Venice Biennale

In Venice, Italy, I gazed upward into St. Mark Basilica’s West Dome, unaware that I would soon receive a revelation. These delightful Byzantine style mosaics – exploding with the raw power of flattened designs without naturalistic perspective – portrayed the Holy Spirit at the top of the dome, symbolized by a dove sitting on a book.

I happen to love books and birds (reminding me of my humorous pet cockatiel who I adored for twenty-one years). Pouring forth from the Holy Spirit streamed wide vertical lines that descended down the dome, as if showering divine energies on the twelve apostles below. But the hallowed presence didn’t stop there. At the base of the dome (the 4 lower angels hovered below the dome itself), smaller people spanned a lower ring, the citizens of Venice. They also received the wonder-filled dynamism. Spell-bound, I absorbed the scene. 

The mosaics were created in the 1100s. The Holy Spirit’s message hailed the Venetians to spread Christianity around the world. As a seafaring nation that guarded its latest technology and ship-building skills in the gigantic fortress, the Arsenale (Arsenal), for hundreds of years, Venice indeed spread goods and culture to many other nations.

I’d just installed my one-person art exhibit, thirty floor-to-ceiling mixed media close-up muscle studies, as part of the Venice Biennale Art Fair. I didn’t represent the USA as their single chosen artist. Instead, I’d been invited by a Venetian gallery to create a “collateral exhibit,” affiliated with the Biennale, but not at its core. Although I wasn’t one of the art stars, I felt thrilled to show my work in Venice during their famous art season, lasting six months. It amazed me to learn that the Venice Biennale began in 1893 to spotlight modern art from countries all over the world. At the time, new explorations into Impressionism, Cubism and Futurism created a furor of excitement. Venice recognized the force of this vanguard art and felt compelled to present it to the world.

As I visited the many pavilions and galleries, I felt awed by the universal language of contemporary art. From Zimbabwe to the United Arab Emirates, abstract and realistic styles were equally accepted, but all vibrated with innovative design. I hadn’t thought that such diverse countries could share a common language or aesthetic. However, they all spoke to me in a silent art dialectic. Modern art has always contained a commitment to freedom of personal expression. Artists from almost every country powerfully communicated through art and I resonated with their messages at a deep level. 

Poland filled a pavilion with floor-to-ceiling murals constructed of fabrics depicting emotional images of the nomadic Roma (Gypsies) moving their earthly goods in a perpetual journey. I found this poignant, knowing that the Roma sometimes moved to escape prejudice. I’ve changed homes over twenty times in my life and could relate to the jarring feelings involved. The fabrics gave the art an overall warmth and coziness, even though they covered a large space, as though reminding us of the Roma’s close family ties.

By contrast, in the Japan pavilion, on the second floor, a large twelve foot by twelve foot hole had been excised from the center of the floor, allowing viewers to see the ground about twenty feet below. The whole room had been blackened and the lights kept dim, except for a four-inch band near the ceiling of a red blinking and moving ticker tape giving off faint electronic buzzing sounds. I found this minimalist environment powerful because of the central existential void many of us feel within: Why are we here? Why must we die? The red band reminded me that we’re surrounded by electronics in our current lives, constantly measuring and monitoring us. I loved the stark simplicity in this room that captured an essence of modern life. 

Although I couldn’t speak Polish or Japanese, I profoundly felt the communications both exhibits conveyed to me. I enjoyed similar experiences in many other countries displays throughout the Biennale.

I happened to be in Venice for one of the city’s biggest national holidays, the Festival of the Redentore (the Redeemer), that commemorated the end of a bad plague in 1576. This celebration had been canceled last year due to our modern pandemic, so the Italians around me seemed to celebrate with extra fervor. Families sang and danced in the streets and on the decks of hundreds of boats, balloons and colorful decorations festooned homes and churches, and almost an hour of fireworks lit up the San Marco Basin. While I stood on the packed, elbow-to-elbow shore enjoying the light show over the sea, I overheard a few young tourists ask some locals what they should see in Venice. Without hesitation, several young Italian men joined in saying, “The Venice Biennale, our famous art exhibits from all over the world. They are up now and you must see them.”

All at once I comprehended the St. Mark Basilica’s West Dome in a new way. To me, the liberty to experience the creative process, the essence of art, has always been sacred. I imagined the Holy Spirit, the dove and the book, as representing an Art Spirit, a transcendent expression that rained down upon the citizens of Venice. The young men I’d overheard, proud of their Biennale and promoting it to people from another country, were infused with this ardor for art. I’d witnessed the spread of an avant-garde zeitgeist the Venetians were wise enough to understand more than one hundred years ago. 

Over the years, this small city has encouraged and spread the art credo of individualistic inventiveness to thousands of international artists and hundreds of thousands of visitors. Countless cities across the globe have imitated Venice, sponsoring their own large-scale Biennial Art Fairs. Just as the West Dome graphically expressed, according to my re-interpretation, Venice has spread the sanctity of individual ingenuity and the accompanying freedom that’s vital for a person to pursue an all-important aesthetic vision.

2022 July 15-November 13
Kaethe Kauffman – Yoga: Interiore e Eterno (Yoga: Interior & Eternal)
Castello Gallery 925 Galleria
Venice, Italy
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