Venice is a city of winding canals and pivoting cobblestone streets. The salty air constantly erodes the plaster walls of three-story walk-ups, creating a patchwork of textures- terra cotta spots over pale yellow brick, grey dingy dust clinging to what might have been white. And between one patchwork house and the next there are alleys that seems to spring into existence before the eyes of the pedestrian.
It is down one of these alleys that I discovered “Sweet Death” on my first day in Venice. This exhibit, part of Guatemala’s pavilion for the Venice Biennale, is a singular gem sparkling outside of the central conglomerate of pavilions at Giardini and Arsenale. I was not expecting to turn my head and see an illuminated face looming from within a dark door on the sunny streets of Venice. I am very thankful that I did, because “Sweet Death” was one of my favorite exhibits in the entire fair.
“Sweet Death” centers around the concept of “death-finitude,” which can best be understood as the disintigration of values in the modern world. The curators, Luciano Carini and Simone Pieralice, do not approach this universal phenomenon through a morbid or depressing lens. Rather, they utilize bright color and an oddly harmonious mixture of sexual and childlike motifs to underline the wasting away of traditional values in contemporary society. The death of values is likened to the actual experience of death in Guatemalan tradition. Mayan rituals suggest a celebration of life, indicated by colorful tombs. “Sweet Death” includes work by both Guatemalan and Italian artists who respond to the notion of deathfinitude through the unique lens of Mayan burial ritual. The result is a conversation about contemporary society between two distinct cultures, Guatemalan and Italian, who have overlapped culturally for several hundred years.
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In “Parsmoke,” by Paolo Residori, a glass container is filled with cigarettes and vaseline.
Bubbles of liquid sit pressed against the glass, reflecting the dingy yellow and brown coloring of the cigarettes. An image of a person’s decaying grin has been pasted to the front of the container. At the top of the container is a little hole protruding from a silver cap that makes the glass look like a fancy perfume bottle. It appears to be a tomb of sorts, marked by the deceased’s smile rather than his name. What Residori is getting at is this notion of deathfinitude- the idea that contemporary society is destroying traditional values. Here, cigarettes are the offender, physically destroying both teeth and lives. But what does this say for society as a whole? The nozzle at the top seems to be an indicator that the negative effects of cigarettes are not self-contained. At any given moment they can be sprayed outward, through secondhand smoke, to anybody in the vicinity.
Beyond this somewhat literal translation, “Parsmoke” is about more than the repercussions of cigarette use. It represents the sullying of the earth, the body, and the mind through mass consumption, substance abuse, disease, and garbage. “Parsmoke” is so full of dirt it is bubbling- literally- and cannot be contained. The nozzle and the evil, knowing grin are ominous reminders that we cannot keep our dirt so neatly contained for much longer. Landfills overflow and the weight of decaying values will increase with each new generation.
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Paolo Schmidlin approaches the notion of deathfinitude in a much less roundabout way. The genius of “Frau Magda” is its shock value and visual impact. Frau Magda wears a sparkly silver swastika around her neck.
Her hair is perfectly coiffed and her eyebrows aristocratically arched. Even her hands are clasped politely. Everything but her necklace signals that this woman is dignified. The presence of the swastika immediately strips her clean of these attributes, and replaces her image with that of a villain. How does this relate to “Sweet Death’s” message? The desecrated value here could be that of life itself. The swastika represents racism, genocide, and death. Its presence impedes freedom, and is a reminder of a violent and cruel time in human history. “Frau Magda” identifies the Holocaust as an event that indicates the downfall of the human race. It is not singled out as a separate horrific event, but listed as a piece of evidence for the theory of deathfinitude.
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“Testiculos qui non habet Papa Esse non posset,” by Fatima Messana, is a very curious work.
Illuminated purple by the lights in the exhibit, “Testiculos” has an otherworldly glow. This supernatural aura is deepened by the facelessness of the figure, and his spindly, lifted finger. In his other hand he holds an apple from which a cross distends.
In an effort to understand “Testiculos,” I first ran the title through google translate and freetranslation.com in Italian. I came up with this bizarre sentence: “Testiculos here not habet Pope They do not posset.” I was then prompted to try translating in Latin: “Who does not have a Pope, he could not be of the testicles.” The translation is clearly not direct, but what I think this Latin translation is getting at is as follows. He who does not have a Pope (he who is not religious), could not be of the testicles (is not a true man). So the message of “Testiculos” is that religious piety is an integral component of character.
The apple represents knowledge, as its consumption bequeaths knowledge to Adam and Eve in the Old Testament. Therefore, “Testiculos” also suggests that joining this faceless being in religious duties will increase one’s knowledge. But what about his facelessness? And his gesture, the hand that signals, “wait a minute, that’s not all.” Are these indicators that this straightforward lesson of piety is not all it seems? It is entirely possible that these uncanny elements are present to negate the pious message. The figure’s facelessness could suggest a loss of individuality, a consequence of being part of a group, in this case, the cult of Christianity. When viewed through the lens of this interpretation, the raised finger is a warning. Piety may bring you salvation, but what will it cost you? And is the apple of knowledge truthful, or will it always be the knowledge an institution wants you to see?
I had great fun exploring this interpretation in my mind, seeking out symbols that strengthen my argument for it. But at the same time, I cannot forget its context in “Sweet Death.” Deathfinitude is the loss of traditional values. If Christianity is the traditional value at risk here, would Messana be criticizing it in an exhibit that mourns the past? Perhaps her stance is more reflective. She could be depicting the contemporary questioning of Church values while mourning a time when such questioning was unheard of. The possibilities are endless here. “Testiculos” offers a range of interpretations. While I am eager to know Messana’s real intention, it is almost more exciting to interpret based solely off her artwork. Let me know if you agree, disagree, or thought something completely different about this riveting sculpture.
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“Silent Night Club,” by Teresa Condito, is my favorite artwork in this exhibition. It is the epitome of everything Luciano Carini and Simone Pieralice intended, incorporating bright color and anachronistic motifs with a message about society, all centered around a clever pun that sums up its meaning.
“Silent Night Club” is exactly what it sounds like; it is the bizarre cohabitation of religious figures and contemporary debauchery. Even stranger- in “Silent Night Club,” beer and biblical characters reside within a dollhouse, adding youth to the already crowded table filled with religion and depravity.
It is all in all a feast for the eyes. Pink sequins reflect the light of twinkly bulbs, while pink adorns almost every surface. Feathers surround the figure of a golden angel in hot pink fuzz. Dice dot the coffee table, indicating a sinful game of poker. Pink chiffon curtains are pulled back to reveal a New Testament regular engaged in- well, we’re not quite sure what. The only things that are not bright and colorful are the figures themselves, excluding the half-naked barbie dangling from the shower (not pictured). Jesus and the apostles, perhaps the Wise Men, take up residency here in the Silent Night Club. Their presence is a clear metaphor for deathfinitude.
Meanwhile, below the dollhouse, Jesus and his family sit in a smaller house devoid of pink and ruffles. A yellow light illuminates the dwelling and its humble inhabitants. Below the extravagance of the Silent Night Club, it is a pointed reminder that there at one time was, and perhaps still could be, respect for what is sacred.
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It is interesting to look at Carlo Maltese’s, “Scandalo alla Galleria dell’Accademia” after analyzing “Silent Night Club.” Both strongly express deathfinitude through religious themes and employ overlapping colors and figures.
In this work, barbie dolls are shown in sexually compromising positions at the Galleria della’Accademia in Florence, which I actually later visited on my Italy trip. PSA: My visit to the Galleria della’Academia was not nearly as scandalous.
The barbies are positioned between columns, as if they are religious statues carved into stone on the facade of a church or official building. For the most part they are unclothed, and engaging in sexual behaviors. There are several traditional values at stake here in “Scandalo.” One is religion, as these barbies are meant to evoke the figures of the Madonna and the Apostles, who often are poised between pillars in facades such as this. Another is art. Perhaps Maltese is lamenting the decline of traditional modes of art in lieu of scandalous, sexually-charged artwork. At the same time, he himself has created a scandalous, sexually-charged piece of artwork, so perhaps that is counterintuitive. But it does seem, whether he has been a part of the decline or not, nostalgic for the great masterpieces in the Galleria della’Accademy, and for simpler times overall.
Lastly, it occurred to me that a value in jeopardy could be respect for the past. This seems most logical. While Maltese excels in creating new and exciting work, he heralds respect for the artists who came before him. He laments the decline in respect for these artists, rather than the decreased popularity of creating in traditional modes. This makes even more sense after I visited Florence. The city is a popular clubbing destination. Perhaps Maltese is making a jab at tourists who flock to Italy for the nightlife without appreciating the art that is so integral to Italy’s history.
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The last work I want to look at is Marisa Laurito’s “La Grande Bouffe.” It approaches deathfinitude differently than the other works I analyzed today.
A giant strawberry sits on a dining table, engulfed in blue light. A chair is positioned before it, and several pieces of cutlery rest on the tablecloth. The very size of the berry suggests that Laurito is confronting obesity. There is only one chair placed before the meal. Is one person meant to eat such a large strawberry alone? And how does a strawberry grow so large? It could only be genetically modified. With “La Grande Bouffe,” Laurito simultaneously evokes the issues of obesity and GMOs.
However, these issues have a double purpose. Obesity can lead to death, from heart disease or diabetes, making this dining table a premature tomb. GMOs are controversial, but there is definitely a school of thought that believes they are deadly as well. But this dining room is also a brightly lit tomb of tradition. Respect for the earth, for those who make one’s food, and for the pleasure of eating with loved ones all seem antiquated ideas when contrasted with the lifestyle supported by obesity and GMOs. Fast food and genetically modified organisms are products of a world that believes man can and should change the earth to suit his needs. What is left in the dust is a simple, natural meal prepared in the home, a home where people can actually see each other across the table, and not be blocked by the sheer size of the meal consumed.
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I hope you enjoyed reading about “Sweet Death.” If you somehow have the ability to get to Venice before November 22nd, put this exhibit at the top of your To-do list. Well, yes, go to Saint Marks. But no, you don’t need to go on a Gondola ride. You most definitely need to see the uncanny, luminescent works in the Guatemalan Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. Remember, it’s not located near the other pavilions. You have to go to the Officina delle Zattere. Here are a couple pics of my sister and I having fun in the exhibit if you need some more motivation.
That’s all for now!
xoxo, Chloe ❤