50th Venice Biennale

Various Venues

 

A clapboard shed clings to the side of Gerrit Rietveld's Dutch Pavilion like a sick and sorry oyster. With its mismatched panels it resembles the magpie buildings of the barrio or the trailer park, but there are other, more eminent genes in its architectural DNA. The structure's chipped planes are sampled from Rietveld's Schröder House (1924), the Dutch Pavilion's swanky, pioneering older sibling. Twenty comfortless De Stijl chairs fill its interior, which is hung, here and there, with cheap Moroccan carpets, spangled with invasive pricks of light. Hot-boxed by the Venetian sun, this is the screening room for Erik van Lieshout's Respect (2003), and - as his video projection plays - the wooden walls shake like some sweaty, booming love shack.

Respect is heralded by a blast of music - the jumpy Hip-Hop of 50 Cent's 'In Da Club' (2003). The video's title appears in blocky, blood-red letters, then we see two white, goofy-looking Dutch guys rolling down a Rotterdam street. They are van Lieshout (spectacles, baseball jacket) and his brother Bart (wedge haircut, terrible yellow fleece), and it appears that they're caught up in a stop-and-search swoop. As 50 Cent informs us that he 'don't give a fuck it's not your birthday', the brothers are frisked by various black passers-by, as though this were an episode of the rap-soundtracked, politically dubious American reality TV show COPS (1989-2003) played through a busted camera obscura. This sledgehammer inversion ('the suspect is a white male; repeat: the suspect is a white male') segues into a sequence in which a tipsy Eric and Bart roam late-night Rotterdam with their cameraman, Ol, in tow. Bart complains about his lack of a boyfriend, and Eric, with the sense of mission only a skinful of beer provides, reject's Bart's plan to see a midnight skin-flick in favour of cruising the local North African teens, despite his giggling, guilty admission that he doesn't 'know how to approach Moroccans'.

Cut to a montage of clips (backed again by 'In Da Club') in which Eric and Bart muck about with their new friends Fatih, Nedim, Ali, Hakan and Osman. We see the brothers riding upright on the panniers of the boy's pizza delivery bikes, kerb-crawling in an unaccounted-for Ferrari, and dancing with witless, white-boy rhythm. Several scenes - shot in a grotty underpass - seem to involve transactions gone wrong, with Bart's implied purchase of a blowjob or a bag of weed ending with him clutching his pained, freshly punched stomach. Knives flash, girls hang out of the windows of gleaming cars, and chubby street kids boogie, creating an absurdist multicultural pop promo. The last shot is of Eric and Bart engaged in a frenetic, slightly embarrassed French kiss, observed by the Moroccan teens. They stand still, their faces a little wary, except for the youngest member of the crew, who pumps his pelvis like a crazed, clownish pimp.

The chipped planes of Erik van Lieshout's clapboard shed are sampled from Rietveld's Schröder House of 1924.

There's a lot to unpick here, and a lot - potentially - to baulk at or be offended by. Respect has no truck with the careful, quasi-academic ethnography of, say, Fred Wilson's American Pavilion show (which charts the hidden cultural history of Venice's black citizenry), or the one-liner worthiness of many of the works exhibited in the Arsenale. Instead, it insists on asking difficult questions.

Eric's conflicting feelings about Rotterdam's Moroccan community (somewhere, it appears, between fetish and fear) are presented with sharp candour, needling the sort of soft liberal agenda that treats minorities with an arm's-length, undifferentiated 'respect', whether they be prowling gay guys or macho, mosque-tinged immigrants. This, of course, is politics for people who live on the hill - vaguely leftist individuals who've never entered a bathhouse or public housing project, who never imagine that there might be tensions (some funny, some sexy, some plain frightening) between marginal groups. The sly genius of Respect is that it's got nothing to do with tolerance, which, after all, approximates only to tight-lipped, silent distaste. By facing cultural collision full on, van Lieshout demonstrates all its daffy, surprising, occasionally stupid fun.

It's important, I think, that 50 Cent thrums through the piece. Boasting that 'when you sell like Eminem [...] the hoes wanna fuck', he is the spirit of spurious Hip-Hop cool, aped with hilarious lack of success by Erik, Bart and the boys. Preoccupied with sex, money and drugs, his party music also has a political tang, becoming here a cross-ghetto good-times fantasy that couldn't give a damn for the permission of the powerful. In van Lieshout's faux Rietveld structure (with its associations of beautifully polluted identities) it sounds a lot like the future.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.

Issue 77

First published in Issue 77

September 2003

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