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Heartbreak Hotel: Vanhaerents Art Collection exhibits works from its collection in Venice
Bruce Nauman, Four Part Large Animals, 1989. Vanhaerents Art Collection. © SABAM Belgium 2015.

VENICE.- The Vanhaerents Art Collection announces Heartbreak Hotel, its first major exhibition outside Belgium. Taking place on the occasion of the 56th Venice Biennale, this exhibition is on view at the Zuecca Project Space, one of Venice’s leading cultural institutions, from May 6 through September 15.

Heartbreak Hotel is curated by Walter Vanhaerents, the founder and primary benefactor of the Vanhaerents Art Collection, in celebration of his 70th birthday.

Keeping in line with earlier exhibitions, which were held at its Brussels location, the presentation immediately draws its title from pop music history. Inspired by the evocative and high-strung lyrics of Elvis Presley’s 1956 song, Heartbreak Hotel brings together thirteen sizeable works from the Vanhaerents Art Collection: they combine visual tension, a strong physical presence and conceptual vigour, while reverberating closely with the ideas and sentiments as expressed through Elvis’s evergreen piece of rock ‘n roll music.

Conceived as a dialogue between works by artists from different backgrounds and generations, the exhibition explores notions of melancholy, physical suffering and martyrdom. Heartbreak Hotel conjures up historical images of warfare and contemporary forms of religious practices, in contrast to an Arcadian realm of waving palm trees, amusing clown figures and leisure ladies in sophisticated, lush surroundings. Throughout its course, the presentation touches on issues of art collecting, as it confronts an impatient collector with his adversary, an unpredictable dealer in devilish attire – soliciting the question: in whose favour will the balance ultimately shift?

Much like the lyrics of Elvis’ song, which were informed by the suicide of an anonymous, despaired man, the exhibition Heartbreak Hotel moves between tragedy and redemption. Echoing the track’s poetic intent to “put a Heartbreak Hotel at the end of [every man’s] lonely street”, this presentation examines the subject of displacement and deterritorialization, emphasizing loss and alienation as much as the need for receptiveness, empowerment and resilience.

Upon entering the Zuecca Project Space, visitors are immediately greeted by Walter, the life-size and impeccably tailored sculpture of Walter Vanhaerents that Markus Schinwald created in 2007. With its nervously tapping foot – a nod to Elvis’ infamous hip-shaking? –, this hanging automaton conveys sentiments of unease, drama and physical frailty, while also hinting to the act of collecting.

Throughout its path, Heartbreak Hotel features a number works that reference (art) collecting, making it a subtext of this presentation. The subject is most apparent in Katharina Fritsch’s Händler (Dealer) from 2001, a diabolical sculpture in shocking pink, which presents a visual pun on the significance of dealers as economic actors and their controversial role as a filter between artist and public; subsequently turning attention towards collectors and art patrons, Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #475 from 2008 envisions in painstaking detail two aging socialites, posing willfully against the backdrop of a grandiose interior – an interior not unlike that of the Zuecca itself; meanwhile, Andy Warhol’s large silkscreen Christ $9.98 (Positive) from 1985-86 refers to the processes of commodification that surround collecting, by its association of religious paraphernalia with advertisings.

As Cindy Sherman’s staged photograph and the doll-like sculptures of Markus Schinwald and Katharina Fritsch are clear to illustrate, the works presented in the vestibule revel in ambiguity, hovering as they do between fact and fantasy, the real and the imaginary, the embodied and inanimate. Their psychological weight resonates particularly well with Lucien Smith’s painting from 2014, Stuck In A Ditch Under The Pale Moonlight. A Dream I Remember Too Well, which balances between the figurative and the abstract: exploring the psychoanalytic notion of the screen memory – a memory unconsciously used to repress an associated event – Smith’s painting simultaneously recalls 1960s military camouflage patterns and the natural movement of water and rain.

With Martyrs (2014), a four-part video installation by Bill Viola, the exhibition Heartbreak Hotel temporarily shifts to a quieter and even solemn mode: derived from his large-scale video installation Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), unveiled at St Paul’s Cathedral, London in May 2014, the works move into a meditative state, as they blend allusions to religious practices, a Baroque-like chiaroscuro and Hollywood lighting into a mesmerizing experience. When each of the four on-screen characters, who all seemingly exist outside of time and space, fall prey to the natural elements of fire, earth, water and air, they poetically exemplify the human capacity to bear pain, hardship and even death in order to remain faithful to their values, beliefs and principles.

In the main hall of the exhibition space, emphasis lies more directly on subjects of transgression and violence, while the works on display also engage with our historical past and issues of perception. One of the key pieces in this respect is Nick van Woert’s Damnatio Memoriae, which was especially commissioned for this exhibition. Borrowing from a Roman concept that intended to erase traitors from memory, this visually complex installation obscures a vintage wooden sculpture of a Christian patron saint almost entirely from view by a semi-transparent cerulean veil of congealed, candy-like urethane. Van Woert’s imposing work subtly engages with the history of Giudecca, the island on which Zuecca Project Space is located and which for centuries provided shelter to families who had fallen from grace.

To different ends, Matthew Day Jackson’s monumental wall relief, August 9, 1945, also draws from history: constructed with charred wood and molten lead, it recalls the aerial bombing of Nagasaki by allied forces, provocatively illustrating that, as Walter Benjamin famously wrote, every document of civilization is simultaneously a document of barbarism. The focus on physical suffering that dominates Jackson’s piece oscillates with Bruce Nauman’s circular Four Part Large Animals (1989), an assemblage in aluminium, which combines body fragments of deer and wolves – animals that are associated with hunting. Connecting predator and prey on an equalizing level, Nauman’s hybrids propose all life as similarly vulnerable.

In turn, Yinka Shonibare’s Leisure Lady (With Ocelots) from 2001 presents a lady of leisure promenading ostentatiously with her three leashed wild cats. While engaged with leisure pursuits and its attendant associations of class, this expansive installation by the British-Nigerian artist deals with notions of exoticism and colonialism, as well as the subordination of nature. Playing subversively with stereotypes and mimicry, Shonibare’s work refers to folk art traditions; as such, it paves the way for one of Joana Vasconcelos’s sculptures, Diane from 2013, painted in bright, Disney-like colours. A part of her Cement Sculptures series, the work corresponds to classical models, which have been rendered common by mass-produced statuary and are frequently used to decorate gardens. Referring to traditional pastimes and arts and crafts, each of these pieces is imprisoned / protected by a second skin in delicate crochet-work.

Camouflage, exoticism and references to art history also abound in Sam Falls’ Untitled (Venice, Palm 13). The painting, dating from 2014, was created by exposing a leaf-covered canvas to the rain. The result is both an abstract, impressionist-like landscape and a poetic tribute to the depersonalized experimental techniques from early photography.

In a nod to Markus Schinwald’s marionette, which uncannily greeted visitors at the beginning of the exhibition by means of a physical twitch, but also in reference to the plaintive sentiments expressed in Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel, the exhibition closes with Ugo Rondinone’s If There Were Anywhere But Desert. Sunday (2000) – a playful yet disturbing installation, featuring an inert and overweight clown in colourful, sporty attire. Taking its cue from a figure that is associated with the world of entertainment and that for centuries has had a complex hold on the public imagination, Rondinone’s installation plays with the duality of vacuity and overdetermination, while ultimately giving vent to feelings of loss, alienation and melancholy.

With works by Sam Falls, Katharina Fritsch, Matthew Day Jackson, Bruce Nauman, Ugo Rondinone, Markus Schinwald, Cindy Sherman, Yinka Shonibare, Lucien Smith, Nick van Woert, Joana Vasconcelos, Bill Viola and Andy Warhol.

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