Sunday, September 27, 2009

Fare Mondi

Bruce Nauman's 2009 American Pavilion at the Venice Biennalle

Pico della Mirandola had sought knowledge, and passed from system to system, and hazarded much; but less for the sake of positive knowledge than because he believed there was a spirit of order and beauty in knowledge, which would come down and unite what men's ignorance had divided, and renew what time had made dim [...] and he has a true place in that group of great Italians who fill the end of the fifteenth century with their names, he is a true humanist (ital.). For the essence of humanism is that belief of which he seems never to have doubted, that nothing which has ever interested living men and women can wholly lose its vitality - and no language they have spoken, nor oracle beside which they have hushed their voices, no dream which has once been entertained by actual human minds, nothing about which they have ever been passionate, or expended time or zeal.

Walter Pater, 1871; from his essay on Pico della Mirandola, in the collection The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry.

Marcia Vetroq begins her article in Art in America on the current Venice Biennale entitled Worlds Enough, and Time: Daniel Birnbaum's Biennale:
"When the second Triennale di Torino, organized by Daniel Birnbaum and called "Fifty Moons of Saturn." opened last November, it triggered intense speculation that the Stockholm-born, Frankfurt-based curator would be offering a sneak preview of his intentions for the 2009 Venice Biennale, then seven months away. [...]
"More intriguing is the volte-face in Birnbaum's construction of the nature of artistic practice. The Turin show centered on the melancholic humor historically associated with creative genius. Birnbaum's title for the 53rd Biennale, 'Fare Mondi' or 'Making Worlds,' likewise stays aloft in the metaphoric heavens, but this show abjures the temperamental determination of the dark side for an endorsement of art as an arena of free and enlightened invention."

I can't at the moment locate my copy of Margot and Rudolf Wittkower's Born Under Saturn, their study of the Renaissance's consideration of the planet Saturn as the celestial influence on artists. All I remember fundamentally from beginning (not finishing) the book matches up with what I found just recently here on the internet: in the founding of the Roman Empire and establishment of the meaning of Latin deities the god Mercury and his planet was not beloved by Romans in the same way that the winged messenger Hermes was to the Greeks; in the Wittkowers' book the turning point of the Renaissance conception Mercury was considered the god of artisans only. It was the influence of Saturn artists needed to become someone who had genius. (It should be noted here that before Kant genius was considered a gift one was given to differing degrees, not a complete embodiment as in the phrase one who "is a genius.")

This is my little internet trouvaille: " Mercury loves to race around and he invented the wheel. Mercury, and the element mercury named for him, is known as the quicksilver. The word mercurial is commonly used to refer to something or someone erratic, volatile or unstable, derived from Mercury's swift flights from place to place. The term comes from astrology and describes the expected behavior of someone under the influence of the planet Mercury."

I have a Turkish artist friend Sermin Kardestuncer who had two solo exhibitions at Pierogi. Befroe I met her there I saw a simple piece, a stitched wall with punctures in the wall sewn through with black thread, in Denyse Thomasos' group exhibit Crossing Lines at Art in General in 1999 - it was quite simple and remarkable. Often I find it amazing to see a piece that seems like it was waiting to be made like scientific discoveries are waiting to be uncovered, and think highly of the artists that make them.

Not long after her second show I walked into the gallery and Joe Amrhein referred me to a student who wanted to write about her work for an academic paper, and I said the first thing to think about was the idea of process art from the sixties and seventies. Sermin - and her work - have been seen as very serious by many but I enjoyed telling the story of the first time I went to her apartment and on taking me into the room that is her studio and on opening the door I saw was that she had stitched the cheap wooden hollow door on both sides to her studio with the same black thread I had seen on the wall at Art in General - I really burst out laughing at the sight of it and she was very pleased, saying most people don't see the humor in her work. (It could be a lot of our levity these days lacks gravity.) I was describing this to the student but said to her thinking of so much I had seen since moving to New York in 1996, "I think we have reached an age of bottomless ingenuity." I did not mean this in terms of Sermin's work but of younger artists and art students. She really liked that phrase but I am still trying to get over the dark side of that implication, even as I know I had a big grin when I said it. There is a real dark side to that moment of realization - this "bottomless ingenuity," and it seems to be more and more present.

Studies of the Renaissance in Pater's time following on Wincklemann in the eighteenth century were focussed on the reintroduction of Greek paganism into the Catholicism of the time as an end finally to the medieval Dark Ages. 20th century scholarship has increasingly laid emphasis on studying the Islamic world and its entry into Europe, especially in the inventiveness of the Renaissance scientifically and technologically. Islamic scholarhip is also where the Greek manuscripts that Pico della Mirandola and so many others were translating from had been kept for centuries following the burning of the Library of Alexandria. "Mirandola translated Plato's Timaeus from the original Greek into Latin and the Book of Genesis and Moses from Hebrew as an endeavor to reconcile the accounts of the origin of the world with the account given in both." - Pater again.

Just two Islamic philosophers are needed here, but there were many:

Ibn Sina (981-1037), known in the west by the Latin name, Avicenna, is often called by Westerners the "Arab Leonardo" for the amazing breadth of his knowledge in medicine, philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy. In addition to his Canon of Medicine, he is certainly one of the most remarkable thinkers of the Middle Ages and the most important and original of all Muslim philosophers. He held that religion was a kind of philosophy for the masses; the goal of all revealed truth (including his own Islam) was to lead us to our highest state—one of philosophic contemplation. He held the particularly original idea that intellectual discovery implies an intuitive act of knowledge. The idea of the intuitive intellect working outside of the methodical process of collecting facts and deduction has again become quite modern.

Ibn-Rushid (Averro√ęs) 1128 -1198 is also of great interest to us. He wrote many commentaries on Aristotle and is known in Arab philosophy simply as "The Commentator." His works in religious philosophy were widely read in Europe, especially by Thomas Aquinas, the point, of course, being not that one was right and the other wrong, but that one of the greatest of European medieval philosophers honed his own sharp intellect by dealing with his Muslim predecessor. Averro√ęs' work in law, medicine, and astronomy were also highly regarded.

This was an excellent opening for Plato and Aristotle and their interplay for the Renaissance thought still under the aegis of the Catholic Church - Aristotle having been "the Philosopher" for Catholic scholars especially Saint Augustine until the Italians started forming academies of Neoplatonic inquiry, based on writings of Plotinus and Neo-Pythagorians in Rome in the 3rd Century AD.

" The teaching of Plotinus, coinciding with a period of material decline and religious anxiety during the decline of the Roman Empire [...} had only one serious rival - Christianity."
- John Gregory, from the introduction to The Neoplatonists translated on introduced by John Gregory, 1991 Kyle Cathie paperbacks Great Britain

This could all prepare us quite well for the Bruce Nauman American Pavilion with its Roman Catholicized Aristotelian Virtues and Vices (1983-88) in alternating blue and red neon running along the top of the building. Apparently by following along the exterior reading the interplay of the Virtues and Vices one finally reaches finally Blue Fortitude alternating with Anger as entry way to the interior as a Nauman retrospective of sorts crowned with the much reproduced 1967 Neoplatonic spiral of neon words The True Artist Helps the World By Revealing Mystic Truths.

A brief explanation of the Virtues and Vices from Aristotle to the conception of the Medieval Soul.

Aristotle had written a kind of middle path of a mean virtue between an excess and deficiency in character in his Nichomachean Ethics Table of Virtues and Vices, read carefully a means of reflecting on daily actions and developing maturity and character; these Virtues had been taken up by the Roman Empire as maiden figureheads carrying swords for the collective good of the Empire; who were in turn enlisted by Prudentius in the 5th Century to fight the Psychomachia for God and Jesus, quaintly translated in the Harvard Loeb series by H. J. Thomson as "The Fight for Mansoul."

In this epic poem the maiden Faith leads a battle by first taking on the frightful and beastly monster named The Worship-of-Old-Gods, with an entire war of Virtues countering both male and female vices in swordfight culminating in the She-monster Avarice accompanied by fiends Care, Hunger, Fear, Anguish, Perjuries, Pallor, Corruption, Treachery, Falsehood, Sleepnessness, Meanness and diverse others and flanked by her brood Crimes, the brood of her black milk, who "like ravening wolves go prowling and leaping over the field."

The maidens are baffled by Avarice, or Greed's changing double form, now like a Virtuous whiteclad mother to them and then terrifying glimpses of the awful hideous monster - until Good Works dashes into the fray to the aid of all the others. The epic battleground poem culminates in Faith and Concord bringing the Mansoul to Jesus and God in a lightfilled conclusion. To say that this was thematically repeated in Medieval literature and art is an understatement. In the Tenth Century Pope Gregory officially named the Seven Deadliest Sins found in Dante, Chaucer, Spenser and many other an allegory, and often a favorite subject for artists, including a series of frescos by Giotto. ( James Ensor also made a series of prints - unfortunately only two of the etchings were on display at the recent MoMA exhibition. At the Ensor exhibition in the Petit Palais in Paris in the Eighties all seven were mounted together.)

Also in this September's issue of Art in America Lynn Macritchie's writes in an accompanying article on the Biennale Pavilions, "grandiose gestures-the French Pavilion is an obvious example, as is the sanguinary Mexican presentation, trying desperately to shock-fall flat." Macritchie lauds Nauman's Pavilion - which recieved the Golden Lion award -as having the apparent message "that we humans are ugly, destructive, incoherent and unheeding."

Does this mean that the Vices have won, and that only artists are not born under Saturn these days, and are the only ones who can illuminate the darkness for us?

As we are all walking around in this new millennium at the center of our own ever complicating cosmologies that have increasing difficulty sorting out into something more akin to the profound and the complex, how do we intersect with others in these days ahead of us?

In short, is Mercury now the kaleidoscoping patron deity of the span of all of our attentions?

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