headlines | about |

Must be the Season of the Witch: a Review of the 11th Biennale of Contemporary Art at Lyon, France: A Terrible Beauty Is Born


Still from Alexander Schellow's Untitled (Fragment)Still from Alexander Schellow's Untitled (Fragment)
Must be the Season of the Witch: a Review of the 11th Biennale of Contemporary Art at Lyon, France: A Terrible Beauty Is Born

September 15th to December 31st, 2011 at La Sucrière, the Fondation Bullukian, the Musée d’art contemporain de Lyon, and the T.A.S.E. factory
Victoria Noorthoorn: curator

Published online at Grounded Magnet:

In A Terrible Beauty Is Born, Argentine curator Victoria Noorthoorn displays a distinctly dark female aesthetic taste that struck me by-and-large as Romantic Hispanic Goth. One feels particularly in the Musée d’art contemporain, an intelligible emphasis on the hand-made black line within a general crotchety and slightly surreal aesthetic of accumulation. For me the general artistic vibe is one complimentary to that of the Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, the work of Annette Messager and the writings of Jorge Luis Borges.

While the scruffy aspect of much of the work at times reminded me of nightmare BFA studio visits, the exhibition succeeds within the unrestrained challenge of festivalism through Noorthoorn’s coherent combinational dexterity. Noorthoorn’s witchy web discernment remains apparent even as she mixes a brew of diverse generations and media. She also succeeds through the equality of representation of women present here and by making available new art from outside the well-worn regional art centers. There are many unfamiliar women artists from Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe, for example, mixed in with some well-known western male modern masters: John Cage, Samuel Beckett, Buckminster Fuller, Robert Filliou, Morton Feldman and Alberto Giacometti.

My quibble with the show’s contextualization under the transformational line of poetry A Terrible Beauty Is Born from William Butler Yeats poem Easter (1916) is precisely its emphasis on beauty, for little is to ascertained. The work here is mostly human (all too human) to have touched me as truly beautiful. Yes, the handmade feel was sometimes charming and frequently enchanting, but the lack of aloofness in the room denies access to the beautiful heights of the romantic sublime. More the pity, as the handmade feel gave the show a distinctly low-tech craft mood at times coarsely ugly. But alongside the sloppiness were some really terrific drawings, most notably by Elly Strik, Robbie Cornelissen, Christian Lhopital, Virginia Chihota, Alexander Schellow, Marlene Dumas, Morton Feldman (1984) and the exquisite Alberto Giacometti (1947-1965). Much of these drawings were tied together (almost literally) by the massive six thousand kilometer web La Bruja 1 (The Witch) (1979-1981) by Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles; a monstrously stunningly black wool immersive installation. Its web structured nearly the entire third floor of the museum in which other artists are also exhibiting (many of them also line drawings).

Robert Filliou’s Fluxus work Recherche sur l’origine (1974) serves much the same function in the other major space, the La Sucrière. Recherche sur l’origine depicts Filliou’s reflections upon various scientific theories, from the birth of the universe to the origins of human consciousness, in terms of the equivalence between Far Eastern philosophy and scientific knowledge. It expresses the result in a modest pastel narrative on a winding piece of unbleached canvas 84.845 metres long and 2.71 metres high. Placed within and without this narrative flow were clunky funny sculptures made of plaster and cloth by Marina De Caro and the concrete wall poetry of Augusto de Campos. Campos, his elder brother Haroldo de Campos, and Décio Pignatari had launched the literary magazine Noigandres in 1952, introducing the international movement of Concrete Poetry to Brazil. The young poets searched for a “verbivocovisual” poetry that was a radical fusion in which conventional syntax and versification would be abandoned. There are numerous concrete poems applied directly to the wall throughout the exhibit, that I enjoyed.

Of course, within the work of the 70 artists on display at the Biennale, other values in the spectrum of being are remarkably evident. There is video, painting, performance art and audio art also in the brew. However, there was a distinctive lack of photography that I found merciful. Certainly I was impressed by The Bothers Quay-like assemblage installation by Eva Kotátkova called Re-education Machine. This immersive installation incorporates fragments of an old printing machine from 1960s Czechoslovakia. In it, we are subjected to mechanisms that, according to the artist, “serve only to unify communication patterns and force opinions; allocating specific social norms to people.” The individual is “trapped in the net of mutually repressive dependencies which are no longer invisible – they become wooden cages, metal scaffolding, isolated rooms, and rope shackles.” So here again the web (or net) is evoked, even while the digital basis of today’s net environment is ignored in the show at large, as there is no digital art in this brew at all.

Other stand-out work for me was Elly Strik’s drawing series The Bride Fertilized by Herself where she revisits Marcel Duchamp’s masterpiece The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even also known as Large Glass (1915-1923). Her series was a sequence of drawings that bordered on the erotic, portraying the ecstatic suspension of time and refers to the dynamics of the artistic process itself in which “every artist is his own bride and every female artist her own groom,” as Jean-Christophe Ammann said, in reference to this series. Morton Feldman, a pioneer of indeterminate music, was represented by Anecdotes and Drawings, thirty diagram “improvisations” performed at a lecture Feldman gave at the Theater an Turm in Frankfurt in 1984. Supposedly discussing the future of local music, Feldman created a visual synthesis of his total oeuvre that also included the erotic. A feel of total oeuvre was also evident in the room of embroideries by Brazilian Arthur Bispo do Rosário that he created in a psychiatric asylum called Colônia Juliano Moreira near Rio de Janeiro. Bispo endlessly listed every single person he met, and his works incorporated every element he came across in his daily life. He declared his belief in God, but still criticized dogmatic stances, in hundreds of texts obsessively rendered in innumerable embroideries.

But Alexander Schellow created my favorite piece in the show, called Untitled (Fragment). It is a drawing-based animation he did after several visits to a 96-year-old woman who lives at a clinic for Alzheimer’s patients in Berlin. Schellow meticulously re-creates the subtle movements of her face after-the-fact. I also admired his room of tiny drawings called Storyboard that he started in 2001, in which the artist reconstructs from memory specific encounters. It is almost the equal to the Alberto Giacometti series of drawings that were tangled up in Cildo Meireles’s La Bruja 1 (The Witch). Must be the season of the witch.