Chrissie Iles is the Joel and Ann Ehrenkranz Curator of Contemporary Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. She is co-curator with Philippe Vergne of the 2006 Whitney Biennial.
The Venice Biennale is an indecipherable, anachronistic, reassuring event; a 19th-century exhibition model of dynamic Modernism, designed after the first international World Fairs of Crystal Palace, Paris and New York, nestling inside a largely unchanged medieval city structure. Its untidy cluster of national pavilions sits inside the Giardini like a McLuhanesque global village: a city within a former city–state. Like an architectural exercise in UN politics, two paths fan out from the entrance: to the left, the Italian Pavilion; to the right, the British Pavilion, rising imperiously at the top of the hill, flanked by France and Germany, with Canada clinging to its side-wall and Russia, Switzerland, Scandinavia and Japan nearby. America stands apart, near Israel. Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands are lined up near Italy, like a row of embassies. And over the stream Austria and Brazil rub shoulders with Poland, Egypt, Greece and Romania, latecomers for local political reasons. Iceland floats like a tiny island somewhere between Hungary and Italy. This surreal geopolitical realignment of the world both reaffirms and shakes loose the concept of boundaries and nation states. We are all, inescapably, from somewhere, after all. But, as Venice demonstrates year after year, exactly what, and where, those places are has become increasingly unclear.
Outside the hallowed walls of the Giardini (whose heavy stone entrance gate designed by Carlo Scarpa, came apart in my hands one morning in 1984 when I arrived to work in the British Pavilion, and has long been replaced by practical turnstiles) the most recent additions to the World of Art (Portugal and, this year, some of the best shows in the Biennale – Morocco, China, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, making 22 pavilions in all) are installed in palazzi scattered throughout the city, along with 32 other special exhibitions or ‘collateral events’ – Pipilotti Rist and Olafur Eliasson being particular highlights. Requiring more time and effort than the World’s Fair perambulation of the Giardini, these satellite shows nevertheless revealed some of the greatest surprises.
The Venice Biennale is the art world’s UN – faintly out of date, yet still containing the naive possibility of hope for the future despite the pull of money, power and the pressing need to move on to Basel and air-conditioning. The Biennale is fundamentally European: it does not care about the neo-Punk Goth strain of young New York art, the fact that 50 per cent of Americans did not vote for Bush, or identity politics. The US Pavilion, formal, elegant, blue-chip and stand-alone, always seems outnumbered by everyone in the Tower of Babel around it. In this international cacophony of blatantly political cultural agendas the Europeans dominate. American-style commerce is moderated by European-style government officialdom, curatorial Utopianism and nepotistic wheeler-dealing. Extreme weather, boats rather than cars, endless parties and star sightings, a stage-set beauty and the melancholy of walking across St Mark’s Square as the orchestra outside Florian’s plays a slow tango at 2 a.m. remove the art world from its daily rhythms. Just like a holiday romance, each Venice comes and goes as though in a dream or, in some cases, a nightmare.
Themes in Venice have always been problematic. That of Francesco Bonami’s ambitious, unfairly maligned 2003 Biennale – whose importance, like that of the similarly slated 1993 Whitney Biennial, will only come to be understood properly in years to come – was typically obtuse. What is the dictatorship of the viewer, exactly? Easier to decipher was the first theme, in 1972: ‘Work or Behaviour’ – as much of its time as F.T. Marinetti’s distribution of anti-Biennale leaflets in St Mark’s Square in 1910 or the protests in 1969 that led to the suspension of prizes until 1980. If 1972’s is the best title to date, those from 1978 (‘From Nature to Art from Art to Nature’), 1984 (‘Art and Arts’), 1986 (‘Art and Science’, a theme every national pavilion was also asked to address), 2001 (‘The Plateau of Humankind’) and 2005 (‘The Experience of Art’) read like a school curriculum written by Ernst Gombrich, while ‘Always a Little Further’ (also 2005) sounds faintly suggestive.
There are as many opinions about Venice as there are pavilions or exhibitions. You can’t see it all, but it’s important to try. My Giardini highlights included Jeroen de Rijke and Willem de Rooij (Netherlands), Hans Schabus (Austria), Gabriela Fridriksdottir (Iceland), Ed Ruscha (United States), Annette Messager (France) and the conceptually ambitious Nordic Pavilion ‘Sharing Space/Dividing Time’. But my heart sank when I began to read the reviews of ‘Always a Little Further’ at the Arsenale. A female curator! Ergo … a chandelier made of Tampax! Strong artists – Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, Runa Islam, Gregor Schneider, John Bock, Jimmie Durham and one of Samuel Beckett’s most subtle pieces, Breath (1970) – stand out in a disparate grouping of works that never manage to transcend the sum of their parts.
The classicism of ‘The Experience of Art’ at the Italian Pavilion is too easy to dismiss. Although there are no surprises to feed the collective hunger for a change of mood and generation, the well-known have produced some superb work, from Thomas Schutte’s voluptuous sculptures and drawings to Andrea Blum’s sculptural furniture, and Willie Docherty, Mark Wallinger and Stan Douglas’s recently completed video and film works. Vasco Araújo and João Louro’s work is promising, and I didn’t meet anyone who didn’t like Francesco Vezzoli’s bawdy Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s ‘Caligula’ (2005) (introduced by Gore Vidal) and feel guilty about it. However, the gaping absence of New York and Los Angeles from the discussion seemed a major omission in both shows. In ‘Always a Little Further’ the dig seemed overt, with the inclusion of ‘The Museum of American Art’, ‘an educational institution dedicated to keeping the memories of how Modern American art shown in Europe during the 1950s and 1960s marked its dominance over the art scene’.
Perhaps one of the most striking results of the classicism of both major Biennale exhibitions is the gaping hole left by the almost complete absence of a sophisticated generation of young and mid-career artists who are shifting the discussion about sculpture, painting, drawing, photography and politics in ways that perhaps only George W. Bush can have provided the context for. Given the recent events in London, even hard-bitten Europeans, most of whom have experienced terrorism locally in some shape or form in the last 30 years, are beginning to realize that that dynamic is about to change. America may be leading the way, but the far right in Europe has gained a staggering amount of ground. That political reality, combined with the war in Iraq, makes a strange backdrop for the anachronistic calm of the Venice exhibitions.
Outside the Giardini the lack of grit was made up for in one of the revelations of this year – the Central Asian Pavilion, ‘A Contemporary Archive’, at the Palazzo Pisani, curated by Victor Misiano. The striking strength and freshness of the work, as Misiano points out, comes partly from the fusion of Central Asia’s active ethnic rural traditions – Sufism, nomadism, Shamanism, pagan ritual – with the fall-out from Soviet propaganda – structural collapse, poverty and survival. In Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djoumaliev’s installation Trans-Siberian Amazons (2004) a room piled high with large bags used by women in Kyrgyzstan to carry goods to sell across borders on trains is inset with a film of the women singing Soviet songs from their youth, in broken voices. Said Atabekov’s video of a baby, dressed in the ethnic costume of southern Kazakhstan, rocking in a cradle suspended from a Kalashnikov rifle, is similarly searing in its fusion of history and reality. In Vyacheslav Akhunov and Sergey Tychina’s sparely filmed Ascension (2004) a man slowly climbs the minaret of a mosque while, nearby, an extensive archive of radical Body art performances playing on several monitors show where the real legacy of Vito Acconci and Marina Abramovic lies. Why this work wasn’t included in the Moscow Biennial earlier this year is a mystery.
In the Palazzo Levi the sentiments of Your Children, Ukraine (2004), by Mykola Babak, echo the paradoxes contained within the seismic shifts taking place in the post-Soviet region, with a three-screen video installation of the recent ‘Orange Revolution’ in the Ukraine and a series of traditional Ukrainian dolls grouped round photographic portraits of people in his home village. The immediacy of video is also evident in the Afghanistan Pavilion and in the Palazzo Levi, where Lida Abdul’s projection Painting the Ruins (2004) shows a young Afghan woman futilely painting a section of bombed-out wall. It is a Sisyphean task. The increasingly fragmented structure of the Venice Biennale, larger (and better-documented) than ever, reflects a split in philosophy between the centre and the margins that, like every Biennale, only serves to give us a pretty accurate summary of where things are. As George Bush said: ‘The future will be better tomorrow.’
Tirdad Zolghadr is a writer, curator and filmmaker living in Zurich and an editor of Bidoun magazine.
As others have been arguing of late, owing to their tousled, time-related complexities, it’s harder to judge biennials than a standard group show at your city museum. Of course, you can slam them for falling prey to logistical or political pressures, but you’d be missing the most interesting aspect – namely, that this extra-large format is bound to disappoint. A biennial is invariably an instructive exercise in what Liam Gillick has called a ‘hopping to and fro between pre-apologetics and post-justifications’, for it inevitably fails the staggering myriad of expectations of its various visitors and patrons.
As a critic, even if you choose the stand-offish perspective of the expert eye, how would you come up with fitting little quips for an apparatus such as Venice? Do you unabashedly account for the socio-professional bonding and networking during the opening? Do you appreciate the ambitions to engage with larger audiences – even those who sit cross-legged in a black box smearing Philadelphia cheese on their salted crackers – and if so, would you reassess your proper doctrine of good taste? Or do you care whether that mysterious thing called ‘local context’ is accounted for? As a visitor to the Biennale, you can easily remain oblivious to the city’s contraction into an overpriced pastiche of itself, predicted to be empty of locals by 2030, if things go on at this rate (the population is already down to 55,000). Perhaps this is how the glittering ‘Mother of all Biennials’ blends in perfectly – far more so than if it founded an experimental art academy ex nihilo or a neighbourhood water dyke project with Rirkrit Tiravanija or some such.
Among the more obvious criteria, a favourite is the (nostalgic) comparison to the preceding event, and this time around artists told unprecedented tales of bringing crates full of electric drills to the notoriously disorganized Venice, only to find fully equipped helpers ready and waiting. A Zeitgeistian professionalism was visible also in the Giardini walkways, where the rustic Café Paradiso, at which you’d normally queue 40 minutes for a lukewarm Coke, was replaced with the corporate patina of Illy espresso bars, 1,500 Illy folding chairs and a digital Fabrizio Plessi waterfall by the entrance (Mare Verticale, [Vertical Sea, 2000]), reminiscent of a Dubai shopping plaza.
Also new was the composed co-ordination of curatorial strategies. The 2003 show sparked many comparative polemics at the Paradiso. Who, for example, was the bigger exoticist: Gilane Tawadros, Catherine David or Hou Hanru? And the most self-important, was that Christoph Schlingensief’s Church of Fear project or maybe the Utopia Station? In comparison, this year’s package was coherent, meek, lyrical, even gentle at times. Shifts were also noticeable in terms of format, with an abundance of 25- to 45-minute features, even if the step towards cinematic proportions wasn’t always accompanied by a concomitant shift in production values. How surprising that in 2005 some still believe their integrity to hinge on sloppy lighting, a smudgy camera lens or the marked absence of a tripod.
Taking at face value the biennial paradigm forcing spectators to make active choices, I set up strict viewing criteria to help manage the awesome flow of matter. For example, every film that might have been the doing of a myopic vacationer with Parkinson’s disease I immediately disregarded. Every queue of more than five people I passed discreetly by. And projects catering to the notion of artists as shamanic bohemians making dickheads out of themselves in public spaces, slinking about with no clothes on, hugging strange objects in subways, plopping their feet in ketchup-red metaphors of misfortune – all of these I tactfully ignored.
Obviously the joy of scoffing at staggering quantities of work is yet another yardstick for the pleasures of a biennial, a small revenge for the barrage of items and concepts thrust upon you. It is hardly surprising that biennials characteristically inspire refreshing flights of critical analysis. (When did you ever overhear someone at the Tate café saying, ‘Darling, I wonder if museums are actually obsolete. I mean, how could they possibly do justice to the work?’) It was actually striking to find every other art work being read by some colleague or other as a critical allegory of the biennial at large, from the endless sequence of audience gut reactions in Dick Jewell’s 1998 Super 8 video What is Your Reaction to the Show – ‘thought it was a bit of a wank’, ‘thought it was quite static’ – to the Dutch pavilion’s Mandarin Ducks (2005), by Jeroen de Rijke and Willem de Rooij, a blurred depiction of a circle of family and friends, walking epitomes of self-absorbed bourgeois mannerisms. (‘I feel like I’m caught in a babushka of realities’, one of the characters sadly burbles.) Derisive artworld parables were even seen in Christoph Büchel and Gianni Motti’s Guantánamo Initiative, launched in 2004, an installation in a freight container bearing witness to the US occupation of Guantánamo, and to the artists’ proposal to transform the bay into ‘a site dedicated to the promotion of culture’.
Apart from the attempt to make work accessible (predictably derided by some as ‘user-friendly’), some might say that the ambience of critical self-reflexivity is now another widespread populist formula. Candice Breitz’ eye-catching Mother (2005), a charming choreography of six monitors showing six celebrity actresses playing the roles of mothers in six different features (Father displays the paternal rendition in the room next door), and Francesco Vezzoli’s sensational Comizi di Non Amore (Rallies of Non Love, 2004, shown in the Prada Foundation), a technically impeccable, ritzy staging of a TV dating game, are works that are playful, even ferociously comical. What makes them stand out is not the entertainment value, nor the edifying play on gender politics, but a refreshing take on their own visual format via the mainstream tradition that is the object of artistic perusal (Hollywood family drama, romantic game shows). Rarely is the merging of exhibition genres with mainstream material as unaffected while remaining as rigorous and analytical.
On a similar note, one of the most skilful examples of self-reflexivity, professional rigour and slightly back-handed populism was to be found near the Arsenale vaporetto stop, in Annika Eriksson’s Game Machine (2005), a computer arcade identical to the real thing down to the advertising panels, the kids, the floorboards and the bored, greasy dude at the counter. The appropriated arcade becomes many things in one; an objet trouvé with the swank of an installation, a public project with the conceit of an insider joke, an allegory that doesn’t even need to resort to representation. And it tends to haunt and linger in a way that isn’t always pleasant, the gaudy lights blipping on and off in your mind’s eye like the real thing never would.
Ralph Rugoff: Venice Top Ten (In No Particular Order)
Ralph Rugoff is the Director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco.
Artur Zmijewski, Polish Pavilion
Zmijewski’s 39-minute Repetition (2005), screened in the Polish Pavilion, was a complex and riveting documentary-style video of his re-enactment of the 1971 Stanford ‘prison experiment’. In place of graduate students Zmijewski hired unemployed Polish men to enact the roles of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison environment. Filmed with hidden cameras, their behaviour quickly progresses from play-acting to acts of seemingly genuine frustration and anger, leading a few stressed participants to quit. Confrontations between prisoners and guards escalate ominously, but just when it seems that Zmijewski’s experiment will replicate the results of the original (which was prematurely shut down owing to abusive behaviour), things take an unexpected turn – one that raises questions not only about individual responsibility and social roles but also, more pointedly, about the similarities and differences between art and science, and whether either can offer convincing conclusions about human nature.
Ed Ruscha, US Pavilion
Ruscha’s ‘Course of Empire’ exhibition was a rhetorical tour de force. In one gallery he showed a number of monochrome canvases from the early 1990s, all depicting generic, box-like industrial buildings that typically featured double entendre signage such as ‘Trade School’ or ‘Tool and Die’. In a parallel gallery he presented updated colour paintings of the same sites, now dramatically altered: the trade school a boarded-up relic behind a chain-link fence, a tyre factory transformed into a warehouse for Asian imports. On first impression the latter works seemed almost heart-wrenchingly bleak, but then you noticed how, rather than evoking the artist’s vision of America’s post-industrial decline, these pictures recycled hoary clichés. (In one particularly stark landscape a bare tree sports a single green leaf – a sign of hope!) Questioning the language used to describe social and economic decay as well as our vulnerability to ready-made allegories, Ruscha’s show was emotionally charged and coolly clever at the same time.
Hans Schabus, Austrian Pavilion
After transforming the exterior of the pavilion into a mini-Alp made from timber and tarpaper, Schabus fashioned the interior into a Piranesi-like maze of wooden stairways leading up to an observation platform offering an elevated view of the Biennale gardens and the surrounding city. Along the way, window hatches opened to reveal stuffed birds perched in the trees, and in a small side-room – a kind of artistic command centre – maps, photographs and a video presented evidence of parallel journeys from Austria to Venice. Mixing up references to nature and culture, the installation played on the way viewing devices – whether windows or works of art – structure our experience. But more engaging were the simple opportunities for discovery it offered, as well as its wonky fusing of architecture and art in remodelling the pavilion’s identity.
Francesco Vezzoli, Italian Pavilion
In just over four minutes Vezzoli’s Hollywood-style, star-studded, Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s ‘Caligula’ (2005) gleefully trashed the tasteful sobriety of the Italian Pavilion, injecting a moment of outrageous humour that was otherwise conspicuously missing. Introduced by a mischievously hammy Gore Vidal (who wrote the original film in 1979), and featuring guest appearances by Benicio del Toro, Milla Jovovich, Karen Black, Adriana Asti (who rubs semen on her cheeks as if it were skin cream) and a bewigged Helen Mirren (leading a pair of bare-assed sex slaves on leashes), the film is a non-stop climax of camp delirium. But for all its parody of the trailer format – replete with a hilariously cheesey voice-over that promises the film will leave us feeling ‘coated in the taboo’ – Vezzoli’s project put into perspective the marketing and hype, the obsession with fashion and the silly decadence, that surround art world spectacles such as the Biennale.
Mark Wallinger, Italian Pavilion
On paper the idea of a guy in a bear suit rambling around Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie (a Mies van der Rohe landmark) sounds like it has comic potential. But Mark Wallinger’s Sleeper (2004) – two-and-a-half hours of quasi-surveillance-style footage showing the artist doing just that – was the most haunting and unforgettably desolate work I saw in Venice. As it listlessly wanders the building’s austere and empty spaces at night, occasionally encountering puzzled Berliners through darkened windows, Wallinger’s bear seems tragically displaced. Its muteness calls to mind the situation of marginal figures from foreign guest workers and refugees to homeless people. But the appearance of a lost bear – an icon of both Berlin and Germany – also hints of a troubled perplexity at the root of German identity, a division between concealment and the transparency of Mies’ architectural display case.
Micol Assaël, Arsenale
Shrewdly eschewing the Arsenale’s conventional exhibition slots, Assaël ‘installed’ an older man as the enigmatic resident of the building’s mysterious upper floor – to which, incidentally, there was no visible means of access. Marooned in a world of his own, he looked down on the throng of art tourists (most of whom seemed oblivious to his presence), reversing for a moment the usual dynamic between art work and viewer. His role as observer hinted at the theatrical element of the ground floor spectacle, but at the same time his elusiveness conjured the existence of alternative perspectives and a furtive subjectivity resistant to the rituals of examination and judgement that the other works in the exhibition comfortably accommodated.
Adrian Paci, Arsenale
Paci’s Turn On (2004) shows a group of over a dozen leathery-faced men as they sit on the steps of what appears to be a public edifice in Shkoder, Albania. One by one, the men switch on portable generators that rest beside them, illuminating solitary light bulbs they dangle before them like lanterns as if to ward off the encroaching night. Proceeding at a deliberate pace and building to a quiet yet forceful climax, Paci’s video projection is ambiguously, and elegantly, poised between despair and hope. Against the backdrop of a society beset by power cuts and economic shortages, the stoicism of the men holding their slight beacons is as harrowing as it is comforting.
Pilar Albarracin, Arsenale
Acute and conceptually concise, Albarracin’s video Viva Spagna! (2004) shows the artist, decked out in a bright yellow suit and big shades, as she makes her way through city streets while being closely followed by an all-male marching band. Initially the band’s overlapping route seems coincidental, but as Albarracin’s character increases her efforts to leave them behind, the musicians keep pace until their pursuit begins to seem overtly aggressive. The artist’s ongoing attempts to ignore them and to conceal her anxiety provide both humour and an uneasy tension, calling to mind the way subtler forms of harassment and intimidation are accommodated by codes of social etiquette.
Stan Douglas, Italian Pavilion
Inconsolable Memories (2005), a new 16mm film installation by Stan Douglas, demands, and slowly rewards, a viewer’s patience. A mannered tribute to the 1968 film Memories of Underdevelopment, by Tomas Gutierrez Alea, its non-linear narrative concerns a protagonist who stays in Cuba while his friends join a mass exodus to the USA. Superficially evoking an art house film (and even boasting decent acting), Douglas’ installation is in fact a Structuralist experiment that alternates between reels of different duration, so that specific scenes, chapter headings and voice-over narrations recur in variable combinations. The result mimics the uneven movement of historical time and creates a canny scaffolding for Douglas’s meditation on the psychic fall-out of a stalled revolution.
Sergio Vega, Arsenale
Inspired by a 17th-century text describing the New World as a paradise, Vega’s free-ranging installation in the Arsenale mixed elements of personal travelogue and sociology with displays devoted to (among other things) the cult of bossa nova, Brasilia’s Modernist cityscape and moments of tropical roadside Surrealism, including a tableau featuring a life-size crocodile occupying a phone booth. Texts that were actually enjoyable to read detailed the artist’s photographic misadventures in Latin America and the philosophical reflections they subsequently spark. Drawing out intriguing cultural and historical connections rather than presenting overbearing conclusions, Vega’s eclectic approach injected new life into what has largely become an academic style of installation art.
Chrissie Iles is Anne & Joel and Ehrenkranz Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Tirdad Zolghadr is a curator and writer who teaches at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, NY.
First published in Issue 93