tema celeste, September / October, 2007

52nd Venice Biennale
by Francine Koslow Miller

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Robert Storr, the first American-born Director of the International Art Exhibition, the 52nd Venice Biennale, the world's oldest and most venerable contemporary art exposition, faced up to Herculean challenges in filling the vast spaces of the Arsenale (a former naval storage area) and the 1930s Fascist-style Padiglione Italia with selections by artists from all continents, for the most part visually engaging and thought-provoking. Realizing that his task was to provide both cognoscenti and the general public with work that is both timely and representative of the best art today, the seasoned scholar, critic, and former curator at the Museum of Modem Art in New York opted out of theorizing, trend-setting, or sensationalizing, in a show packed with works in a variety of media and styles, responding more to the world around us and to the palpability of the formal process of making art. The themes that left a permanent mark on this critic deal more with the reality of our troubled times than with often boring and overly complex considerations about the aesthetics, criticism, or philosophy of art-making. Storr bore the burden of discovering and selecting art engaged with terror, alienation, death, doubt, escape, and transcendence. In a show titled Think with the Senses - Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present Tense, he tastefully avoided eye-catching violence and sexual fetishism in favor of art that tries to make sense of changing global relations and communication and glorifies more the possibilities of the human imagination. Relying mostly on new and solid works by a core group of some of his favorite art elders including Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Ryman, Louise Bourgeois, Sigmar Poke, and Bruce Nauman, as well as giving space to Turkey and Africa in the Arsenale Artiglierie so as to give more visibility to areas long shunned or ignored, in his introductory essay to the exhibition catalogue Storr explains that he prefers to engage rather than enthrall. Storr took the time to organize and familiarize himself with the space and the artists (a record four years preparatory period), so that he could offer his public the fullest opportunity to see, feel, and meditate on the works included. In a two-part expansive show that is often concerned with war, death, and exile, the sensitivity to the artist's role as political commentator, philosopher, and visionary is conspicuous throughout. There is a military presence in the former Venetian quarter-mile long Arsenale and it opens with an eye-catching, raucous, tongue-in-cheek homage to Italian futurist propaganda by Luca Buvoli, including hanging sculpture, animated films, video, posters, and wall painting. A Very Beautiful Day After Tomorrow (Un Bellissimo Dopodomani) not only commemorates the words of Milanese poet/provocateur F.T, Marinetti with red, green, and white flying figures and parole in libertà, but also points out the absurdity of an anti-passeist movement that glorified war, speed, and masculinity and predicated Fascism. In a video entitled How can this thing be Explained, Some Remarks on Futurism, Women and Masculinity, Buvoli noted remarks by female scholars on how the chauvinist Marinetti actually initiated early feminist rebellion by such things as nurturing their interest in airplane flight. In Velocity Zero, with the aid of physicians, Buvoli videotaped adults suffering from aphasia; they stutter and stumble with the belligerent words of Marinetti's 1909 futurist Manifesto, including "war – the only hygiene."

Gabriele Basilica's photographic series of vacant bombed-out Beirut buildings and Emily Prince's map of America (involving an ongoing project making tiny drawings of American Servicemen and Women who have so far died in Iraq and Afghanistan), are more taciturn markers of the ongoing real tragedy of war. The understated anguish of an Israeli soldier wiping a tear from his eye as he sits beside an "injured" hospital dummy in Tomer Ganihar's narrative photographic series Hospital Party is somehow too painful to look at for very long. Belonging and dislocation, the fragility of society and culture in a time of conflict, the sustaining qualities of art in the face of death are prevalent. The neon exit signs that spell out the word "Exil" (exile) are regularly placed above doors in both pavilions; they are Adel Abdessemed's simple elegant conceptual commentary on portals of dislocation between peoples, as well as possible physical escape. Abdessemed, an Algerian-born expatriate who now lives in France, is elsewhere represented by a stunning group of nine minimalist circles created from razor-sharp barbed wire.

The rickety beauty of Nigerian El Anatsui's massive mosaics of aluminum bottle caps and beer cans stitched together with copper remind us that the lines between luxury and poverty, craft and high art, East and West are no longer obvious–nor should they be. Throughout the Arsenals are a variety memento mori: a young boy casually dribbles a skull like a soccer ball in a bombed-out Serbian lot in Paolo Canevari's video loop Bouncing Skull, filmed in Belgrade on the site of the razed headquarters of Milosevic's Serbian army. Angelo Filomeno's baroque embroideries on shantung silk feature skeletons riding on a broom above a glittering rhinestone image of Los Angeles; a philosopher/skeleton shits out beautiful onyx crystal next to a tree. dolefullhouse, Tabaimo's colorful new video of a dollhouse lovingly arranged, only to be destroyed by floods and an unwelcome intruder, suggests that nothing lasts forever. Yang Zhenzhong's ten giant video projections portray a variety of people of different statuses, cultures, and ages saying the leveling words "I will die" in ten languages. Sophie Calle's autobiographical homage Pas Pu Saisir la Mort (couldn't capture death) documents the coincidence of two simultaneous phone calls that informed her that she had been invited to exhibit at the Biennale and that her mother had one month to live, with poetic journals of her mother's last days, and a video of her mother on her deathbed. There are actually a few deceased artists– Chen Zhen, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Martin Kippenberger, Leonilson, Sol LeWitt, Jason Rhoades, and Fred Sandback–present in Art in the Present Tense. Their welcome inclusion sustains the hope in the power of art to continue to inspire beyond the limits of mere mortality. The sublime beauty of Robert Ryman's cloud-like abstract paintings, the calming effect of viewing a roomful of Kelly's latest series of monochromatic quadrilaterals, and the unbridled joy contained in the cartoon-like shaped canvases by Elizabeth Murray are very familiar, yet fresh. Equally welcome was the pleasure of seeing the work of young artists like Joshua Mosley. His clever animated dialogue between Rousseau and Pascal (about the difficulty of resolving human relationships with nature and existence while also accepting God the creator) was a Biennale highpoint. Although I found the 52nd Biennale to be a highly polished overview of much of the best of what is happening in the arts, one could also argue that the International Art Exhibition should also be more experimental than a good museum show. If the Biennale is an opportunity to offer a chance for an open structure and for innovative curatorial methods, then maybe the legacy of Harald Szeemann has not yet been lived up to.