Photograph of the Carnegie Museum of Art featuring the water pool

Elegant Constructions and Controlled Chaos

In Europe last month, I saw two large and very different exhibitions of international contemporary art. One was the Venice Biennale, an art world event that occurs every two years, and the other, Nouvelles Vagues or New Waves (named for the influential group of French filmmakers of the 1950s and ’60s that included François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard), was in Paris. My interest was more than casual, given that Carnegie Museum of Art will launch its own survey of contemporary art in early October, the 56th version of the Carnegie International.

The Biennale spreads throughout Venice but is concentrated in two locations, the Arsenale, an enormous complex of very old shipyards and armories, and the Italian Pavilion in the Giardini, a park on the Grand Canal that houses many of the show’s national pavilions. While individual countries produce the national pavilions, the Arsenale and Italian Pavilion together comprise a single curated exhibition.

View of Hans Josephsohn sculptures in “The Encyclopedic Palace,” exhibition, Venice Biennale. © Photo: Haupt & Binder
View of Hans Josephsohn sculptures in “The Encyclopedic Palace,” exhibition, Venice Biennale. © Photo: Haupt & Binder

It’s a challenge to make a coherent statement across those two massive spaces in separate locations, but curator Massimiliano Gioni pretty much did it. His Encyclopedic Palace focuses on the creation of imaginary worlds, with an emphasis on hermetic, visionary explorations of the psyche and spirit. The show, which celebrates individual invention (a.k.a. artistic genius) is unified by the curator’s strong sensibility, which is felt in all its aspects, from the architecture (which divided the Arsenale into generous but not overwhelming spaces) to the sequencing of works. One can argue with the show’s intellectual construct—I would favor more engagement with the world—but it made for an elegant exhibition. Toward the end of the show, outside the Arsenale building, was an elegiac performance piece by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson whose first solo museum exhibition in the United States debuted at CMA in 2011. In a covered docking area that provided a resonant echo and relief from the heat, the S.S. Hangover, a miniature old-fashioned sailing vessel of mixed lineage, contained six musicians playing brass instruments as they sailed from one landing to the other: out to sea and home again.

View of “The Black Moon” exhibition in Nouvelles Vagues, Palais de Tokyo, Paris. Photo: Aurélien Mole
View of “The Black Moon” exhibition in Nouvelles Vagues, Palais de Tokyo, Paris. Photo: Aurélien Mole

Nouvelles Vagues was the polar opposite of the Biennale, a delightful cacophony of over 50 small exhibitions, about 20 of which were at the Palais de Tokyo with the rest sited throughout Paris. Created by 21 young curators from 13 countries, it mostly featured work by emerging artists. I only saw the part at the Palais de Tokyo, which was a kind of wonderful mess, full of energy and enough good art and surprises to keep you going for quite a while. I loved the diversity of the presentations. So many individuals coming together with widely varying perspectives, each making his or her own statement, illuminated the curator’s role, which though central to what museums do is often invisible. (This is a significant contribution; the public should know who’s addressing them.) The physical nature of the Palais de Tokyo reflected and enhanced the show. The top floor is large and roughly finished, while the two floors below it—underground—form a raw, dark, cavelike space that is especially hospitable to video, film, and sound works.

The Carnegie International, founded in 1896 just a few months after the Venice Biennale has, like it, been a more formal exhibition (of course, artists test those boundaries all the time). Amid Paris’s many museums, the Palais de Tokyo is an experimental site set up to handle the controlled chaos that a show like Nouvelles Vagues brings. It is exciting to imagine an effort like the Palais de Tokyo’s in Pittsburgh. To do something like it here would require the collaboration of many of institutions, big and small. It’s something to ponder for the future.

Until next month,

Inside the Museum is Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky’s blog about the local and global impacts of the museum and the art world. For past installments, please visit the archive.