As you stroll among the monumental pavilions in the gardens of the Venice Biennale's main site, it becomes apparent that, when judging the work of the national champions, any aesthetic pronouncement approximates to that of a tourist pondering whether Big Ben looks better than the Eiffel Tower.
Against the backdrop of this Euro Disney for the educated, only a few pavilions - such as the Dutch and the Nordic - stood out by virtue of the simple fact that the curators put together coherent group exhibitions that created a discursive space for comparison and reflection. But what should the discourse of the Biennale be about? This is the question that must haunt the curator of the big survey shows in the Italian Pavilion and the Arsenale every two years. If the criterion for the selection of artists is the claim that their work matters to the world today, then the curator has to offer some account of exactly what the most important issues are. These days the answer would seem to be globalization and its discontents. And it's true, it's a pressing topic. The problem is that if such a discourse is to make any sense it has to be specific, yet such a vast show cannot afford to be specific since it has to provide a common denominator for a range of artistic positions - and once you begin to generalize, reflections on globalization boil down to predictable catchwords.
Two years ago Harald Szeemann took an old-school humanist approach and figured out that if a show is to address global problems it should be about everyone - hence his title 'Plateau of Humanity'. To realize a show with such a broad agenda feels natural if you bang the big drum of sensualism and throw all the art you can get at the audience without further ado. If the spectator is dizzied by the sensual overload, no problem, because after all, that's what the world is like - it's a mystery. This year, chief curator Francesco Bonami didn't have the same confidence to go straight for the universal and instead chose its Romantic counterpart, the fragment. Consequently the big exhibition is broken down into smaller shows organized by individual curators. In accordance with the Biennale's title, 'Dreams and Conflicts', this fragmentation of the whole was to stress the power of individual vision (dreams) in the face of global crisis (conflicts). In a similar vein the show's subtitle, 'Dictatorship of the Viewer', indicated that the fragment empowers the viewer to trust his or her own experience and not be patronized by either academic dogmatism (Documenta) or blockbuster sensationalism (previous Biennales). This plea for individual responsibility sounds justified. Yet in a nutshell all it says is: the world is full of problems and everyone has to find their own solutions. A cynical truism promoted in the rhetoric of Romantic idealism.
Maybe it was because of the heat, but when I entered the show I had a vision that, if there is a heaven for the art world it probably looks like this.
So ultimately it was up to the different curators to generate discourses and create a sense of spatial coherence in the vast hall of the Arsenale. Here the eight individual sections followed each other in a chain of supposedly transitional spaces. Large numbers on the walls indicated the beginning of every new show - a similar experience to traversing the levels of a computer game. The first exhibition was Bonami's 'Clandestine', a show about individual modes of resistance and, generally speaking, 'shifting territories'. Paulina Olowska's contribution of paintings and found architectural models was outstanding. In dialogue with artists such as Lucy McKenzie and Birgit Megerle, Olowska reinvents the visual language of Bohemian socialism, and in so doing creates a time zone of her own, a place where Modernism simultaneously appears as a relic of the past and an option for the future. 'Clandestine' as whole, however, lacked such a dense atmosphere. With the absence of any thematic principle or spatial coherence it was governed by the logic of artworks competing for attention familiar from classic museum displays.
Many of the following shows revelled in variations of chaos ranging from sympathetic sloppiness to high-pitched hysteria. Against this backdrop Catherine David's ongoing exhibition project 'Contemporary Arab Representations' was a welcome relief. The main theme was clear - a discussion of how Lebanese society copes in the aftermath of the civil war, with any idea of normality shaped by crisis - and the presentation was straightforward: a reading room and a projection space. It could be described as dry. Still, to focus on a specific case study was a highly convincing approach to creating a consistent political discourse. A practical alternative was proposed by 'Utopia Station', curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Molly Nesbit and Rirkrit Tiravanija, a show that mastered the art of associative flow and orchestrated confusion. Works were displayed in and around a support structure of interlocking wooden pavilions that made the space look like a cross between a peace camp and a Starbucks. Maybe it was because of the heat, but when I entered the show I had a vision that, if there is a heaven for the art world it probably looks like this. Good art, free drinks, a proper sound system and comfortable cushions to lounge on and have a symposium. Here, God is a curator with a mobile phone, looking stressed but in charge, while in the garden Yoko Ono casually rehearses a little Fluxus performance. If this is what the afterlife offers, if I ever get there, I certainly won't be complaining.
First published in Issue 77