Venice Biennale 2017: Thematic Highlights

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Anticipation takes hold before we head to Venice for the Biennale Arte, as we consider (and wonder about) what topics will emerge. It’s easy to experience the Biennale, now in its 57th iteration, as if you’ve never seen art before. Curator Christine Macel asked each artist to be as free as possible, to celebrate the joy of making art and living it. With that, “Viva Arte Viva” became the theme for this edition and it expresses an enthusiasm and positive energy that has been missing from areas of the art world for some time.

This year, it’s very much the Biennale of art for the artists. Of the 120 people who have been invited to showcase in the Biennale’s two main locations—Arsenale and Giardini—103 are presenting for the first time. Altogether, the viewer experience is about the discovery of new names and the recovery of forgotten ones. Regardless, with such a refreshing yet rigorous curatorial approach it’s easy to spot recurring phenomena, both cultural and visual.

Regarding technique, drawing is one of the strongest protagonists. The ink drawings of Moroccan-born Achraf Touloub make reference to an ancient art of miniatures but focus on the constant repetition of signs. Inuit typographer and sculptor Kananginak Pootoogook (1952-2010) used drawing to tell the stories of his people’s everyday lives. His large drawings on display hail from the last years of his life and include images and words in Inuktitut, his mother tongue. The essential traits of Huguette Caland’s work include female genitals visually located between fun and provocation, warm eroticism and cold portraiture. Czech artist Luboš Plný’s love for anatomy takes shape through intricate lines of colors that resemble maps or veins. Born in Romania, Ciprian Mureșan’s work underlines the overabundance of images of today’s visual culture. And this is just the beginning.

Another surprise at the Biennale is the constant presence of textiles. They’re everywhere, in the form of embroidered sculptures, large-scale installations, knitted dolls and painted dresses. The greatest concentration is at Arsenale, where Ernesto Neto presents a gigantic knitted biomorphic architecture, Cynthia Gutierrez intersects marble elements with “telar de cintura” from the Mexican Oaxaca province, Franz Erhard Walther (this year’s Golden Lion winner for Best Artist) hangs his noted sculptural textile geometries on the walls. Softness and colors are also found in the highly-Instagrammed roundness of “Escalade Beyond Chromatic Land” by Sheila Hicks. In such a small area guests travel from Brazil to Mexico, Germany to the US and event further away, imagining—literally—a common thread that connects the life of the artists.

Many works are a demonstration of a real love for imperfect surfaces and materials. These give a sense of poetic roughness. At Giardini, the Israel Pavilion is transformed through the work of Gal Weinstein and his oxidations, molds, scratched walls and layers of pigment on soft matter. This is Weinstein’s way to stop time, make it still and give a new interpretation of the icons of his homeland. A few steps away, the British Pavilion hosts the gigantic sculptures of Phillida Barlow. The packed installation make the visitor feel small and slightly uneasy. Here the materials are wood, cement, cardboard, cast and varnish, most of which are recuperated so beautifully defective.

In some installations, the transformation of organic and natural materials is literal. This is the case with the shoes Michel Blazy used as if they were the obvious place to grow plants. Organic materials are also the focal point of what we believe to be the most impressive work of the entire Biennale, Roberto Cuoghi‘s “Imitation of Christ” at Padiglione Italia. A complex creative process has been established in a lab-like environment. It starts with the serial production of several life-size dead Christs made of organic materials. The sculptures are aged in a controlled environment, where the artist cannot foresee the final result. As a final step, Cuoghi mummifies the sculptures, closing a circle of life and death, classic art and biotechnology.

Biennale Arte 2017 is open to the public from 15 May to 26 November 2017. It’s accompanied by a dense program of events, performances and off-site exhibitions.

Images courtesy of Paolo Ferrarini

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Highlights From Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Etienne

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Located in the south east of France, the coal mining city of Saint-Etienne launched the Biennale Internationale Design 20 years ago. The 10th iteration recently opened (and will run through early April). Within, one will find an exploration of the concept of change. This theme, officially “Shifting Work Paradigms” was chosen by Olivier Peyricot, Scientific Director of the Biennale and Director of the Research Department at the Cité du Design. Since design is about problem-solving for the future, the exploration of work, technology, politics and society through that lens makes perfect sense. Of course, sometimes doubts are more relevant than the certainties—and the works at Saint-Etienne reflect that. While some look playfully at utopic futures and some are grim, all of them make a valid point about the ever-evolving nature of work, commerce and their effects on us as societies.

Several projects feature Detroit as a protagonist. While that might seem unexpected, the American city actually has quite a lot in common with Saint-Etienne—specifically an industrial past and a lively, evolving creative scene. “Out of Site” recounts the work of design studio Akoaki, whose founders (Anya Sirota and Jean-Louis Farges) create public installations and performances meant to generate experimental environments. Music plays a key role and, according to Sirota, “in Detroit, music is everywhere and it’s one of its most interesting forms of design.” The installation they present in Saint-Etienne is made of 450 pieces and can be easily dismantled and stored on a truck. This nomadic installation has already been used more than once in attempts to revive and excite suburbs—of course, accompanied by live music.

Another common theme at the event is that of work—more specifically work in the context of technology. Thanks to relentless notifications for e-mails, messages and calls, even without a traditional office, work follows us all the time. The exhibition “Working Dead” presents this idea as a spectacular installation. Five environments are aligned in a 1000-square-meter industrial space. Fake floors and ceilings recall a fairly dull office space, but no objects are on display—there are only sounds, voices, and images that create immersive and evocative situations of work. According to curator Didier Fiúza Faustino the five installations “look like temples or mausoleums, maybe graveyards” for quite a maudlin message.

Following logically along the work theme is that of economy and currency. When thinking of an ideal future, equality and freedom are oftentimes key words—both of which are primarily reserved for the wealthy. At Saint-Etienne this year, visitors have the chance to live in a commune where you can stay for free in exchange for work. Artist and designer Jerzsy Seymour has created the colorful “Lucky Larry Cosmic Commune” inside an abandoned industrial building. Anyone can go and have a space, but it’s necessary to work for the good of the community by producing merchandise, cleaning, cooking or organizing lectures, conferences and concerts. Seymour states that this is “a non-utopian utopia based on exchange economy.”

Also tackling the saturation of technology in our lives—both personal and professional—artist Tess Dumon created “Take Shelter.” This piece embodies a tiny room where everything is covered with images found on a phone—in essence, everything consumed via a smartphone each day is now physical. The result is both colorful and scary, invasive yet intriguing, something visitors can’t turn away from—just like our smartphones.

On now at Citè du Design as well as Mine Museum and Park, MAM Contemporary Art Museum, Art and Industry Museum and the stores in Rue de la Republique, Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Etienne will run through 9 April 2017.

Images by Paolo Ferrarini

Osservatorio Prada: observing from both sides of the camera

Osservatorio is the most recent addition to Fondazione Prada. Opened on December 21, 2016 it is located in the very heart of Milan and is meant to showcase “photography and visual languages” today.

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Curated by Francesco Zanot, the opening exhibition is “Give me yesterday”.

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Fourteen Italian and international artists are the protagonists. Their names? Melanie Bonajo, Kenta Cobayashi, Tomé Duarte, Irene Fenara, Lebohang Kganye, Vendula Knopova, Leigh Ledare, Wen Ling, Ryan McGinley, Izumi Miyazaki, Joanna Piotrowska, Greg Reynolds, Antonio Rovaldi, Maurice van Es.

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The art on display is eye-catching, as well as the sourroundings. Being on top of the historic Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, from the huge windows we can observe the glass top of the ancient arcade. This unusual point of view makes Osservatorio a real observatory over the city.

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I visited the space at dusk and had a lot of fun with my Fuji X100T. But I was not alone, since lots of photographers and phonographers were all going back and forth from looking at pictures to actually taking pictures.

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And this composition of Italian panoramas by Antonio Rovaldi is probably the most instagrammed work of the entire exhibition.

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Osservatorio is an ideal place for those who really love photography, from both sides of the camera.

Dear Data Postcard Project

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Dear Data,” an “analog data drawing project” founded and conducted by Giorgia Lupiand Stefanie Posavec, is essentially a personal data visualization correspondence exchange between the aforementioned artists, illustrated by hand on postcards. Lupi in Brooklyn and Posavec in London sent each other a postcard each week for a year. The 104 postcards are now a book in two editions—one for the US and one for the EU. Further, the entire set of postcards was recently acquired by NYC’s MoMA for its permanent collection.

It all started in 2013 with an encounter at the Eyeo Festival in Minneapolis. Lupi says, “I was familiar with Stefanie’s work very well before meeting her in person. It has always fascinated me how elegant, detailed, sublime and poetic her visualizations are. Her crafted and laborious way of working with data touches profound chords, I admired her process and body of work long before encountering her in real life.” Posavec explains, “We ended up talking to each other because we realized that we had a lot in common, but mainly because we both approached data visualization from a very handmade place. We didn’t code like many of our fellow data visualization colleagues but instead would use sketching and drawing as a way of coming up with new visual languages for representing data, and, for us, we saw this handmade process as vital to our creative/design process.” Of course the similarities weren’t simply professional, they hit it off personally too—both are only children and expats—and over a beer, they decided to collaborate.

“Ten days after we split and came back to our cities, I got an email from Stefanie, and everything started,” Lupi tells us. “From there on and for the following two months a copious number of emails flooded, where we over time refined the concept of our collaboration: daily or weekly datasets to work on, daily or weekly data-drawings, parallel types of data, finding a human and personal twist on the data. Ultimately we decided to work with our personal data, gathering information about ourselves to share with the other person, in an attempt to use data and drawings—the material we both work with—to get to know each other, over the course of the year.” The project—sending postcards to each other weekly—grew quite organically. Lupi says the idea of being ‘data pen pals’ “seemed incredibly compelling, and we decided to take in the risk that some of our postcards might get lost or damaged during their travel.”

While they were essentially gathering data, they also had to track it. “Initially, we had the crazy idea that we would collect our data manually; hand-writing all of our logs and details on a little Moleskine,” Lupi says. “But after the first week we agreed that it was just insane: to make our data collection sustainable over time and as less intrusive possible to our lives, we could use digital apps to jot down our data. Stefanie and I collected our data in different ways. I have been using different types of apps such as Evernote or the Reporter app, which is a very powerful tool for data recording if you know what types of ‘questions’ to set up. We also needed to get creative and find ways to quickly note things down on pieces of paper or even drawing a little reminder on our hands in all of these situations where it would be impolite to pull out our phones.”

It’s unsurprising that a project combining technology, design and personal stories would evolve into a book, but Lupi says it’s more than that. “The book obviously started with the project and it is based on our stories in form of data postcards for the year, but our collection of postcards is actually the starting point for an evolving conversation and another kind of back and forth between the two of us around our approach to data: around the importance of working with personal data with awareness and attention and expanding and elaborating on how we can use data as a material to connect with ourselves at a deeper level and to address even the trickiest matters in our minds.”

Since “Dear Data” was executed by Lupi and Posavec alone, collecting data in their own ways to create something together yet autonomous, the book evolved into something quite different. “The book was designed through lots of compromise and discussion as designers—which also helped us learn more about each other,” Lupi says. “It was also a great benefit in the end—as a designer, it can be very easy to think your way is always the right way, so through this continual discourse and debate we have been able to extend ourselves and see different solutions than what we might have normally taken.”

Their project is now part of the permanent collection at NYC’s MoMA. Lupi says, “Paola Antonelli (MoMA’s design curator) has been collecting data visualization for MoMA for a while now: Martin Wattenberg, Fernanda Viegas, Ben Fry, and Nicholas Felton are just a few prominent data visualization names who have also been acquired… We are so honored to have our work in the same collection as so many design and art masters, and we believe it also reinforces the value in experimenting and working on the edges of different disciplines (design / art / data visualization) in order to move all these disciplines forward.” Posavec explains the process took some time, as the team at MoMA decided whether or not to acquire the piece, “Stefanie and I spent months keeping all our fingers crossed, hoping the MoMA acquisition committee would agree with Paola that our work was worth being acquired. Needless to say, we couldn’t be happier and prouder and a multitude of other adjectives that our project has found the most incredibly permanent home.”

Images courtesy of Cassell & Co

Studio Job + Alessi’s Comtoise Clock

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Best known for their unique creative approach that merges art and design, Studio Job‘s creations are oftentimes easily recognized. The two Flemish designers leading the studio (Job Smets and Nynke Tynagel) have a knack for using plenty of symbols—from the esoteric to the digital, and the classic to the obscure. During Milan Design Week we spoke with Smets about the industry as a whole, and the studio’s latest creation: the Comtoise Clock, designed for iconic Italian design house Alessi.

Studio Job (which is now made up of 20 people) is in the process of creating several products for Alessi, and the collaboration has been a long time coming. “I met Alberto Alessi for the first time, I think, in 2003 and then we didn’t have any contact for at least 10-15 years,” Smet tells us. “I thought [a collaboration] would never happen.” In the end, the timing has proven to be perfect, because a decade ago, the studio was leaning toward art more than design. But now, Smets says, there’s a balance that has aligned them with Alessi’s desires.

After gaining a little more understanding about Alessi’s production methods and catalogue, thanks to a visit at their plant and a brainstorming session with the team, Smets says Studio Job asked themselves, “‘What has never been done within Alessi?’ And tin—like tin that can be used for soup cans—never really had been adopted there.”

The result is the Comtoise, which is smothered in classic and modern-day symbolism—from hands forming a peace sign to arrows, diamonds, pills and bananas. The clock has an overall nostalgic visual language. “[We wanted] embossing and color, to make it become like an old cookie tin. Everyone has an old cookie tin, everyone still knows what it is,” Smets says. “For us, it was perfect because we’ve got the perfect combination between what Nynke does and what I do. The shape of the clock refers to the 18th century, something which my parents had hanging on the wall when I was young. That makes the design personal and that’s what we need these days,” Smets tells us.

Like so many industries, design has evolved a lot over the past decade. Smets is positive about all the changes, however, and predicts a kind of design renaissance. “We are living again in this sort of post-modern era, and also the identity of a designer becomes more and more important in the way that they develop personal products instead of modernist products… The fields are overlapping a little bit and this is really great. If you look at our office, we work in art, we work in design, we work in fashion and music and architecture, graphic design, 3D design, product development and corporate identities.” In many ways, the Comtoise Clock represents an intersection between art and design, and again, the past and present of both.

Milano Design Awards 2016

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My latest article for Cool Hunting.

Now in its sixth year, the Milan Design Award has become one of the most anticipated moments of Milan Design Week. Dedicated to the most interesting installations of the week, the award (whose physical prize is a sculpture of a little horse, the mythical Sleipnir Troll Mini, made by Italian artist and architect Duilio Forte) goes to a designer or team whose work combines design, performance, technology and entertainment. In 2016–as with previous years—the winners conjured up fascinating creations that were much more than just installations; instead they were exciting experiences for anybody lucky enough to take a wander.

This year’s winner was “The Shit Evolution—Il Museo della Merda,” a highly innovative project that combines design, art and sustainability, all set in the picturesque cellars of SIAM (Historical Society for the Encouragement of Arts and Crafts). The exhibition was conceived by Luca Cipelletti, curated by Massimo Torrigiani, and co-produced by 5Vie Art+Design. It displayed several objects made of “merdacotta”—a terracotta derived from cow dung. Photographs by Henrik Blomqvist projected around the installation depicted the cows in farms where the raw material is collected. Roberto Coda Zabetta’s paintings were made using poop and pigments. The mysterious “Giga Shit Brick” opened the exploration, while fossilized feces from some 200 million years ago ended the journey. Strange, interesting and of course a little humorous at times, the installation was a wild ride for festival attendees.

Scooping up the Best Concept Award was “The Boring Collection” by Lensvelt Contract, who presented their new affordable office furniture collection in a large loft. Visitors were given a balled-up press release, to throw in wastepaper baskets spread all over the space—playing off stereotypical boring office life. The result was a delightful mess.

Poetry and data were combined in Jelle Mastenbroek’s “Data Orchestra” for which the emerging designer wanted to make people think a little deeper about big data and the organizations that collect it. Wining the Best Tech Award, the installation posed plenty of questions about privacy. Visitors could swipe a credit card—or any sort of chip we carry with us—and data was turned into sound created by everyday objects such as dishes, pens, glasses and cutlery.

Nike’s “The Nature of Motion” (awarded Best Storytelling) was a spectacular installation—and was rumored to be the most expensive in the history of Milan Design Week. Between walls made of white shoeboxes, visitors experienced spaces within a former factory—all surrounded by design experiments, colorful projections, and prototypes from the company’s R&D division.

Aisin (collaborating with Masaru Suzuki, Hideki Yoshimoto, Setsu and Shinobu Ito) created “Imagine New Days” which manifested lifestyles of the future, when high-technology (the core activity of the Japanese company that was awarded Best Engagement) meets common activities—such as expressing our creativity. After experiencing a dark hi-tech hall, visitors entered a white environment made of transparent strips of fabric, where they could play with sewing machines.

Yet another standout was Panasonic’s “Kukan—The Invention of Space,” the first winner of the new People’s Choice Award, chosen by the users of the official app of Fuorisalone. Seven pillars made of 140 HD monitors created a dramatic and almost overwhelming atmosphere. The screens showed imagery of Japan—from classic paintings to bustling current-day cities—and the constant movement made the entire installation buzz with energy.

OXYDO + Clémence Seilles Sunglasses

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Italian eyewear brand OXYDO has joined forces with French artist Clémence Seillesfor a super-daring and brightly colored collection of sunglasses. The OXYDO Lab SS16 collection features six styles—simple in shapes but extreme in colors and materials.

“OXYDO was looking to collaborate with a sculpture artist exploring materials… Indeed one aspect of my work is imbued with material research and their process of fabrication,” she tells us. Seilles was so excited about the eyewear brand approaching her that she jumped in her car and drove from Bolzano to Padova right away. She says, “I was really inspired and excited about the brief. I have been interested in designing glasses for some time, producing in the past years small crafted series as wearable sculptures. So from customizing OXYDO lines, we went to develop my own drawings, with Marco [Nicolé, the brand’s in-house designer] who did an amazing job supporting translating the drawings into production.”

With nods to the likes of Ettore Sottsass and Superstudio, the OXYDO Lab collection strongly references architecture. “The radical Italian architects of the ’70s are totally part of my education. Their understanding of design as a creation of situation is a guide for myself,” says Seilles. “Their statement is pretty essential—drawing from primordial simple forms and shifting from convention to surprise with a certain sense of humor.”

“Patterns we find in nature—but developed artificially by industry—were in my head for this OXYDO collection,” Seilles continues, “Imitation of nature with a shift—faking it with an acid eye is also a drive in general in my work. I think we found a good match of acetate patterns and arrangements.”

Also noteworthy is the interesting use of materials and textures. “Materials and surfaces are what you come to play with to translate a poetry in tangible forms. I mix material sources regardless of their origin: printed plastic foils, wood agglomerate, synthetic concrete, re-melted polyethylene, polyurethane resins, foams, marble powder, mixed resins, liquid wood.” It’s the intersection of all these beliefs—regarding inspiration, color, lines, materials and textures—that it’s clear Seilles is both an artist and an industrial designer.

“Glasses are a perfect product for sculptural purposes. The mask—for the sculptor and performance artist that I am—is an unavoidable component. The invitation from OXYDO to collaborate on two industrial collections, was an amazing opportunity for me to confront sculptural composition on a fashion accessory,” Seilles concludes. “In my mind, accessories are to be seen, and glasses are wearable sculptures.”

The OXYDO + Clémence Seilles collaboration collection is available at various retailers from Milan to Shanghai and Los Angeles.