Finding depths in shallow waters
A few great works stand out in the unwieldiness of the Venice Biennale, writes Venice Biennale Until November 21.
THERE aren’t too many parallels you can draw between Venice and the festival of contemporary art that is held there every two years. The relationship is mostly one of shrieking dissonance. But just as Venice defeats all comers — the city is so disorienting, so rich, that one feels, quite simply, ill- equipped — it seems the biennale has a way of defeating all who are chosen to direct it.
This year, hopes were higher than usual. Though the biennale as a whole has been getting vaster and more unwieldy each time it is staged ( any country with the means is free to display its artists in improvised national pavilions across the city; this year a record 77 are taking part) the show’s two core exhibitions, at the Arsenale and in the Italian pavilion, remain under the control of the director. And this year the director is Robert Storr.
Storr is an impressive man. The first American to be appointed director in the event’s history ( it started in 1895), he is a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He has championed contemporary art for many years, but he regards the best of it as a continuation of earlier kinds of art- making rather than a radical break from them. On almost any art- related subject he is dauntingly articulate, but sensible, too: not a combination often seen in the art world.
Why, then, does something about his biennale seem so lacklustre? Is it that expectations were too high? Or has something gone wrong?
There are a few great things in the Arsenale, starting with the first work, a poignant installation by Italy’s Luca Buvoli. The work is inspired by something futurist poet Filippo Marinetti said near the end of his life, just before the collapse of the Fascist regime he had supported: ‘‘ It will be a beautiful day the day after tomorrow.’’ Made up of painted paper, mosaic, suspended banners and a video interview with Marinetti’s daughter, it captures something of our moral confusion about the past, along with our continuing capacity for potent dreams for the future. However, continuing through the Arsenale’s long, energy- sapping spaces, it is hard to shrug off the sense that too much of what is on offer is well- meant but shallow.
Every kind of political art is on display: the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly. Storr has sophisticated, wised- up ideas about political art, but one can’t help feeling that little of what he has chosen will be remembered even two years from now.
Matching the preoccupations of many artists today, much of the work is concerned with war and destruction. One video, for instance, by Italy’s Paolo Canevari, shows a boy playing soccer with a human skull outside the bombedout Serbian army headquarters in Belgrade. But while some of it is striking or thoughtful, little is truly inspired. There are some moving displays, including one by American artist Emily Prince, who has made small drawings, based on photographs, of every US soldier who has died in Iraq and Afghanistan, displayed across a large wall. But they don’t deepen in the imagination as great art should.
There is too much photography. Much of it is little more than glorified documentary photography, the kind that seeks to look more artistically serious than traditional photojournalism by, ironically, emptying it of content and visual complexity. I have in mind Moroccan Yto
Barrada’s photographs protesting against overdevelopment in Tangier; Japanese Tomoko Yoneda’s tourist snaps in former conflict zones; Italian Gabriele Basilico’s photographs of a bombed- out Beirut; and Australian Rosemary Laing’s photographs of a detention centre in South Australia. All four have merits, but their images are nervelessly cool, devoid of affect. Next to documentary photographs by Russianborn Israeli Pavel Wolberg, displayed further on in the show, they seem pretentious.
By far the most wonderful piece in the Arsenale is a black- and- white film in five parts by Yang Fudong, a Chinese artist born in 1971. Called Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest , it is divided into five chapters, each of which screens in separate dark rooms staggered along the spine of the Corderie, the old rope- making factory that is the exhibition’s main gallery.
Taking his inspiration from a classic Chinese landscape scroll as well as cinema romances of the 1920s and ’ 30s, Yang has made something Ingmar Bergman might be proud of. His cast of seven young men and women is contemporary, but the imagery and style hark back to the past. The dialogue and voiceovers are heartbreakingly succinct and exposed. The poetic, sensual imagery — high wind in a forest, the head of a bullock, a sleeping woman’s foot — is always original and frequently erotic.
Storr is clearly passionate about Yang’s work. It is hard to believe he feels as strongly about everything else he has chosen. He does at least attempt to compensate for the preponderance of political and conceptual work with moments of intimacy and poetry. A beautiful video called Ninna Nanna by American Margaret Salmon, for instance, shows young Italian mothers nursing and changing the nappies of babies to a delicate, sung accompaniment.
The best things, though, are hard to tie down to a particular theme. They seem too idiosyncratic. I like the sculptural installation by Tatiana Trouve; so uncanny and seemingly without point is her arrangement of building materials that one is thrown off guard. Questions pour in, but no answers avail. The affect is acutely psychological.
Superb too, are the two huge wall hangings by African artist El Anatsui. They are sewn together from discarded metal tags and other kinds of packaging. Their colours and designs are completely original, the overall effect stunning. Belgian Francis Alys’s drawings and animation of a shoe being shined by a cloth and his video of a stripper in rehearsal are sprightly, poetic and philosophical explorations of the way labour affects time, and I liked them greatly. Finally, a large, ambitious installation by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov is, like all the best work of this Russian duo, at once ridiculous and heartbreaking.
But, overall, it’s slim pickings. One hoped for more from Storr’s group show at the Italian pavilion. Dispensing with unifying ideas, it has the feel of a things I like’’ show, a selection of some of Storr’s favourite artists, among them many of the biggest names in contemporary art. But it is terribly hit and miss. The works by Gerhard Richter and Ellsworth Kelly, for instance, are disappointingly slight. On the other hand, Sigmar Polke’s series of dark, gloopy paintings in pigment on fabric are ravishing and Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings are wonderful.
Australia’s Shaun Gladwell is represented here with two terrific videos, including his best known work, Storm Sequence . But, by and large, one has the feeling that, although the artists may be Storr’s favourites, the works that represent them arrived in the pavilion more or less at random. And more than likely they did.
Never mind. The biennale these days is so much more than curated group shows in the Arsenale and the Italian pavilion. Almost every contemporary artist with any sort of international profile seems to be showing somewhere, along with scores of relative unknowns. So there is no shortage of pleasures to be had. With careful planning and good luck, you could probably see nothing but great things for days.
The national pavilions in the Giardini are, as always, a mixed bag. But the Australian pavilion, showing the elegant, intelligent work of Daniel von Sturmer, is certainly one of the strongest. ( Australia’s two other official representatives, Callum Morton and Susan Norrie, showing elsewhere in the city, are first rate, as I wrote last week.) Most of the talk, however, has centred on two neighbouring pavilions, the French and the British, both showing mid- career female artists who make intimate, self- revealing work.
Britain has chosen Tracey Emin, who has mounted a traditional- looking show ( albeit with lots of genitalia) of drawings, paintings and sculpture. None of it adds to her established body of work. Indeed, her limitations are cruelly exposed. Emin’s scratchy, nervy line is likable, but it never develops and her painting, frankly, is awful.
France’s Sophie Calle, by contrast, has a powerful installation based on a letter she received from a lover announcing the end of their affair. The letter is a real piece of work: calculating, self- pitying, manipulative. ‘‘ Take care of yourself’’, it ends, and Calle has made this the title of her piece.
She gave the letter to 107 women, each with a different skill or profession, and asked them to translate or interpret the letter. So her installation consists of versions of the letter translated into English, Latin, braille, barcodes, SMS vernacular, a graph showing the relative lengths of the writer’s sentences, you name it. One copy of it is strafed with a French teacher’s grammatical corrections in pen and highlighter. There are photos of a composer at the piano with sheet music; she has put the letter to music. And there are videos of a clown acting it out and a woman reading it while peeling onions in the kitchen.
It’s a riot. But it’s also fabulously provocative, a work that is intimate yet witty, curious, open to the world, not wallowing in subjectivity: everything that Emin’s work is not.
The Americans decided this year to show the work of an artist who died 10 years ago: Felix Gonzalez- Torres. Gonzalez- Torres is regarded ( by Storr, among others) as the model for artists who want to combine formal and conceptual values with political content. Sadly, the display here is underwhelming. Before a committed, discerning New York audience reared on minimalism, Gonzalez- Torres may seem a model of subtlety and restraint; in the hurly- burly of Venice in 2007 he looks wispy and fey.
Much more exciting is the video work by a young collective called AES+ F Group in the Russian pavilion. The work is a three- screen, 3- D animation set to the strains of Wagner. It combines dramatic mountain landscapes with dissonant elements ( wind turbines, pagodas, Ferris wheels, giant lizards, transport disasters) and an array of young models in underwear.
In poses inspired by baroque painting, the models, some of them children, are engaged in slow, balletic acts of violence with swords, baseball bats, machineguns and golf clubs: acts that have no visible consequence. The whole thing is funny and spellbinding and, in the way it seems to thrill to its own complete divorce from reality, profoundly ominous. People burst into applause at the end of the screening I saw.
One’s pleasures at any biennial exhibition are necessarily sporadic and partial; these events are not designed to provide a coherent experience. Lucky, then, that the Venice Biennale also coincides with more carefully curated shows at various museums across the city.
The two best this year are an exhibition at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection comparing the work of Matthew Barney and Joseph Beuys, and a stunning exhibition of paintings, videos and objects from different cultures and different centuries, all arrayed without labels like a cabinet of curiosities, in the marvellous Palazzo Fortuny. The show, called Art Tempo, is the most exciting I have seen in a long time and I will endeavour to review it in coming weeks.
Glorified documentary: One of Australian artist Rosemary Laing’s detention centre photographs in the Arsenale
Thought- provoking: Chinese artist Yang Fudong’s film Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest is showing at the Arsenale’s exhibition hall