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Spiegel Contemporary Art Seminar: Hands-On Undergraduate Research Abroad

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Spiegel Contemporary Art Seminar: Hands-On Undergraduate Research Abroad

By Virginia Seymour

First hand experience doesn’t begin to describe some of the opportunities available to students at the University of Pennsylvania. From clinical placements to field internships for class credit, the undergraduate research and travel programs available to Penn students can feel like an embarrassment of riches. Special courses like the Spiegel Seminar in Contemporary Art, offered by the History of Art Department every semester, allow students like myself to experience works of art beyond the slides shown in class.

The Spiegel Seminar, taught by Professor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw this semester, enabled me and five other students to spend fall break in Venice studying and, more importantly, experiencing the 55th Venice Biennale, a biennial international exhibition of contemporary art. Focusing primarily on the pavilions of Latin American countries, we set out to experience more contemporary art in person than most of us have seen in our lifetimes.

Technology allows art history majors like me to experience works of art in great detail, whether they are housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art or in the permanent collection at the National Gallery in London. Yet seeing a slide reproduction of a work of art, rather than seeing it in person, particularly in contemporary art, one loses part of the experience. The colors are not quite right. You can’t be sure about a work’s size. Worse, you lose the feeling of standing right in front of a work, close enough to touch it (if only the alarm wouldn’t sound). 

Attending the Biennale allowed for all of these experiences, not to mention unexpected ones like meeting the artist (as senior Travis Mager did at Edson Chagas’s exhibit in the Angolan pavilion), or discussing a work with someone from the same country as the piece, in their native language (as Ross Karlan did at the Paraguayan pavilion and I did at the Israeli pavilion). After racing around Venice, attempting to see as much art as possible, we each walked away with a unique, memorable experience and stories to bring back to campus.

Sarah Hampton, Undeclared ‘17

“Birthday celebration in Venice? Where they do that at?” commented one of my friends on an Instagram photo captioned with our trip hashtag #spiegelinvenice. Not many students, especially during freshman year, have the opportunity to travel abroad and spend their 19th birthday in Venice. I can say wholeheartedly that Penn gave me an unforgettable experience from which I gained knowledge and understanding in an exceptional way.

After researching the Mexican pavilion in depth and studying the biennale for six weeks, I thought I knew everything about Ariel Guzik’s installation for Mexico and the other art we would see. I quickly realized I had underestimated the Venice Biennale. Hands on learning offered me a perspective that I wasn’t able to conceptualize from our classroom at Penn. For example, being able to actually hear the rhythmic vibrations from Guzik’s piece Cordiox were completely different than the harp-like tones I had imagined.

No amount of research could have prepared me for the sights I saw while in Venice. Everything, from the sudden Italian cultural immersion to the international art exhibitions we visited, made this trip memorable. So to answer my friend’s question, “Where they do that at?”, they offer these exceptional experiences at the University of Pennsylvania through travel seminars like the Spiegel Seminar in Contemporary Art.

Fred La Violette, Undeclared ‘17

When I was asked to choose a Latin American country’s pavilion to study at the Venice Biennale, the Venezuelan pavilion caught my eye. I have always had an interest in graffiti and street art, and the Venezuelan graffiti on which the pavilion focused differed greatly from anything I had seen before. However, I hadn’t anticipated how difficult it would be to find information on Latin American graffiti. The Venezuelan government’s attitude toward graffiti is quite positive, as they actually sponsor artists and give them public spaces to put up their work, though this did not make information any easier to find. Luckily, I found a documentary that focused on Venezuelan graffiti, “Pinto con Lata”, with English subtitles.

When we finally arrived in Venice, I had no idea what to expect. I had never been to the city before but had seen plenty of its buildings and art in high school art history courses. Finally being there was an amazing experience. I was shocked at what a distinct feeling it was to walk through Venice’s narrow streets and suddenly find myself at the edge of the city looking out at the Adriatic Sea. Being at the Biennale was an experience I will never forget. Seeing so much stunning art, and some not-so-amazing art, was a great experience. Talking with my classmates about the art while standing in front of it was fantastic. I hope to return to the Venice Biennale in the future. It is a show that everyone should experience.

Ross Karlan, Hispanic Studies and Cinema Studies ‘14

Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the Venice Biennale was the dichotomy between the two major exhibition spaces, the Giardini and the Arsenale, in terms of the physical space of individual national pavilions. In the Giardini, countries have their own, usually freestanding, building constructed at some point over the history of the Biennale. Each pavilion is adorned with the country’s name — in Italian — over the entrance, and each is representative of that nation’s aesthetic. The United States’ pavilion was built in a neo-classical style, while Germany’s pavilion boasts a cold Art Deco façade that reflects the fascist architecture of Germany in the 1930s. On the other hand, the Arsenale had no such national identifiers, with the exception of a sign above or near the entrance. After a while, spaces began to blend into each other, and I stopped being quite sure in which pavilion I stood.

This difference between the two main spaces of the Biennale definitely impacted how I viewed the art being presented. In the Giardini, the nationalistic declarations made by the architecture forged a connection between the viewer and the nation and its art. Whether approaching a pavilion or standing inside, there is a sensation that everything you are seeing is purely Greek, Brazilian, British, Venezuelan, etc. However, when walking through the Arsenale, where spaces were more ambiguous, I could appreciate the internationality of the exhibition as a whole. The way that the Indonesian pavilion bled into the Bahraini pavilion, which bled into the Turkish pavilion, made me feel, as a viewer, that I was experiencing a fundamentally international exhibition.

Travis Mager, History of Art ‘14

Although Venice needs no help inspiring awe in visitors, the Biennale brings a sense of wonder that, when combined with the city itself, creates a sum greater than its constituent parts. The magic of the Biennale is in the transformation of Venice from an outdoor museum to a city activated by contemporary art and ideals. The notion, for instance, that each Biennale is a limited engagement embodies the trope of ephemerality in contemporary art. As such, my classmates and I urgently attempted to see as many pavilions as possible during our stay, knowing that both our class and the 55th Biennale were only in Venice for a limited time. Knowing this, we were able to experience Venice as a living organism.

I experienced Venice as a whirl of colors, from the historic buildings we wandered past to the gelato that often fueled our exploration. We rode the Vaporetto, the water bus, to the Giardini (gardens designed during Napoleon’s occupation) and to the Arsenale (the former armory), both located on the Southeastern tip of the island. Though the group exhibition and some national pavilions were housed in these locations, we walked the streets of Venice in search of the other national pavilions around the city, such as Cuba’s in the Archeological Museum on St. Mark’s Square.

My travel to and experience of Angola’s pavilion perhaps most exemplifies this engagement with the city. To reach this pavilion, we took the Vaporetto to the stop at the Academia, a museum showing an exhibition of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, then walked past the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (her personal collection and home in Venice) to Angola’s pavilion, located in a renovated palazzo that currently houses a Renaissance art collection. Once inside, I found parts of the pavilion itself to be interactive. Posters of photographs by the artist Edson Chagas were stacked on the floor and sold to viewers for €2. In these experiences, I saw the Biennale activate Venice’s temporality and geography with a magical element of chance. 

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Virginia Seymour is a BA candidate in Art History at the University of Pennsylvania. She is interested in the intersection of art and gender theory in Near Eastern art. On campus, she is the associate coordinator of the Robinson letterpress, a production assistant at Penn Press, and is on the design staff at Kelly Writers House. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, practicing yoga, and exploring food in Philadelphia.  

Coedited by Virginia Seymour and Naomi Shavin.