The lights went out in 'Utopia Station', plunging the Arsenale into semi-darkness. An eerie silence filled the hall as the cacophonous din of video and sound works abruptly stopped. Was it sabotage? A blown fuse? No, only another of the rolling black-outs that were affecting Venice daily, as temperatures soared into the mid-30s and exhausted air-conditioners drained the cities power grid. The breakdowns, lapses, failures and general confusion caused by the heatwave were everywhere, though ironically most notable in the rambling meditation on Utopia organized by Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. The Gurana Bar was closed, a hand-penned note asking thirsty visitors to refrain from helping themselves to the unguarded bottles. The techno-primitive, eco-friendly outhouses installed in the garden by Atelier van Lieshout had been shut down by the authorities, which did not stop desperate art-goers from using them anyway - to much ill-effect. One frustrated visitor echoed the sentiments of many by amending Yoko Ono's 'Imagine Peace' stamp to read 'Imagine Peace and Working Toilets'. The utopian promise of free-flowing ideas, goods and bodies was, at least for the moment, pretty well stopped up.
Nevertheless, in the midst of all the diverse and competing works that, en masse, composed this, the 50th Venice Biennale, it was the handful that went out of their way to address the social realm, everyday life and the phenomenological apprehension of the world that proved most compelling. Adjacent to the well-intentioned, albeit overblown, 'Utopia Station', Gabriel Orozco's quiet curatorial contribution 'The Everyday Altered' presented objects and installations by just six artists. Many of the works were so humble that they practically disappeared in the cavernous, somewhat dilapidated exhibition space. Orozco's own work in the Italian Pavilion, Shade Between Rings of Air (2003), performed a similarly quiet intervention. The piece, an unpainted birch construction comprising three ovoid columns topped by an odd-shaped panel, was actually a full-scale model of an existing architectural construction that sat in a courtyard just outside the gallery. From certain points one could look from the original to Orozco's ghostly doppelgänger, yet both functioned as a kind of limited shelter, a place of temporary refuge and solace.
As Elizabeth Grosz has pointed out, the utopian is conceived in spatial terms, and is almost always an isolated, idealized space. Yet where past notions of utopia proposed enclosed spaces - walled cities, self-sufficient houses and so on - current utopian ideas favour porous spaces that open out on to the world, encouraging flows and embracing rupture and transformation. Works such as Orozco's are evidence of this. Similarly pieces as diverse as Pedro Cabrita Reis' installation Longer Journeys (2003), in the Portugese Pavilion, Rudolph Stingel's rubbish-encrusted, tin-foil and polystyrene room, Huang Yong Ping's Bat Project II (2002), Pawel Althamer's Tree House (2001), Flavio Favelli's Rhetorical Stage (2003), Tsuyoshi Ozawa's Capsule Hotel Project (2003) and pretty much everything in the Carlos Basualdo-curated 'The Structure of Survival' (which included notable works by Hélio Oiticica, Rachel Harrison and Pedro Reyes) all veered towards the creation of a ramshackle, labyrinthine architecture that eschewed comfort and control in favour of a liberating disorientation; model utopias closer in spirit to Constant's New Babylon (1974) than to Le Corbusier's Radiant City (1933). Most successful in this regard was Olafur Eliasson's sprawling, fun-house installation at the Danish Pavilion. Adding an exo-skeleton of raw wood ramps and platforms over and around the building, Eliasson led visitors to specific viewing-holes that dynamically focused on various minor aspects of the surrounding environment or presented perceptual conundrums using light and space.
If the works presented by Orozco, Reis and Eliasson all embraced an ideal of free-flowing exchange and sought to engage the spectator in a genuinely liberating encounter, Santiago Sierra's installation in the Spanish Pavilion took the opposite approach. Surely the art world's most misanthropic artist, Sierra creates work that revels in the exercise of arbitrary power over both the spectator and the disenfranchised persons he 'remunerates' for many of his projects. At Venice his dystopic conceit was to seal off the main entrance to the pavilion with a cinder-block wall and lead spectators around the rubbish-strewn building to a back door where they were met by a uniformed guard who informed them that only persons bearing Spanish passports would be allowed inside. Despite the ludicrous suggestion that the purpose of the work was to call attention to the plight of persons refused entry to numerous countries around the globe, the true objective - juvenile and ham-fisted - seemed to be to piss people off. For those unable to get inside, you didn't miss much: Sierra had little to offer the Spanish or anyone else.
First published in Issue 77