Friday, July 10, 2009

Modernizing Antiquity

Postcard from Aleksandra Mir's Venezia installation

Piranesi's Aranzi d'un Portico coperto...

The Grand Tour is a tradition that affects all modern travelers as it laid the foundation for the tourist industry we know today. Beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, young European men of means traveled through Italy in search of art, culture, and the roots of Western civilization. The main purpose and value of the Grand Tour was to experience the cultural legacy of classical antiquity and the Renaissance, which translated into commissioning paintings, perfecting secondary languages, and mingling with European nobility. Having recently participated in a modern take on the Grand Tour, studying Renaissance art in Florence and contemporary art in Venice, I would like to share an interesting comparison between the master engraver, Giovanni Piranesi and contemporary Polish artist, Aleksandra Mir.

Aleksandra Mir is one of the artists participating in the 53rd International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, an event that is the closet thing the art world has to the Olympics, where seventy-seven countries present pavilions devoted to artists of their choice. Mir’s installation, Venezia (all places contain all others), was among my favorites at the Biennale and prompted my reflection on the Grand Tour tradition. The piece consisted of a million free postcards, presented in open cardboard boxes. Walking through the vast arsenale (Venice’s massive former shipping yard), filled with the most incredible and outrageous displays of contemporary art, coming across relatively conventional items, such as postcards, I was somewhat tempted to keep walking. However, skepticism is a useful mentality to implore at the biennale and what looks seemingly commonplace is, of course, so much more.

In Mir’s installation, various places characterized by the presence of water were substituted for traditional images of Venice, with the word “Venezia” printed over the appropriated landscapes, effectively disorienting the observer. The artist therefore redefines the essence of tourism, freeing tourists of its stereotyped images while simultaneously challenging paradigms. In a similar way, Giovanni Piranesi disregarded realism to make a statement to the tourists of his day, the grand tourists. Indeed, he took creative liberties in an effort to augment the sense of antiquity in Rome, and even though his views weren’t necessarily realistic, they became the standard images of ancient Rome. Piranesi sold his prints to grand tourists, who brought them back to every corner of Europe, where their awestruck neighbors conceived a desire to see the amazing antiquities in person. Thus the artist not only capitalized on the Grand Tour—he intensified it. Naturally, Mir’s postcards will also be circulated by the public to every part of the world as nonrepresentational mementos, serving as evocations of the Biennale experience.

By printing a million copies, Mir transforms the ephemeral nature of postcards into a powerful medium, transmitting the meaning of the artwork across time and space. Piranesi pioneered this concept—using copperplate prints as a medium, he routinely pulled over 3,000 prints from a single plate, way above the then average of 100 prints. Undoubtedly, Mir hopes that one day one of these postcards will end up on the stall of an antique dealer similar to the way Piranesi’s etchings of Rome hang in antique galleries today. I found Mir’s installation a brilliant piece of contemporary art, categorized by its interesting connection with Piranesi and capacity for long-term resonance. Indeed, Mir, as well as tourists like me, have Piranesi to thank for popularizing the idea of the visual memento, for what are postcards if not the modern day equivalent of the 17th century vedute?

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