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Jeffrey Kastner on 51 Venice Biennale in ARTFORUM (May 2005)

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Art Forum

Art Forum Magazine

2005 A.D.
ArtForum, May 2005 by Jeffrey Kastner

FAMILIARITY, IT IS SAID, BREEDS CONTEMPT--and the recent proliferation of biennials has indeed made the large-scale international exhibition an object of, if not scorn, at least skepticism. Yet even for those who question the utility of the biennial merry-go-round (2005 will see a dozenodd such shows, from Moscow, Sharjah, and Prague to Gothenburg, Lyon, Tirana, and Istanbul) one always stands apart. The Venice Biennale is inevitably a subject of fascination, not only for what its content says about the state of contemporary art but also for what its form signals about the condition of the global industry it spawned.

This summer's fifty-first installment, opening to the public June 12, follows a 2003 version perhaps better remembered for the heat (and humidity) produced by unusually swampy weather than for any light generated by director Francesco Bonami's curatorial strategy. Conceived as a visitor-empowering gesture whose sprawling, multi-exhibit structure would drive a stake into the hegemonic heart of the "Grand Show," Bonami's "Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer" was widely judged a well-intentioned disappointment, an experiment in radical decentralization that left many feeling rudderless amid its welter of fragmentary methodologies and dissonant voices.

While Bonami's particular approach to reform may have failed to convince, organizers say they are persevering with attempts to reconceive the 110-year-old event, starting with the welcome choice, for the first time, of two female directors--Spaniards Maria de Corral and Rosa Martinez. Their centerpiece project involves a pair of "complementary shows" with more than ninety artists, one looking to the recent past and the other to the "immediate future."

A former director of Madrid's Reina Sofia, de Corral is organizing "The Experience of Art," which will populate the Giardini with forty-one artists, including past (literally) masters like Francis Bacon, Philip Guston, and Agnes Martin, live wires such as Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham, and intriguing younger figures like Tania Bruguera, Tacita Dean, and Leandro Erlich. Though on the page, de Corral's curatorial interests seem to tend toward rather shopworn tropes--nostalgia, the body, and even "the socio-political critique of current events by means of irony" (!)--her stated intention to "deal with intensity, not categories" bodes well for the show in practice. Meanwhile, Martinez--something of a professional biennialist, having curated Manifesta, the Istanbul Biennale, and SITE Santa Fe all within the last decade--takes over the Arsenale with "Always a Little Further." Drawing, Martinez says, on "the myth of the romantic traveler," her exhibition involves forty-nine artists, ranging from the elegant (Ghada Amer) to the profane (Oleg Kulik) and including interesting collaborations like Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, Christoph Buchel and Gianni Motti, Blue Noses, and the Centre of Attention.

As always, the Biennale hosts its complement of national pavilions--featuring familiar names like Ed Ruscha (the United States), Gilbert & George (Britain), and Annette Messager (France) and artists of seventy other countries, from Afghanistan to Venezuela--as well as a variety of collateral activity, including dozens of ancillary exhibitions, performances, and conferences held throughout the summer and fall. And for those who believe the whole concept of the "biennial" would benefit from a dose of criticality, the extended schedule also intriguingly includes a major symposium in December organized by Venice's 2007 director, Robert Storr, a main subject of which will be "the reasons, identities and developments behind the many Biennials which base themselves upon Venice and now form an important part of the current international exhibition system."

Jeffrey Kastner is a New York-based critic.

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