I just bought Eline Mugaas’s book about Norwegian artist Siri Aurdal whose huge undulating fiberglass coated sculptures had a big impact on me at the Venice Giardini. After seeing a small photo of Aurdal’s work in a book, Mugaas got in contact with her to find out more. Aurdal’s monumental work was radical in 1960s Norway, crossing the boundaries between sculpture and architecture, but recently she seems to have become just another female artist forgotten in the pages of history.
The book is the resulting images Mugaas collected from Siri’s studio – choc full of photographs, concept sketches, found imagery, collages, design mock ups, work in progress and sketchbook pages and is a real insight into how the artist’s mind works. Wavelike, sinusoidal shapes have become her signature motif inspired by her interest in mathematics and desire for the pieces to become interactive forms to be climbed on, walked through and graffitied over by the audience. I find something fascinating in the cross between organic and geometric form, the raw, polyester pipes a direct link to Norway’s oil industry in the 60s. Her decision to invite artists from the Oslo art scene to graffiti over her work at the opening of her Omgivelser (‘surroundings’) exhibition at that time can be seen as a politically engaged reaction to the seismic social and political changes that took place in 1968.
There’s very little written information about the artist herself but this mysteriousness just adds to the intrigue. Things, and people too, are always a bit more interesting when you don’t know their whole story. I suppose that’s why I’m so interested in the great unexplained mysteries from the past, from Jack the Ripper to The Dyatlov Pass Incident. When my grandparents were having a clear-out a few years ago the one book I asked to keep was ‘The Reader’s Digest of Strange Stories and Amazing Facts’ – a jumbled collection of sensational unsolved mysteries, myths, legends, hoaxes, superstitions an other curiosities.
That magical kind of halo effect things have when they’re more an idea in your mind that a solid, real thing, is very compelling. I remember being fascinated years ago when reading Lemony Snicket’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ because I couldn’t find any information about who the author really was, Lemony Snicket being a pen name. For the same reason J B Accolay’s Violin concerto No.1 in A minor will forever be one of my favourite pieces of classical music because nobody knows who he really was or even if a composer by that name really existed. Furthermore, I suppose that’s why Kerry Jameson’s dark work holds a certain kind of magic and intrigue because I can find so little information about her online and in books. Is there value to holding back information about your personal self and being an elusive artist? How does this change how we view the artwork?
It’s not every day you find one of your friends has secured a place invigilating the welsh pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale, so when I was invited by the fabulous goblin queen herself Heledd Evans (check her out!) to spend a weekend in Venice I jumped at the chance.
Arriving Friday evening, my first impression of Venice was the city at night, which I discovered is when it becomes truly magical. The tourists retreat to their hotels on Lido and the other islands, leaving the dim streets of the centre empty but for the odd watchful cat. The expensive boutiques and tacky tourist shops with their Murano glass, lace and sparkly masks close up for the night. Alleyways and courtyards, lit up by warm lamplights, take on an otherworldly quality of light, the closest I can think of is the chiaroscuro of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks or Magritte’s ‘The Dominion of light’. The air is warm and smells richly of flowers, vaguely of incense and spice. Music seems to surround you but you can never seem to pinpoint where it’s coming from – a saxophone solo beckons in the darkness, a pounding bass thuds across the bay from a cruising party boat.
Since Heledd was working, I spent most of Saturday alone, making my way around the Arsenale in the morning. At the entrance is the Viva Arte Viva exhibition. In the Pavilion of the Earth, Michael Blazy, a Parisian artist, has arranged a stack of magazines printed with bright photos of travel destinations like those from a tourist brochure. From somewhere high up drips water, gradually eroding the paper, revealing contour lines of colour like the topography on a map. This image of erosion reminds me of the deteriorating of the building facades around Venice where plaster is peeling to reveal a palimpsest of bricks underneath. I read this time based installation as a kind of ticking clock comment on climate change as well as the effect of increasing tourism on the environment of Venice and other tourist destinations.
Further along, in the romantically named Pavilion of Time and Infinity I found Belgian artist Edith Dekyndt’s ‘One thousand and one nights’. Behind a shimmering curtain of silver leaf lies a rectangular carpet of dust, illuminated in the dark by a spotlight. The lamp turns over time and a gallery attendant sweeps the dust back up under the light, lifting dust clouds into the air. The effect is mesmerising.
The pavilion that had the most memorable and powerful impact on me though was undoubtedly the Italian one. The exhibition here called ‘Il mondo magico’ included a very unsettling and yet utterly captivating installation called ‘Imitation of Christ’ by Roberto Cuoghi. Entering into the factory-like setting you’re confronted with a stage on which a mould of a crucified body lies, with all manner of machinery surrounding it. You feel as if you’ve just entered into Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory.
Beyond this, there’s a kind of Eden project biosphere tunnel flanked at the entrance by two shrivelled body forms cast in a silica-like organic material. A sign warns you of the presence of mould spores inside – hinting at what lies beyond. In the dim space, you enter the plastic tunnel lit from the inside with harsh white fluorescent lighting. At intervals there branch off small rounded pods, domes which can be entered by parting the industrial PVC curtains.
You wouldn’t really want to go inside. Each pod is filled with a couple of peculiarly shaped operating tables, on top of which, on beds of black foam lie a couple of cast bodies, shrivelled, shrunken and withered, their surfaces crusted in mould or oozing with slime. The whole thing feels like walking into a dystopian computer game like Fallout, the bodies could be those of the feral ghoul zombies that haunt the radiation polluted wasteland. It’s very disturbing but at the same time you can’t help yourself taking a peek into the next dome, and the next, in the same way many people can’t help turning to have a look when they pass and accident on the road.
Exiting the giant igloo at the far end you come to a wall where dis-formed cast body parts are arranged into crucified Christs but with limbs missing and displaced. The juxtaposition of futuristic space domes and scientific equipment with the religious undertones of the body in the position of crucifixion is an unsettling fusion of past tradition and science fiction. According to the guide booklet Cuoghi is ‘inspired by the Imitation of Christ, an ascetic medieval text that he reinterprets from the standpoint o what he calls a “new technological materialism”. ‘ The tunnel may symbolise the tomb where Christ was buried, and the mould might represent the Resurrection in that it’s a new life form that only blooms and thrives following the death of others.
I’ve been thinking about what it is these artworks have in common. What is it that really interests me? There’s definitely an element of collaboration with outside ‘non-human’ forces – the ability of the dripping water to erode, the randomness of the shapes of the dust clouds and the lack of control over how the mould on the ‘corpses’ grows. There’s also a time based element, these artworks change and develop over time rather than staying static. Might I explore this in my own work, thinking about the constant weathering of rocks and forming of clay that goes on around us all the time? Phoebe Cummings’s work springs to mind.
I spent Saturday afternoon getting lost in the back alleys of Venice, happily stumbling across the design pavilion at the Palazzo Michiel by chance.