Those lucky enough to be in London for the Bank Holiday had a chance to go to an superb event at the Round Chapel in Hackney, organised by Tutto Wines and Gergovie Wines. Both importers, along with a handful of others, have done much to create a space for natural wines in the London market – 15 years ago wine-drinking here was neatly segmented into high-end Bordeaux and Burgundy, set against high-alcohol, often New World, rotgut sold to the masses at off-licenses. Natural wines, with their exacting standards of facture, respect for the land, artisanal approach, and sheer contagious enthusiasm, have brought in younger, cosmopolitan drinkers and really breathed life into the wine scene here. While events like RAW have popularised natural wine, bringing in producers from Germany, Austria and further afield, Tutto and Gergovie have maintained a distinct Italian and French focus. On the retail side, Noble Fine Liquor, closely associated with Tutto, has made Broadway Market in Hackney pretty much the hottest place to buy top-end, often idiosyncratic producers, particularly from Italy. A short distance away, the eno-bistrot Brawn, by another natural wine pioneer Ed Wilson, keeps Columbia Road amply fed & watered. Lastly, south of the Thames, Gergovie’s food venture 40 Maltby Street, with its phenomenal but simple food and tiny menu, the place to go, even as Borough Market has descended into a tourist-driven fracas of selfie-sticks and ‘street-food’.
Rant over…so this event was organised primarily for trade and growers, almost entirely from Italy, France, and Slovenia. It was in an awesome de-consecrated Victorian chapel off Lower Clapton Road, across from Noble’s second venue P. Franco. I can’t find much on the history of the chapel, but it had distinct echoes of the fine early Christian basilicas found in Constantinople and in Northeast Italy, the old Exarchate of Ravenna. The room was hung with the lovely posters that have long been a feature of the London and Paris natural wine shops/enotecas, and are so sorely missed in the hyper-commercial (and somewhat more restaurant-based) New York wine scene. There was a distinctly aesthetic vibe to the whole thing, from the posters, to the small-scale but utterly conscientious attitude of the growers, and even to some of the London-based staff, artists working part-time in the food and wine businesses around Maltby St.
We ended up mostly sticking with the Italian stalls, with no disrespect intended to the others ! Food was essentially a holocaust of rabbits, grilled outside by 40 Maltby Street’s awesome team. The evening ended at Brilliant Corners in Dalston, where wine crosses audiophile vinyl.
In keeping with the superb spring day, it all got a bit out of hand, with a bit of a Dionysian rendition on the preacher’s pulpit. A tender respect for religious sentiment restrains me from a pic…
There were a number of other Italians that I didn’t manage to get pictures of – like Skerlj from the Carso in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, and of course all the wonderful French winemakers. We also missed, but are looking forward to see at RAW, some others: Cornelissen, Radikon, Lamoresca, Quarticello and so many more from other regions in Italy.
The 55th Venice Biennale struck a great balance between showcasing art for the art-world insiders who make, buy, and live off it; and providing a spectacle, an entertainment of broader interest, in this city of spectacles. This review is far from exhaustive, as we only had 2 days to cover the ~80 country pavilions, the Arsenale, some 47 “collateral events”, and an unknown number of unofficial venues.
So-called “Outsider Art” continues to trend in a major way: the curator Massimiliano Gioni’s organising principle of an encyclopedia of knowledge (Il Palazzo Encyclopedico) was apt, allowing for a catholic (no pun intended, though the Holy See had its Biennale premiere in a first-ever Vatican pavilion) approach that accommodates both the products of the art system as well as the output of mystics and madmen.
Britain Jeremy Deller’s installation, while perhaps having an apparent hint of the “feel-good” opening/closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics, was fantastic, resonating on many levels: from the William Morris mural to the Russian voucher privatisation certificates, to the subtle reasoning that justified the proliferation of prehistoric axe blades. Deller connected perfectly: well-made art objects (even though most were not paintings or traditional sculpture), bound by a thoughtful and non-obvious conceptual framework, while retaining enough variety, humour, and poignancy to achieve a satisfying aesthetic response.
Russia Another much-talked about pavilion, by Vadim Zakharov, was certainly amusing – and topical: Russia’s supposed love of, and abundance of, conspicuously-displayed wealth. When we went, the pavilion was basically empty, save a slightly skeptical Indonesian collector accompanied by a gallerist and an umbrella-carrying flunky, so we didn’t really experience the performance in full: women only allowed in the lower level, carrying umbrellas, onto whom thousands of coins are dumped from a conveyor belt, while in the rafters of the neighbouring space, a besuited oligarch with a vaguely porn-star physique sits pensively atop a saddle, distractedly dropping peanut shells on the visitors below.
France & Germany The two countries switched pavilions (apparently as a celebration of the 1963 Elysee Treaty of reconciliation between the two countries), with Anri Sala in Germany’s 1938 building, showing a set of large videos of 2 pianists, and 1 DJ, playing Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Although somewhat panned (in The Guardian), I thought it was lovely music in a grand space with any artistic obscurantism left safely in the background (in fact, Sala’s work had quite a lot of theoretical grounding, not least in the acoustic design and resonance of the room, the slight tempo variation between the two pianists, and the “aha!” moment in seeing the third version of the performance that made sense of the other two videos). The work itself was composed for Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the philosopher (whose works on language were an important influence on Conceptual artists), who had lost a hand in war.
Germany’s exhibition in the French building was interesting less for the work, though Dyanita Singh’s photographs are always a delight, than for snapshot it gave of modern Germany itself: 4 artists, only one of which, Romuald Karmakar was actually born there (and he is half-Iranian). Karmakar, Singh, Ai Wei Wei, and Santu Mofokeng also all showed work with at least a modest amount of political content, again consistent with a post-war German tradition of soul-searching.
USA Not much to say here, other than the pavilion was filled with bitty little things, much like a badly kept ironmongers’ shoppe. No doubt there was some “deep conceptual underpinning”, “engagement with materials”, “social awareness”, and other shibboleths of the art world-speak, but frankly Sarah Sze’s “environment” was boring and a bit of a trip hazard.
Central Pavilion & Arsenale These venues had, unsurprisingly, lots of great work; equally, space and attention span demand I not dwell on them in this much-too-long post. Briefly though: Carl Jung’s Red Book , drawings by Rudolf Steiner (founder of the biodynamic movement, the product of which we love in wonderful natural wines from France and Italy!), Hilma af Klint, Indian Tantric paintings, Fischli & Weiss’ installation of unfired clay figurines, Phyllida Barlow, Francesca Grilli, Imran Quereshi’s Persian miniatures, and many others !
Others Israel’s pavilion by Gilad Ratman was an impressive and entertaining video and set of sculptures. Angola, which was a first-time exhibitor, and won the Golden Lion for its pavilion, was notable for the palazzo where it was hosted (see picture). China was, along with the equally fashionable Outsider Art, heavily represented – seven artists in the official PRC pavilion, as well as (apparently, I didn’t try to find them) pavilions for Hong Kong, Taiwan, some 10 unofficial venues, representing 350 (!) artists in total (to put that in perspective, the Central Pavilion had some 150 artists from 38 countries). Art in America magazine has a decent review (http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-opinion/news/2013-07-03/a-chinese-biennale/). From what we could see, there was some great stuff (Mao Xiaochun and Zhang Xiaotao) and some hundreds of eye-numbing paintings.
Rudolf Stingel at Palazzo Grassi The more intimate of Pinault’s two spaces was given over to an exhibition of work by Stingel, mostly of paintings, some of which are haunting photorealist images in monochrome of medieval statuary. Others are almost like lace-patterned fabric rendered in paint. The apparent visual simplicity of the paintings, which is obviously not to imply they are easy to make, stands in elegant contrast to the palazzo’s almost souk-like interior, which comes from the digitally printed tribal carpet that covers almost all walls, floors, and ceilings. Besides the pleasantly nauseating feeling one gets from looking at a carpet that is permanently (and intentionally) printed to be out-of-focus, one notes the reference to Siegmund Freud’s study in Vienna which was also so covered. The fact that the carpet pattern is identical all over, yet individual sections are hung slightly askew and overlapping, creates an opposition of coherence and variety, which only enhances the spatial effect. Also, the installation (intentionally or otherwise) evokes border countries like Austria-Hungary or Venice as places where East and West come together. A fantastic show, made the more so by being almost unvisited when we were there.
“When Attitudes Become Form” at Fondazione Prada This was probably one of the most “difficult” exhibitions, and not part of the formal Biennale programme. Prada was quite courageous in allowing the curator Germano Celant (whose subtle curation informed the Louise Nevelson show at Rome’s Palazzo Sciarra), in cooperation (or “dialogue” to use the jargon) with architect Rem Koolhaas and artist/photographer Thomas Demand, to re-create (and re-curate?) a seminal 1969 show held in the Bern Kunsthalle by then-radical curator Harald Szeemann. Prada’s building at Ca’ Corner della Regina was converted, though far from entirely, into a replica of the Kunsthalle (and an adjoining building of which little photographic record remains), with many of the relevant works borrowed in, or re-created, and placed in the space, in the same position as in the original show (or at least in the same relative position to the other works in the original show). In some cases, where works weren’t available to be borrowed or replicated, a hashed outline, not unlike at the scene of a crime, was placed on the floor/wall.
The exhibition was interesting on a few levels. Firstly, the artists represented, including Eva Hesse, Laurence Weiner, Richard Artschwager, Alighiero Boetti, although an extremely diverse set, were trying to break fairly cleanly from Minimalism and Pop Art, into movements that would later be known, inter alia, as Process Art, Conceptualism, Arte Povera, or Land Art. These artists were exploring humble, fragile and mutable materials (Eva Hesse and latex, Beuys and fat); deliberately impermanent installations (Laurence Weiner stripping plaster from a wall); compulsive repetition of simple visual constructs in series or grids (Boetti or Hanne Darboven or even Artschwager’s “blip” sculptures); deliberate lack of finish or refinement (Richard Tuttle’s wall-pieces); essential formlessness or lack of materiality or substance (Walter de Maria’s phone call or Richard Long’s land pieces). How then to represent such a diverse set, 44 years after the fact, that is often intent on making their work incapable of preservation or re-display, and is often very far from what even quite well-educated humanists (to say nothing of the average man on the street) would consider aesthetically pleasing? On this last point, one has only to go up the Grand Canal to see the fare at the Biennale, to see how ostensibly different contemporary art is from the work in the Ca’ Corner: however, a careful viewer would also see how critical the influence of these artists has been on subsequent art, including that of today.
Secondly, the exhibition was quite explicitly about the curators – from Harald Szeemann to Germano Celant – these pieces simply don’t have enough force singly, and on their own, in their artistic ivory tower. They need a curator’s energy, organisational skill, diplomacy, and impresarial nous, to make them into a coherent show. Celant essentially reproduced the 1969 show (down to temporary floors that matched the original Kunsthalle), while retaining a clear and forceful connection to the Venetian palazzo (if he wanted a perfect replica, he could simply have built a temporary building somewhere). Moreover, by re-creating or borrowing in actual pieces, howsoever fragile, carefully arranging them, and leaving conspicuous gaps where pieces couldn’t be sourced, he energised the space in a way that photographs and reams of documents never could (these are of course the way that much Land or Conceptual Art is shown in galleries, often to a collective yawn).
Overall, this show was an amazing snapshot of a critical moment, that was essentially and intentionally immaterial, and the ideas of which were hugely influential on much art that came afterwards. Celant, Demand and Koolhaas did a great job evoking the 1969 show without making a sort-of Bernese Disneyland; moreover, the show was a fantastic counterpoint to the pomp, colour, and glamour of the Biennale, a bit like a tannic backbone of a Grand Cru that softens with time but leaves its unmistakeable imprint.
A variation on the great Veneto dish of pasta with anchovy sauce, to take advantage of the excellent Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes) in England (the musically-named topinambur in Italian). The sweetness of the onion sets off the salty/fishy anchovies, but the sunchokes add a different flavour profile, maybe nutty.
Boil the ugly little bastards in water until yielding, then squeeze them out of their skins or not, as your taste goes: the skins have fibre and give great texture but might be difficult to digest, leading to mild stomach-ache and/or copious farts.
In another pan, soften in oil on medium/low heat: some onions with dried chili (I prefer the tiny Italian pepperoncini that seem to come from Malawi, but suspect Bangladeshi chili would be similar, if with a less subtle heat). Add chopped garlic and parsley, and get this soffrito soft. Debone/gut a salted anchovy (not the oil preserved ones if at all possible, they are horrid), which, if you don’t have a place that sells bulk anchovies, IASA make an Italian bottled anchovy preserved in salt and brine, that works fine. Use a good-quality Thai fish sauce (based on anchovies rather than shrimps or anything else) in extremis.
Put the anchovy into the soffrito, taking it off the heat (to keep the anchovy from burning), and crush the fish into a paste. Put in a tiny amount of red-wine or sherry vinegar, and turn up the heat – if it feels too hot, add a little water. Let the vinegar lose it’s raw taste, and put in the chopped up artichokes. Put in a little water from the boiling to regulate the sauce.
Put pasta (spaghetti or bigoli probably best) into the same water the artichokes were done in (this is a common feature of Sicilian cooking particular, to maximise the flavour of the pasta), maybe with some salt in the water. The water will turn gloriously chemical-green – I think that’s probably okay.
When pasta is done, put it in the sauce, add a little of the starchy water from boiling (the pasta continues to absorb water, so this is very important). Turn heat back on/up, and agitate the pan violently over the flames, with or without tongs, to coat the pasta and heat everything up, without cooking further. 20-30 seconds. Squirt on EVOO to give it that glisten we love, crush on some black peppercorns and serve.
Wine: not sure, probably a simple Veneto white, medium-body, not excessively fruit- or mineral-driven.
As each town’s architecture is distinct, so is the art. Ferrara and Mantova were duchies for many years, under the Este and Gonzaga families, respectively, and even though they were eventually absorbed into the Papal State, their aesthetic seem no less independent than their politics.
Our timing, at New Year, limited what we could see of Ferrara, but a few things stood out: the magnificent city walls, of course, the stunning cathedral with its unusual mix of Romanesque and Gothic styles, and its two coolest native sons: the Dominican friar Savonarola and the über-director Michelangelo Antonioni (Deserto Rosso, Blow Up and Zabriskie Point). Savonarola’s story is not irrelevant today: the Medicis and the Borgia Pope Alexander VI both needed their bankers, usurers that they were, to finance the costs of war and court, yet the firebrand’s sermons and “bonfires of the vanities”, railing against conspicuous consumption, money, and decadent art, struck a chord with the common people. He did well for a time, until the powers-that-be could suffer him no longer, and he too was excommunicated, arrested, tortured, and consigned to the pyre. We stood outside the Palazzo Ducale, which was laced with explosives for New Years, burn crimson, lime and white, just under Savonarola’s statue. Incidentally, we could better reflect on his sermons after a draught of Sangiovese from Emilia-Romagna at an enotecanext to Ai Brindisi on Via Adelardi, great music, loud, tiny, and young crowd. Ai Brindisi itself left us with mixed feelings – food was acceptable, it’s obviously quite touristy, and the service lacked warmth but was perfectly civilised – in fact it felt a little like a Covent Garden restaurant. For aperitivi, a bar called Tiffany was our favourite, it seemed to have all the local bohemians and winos, very welcoming they were, and made great Negronis and very nice stuzzichini. We went there 2-3 times a day. Lastly, we very much enjoyed were two convents, one of which, San Antonio in Polesine, is notable for its great frescos but also an unusual Christ, ascending his cross on a ladder. It takes a certain bravery to knock on the convent doors, but the nuns were very nice (especially at the convent with the graves of the Este family).
Mantova is quite different, set, somewhat improbably, upon a tripartite man-made lake, with the River Mincio nearby. It is hugely atmospheric, fog-bound, and confusing to walk around, whereas Ferrara’s centro storico is laid out essentially as a grid. Sadly, the recent earthquakes basically meant that the Mantegnas, including his tomb at Sant’Andrea, were shut, hence the art viewing was a little lop-sided – we greatly enjoyed the curvy and sensuous Mannerism of Giulio Romano’s interior decoration, and exquisitely lean architectural vistas, at the pleasure villa Palazzo Te. But this had no counterpoint – what would have come from seeing the august, stone-like, block-faced, figure of Mantegna’s Ludovico Gonzaga. There was none of the almost mathematical spatiality of Mantegna’s cities, in which the rectangular keep of Mantova’s Ducal Palace is easily discernable, nor the Renaissance legs of courtiers, clad in lively two-tone silk. We have resolved to get to Hampton Court to see the works bought by Charles I of England, and fortunately, most of the ruined and fragmentary frescos were visible in the Ovetari Chapel of the Eremitani in Padova (very close to the Arena Chapel). Andrea’s house, organised with a circular courtyard, however is well-preserved as a community arts centre, and had a tight little show of the 20th century architect Antonio Monestiroli. As written elsewhere on eatthehipster, the food in Mantova is excellent, ranking somewhere between Ferrara and Padova in quality.
Incidentally, the careful observer in Mantova, and its surrounding area, sees played out much of the political history of Italy in the turbulent, yet golden, 150 years after 1100 AD. Mantova was a fief of Matilda of Canossa, La Gran Contessa, who played a leading role in the running battle between Papacy and Holy Roman Empire known as the Investiture Controversy. It was at her castle of Canossa that Emperor Henry IV begged, on his knees in the snow, the Pope’s pardon in 1077, a story touched upon in Luigi Pirandello’s great play and Marco Bellochio’s film. A hundred years later, the foremost of the medieval emperors, Frederick II Hohenstaufen, known in Italy as stupor mundi (“wonder of the world”), fought his most important battles against Popes Gregory IX and Innocent IV, on these same Lombard plains. Much later, we see the Gonzagas, descendents of the famous Paleologi of Constantinople, become extinct, leading to the War of the Mantovan Succession (a similar story happens in Ferrara, where the glorious city of the Este is claimed as a vacant fief by the Papacy, when the prince leaves no male heir).
We’ve written about Genova elsewhere on this blog, but briefly, she forms a most interesting contrast with Venezia. Both were great maritime, mercantile, and military states, yet somehow, they feel very different, well beyond the obvious geographical points. Genova is a city of wealthy burghers, merchant princes, and is intrinsically linked to the life of the port. There is very little of the bejewelled glitter of her Adriatic rival, relatively little of her oligarchic splendour, virtually none of the slightly camp stylishness. If Venezia is like Manhattan, La Serenissima, an elegant, improbable, impractical, self-absorbed island that only takes outsiders on its own terms, Genova is more like London, La Superba, slightly dowdy, money-grubbing, pikey, yet outward-looking, and willing to accept foreigners freely.
The reasons for the differences are diverse and this isn’t the place for them, but the art in Genova is similarly less glittering than that of Venezia. This is not a criticism; rather, because of Genova’s relative unpopularity (seems many tourists come off the ghastly cruise ships, quickly rush over to the acquarium, and/or head down to the Cinque Terre/Portofino), the museums are relatively empty, and the guards are absolutely charming, particularly if one has any Italian at all. They will happily answer questions, sometimes with great volubility, and have the traditional Italian soft spot for London (“Babylon” in the words of one guard, and seen in the suits of Milanese businessmen – La Stile Inglese). More generally, we found Genovans to be quite friendly, not least when one is lost near the disturbing back-streets of the port: they repeatedly approached us to ask if they could help.
Our favourite art: Palazzo Spinola, and the 3 museums on Via Garibaldi, the Palazzi Rosso, Bianco, and Doria Tursi. There is a great deal of Ligurian art, such as Luca Cambiaso; as well as Van Dyck who was based in Genova for some years. Guido Reni, Veronese, Giorgio De Ferrari, Titan, Rubens, Bernardo Strozzi, and Mattia Preti are well represented. However, our favourites would be the Palazzo Spinola’s Ecce Homo by the great Sicilian master Antonello da Messina, as well as the Diocesian museum/cloisters of the San Lorenzo cathedral, which contains a magnificent room of paintings on denim fabric (Genova pioneered a hard-wearing fabric that eventually would be called “jean”, which was then picked up in Nimes, and became fabric “de Nimes”). The paintings, of the life of Christ, were made in the 1500s for a Ligurian abbey, and seem to be in white paint on blue denim. The cathedral treasury is also very interesting for the lovely green chalice once thought to be the Holy Grail, as well as the richly worked charger, thought to have borne the head of John the Baptist. The cathedral is faced with the grey and off-white courses of stone that mark a number of major buildings in Genova, and has a fine little St Lawrence being roasted on a grid-iron above the main portal. On the inside, there are some hard-to-see Byzantine-style frescos near the main entrance, as well as an unexploded 381mm armour-piercing shell from the HMS Malaya, which landed in 1941.