Venice To London May 2022 Diary – Revd Jonathan Evens

Malta Pavilion 59th Venice Biennale

Several exhibitions/installations in Venice during the 59th Biennale re-situate key works or themes from Christianity’s historic engagement with the Arts, in some cases overlaying biblical narrative onto the present.

Diplomazija astuta at the Malta Pavilion reimagines Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s seminal altarpiece The Beheading of St. John the Baptist as an immersive, sculptural installation re-situating Caravaggio’s immanent themes within modern life, prompting viewers to traverse a space where the tragedy and brutality of St. John’s execution is experienced in the present, the injustices of the past are reconciled and shared humanist principles can be upheld in the future. Arcangelo Sassolino’s kinetic installation conjures molten steel droplets that fall from a structure overhead into seven basins of water, each representing a subject in The Beheading. Upon contact with the water, the bright orange embers hiss, cool and recede into darkness. Brian Schembri has created a “percussive score” based on “Ut queant laxis,” the Gregorian chant hymn attributed to Guido d’Arezzo in honour of John the Baptist and rhythmical motifs derived from Carlo Diacono’s two hymns composed on the same Latin text and Charles Camilleri’s “Missa Mundi,” to choreograph the timing and frequency of each descending ember. At the same time, Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci’s incisions into the installation itself (a sculpted ciphertext) propose a daunting salve that embeds knowledge beyond and within our grasp.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's seminal altarpiece The Beheading of St. John the Baptist
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s seminal altarpiece The Beheading of St. John the Baptist Photo: © Artlyst 2021

In the catalogue for Diplomazija astuta, Albert Marshall, Executive Chair of Arts Council Malta, explains that through this innovative and thought-provoking project, ‘curators Keith Sciberras of Malta and Jeffrey Uslip of the United States—along with artists Arcangelo Sassolino of Italy and Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci and musician Brian Schembri of Malta—re-situate the core themes of … Caravaggio’s seminal 1608 altarpiece … within the tragedies, brutalities, and injustices of modern life.’ ‘Sassolino’s kinetic sculptures of molten metal and water, Schembri Bonaci’s embedded calligraphic marks and interwoven multilingual scriptural texts, and the cathartic percussive score of Brian Schembri’ seek to create a bridge between ‘a tragic biblical narrative’ and ‘current social and political discourse and contemporary culture’ including ‘echoes of world wars, gulags, famines, concentration camps, genocides, ecological degradation, and anthropogenic hazards.’

The installation subtly reframes ‘the ways in which twentieth-century viewers engage with the atrocious martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist depicted in Caravaggio’s early Baroque masterpiece’ and is an ‘invitation to understand ourselves, the world, and our place in it; to contemplate who we are now as a collective, who we want to be, and who we can be.’ As such, it can ‘be construed as a complex multi-layered piece of biblical exegesis, portraying the archetypal figure of Saint John as the herald of a new age of change, renewal, and continuance’, ‘a conceptual, immersive, site-specific installation’ that is ‘a proverbial “voice in the wilderness” calling upon the artistic world at large to witness yet another advent of a new age while allowing—lest another false dawn takes hold—the Christian narrative of the Beheading to live on.’

Raqib Shaw, Agony in the Garden (after Tintoretto) II, 2020 - 2021
Raqib Shaw, Agony in the Garden (after Tintoretto) II, 2020 – 2021

Combining iconography from both East and West, Raqib Shaw typically draws on a wide range of sources, including art history, mythology, poetry, theatre, religion, science and natural history, but transforms the subject matter in his paintings by bringing in highly personal elements. For his exhibition at Ca’ Pesaro, he draws particular influence from Italian and Venetian pictorial traditions to provide the framework for his narratives, with inspiration coming from Tintoretto, Giorgione, Pannini and others. Shaw, who was raised in Kashmir and now lives and works in London, creates intensely worked, finely detailed paintings that depict parallel, visionary worlds suffused with deeply personal and psychological meaning. In this new series, he transfigures his garden in South London into a verdant backdrop for the now-lost world of Kashmir and the imaginary paradise of a childhood landscape tinged with the melancholy of exile.

Among this site-specific project conceived for Ca’ Pesaro’s galleries which feature twelve works produced over the past two years, are paintings that take direct references from Giorgione’s famous La Tempesta (c. 1508) and Venetian paintings of Tintoretto, including St Mary of Egypt (1582–87), from the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and Presentation of the Virgin (1551–56), from the Church of Madonna dell’Orto. In La Tempesta (After Giorgione), Shaw imagines himself in the place of the woman and child famously depicted within Giorgione’s stormy Venetian landscape. The painting is an incredibly detailed biographical journey through ordeals of fire and across time and geographical space, from Giorgione’s Venice to modern London, to idealised but also war-torn visions of Shaw’s homeland in Kashmir. Giovanni Paulo Pannini’s Picture Gallery with Views of Modern Rome (1757) then inspires Shaw’s imaginary self-staged retrospective, a large-scale work forming the show’s centrepiece and depicting more than 60 miniaturised versions of his past paintings and sculptures in one image. These Renaissance and biblical references enable deep reflection on loss of homeland and the state of exile.

Hermann Nitsch’s 20th Painting Action opened in Venice concurrently with the Biennale on Monday, 18 April, the day the Nitsch died peacefully after a serious illness at the age of 83. The 20th painting action was originally carried out in the Wiener Secession in Vienna in 1987 and includes a large-format poured painting and numerous smaller splatter and poured paintings flanking it, which, together, form a space-filling sanctuary-like panorama. Nitsch became a pioneer of Vienna’s avant-garde scene in the 1960s and 1970s, staging radical and controversial performances as part of the Viennese Actionism movement. His work in performance and painting, which incorporated blood, flesh, and other materials, became for him a kind of religious practice.

Hermann Nitsch
Hermann Nitsch Venice Biennale

20th Painting Action stands out in its importance because of the significance that Nitsch himself attached to it. He has aspired to ‘the sacralisation of all art’ from the very outset – for him, religion is ‘something similar to art’, just as ‘the practice of art corresponds to a ritual’ – and 20th Painting Action possesses that same sacral quality. Art critic Donald Kuspit wrote that ‘Painting is a religious activity for Nitsch, and to be a painter is identify with Christ—to practice the so-called imitatio Christi.’ He continues, ‘Nitsch in his abstract way, practised The Imitation of Christ’ and ‘may be the last of the medieval religious—Catholic—painters, disguised as a modernist painter, that is, a nihilistic expressionist, the viscerality of his paintings belying and denying their abstractness.’ Nitsch said that he was interested in ‘philosophy, comparative religion and psychoanalysis, the mysticism practised in all religions’ and ‘wanted to integrate redemption myths, seen and interpreted from a depth psychology perspective.’

Helaine Blumenfeld
Helaine Blumenfeld

Closer to home is the latest exhibition by sculptor Helaine Blumenfeld. This explores the theme of intimacy across the breadth of her work. In her early years, she explored intimacy as the profound knowledge of oneself, translating this into individual, abstract sculptural forms. Later, this theme was extended to reflect notions of introspection, closeness, dependence and independence, seen here in pieces such as Shadow Figures (2012) and Souls (2001). In more recent pieces, such as Exodus V (2019) and Exodus VI (2020), she considers relationships within and between societies. The larger concept of ‘Intimacy and Isolation’ has shown itself in sculptures with an interest in what it means to be connected and share perspectives. With Intimacy on the Edge (2019) and Intimacy and Isolation (2019), she commented on the lack of intimacy that exists globally despite the increasing interconnectivity that technology involves.

Her newest works in marble – The Light Within Aurora (2022) and The Light Within Hope (2022) – represent a new insight. Blumenfeld says, ‘Emerging from the isolation of lockdown. I feel a new energy in approaching my work. As I became immersed in carving my new models, I had a kind of epiphany. I arrived at another level of understanding. Whether the model was vertical, round, or in several parts, it was describing THE LIGHT WITHIN, the light that illuminates and defines us as individuals and as communities. Each sculpture explores the light projected by our inner spirit, the light that gives our life meaning, and when shared, can inspire and illuminate those around us.’

The latest exhibition at LA’s Bridge Project suggests that light relates to eternity as to quote Simone Weil, ‘Everything beautiful has a mark of eternity.’ For this exhibition, they have brought together thirty-six artists who explore the idea of paradise—both how it has been pursued on earth across history and how it is imagined after life. They note that, from Pure Land Buddhism’s chant ‘Namu Amida Butsu’ (‘I take refuge in Amida Buddha’) to Christianity’s prayer for the Kingdom to be ‘on earth as it is in heaven,’ the concepts of paradise are as diverse as those who hope for it.

In Here After, works like William Kurelek’s Farm Boy’s Dream of Heaven (1963) envision an eschatological beyond in figurative form, while works by Bonita Helmer and Zarah Hussain do so in more abstract terms. Claire Curneen’s works point to a vulnerable, sensual bodiliness embedded in the surface of the world where all things come to pass. There is a land beyond the river by Gyun Hur and Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn’s The Boat People make space for remembrance of those who have passed, while Afruz Amighi, Mercedes Dorame, and Charwei Tsai position the viewer between worlds, feet firmly planted on the ground yet gazing at the glory and wonder of the beyond. In his sculpture, David Wallace Haskins plunges into a boundless void, letting all the terrifying otherness and beauty of openness grip the viewer. Kate Ingold intones the rhythmic mantras of what the divine is not with minute stitches, employing almost impossible patience to painstakingly outline absence. Finally, Tatsuo Miyajima uses digital counters to display the uncountable, unending dimension of existence.

Kris Martin is a Belgian conceptual visual artist internationally recognised for a rigorous conceptual practice in which he addresses existential questions with subtlety and wit. However, he tends to lodge small contradictions in the mind, which, in time, grow to be distracting puzzles, such as the candle in a sealed box (Mandi XLV), whose existence cannot be proven with the senses. Jonathan A. Anderson writes of Martin’s Life after Death: ‘The work consists of an edition of poster-size prints, each certifying “Life after Death for completed with the handwritten name of the print’s collector, followed by an identification of the “time” (date, time of day) and “place” (using the geopolitical convention of city, nation). This format follows the conventions of conferral (of a degree or membership) or sacrament (as in baptism or marriage), as though this flimsy document could record and ensure a person’s acquisition of “life after death.”

Issuing such a document is a ridiculous act of hubris, delusion, or parody, certifying something over which no creature has any power or authority—and doing so by producing a commodity for sale. In this way, the work is reminiscent of the Church’s former practice of selling indulgences. But, on the other hand, this gesture might be relatively modest, even winsome—a denotation of what most societies have believed is true for all people: namely, whatever is most deeply alive in each person does endure after death. In either case, Martin’s meditations on death—and hope in the face of death—insist on humility, even silence, before the deep mysteries of human living and dying.’

Meaghan Ritchey notes that Andrea Büttner’s monochrome woodcut Dancing Nuns’ presents each nun in a different position—three ways of being or three postures before God.’ She continues: ‘In her frequent reference to women who’ve taken vows, we are reminded that for Büttner, the way up is down: abjection and withdrawal are coupled with a simplistic state of wonderment and praise. There is a spiritual richness in poverty, a counterpoint to the observable excess of the ballooning art market. Like Simone Weil, whom she regularly reads and to whom she often expresses her indebtedness, “To give up our imaginary position as the centre, to renounce it, not only intellectually but in the imaginative part of our soul, that means to awaken to what is real and eternal, to see the true light and hear the true silence.”

The curators note that for millennia, artists have been depicting the various contours of this hope, and their work continues, informing the contemporary artists featured in Here After. Engaging an ontology of peace, the works in this exhibition and, perhaps, all those highlighted in this article dwell upon our shared yearning for all that is good. Some shroud this hope in the mists of a distant future, but these artists bring eternity into close, immediate proximity—as though we are living in it now. We may not see it, but what we see is not all there is.

Pavilion of Malta at the 59th International Art Exhibition – Venice Biennale 2022

‘Raqib Shaw: Palazzo della Memoria’ at the Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna, Ca’ Pesaro, 22 April – 25 September 2022

‘Hermann Nitsch’s 20th Painting Action’, until 20 July, Oficine 800, Fondamenta S. Biagio, Giudecca, Venice

‘Intimacy and Isolation’, Hignell Gallery, London, 22 April – 31 July

Top Photo: © Artlyst 2022

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