This is the first of a few posts on the Venice Biennale. I begin with the Dutch artist Mark Manders.
Manders’s installation is entitled Room with Broken Sentence. When entering the Dutch Pavilion, an imposing modernist building by Gerrit Rietveld, you are confronted with windows which do not allow you to see inside; they are entirely covered with sheets of newspaper, as if the whole place were a building site, a work in progress. Once in, the newspaper curtains have the effect of blocking out daylight, so the lighting has an artificial quality, the overly-bright, slightly greenish tinge of ‘public’ areas, such as waiting rooms and offices. I didn’t realise until I was leaving again that the newspapers are invented, the text nonsense – words strung together to look meaningful, in the typography of a standard broadsheet. Headlines read Zest: Criticizing Flawiest Untwisted and Ontogenesis barbarites pinkishnesses seamstress. What’s the meaning of this meaninglessness?
Manders says, I covered all the windows of the entrance with fake newspapers. Like a thin layer of skin, the outside world is separated from an inner world … I cannot use real newspapers, because my work would then be linked to a certain date and place in the world … The newspapers consist of all the existing words in the English language. Each word is only used once.
Inside it’s as if everything in the space is covered with a fine layer of dust, and in one corner there are planks of wood propped against a screen and more in a corner, covered with a plastic sheet, as if left unfinished. Manders says, All my works appear as if they have just been made and were left behind by the person who made them. Busts of women are arranged on plinths, like classical muses in a gallery, but they too are unfinished, in rough, uncast, still-wet clay, dissected by slivers of wood. Some have wild hair sneaking through the timber. They are provisional, a bit scrappy, but each face wears the same calm expression. A young girl, also modelled in clay, is winched to a table surrounded by chairs (the sort of sleek modernist furniture that suits the structure). She’s armless, arms replaced by a plank of wood, a crucifixion of sorts. Her single leg balances her against the edge of the table, so that she hovers over the scene like a broken angel. She recalls Greek and Roman beauties with limbs missing, scatted in museums around the world, but she has the face and body of a child, too young for this kind of breakage. One huge face towers over the rest, again shown to us in cross-section, framed – no, interrupted – by a huge wooden frame.
Everything is broken, intersected, thrown together. It is disturbing, but not violent. The space is calm even in the disruptions it presents. There is something incredibly unsettling about the space – I was then interested to find this quote from the artist:
I don’t often show my work in the public domain, rather in museums where people choose to go to see art. But since 1991 I always test a work that I’ve just finished in a supermarket. I just imagine a new work there and I check if it can survive where it doesn’t have the label of an artwork. It is just a thing that someone placed in a supermarket. Now I am sure that all of my works can stand in that environment.
Sadly, I missed the off-site extension to Manders’ installation, his Fox/Mouse/Belt placed in a mini market off the Via Garibaldi.
There is something timeless about Manders’ work, as if it could have been made at any point in the last century, or even earlier – a part of a sculpture excavated from an ancient site and then displayed. Manders says, There is no difference between a work made twenty-four years ago or just a single day ago. Like the words in an encyclopedia, they are linked together in one big super-moment that is always attached to the here and now.
I will continue my tour of the Biennale with the Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere.