Fairer Fare

Claire Bishop on “Always a Little Further”


Left: The entrance to the Giardini. Right: Artists Tino Sehgal and Gilbert and George. (Photos: Roman Mensing)

Who would have thought we’d be pining for the chaos of “Utopia Station”? This year’s Arsenale show, “Always a Little Further,” was a pared-down affair, but featured so much heavy-handed installation that it seemed a major throwback to the eighties and nineties. Indeed, with a veteran feminist agenda to boot, much of the work was well past its sell-by date of 1989. The fact that “best newcomer” prize was given to young Guatemalan body artist Regina José Galindo says it all: She shaves herself naked in public, creates a trail of bloody footprints in the streets, and videotapes her own hymenoplasty. Did Abramovic and Mendieta achieve nothing? As Tino Sehgal’s ironic prancing invigilators in the German Pavilion would say, “This is so contemporary!”

Left: Joana Vasconcelas’s tampon chandelier in the Arsenale. Middle: Sergio Vega's parrot phones. Right: Guillermo Calzadilla on a midnight vaporetto.

The Arsenale was my first experience of this year’s Biennale, and it got off to an unequivocal start: A roomful of Guerilla Girls posters and a tampon chandelier by Joana Vasconcelas. This introduction couldn’t help but highlight the fact that much of the work in the Arsenale was by women. Given its dubious quality, I’d have preferred not to have registered this fact. Curator Rosa Martinez had recycled a fair number of weak pieces from her Moscow McBiennial (Pilar Albarracín, Blue Noses, Gupta Subodh) and added a whole lotta Hispanic Catholic baroque (Paloma Varga Weisz, Cristina García Rodero, Maria Teresa Hincapié de Zuluaga). Curatorial juxtapositions veered less towards fruitful analogy than conceptual whiplash. (Leigh Bowery and Mona Hatoum?) A number of artists had been encouraged to give up the day job and wrestle with something new: Gregor Schneider tackled the clash of civilizations by proposing to install a black cube Ka’Ba in Piazza San Marco (no! go back to Die Familie Schneider) while Ghada Amer abandoned her perfectly serviceable embroideries to make a ying-yang Zen garden by the docks. Conceptual concision and restraint were a rare treat (Emily Jacir, Micol Assaël) in a show otherwise resembling a back issue of Flash Art. As one Swedish curator said to me, “it’s a user-friendly disgrace.”

The afternoon brought a stroll around the Giardini: Queues for more elaborate installations (Annette Messager for France) and long video works (Artur Zmijewski for Poland and de Rijke/de Rooij for Holland), none of which really rewarded the wait. The off-site pavilions proved more successful: Central Asia offered a tight and cogent group show of ten artists; Pipilotti Rist made a deliciously sexy chill-out zone in the Church of St. Staë; Bedwyr Williams’s residency for the Welsh pavilion (an attempt to forge links between his homeland and Venice) provided the only genuine laugh in the whole Biennale—with the work, not at it.

Left: Leigh Bowery outfit on display in the Arsenale. Middle: RoseLee Goldberg and Jens Hoffmann. Right: Guerilla Girls poster.

Socially the whole event seemed less frenetic than in previous years. The combined strategy of cutting back on artists (from several hundred in 2003 to ninety-two this year) and imposing stringent press-preview entrance policies paid off: The vibe was calmer and more relaxed without the clutter of a zillion museum minions and kitten-heeled gallery girls. Even so, most parties ran out of drink several hours before they were due to end; I had to resort to a half pint of limoncello at the Frieze party. The best bellinis came courtesy of Art Review and Jens Hoffmann; the best outfits were at the Guggenheim (elderly Peggy wannabes robed in lurid hues and complex textures). For these smartly dressed punters, Martinez and María de Corral’s commercially digestible biennale-cum-art-fair was just the ticket. In retrospect, 2003’s curatorial excess and engagé impenetrability looked staggeringly radical. We need biennial displays to push “always a little further” than this year’s skin-deep feminist number-crunching.