Toronto Star, June 16, 2007

Biennale reflected on empires old and new
by Peter Goddard

VENICE-Paradise Lost is the ideal name for an exhibit in "the first Roma Pavilion" in the 110-year history of the Venice Biennale. It's a lonely place now that the art world's movers and shakers have moseyed on in their grand tour of European contemporary art hot spots, or have simply dragged themselves back home, exhausted.

For one thing, the pavilion – actually the grimy Palazzo Pisani, a vast pile of weathered stone nearly lost in labyrinthine back alleys – represents a fiction. With its collection of artists from eight European democracies, Paradise Lost is an exhibition, angry and hugely alive, of a boundary-defying culture, "otherwise known as Gypsy," as a spokesperson explains. Like, what paradise? "Imagine," goes a pamphlet available at the door, "you board a bus and all the other passengers grab onto their wallet(s)."

For another thing, Paradise Lost points to the 52nd Biennale's own reflection of empires lost. Here you find the Czech and Slovak republics hosting Irena Juzová's "Collection Series" in what was the Czechoslovakian pavilion. Then there's great sculptor Mrdjan Bajic, in one of the Biennale's more searching shows, representing Serbia while incorporating imagery taken from the United Nations' 1999 campaign against what was Yugoslavia. Bajic couldn't make the 1993 Biennale because of anti-Yugoslav sanctions.

In their place, empires of another kind have emerged, as art formulates its own empire-building with François Pinault as its current role model. The Paris-based luxury products zillionaire recently turned the Biennale into a one-stop shopping experience, buying an entire room in the Italian Pavilion in the Giardini of sumptuous, mural-size paintings from German artist Sigmar Polke. Resembling light-shifting curtains suggesting the drama to come after they're drawn, Polke's new pieces will eventually be installed in a space specifically designed for them in Pinault's new art gallery in Venice, the restored Punta della Dogana, or Venetian customs office.

This boundary-less, multi-national milieu defines this Biennale, where a sizeable number of its art stars maintain studios in at least two continents. Canadian sculptor David Altmejd – his glinting installations in the Canadian Pavilion, "The Index" and "The Giant 2," are attracting positive press almost everywhere – is a prime example, with roots in London and New York.

There is a correspondingly complex set of concerns accompanying these trans-national lifestyles. The almost prerequisite America-critiquing begins this time with the American Pavilion, where the late Cuban-born American minimalist artist, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, is represented by a thick stack of posters, one reading "Memorial Day Weekend," endlessly taken away only to be constantly replenished in a never-ending cycle of loss.

But, in general, the more righteous, vigorous brand of anti-war anger has seemingly evolved into elegy – as in American artist Emily Prince's finely drawn portraits of American Iraqi war dead – or dark satire as in Adel Abidin's "Abidin – Welcome to Baghdad."

After listing Baghdad-area museums in his parody of a typically slick travel brochure, Abidin, an Iraq-born Finnish artist showing in the Nordic Pavilion, writes: "Most museums have either been closed or looted. They are probably not worth visiting."

Much is being made by director Robert Storr of the Biennale's sensitivity to the 77 national representations and their ability "to close the gaps," as he puts it, on modern art's otherwise unstoppable, border-challenging, "cross-pollinating growth."

But few glimpses are left of Biennale's imperial past, where it was still believed that culture might be stamped with a national identity – or vice versa. Confronting nationalism now means a walk across the lawn fronting the bone-dry white façade of the Brazilian pavilion, only to be confronted by an impossibly skinny Japanese transvestite teetering around on elevator shoes posing for Egyptian tourists.

In some cases, some new Biennale attempts at nation-shaping have just plain backfired, such as the pan-African exhibit "Africa – Check List Luanda Pop" at the far end of the Arsenale, the shadowy structure where the Venetian sailing fleet was once constructed. Although taken from a single collection, so few works representing such a vast area as continental Africa makes no collective sense other than perhaps Storr's hope it will lead to some sort of "greater, more permanent inclusiveness."

Yet Storr has imaginatively orchestrated most of the Arsenal's enormous display space to great effect. He's added comics to the Biennale mix for the first time, with a wall filled with panels from African-born artists Eyoum Nganguè and Faustin Titi.

One end is filled from floor to high ceiling with a vivid tapestry made of bottle tops from Nigerian-based artists El Anatsui. At the far end, there's another handcrafted wall work, equally majestic. Marching down the walls on each side are row after row of Argentine artist Guillermo Kuitca's huge, circular diary paintings, their surfaces messed up like favourite old LPs that have been played too often.

The 52nd Venice Biennale continues to Nov. 21. Prize winners will be announced in October.

Some 52nd Biennale shows likely to make waves beyond Venice:

"Democracy," by Francesco Vezzoli (Italian Pavilion). Investigates the intellectual parameters of the typical candidate's TV spot designed for the modern American presidential campaign. The Italian artist pits Sharon Stone, as the Hillary Clinton-esque Patricia Hill, versus the uber-skinny French philosopher, Bernard-Henri Lévy as Patrick Hill.

"Take care of yourself" by Sophie Calle (French Pavilion). Getting dropped by a boyfriend in an email prompted the provocative French artist to pass it on to 107 of her female friends to get their many, varied reactions that make up her show.

"The Home Species," by Hyungkoo Lee (Korean Pavilion). Plastic masks and skeletal mice about to be pounced on is the Korean artist's way of handling his feelings of being an "undersized Asian male" while living in the United States.

"Scribble drawings," by Sol Lewitt. (Italian Pavilion). Two large and moving works from the archetypal American conceptualistic-mystique who died in April not long before this exhibition was to be installed.

"dread," (OK) by Joshua Mosley (Italian Pavilion). The Dallas-born Philadelphia-based artist is an exceptional sculptor, an already important animator and – wait for it – a truly original musical composer. All-purpose art star Matthew Barney had better watch out for this guy. We all should.