Several weeks ago, in Venice, the curtain went up on the new exhibit at the François Pinault collection at the Punta della Dogana with the emblematic title In Praise of Doubt—a clear reference to the fragility of the present. The characters in the play are all superstars of the contemporary art milieu: Donald Judd, Maurizio Cattelan, Subodh Gupta, Jeff Koons, Bruce Nauman, and Charles Ray just to name a few.
Like previous shows, this one was curated by Caroline Bourgeois who has chosen to propose "doubt in its most essential dimension," starting with space itself. Each artist enjoys his or her own space, or room, with the exception of the first, where different untitled pieces follow one another: the horse with its head wedged into the wall by our Maurizio Cattelan located under the truss; three elegant and detached sculptures by Donald Judd—the vertical column, stacks (1966), steel rectangular multiples (1968) and wood multiples (1989)—which inhabit marvellously the textured walls in red clay brick, the same as those found in the Roman basilicas; here, whether they are new or recovered, they show the erosion caused by salt water over the centuries.
The last piece in this untitled series is by David Hammons; it is a basketball hoop created, as usual, with salvaged materials. The hoop is made out of glass beads, very similar to diamonds, but the backboard that supports it is decorated with chandeliers and candles adorned with glittering tassels. Hammons created the kind of object that can be both very sophisticated and very kitsch and made it a beautifully sculptural work of art, though perhaps he would not agree with this definition. "When you make a piece of art, it becomes a political object as soon as you give it the finishing touches," he clarified in a conversation published in the exhibit catalogue. "It's no longer art; it is while you are making it but when you're done, you find yourself with a political object in your hands and wonder: should I destroy it, sell it, give it away? Who wants it? Then you have a problem." And like all his work, this one is also highly political. His second installation bears the emblematic title Forgotten Dream; it is located in a small space called the Torrino [small tower] a lookout on the top of the Punta della Dogana. It's a wedding dress—a vintage model in silk and lace with a train—hanging in a corner of the Torrino; it is beautiful, but enormously distant. Unattainable.
The room dedicated to Sturtevant (Lakewood, Ohio, 1930), who will receive the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the next Venice Biennale, is a pleasant shock. Building on her past as a conceptual artist, Sturtevant has reproposed (identical to the originals) Marcel Duchamp's most famous readymades; Le Porte Bouteille and Roue de Bicyclette, her psychedelic videos still today continue to be staggering and revolutionary.
In a recent interview Martin Bethenod, director of Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, pointed out the importance of space planning, underlining the evident need to create a balance between permanent and temporary exhibits, between exhibit/events and longer-running shows. "At Punta della Dogana, the rhythm is the same as that used by major museums for rotating the collections. The works remain on display for about 18 or 20 months. Sometimes they stay longer because, as time passes, we realize that they inhabit the space to the point of feeling at home".
This is precisely the case of Sigmar Polke's Axial Age created for the Venice Biennale in 2007. They are large-scale pieces on canvas painted with pigments, characterized by a small number of figures that appear and disappear depending on the position of the viewer and light.
As usual, even for this show, François Pinault commissioned several new works: paintings by Julie Merethu and one by Tatiana Trouvé. "Merethu," notes Caroline Bourgeois, "was inspired by various elements in Venetian architecture and confronts them with those in New York where she lives." Her paintings speak of flows, movement of people and things and, just like Tatiana Trouvé's complex installations, they can "express the tension between what's outside and what's inside, between what's in the past and what's to come."
During the presentation of In Praise of Doubt, Bourgeois wanted to clarify that, in conceiving the show, she chose to work on the "complementarity" of extremes. From a pure and minimalist Judd, she reaches the reflection on the dark side of abject humanity reproduced Roxys a 1940s brothel by California artist Edward Kienholz (1960–61). She then moves to the work of Paul McCarthy (Salt Lake City, 1945), in which female mannequins in irreverent poses are topped with disproportionate and ordinary male heads. The room is completed with a series of bronze busts of dignitaries entitled Pirates Heads, in which the features of their faces are characterized by conspicuous grafts of male sexual organs.
Among the most striking rooms are those dedicated to Roni Horn, Maurizio Cattelan and Chen Zhen. Horn's room is quite low, and even the semicircular windows are placed low to the floor and reflect, in a very particular way, both the light of the sky and its reflection on the water of the sea. For Horn, Punta della Dogana was the ideal context for exploring her preferred theme: water.
Through minimal gestures, the artist has worked on contrast: Well and Truly, as the piece is entitled, is composed of several round works that refer to the idea of both water and sky. Their color, just like those two elements, changes with the time of day. In a conversation, Horn compared her sculptures to the writings of Emily Dickinson in which she maintained that "there is no narrative structure to cling to, there is nothing that can be identified or whose identity can be separated from experience," and concluded, "this is the kind of experience I'm trying to offer in my work."
The Horn room flows into the Cattelan room hosting the All installation (2008). Nine shrouds carved in white marble hint at the silhouettes of the people underneath them but all are completely anonymous. It is an artwork that leaves you breathless; revealing the perfect essence of Cattelan the artist.
The space devoted to Chen Zhen (Shanghai 1955–Paris 2000) is an authentic tribute to the artist. The three pieces reveal the complexity of his inner world. At just 25, Chen was diagnosed with a rare disease which he fought and learned to live with it. Crystal Landscape of Inner Body (2000) is made of transparent and formless pieces of glass: thoughts, perhaps confused and elusive—an interior landscape that expresses the failure of life. Cocon du vide is a traditional Chinese chair enclosed in shell made from the wooden beads of Buddhist rosaries. While Village Sans Frontières (America, Oceania, Europe, Africa, 2000) is composed of small houses made with colored candles hanging from the wall.
Of all the works in the collection, the one that seems to have most captured the public is Boy with Frog; placed outdoors, on the edge of the Punta della Dogana, it was commissioned by François Pinault from Charles Ray in 2009.
The large white marble sculpture has become, as Ray himself had hoped, an honorary citizen of Venice, but perhaps it could not be otherwise, given that it was wisely placed in the Fortuna historical complex, created by Bernardo Falcone in 1677, and represents two bronze atlases supporting a globe surmounted by Fortune.