Art News, September, 2007
The Venice Biennale and Documenta 12 provide a thoughtful take on the shock of the news
The Venice Biennale
Like the ubiquitous fairs that clog New York’s streets every summer, each proffering the same goods, the world’s proliferating art fairs and biennales tend to dole out similar fare to an apparently insatiable audience.
The 52nd Venice Biennale, curated by Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art, is, for the most part, an exception to that trend. Certainly the show he conceived, “Think with the Senses—Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense,” set in the Arsenale and the Italian pavilion at the Giardini, is a barometer of the moment. But this exhibition within the larger biennale is more interested in ideas than in giving the public what it demands. It reflects the esthetic, conceptual, and political concerns of artists today—and the view is rather melancholic.
What this biennale lacks in excitement it makes up for in thoughtfulness. Storr sets the stage for his investigation of the senses in the Arsenale, with Luca Buvoli’s funky installation A Very Beautiful Day After Tomorrow (2007). Its title is based on the words of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, author of the 1909 Futurist Manifesto. The carnivalesque atmosphere, with cutouts of planes and abstract shapes, along with documentary footage and a video of aphasia victims reading haltingly from the manifesto, riffs on the Futurist movement’s optimism, political naiveté, and faith in early Fascism.
Storr’s narrative proceeds with slick photographs, like Chinese artist Yang Fudong’s boy in a bathtub-boat, at sea literally and figuratively, and the more modest portrait photographs by Mali’s Malick Sidibé, who documents and formalizes African culture. Many of the photographic images in the show, however, with their high production values and unnuanced messages, pack none of the power of fresh news presentations.
As if responding to this unfathomable world, a huge mess of an installation by the late Jason Rhoades, and Franz West’s exuberant whatever-you-call-’ems sculpted in fruity colors, follow.
But politics and esthetics interact clearly and subtly in Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed’s elegant barbed-wire circles and in the spellbinding work of El Anatsui. The Ghanaian-born, Nigerian-based artist’s Klimtesque curtains of woven-together bottle caps allude to the way European traders used liquor bottles as currency for buying slaves and ivory.
Elsewhere in the Arsenale is the African pavilion, which showcases “Check List–Luanda Pop,” featuring selections from the private collection of Sindika Dokolo. Rightly controversial—why feature a private collection in a “national pavilion”?—it doesn’t even satisfy its basic premise: to show what constitutes African art from an African perspective. There are works by Basquiat and Warhol, Miquel Barceló (a Spaniard) and Alfredo Jaar (a Chilean), along with London-based Nigerian Yinka Shonibare, Moroccan Mounir Fatmi, and Angolan Yonamine. Such a catholic understanding of the diaspora is simply unenlightening.
The continuation of Storr’s show in the Italian pavilion is more coherent and includes mid- and upper-midcareer artists as well as a number of younger figures, although the cutting edge doesn’t seem that sharp. Opening this section is Lawrence Weiner’s word installation on the building’s facade. Called Primary secondary tertiary (2002), it addresses the physical basis of art itself, its materials, and the words that describe it. Just inside is a diabolical maypole by Nancy Spero, with expressionistically drawn heads suspended from ribbons—at once conceptual, sculptural, and painterly.
Sigmar Polke and Bruce Nauman, both masters of their conceptual domains, mark the pavilion’s formal poles—painting and installation, respectively. Nauman’s Venice Fountains (2007), a white wax head in a sink on one wall and a brown one on the opposite, offers a sad subliminal punch, while Polke’s alchemically rich paintings, with gradually developing colors and forms that interact with storybook-style illustrations, strike an irreconcilable dichotomy.
Among the new voices is Pakistani painter Nalini Malani, whose reverse painting (a popular Asian technique of painting on glass in mirror image) Splitting the Other (2007) presents a contemporary narrative moving from the personal to the social and political. Another is American artist Joshua Mosley, who reproduces his small sculptures as digital Claymation figures in a film featuring Enlightenment thinkers Rousseau and Pascal reflecting on man’s alienation from and fear of nature. The animals eat them. It’s witty, scary, and well conceived.
Several artists in Storr’s show are also represented in the national pavilions, among them, Guillermo Kuitca (Argentina), Sophie Calle (France), and Felix Gonzalez-Torres (United States). Unfortunately, in the case of Gonzalez-Torres (1957–1996), the artist’s elegant minimalist conceptualism and AIDS activism fit better in the context of “Senses,” among works by Nauman, Ellsworth Kelly, and Iran do Espírito Santo, whose cracked black floor pieces address borders and shattered aspirations. As a memorial, the U.S. pavilion is eloquent; as a reflection of new art today, it fails.
More of the moment and complementing Calle’s tribute to her late mother in the Italian pavilion is the artist’s self-centered installation in the French pavilion. Taking the personal public, Calle invited 107 females to respond to an e-mailed message from her ex-boyfriend blowing her off. Going public was a therapeutic act and a global gesture, engaging psychiatrists, editors, actors, children, and even a parrot—the bird ate the text.
A maturing Tracey Emin commands the British pavilion with broken words, broken bodies, broken landscapes, and broken art references. She plants herself in art history through image and language—from Constable and Turner to Egon Schiele, Joan Mitchell, and Cy Twombly. Her brilliant scrawled neon utterances—“I know/I know/I know”—have artistic weight equal to her drawings and paintings.
Off the main campuses, on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, Joseph Kosuth encircled an Armenian monastery and lined a wall at the island’s edge with neon words in a mix of languages. The installation raises such issues as whether translation is truly possible and whether the look of language is actually its meaning.
Nearby, on San Servolo island, Mike Metz also considers the appearance of communication, responding to an “impossible” question posed by Buckminster Fuller: “What is intelligence?” Metz’s enigmatic answer: a graphic installation along a wall translating Lebanese-born poet Etel Adnan’s poetry about war into straightforward prose.
Elsewhere on the Giardini grounds, there are reflections on reflection. Canada’s David Altmejd uses mirrors to implicate viewers in a museum of unnatural history, where they interact with surrealistic flora and fauna. Creepier still is the German pavilion. In Isa Genzken’s mirrored house of horrors, visitors enter the artist’s haunted mind. There are taped-over locks on doors, skulls on pedestals, colorful luggage and wheelchairs, nooses, and mannequins in spacesuits wrapped in plastic. Called Oil (2007), the installation makes obvious connections—oil as wealth, progress, war, and global disintegration. But the work itself is far more complicated.
The idea of inside/outside recurs throughout. There are many structures—from Tobias Putrih’s wood theater on San Servolo to a folded-up Jean Prouvé house in the Portuguese pavilion, where Ângela Ferreira presents the Modernist icon along with photographs of places in Angola where his prefabricated houses were to be installed in the 1930s, but, confounded by colonialism, never were.
With 76 national pavilions, 34 collateral events, and gallery and impromptu shows, the biennale is exhausting. But here’s the way to deal with the visual and intellectual overload: throw darts. Jacob Dahlgren’s cathartic installation in the Nordic pavilion invites everyone to toss at a wall of targets. Vent, have fun, make art.
In many ways, this Documenta gets better in retrospect. It grows on you and lingers.
There is much to criticize in the show: it’s disorganized, but that is part of the plan; it’s too earnest, but it would be hard not to be today; and there isn’t much great art in it, but that, too, is intentional, and there is a lot that is interesting and good. In fact, the many rough edges provide an antidote to the excessive clarity and glitter of Venice.
For better and worse, Documenta 12 demonstrates, and often makes a good case for, the study of visual culture, an area of criticism that subordinates individual genius and the hierarchies of quality to exemplary culture-illustrating work. This exhibition of the art of more than 150 artists in every medium, from the 12th century through the present, spread out over five main venues—documenta-Halle; the new Aue-Pavillon, a mammoth temporary shed with corrugated plastic walls; the stately, neoclassical Museum Fridericianum; the 19th-century Neue Galerie; and the Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, at the top of the mountain—presents an array of works in nonchronological arrangement that do and don’t resonate with one another.
At the fabulous Baroque Schloss, the permanent collection is so rich in Rubenses, Van Dycks, Titians, and Rembrandts—including Rembrandt’s famous Portrait of Saskia van Uylenburgh (1633)—that when Documenta’s curators intersperse contemporary works to make analogies, the new art often struggles for attention against the depth of the past.
But sometimes it works. While the Schloss offers a picturesque vision of a bygone world, down below it’s war, torture, disease, and trauma. So bringing Kerry James Marshall’s 1993 “Lost Boys” paintings, which memorialize gang members killed in action, up the mountain to hang beside works like Karel van Mander III’s 1640 painting Polonos Stabbing his Rival Tracinos to Death provides context in both directions.
In this show, organized by the husband-and-wife team of Roger M. Buergel, as artistic director, and Ruth Noack, as curator, reality tends to trump imagination. There is some irony, some playfulness, and some satire, but not much real humor. An exception, perhaps, is a series of witty, ecologically correct recycled-plastic-jug portrait busts by Beninese artist Romuald Hazoumé. These actually allude to Yoruba masks and to their appropriation by European modernists. And there’s serious fun in the uncomfortable videos of German artist Hito Steyerl, who deals with sex and shame in his Lovely Andrea (2007), about the Japanese tradition of rope bondage, which became eroticized in the 19th century. Polish artist Artur Zmijewski, in his film Them (2007), showing off-site at the Kulturzentrum Schlachthof, provides a wry take on the irresolvable nature of prejudice and conflict. He asked groups of Catholics, nationalists, Jews, and socialists to paint banners symbolizing “their” Poland, and then to change one another’s banners to reflect their own points of view. The exercise ends in vitriol and pandemonium.
Overall, though, context is key. Time is of the essence, and there are many pasts here. This is Documenta 12’s strength. Nothing is ever new—just different. So, many small, anxious-looking black-and-white abstract drawings by Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi in one room are accompanied by a large, quiet Agnes Martin work and a handwoven Turkish rug. The comparisons are not particularly enlightening, but the examples are stunning.
Strangest of all are the constant recurrences of works by John McCracken and Juan Davila. They represent two poles in 20th-century (and so far in 21st-century) art making. McCracken’s candy-colored high-minimalist sculptures and Davila’s scurrilous, graffitiesque paintings, uncouth and provocative, appear in numerous improbable locations throughout the exhibition sites.
Other artists also turn up repeatedly, punctuating different scenarios. Charlotte Posenenske, for example, is represented by everything from tape drawings to large boxes, all suggesting the artwork’s dependence on its environment. These curiosities may be the only real curatorial handle here, albeit an often inscrutable one that forces viewers to pause regularly and reflect on the relations between the artworks themselves—and between art and life.
In this show where all issues are accounted for, artistic polish often works in tandem with political ends, although it doesn’t necessarily elevate the subject beyond the obvious, as in Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s minimalist sculpture Phantom Truck (2007), whose contours change in varying lights. Its reference is to Colin Powell’s illusory weapons-making vehicles in Iraq.
Besides new and forgotten artists, there are some known artists who are earning renewed attention for older works, which look wonderful here. Among them is Trisha Brown. Her subtle intertwinings of reality and art turn up in performances, drawings, and videos. In one performance, Floor of the Forest (1970), dancers weave in and out of a suspended rope net, pulled taut like a trampoline. As if struggling to survive, they slither through the loops, taking their bright-colored garments on and off and creating a moving painterly surface and an abstract shadow design below.
Lee Lozano’s works from the ’60s—mostly minimalist madness—have also been brought back into play, exemplified by her 1962 drawing of a pair of trousers with a large, erect wrench sticking out of the fly.
Many works, old and new, in and of themselves merge content from different artistic, historical, and cultural milieus. At the Schloss, Dias & Riedweg’s layered film presents contemporary life, anthropology, and pop culture in the context of galleries full of medieval texts, objects from antiquity, and European paintings, while at the Museum Fridericianum there is Zheng Guogu’s all-in-one history piece, the sculpture Waterfall (2006). A wax-covered plinth, it evokes traditional Chinese landscape painting, with its rising mountains and plateaus, as well as contemporary minimalist sculpture. But it really represents a subversive act: Zheng and colleagues (the Yang Jiang Group) invited the public to make hundreds of calligraphic texts, which the artists gathered together, dipped in wax to create a solid mass, and presented as a “waterfall.” The act not only bridges the centuries but contains many stories in one visual object.
Charmingly symbolizing the dichotomies of past and present, high and low, are two signs. An old one up at the Schloss says, “My home is your castle (may I invite you?).” Another, in the town below, grouses, “Only 90 more days of art prison.”