At the Venice Biennale there are tanks that roar, machines that rattle and paintings that perplex. Ideas prevail over images. Concepts over creations. Overall, it is art that demands explanation rather than contemplation, a situation exacerbated by the sheer volume of work on display.
No one could fail to be struck by the contrast between the official exhibitions and Tra, the show at Palazzo Fortuny. The Biennale pummels the senses; Palazzo Fortuny soothes them. Here, the presiding anima is not a curator steeped in critical theory but Axel Vervoordt, a Belgian art dealer, interior designer and collector whose flair for display is as crucial to his exhibition’s success as the objects themselves.
It is six years since Vervoordt first proposed to the municipality of Venice that he could mount shows in this magnificent gothic palace, which at that point had been closed for decades due to disrepair, in exchange for financial contributions to its renovation.
Critics argue that Vervoordt’s involvement compromises the Fortuny’s status as a public museum. Although the show is the fruit of a collaboration between Vervoordt and three other curators (Rosa Martinez, Francesco Poli and Fortuny director Daniela Ferretti) and many pieces are loans, it is undeniably also a showcase for the Belgian’s own collection – several works in it are for sale on his company’s website.
He could not have found a more appropriate vitrine. With its high-ceilinged galleries bathed in slanted blocks of light, the four-storey medieval palace is one of the city’s most evocative spaces. Unlike more moribund Venetian residences, Palazzo Fortuny still pulses with the energy of its eponymous owner, Mariano, who lived and worked here for the first half of the 20th century. Born in Spain, the dressmaker, set designer and painter was blind to boundaries between ancient and modern. The pleated bias-cut dresses that were his most famous inventions were reinterpretations of ancient Greek styles. He loved to copy old masters but was equally given to painting scenes from Wagnerian operas.
Fortuny’s creations, including his sumptuous gilded fabrics that now drape the walls, are permanently displayed on the palace’s first floor to give it the air of a fin-de-siècle home. It is the perfect arena for Vervoordt, who skilfully leavens the decadence with works drawn from across centuries and cultures.
In the Spaniard’s painting studio, newly restored for this show and housing three-dimensional models of his innovative theatrical lighting systems, Fortuny’s faux-Renaissance murals are juxtaposed with resolutely modern statements such as “Spatial Concept, Little Theatre” (1966), Lucio Fontana’s abstract, hole-punched canvas in shiny white paint; a video, “Staging Silence” (2009), in which Belgian artist Hans Op De Beeck playfully conjures film noir cityscapes out of humdrum household objects, and a photograph of Matthew Barney posing on stage in high-camp costume in his Cremaster cycle.
This beguiling gathering highlights the intimate rapport between art and theatrical illusion. (It’s no coincidence that Plato condemned both painters and playwrights for their gift for mimesis.)
It’s hard to imagine what the Greek champion of ideal forms would have made of Tra. Here, borders – between art and craft, sacred and secular, political and personal – are collapsed. The timeless serenity of 1,200-year-old Buddhist torsos are juxtaposed with the rebellious, material explosions of informel painters such as Antoni Tapiès, Emilio Vedova and Japanese Gutai exponent Kazuo Shiraga. For Shiraga, art sprang from meditation while a sense of sociopolitical resistance fuelled the gestures of Vedova and Tapiès. Yet all share, with the Buddhas, a desire to express truths beyond the visible.
Minor works by important artists are valued less for their authorship than for their interplay with other pieces. A Rodin bronze torso, cast posthumously in 1964, anchors a constellation that encompasses a Rothko painting on paper, a 7th-century Greek basin and an architectural fantasy painted in 17th-century France. None are masterpieces – the Rothko is dreadful – yet together their colours, forms and rhythms create an ensemble that is more than the sum of its parts.
It is tempting to dismiss these mises en scène as no more than skilful interior decoration. (Vervoordt’s first exhibition at Fortuny, based on the too-simple premise that art is timeless, made me long to fling a copy of Gombrich’s Story of Art through one of the palace’s fluted windows.)
But Tra is too powerfully seductive not to be taken more seriously. According to Vervoordt, the concept behind the show draws both on the Italian word tra – which means “in between” and carries a connotation of threshold or doorway – and the Zen idea of ma, which means “the empty space between two objects”.
Compared to occidental methodologies, this may sound nebulously New Age. Yet the concept of threshold was fundamental, for example, to western Renaissance painters. Rare is the Annunciation scene without an open portal – a symbol of the gateway to God – in the background. Although there is no such image present here, doorways abound in other guises. Venetian artist Francesco Candeloro has used layers of plexiglass to transform an ugly fire door into a glorious, sunset-hued cornice for a minimalist cut-out of St Mark’s belltower. Anish Kapoor’s empty, 2m-high blood-red frame, “Portrait of Light, Picture of Space” (1993), glows in the dim ground-floor gallery. A more subtle notion of transcendence is evoked by the juxtaposition of a petite, slashed gold triangle by Lucio Fontana next to a 16th-century Flemish painting of Mary and saints mourning Christ’s body.
In contrast to shows where lengthy text panels make art as joyless as a school project, here information is kept to a minimum. Two floors exhibit works without any labels at all; although booklets with diagrams are available. In consequence, visitors abandon themselves to the purity of the visual encounter.
Nevertheless, didactic connections can be made. The show is anchored by works from a generation of postwar artists – including the Gutai, Germany’s Zero group and Lucio Fontana in Italy – who were exploring abstraction to express ideas of transcendence, void and infinity and who were consciously influenced by each other. Yves Klein, whose fathomless ultramarine visions are surprisingly absent, studied Zen philosophy; Fontana exchanged ideas in person with Shiraga.
Yet the diversity of works in Tra means it goes beyond mundane observations on east and west. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Japanese labyrinth on the top floor where a nail-studded cushion by Zero artist Günther Uecker dialogues effortlessly with a 2,000-year-old Assyrian cuneiform panel and a 19th-century bronze hoop used by Congolese tribesmen as a form of currency.
Plato would object to an exhibition that suggests that it is the relation between objects that renders them ideal. For most of us, however, it is a pleasure to have our ways of seeing so subtly reborn.
‘Tra: Edge of Becoming’ is at the Palazzo Fortuny, Venice, until November 27 www.museiciviciveneziani.it