Visual Arts Review: Local Boy Makes Good at the Venice Biennale; Local Girl Perhaps Not So Much

A mixed evaluation of the contributions of two New England artists — Joan Jonas and Mark Dion — at this year’s Venice Biennale.

Future Histories, Mark Dion and Arseny Zhilyaev. Curated by Magnus af Petersens. At Casa Dei Tre Oci, Venice, Italy, through August 23.

They Come To Us Without A Word, Joan Jonas, US Pavillion at the Venice Biennale 2015 through November 22.

A view of "Future Histories" by

A view of “Future Histories” by Mark Dion and Arseny Zhilyaev. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

By Tim Barry

There’s a point at which the best contemporary installation art should be mysterious, invoking wonder as well as inviting curiosity about the artist’s premises and meanings. But when the mysterious turns the corner and becomes downright baffling, that’s the point when most viewers will tune out.

Two unrelated exhibitions now on view in Venice, Italy exemplify this notion. Both contain visually arresting elements. Both resist easy understanding. Both are the fruits of a no doubt carefully mapped-out program. And both are the work of established and acknowledged masters of their metier.

The difference between Mark Dion’s curiously inviting imagined-world-within-a-palazzo, and Joan Jonas’s cacophonous worldview-within-a-pavilion is not just one of presentation (though that’s a big part of Jonas’s problem here); the difference is that Dion wants to seduce you with subtlety, while Jonas prefers to blast her way into your psyche.

To illustrate: Dion’s Future Histories inveigles the visitor into entering a mock-laboratory setting. The installation, which is laid out over several floors, recreates an old-style scientific institution — think of Harvard’s venerable and dusty Aggasiz Museum of Comparative Zoology. Among the show’s concerns: a critique of museum practice and an examination of the relationships among curator, artist, and visitor. “Removing animals and plants from their natural environment and placing them in highly artificial isolation” is just one of the many things that amuses and stimulates Dion, to whom humor is very much a core conceit.

Laugh and the world laughs with you; people were chuckling and smiling as they gazed at Dion’s “scientific” drawings of creatures from the world aquatic. He has repurposed here material from a 1997 Venice project, Raiding Neptune’s Vault: A Voyage To The Bottom of the Canals and Lagoon of Venice, where he “convinced the city of Venice to give him the contents of one of the barges that dredges the canals, and exhibited them in a scholarly way along with his work-clothes and tools.”

That pretty much sums up the heart of Dion’s practice; ‘staging’ scenes that look ‘real,’ the way that room-sized dioramas in history-museums attempt to recreate real-life events. Evidently what really tickles Dion is the hokiness of some of these staged-settings. He plays with the notion of ‘the real’ in a compelling and inventive fashion, to an extent that the viewer may wonder “is this art I’m looking at?”

In a recent conversation with the artist, he readily agreed that his art can be said to succeed “if the people don’t know they’re looking at art.” This opens his work up to a large group of visitors who may be somewhat reluctant to embrace contemporary art. You’ve seen them; the husband who is dragged along to the exhibition, or the bored school-kid who’s more interested in what’s on their phone. In one of Dion’s ‘cabinet of wonders,’ many of these people find themselves (perhaps unwittingly) engaged.

Humorously, in the Venice installation several people were observed asking a gallery-attendant “is it okay to go in this room.” It was understandable; for all appearances one part of the show looked as if you were walking into a storage room. For Dion it probably doesn’t get any better than that.

Dion’s fascination with old rusty things is not a brand-new approach; he’s been hammering away at it for years now. Obviously, it could easily devolve into schtick. Perhaps that’s why he added two fresh elements: a wall-display of terracotta puppet figures that depict scholars and thinkers who have influenced his practice. Walter Benjamin, Joseph Beuys, Rachel Carson, Jacques Cousteau are among the personages that gaze blandly back at the viewer: once again, Dion turns the tables on us.

On the top floor of the exhibition Dion has saved the best for last: a glowing cave of black-lit
‘scientific’ figure studies of animals and plants that may or may not have existed in real life. In some way these images must relate to the rest of the installation. Just when you thought you’d gotten a grip on what is real or unreal in Dion’s world….suddenly you’re unsure again.

Note: Dion currently has an installation, The Octagon Room, at Mass MOCA in North Adams, Mass. This autobiographical ‘Wunderkammer’ (cabinet of curiosities) is inspired by the “19th-century mania for eight-sided buildings, popularized by phrenologist Orson Squire Fowler.” It is being held-over until January 2016 by popular demand. Dion’s solo exhibition The Great Chain of Being will open on October 1 of this year at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, CT. Dion was born 1961 in New Bedford, MA: he is a summer resident of Fairhaven.

A video still from Photo: Joan Jonas

A video still from “They Come To Us Without A Word.” Photo: Joan Jonas.

Much hype and speculation attended Joan Jonas’s selection as the U.S. representative at this 56th edition of the Venice Biennale. What would the MIT professor (she has taught in the School of Architecture and Planning since 1998), who has been a progenitor of contemporary multi-media art for a generation, working mostly in video, do to set herself apart from ‘the competition?’ To many observers she seemed an odd choice for chief curator Okwui Enwezor.

The Biennale has become sort of the Olympics of contemporary art; even though the judging and prize-awarding business is downplayed here. How many visitors made it out to the island-monastery where the first-prize Golden Lion Award winning Republic of Armenia’s exhibition resides? Travel note: if you happen to go to Venice, make the effort to get out to San Lazzaro; it’s a beautiful boat-ride from the city, and Nina Katchadourian’s side-splitting video-project Accent Elimination is well worth seeing. In another side-note, Katchadourian is an American citizen but, because of her second-generation Armenian heritage, she was able to appear in her ancestral ‘countrymen’s’ program. Kind of like how the San Antonio Spurs’ Manu Ginobili plays for Argentina’s national team in the Olympics….

But regarding Joan Jonas…. someone needs to tell her that less is almost always more. Her installation has videos of young girls garbed in white dresses (are they in heaven?), which are projected on white cloth sheeting, which is allowed to billow and sway in the wind. (There are fans.) In one scene a girl is walking a poodle. Then a ghostly image of a buffalo appears–does this symbolize America? Oppression against marginalized cultures? Boutique food alternatives?

There are also videos of bees, caught on location doing their thing on-site in-hive. (Jonas has incorporated bees and bee imagery into her performances and videos since at least 1972.) This might speak to the numbing nature of work in today’s cubicle culture. Or maybe it’s about nature? Honey and its nutritional benefits?

Around the periphery of the room there are blue line drawings, mostly of fish. Near the projection screens are stalagmite-like upwardly pointing sculptural forms. Because, hey, why not throw in some sculpture?

All of this to a loud soundtrack of droning experimental type music. Were you expecting Gershwin?

Tim Barry studied English literature at Framingham State College and art history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. He has written for Take-It Magazine, The New Musical Express, The Noise, and The Boston Globe. He owns Tim’s Used Books, Hyannis, and Provincetown, and TB Projects, a contemporary art space, in Provincetown.

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