Sunday, October 30, 2011

Tintoretto and The Light

The Last Supper (1592-94) by Jacopo Tintoretto 
(Venice, Italy) This year's 54th Venice International Contemporary Art Festival, ILLUMInations, stars three paintings by an ancient master, Jacopo Tintoretto, who would have been 493-years-old this year. Bice Curiger, the curator remarks:

...His compositions are audacious and fly in the face of classical Renaissance rules, while the light in his paintings, rather than being cool or harmoniously integrated, is "ecstatic" and at times almost feverish. [...] The presentation of Tintoretto at this year's Biennale is not meant as an espousal of some notion of "classical timelessness." Far from seeking to trace superficial formal analogies between Tintoretto and art of the present, it concerns a form of pictorial energy that is altogether "anti-classical" but is also the kind fueled by the friction that results from letting a reckless Old Master become involved in a contemporary context.

If we look at the Last Supper, we can see that Tintoretto was a bit of a radical:

From Wikipedia:

The Last Supper (1592-1594) is a painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Jacopo Tintoretto. It is housed in the Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, northern Italy.
Different from usual depictions of the Last Supper, the work does not portray the apostles in the centre of the scene which is instead occupied by secondary characters, such as a woman carrying a dish or the servants taking the dishes from the table. Tintoretto's Last Supper incorporates many Mannerist devices, including an imbalanced composition and visual complexity. The ability of this dramatic scene to engage viewers was well in keeping with Counter-Reformation ideals and the Catholic Church's belief in the didactic nature of religious art.
The setting is also similar to a Venetian inn. Also personal is the use of light, which appears to come into obscurity from both the light on the ceiling and from Jesus'aureola.

The Stealing of the Dead Body of St. Mark (1562-66)
According to Paolo Baratta, the President of Biennale, Meetings on Art are conversations, open to the public, which "are intended to confirm the role of la Biennale di Venezia as an institution open to knowledge and the spirit of exploration, worth a pilgrimage." Judging by the crowds that were there on Saturday, October 29, there are still plenty of people making the pilgrimage late unto the season -- there were 22,242 visitors for the week of October 16 to 22, making ILLUMInations the most visited exhibition in Italy.

Creation of the Animals (1550-53)
Please forgive the brevity of this blog, but I seem to have twisted my wrist!
Ciao from Venice,

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

SEVEN DEADLY SINS - La Biennale's 41st Venice International Theater Festival

The Holy Gangster by Jan Fabre
Venue: Ateneo Veneto Aula Magna
Photo: La Biennale
(Venice, Italy) The 41st Venice International Theater Festival, directed by Alex Rigola and chaired by Paolo Baratta, ended on Sunday, October 16, 2011. More than 5,000 people from all over the world were in attendance -- double the last time the festival was held in 2009. Every performance was sold outA total of 40 events were packed into powerful week. In addition to the theatrical productions, an intense week of workshops, conferences, laboratories, and conversations introduced international masters of theater to students from around the globe. 

The festival concluded with a topic of endless fascination, The Seven Deadly Sins. From Biennale:

Envidia by Calixto Bieito
Venue: Teatro La Fenice Sala Rossi
Photo at La Biennale
The 41st International Theatre Festival started from here, with the idea by Director Àlex Rigola to invite seven artists who represent the most powerful and poetically extreme experiences on the international scene, and ask them to develop a personal and contemporary vision of the seven deadly sins. And to Venice they came: Ricardo Bartís (Argentina), Calixto Bieito (Spain), Romeo Castellucci (Italy), Jan Fabre (Belgium), Rodrigo García (Argentina), Jan Lauwers (Belgium), and Thomas Ostermeier (Germany) -- figures with their own unmistakable artistic approach, each different from the other, but each of them has reconsidered his way of doing theatre in radical terms, developing a new and original language. It is rare to see directors of this calibre working together on a single project in a shared effort to formulate and elaborate new hypotheses for interpreting the contemporary.

Attore, il tuo nome nonè esatto (Actor, Your Name is Not Correct) by Romeo Castelucci
Venue: Teatro La Fenice Sale Apollinee
Photo: La Biennale
From October 2010 to March 2011, the Seven Masters workshopped their Seven Deadly Sin projects with a group of selected actors. The final outcome was seven short pieces set in four of Venice's most riveting venues, rarely seen by the public: two spaces inside Venice's opera house, Teatro La Fenice -- the Sale Apollinee and Sala Rossi;  two spaces inside one of Venice's historic institutes of knowledge, the Ateneo Veneto -- Aula Magna and the Library; two spaces inside Venice's music conservatory, the Conservatorio Benedetto Marcello -- the Concert Hall and Rehearsal Room; and one space inside the prestigious Istituto Veneto di Scienze Lettere ed Arti (Veneto Institute of Science, Literature and Art) -- the Sala del Portego. This meant that we, the audience, had to move en masse throughout the center of Venice to four different venues -- just like a group from a cruise ship, only more funky and hip. The space in which each piece was set had enormous influence on the productions themselves. Some of the pieces worked; others did not.

For those of us who have forgotten, here is a checklist of the contemporary Seven Deadly Sins (also known as the Capital Vices, also known as the Cardinal Sins):

The Slow Lie by Jan Lauwers
Venue: Conservatorio B. Marcello Sala Concerti
Photo: La Biennale


We began the evening with Thomas Ostermeier's Death in Venice set in the Sala del Portego of the Istituto Veneto. Ostermeier, the head of the Schaubühne in Berlin, one of Germany’s leading theatre institutions, was awarded the Golden Lion this year, and his piece was one of the standouts. Using video, a piano and live actors, a narrator read a critical excerpt from Thomas Mann's Death in Venice in the German language as a chilling, understated dinner scene played out -- not only live in front of our eyes -- but simultaneously on an overhead screen... above our heads a raw, darker, more lustful version was projected... 

Death in Venice by Thomas Ostermeier
Venue: Istituto Veneto Sala del Portego
Photo: La Biennale
"...Fear was the beginning, fear and lust and a horrified curiosity of what would be coming. It was night, and his senses were listening intently because from away a commotion, a noise, a din approached: a rattling, a clashing, a muffled thunder, shrill cheers and a howling of an 'oo' sound, all mixed and sweetly drowned in a terrible way with deep-sounding and continual flute-playing, which cast an obtrusive spell on the entrails. And he saw a phrase, dark, but denoting what was coming: 'The alien God!'"

The Holy Gangster by Jan Fabre
Venue: Ateneo Veneto Aula Magna
Photo: La Biennale
The other standout was Jan Fabre's The Holy Gangster in the Aula Magna of the Ateneo Veneto. Men in drag and spiked heels posed seductively, leashed to chairs. Women dressed as men in suits were the aggressors. Outbursts of rage, outbursts of lust, outbursts of sloth, pride, envy, gluttony, and greed punctuated the performance; the tables turned and the aggressors became victims of torture. Fabre "views the gangster as an archetype, a mythical figure, a criminal whose place is outside society, yet he is sacred."

Earlier in the week I had a chance to stop by a conference where the designer Jim Clayburgh, one of the founders of the Wooster Group, the renowned experimental theater company in New York City, shared a glimpse into his creative process. He started with a funnel... upside down.

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Cemetery Party in Venice - Music Amidst the Graves

The Barque of Dante by  Georgy Frangulyan Photo: Alloggi Barbaria
(Venice, Italy) Only in Venice can you end an international music festival in a cemetery, playing the music of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) directly in front of Stravinsky's tomb. On Saturday evening, October 1, 2011, a few hundred people journeyed past the The Barque of Dante, created by the Russian sculptor Georgy Frangulyan, to participate in Luca Francesconi's fourth and final production as the Artistic Director of the Venice International Festival of Contemporary Music. With Virgil pointing the way, the audience arrived on the Island of San Michele by boat.

Luca Francesconi:

TODD GIPSTEIN/National Geographic Stock
After three editions that have proven that culture is not a bore and an effort and have brought us the enthusiastic approval of the public, the lack of attention and even the lack of interest of politicians for music and research, for "non-horizontal" projects such as ours, made me decide to end my last Biennale with a provocation that is both ironic and somewhat melancholy. 

If it's true that the thought and knowledge born out of 5,000 years of art and culture are scrap, then let's make our farewells with an extreme tribute: a ritual procession on the water to the Island of San Michele in which we celebrate Stravinsky, Machaut, Verdi, Monteverdi, Gesualdo and even Nono -- but with simple instruments, ensembles pared down to the bone, performing the finale of Mozart's Don Giovanni not with an orchestra, but with a band. 

Photo at La Biennale Blog
If our culture is dead because it does not bring profits, then with the thirty pieces of silver that they give us we will set up a frugal but merry "banquet over the abyss."

By candlelight, we ventured past the uniform rows of Venetian tombs, the living among the dead, into the Orthodox section of the cemetery to where Stravinsky's simple tomb is located. At the site, Dirk Descheemaeker played Three pieces for clarinet solo by Igor Stravinsky (1918). We listened as the tones of the clarinet floated through the cemetery and gently nudged the dead to join us in a celebration of life.

After listening to some Verdi in the entrance way, we entered the Church of San Michele itself, the first Renaissance church in Venice, designed in 1469 by Mauro Cordussi. Waiting for us inside was the Orchestra from Teatro La Fenice. They started off with the Venetian composer, Luigi Nono (1924-1990), who is also buried at San Michele. Nono is considered one of the most prominent composers of the 20th century, and we heard Incontri for 24 instruments (1955), followed by another piece by Stravinsky, Concerto in mi bemolle Dumbarton Oaks (1937-38).

Scuola of San Rocco
Photo at La Biennale Blog
Then, from the choir loft came the A Capella voices of the Scuola of San Rocco singing ancient tunes by Guillaume De Machaut (1300-1377), Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa (1566-1613) and Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). The beauty and force of the human voices -- only the human voices, unaccompanied by any instruments -- made me marvel at what a magnificent instrument our vocal chords are. That human beings were created with chords in our throats, able to produce sound and music, is a bit of a miracle.

Chromalodeon keyboard
Earlier in the day, I (and everyone in the audience around me) had been blown away by the Ictus Ensemble performing American composer Harry Partch's Barstow (1941) and The Letter (1943) at the Teatro alle Tese at the Arsenale in Venice. I didn't have a clue who Harry Partch was, and chatted with the vocalist (and flutist) Michael Schmid during the intermission, who told me Partch had created his own instruments to play his own music; Tim Mariën arranged the pieces to fit with the Ictus Ensemble. From Wikipedia:

Harry Partch (June 24, 1901 – September 3, 1974) was an American composer and instrument creator. He was one of the first twentieth-century composers to work extensively and systematically with microtonal scales, writing much of his music for custom-made instruments that he built himself, tuned in 11-limit (43-tonejust intonation.

...In 1941, Partch wrote Barstow, a work whose text comes from eight pieces of graffiti Partch had spotted on a highway railing in Barstow, California. The piece, originally for voice and guitar, was transcribed several times throughout the composer's life as his collection of instruments grew.

Ictus Ensemble The Letter 
Photo:  Anna di Manincor
After the intermission, Michael Schmidt alone on stage performed Sonate in Urlauten by Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) with just his human vocal chords and his breath. I strongly suggest that you find "Ursonate," on YouTube and listen to it yourself to understand the enormity of this feat.

UPDATE AUGUST 11, 2013: Reading this again after two years, I have to say that I think Luca Francesconi was a brilliant music director, full of passion, intelligence, wit and soul. He taught me a lot. Apparently someone uploaded Michael Schmidt's actual performance. (I will confess that I immediately developed a crush on Michael after watching him perform.) Here it is:

From Wikipedia:

Kurt Hermann Eduard Karl Julius Schwitters (20 June 1887 - 8 January 1948) was a German painter who was born in Hanover, Germany. Schwitters worked in several genres and media, including DadaConstructivismSurrealism,poetry, sound, paintingsculpturegraphic designtypography and what came to be known as installation art. He is most famous for his collages, called Merz Pictures.

The Ursonate

Schwitters composed and performed an early example of sound poetryUrsonate (1922–32; a translation of the title is Original Sonata or Primeval Sonata). The poem was influenced by Raoul Hausmann's poem "fmsbw" which Schwitters' heard recited by Hausmann in Prague, 1921.[23] Schwitters performed the piece regularly, developing and extending it, until finally publishing his notations for the recital in the last Merz periodical, 1932.

Many artists have cited Schwitters as a major influence, including Ed Ruscha,[32] Robert Rauschenberg,[33] Damien Hirst,[34] Al Hansen,[35]and Arman.[36]
"The language of Merz now finds common acceptance and today there is scarcely an artist working with materials other than paint who does not refer to Schwitters in some way. In his bold and wide-ranging experiments he can be seen as the grandfather of Pop Art, Happenings, Concept Art, Fluxus, multimedia art and post-modernism." Gwendolyn Webster

Photo at La Biennale Blog
Back at the cemetery, the audience spilled into the cloister for the last scene from Mozart's Don Giovanni, a Venetian all-time favorite, when the stone figure of the Commendatore arrives to take an unrepentant Don Giovanni up on his dinner invitation, and drags him down to hell. Stefano Bellon arranged the scene to be played by a band, not an orchestra; the vocalists were Andrea Zaupa, Enkhbat Nyamdorj and Gino Gobbo. 

After Don Giovanni went down to hell with the Commendatore, we took up where they left off and had our own ritual dinner out in the cloisters with great food and local Zitelle wine. I met three young American theater students (ciao Ellen, Nathan and Dean), who were in Venice for the very first time. They were thrilled that they had found their way into this unique performance. We all agreed that it was very strange that we had to come to Venice to learn about Harry Partch, an American composer who was working with "contemporary music" so long ago, and that none of us had known who Kurt Schwitters was before that day. If Luca Francesconi's goal was to make us think vertically, he certainly succeeded when it came to our little American group.

Photo at La Biennale Blog
At the end of the night, I sat down on the steps of the ancient well where Don Giavonni had defied the Commendatore earlier in the evening. "I lost my friends," I said to an interesting-looking woman, also seated on the well. "We will be your friends," she replied. It turned out that she was the composer, Alwynne Pritchard, currently the Festival Director of the Borealis Contemporary Music Festival in Bergen, Norway. Alwynne remarked how it was difficult to make such extraordinary demands on an audience, asking them to listen to a contemporary music concert at 4:00 in the afternoon, loading them all on boats to go to a cemetery after dark, shuffling them around a graveyard, and finishing up with a dinner served after 9pm. Only in Venice would such a thing be possible. 

To me, it was the perfect conclusion to the 55th Venice International Festival of Contemporary Music. After all, how many cities have their own Island of the Dead?

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog