Find­ing depths in shal­low wa­ters

A few great works stand out in the un­wield­i­ness of the Venice Bi­en­nale, writes Venice Bi­en­nale Un­til Novem­ber 21.

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Se­bas­tian Smee

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.

Pic­ture: Lu­ciano del Castillo

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

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