Major Arcana. Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden, Capalbio

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to be in a place I had long wished to visit, the Tarot Garden (Giardino dei Tarocchi) built by artist Niki de Saint Phalle in Garavicchio, Capalbio, southern Tuscany. Go there, by all means.

Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) is easy to misunderstand; her feminism in a pop dress made her somewhat of a niche artist, known for her Nanas and her 1971 marriage to fellow artist Jean Tinguely, but without the gravitas of, say, a Louise Bourgeois. Yet, the Garden is such a masterwork that, after visiting it, it is hard to deny her greatness.

First conceived in 1979, the Garden was completed in 1996 and opened to the public in 1997. The concept for the Garden is a sculptural representation of each of the Major Arcana of the Tarot. Most of the Arcana are cement figures covered in mosaic; some are structures you can walk into, some are mosaics inside another figure, some are simpler free-standing fiberglass sculptures. The choice of the Tarot, of course, carries with it the full weight of their spiritual and esoteric content; walking through the Garden gives you a glimpse of the artists’s struggle throughout the project, her loneliness as she lived inside the Empress for long stretches, and her nightmares as she worked on the Devil.

It also shows you Niki de Saint Phalle’s leadership: for it is not enough to have a vision, it is necessary for the artist to execute it. The project needed fundraising, getting help from friends, dealing with Italian bureaucrats (!), creating a team of artisans, technicians and crewmen ready to commit to the project for years at a time. And the Garden needs maintenance and preservation work every year, carried out by the Fondazione Giardino dei Tarocchi in the months when it is closed to the public, because it is a fragile work and without the necessary care it would be run over by the wilderness in the space of a few years. It is, I think, a triumph: you come out of it a bigger person than you walked in.

Don’t hesitate to bring kids. They will love it and, I hope, they will be able to go back as grown-ups, as they’re playing out the cards they have been dealt.

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Lorenzo Petrantoni. “The Internet? That’s a world I know nothing about”

Today I caught the last day of Timestory, the exhibition of Lorenzo Petrantoni‘s graphic work at the gallery of Credito Valtellinese in Milan.

The artist was present. I complimented him on the exhibition and had a brief chat with him. We talked about his visual sources such as 19th-century books, and I remarked that Max Ernst too made collages out of old old illustration books.

“But you scan everything and then do the work on the computer, right?”

“No, I actually cut up everything with scissors and do the work by hand. I use the computer only at the end, for finishing.”

“Oh, I had no idea. I thought graphic artists were completely digital by now. See how misinformed I am.”

“And what do you do?”

“Well, I do Internet stuff.”

“The Internet? That’s a world I know nothing about”.

“Nothing? That’s too bad. For example, I’m sure you could buy a lot of old illustrated books for cheap on eBay.”

“eBay? Not sure… But there’s one thing I do I do on the Internet: I buy old books on AbeBooks. After all, I couldn’t very well travel each time to buy them.”

“You see? That’s great. And this here on the tripod is your camera?”

“Yes, I am documenting everything. It is the last day of the show. Kind of sorry to dismantle it.”

“Well yeah, that makes sense. How long did it take you to put up the Timestory on the big wall? You must have had assistants helping you out, right?”

“Yes, there were three of us. But still, it’s 22,000 small pieces of paper, so it took us about ten days. And the exhibition is only one month. The PR did not work out too well. Too bad. Just as it was picking up, people were starting to come…”

“Well, that’s right. I only came myself because my friend Serena tweeted about it yesterday.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes. Well then. Nice meeting you. Well done, again.”

“Thanks. Nice meeting you, too.”

One wonders, if this charming man had had a thousand Facebook fans, or a hundred Twitter followers, and they had liked and retweeted the news of the exhibition, and their friends and followers had liked it and so on… the exhibition would have been packed on day one (entry was free, too). But he’s just not into it (except for buying the books).

Below: Une Semaine de Bonté, the cover of Max Ernst’s collage book. Two works by Ashley Bickerton. An umbrella by Marcel Wanders.

ILLUMInazioni: 2011 Venice Biennale lives up to expectations

After the confused jumble of the 2009 edition, I wasn’t much looking forward to seeing what was on at the Biennale in Venice. Yet, after the past two days, I’m pleased to report that I found this year’s event much better.

The Director, Bice Curiger, has been Curator at the Kunsthaus Zurich since 1993, and has brought to Venice a much-needed measure of clarity and cleanness. The largest pavillion at the Giardini hosts a truly cosmopolitan Biennial show, built around an unofficial lifetime achievement award to Tintoretto, the most modern of the Old Masters.

The national pavillions are mostly solid submissions, with the German homage to Christoph Schlingensief (presenting the installation Eine Kirche der Angst vor dem Fremden in mir, pictured above) deservedly winning the Golden Lion. Another unmissable work is Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation in the Swiss pavillion, Crystal of Resistance (for which I refer you to the designboom post). Among individual artists’ awards, Christian Marclay’s Golden Lion to for The Clock – read more about it here – is also well deserved.

I keep wondering how much art will be hurt by the global crisis: art keeps bouncing back.

The Biennale is on until November 27, 2011.

The Illusionists: Help fund it on Kickstarter

A few weeks ago, I had drinks with a young filmmaker I had started following on Twitter months ago. Her name is Elena Rossini and she lives in Paris. We talked extensively about her feature-length documentary project, The Illusionists. I’ll let her explain it in her own words:

As you may know, in late June I’ve launched an ambitious fundraising campaign for my feature-length documentary The Illusionists, which I wrote and I am co-producing and directing.

Here is the synopsis of the film:

THE ILLUSIONISTS is a feature-length documentary about the commodification of the body and the marketing of unattainable beauty around the world. The film will explore the influence that corporations have on our perceptions of ourselves, showing how mass media, advertising, and several industries manipulate people’s insecurities about their bodies for profit.

The Illusionists’ Kickstarter page has a video teaser and a longer explanation of the project: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1085595579/the-illusionists-documentary-insecurity-sells (its themes, style, and my motivations for making the film).

There are amazing experts already lined up for the interviews, including author & filmmaker Jean Kilbourne (best known for her iconic film series “Killing Us Softly”), psychotherapist Susie Orbach (best known for her books “Fat is a Feminist Issue” and “Bodies”) and Jenn Pozner (author of “Reality Bites Back”; she was recently featured in the New Yorker and on NPR). I’m also hoping to interview Umberto Eco, Gloria Steinem, Oliviero Toscani and Maurice Levy of Publicis, amongst others. 

Thanks to the incredible generosity of friends, friends-of-friends, Twitter and Facebook followers, the fundraising campaign has already achieved some amazing milestones. 12 days in, I’ve reached 43% of the total funding goal, with over 110 backers and more than 1,100 Facebook “likes” of my Kickstarter page. In short, I’m on cloud nine. But the road ahead is still long… if I don’t reach 100% of the funding goal by August 5th, I will lose all the pledges made so far.

On Kickstarter, I am offering “regular people” pre-sales of the film and various other gifts as rewards for donations:http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1085595579/the-illusionists-documentary-insecurity-sells (the column on the right). I’m also developing a special package for sponsors whose mission is aligned with the message of the film that would offer exposure on the site, in all press material, and in the end credits of the film.

If this is something that resonates with you, go to Kickstarter.com and fund it. I just did.

Tony Oursler. Alienation, emptiness and videosculpture

Last Sunday I visited one of my favorite places in Milan, the Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea. I have had reasons to praise their exhibitions in the recent past (Yayoi Kusama, Franko B., Joel Peter Witkin and Jan Saudek). The current show – until June 12th – presents works by American videoartist Tony Oursler. From the press release:

The work of the artist, since the beginning of his career, has been dominated by themes such as violence, the relationship with media, drugs, mental illnesses, pop culture, consumerist compulsion, sex, pollution. Ourlser’s analysis is focused on how all those things affect man’s corporeity and social and interpersonal relations.

Being all of these topics in which I am rather interested, I had high expectations. They were not fulfilled.

As I walked through the exhibition, I was nagged by the persistent feeling that the artists’ technical virtuosity as a videographer creating three-dimensional animated sculptures had taken over whatever meaning he wanted to convey to the viewer. I left the show not having learned anything about the unconscious, about schizophrenia, about art, or about anything else.

Tony Oursler was also the inaugural contributor to the Adobe Museum of Digital Media, which you can visit online (www.adobemuseum.com), but which at first glance looks to me line an elaborate showcase for Adobe’s Flash.

Hamish Fulton, Walking Artist

It so happened that over the past eight days I saw Hamish Fulton‘s work in four different places, which means I have to write about it. (The places were the land art park La Marrana in Montemarcello; the Museo Transfrontaliero del Monte Bianco in Courmayeur; the Centre Saint-Bénin in Aosta; and the Castello di Rivoli near Turin.)

Fulton is a walking artist. Walking is an integral part of many artists’ practice; two I have recently encountered are Regina José Galindo, also at Rivoli (with her bloodstained footprints around Guatemala City to protest against the presidential candidacy of former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt) and Francis Alÿs, who has a major retrospective at Tate Modern in London until September 5th (and who has been known for pushing a suitcase-sized block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until it melted, and walking along an armistice border line in Jerusalem carrying a leaky can of green paint). Landmarks such as the Great Wall of China have attracted their fair share of artists walking its length, from Marina Abramovic to Ma Liuming.

Unlike most of these artists, however, Hamish Fulton does not construe walking as a protest act. It is an artistic act, without apparent political meaning; and his walks are rarely documented on video, but survive mostly through the scant evidence of a few photographs, a watercolor or two, some lines of text painted on a wall or carved on a bench after returning from the walk. His walks do not imply solitude (he will gladly follow sherpas, a Buddhist nun, or any local guide, really) and do not require heroism (the use of oxygen at high altitudes is freely acknowledged). He simply walks.

Here is what Fulton has to say through one of his less verbally restrained pieces:

I am a contemporary artist, not a mountaineer. I have no knowledge of Alpine-style climbing and, I see no reason why I should paint a ‘good likeness’  of any mountain. I employ words but I’m not a writer. I am a ‘walking artist’ and I record all my walks in word form. I do not ‘provide the relief of wordless art’. My art starts with an experience, not a material, I’m not a ‘land artist’. I transform ideas into experienced realities. At sea level, I had the idea to join a commercial expedition and climb mount everest, Chomolungma. In 2009 I stood still on the summit at 8850 metres. Ascending by the Southeast ridge is what true alpinists call: ‘high altitude trekking’. I go to the mountains as an artist.

Artistic vision: The Venice Biennale and Pinault’s new Punta della Dogana

Punta-della-Dogana_Elicottero_4321_nologoIt may be that any Biennial, having a Director whose job is like herding cats (the curators of the national pavillions), is by definition a mixed bag, structurally unable to express any coherent artistic vision. That’s what I came away with after visiting this year’s Venice Biennale, “Making Worlds”, directed by Daniel Birnbaum; in addition to the unpleasant feeling that most of it was looking backwards, instead of straight ahead into the future.

The following day, I visited François Pinault’s new contemporary art center at the Punta della Dogana (pictured), which hosts half of an exhibition titled “Mapping the Studio” (with the rest at Palazzo Grassi). It was everything that the Biennale wasn’t. Instead of the decaying infrastructure of the Giardini and the Arsenale, a freshly restored vast and luminous space, bearing the marks of Tadao Ando’s loving care (and, of course, ample funding by Monsieur Pinault). Instead of a cacophony of voices, a clear curatorial point of view: sure, a provocative, controversy-seeking one at times, but nevertheless an artistic vision, a show of teamwork between the collector and his curators, Gingeras and Bonami. A cross-section of what’s at the edge of artistic creation today, mediated by a discerning taste. Even the works from the 1970s and 1980s seemed fresh and contemporary.

Walking through the Biennale felt like work; visiting the (admittedly much smaller) Punta della Dogana was sheer pleasure.

And how was it for you?