The Centre of Attention homepage the centre of attention

Marcia E. Vetroq on 51 Venice Biennale in Art In America (September 2005)

back to the



Art in America

Venice Biennale: be careful what you wish for.

Vetrocq, Marcia E.

Despite the unprecedented appointment of two women as visual-arts directors, the 2005 Biennale is a cautious affair, marked by close administrative oversight and curatorial temperance. More garden party than free-for-all, the event just might leave some visitors nostalgic for the undisciplined--and occasionally spectacular--displays of years past.

After the satanic heat and Babylonian excess of the last Venice Biennale preview, the survivors of 2003 sounded downright catechistic when reciting their common hopes for this year's edition: greater thematic coherence, a more restrained roster of artists, shorter entry lines, fewer on-your-feet screening marathons and--admittedly beyond bureaucratic determination--less punishing temperatures in which to tackle a citywide event that has become a test of time management and physical endurance. Meteorological prayers were answered in full, but, as if by the malign volition of a devil who corrupts each wish even as he grants it, the desired clarity and numerical abstemiousness (91 artists in the international group shows compared to 380 in 2003) became the attributes of an exhibition that is all but purged of risk and surprise. Well-groomed, responsible and as eager to please as a new suitor, the 2005 Venice Biennale serves up contemporary art (and some less-than-contemporary art) that is market wise, celebrity conscious and chary of offending. That the exhibition comes wrapped in a self-satisfied mantle of better-late-than-never feminism is cause for some dismay.

It's necessary, of course, to distinguish between the presentations in the national pavilions, which are determined by each participating country, and the large international group shows, which are curated by visual-arts directors appointed by the administrative board that oversees the event. Yet throughout all the sections this year, there prevails a reassuring air, attributable in part to the sheer familiarity and even seniority of many of the participants. For example, four of the national pavilions that claim a hefty share of the limelight are showcasing high-profile artists age 60 or older, with Prance, Great Britain, Spain and the U.S. presenting, respectively, works by Annette Messager, Gilbert & George, Antoni Muntadas and Ed Ruscha that are unlikely to arouse any controversy. An almost deferential atmosphere permeates the two international shows as well, thanks to the relatively high number of well-known (and some deceased) artists, and to the inclusion of a fair number of works that have already garnered critical attention.

For this outing, the visual-arts directorship saw its first joint appointment, that of Maria de Corral and Rosa Martinez, whose nationality (Spanish) and gender (female) are likewise unprecedented in the organization's history. Installed in and outside the mazelike Italian pavilion in the Giardini, de Corral's show of 42 artists, "The Experience of Art," is dedicated to mapping the terra firma of art today. The presence of Marlene Dumas, Gabriel Orozco, Rachel Whiteread, Cildo Meireles, Dan Graham and other landmark figures is reasonable if not stirring, while the inclusion of Francis Bacon, Philip Guston, Agnes Martin and Juan Munoz arguably carries the enterprise too far into retrospection. Martinez's "Always a Little Further," a presentation of works by 49 individuals and teams that is intended to be the more forward-looking of the two shows, occupies the expansive spaces of the Arsenale, the past home of "Aperto," "Utopia Station" and other edgy or youthful manifestations. Yet Martinez's roster inexplicably includes Samuel Beckett and Louise Bourgeois--inspirational, yes, up-to-the-minute, no--along with Jimmie Durham, Olafur Eliasson, Mona Hatoum and others who might have easily been at home in de Corral's overview of contemporary art's establishment.

Both group exhibitions include good works, but the overwhelming impression is of a project of confirmation spiced with a bit of novelty, rather like the audience-survey-driven programming of summer repertory theater. Some of the responsibility for this pervasive caution, perhaps the lion's share, rests with Davide Croff, the current president of the Biennale's board [see "Front Page," Oct. '04]. Croft took the step--previously the prerogative of the visual-arts director--of articulating the Biennale's prudent theme, which he then entrusted to de Corral and Martinez. Moreover, for the first time the board named the directors of two successive biennali, with Robert Storr's appointment for 2007 preempting a second outing by de Corral and Martinez. The board further determined that Storr would be enlightened by the collected wisdom of veteran biennial and Documenta curators and other high-profile art professionals, a group of whom have been invited to Venice for a summit in December.

One recalls past editions directed by Achille Bonito Oliva, Jean Clair and Harald Szeemann as expressions of strong and compelling, though certainly not infallible, curatorial vision. Francesco Bonami's 2003 extravaganza, engorged and unfocused, seems to have been the last straw, the Heaven's Gate of biennali. The potential consequences of the administration's clipping the director's wings and casting a net of circumspection over all operations were nearly ignored in last summer's stir over the superficially radical step of appointing de Corral and Martinez. But in truth, the designation of a woman or women to direct the Biennale was so belated, the curators' resumes are so long and distinguished, and the outcome, after all, is so mainstream, that this appointment really has caused no more of a ripple than, say, last year's casting of Denzel Washington in the wan remake of The Manchurian Candidate: the public, as they say, was ready for it.

Grrrrrrl Power and (A Few) Bad Boys

De Corral and Martinez open each section of the international show with an assertive graphic display: a digitally printed vinyl mural (called a "wall tattoo" in the catalogue) by Barbara Kruger on the facade of the Italian pavilion, and enormous posters by the Guerrilla Girls in the Arsenale. Thus we enter, lashed by the irony of one ("YOU MAKE HISTORY WHEN YOU DO BUSINESS"; "ADMIT NOTHING. BLAME EVERYONE") and prodded by the sarcasm of the others ("Where are the women artists of Venice? Underneath the men"). Two ceiling-hung pieces by younger women follow the works of the veteran feminists. Above the entrance foyer of the Italian pavilion is suspended Monica Bonvicini's Blind Shot (2004), a menacing-looking but ultimately pointless jack hammer that cycles on like a thunderous automatic weapon every two minutes or so. In the Arsenale is Joana Vasconcelos's The Bride (2001), an enormous teardrop of a chandelier that proves, upon inspection, to be made of tampons (14,000 of them) on a steel armature.

Contributing to the Biennale's current of feminist triumphalism--the title of Pilar Albarracin's flamenco video, I Will Dance On Your Grave, may say it best--are the unprecedented numerical strength of women artists in both shows (less remarked upon is the equally dramatic spike in the representation of artists from Iberia and Latin America) and the awarding of three of the Biennale's four Golden Lions to women artists. Kruger received the award for lifetime achievement, and Annette Messager, the first woman to represent France in Venice, was cited for the outstanding national pavilion. The Golden Lions reserved for the international show were apportioned between the two sections. Germany's Thomas Schutte, in de Corral's survey, was recognized for his supremely accomplished ensemble of framed engraved heads and pedestal-borne metamorphic figures, the latter acquiring supplemental gravitas from the adjacent hanging of Francis Bacon's tortured anatomies. Regina Jose Galindo, a Guatemalan artist from Martinez's roster, was declared the best participant under 35 for her viscerally political performance videos.

As a feminist declaration, however, much of this feels more wishful and nostalgic than pungent and present. Posters by the Guerrilla Girls, a 20-year-old collective ("fighting discrimination with facts, humor and fake fur since 1985") tick off a series of distressing statistics (fewer than 40 of the roughly 1,240 artworks on view in six major museums of Venice are by women; only 9 percent of the artists in the 1995 Biennale were women). But it all seems like so much crabby shop talk when, far from the spotlight, in the little pavilion of the Republic of Armenia in Palazzo Zenobio, Diana Hakobian's three-channel video, Logic of Power (2005), offers an altogether more sobering and consequential-seeming set of numbers about deaths resulting from illegal abortions, the depressed level of women's wages and the denial of higher education to women in much of the world. While the Guerrilla Girls have updated their iconography to include bimbo-of-the-moment Pamela Anderson and the terror-alert color code system remade into an index of the Bush administration's hostility to women, their construction of the gender problem nevertheless feels dated, and the humor has grown slack.

Is there something in the nature of triumph delayed that makes a bit of slackness inevitable? Is it possible to match the initial jolt delivered by Kruger, or by her sister text-messager Jenny Holzer, represented in the Italian pavilion by a dramatic, Flavinesque corner piece? The punch line of Vasconcelos's feminine hygiene fixture seems like a small "gotcha!" when one thinks of the shocking absorbent armory arrayed by Judy Chicago in her 1972 Menstruation Bathroom for Womanhouse in L.A. The videos of Galindo--whom we see shaving her body hair and striding nude through town, walking through basins of blood and in close-up footage of her hymenoplasty--strike one as too serf-consciously beholden to Marina Abramovic, Ana Mendieta and Orlan. Meanwhile, in Runa Islam's film Be The First To See What You See As You See It (2004), the affectless young woman who tentatively coaxes pieces of period china (tired emblems of women's domestic entrapment and presumed fragility) off their platforms to a crash landing is a mere Stepford vandal compared to the delirious slugger Pipilotti Rist, who demolished the windows of parked cars with a long-stemmed red flower in an unforgettable video in the 1997 Biennale. Even Eija-Liisa Ahtila, the author of tart, tough minidramas probing the psychological and sexual pressures that bear down on women and families, is represented in the Italian pavilion by a cloying work, The Hour of Prayer (2005), a four-screen projection in which a blonde Nordic beauty, grieving over the death of her fluffy dog Luca, escapes to dusty, crowded Benin, where the church bell-triggered barking of the lean local mutts becomes a healing canine ritual.

With the curators showcasing women artists, you can't resist searching for constructions of gender in the works of the men they selected. For example, William Kentridge's installation in the Italian pavilion's elevated gallery is an affecting visualization of two realms of enchantment--the intimate space of the studio and the vast reaches of the Milky Way--that pays tribute to the early days of film-making. Still, the presence in these projections of an elusive nude model/muse and Kentridge's imagining of the galaxy as great coiling spermlike streams invoke the hoary erotic tradition of Courbet, Rodin and Matisse.

More overtly testosterone-fueled is Willie Doherty's Non-Specific Threat (2004), a looped game of chicken in which the camera circles an utterly impassive yet stereotypically tough-looking man. It's not clear whether man or camera is the more predatory, since the menacing voiceover--"I have contaminated you"; "You create me"--could be speaking for either. Robin Rhode (who may owe something to fellow South African Kentridge for his halting, low-tech method and incorporation of hand-drawn elements) is perhaps the most evolved male in de Corral's show, with his PBS-friendy videos of children at play. Bruce Nauman remains the baddest boy on the block with Shit in Your Hat--Head on a Chair, which offers a thoroughly gratifying lesson in mime abuse. (Did de Corral reach back to that work from 1990 merely because it's in the collection of the Fundacion "la Caixa," which she directed from 1981 to '91?)

Some highly caffeinated guy art can be found over at the Arsenale, too, with John Bock's obsessive-expulsive installation (the site of a preview performance on the durable topos of taming a feral child) incorporating athletic equipment, projectors and battered teddy bears, and the videos of Blue Noses, a Moscow-based group whose unapologetically sexist antics with naked girls, baguette phalluses and a mechanical alligator are displayed on 12 monitors arranged face-up in a circle of cardboard boxes. For a sharp behavioral alternative, C-prints, videos and garments on mannequins capture the gender-bending outrageousness of performance artist and super-size model Leigh Bowery. During the Biennale, Bowery can be seen as painted by Lucian Freud in a retrospective at the Museo Correr.

Fundamentally more tame and far too satisfied with its own leering naughtiness is Francesco Vezzoli's Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal's Caligula (2005), which is playing to packed houses in the Italian pavilion. A steamy come-on for a fictional remake of the legendary smut chestnut of 1979, the video features Helen Mirren and Adriana Asti (who appeared in the original) hamming it up with Courtney Love, Karen Black, Milla Jovovich, Benicio Del Toro, Barbara Bouchet and Vidal himself. Notwithstanding long-term support received from the Fondazione Prada (which organized the concurrent collateral show of Vezzoli's work on view at the Fondazione Cini), the artist turned to Donatella Versace for costumes that are the last word in imperial glare. During the preview days, only Candice Breitz's videos, Mother and Father (both 2005), came close to Vezzoli's in audience draw, and they, too, feature Hollywood actors and actresses, though the stars are not co-conspirators but rather the digital raw material of highly edited sequences that mock the cliches of family life.

Some Politics, Some Installations, Lots of Video

Compared to biennali past, you have to look hard in the Arsenale to avoid concluding that the world is in pretty good shape, AIDS has been cured and stability has been achieved in the world's trouble spots. The Guantanamo Initiative of Christoph Buchel and Gianni Motti (the latter also one of four artists representing Switzerland) requires a small detour to a shipping container parked outside the building. Launched last year, the documentation-rich project calls upon the Castro government--which does not recognize U.S. rights to Guantanamo and has not cashed checks paid on the lease since 1959--to seize the base, with its controversial military-run prison, and convert it into a cultural center. For Palabras/Words (2005), within the Arsenale, the Cuban-born Diango Hernandez arranges a tangle of wires and fallen electrical poles, a symbol of failed planning and broken promises, through which we view a projection of vintage news images and a scroll of the names of former Communist-bloc nations and their leaders. Fidel Castro is the last intransigent survivor of the lot.

If the Buchel-Motti initiative is quixotic, Emily Jacir's Ramallah/New York (2004-05), which juxtaposes footage of the ordinary activities of small businesses in both cities, is, sad to say, altogether too reasonable in its plea for mutual understanding. Meanwhile, Gregor Schneider's desire to construct a black cloth-draped, metal cubic structure that resembles the Ka'ba, the centerpiece of Islam's holiest shrine in Mecca, is inexcusably naive. Wounded by the Biennale's refusal to back his plan (the administration not surprisingly concluded that the piece, to be sited in the city's congested tourist heartland, the Piazza San Marco, could be offensive to Muslims), Schneider is showing a video in the Arsenale with an animation of his proposal and an explication of his soft-headed conviction that East and West can find common ground in their shared preoccupation with simple formal elements (think Tony Smith's Die). Schneider seems rather more sulky than idealistic in the Biennale catalogue, where his six alotted pages have been printed in solid black.

Kidlat Tahimik, from the Philippines, and Sergio Vega, a Buenos Aires-born and Gainesville-based artist, offer their own insights into cultural difference. A favorite of film buffs, Tahimik's The Perfumed Nightmare (1977) follows the disillusionment of a young Filippino taxi driver who dreams of traveling to the American paradise--Florida--to become an astronaut. Transferred to video, the work is screened in the Arsenale above an ad hoc installation that incorporates burned "relics" from the artist's fire-ravaged studio and some dubious artifacts--like the statue of a "wind goddess" who faces a headless Marilyn Monroe statuette with her skirt lifted by the draft from a subway grating--that gently mock the equivalences people discern across cultures.

Referencing a different paradise, Vega's hot-hued ensemble comprises a number of individual objects, environments and photo-and-text-based pieces that debunk--though not without affection--the centuries-old myth of Brazil as a tropical paradise. Despite some discordant notes struck by shantytown views with irate chickens and dogs, the installation is wholly seductive, with inviting chairs, spongy floor cushions and bossa nova grooves from vintage LPs. The environment is surely more relaxing than the other participatory works by Brazil's Rivane Neuenschwander, who invites visitors to type wordless love letters on "modified" typewriters; by the Centre of Attention, a London-based collective that allows you to recline on a mortuary bier after you've scored your own funeral with music downloaded from the Internet; and by Mariko Mori, who has dusted off her brain wave interface pod for those in need of a quick kip--by appointment only.

Art in America September 2005

From full-room installations to individual monitors, video emerges as a dominant medium in both sections of the international show. Often the least visually flashy, like Doherty's, have the most staying power. Another such strong entry in the Italian pavilion is Vasco Araujo's The Girl of the Golden West (2004). But for a handful of intertitles, Araujo's camera never leaves the face of a white-capped "Mammy" character (actually an employee of Houston's Glassell School of Art), who informally but solemnly recapitulates the plot of Puccini's eponymous opera, which she knows only from a 1934 performance film shown to her by the Portuguese artist. In the course of its nearly 19 minutes, the initially incongruous video becomes an affirmation of storytelling that leaps across languages, countries, races and centuries.

Imagery, not words, is the point of Berni Searle's Vapour (2004) and Adrian Paci's Turn On (2004), two nocturnal videos that face one another in the Arsenale. Both artists withhold details of place and character, striving for dramatic effect with intermittent and mysterious illumination, she by showing shadowy figures gliding between glowing cooking fires and steaming cauldrons, he with an array of stony-faced men seated on concrete steps and holding illuminated bare bulbs powered by hand-cranked generators. Almost entirely verbal, by contrast, is Paci's second video, Piktori (2002), which offers a bitter monologue by a once-noted artist now reduced to supporting himself as a forger. Inexplicably, in view of the Arsenale's abundant area, the work has been shorn of the detailed and moody workshop environment that housed the video when it was shown three years ago at Turin's Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo.

For sheer modesty, and the wit to carry it off, there is Donna Conlon's Urban Phantoms (2004), a fast-paced little animation that shows the skyline of Panama City being overtaken by grand high-rises made of stacked bottle caps, matchboxes and other bits of refuse that suggest the scavanged materials of which the lowliest slum dwellings are built. An Atlanta native and Panama resident, Cordon has another animation in the pavilion of the Istituto Italo-Latino Americano. (Another standout there is by Colombia's Oscar Munoz, who is screening a sad/funny video of an artist's hand endeavoring to finish a portrait that keeps leaching into the paper even as the brush returns again and again to fix the vanishing image.) Finally, the Arsenale award for understated elegance goes not to a video but to Bruna Esposito's Scattered Precipitation (2000-05), a distribution piece of multicolored onion skins tossed onto a grid of marble slabs that may be the most inspired pairing of vegetable and mineral since Giovanni Anselmo wired a head of lettuce to a block of granite in 1968.

What's New

When the Biennale administration commits to a program of summation and consensus, one looks hopefully to the individual national pavilions for something more eccentric or unexpected. One unpromising new trend is the denial of visible art, an option that has emerged in the wake of 2003, when censorship led Javier Tellez to withdraw his work from the Venezuelan pavilion, and Santiago Sierra barred visitors from entering the pavilion of Spain unless they were citizens of that nation. Once inside, you found the Spanish pavilion strewn with debris from the previous show. This year, the Romanian pavilion has been left untouched in an arrogant gesture of renunciation by the Bucharest-born, Berlin-based Daniel Knorr, who is distributing a hefty anthology of critical texts on the eastward expansion of "European" culture. The extensive glass walls of the Nordic pavilion have been removed by Norway's Matias Faldbakken and Sweden's Miriam Backstrom and Carsten Holler to create an open platform that the artists use on alternate days. Faldbakken is showing a video and artist's book, while the Stockholm-based duo are presenting a sound work, which generally frees up the pavilion to serve as a shady transit between the Giardini's dusty paths.

Other pavilions are showing art that reduces the risk of scandal. Gilbert & George are unusually circumspect about homoerotic display in their new suite of photographs. Guy Ben-Ner, the New York-based artist representing Israel with a new video, retains only one of his signature images, a tree, in his new video, having opted to leave out his home, his kids and his penis, which had action roles and singing parts--OK, the penis just did karaoke--in his previous work. As for artists behaving badly, there is only Tino Sehgal, whose gnat of a concept is to hire performers to pose as guards who "unexpectedly" lurch around the German pavilion, derisively chanting "This is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary." Such mockery is rendered pointless by being heaped upon an utterly defenseless target, the ingratiating sculpture and canvases of pavilion-mate Thomas Scheibitz, which are worked in conventional materials, honestly rooted in the formal investigations of 20th-century modernism and just plain good-looking.

Whatever Gilbert & George have moderated in the flagrant sexuality of their work, they do make up for in electronically cooked splendor. Their 25 "Ginkgo Pictures" (2005) are so named for the ubiquity of the golden foliage of the Ginkgo biloba tree, whose twin-lobed leaf serves as an emblem of the pair's enduring collaboration and as the basis for opulent designs that evoke exotic brocades and the stylized acanthus and palm patterns of Deco movie palaces. The black and Asian youths who join the artists in several of the pictures are less eroticized than their predecessors; indeed, given such titles as Hooded, Hoodoo, Hoodooed, the elder gents seem to be declaring a sort of outsider solidarity with the young men, whose hooded sweatshirts have been demonized by the British police as telltale signs of "yob" culture (which, according to the BBC, is associated with "lager louts, soccer hooligans, and teenagers who hang out on street corners"). With their racially mixed cast, Arabic- and Hebrew-looking lettering, citations from Islamic texts, mystical hand gestures, golden egg of Buddhist creation myths, Snapple logos, athletic wear and disembodied digital trickery, "The Ginkgo Pictures" seem like omnibus artifacts of London's tense, rich global culture.

If the British pavilion can feel a bit overripe, the U.S. pavilion is regrettably half-baked. There is ample reason to cut Ed Ruscha some slack, since his belated selection in October 2004 [see "Front Page," Dec. '04] left little time for grand planning, but there is also no way to overlook the fact that his trademark cool understatement here comes off as a kind of patrician obliqueness. Ruscha has chosen to revisit the five imagined sites--four commercial buildings and a telephone booth--depicted in black and white acrylic in his 1992 "Blue Collar" series. The newer views (2003-05), rendered in color, retain the original long rectangular format, which crops the bottom of each structure and accentuates its flat, functional roofline against the sky. The two series are installed in the opposing wings of the pavilion, compelling visitors to shuttle back and forth to tabulate the unremarkable transformations: the trade school is boarded up, the home of the tool and die company has a bright Asian sign and graffiti, the tire building has a new wing, and the site of the vanished telephone booth features a lamp post and tree (in a truncated composition that brings Neil Jenney's work to mind). The show's title, "The Course of Empire," is appropriated from Thomas Cole's five-painting allegorical cycle of 1834-36, a cautionary tale for the America of Manifest Destiny that traces human progress from pristine wilderness through grandeur to final decadence. But Ruscha's tight-lipped canvases, which track generic urban change, possess neither the urgency nor the provocation to make good on Cole's title.

For a more particularized rumination on the course of empire, one should visit James Luna's "Emendatio" (Emendation), a collateral show organized by the National Museum of the American Indian and displayed at the Fondazione Querini-Stampalia. A Luiseno Indian from California and a performance artist of considerable discipline and humor, Luna is showing a group of photo- and video-based works plus one elaborate installation, Chapel for Pablo Tac, in what becomes the "American" pavilion to Ruscha's "U.S." pavilion. Pablo Tac was a young Luiseno who journeyed from Mission San Luis Rey to the Vatican in 1834 to be trained as a missionary and, before his death in Rome seven years later at age 19, wrote about his tribe's life and language.

The story presages Luna's own journey to Italy and poses the question of how much one culture can ever fully understand another--without ever suggesting that anyone stop trying. During the preview, Luna appeared in several marathon performances in the Querini-Stampalia's little garden, sometimes in hides and feathers, sometimes in a gondolier's hat and striped jersey, often wielding a whip or rattle, occasionally pausing like James Brown for an assistant to deliver not a silk cape but a soothing cappuccino.

Of the nations making Biennale debuts, the People's Republic of China, delayed by the 2003 SARS outbreak, and Afghanistan may have aroused the most anticipation. Afghan-born and U.S.-trained, Lida Abdul returned to her native country to shoot the three videos presented at the Fondazione Levi. Careful to keep the mood restrained despite the violence that continues to grip her country, Abdul shows a crowd of men at Bamiyan clapping in unison with potato-size stones, remains of the towering rock-cut Buddhas obliterated by the Taliban; a man who cuts down a tree from whose branches his people were hung; and footage of herself, ritualistically whitewashing the remains of two bombed structures whose simple Mediterrannean beauty is recalled by fluted columns. The perpetrators of destruction in the last two remain unspecified, as if there is blame enough to go around. Ignoring governments, armies and religions, the ensemble celebrates small gestures of defiance and renewal in the aftermath of unfathomable loss. In a similar spirit, an adjacent room has been given over to displaying handsome geometric weavings from Kabul in a show sponsored by Le Studentesse di Faizabad--Sapere e Liberta, an Italian philanthropic group that supports higher education for Afghan women.

While other countries have had to content themselves with buildings in remote reaches of Venice, the maiden pavilion of the PRC is ensconced at the rear of the Arsenale in a garden and an adjacent industrial structure. Curated by the internationally renowned artist Cai Guo-Qiang, the show seems purpose-built to demonstrate the open-mindedness and diversity of Mainland culture. In a room clogged with rusted fuel containers, visitors are mildly disoriented by the two most conventionally contemporary entries, Xu Zhen's projection, Shout (2005), footage of busy locales where individuals suddenly collapse (like the video itself, which appears and goes dark without warning), and Liu Wei's Star (2005), a set of spotlights tripped by motion detectors, like the maniacal flashbulbs of old papparazzi cameras. Outside, rural China meets pop culture with the DIY UFOs of Du Wenda, an enterprising farmer whose homemade spaceships caught the attention of artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. The pair brought the farmer and his contraptions to Venice, a gesture reminiscent of Cai's own entry as an artist in the 1999 Biennale, when he re-created the Mao-era sculpture ensemble called Rent Collecting Courtyard and engaged one of the original artisans for his team in Venice. Sharing the garden are two works that embody traditional arts along with China's quite contemporary ambition to have a permanent pavilion: a sweeping "amphitheater" constructed of enormous stalks of bamboo by architect Yung Ho Chang, and Fengshui Project for Venice (2005), a computer simulation analyzing the Giardini and Arsenale by Wang Qiheng, an expert in the field of felicitous architectural arrangement.

Territorial Perspectives

By the preview's end, rumors were flying that China had been granted permission to erect a new pavilion within the Giardini, which has been closed to permanent construction since 1995. The Biennale's press office denies the story, which may have been fueled by local resentment over Italy's long spell of homelessness. With the Italian pavilion given over to the international show, the extent and nature of the host country's representation has been in the hands of the Biennale's visual-arts director. This year, as in 2003, the little Venice pavilion is housing a show of the four finalists for the "Prize for Young Italian Art," a juried award instituted four years ago by the culture ministry's department of contemporary architecture and art. (In 2003, in a gesture of resistance against the Rome bureaucracy, Francesco Bonami invited Massimiliano Gioni to present a show of young Italian artists in a temporary structure erected not far from the Italian pavilion.) The 2005 prizewinner, announced with the recipients of the Golden Lions, is Lara Favaretto, who is showing a day-in-the-country fantasy complete with enigmatic effigies, gliding boats and ceremonially robed figures. The large projection within the pavilion is viewed only by peering through a monitor-size aperture that pierces the exterior wall, a presentation that contributes to the piece's considerable preciousness. Next year, the Biennale has announced, there will be a genuine Italian pavilion in the far reaches of the Arsenale, where this year's press office is housed. And in what has to be considered an excessive exercise of its new advance-planning-above-all mode, the administration also named the pavilion's 2007 curator, Ida Gianelli, director of the contemporary art museum at Castello di Rivoli outside Turin.

If the prospect of the PRC having a strong presence in the Biennale poses a challenge to anyone, it probably isn't Italy but Taiwan, which is showing its sixth high-energy ensemble in the Prigioni of the Palazzo Ducale. Under the title "The Spectre of Freedom" (from a 1974 film by Luis Bunuel), curator Chia Chi Jason Wang has assembled four artists whose works make for a challenging mix of idealism, outright slapstick, dark beauty and anxiety. With a Net-based project ( that she presents in a kiosk of terminals in a red-painted room, Hsin-I Eva Lin recalls her 45-day strike (no art making, empty studio, leafleting) during a 2004 residency in New York, directing attention to the insecurity of all labor in the global economy. In performance videos shown on suspended monitors, Kuang-yu Tsui engages in extreme repetitive behavior, running headlong into obstacles (the side of a bus, a tree, a McDonald's take-out window), vomiting at a succession of urban and parklike sites, and serving as a research subject while a series of objects (shoe, bucket, teddy bear, book, bottle, frying pan, vacuum cleaner, television, chair) is flung at the back of his head for him to identify on the basis of impact.

Dominating the Taiwan pavilion are works by the senior artist, Chung-li Kao, who is showing hand-drawn animations and stop-motion photography on film strips fed through 8mm projectors that have been modified to look like alien apparatuses. His generally dark imagery (a military execution, a pigtailed caricature of a "Chinaman," a bomb falling from a plane as a man and girl look up, a jacket-wearing Christ figure seated before an easel whose model and painted motif keep morphing from crosses to winged jets and back again) is rendered all the more dreadful by the occasional cartoons of playing children and by the nostalgia of the medium. I-chen Kuo, the fourth participant, has a more covert presence with a sound and video installation. Periodically, unpredictably, a roar makes the pavilion tremble and the menacing shadow of a low-flying plane is projected slowly across the vaulted ceiling.

One response to those countries desiring a pavilion of their own comes from Hans Schabus, who all but obliterates the Austrian pavilion, a primly classsicized rectangle by Josef Hoffmann dating from 1934, with a 130-foot-high "Alp" fabricated of spruce timber, hemp fiberboard and sanded tarpaper. Comically fake (the pavilion's corners protrude) but nonetheless imposing, The Last Land lightly alludes to the utopian architecture of early 20th-century expressionists like Taut, Steiner, Hablik and Scharoun, even as it deposits a load of incongruity onto the pastoral rear acreage of the Giardini. Supporting Schabus's magic mountain is a crazed-looking but sturdy network of struts and stairs--the work of a carpenter channeling Venice's own Piranesi--through which the visitor ascends to enjoy a privileged panorama of the gardens, the city and the lagoon beyond. This suggestive vista of land and sea is not merely incidental to the alpine construction, for beyond castigating the nationalistic pride of pavilion ownership, Schabus is concerned with the imperial geopolitics that bound Venice to Austria until World War I. The Last Land has two affiliated works, the video Val Canale, shown on a monitor in the pavilion, which "records" the topographical details of a fictional trip from an Alpine valley to the broad plains of the Veneto, and Mare Adriatico, Venezia, 13 Maggio 2005, a staged photograph that appears on the pavilion's catalogue's cover and shows the "seafaring" artist approaching the shores of La Serenissima in his little boat.

A preoccupation with the voyage and a reference to Venice's Hapsburgian interlude also characterize the imposing works presented in the pavilion of Hungary, the other great landlocked entity that emerged from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The video- and assemblage-based art in Balazs Kicsiny's "An Experiment in Navigation" offers sufficient strong images and absurdist humor to offset their well-worn Magrittean Surrealism. Two cassock-wearing mannequins, with fencing masks containing light bulbs where their heads should be, comprise Winterreise (Winter Journey), 2005, named for Schubert's 24-song setting of Wilhelm Muller's poetry. The dynamically posed clerics face opposite directions on the same pair of outlandishly long skis, with 17th-century cross staffs (navigating tools that look like exotic crucifixes) inverted and useless in their hands, and two tram power poles connecting their headgear to electric wires strung above.

Futility and absurdity continue with the dire figure of a man carrying battered suitcases and draped in heavy chains attached to anchors that evoke the pair prominently displayed outside Venice's maritime museum (relics of an Austro-Hungarian warship), and with 12 pajamaclad aquanauts who sport antiquated diving helmets and acqua alta boots while holding up chalices in a pantomime of impossible communion. In The Cobbler's Apprentice (2005), a vertiginous video projected on the floor in each of the pavilion's flanking rooms, a Dali-meets-Hitchcock timepiece with oversized Roman numerals rotates counterclockwise. Veiled women in black and white, like a nefarious chamber ensemble, occupy workbenches; the "apprentice" creeps around the perimeter; and a prone figure, identified as the Wandering Jew, replaces the hands of the clock with his own limbs and walking stick. In Kicsiny's realm, progress is thwarted, time runs backward, and travel is not liberty but damnation.

Other Artists Weigh In

If Schabus's mountain humbles Austria's architecturally prestigious pavilion, Messager and Muntadas set out to overcome the exclusive national identities marked on their edifices' facades, she by slapping a red neon sign reading "casino" over the word "Francia," he by draping a red banner with the message, in Italian, "Warning: Perception Requires Involvement," over the name "Espagna." Both renowned artists, who seem more than a little off their game here, then proceeded to cram the pavilions with installations that are overwrought and serf-indulgent.

Messager's prize-winning "Casino" is a sequence of three shadowy and mechanized installations that yoke the theme of gambling and fate to the tale of Pinocchio. In this misbegotten environment, which recalls nothing so much as a Halloween spook house, Messager arrays Pinocchio figures, stuffed dice and other toys, bits of fake "internal organs," assorted goth-looking items like black vinyl gloves and guns, yards of billowing blood-red silk, rope-bound pillows, spiders, phallic-nosed Pulcinella masks, etc. Our long-suffering Tuscan puppet (I pause here to plead for a voluntary moratorium by visual artists on using Pinocchio, Heidi and abused stuffed animals in their work) is drawn along the floor on a bolster like a model train car and tossed aloft in a giant net trampoline like a little kernel in a loudly snapping popcorn maker. Messager, we are told, identifies with both the creator, Geppetto, and his wooden masterpiece, and she relies on both of them to assist in conjuring cloning, robots, Frankenstein, kinship, birth myths and other weighty matters.

The Catalan-born artist Muntadas takes a more retrospective approach, assembling 11 of the 35 works in his series "On Translation," with which he has been occupied for a decade. An international exhibition might seem an apt occasion for meditating on linguistic and behavioral codes, on the arbitrary assignment of value to exchange items and on the development of social rituals across cultures. But the works, generally smart and humane when considered one by one, in aggregate seem blustery and a touch condescending in their simplistic sociology. The author of discerning context-sensitive works earlier in his career, Muntadas here misfires with his site-specific entry, On Translation: I Giardini (2005), which incorporates a list of countries (Fiji, Georgia, Saint Kitts, Syria, etc.) that don't have pavilions (are we to feel indignant?) and photographs of the entrances of existing pavilions, historical-looking black-and-white for the original ones in the Giardini, and color for the newer, off-site venues. In the catalogue interview, Muntadas pronounces Venice a theme park and the national pavilions obsolete. Stop the presses.

Another artist who admonishes nationalism is George Hadjimichalis in the Greek pavilion, which flies flags that are not the blue and white standard of the Hellenic Republic but rather white fields with a red cross and a red crescent. Given the ongoing conflict in the Middle East and a deadly shortage in the world's blood supply, Hadjimichalis's reference to the Christian and Muslim humanitarian agencies could not be more timely, and it is further grounded by the distribution of cards urging visitors to donate blood at Venice's hospital. The flags further suggest that the ensemble of works within the pavilion, collectively called "Hospital" (2004-05), alludes to a facility for the victims of catastrophe.

"Hospital" centers on The Building, a crisscrossing double layer of 49 long rectangular aluminum units laid out on a platform, rather like the components of a modular sculpture. Through apertures at the ends of each unit are visible little figures roughly modeled in bronze--the staff, patients and visitors who haunt these endless, uniform corridors. The handsome and reductive acrylicon-canvas Plan of the Building, which hangs on a nearby wall, in no way corresponds to the structure on the platform. After this intellectual game of architectural visualization, Hadjimichalis arrives at the heavy heart of the matter. A Moment in the Mind of Mr. A.K. is a 58-second sequence of images that race through a lifetime's remembered album--a child, a woman, a landscape, a ruined building. The View From the Windows, shown in two rooms, features carousels that clatter and rotate, only to project another slide of the same image. It's a laconic but effective transcription of monotony, confinement and despair.

Individual countries are sponsoring a good deal of video, some of it straight up, some with a twist. Luxembourg and the Netherlands offer the most literal treatment of the pavilion as a single-screen theater. In the Ca del Duca, Antoine Prum's 30-minute Mondo Veneziano (2005) gathers four insufferable "intellectuals" on a film set of Venice (built in Luxembourg for a 2001 feature) that becomes a sort of false-front Western town--Doge City?--for a showdown of pretensions. It climaxes in bloodshed at an overhead projector. Holland's Jeroen de Rijke and Willem de Rooij are winking just as vigorously with Mandarin Ducks (2005), a 36-minute soap opera that is named for the distinctively striped fowl that, according to one character in the video, mate for life. Here, the blatantly artificial setting is a soundstage with spare modernist furnishings, perfect for a Sunday gathering of family and friends in which the endless conversation is by turns arch, bitchy, flirtatious, racist, vapid and vicious. The script aspires to an Albee-esque acidity, or perhaps it's just sophomoric parody. In either case, the result is juiceless.

Just as knowing, though more approachable, is the work of Estonian photographer and video artist Mark Raidpere, who blends a fashion-insider's narcissism with an ambiguously confessional mission. Raidpere's little retrospective at the Palazzo Malipiero goes back to pictures from his first solo show in 1997. Among the newest works is Shifting Focus (2005), which begins as a grainy document of what may be the painful moment in which the artist comes out to his mother ("spill it, sonny," she urges him) at the kitchen table. But the episode devolves into an almost comic series of sobbing false starts, until the scene flushes with color, and the artist pulls back the curtain on the staging behind this phony little heart-to-heart.

In the Turkish pavilion at the Fondazione Levi, Hussein Chalayan's The Absent Presence (2005) stretches across five screens with a sci-fi-inflected narrative about an experiment in DNA mapping that, like Gilbert & George's photos, capitalizes on the global character of London. The more important presence, though, is that of Tilda Swinton, whom Chalayan has cast as the severe technician, either to rekindle some of that old Derek Jarman magic or because the actress starred in Orlando, an earlier meditation on chromosomal destiny. Swinton is shown extracting DNA from three used garments and then laboring over basins of genetic soup in an effort to generate simulacra of the young women who wore the clothing. She produces only bonsai-size, T-shirt-clad distortions, unholy sculptural spawn of Henry Moore and Umberto Boccioni. The monstrous props/sculptures that appear in the video are on display, Matthew Barney fashion, in the next room.

From a genetic dystopia, one can travel to a tropical paradise, thanks to eipilotti Rist's Homo sapiens sapiens (2005), which is projected on the curvy ceiling of the late Baroque church of San Stae. One of the artists representing Switzerland, Rist evidently subscribes to the belief (recalling Vega's tongue-in-cheek Arsenale installation) that Eden can be found in Brazil, which is where she shot most of the dreamy footage of blooming flowers, leafy canopies and two red-haired sister "innocents" who inhabit the charmed landscape. Visitors surrender to the kaleidoscopic vision by lying on large fabric-covered mattresses, like lily pads or the rubbery leaves of a tropical plant, which cover the church floor. Rist's iconography is not new, but it is refreshed by the site, as are the figural and ornamental pieces of Kiki Smith and Karen Kilimnik, which are installed in the once-domestic rooms of, respectively, the Fondazione Querini Stampalia and the Palazzetto Tito.

Grace Ndiritu's three videos animate a former religious environment, the tiny Oratorio di San Ludovico, which is as modest as Rist's is expansive. Not a pavilion, the show is co-sponsored by Nuova Icona, the Venice not-for-profit that oversees many of the collateral shows, and the [kon Gallery of Birmingham. The U.K.-born artist combines African music, ritual gesture and her own dark body in short works that address otherness and exploitation. If she can veer toward the heavy-handed (inserting a crawl with the names of the world's violent trouble-spots beneath the image of a writhing, veiled woman), Ndiritu can also choreograph the most eloquently minimal actions. In The Nightingale (2003), projected above the altar, the artist's strong bare arms repeatedly wrap a patterned cloth around her face and head in a succession of configurations that evoke a masked terrorist, a Muslim woman, a blindfolded captive, a defiant bandit and--perhaps only in this setting--one of Michelangelo's turbaned sybils from the Sistine ceiling. The mood runs the gamut from threat to seduction, while the jumpy, rhythmic editing introduces a possibility of humor that is sharply at odds with the fixed expression in Ndiritu's unblinking eyes.

Parting Thoughts

In 1948, when the Venice Biennale resumed operations after World War II, the organizers dedicated the event to educating the public and artists alike about the march of vanguard art--a progress that had been interrupted and perverted by 20 years of fascism and war--and to laying the groundwork for the resumption of modernism's great course. The worthy project recapitulated the genealogy of the "-isms" and toasted the abiding authority of Picasso, Matisse, Moore, Beckmann and other European masters--just in time for contemporary art's center of gravity to shift to New York. The show of Peggy Guggenheim's private collection at the Biennale featured six works by Jackson Pollock in the company of canvases by continental Surrealists. The great restoration of 1948, as it turned out, was really the beginning of art's next act.

As the present administration in Venice articulates its own criteria of curatorial restraint and responsible management, it's worth recalling that earlier campaign of avant-garde advocacy and historical engineering, which took place following a two-decade cultural vacuum. With today's mobile audience, the Internet providing illustrated information about exhibitions, artists showing works in galleries on multiple coasts and continents, and a global imperium of international biennials and triennials on which the sun never sets, does the most venerable biennial really wish to preside as the place where contemporary art is summarized every two years? Worse, is Venice content to become, as it was characterized by more than a few visitors during the preview, an appetizer for those on the road to the real business of Art Basel?

No sane person would prefer a return to chaos and glut. But there are alternatives. It is, after all, the promise of encountering the unexpected, the under-known or the not-before-exhibited (as are the works by Schabus, Gilbert & George, Raidpere, Ndiritu, Araujo, Luna, Tahimik, Abdul, Kicsiny, Chung-li Kao, Hadjimichalis) that makes one even consider another expedition in two years, and not the prospect of revisiting hits from the intervening seasons. As Robert Storr embarks on his planning for 2007, it's consoling to think that 2005, inadvertently to be sure, could turn out to be, like 1948, the beginning of art's next act.

The 51st Venice Biennale remains on view through Nov. 6, 2005 (some collateral exhibitions have earlier closing dates). The show is accompanied by a three-volume catalogue. Detailed information can be found at Also in Venice, "Lucian Freud," curated by William Feaver, is on view at the Museo Correr through Oct. 30. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is presenting "No Limits, Just Edges: Jackson Pollock Paintings on Paper," curated by Susan Davidson, through Sept. 18.

Copyright 2005 Gale Group, Inc.
Copyright 2005 Brant Publications, Inc.
Art in America
September 1, 2005
No. 8, Vol. 93; Pg. 108; ISSN: 0004-3214