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Issue 173

Slip of the Tongue

Punta della Dogana, Venice, Italy

BY Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith in Reviews | 19 AUG 15

Martin Wong, INRI, 1984, acrylic on canvas, 91 x 91 cm

The Punta della Dogana is a building whose origins date back half a millennium. Prominently located on the prow of Dorsoduro in Venice, it functioned for most of its history as the city’s customs house. In 2009, it was relaunched with great fanfare as a gracefully streamlined showcase for the contemporary art collection of luxury-goods magnate François Pinault, courtesy of starchitect Tadao Ando. ‘Slip of the Tongue’ is the latest in a succession of long-running exhibitions largely drawn from this trove, entrusted for the first time to an artist, Danh Vo, working in collaboration with the collection’s curator-adviser Caroline Bourgeois. On this occasion, Pinault-favoured artists account for less than two thirds of the assembled participants in a show that reflects equally Vo’s personal enthusiasms (Nancy Spero, Paul Thek) and friendships (Nairy Baghramian, Elmgreen & Dragset). It also includes a generous selection of his own work threaded through the Punta’s dozen or so galleries. The admixture of a number of pages from late-medieval illuminated manuscripts gleaned from the city’s collections, and of lone works by and Constantin Brâncusi, Pablo Picasso and Auguste Rodin, means that ‘Slip of the Tongue’ has much in common with the historically wide-ranging thematic exhibitions that Belgian collector-dealer Axel Vervoordt has curated biennially since 2007 at the Palazzo Fortuny. More, in fact, than it shares with the blue-chip bling that typified previous presentations of the Pinault collection. V

iewers familiar with solo shows of Vo’s work (he is simultaneously representing Denmark in its national pavilion across the lagoon in the Giardini) will recognize the elegant precision – some might say preciousness – of the placement of individual works in relation to one another, and a layering of allusion born of an instinctive feel for the intertwining of private obsession and public record, esoteric activity and common culture, contemporary urgencies and the residues of deep time. Here, these persistent concerns are amplified by Venice’s long history as a crossroads for exchange and a point of departure for exploration. The prominence given to two artists in particular, Spero and Baghramian, points to the vulnerability of the mortal body and the painful indignities visited upon it as an underlying theme – one which radiates out from the Punta’s central galleries to its peripheral spaces. (Andres Serrano’s controversial Piss Christ, 1987, for instance, is tucked away in an easily missed stairwell.) Spero’s Cri de Cœur (2005), is a low-hung, 50-metre-long, hand-printed frieze in which the repeated image of a woman with arms raised in mourning, inspired by an illustration on the tomb of Ramose, Vizier of Thebes (c. 1370 BCE), builds into a multitudinous blur of abstracted lamentation. This is accompanied by an extensive selection of Spero’s paintings and collages from the late 1960s and ’70s, deriving from the angry, pained outpourings of Antonin Artaud, apostle of the ‘Theatre of Cruelty’. All three of Baghramian’s large-scale sculptures from 2013–14, on the other hand, including the work that supplied the show’s title, suggest the prosthetic enhancement, discomfiting constraint or injurious exposure of various giant body parts.

'Slip of the Tongue', 2015, exhibition view

Roni Horn’s Gold Field (1980–82), is an exquisite floor-based sculpture, which led to an artistic call-and-response and close bond with Félix González-Torres, whose own curtain of beads, Untitled (Blood) (1992), is also here. So too are a well-known David Wojnarowicz photo of buffalo stampeding to their death (Untitled [Buffalo], 1988–89), a selection of photographs by Wojnarowicz’s mentor and lover Peter Hujar, several ‘meat pieces’ from the mid-1960s by Paul Thek, and a number of canvases by Martin Wong, including a painting of his partner Miguel Piñero’s back (INRI, 1984). (Vo has done much to rescue Wong’s work from recent obscurity.) The accumulating resonances of these works generate an elegiac sense of devastated community among US artists of the generation preceding Vo, given that all but Horn were casualties of the AIDS epidemic.

More obviously, current debates regarding humankind’s presumptuous belief in its pre-eminence in the world, our relationship over time with other forms of life, and indeed with inanimate materials, are variously registered in works by Hubert Duprat, Petrit Halilaj, Zoe Leonard, Henrik Olesen and Charles Ray. Certain works struggle with the building’s internal architecture, running the contrasting risks of either squabbling with or being swallowed whole by walls of ancient, exposed red brick (Wong and Francesco Lo Savio, respectively). For the most part, though, the artist-curator’s refined sense of space and pace provides each work with room to breathe, while at the same time contributing to a fascinating, if sometimes enigmatic, conversation about beauty, damage, loss and endurance

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith is a critic and occasional curator who teaches at University College Dublin, Ireland.