Editorial: Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 20

Too often, though, the beauty that is thrust upon us is illusory and deceitful, superficial and blinding, leaving the onlooker dazed; instead of bringing him out of himself and opening him up to horizons of true freedom as it draws him aloft, it imprisons him within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy. It is a seductive but hypocritical beauty that rekindles desire, the will to power, to possess, and to dominate others, it is a beauty which soon turns into its opposite, taking  on the guise of indecency, transgression or gratuitous provocation. - Benedict XVI, Meeting with Artists

Venice has a problem. Not only do the rising tides threaten to destroy this world heritage site, but the lack of Venetians living there threatens to turn the whole city into a museum. From 1966 the number of residents has dropped in half from 121,000 to 62,000. The Serenissima lives off of the great art and architecture of its past, and survives on tourism. The city also relies on events such as the Venice Biennale, a large scale contemporary art exhibition which draws in well-heeled art tourists from around the globe. 

In recent years, not content to remain isolated in the Arsenale, the Biennale has begun to spread out across the city with exhibitions in palaces and churches. There are hundreds of beautiful churches in Venice and they are expensive to maintain. Many of the scuole, or religious fraternities, have become museums and concert halls where you can gaze on Tintoretto’s religious masterpieces while listening to the Four Seasons 365 days a year. It can be worse, however, much worse. At the Scuola Grande di Santa Maria delle Misericordiae, an installation by Flemish artist Jan Fabre features a raised bronze platform with four giant marble brains leading to a rendition of Michelangelo’s Pietà in which Fabre puts himself in the place of Christ. In accordance with the artist’s stated wishes, visitors participate in a fictive ritual by donning slippers and mounting the bronze stairs as they examine the consciously kitsch artwork. San Barnaba and San Maurizio have installed within their naves exhibitions of models of Leonardo’s machines and baroque instruments. San Stae, a temple-fronted church on the Grand Canal with a wonderfully sophisticated cubic interior, is one of sixteen churches maintained by Chorus. Excepting a Sunday morning mass, these churches are considered museums of art and architecture, and admission is charged. However, after San Stae became an art museum, it became a backdrop for contemporary art. This year an installation called “Apiary. Destiny Drums” endeavors to turn the church into a hive and the visitors into bees. Large kite-like sculptures and hanging cans fill the church so thoroughly that it is impossible to see the neo-Palladian architecture and the artwork by Tiepolo, Ricci, and Piazzetta. For those who love art and architecture this installation is a painful sign of disrespect, and for people of faith it is much more serious: a new type of iconoclasm in which religious art is belittled and temporarily disfigured.

Another version of the war of images can be found in one of the most prominent churches in Venice. Seen directly across the bacino from piazza San Marco is the historic Benedictine foundation of San Giorgio Maggiore. One of the last works of architect Andrea Palladio, this church is one of the great masterpieces of Renaissance architecture with its central pediment and two half-pediments. Among its artistic features are two large Eucharistic paintings by Tintoretto placed on either side of the high altar and multiple side altars, which include paintings by the Bassanos, Ricci, and Palma Giovane. But San Giorgio’s main claim to fame is the architecture. Large arches supported by Corinthian pilasters articulate a cruciform nave while giant composite columns on pedestals support a majestically vaulted ceiling. A light-filled dome hovers over the crossing while a screen of columns veil the ornately carved monastic choir behind. The focus of the sanctuary is a wonderful baroque high altar with a globe and sculptures of the Trinity. 

Interrupting the serenity and perfection of the architecture is a large round drum placed at the center of the church. It emits a column of smoke. A giant mechanical duct that protrudes into the center of the dome draws the smoke upwards in a variety of shapes while art tourists sit in reverent awe. The misty movement and the sound of numerous fans allow the installation to steal the focus from the church and its sacred art. San Giorgio is no longer a vessel for liturgy or prayer, but rather a backdrop for an experiment in physics. In some way, art that is disruptive can have the effect of removing the sense of the sacred, resulting in an implied deconsecration. The artist has entitled the work Ascension, and explains, “what interests me is the idea of immateriality becoming an object, which is exactly what happens in ascension: the smoke becomes a column. Also present in this work is the idea of Moses following a column of smoke, a column of light, in the desert...”  Really?  Is this a thoughtful reinterpretation of religious belief or merely a witty joke at the Church’s expense? The fact that the installation was created for an art gallery in Italy and previously exhibited in a bank in Rio and a gallery in Beijing makes any religious explanations suspect. The Los Angeles Times cited Ascension as a contemporary-art emperor wearing no clothes. Or is there something more subversive going on? If churches are seen as irrelevant for modern man, except as artifacts of cultural history, they naturally become sites for experimentation. It is not surprising that the organizers of the Biennale would relish this use of a prominent church as a venue for contemporary art, but the fact that its use was agreed to by the Benedictines and the Archdiocese is sad.  On the other hand, the artist could not be happier.  His rising smoke benefits by being seen within the majestic space of San Giorgio, and gives back emptiness, one of the stated aims of the contemporary artist’s work.