To quote the catalog:
TRA is ART.
TRA is transformation.
TRA is a gateway between worlds.
OK so it sounds pretentious, and, well, it is – hey this is the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, what else were you expecting? In any case, this exposition is astounding. One of the museum’s curators, the Dutchman Axel Vervoord, has organized the exposition at Fortuny during the Biennale for the third year in a row and has done a fabulous job.
Just taking the building itself, this palace is relatively close to the Grand Canal and absolutely gorgeous on the interior with exposed beams and a raw, lived-in feel. The high ceilings on the first floor and the massive open spaces on the 2nd and 3rd are astounding – not to mention the breath-taking views from the 3rd floor.
The expo is titled TRA and subtitled Edge of Becoming. The exact translation of “tra” in English is “between”. The works exposed all have this quality of passage – of time, of cultures, of decay. There are pieces from almost every period of the history of art and from many, many different cultures. On the first floor, one gets the impression of a “classic” exhibit with delineated spaces for the works. But as one moves upwards, the spaces get more mixed up and thrown together. In fact, the only way to get information on the works exposed is to use the sketchbook provided to find the work and read the details as there are no labels anywhere to tell you what is what. Then on the 2nd floor, it becomes sparser and there are several doors along the right wall that lead to alternative universes. Finally, on the 3rd floor there is a labyrinth and some other larger installation-type pieces. Each move changes the atmosphere almost completely and leaves you a bit out of breath and in awe.
Some of the pieces I most appreciated:
- Passage by Shirin Neshat. This short enigmatic film was captivating as it just has music and chanting and crosses the digging of a tomb by the hands of a circle of black-clad women, the construction of a small shrine by a young girl, and the funereal procession of a line of men. It is captivating and moving and a symbol of the ongoing and depressing struggle for freedom in Iran.
- Lightning Fields by Hiroshi Sugimoto. This series of striking black and white photographs of lighting was fascinating. The room was low-lit and so the white of the lightning was even better put into value. So modern and yet this dates to the immediate post-Hiroshima era, 1948. A symbolic memory of the sudden destruction of the Japanese empire I suppose.
- The Rothko they displayed was, well, I just love Rothko. That desperate separation block between you and the nothingness of the background color. Fantabulous.
- Derrera Dimensió by Antoni Tàpies is a large painting of a rough wooden frame in white paint resembling a series of doors or just passageways with scratched-in drawings. The text is written backwards as if we were seeing it from behind (thus the “derrera” in the works title). It is disturbing and moving like many of Tàpies works.
- Grigi ce si alleggeriscono verso Oltremare (Greys Enlightening towards ‘Oltremare’) by Giovanni Anselmo was also thought-provoking. Several steel baskets with stones of the (14 to be exact) attached to the wall under which a rectangle is painted with a Klein-ish blue. This same rectangle is on the official posters for the exhibition. There is an enigmatic quality as to whether the rectangle is aiding spiritually in the suspension of the weighty rocks.
- The fabrics and dresses displayed from the Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo collections were also gorgeous. Fortuny was a big time fashion designer that was the height of his powers during the early 20th century. I had heard of them through La Recherche du Temps Perdu, where Proust mentions Fortuny dresses on several occasions. They are also something else to see in person with their beautiful tissues and colors and fanciful shapes and patterns. They are primarily displayed on the first floor. There are also several of his paintings but clearly, his gift was in “la mode”.
To be honest, it is hard to point out many individual works here because the whole thing works AS A UNIT. The composition of the various displays, the playing of various pieces off of each other (particularly on the ground floor with 2 action paintings by Kazuo Shriraga in conversation with three classical Thaï sculptures and a modern sculpture by Dominique Stroobant called Matrice in the same space worked extremely well), and most appreciably, the first floor with the nearly overwhelming cornucopia of pieces from all over careful juxtaposed. I guess you just have to try to get there to experience it for yourself. I was so moved by it that I returned the next day to buy the catalog and hold on to a more accurate souvenir.
Yet another reason to get to Venice during the Biennale, right?