Doing the Arsenale this time round put me in mind of the little I can remember from my school days of the alimentary canal. Our knowledge progression through the complexities of that passage as teenagers c. 1983 was staggeringly slow and benighted. We wrestled with countless arcane terms for obscure organs and acids, variously designed to suck the goodness out of foodstuffs, turning what remained into an unpleasant pulp, fit only for eventual evacuation. I gave up biology as soon as I could.
Most visitors, on the sweltering opening days of the Venice Biennale, emerged from the final indoor section of the Arsenale looking as if they'd had the goodness sucked out of them too. (Fittingly, one of the works greeting them in the anarchists' garden of 'Utopia Station' was an installation of fetid, eco-friendly latrines designed by Atelier van Lieshout.) In this heat, and on this scale, I felt less that I'd digested the art than that I'd been digested by it. And like the alimentary canal, progress down the Arsenale was characterized by a succession of flows and blockages.
That said, Francesco Bonami's decision to divvy up the Arsenale to a number of curators made for a more legible, varied, experience than the interminable sprawl that characterized Harald Szeemann's two outings. Although a certain grim, pessimistic aesthetic pervaded the length of the Corderie, as if the curators didn't actually like what they were showing, there was a definite and welcome sense of transition from one section to the other.
In part, transitions were signalled by the curators' various approaches to exhibition design. Several employed architects, often to good effect. Josef Dabernig designed a series of five cubes distributed at regular intervals between the columns in Igor Zabel's 'Individual Systems', leaving the central passage clear, evoking the sculptural divisions of Donald Judd. Yung Ho Chang created a massive tilting floor punctuated by a number of flat platforms for Hou Hanru's 'Zone of Survival', while Zheng Guogu designed stunted shelters for various installations by the Canton Express collective. Bonami, who trained in theatre design, used conventional wall dividers in unexpected, asymmetric formations, which made for an unpredictable sequence of spatial experiences. Carlos Basualdo used steel structures, more or less integral to various artworks, as a divisional strategy, in place of white walls, while Gabriel Orozco's space had a refreshing openness simply because he eschewed walls altogether, placing large expanses of space between works, establishing an uninterrupted encounter between artworks and the existing architecture of the Arsenale.
Bonami's decision to divvy up the Arsenale into sections made for a more legible experience than Szeemann's.
In other respects, the shifts between each curator's domain were indicated by geography. Three of the eight sections were devoted to art of particular nationalities or continents traditionally excluded from the mainstream art world: Africa in Gilane Tawadros' 'Fault Lines', Beirut and Lebanon in Catherine David's 'Contemporary Arab Representations' and China, predominantly, in Hanru's 'Zone of Urgency'. (Additionally, Basualdo's 'The Structure of Survival' had a heavy Latin American emphasis and Igor Zabel's 'Individual Systems' leant towards Eastern Europe). Of these, Hanru's was the most successful, conjuring the chaotic, clamorous spectacle of Asian megapolises, much as he did with 'Cities on the Move'. While overkill is Hanru's curatorial style, David's is meanness, verging on arrogance. Half her space was given over to a book she'd produced in 2002, Tamass: Contemporary Arab Representations. Each page was spread out on great long tables. Naturally, the viewer asserted his or her dictatorship and moved swiftly on. Next door, the five no doubt worthy, but profoundly unriveting, video projections on the subject confirmed the impression that this is one curator who lost interest in art some time ago.
The sections not defined by geography tended to be concerned with interiority: the 'dream' rather than 'conflict' part of the title, at least on the surface. Here suffering and struggle were replaced by melancholy and disintegration. Illness and hopelessness pervaded Bonami's enigmatic 'Clandestine' section, while Zabel focused on the sequestered monologue. Orozco, on the other hand, in his 'The Everyday Altered', found gold in the flotsam and jetsam of the neglected and set aside.
This schism between interior and exterior was blown away in the final section, 'Utopia Station', a tour de force of performative curating by Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rirkrit Tiravanija, and tellingly the only part of 'Dreams and Conflicts' in possession of a sense of humour (Hanru's was too heavy-handed for my liking). The exhibition's question to its participants, 'What is Utopia?', left the conceptual parameters radically open, leaving several previous sections looking prescriptive in the extreme. Where there was little temporal sense, other than a vague sense of the present, elsewhere in the Arsenale, time, in most works in 'Utopia Station', was an elastic term, leapfrogging between past, present and future. A similar elasticity pervaded relations between the 'individual' and 'society', 'reality' and 'ideal', 'geography' and 'fantasy'. Structurally, the exhibition reflected these oscillating propositions. All the walls and furniture were made of plywood, recalling past Tiravanija works, suggesting the provisional and evoking the favela aesthetic found in artworks elsewhere in 'Dreams and Conflicts'. They were offset by voluptuous coloured glass doorknobs by Philippe Parreno (Snow Dancing, 1995). The circular seating, for viewing work on-line or having discussions, were also designated artworks, this time by Liam Gillick. Discussions and performances would kick off on a stage or elsewhere indoors or in the garden at various parts of the day: I witnessed a chimpanzee sanguinely passing up six toy cubes bearing letters in favour of bananas (Elmgreen & Dragset's Spelling U-T-O-P-I-A, 2003). 'Utopia Station' spilled out not only into the garden, village fête-style, but into Venice in general, through works by Lawrence Weiner, Ecke Bonk and Nils Norman (his acclaimed Geocruiser, 2001, sited near San Basilio). Furthermore, LPs (Henrik Håkansson), Asian-style parasols (Anri Sala), books (Anton Vidokle), magazines (Janus) and other multiples ensured the project dispersed far beyond the physical and temporal limits of the Biennale.
First published in Issue 77