary and a pejorative way, as I assume Hirst wanted. The exhibition took 10 years and an exorbitant amount of money to put together. The volume and scale of Hirst’s sculptures testify to the efforts made.

Hirst concocted a story of shipwreck and recovery around the show, which is reminiscent of the story telling tendencies of Joseph Beuys — lies that are made true by the sheer artistic effort put into them. Sculptures replicating those of ancient times, mythological symbols covered in underwater vegetation, illuminated photo-montages of the shipwreck and the sculptures lying at the bottom of the ocean, with divers and fish curiously swimming around them, fill both spaces quite generously.

Hirst relies on our desire to believe the esoteric world of unseen mysteries. He believes this Venetian setting is ideal for the show, combining the mystery and ancient history of the romantic city with the draw of a single week every two years in which gallery owners, collector, art lovers and artists get together. Hirst seems to welcome the controversy generated by the scale and content of the show. Such turmoil in inescapable when one chooses to undertake such a grandiose project.

Hirst specifically proved a point with the sculpture Demon with Bowl, which fills the whole central enclave of Palazzo Grassi. A gigantic headless male figure, nude and damaged by the elements of time and sea, overwhelmed all visitors to the show and raised questions about the consideration one gives to ancient art versus contemporary art.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Biennial & Museum Acquisitions #41, page 100.

Cyprus Pavilion | POLYS PESLIKAS

At the Venice Biennale’s Cyprus Pavilion, Polys Peslikas explores the power of light and colour as he asks how we want to shape the future

When Polys Peslikas responded to the curatorial concept for this year’s Cyprus Pavilion at the Venice Biennale — to use painting and colour as a way to explore possible futures — he chose not to highlight the differences between East and West, but instead to dwell on the spaces between, and the colours that transcend borders and nationalities. The Cypriot painter is based in Berlin, but when he was selected he returned to his native Cyprus to begin work on a series of paintings, using delicate swathes and veils of colour to create a rich accumulation of overlapping layers.

“I think it’s a different perspective looking from the West towards the East than living in a place like Cyprus or Lebanon or Egypt,” he says. “It’s part of our everyday life, the way the colours are used — the colours of the houses, of people’s outfits, of the icons — and in Cyprus of the mosaics and the modernist paintings. If you live here, colour filters through your life on every level, from domestic, to trade, to architecture, to history. So I just take things as they are. If it’s an Iranian blue, it’s an Iranian blue, and if it’s a Venetian blue, it’s a Venetian blue. It doesn’t matter to me. What matters is the way we understand colour when we see it and how it makes us feel.”

Curated by Jan Verwoert, the Cyprus Pavilion is intended to serve as a meeting point. Peslikas’ abstract landscapes open up discussions about art across nationalities and mediums. As part of the exhibition, which is on show at Associazione Culturale Spiazzi for all seven months of the biennale, Peslikas is collaborating with Cyprus-based artist collective Neoterismoi Toumazou, Lebanese artist writer Mirene Arsanios and Cypriot ceramicist Valentinos Charalambous, a veteran artist now in his 80s who spent decades living in Iraq. Each collaborator will produce a newspaper that will be available at the pavilion, to be read in front of Peslikas’ paintings, and a series of events will run throughout the duration of the biennale.
“It’s about this connection that painting can create with other mediums,” he explains. “All these three collaborators are people we consider guests in the pavilion, so the idea of the guest is very important — how you can shape this idea of inviting people in and creating new spaces.”

Using opaque layers, Peslikas evokes the past as well as the future. “Every time I come back here I think the way I experience everyday life is through layering — the layers of histories and also the layers that light reflects, which shape our view on the landscape and on the colour,” he says. “The paintings that are made from lots of translucent and transparent layers and the colour is very diluted but at the same time it’s almost as though it’s a fresco surface. There is this idea of the patina of time and of history shaped on the surface of the canvas.”

Although his layered colours speak of the Mediterranean as a meeting point between cultures, he worries that things are becoming more closed. His paintings aim to initiate discussion about the future. “We’re using a more poetic way of saying things about our generation’s experience and knowledge, asking how you carry knowledge from Valentino’s time to today, and how these things can connect people. It’s about asking what you know, what I know, and what can the two of us do together. This is very important for all of us involved in the Cyprus Pavilion this year: What can we do together?”

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Biennial & Museum Acquisitions #41, pages 92-93.

Ah, my beautiful Venus! Rayyane Tabet

I recall a visit we paid to Baron von Oppenheim in Berlin when he took us to the Museum of his finds. Max and he talked excitedly for (I think) five solid hours. There was nowhere to sit down. My interest, at first acute, flagged, and finally died down completely. With lack-lustre eyes, I examined the various extremely ugly statues which had come from Tell Halaf, and which in the Baron’s view was contemporary with the extremely interesting pottery. Max was endeavouring to differ politely on this point without contradicting him flatly. To my dazed glance, all the statues seemed strangely alike. It was only after a little while that I made the discovery that they were alike since all but one were plaster reproductions. Baron von Oppenheim stopped in his eager dissertation to say lovingly: “Ah, my beautiful Venus!” and stroke the figure affectionately. Then he plunged back into the discussion and I wished sadly that I could, in the old nursery phrase, cut off my feet and turn up the ends!
– Agatha Christie, Come, tell me how you live, Williams Collins, 1946

In this latest edition of the Para | Fictions series at Rotterdam’s Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Lebanese artist, Rayyane Tabet presents an iteration of his wider project dealing with Max von Oppenheim’s excavation in Syria. Tabet creates narrative threads based on the figure of the “Tell Halaf Venus”, a commemorative grave figure from the Neo-Hittite period. The installation part of the exhibition titled Ah, my beautiful Venus! follows a particular sculpture through cycles of ‘unearthing, violence, and display traced through literary sources including Agatha Christie, Max von Oppenheim and André Malraux.’

Oppenheim was given permission to excavate the site, known as Tell Halaf, between 1911 and 1913. The finds of this were stunning statues of gods and animals, sculpted in basalt divided between the National Museum in Aleppo and Oppenheim, who took his share home to Berlin, where he created a private museum displaying his antiquities in an old iron-foundry. This Venus find was originally excavated by Oppenheim from the Tell Halaf dig on the border of Turkey and Syria, and one that has gone through a cycle of destruction and restoration over several millennia. A cast of the original was then housed at his Halaf Museum but smashed to smithereens as a result of the British bombing of Berlin in November 1943.

Tabet’s installation brings together fact, fiction and myth in an abstracted sculptural fashion that consists of several fragmented and recast facial parts of this mysterious Venus. Grey (phantom-like) forms displayed on an assembled pedestals emblematic of the current unknown fate of this reproduction now entwined in art history. Tabet’s approach is archaeological in that he deconstructs the material form of historical artefacts in order to inform what eventually translates into abstract but poignant sculptural installations. His works, as demonstrated here in Ah, my beautiful Venus! continues his ongoing concerns of researching hidden histories that are transformed and retold through objects and installations.

Rayyane Tabet, Ah, My Beautiful Venus! runs through 8 October 2017 and is part of a cycle of sustained investigations at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art exploring the relationship between literature and visual art through the practice of ten contemporary artists.


by Jareh Das

Rei Kawakubo | Comme des Garçons

This spring 2017, 140 items by fashion designer Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons womenswear collection is on display at the Metropolitan Museum New York. The costume institute has gone out of its way to create a show around the theme of “in-betweenness”, a concept she has been working on since she began her career in the early 1980s.

The philosophical essence: Absence/Presence, Model/Multiple, Then/Now, Fashion/Anti-Fashion, High/Low, Object/Subject, Clothes/Not Clothes, Self/Other are expressionistically compartmentalised in 9 enclaves, each simulating the dresses’ architectural shapes. Kawakubo declares: “My clothes and the spaces they inhabit are inseparable – they are one and the same. They convey the same vision, the same message, and the same sense of values”.

Design/Not Design for instance reflects her process: the idea of the unfinished, elements of asymmetry, elimination, juxtaposition; Fashion/Anti-fashion, designs from her Paris years in the early 1980s have taken the colour black to a revolutionary level; Then/Now seems like an installation of large bodied sculptures drawn from her fascination with the extravagant shapes of garments from the 17th century, High/Low is about street style, combining tutus with biker jackets, “Harley Davidson meets Margot Fonteyn”.

Even though the work is a statement against fashion itself, she doesn’t consider it to be Art. Needing to break with the constraints of formality, especially the Western and Eastern cultures she has been subjected to her whole life, fashion is more of a tool to integrate and rethink social phenomenons. Wearability and functionality constitute no factor in this designer’s way of thinking. It is a large alternative world spawned from words like innovation, emptiness, space, “bad taste”, freedom that she has proven herself to be a true force of nature.

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons on view at the Met Fifth Avenue, New York
May 4 – September 4, 2017

Inside the Sketchbook of Yasmina Nysten

Inside the Sketchbook of Yasmina Nysten

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Biennial & Museum Acquisitions #41, pages 163-165.

German Pavilion | Anna Imhof

The two most prestigious prizes at this year’s Venice Biennale both went to Germany. Franz Erhard Walther won the Golden Lion for best artist for his large-scale textile work in VIVA ART VIVA, and rising star Anna Imhof’s bold, unsettling performance piece, Faust, scooped the award for best national participation — with good reason. The German Pavilion this year is widely acclaimed as the highlight of the biennale. Patrolled outside by barking Dobermans, it was no more hospitable within. Imhof has installed a sheet of thick glass a metre or so above the ground, on which visitors are obliged to walk. Beneath it, young dancers seemingly trapped in some nightmarish inferno writhe and flounder, escaping to climb towards the ceiling, only to fall back down to hell.

This striking, disturbing performance piece lasts upwards of five hours, meaning visitors see just a fraction of the whole. Trapped beneath the glass, which represents “a room, a house, a pavilion, an institution, a state,” they have nowhere to hide from the prying eyes of their audience. Accompanied by a screeching black metal score, this torturous performance is lent an added dimension of power disparity between performer and viewer by the glass, which means the audience is literally looking down on the dancers, treading them beneath their expensively clad feet.

Themed around ideas of power and capital, it’s a work that confronts audiences at a show synonymous with wealth and privilege. Collectors coming to scope out artists to watch are likely to be at once repelled by and drawn to Imhof’s work, which defies the market while highlighting her as an artist who is going places, and is thus likely to be seen as a savvy investment. Irony aside, the work resonates powerfully in a surveillance-heavy world, at a time when it’s becoming increasingly clear that technology has failed to stem the unstoppable global tide of violence, displacement and division.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Biennial & Museum Acquisitions #41, pages 74-75.