Rene — Cramming It All In at the Venice Biennale

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New York Times
June 26 2003
Cramming It All In at the Venice Biennale
ENICE — I usually skip the previews for the Venice Biennale, when the
art world descends for two or three days on the public gardens and
former shipyard where the show mostly takes place. Last time, about
14,000 people jammed the preview. The day after the show opened to
the public there were 800 visitors wandering in a relative oasis of
calm amid the honeysuckle and jasmine in the gardens.
Once the professionals push on, it is easier to see the art. But this
year, having confused the show’s opening dates, I found myself at the
preview, cheerfully moaning along with everyone else about the crowds
and the heat and the terrible art. We all seemed to be having a very
good time sweating and complaining.
If this were happening in some ordinary place, the mobs would have
stopped coming long ago. But this is Venice and the world’s most
august art festival, so the show goes on, fortunately, more than a
century after the first biennale, long after the festival stopped
being a bellwether of the best of what’s new in art. I was amused to
read a British critic fuming that this show failed because it wasn’t
a true survey of everything good today. A quaint thought. It is what
it is, which is always useful.
There are gems to find, although the picking is especially tough this
year, the 50th edition of the event. This is the largest, most
sprawling and also by far the sloppiest, most uninspired, enervating
and passionless biennale that I can recall. The curator, Francesco
Bonami, has provided the usual nebulous title, pregnant with meaning
but signifying nothing. This time it’s “Dreams and Conflicts: The
Dictatorship of the Viewer.” It doesn’t begin to account for the
miasma that Mr. Bonami has allowed to be assembled.
I say “allowed” because Mr. Bonami doled out curatorial duties to
diverse people to put together their own shows alongside his, which
he has said reflected a desire to include many voices. Judging from
the parts of the biennale he put together, which are better than most
of the others, Mr. Bonami is perhaps more interested in painting and
less attuned to the sort of political art that some of the other
curators emphasize.
A result is to be found at the shipyard, or Arsenale, which is now a
souk of inchoate exhibitions, eight of them stretching a mile or so,
and noisily competing for attention. The works of good artists are
badly shown: the artists should be furious at the curators, who are
infuriating for including so much art that isn’t good. Call it the
dictatorship of the curator.
Maybe in another context the exhibition about Arab culture by
Catherine David and another show organized by the artist Gabriel
Orozco might have been instructive. Here they are swallowed up. At
the end of the Arsenale, a show called “Utopia Station” is the coup
de grace: a shantytown of plywood cubicles, annotated maps, buttons,
books, posters, computer terminals, blaring videos and handbills, all
of it socially attuned and well meaning, and utopian right down to
its egalitarian refusal even to distinguish clearly the work of one
artist from another.
One of the videos in “Utopia Station” won the biennale prize for
artists under 35. It is by Oliver Payne and Nick Relph, from Britain.
I had to return after the preview, when the crowds had left, to find
it (or what I think was it): a grindingly upbeat music video of kids
on skateboards, dancing in hallways, kissing in train stations,
interrupted by backwoods hunters shooting deer, to the looping
soundtrack of Terry Riley’s “You’re No Good.” It wasn’t all bad, I
thought, after shedding a couple of pounds in the plywood sweatbox
where it was screened.
All biennales are guaranteed to be chaotic because the festival
consists of the main show or shows, Mr. Bonami’s purview this time,
and the dozens of national pavilions, each organized by its own
country, the old ones spread through the public gardens and others,
more than ever this year, scattered across the rest of Venice.
The prize for the best pavilion went to Luxembourg for a tastefully
spare and sedate display by Su-Mei Tse, tucked away in an obscure
spot more or less behind the Accademia bridge. The work consists of
several rooms. One is soundproofed, another contains a ball of purple
twine and two wicker chairs, another a video of street sweepers in
the desert, the last a video of a cellist playing in the Alps. It is
meditative, musical and vaguely poetic.
At the nearby Ukrainian pavilion another video, this one of hairless
men grinding millstones, was just strange enough to keep me
preoccupied for a few minutes. It is by an artist named Victor
With hundreds of artists, the biennale is, by its nature, nearly
impossible to canvas thoroughly unless you have many days and the
patience of Job, which means that everyone can devise a different
list of favorites and find something other people overlooked. I heard
about a video from Armenia and an installation from Malaysia that I
am ashamed to say I missed.
My own contribution to this parlor game is Tino Sehgal, a
British-born 27-year-old from Berlin, whose work has no label to
identify it. It is a brief, ghostly recording by an unidentified
woman singing “this is propaganda, you know, you know” (from a pop
song); the recording is triggered whenever someone passes by an
unmarked spot in the room. I mention Mr. Sehgal not to be perverse
but because he is, in fact, a clever provocateur and, by the way, a
choreographer, not to mention that his discretion ought to be
rewarded in a show like this.
I won’t belabor the main pavilions. Representing Britain, Chris Ofili
has a few good paintings and some poor drawings, of lovers, installed
in a jewel-box environment, everything black, green and red, which
aims to be like an African Vence Chapel but comes a little closer to
a Vegas wedding chapel. Fred Wilson’s pavilion for the United States,
documenting blacks and Venice through history, is, as almost everyone
seemed to say, a big disappointment, obvious and overwrought. We
should do better next time. Michal Rovner’s show with petrie dishes
containing moving images of masses of people like teeming cells, next
door in the Israeli pavilion, was rightly better received. And Olafur
Eliasson’s Danish pavilion, a kaleidoscopic fun house of architecture
(with a room of yellow lights, harking back to a work by Bruce
Nauman, which makes everyone in it look black-and-white), is at least
a good diversion.
I also enjoyed Candida Höfer’s photographs in the German pavilion.
She deserves her moment in the sun. And the penny finally dropped for
me with Jean-Marc Bustamante, who explores transparency and other
brainy formal topics through various media in the French pavilion.
Even more unexpectedly, in the Austrian pavilion I found the huge,
eccentric sculptures of Bruno Gironcoli from the 70’s a minor
As for the Australian pavilion, Patricia Piccinini’s surreal
sculptures, weird half-human creatures and a series of misshapen
motorcycle helmets, a craftsmanly cross between Matthew Barney and
Ron Mueck, caused me to linger there, partly because they are
genuinely odd, partly because the building was air-conditioned.
Mr. Bonami’s survey of painting at the biennale since 1964, installed
at the Museo Correr, deserves honorable mention. It is a hodgepodge,
thrown together, with many holes in it, but it includes art that’s
carefully made and rewards scrutiny. When was the last time you saw a
show that put Renato Guttuso, Bridget Riley, John Currin, Frank
Auerbach and Elizabeth Peyton together? It made painting in the
1970’s look overlooked. Likewise, in what used to be the Italian
pavilion in the public gardens, Mr. Bonami and Daniel Birnbaum have
assembled eclectic works by Matthew Barney, Damien Hirst, Carol Rama,
Robert Gober, Mr. Orozco, Jennifer Pastor, Ellen Gallagher and Helen
Mirra. They all made my short list for this biennale.
I have a utopian idea: a small, tightly argued biennale by a brave
curator who chooses a dozen, or even a few dozen favorite artists, as
opposed to several hundred, the works installed coherently — forget
filling every square foot of available space, appeasing dealers and
collectors and covering one’s behind politically. Imagine a
contentious, digestible, aesthetically satisfying art exhibition to
accompany the pavilions that the public might even want to see after
the art professionals have gone.
I’m dreaming. It must be the heat.
By Peter Aspden
Published: June 20 2003 18:26 | Last Updated: June 20 2003 18:26
In the sprawling grounds of Venice’s Giardini di Castello, site of the city’s 50th Biennale of contemporary art, Al Fadhil is wandering around with a couple of helpers selling T-shirts. He is modelling the design himself: the shirt sports the slogan “I’m the Iraq Pavilion at the 50th Venice Biennale”. And here starts the game that contemporary art likes to play with its audiences. Is he himself an exhibit, blurring the boundary between an artist and his work? Or could he be making a protest at Iraq’s absence from the participating nations at the show?
The truth turns out to be simpler. “I looked at the subjects of this year’s Biennale and I couldn’t believe there was not one word about what has happened in Iraq,” he tells me on a sweltering afternoon that has onlookers buying and wearing his shirts in droves, if only to feel the brief respite of fresh cotton on their bodies. “It made me sad. Culture was born in Mesopotamia. I wanted to remind people.”
The Venice Biennale is not an event known for its engagement with society and politics. Much cutting-edge art gave up that particular ghost long ago, siding instead with the forces of playful irony, and demanding little more than a wry chuckle in response to its gleeful somersaults of style over substance.
It wasn’t always so: in this year’s complementary, and perfectly sized, exhibition of painting over the past 40 years at the Museo Correr in St Mark’s Square, we are reminded that the 1964 Biennale’s prize for painting was given to Robert Rauschenberg for his indictment of US involvement in Vietnam, an award which at the same time signalled the international acceptance of Pop Art.
But that seems an age away. This year’s Golden Lion award for Best Pavilion in the Biennale went to Luxembourg for Su-Mei Tse’s exhibition “Air-Conditioned” – nobody failed to make the joke that the judges were thinking wishfully in last week’s murderous heat – principally consisting of two videos: in one, a cellist is playing and listening to his own echoes in front of a kitsch Alpine scene; in the other, a group of Parisian street sweepers are busy brushing away in the middle of a desert. The images are beautiful, but also laden with that all-too-familiar sense of dramatic irony. It was an unconventional but ultimately safe choice by the judges.
The director of this year’s Biennale, Francesco Bonami, as good as acknowledged the impossibility of finding a coherent theme for this year’s show by creating a dizzying variety of sub-themes – “Faultlines”, “Clandestine”, “The Structure of Survival”, and many more – addressed by artists exhibiting in the huge spaces of the city’s Arsenale.
It is here one gets the sharpest sense of exhibition-as-funfair: in one corner, Hannah Greely’s inflatable frog swallows up a curious toddler; alongside an entire wall, all the pages of a dictionary have been blanked out apart from certain words, all of which are followed by the word “pain” (Mladen Stilinovic). There are industrial noises, dismembered cars, a proliferation of laptops many of which, it must be said, are failing to function properly. Russia’s Yuri Leiderman, in a bewildering installation involving portable CD-players and copper wire, is “trying to enchant the electrons by singing Wagner’s music to them, so that they want to start to move and make a light bulb burn”.
But there is, among the fragmented and eclectic mix commenting on the fragmented and eclectic world around us, some work which addresses more pressing concerns. You have to look hard for the Chinese artist Chen Shaoxiong’s “Various Ways of Anti-Terrorism”, a chess set tucked in the corner of a wooden shed; but the blood somehow chills to see the black pieces taking the form of aeroplanes, and the white pieces standing hubristically tall in the form of skyscrapers.
In the section on “Contemporary Arab Representations”, there is, pace Al Fadhil, finally a mention of Iraq, albeit an understated one. Paola Yacoub and Michel Lasserre’s video juxtaposes the timetable leading up to the recent war with long, still images of Middle Eastern skylines, or ordinary urban scenes. There is all the sense of inertia of an Antonioni movie; yet these scenes are pregnant with menace – will a plane rip through the sky dropping its load of bombs? Will one of the vehicles in the corner of the car park be timed suddenly to explode?
In many ways the frenetic bustle of the Arsenale show serves to overshadow the work in the main national pavilions in the Giardini. Here, the architectural grandeur of the variously styled pavilions is ruthless on work that is too slight to compete. In the Czechoslovak pavilion (the split nation re-joined to house a Czech and a Slovak artist), a gymnast is suspended in the air with his arms fully extended, but his tortured pose is that of the crucified Christ; on either side of him, giant video screens show football crowds occasionally erupting into cheers. It is diverting for a minute or so, but not much more.
Santiago Sierra’s giant brick wall, denying entry into the Spanish pavilion to all but those who hold a Spanish passport, is embarrassing in its banality. Olafur Eliasson’s optical games in the Danish pavilion feel dated. Australia’s Patricia Piccinini at least cleverly fuses science fiction and cutesiness with her cuddly, mutant forms. (It is remarkable, elsewhere, how little regard there is to the astonishing scientific advances of recent years in genetic technology, which might be deemed rife for artistic exploration.)
Much attention has focused this year on the US and British pavilions: first, because geopolitical repercussions made it deeply unlikely that either would win a main prize; and second, because both countries were represented by black artists, Fred Wilson and Chris Ofili respectively. Organised by the British Council, Ofili’s installation of new paintings, “Within Reach”, designed by the architect David Adjaye and bedecked in the pan-African colours of red, black and green, is the most explicitly sensual on offer, and a nod to his Venetian surroundings.
He says the work is the result of a “very happy period” in his life, and is intended to inhabit the space between a real Africa and an imaginary paradise of romantic images – hence the lunar glow emanating from his trademark dollops of elephant dung.
Despite the work’s stellar imagery, Ofili was inspired, he tells me, by the “upright sense of dignity and formality” which he finds in countries such as Trinidad. “It is a world that doesn’t feel at all like 2003, it is like being in the 1960s.”
Wilson’s show, on the other hand, is unashamedly intellectual in scope: another nod to Venice, but this time a powerful deconstruction of its paintings, its documents, even its shop windows, to address the theme of black identity. The central part of the pavilion is dominated by a remarkable, huge Murano-made black chandelier. Around it, models of black page-boys hold up busts of white women. In a glass case, there are artefacts that can be found today in the city’s grocery shops: “Otello” chocolates; “Moro di Venezia” (“Venetian Moor”) cake. In another room Old Master paintings – Tiepolo, Vasari, Schiavone – are spotlighted so that the black servant in the far corner of the composition is dramatically thrust into the foreground.
Wilson’s most remarkable coup de theatre is just outside the pavilion, where a “shop window” shows off a group of black mannequins dressed in period costume (all come from actual paintings in the Accademia). In front of the window, a young black African in a Bayern Munich football shirt sets out a cluster of imitation designer handbags on a sheet, such as can be found all over the sidestreets of Venice. He is, of course, part of the installation. When I ask him if he has been employed by the artist, he says, no, it was “mon frere Fred”, and in the spirit of solidarity points to Wilson, who is giving a television interview.
Wilson’s work is biting and imaginative, and dares to ask uncomfortable questions.
He is a charming, urbane figure, who is both knowing and humorous about the very strange world of contemporary art that he inhabits. And he knows what he is worth. When he is asked by a reporter if the fake handbags outside the pavilion are for sale, his reply is pitch perfect in its laconicism: “They will be for sale. Just not at the usual street prices.”
La Biennale di Venezia, 50th International Art Exhibition, until November 2.
Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer