Venice Biennale Has Baroque Star, Lots of Videos

here’s some great art in the Venice Biennale. Mind you, the best isn’t necessarily contemporary.

The main exhibition, ILLUMinations (Central Pavilion of the Giardini and the Arsenale) starts off with three magnificent canvases by the 16th-century painter Jacopo Tintoretto.

This neatly makes the point that art doesn’t really progress, and its raw ingredients — form, color and light — are constant. Tintoretto also sets a high standard for the 83 artists of the 21st century exhibiting in the art galleries at the two venues. That said, there are some showstopping items en route.

The Biennale director on this occasion, Bice Curiger from Switzerland, means the title of the main show metaphorically: mental enlightenment that might come from art. The name of the Biennale exhibition is always vague (“Plateau of Humanity” from the 2001 Biennale still wins my prize for lack of meaning).

This time, a few of the more outstanding pieces actually are about light. The U.S. artist James Turrell has contributed one of his Ganzfeld series, where extraordinary spaces in changing light appear to create solid walls and magically alter perceptions.

Halfway down the vast array in the Arsenale, the Swiss artist Urs Fischer displays a brilliant conceit: a full-scale cast of Giovanni Bologna’s 16th-century sculpture, “The Rape of the Sabine Women.” The catch is that this is entirely composed of candle wax. The whole three-figure Mannerist farrago will burn away during the run of the 54th Biennale — art literally giving light. Already, the lower figure is melting badly at one knee.

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