As I was finishing Bice Curiger’s essay on her Illuminations exhibit, I felt as if she hadn’t quite hit upon her point until the two very last sentences. She very well may have planned it that way, but in pondering her words it might be helpful to start at the end. Curiger states that the 54th Biennale is “about believing in art and its potential.” This sounds very casual, but she is talking about “Believe” with a capital “B.” She isn’t saying that she thinks this art thing is really going places, and she isn’t simply making reference to the ways in which religion can be an influence or subject matter within art. She is making a direct correlation
between the faith a religious person has in God and the faith an artist has in Art. I believe this is what she is really trying to say, although she seems hesitant to admit it. At the start of her essay she states, “Self-reflection is intrinsic to contemporary art—similar, one might be tempted to say, to the Amen in church.” Yes, she is comparing self-reflection in art to the declaration of affirmation after a prayer in church, but the subtext here is that we are saying “Amen” in a church of art. We believe in art, and when we finish a prayer, we declare our affirmation by reflecting upon ourselves and analyzing our work. Consider now the quandary
Curiger finds herself examining in regards to the idea of nations in the Biennale. She sees the borders of nations as arbitrary and meaningless to art. She says, “Far removed from culturally conservative constructs of ‘nation,’ art offers the potential to explore new forms of ‘community.’” Art works beyond the geographical constraints of nations. Which other human institution works in this way? Religion. As artists, we don’t have a deity to whom we pray, or even a holy book that we study. We do have a shared belief, however, that we are creating work of value. We believe that we are making a difference, that our work
is essential to the human experience. Perhaps, even, that we are touched by some kind of ethereal force that guides us in the creation of art. In ancient Rome, it was thought that a guiding spirit known as a “genius” would visit certain people and provide them with flashes of inspiration and creativity. Even the person who had created the work would credit the spirit that had come into the room and provided the original spark. Curiger alludes to something like this while describing Illuminations and how it “seeks to accentuate the ‘light’ of cognitive experience and the intercommunicative, intellectual understanding
that accompanies moments of epiphany.” Oftentimes we artists don’t really know what pushes us to create the work we do. We are given these flashes of inspiration, we create the work, and then we are left to wonder why. We are left with this elusive force of the universe, this undefinable spirit... art. We can’t pin it down, but we have faith that it exists. We believe in art, and we believe in its potential. Consider the work of Tintoretto, an interesting inclusion to the Biennale seeing as how he’s been dead since 1594. On the surface, it obviously makes sense. Tintoretto’s work was ground breaking in his use of light (or Illumination) in the
scenes he painted. His work was unique also in that he didn’t seek to hide his brush strokes. He was open about the process of art and how it played a part in the final product. Not only that, but he allowed the art to supersede the importance of everything else. Curiger points out that in Tintoretto’s painting of the last supper, “Jesus may not be situated at the center of the table, but his position is at the center of the painting.” In the reality depicted in the painting, Jesus is not the center of anything. It’s through the power of the art that he is brought to the center. This may seem like Tintoretto’s art bowing to his Christianity, but which
force really has power over the other in this situation? Jesus only occupies the center because art has framed him that way. Curiger included these Tintoretto pieces also as a reference point. She mentions how Illuminations addresses “the threshold between modernity and earlier history.” Urs Fischer provides an excellent illustration of this threshold with his wax candle version of The Rape of the Sabine Women. Here we see historical art literally going up in smoke. This is a illustration of the transformation of art from the purely representational to the intangible. Over time, the sculpture is burned away until nothing is left but an
idea wafting through the ether. A similar work would be Bruno Jakob’s Invisible Paintings. These are empty substrates upon which the artist has worked with materials that leave no trace. Blank pages, essentially. Curiger wonders, “Could they be mischievous references to the power of the imagination, oscillating teasingly between Dada and defiance? Or is the artist ultimately a true mystic?” Again, the religious overtones appear. Does the artist believe he is creating art through some mystical channel? Does Curiger believe art can be created through mystical channels? Or is this work proposing that all art is mystical?
Again, it all comes down to Curiger’s final statement, that this Biennale is “about believing in art and its potential.” We can’t know if there is any art left once Fischer’s candle has melted. We can’t know what’s invisibly written on Bruno Jakob’s blank pages. But we believe there is something there. We have faith in this force that shows up and flashes in our minds, this force that illuminates the world for us.
My essay on the 54th Venice Biennale.