The president of the Venice Biennale, Franco Bernabé, used to run Telecom Italia and also privatized the state-run energy company Eni. Maybe the Venice Biennale could be run like a business, but in that case one might reasonably expect it to provide great service, with a minimum of bureaucracy. However, the Biennale has always had a reputation for inefficiency and shady dealing. There's supposedly nothing new about galleries substantially financing work (which obviously might affect the curatorial choices), but this time rumours abounded that invited artists and their galleries had to fight fax wars for months over budgets and legal matters. Once in Venice, artists were then faced with problems ranging from finding a ladder, to confusion over hotel and travel costs. Pre-opening chaos is usually happily forgotten if the end-result is good, but in this case it was clear that trouble was brewing.
Compared to what followed, things looked good in the Italian Pavilion, which was curated by Francesco Bonami and Daniel Birnbaum. The silly pathos of the building's portico was imploded in Isa Genzken's bamboo sticks, Haare wachsen wie sie wollen (Hair grows as it will, 2003) stuck on the roof like a ruffled crew-cut. Inside could be found an understated theme of doubling and mirroring. Cady Noland's Big Slide (1989) is a bus-type handle attached to the wall and trimmed with weird details, including a cane for the blind, which made it look like a multi-purpose S&M tool for musings about the condition of the United States. Poorly installed between two doors, it nevertheless sent sparks of wit over to Carmit Gil's Bus (2002): as soon as you realized it was not just a bright red climbing frame but a bus' surgically isolated floor and railings, the thought of suicide bombings sucked in everything else like a black hole.
Felix Gmelin's Farbtest II, Die Rote Fahne (Colour Test II, The Red Flag, 2002) is a remake of Gerd Conradt's 1968 tracking shot of students running through the streets of West Berlin, waving a red flag. This remarkably similar new version, shot in Stockholm, has one crucial difference: the original climaxed with the raising of the flag over the city's town hall, taking the institution by surprise. This time no flag was raised and so the surprise is gone, as is the naive euphoria. Like Gmelin, Gabriel Orozco also came up with a remake. You could easily mistake his Shade Between Rings of Air (2003) for an over-refined balancing act - small balls carrying a roof on curved walls. You had to walk all the way through the wooden structure to realize that what you were looking at was a life-size replica of Carlo Scarpa's elegantly rough concrete cantilevered roof of 1952, which is located in the courtyard next to the gallery.
Orozco also curated a section in the Arsenale called 'The Everyday Altered'. Low-key and sparsely installed it seemed truest to the budgets at hand. The piece that stood out was the one least visible: Fernando Ortega's electric fly-killer, hung high up under the ceiling, cut the space's power supply each time an insect got electrocuted - the lights' guttering an apt allegory for the Biennale's chipped state.
If here individual pieces had room to breathe, next door they choked. The only works that survived the brouhaha of 'Utopia Station' (curated by Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija) were the ones that defined their own space. These included the video projection Dammi i colori (Pass Me the Colours, 2003) by Anri Sala with Edi Rama, which explored the latter's Modernist refashioning of drab Tirana residential façades into Mondrianesque colour fields; and Tino Sehgal who employed singers to periodically dress up as a guard and sing the title of the piece, 'this is propaganda' and then intone the work's date and author. One by one, their voices lingered in the air like a great tune heard on a cheap radio.
The Biennale's title, 'Dictatorship of the Viewer' - with its echoes of 'dictatorship of the proletariat' - felt like empty rhetoric. Hou Hanru's 'Zone of Urgency', turning individual artists' work into props for a theatrical hullabaloo meant to evoke the busy chaos of Asian mega-cities, ultimately allowed only one name and work to stand out: that of Hou Hanru. The same could be said of Catherine David's 'Contemporary Arab Representation'. Rather than giving artworks room, artists such as Walid Raad - whose imaginative pieces got the space they need at last year's Documenta - were recast into a purely ethnographically and topically defined pigeonhole. All the pieces were shown simultaneously on screens suspended in one room, a concept that didn't work well when it was used earlier at Manifesta 4. Again the only name that survived, effectively, was the curator's.
There were some good pieces in Bonami's 'Clandestine' section. But just as David's show was a slimmed-down version of her show at Rotterdam's Witte de With, in quite a few cases Bonami simply took over a gallery presentation (Paulina Olowska's recent exhibition at Cabinet in London, for example). 'Clandestine' had no discernible structure, and looked as if the curator had simply brainstormed 'nice shows I have seen lately'. Seeing Art Basel's 'Art Unlimited' a few days later made 'Clandestine' feel like a so-so prelude.
Bonami claimed to question 'the validity of the large-scale international exhibition' - but most of the questions he actually raised were inadvertent. Curating was effectively reduced to a cumulative, rather than qualitative, mode: a long list of artists but few convincing ideas about how actually to display their work. Same budget as last time; same, or less, service and infrastructure; but more artists, more curators, more exhibition space, more visitors, more everything. It's an equation that just can't work.
First published in Issue 77