Monday, 17 December 2012

Europe’s Year Of The Celt

VENICE. Has this been the Year of the Celt, or what? First the Council of Europe dubs Dublin the City of Europe. It opened its Year of Culture with a funky gathering of the best and brightest contemporary Irish art and exhibited it at Gateway to Art, in the domestic departure lounges of Dublin International Airport.

Then the Palazzo Grassi (until Dec. 8) asserted, by poster and ubiquitous promotion, that the show of the year is its “I Celti.” The Swiss, not to be outshouted on their 700th anniversary, packaged a show traveling to the biggest cities of Switzerland and called it “Helvetian Gold” (in Geneva until February 1992).

Well, transplanted unprofessional Celt that I am, I was impressed. In this status tussle between Ireland, Italy and Switzerland, I pin the palm d’or on the shuffling, diffident Swiss breast. (Switzerland, has spent its septicentennializing year wailing about what a messed-up paradise it is. Only the Canadians are greater world-class whiners.)

Start, then, with “The Celts” in Milanese architect Gae Aulenti’s rehabbed palace on the Grand Canal. Frankly, I’d cross half a continent just to sit in the café overlooking the canal and staffed by waiters from the legendary Harry’s Bar.

The trouble is, Ms. Aulenti isn’t content to let her well-enough alone: She has invoked her droit de signorina to install both this show and its megapredecessor, “The Phoenicians.” She must feel compelled to fill every nook and cranny with temporary loot from all over the world to illustrate her corridors. Over 2,000 items in this cache.

I think I’m finally beginning to understand the motive for these megashows: It’s a feather in every far-flung curator’s mobility cap to make the cut. In both the Phoenician and Celtic cases, it has been a triumph of highly-insured mobility over meaning. They should invest that money in reducing the price (and size) of the catalog and captioning a few objects intelligently.

Given the imminence of the Common Market, it seemed significant that the organizers vowed that all such shows in the future would be pan-European in both subject and scholarship. The Celts as the “first Europeans”? Plausible, especially if you read that declaration in the Elan culture magazine of the late Robert Maxwell’s weekly newspaper, The European.

Come to think of it, during 1991, European museums were full of such illuminating sharings: 20th-Century Belgian Art at MOMA / Paris, the Marvin and Janet Fishman collection of German Art between the Wars at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin (now opening at the Jewish Museum / New York), Modernisme in Catalonia on MOMA / Barcelona, Italian Futurism at Madrid’s new Reina Sofia Center for Modern Art, and (not the least) Belgium’s annual Europalia this year, focusing on Portugal. Each of these most instructive exhibitions was small and choice—in short, comprehensible.

But it was the Swiss who were exemplary in the comprehensibility department. (And their contribution to the Venice show was the single most interesting artifact: the careful reconstruction of a Celtic horse-drawn wagon from bits and pieces dug up in Switzerland. The National Museum’s funky young director even proved he knew whence he dug—before it was put on a train to Venice, he drove it around Zurich parks.)

The real achievement of “Helvetian Gold” may derive from the fact that they have damn little gold in their collections. But do they know how to explain: A sequence of five small dioramas shows you how it’s dug up, refined, worked over and ultimately used to decorate the bodies of the powerful or the stark tree-trunks that were the focus of Druidic type religious ceremonies. Don’t dump beaucoup gewgaws, however gaspy, on me: Tell me how they fit into another kind of life.

Another tiny coup for the Micks was the fact the delicate little gold boat that Aulenti placed in a dark Druidic wood (that part of her installation really knocked me out) wasn’t the original from Dublin’s National Museum, but a copy from a London museum. Ha! From such little comeuppances do tiny, long-beleaguered countries fell better about their battered selves.

There was one tiny detail in the Venetian show that fascinated me. Their animal sculptures didn’t center on the beasts you associate with pre-industrial cultures: lions, bulls, tigers, jaguars. No. But rather boars. Scads of examples of that animal, and no explanation. I haven’t been able to check out my hypothesis yet. But think about it, and come up with your own.

On these flat plains, with a society on the brink of domesticating cattle, the boar reigned supreme in their hearts. Powerful enough, but still manageable. Like the Celts themselves. Good luck in 1992, Euroman / woman. Continue to be uncommon in everything but your marketing.

From Welcomat: After Dark Hazard-at-Large, November 27, 1991

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