Art in America, September, 2007
The Venice Biennale, all'americana
While the big curated show (heavy on Americans and on pahting) is somewhat streamlined this year, new national pavilions are taking root citywide. Add a multitude of ancillary exhibitions, and you have the 52nd edition of this venerable event – the largest yet.
There have been three occasions in the history of the Venice Biennale when the nature of American cultural influence has emerged as a central issue. The first was in 1964, when Robert Rauschenberg took home the Biennale prize for painting, a recognition tantamount to Europe's official concession that the art world's center of gravity had shifted from Paris to New York The second was 1990, when Jenny Holzer's sumptuous installation of marble inlay and LED signs in the US. pavilion prompted widespread grousing that the Americans, who bagged that year's Golden Lion for the best national presentation, had bought their way to Biennale hegemony. The third occasion is now, with the 52nd edition of the venerable institution having been entrusted to its first American-born visualarts director, Robert Storr.
To be sure, just one of the Biennale's three components bears the director's imprint outright: the international group show, which is divided between the "Italy" pavilion in the municipal garden, or Giardini, and the cavernous former naval facility called the Arsenale, which lies between the Giardini at the city's eastern end and Piazza San Marco. (The Italy pavilion is not to be confused with Italy's own national presentation called the "Italian" pavilion, which appears in the Arsenale.) The Biennale's defining feature remains the tradition of showcasing national presentations. This year, the number of countries sponsoring exhibitions reached a record 76, with the 31 original pavilions erected in the Giardini representing a minority stake for the first time. Four more have been accommodated within the Arsenale, while the rest are distributed in palazzi. warehouses and other structures throughout the city. The Biennale's third component is the menu of menu of affiliated or "collateral" exhibitions. which this year likewise posts a new high of 34 shows, large and small.
Mirroring that expansion, however, the visual-arts director's exhibition has grown in size and notoriety over the last 15 years, becoming an international curatorial plum and assuming a cardinal role in determining the tone of the Biennale overall. And this year? Storr's show has been judiciously selected and impeccably installed. It is star-studded but not overly trendy, being inclined to favor senior and A-list artists. It boasts a sizable field of painters, in contrast to the rest of the Biennale. The international exhibition is conscientious, considered, and – with a few ravishing exceptions – resolutely unremarkable.
If the Rauschenberg coup represented the ascendance of America's irreverent and inclusive '60s spirit, and the Holzer brouhaha reflected widespread resentment of the overweening financial clout of the United States in the early '90s, then Storr – with his show's uniform polish and abundance of big shots, its avoidance of the unscripted and potentially messy – stands open to the objection that he has imposed the cold and businesslike standards of an American museum onto the once freewheeling culture of the Biennale, with its tolerance of the ephemeral and improvisational. Add to this the observation that more than a third of the artists in his exhibition are American or live for much of the year in New York, the fact that many of the international artists exhibit in its leading galleries, and the matter of Storr's having rubber-stamped a decision to allocate the pavilion of Africa to the private collection of a controversial businessman, and then for good measure throw in the fact that the U.S. pavilion houses a bland, Guggenheim-curated tribute to the long-departed Felix GonzaIez-Torres, and you can readily get a picture of American curatorial leadership as chary of risk-taking and prone to ignoring the big picture while regarding "culture" as the summary of individual acts of self-expression and patronage.
Before anyone accuses Storr of having unilaterally imposed U.S. values on Venice, it's important to remember that the character, if not the itemized content, of the current Biennale was essentially foretold three years ago. Indeed, Storr has delivered the authoritative and disciplined exhibition mandated in 2004 by Davide Croff, the president of the BiennaIe's administrative board [see "Front Page" Oct. '04]. In August 2004, when Croff appointed the visual-arts directors for the following year (María de Corral and Rosa Martinez), he also took the unprecedented step of announcing their successor for 2007. Storr thus became the beneficiary of the longest lead time ever granted to an organizer of the Venice show.
Storr is not only the first American curator to be handed the reins of the Biennale: he is the first in nearly two decades who does not fit the profile of the independent international curator, that intrepid impresario with loose or multiple museum affiliations who ranges far and wide, alone and on teams, ready to discover nascent stars and baptize new trends. By contrast, Store is professor (at NYU in 2004 when he was appointed by Croff, currently the dean of Yale's School of Art) and a curator who spent 13 years, the lion's share of his career, at New York's Museum of Modem Art, where exhibitions generally serve to fix the flux of contemporary art in the golden amber of institutional affirmation. Though no stranger to group shows, Storr has tended to direct his efforts toward diligently researched monographic exhibitions rather than toward assembling epoch-defining or prodigy-launching group shows aimed at roiling the waters of public or critical opinion. In 2004, Croff set out to make over the Biennale, to replace the exhausting polemical flamboyance and edge-worshipping excess of Francesco Bonami's 2003 exhibition with a dignified show born of focus, probity and conviction. He found his man in Storr.
Early on, Storr declared that he would depart from recent precedent by refusing to freight the art works chosen for 2007 with an all-inclusive sociological or political message. Accordingly, the exhibition title proclaims no uniting theory about the zeitgeist and, instead, delivers a New Agey prescription to the viewer: 'Think with the Senses–Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present Tense." I'm not convinced that this title sounds better in Italian, as some have claimed, but the language shift does disclose one interesting point. Unlike the English, the Italian verb used in "Pensa con i Sensi–Senti con la Mente. L'Arte al Presente" specifically directs the advice to the singular "you." Ultimately, it is a quiet and private experience of viewership to which Storr's exhibition appeals, a premise that rests on an image of the artist as an exceptionally sensitive form-giver. After offering a perfunctory summary in his catalogue essay of the complex historical forces that led to the Biennale's genesis, Storr dismisses all of that as so much baggage, asserting that the exhibition ultimately can "serve" the public and art only because "the unique viewer and the unique object can come in contact." He admits that it is "counterintuitive" to ask a large international show, with an unpredictable audience drawn from near and far, to be an occasion for such intimacy. It may be counterproductive as well.
The Main Show, Up Close
The early reviews of the exhibition in the American and Italian press often took as their point of departure the question of whether the selection was predictable, bland, boring. (Even the postponement to October of the announcement of all the award recipients except for Malik Sidibe, who received the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, seemed designed to ensure a subdued opening.) I think a more apt term is the one I overheard pronounced by several underwhelmed Italian viewers: troppo museale, The show is indeed "too museum-like," and not merely for the blue-chip market ranking and textbook-worthiness of many of the participants.
More than just boasting a comparatively svelte form (Bonami's roundup of 380 artists in 2003 remains seared in memory), the current Biennale has become very, very tidy. The outdoor interventions on the grounds of the Giardini are only two in number, a cheery little gazebo by Buren and a sprawling cinderblock model of a favela created by the young Brazilian collective Morrinho Project. No monumental sculpture punctuated the waterfront view, where pieces by Fabrizio Plessi and Sislej Xhafa have towered in the past, and no performers or installations were permitted to clutter the allée that leads from the gate to the pavilions.
The reign of fastidiousness extends inside the Italy pavilion, where rooms have been assigned to artists on a single-occupancy basis. Even more startling, though, is the progressive gentrification of the Arsenale. The dramatic raw spaces toward the rear which were initially opened to art during Harald Szeemann's first turn as director in 1999 (and which housed, unforgettably, Chen's array of 100 drums, Serge Spitzer's dazzling installation of glasses and Cai Guo-Qiang's re-creation of the Rent Collection Courtyard) have been rehabbed and sublet to national pavilions. The evocative area that opens to a boat slip, where Pipilotti Rist's bubble machine and Not Vital's caravan of camel heads greeted visitors in the past, is utterly vacant. And the Corderie, the long vaulted main hall of the Arsenale, has been cleanly configured, left and right, like a giant ice cube tray, with each artist's contribution chilling in a politely observed zone. We must all bite our tongues, we who complained about crowding and overflow in years past.
Further contributing to the mannerly impression are the preponderance in both venues of flat objects (paintings, photographs, projection screens, documentary materials) and the preference for spatially restrained three-dimensional work. One partial exception is the Arsenale's opening installation by Luca Buvoli, which takes its cues from the formal dynamism and typographic inventiveness of Italian Futurism. The artist offers a meditation on bellicose patriotism in general and the delusional optimism of Marinetti's utopian dream in particular. The angular mise-en-scène of jagged planes and tipsy letters is eye-catching, but the foyer role imposed on the installation frustrates a full appreciation of Buvoli's finely edited animation and
By contrast, a bit more elbowroom might have served the hemmed-in components of West's The Fragile on its Cloak (2007). The Austrian artist's roughly painted abstract forms in papier-mâché and lacquered aluminum floor pieces, which resemble a misshapen pastry, baguette and turd, are congregated too tightly for their comic abjection to be appreciated.
Some space-chewing posthumous misbehavior is permitted to erupt midway down the Corderie with Rhoade's Tijuanatanjierchandelier (2006), which was added to the program after the 41-year old artist's death in August 2006, Installed by his studio assistants, the free-for-all of mattresses, serapes, cheap souvenirs and neon letters spelling out slang terms for female genitalia inevitably has ceded some shock value to an archival air, but the work's rudeness remains tonic.
As for sculpture in the Italy pavilion, where painting is king, Anselmo's too-neatly contained heap of earth with diorite blocks and compass needles feels as confined as West's objects. The effect of Spero's Maypole/Take No Prisoners (2007) is undermined by the work's placement just within the entrance, where visitors hurry past. Revisiting the sardonically festive form she used 40 years ago to protest the Vietnam war, Spero has erected a roughly 10-foot pole, from whose sprouting ribbons and chains dangle cutouts of severed heads, the victims of today's atrocities.
More happily installed is Nauman's Venice Fountains (2007), two working assemblages that confront each other from the long sides of an oblong room. Streams of water issue from the mouths of mash, concave casts of a face (not the artist's), and tumble noisily into the deep basins of studio sinks. The contraptions reference everything from Roman waterworks to the artist's own early body casts and his legendary spitting performance, Self-Portrait as Fountain (1966). If the piece feels a touch too literal, it is redeemed by a wry coals-to-Newcastle effect, since, historically speaking, the city on canals has shown scant interest in the fountain as an urban ornament.
The taming of the three-dimensional extends to the more conceptually ambitious mixed-medium installations, which are packaged neatly in the Arsenale's bays and vitrines and tend to hug the walls. With texts, drawings, a video and an inoperative (we are reassured) weapon, Solakov's Discussion (Property), 2007, investigates the Russian-Bulgarian dispute over the right to manufacture AK-47,'or Kalashnikov, assault rifles. Along the way, SoIakov brings up the matter of the Cyrillic alphabet (whose letters are said to have been purloined from a pair of Bulgarian brothers) and the Lactobacillus Bulgaricus bacterium (the microscopic source of Russia's best yogurt), all to weave a rambling satirical yarn about the international arms trade, global branding, intellectual property and lingering resentments within the former Soviet bloc.
Solakov's project finds a post-Cold War pendant in Dimitri Gutov's The Declination of Atoms from the Straight Line (2007), an installation with an audio track (credited to the British art critic David Riff) and 20 paintings, courtesy of the Karl Marx School of the English Language. The latter, a text explains, is a group that gathers regularly in the artist's Moscow studio to read Marx aloud in English and to compare that translation to the German and Russian versions. The account conjures a quaintly literary and idealistic study group. With their stilted quotes and occasional portrait or image, the clutch of oddball canvases acknowledge the importance of typography in avant-garde design while conveying the impossibility of complete communication across languages.
Also impressive are two ongoing documentation projects that engage different materials to fulfill solemn missions of remembrance. Californian Emily Prince produces palm-size pencil drawings of the U.S war dead in Afghanistan and Iraq (3,800 when the catalogue was printed), replicating photographs posted online by the bereaved families and inscribing each vellum sheet with information about the victim. In the Corderie, Prince provided a vitrine with the archival boxes that house the drawings alphabetically. Nearby, she pinned several hundred of the portraits to the wall to form a map of the U.S., its misshapen contour a result of clustering the images around the victims' respective home states.
In Material for a Film, Emily Jacir who lives in New Yolk and Ramallah, is concerned with a single victim, Wad Zuaiter, a Palestinian intellectual and activist assassinated in Rome by Israeli agents in 1972 in retribution for the attack on Israel's athletes in Munich. To excavate an individual life, one associated with the cause of Palestinian rights well before the surge of Islamic fundamentalism and militant extremism, Jacir assembles letters and photographs, interviews with Zuaiter's friends and associates, archival oddities (including the briefest clip from the 1963 film The Pink Panther, in which he had a walk-on as a green-jacketed waiter) and Zuaiter's copy of A Thousand and One Nights, which he intended to translate from Arabic into Italian, and which took one of the bullets in the volley that killed him.
The most capacious of spaces in the Arsenale and the Italy pavilion, which typically have been devoted in past biennali to sculptures and installations, are both given over to wall-hung works. This may be an expression of Storr's painting partisanship, but it makes for two knockout rooms. In the Arsenale, El Anatsui's towering tapestrylike assemblages (both 2007) of folded metal and bottle caps "stitched" together with twists of copper wire are draped at the ends of the vast hall. Arranged in rows along the long walls are 38 tondi (1994-2000 and 2000-05), each about 47 inches in diameter, from Guillermo Kuitca's ongoing series of "Diarios" paintings. It's essentially an album of polished studio pensieri, We find the painter limbering up and working out, employing anything from gestural play and Op art patterns to allusions to Miró, Klee or one of his own trademark ground plans. The suggestive encounter between Anatsui and Kuitca–which makes the most of the obvious differences in medium and scale while finding common ground in terms of surface richness, rhythmic patterning and pleasure in the patiently handmade–makes you wish Storr had been less doctrinaire about keeping his artists apart.
In the enormous square gallery at the heart of the Italy pavilion, Polke is represented by seven large works (2005 and 2007), at once stately and wry, rendered in violet pigments and mixed mediums on fabric. The figurative imagery rendered here and there on the dark fields includes disarmingly breezy citations of past graphic styles, but in a certain light, the monumental works take on the glowering aspect of weather-darkened metal. The sheer boldness of the paintings stands out amid the routine offerings of such fellow Olympians as Richter and Ryman.
Also more than deserving of its distinctive octagonal room is Splitting the Other (2007), a 14-panel work, organized in diptychs and triptychs, by Nalini Malani. The Mumbai-based painter serves up her own Polke-ish cocktail of Eastern and Western references, with imagery drawn from the mythic past and the consumption-driven present, all deployed on a sun-bright and gravity-free ground in formations that suggest anything from embryology to cosmology.
Through a Lens: Video and Photo In the Main Show
The orderly unspooling of work down the Corderie has left the central-aisle mostly unencumbered, but for the cubic forms of five freestanding viewing rooms created for Yang Fudong's video, Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, the fourth and fifth installments of which are debuting in Venice. The episodic black-and-white cycle, with its beautiful young idealists, is less la vie de bohème than Watteau's Cythera, all longing and loss and wise resolve. Storr's decision to physically separate the five chapter is a delightful conceit that treats each viewer as another pilgrim seeking the truth from room to room amid the Corderie's forest of brick columns.
On balance, Storr rarely falters in his choice of timebased work. Among the standouts in the Arsenale is Bouncing Skull (2007) by Rome- and New York-based Paolo Canevari. The 12-minute loop shows a determined athlete–we never see above his shoulders–capably maneuvering a human skull through a series of soccer moves against the backdrop of the Serbian army's bombed-out headquarters in Belgrade. The visuals are macabre enough, but their power is compounded by the audio track, which sickeningly amplifies the scuffling and thud of every scoop and kick. Belgium's Sophie Whettnall also isolates the look and sound of violence in Shadow Boxing (2004), a three-minute-long test of nerves in which a young woman stands stock-still and unflinching while a brawny boxer strikes vehemently at the air in alarming proximity to her face. His hands fly like hummingbirds, her hair moves in response, and, in the end, you can't be sure if their encounter is about aggression and resistance or trust,
In the Italy pavilion, the accomplished videos are led by the mural-size dolefullhouse (2007), a six-minute animation in the softened jewel colors of high-end children's books that was created by the Japanese artist Tabaimo. Two human forearms, beset by an addict's itch and interrupted by a puppyish octopus, are seen systematically arranging the furnishings of a dollhouse, only to have floodwaters rush through and force a Sisyphean repetition of the effort. Kara Walker's elegant new installation combines projections, puppetry, photographs and drawings in another enactment, familiar perhaps but nonetheless moving, of racial exploitation and hardship.
Historical rumination is also the starting point for Joshua Mosley's black-and-white animation dread (2007)' which is accompanied by five small bronze sculptures of the work's principals. The Philadelphia-based Mosley has clay-and-resin figures of Pascal and Rousseau debate the engagement of God in human affairs within a digitally photographed and manipulated landscape setting. As the exemplar of 17th- and 18th-century philosophy trade aphorisms, brute nature erupts in the form of a man-eating dog, and God comes to seem increasingly remote. If there is no God, there is plenty of grace in Shaun Gladwell's sublime Storm Sequence (2000), the story of a man and his skateboard. A land-bound surfer at the Australian coast on a stormy day, the ace delicately lifts his baggy trouser legs to mount his board and proceeds to execute a series of turns and tricks so fluid, so assured as to bring to mind the most transporting moments of Fred Astaire.
Photographs are largely confined to the Arsenale, where they are numerically prominent but conceptually restricted. Storr's take on the medium is pretty much embodied by the work of the 72-year-old Malian artist Malik Sidibé. On view is Sidibé's second series of photographs for the project L'Afrique chant contre le SIDA, which shows the finalists of a music contest founded in Mali to raise AIDS awareness. Photography in Storr's show is technically conservative and subject-driven. In many instances (Elaine Tedesco's typology of guard houses that protect Brazilian residential communities, Rosemary Laing's views of a former detention center for illegal immigrants in the Australian desert, Tomoko Yoneda's innocent-looking shots of such trouble spots as the North-South Korea border and Sarajevo) the pictures are also overly dependent on label information for their impact.
The line-up of photography in the Arsenale amounts to a sweeping inventory of the pressing, tragic and seemingly insoluble problems of the world. From Milan's Gabriel Basilica come harrowing pictures, shot in 1991, of a bombed-out Beirut. Pavel Wolberg (born in Leningrad, based in Tel Aviv) documented people and events in Palestinian refugee camps and the occupied territories between 2002 and 2005. There are six prints from "Hospital Party," a 2006 series by Tomer Ganihar (born in Tel Aviv, based in New York) that show wounded and maimed dolls. They seem too indebted to Cindy Sherman's staged grotesques until you learn that the mannequins, child and adult-size, are used in Israel to train emergency medical personnel. Full-dress theater does come to the fore, however, in the "Living History" series (2002-04) by Britain's Neil Hamon, who presents the now-overworked subject of those devoted hobbyists who participate in reenactments of past wars.
Rosario Lopez photographs a desolate and trash-littered beach in Peru, also bringing to the Arsenale a little structure of woven reeds that replicates the worker shelters seen from afar in the pictures. Yto Barrada takes us to Tangier with photos and texts that address the sprucing up of the city's public parkland and the attendant dire consequences for its homeless population and native wildflowers. Paula Trope, too, has her eye on a city, Rio de Janiero, where she has worked with Morrinho Project, an anti-violence club founded in 1998\ by boys who are new the artists behind the cinderblock favela installation in the Giardini. The "No Sympathy" series (2004-06) includes Trope's frank and casual pictures of Morrinho members plus their blurrily vignetted photographs, shot with pinhole cameras, of the original favela model in Rio, a miniature environment fabricated via the same scavenging and-improvisation that sustains their actual homes and community.
Behind the Garden Gate
Inside, "hope" is an altogether more elusive state. The collective AES+F (Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Erzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky, Vladimir Fridkes) is projecting The Last Riot, an inconclusive, three-channel Götterdämmerung that blends animation with 3-D modeling and stars squads of perfect youths resembling Abercrombie & Fitch models on call for an Apocalypse Chic-themed shoot in an alpine landscape. For nearly 20 minutes, the beautiful kids engage in a bloodless combat that seems to pantomime the compositions of old master paintings and manages to be alternately stirring, horrifying and enervating. With disaster seemingly imminent for the planes, oil rigs, carousels sad other toys of civilization that drift into view, AES+F posit the "end" as a condition without end. It might have been the superb quality of the piece, or the need for catharsis, but TheLast Riot elicited the only prolonged round of applause I've ever witnessed at the Biennale.
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