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Denise Robinson: 51st Venice Biennale "What's in a Name" in the Finnish Art Review, December 2005

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The Venice Biennale carries with it the weight of the highly managed representation of its history. Other biennials throughout the world have often mimicked the Venice Biennale in some regard, and in their initiating stages were often defined in relation to it. We need to consider though that while the Venice Biennale continues to gain in amplitude, Venice itself, the city through which this history has been woven, recedes.

Each Venice Biennale also declares itself as a distinctive project within the trajectory of its history. For instance, the 2005 biennial in Venice was publicized, in the main, as the first Biennale curated by women; two women, in fact (and two separate catalogues) - |Rosa Martinez and Maria de Corall. Why, then, in taking up this place to speak did the curators refuse to articulate a position or perspective, both in terms of the collective potential of the works - which is after all what curated exhibitions are - and in their written texts in the catalogues? Maria de Corral, who curated the Italian pavilion with The Experience of Art, writes in the exhibition catalogue: "The Experience of Art' is not intended as a closed discussion on current art but as an open place where the desire to exchange experiences, ideas, reflections, and to provoke them, can be fulfilled. I would like the labyrinthine path through the Italian Pavilion to be seen not as a finished story, but as a process defined in terms of relations between different subject, forms, ideas and spaces, more like a centre of research, that there are no certainties". This is a vague text that negates desire, but is not without meaning. For perhaps what guides this resistance to speak is the shadow of a question deemed impossible: What is at stake in this selection of the works of artists? Who and what does it serve?

For some reason, Corral considers that any such questions might create "resistance to the idea of pleasure in contemporary art". Amongst the forty artists in this exhibition, there is clearly work that engages with the question of what might be at stake in the work's production. The film/installation of Chen Chiehjen presents, a strange eulogy, both for, and in collaboration with, women now discarded from their source of survival in Taiwan's textile industry, while Eija-Liisa Ahtila persistently scours the surfaces of technology for a means to address the real; - in the sense that Lacan would have it, the real is the missed encounter. This address to the real is also present in Stan Douglas' filmic, narrative interventions into the underbelly of race. Maybe there is something significant to be said about figuration and painting with the inclusion of Phillip Guston, Marlene Dumas and Francis Bacon in this collection of works, - but then the work could all simply have been a part of the curatorial rationale to include 'another generation of artists'. A gesture that can also embrace amongst others, Cildo Meireles, Jenny Holzer etc. More, importantly, and of greater interest is the territory of 'pleasure', indicated by Corral as significant, then emptied of its potential through her reactionary approach, and therefore absent in the realization of the exhibition.

The curator, however, somehow seems to think that the artists all survive this context - and the threat of globalization - through their 'personal aesthetic universe' - they don't. In fact, Corral is speaking against the work of artists in this exhibition. Her inclusion of the work of Bruce Nauman's, Shit in Your Hat, Head on a Chair (1990), provides some idea of what the gap between the work and the curator's' compilation of the exhibition might be. In Nauman's sculptural transformation of the screened image, a retroprojection shows a clown who performs as auditory instructions: a scathing application of performative speech - distilled to the range of a few repeated words - and ending with the tragi comic action leading to the clown's mimicking the act of placing her head in her own shit. Nauman is offering us an encounter with the speech act and it's not simply a chance to examine our willingness comply, with its humiliating result, but the implications of the gaps that the limits of speech opens up for us all. The clown potentially stands in for us - - dumb, but 'acting out'. The insertion of 'shit' into this 'routine' absorbs what would have been our laughter. The moulded head on a chair that hangs down between us and the screened figure of the clown is both brutal joke and an act of empathy? Whatever it is it disturbs the purity of any form and as such it could just as easily be included in Rosa Martinez' curated exhibition,

Always a Little Further. Rosa Martinez' contribution to the Venice Biennale was a lost opportunity, with a facile approach to a loaded discursive field: 'transgression'. At one level the curation included the banal work of Centre of Attention, who presented us, with their proposal to select music we would like to hear at our own funeral, and then to lay down and listen to it - coming across more like a refused script for a reality TV show than as the high seriousness with which they offer this work. This work was set against the highly charged interventions of the beautiful, queer subversions of designer, and performer Leigh Bowery, no facile reference to death here - work that risks tracing death in life. Here presented and contextualised - in the absence of the 'performers' who would otherwise be inextricably sutured to these 'designs' - with clumsy mannequins. Their grace and impact is destroyed. The luscious, large scale photographs of Fergus Greer were enough. The Gorilla Girls as was the first work to be encountered in the exhibition, offered the possibility that this exhibition may just be a taking a risk that is necessary: addressing something in excess of the market, possibly a reverie on activism, politics, or psychosis, even. It didn't, and in relation to Martinez's silence on the issue of transgression, it is not enough to quote Pascal in this situation: "If I had more time, my text would be shorter.".

The hesitation to elaborate a critical framework or a perspective is everywhere in both the exhibition and in Martinez's text: "In this constant struggle, confronting and adapting to political, economic and administrative constraints is a major part of the game, because an exhibition is also a 'product' launched into the marketplace to compete with other similar products ... Curating an exhibition is living the romantic illusion of creating a temporary world, it is exercising the power to name and map artistic trends, and it is also an essay in the creation of meaning, critically reordering the unending chaos of messages". Such confused writing harbours a disturbing level of self- censorship and an equally disturbing reluctance to challenge 'the game'. What is it that is not being said? Samuel Beckett, too, is included in this exhibition. Yet, where Martinez is concerned with not failing, 'failure is impossible', Beckett's work, on the contrary, advocates the productive force of failure: "I gave up before birth, it is not possible otherwise, but birth there had to be...it's impossible I should have a voice." (From For to End Yet Again, John Calder Publishers, London, 1975. p43)

Of the pavilions, the selection of Jonas Mekas for Lithuania for his exhibit Celebrations Of The Small And Personal In The Times Of Bigness was to prove amongst the best and most curious. Mekas, the now much- adored lifelong archivist of experimental and independent film in New York since the 60's, has his work here literally embedded within an archive one that includes a return to his 'home'. This 'return' is, importantly, far more ambivalent than the nostalgia wielded to manipulate the lives of the many in the diasporas: those that have been torn from any possibility of 'home'. Mekas' exhibition was delicate and incommensurable, yet surprisingly, Mekas insists on speaking of purity. The brilliant Jack Smith, 60's filmmaker and scintillating critic - who battled with Mekas all those years ago over the screening right of (Smith's) film Flaming Creatures - would re-ignite his corrosive, beautiful voice from beyond on hearing Mekas' comments: "I consider too much attention is given today in the arts to dramatization and to psychological and other perversions.". Such is the 'life' in the archive.

Of the many other pavilions, the 'Latin American' pavilion titled The Weft and the Warp, and commented on as, 'the art of our continent' remains - as in the past - a shameful collapsing of the radical political, historical, cultural, and psychic differences amongst those cultures contained by this term: political, historical, cultural, psychical, their singularity - (their becoming - ) and, their means of negotiating identity therefore are all defined by and drawn into Eurocentric projections. For all of the effects of 'globalization', in this regard nothing has changed in terms of the nationalist agenda on which the Venice Biennale was founded, while raising questions as to the failure of the curated exhibitions to deal with this context. As one of the many projects outside of the dynamic of the pavilions and curated exhibitions, Pipilotti Rist's Homo sapiens sapiens at Chiesa San Stae, Santa Croce had us stepping away from the canal and into the potentially troubling silence of the meeting of the sacred and profane. This was not a meditation; but it is something else; on the ceiling was a precisely calibrated film projection - a filmed fresco - with its illusion of permanency reinforced by being precisely contained within the parameters of the architectural features. The image projected was a prismatic, rendition in which two women, 'Eve-like', fragment and reconfigure within paradise. In the spaces of the church below, polished orbs provide fish-eye lens views of the entire space, suturing together the projection and the beholders who gaze at these 'new Eve's' from supine positions on soft mattresses. A question remains as to whether the realm of the eidetic we experience here, creates the frisson that it should in the context of the 'sacred'. The work had the feature of being both a mimicry and a transplantation as it formed its temporary new skin. In this sense, the work was not unlike Barbara Kruger's 'new skins'; her billboards that are literally stretched throughout cityscapes, both a critique and embedded in the formations of mass media. Kruger's work sits within the realm of the problem of the very communicability of the media's ability to communicate. This communicability has another face, as Agamben notes, via Debord: one where "humans (are) separated by what unites them". Kruger's mural on the front of the Italian Pavilion missed its mark in this regard. As part of The Experience of Art, her lettering filled the façade with "poteri", "soldi", and "money", "power", and "God is on Our Side" - better cited/sited, I think, on the cusp of the commerce of the sacred already buried within the cityscape of Venice.

Another reach into the sacred was the Gregor Schneider's site work - and part of Always A Little Further: his plan to build, in St. Mark's Square, a copy of the Kaa'ba; the most sacred holy site for Muslims, located in Mecca. There was a kind of quiet embarrassment at the work not being realized, and no clear idea of precisely what occurred. Though it was not unsurprising that this work was thwarted, the bland tone of 'official' explanation, also reflected in the curator's comments at the press conference, meant that the meaning of its failure was lost. Given the apparently unresolvable interaction between what has become 'Venice' for the Venice Biennale, it is worth considering the 9th Istanbul
Biennale in 2005 for its encounter with the its city, albeit a city of an entirely different kind. 'Istanbul', largely determined by the narratives of location; on the 'edge' of Europe and Asia and on the threshold of its recent history of internal suppression, also fuels the debates on the city's relationship to the EU along with the implications of that relationship. Titled ' Istanbul' the Biennale immediately distinguishes itself, and is far removed from, the Venice Biennale's, 'Venice'. The cover of the catalogue/guide is a black and white, documentary photograph of a view of the city that sweeps up the city's precincts in an image that has no place within the narratives that would otherwise overwhelmingly determine and reduce the identity of Istanbul as exotic. The minarets of Istanbul's famously exquisite mosques cannot be seen on this skyline; The image doesn't 'privilege' any aspect, its almost banal in this sense, in a city now continually under the force of the 'civilizing influences' of urban development, and its within this representation of Istanbul that the Istanbul Biennale venues were located; for the duration of the Biennale, these venues, momentarily stood in for, 'Istanbul'. All of which allowed the Istanbul Biennale its highly effective realization.

There were few of the major commercial galleries here, and none of the large productions by artists that proliferate in the International scene, but there was a productive, almost tender encounter between the works this city. A question remained for me as to why it is that a consideration of the political is deemed separate from the unconscious in such an encounter. Also by splitting one publication containing essays only, from the publication that referred to the work of artists only in the form of a 'guide', is almost suggestive of the idea that the art works are the unconscious, 'unspeakable', and the publication the rational context. The inclusion of some works that operate in the fantasized realm of a transparent social projects also at times incorporated the rationalist very logic of the State - that 'Istanbul' critiqued. It is possibly because of the visibility of these contradictions and the declared tension between culture and politics - and the psychosis of any city - that unlike the Venice Biennale, a form of pleasure was produced in this encounter with 'Istanbul'. It is only left now to jettison the term 'Biennale' from the name.

"Old earth, no more lies, I've seen you." (Samuel Beckett). +