PRINT September 1984

A Few Highlights but No Festival

TWO REMARKS MAY BE MADE at the outset. The commissioners of the national pavilions were bound by the thematic guidelines only to the extent that they wished to be. “Arte e arti. Attualità e storia,” “arte allo specchio,” and “arte, ambiente, scena” had the advantage of providing so broad a framework that any interpretation of them could seem appropriate; they sounded good but left the field wide open. Secondly, the national pavilions raised the question of whether this type of broad international presentation can really do justice to the creative impulses of east and west, north and south. For works from the so-called Third World, or for socialist art produced in accordance with government guidelines, what value is there in an international show that inevitably reflects Western, European/American criteria of selection? Doesn’t such a show increasingly run the risk of becoming a last bastion of colonialist pretenses? What does the competition in the great European and American art metropolises have to do with Egypt or tiny Cuba, or France’s proud presentation of Jean Dubuffet with Hungary’s official-line artist Imre Varga? Western observers simply shrug their shoulders when they see Egyptian artists belatedly attempting to assimilate Western art styles, or renewing forms from within their own traditions that are difficult for outsiders to comprehend. Doesn’t the Biennale risk becoming a trap for those countries on the periphery of the art world? Or does it just offer a field day for liberals?

To be honest, though, the sympathetic viewer could hardly escape the recognition that the well-intentioned tolerance vis-à-vis the Third World and the Eastern-bloc countries was equally appropriate to parts of Europe and North America. Could the Canadian artists Ian Carr-Harris and Elizabeth Magor, for example, really have competed with the West Germans and the British in view of the pavilion space available to them? Yet Carr-Harris’ arte povera-like Three Examples, 1980, a translation of the natural phenomenon of a leaf into an abstract wall piece, and his installation of table, text, and plaster object, A Section of . . . , 1973, were precise, intellectually challenging, and esthetically refined. In addition, they clearly contributed to both of the subsections of the Biennale theme: the way cultural traditions reflect each other, and the visual arts’ relationship to other media. Magor too could well challenge the arrogance of European style-setters with both her photo essay on the problem of individual self-determination over time, I have always weighed 98 lbs., 1983–84, and her simultaneously poetic and disturbing objectification of a person as a series of measurable weights, Dorothy—A Resemblance, 1980–81.

The same challenge was raised in the Japanese pavilion by Kosho Ito’s outstanding floor installation of frozen earth. This scenario of a dialogue with the land as nurturer of all culture was executed in a strict spatial order, dusted with a barely perceptible speckling of gold and silver, and flooded with light; it led back through an open door to the Giardini—the garden as cultivated nature. The parallels with European ideas, with Joseph Beuys or Richard Long, for example, are clear, but then haven’t European artists also received impulses from the contemplative culture of Asia? This was made evident by the paintings of Kosai Hori, who translates Oriental elements that have appeared in European paintings into abstract, expressionistic compositions. Hori balances analytic thought and musical intuition, meditative stillness and rhythm, drawing and painting, in works that clearly have greater affinity with Japanese culture than with the Western adaptations of it that he employs. This tension between one’s acknowledgment of an art form and the recognition of one’s incomprehension of it because of its essential cultural otherness, despite familiar elements, was also forced on Western viewers by the work in the Egyptian pavilion. Commissioner Ramzi Mostafa’s catalogue essay emphatically praising the seven artists here could not conceal the fact that at least four of them were of interest in neither a European context nor, one felt safe in assuming, an Arab one. Nevertheless, one was struck by the work of those attempting to escape from Western cultural domination: Abdel-Salam Eid, whose sculptures use glittery, reflective materials and directly refer to cultic forms of architecture, and Ramzi ElSayed Mostafa.

Latin America, broadly represented by Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Colombia, and Peru, draws on traditions that are both diverse and quite independent of one another. European colonial culture has not only survived here but has in fact been invigorated by a rediscovery of the heritage it shares with the Latin countries of Europe; the painting and drawing of the Colombian artist Luis Caballero provided fascinating examples of this anachronistic trend. The Argentinian and Cuban pavilions, meanwhile, reflected one of the most interesting aspects of Latin American civilization, the revolutionary spirit. The imagery of the Argentinian painter Antonio Segui is only a pale echo of the struggle, but the Cubans Raúl Martínez Gonzalez and Mario García Joya collaborate in a radical art combining painting and photography and bringing the imagery and power of Pop art to bear on Latin American life. The argument is made that art in Cuba cannot exist apart from the social struggles of the Revolution; a comparison with Chinese concepts would have been welcome here.

In any case, for all its affinity with political art, the Cuban show was playful in its exposition of the cult of the People and successfully integrated image-making with the idea of social change. In this it was far removed from the bathetic posturing of most of the European socialist countries. A perfect example was Hungary, which exhibited Varga’s ostentatious sculpture in a bombastic display designed by the architect György Vadász. Varga can rightly be considered a true exponent of Eastern-bloc official art—not that he produces the outright propaganda that such work is often called in the West, but that he compiles and transforms cult images from antiquity through 19th-century Symbolism in an affirmative monumentalism which conveys the sense of a moral liaison between Hungarian and socialist identity. Measured against the Hungarian spectacle, in which “arte allo specchio” and “arte, ambiente, scena” collided shockingly, the Russian tradition, and the moral claims of the self-designated nation of peace. Aleksandr Tyšler (1898–1980) uses narrative figural paintings to create a theatrical parade that may well have come close to the “arte, ambiente, scena” concept, but the artist is third-rate. The paintings of Georgij Jakulov, which relate directly to stage scenery, would have been a better choice for the pavilion’s central space. The Yugoslays took the theatrical mandate literally and distinguished themselves with the posters of the Zagreb artist Boris Bućan; inventive stylistically and in his mixture of image and text, Bućan achieves a truly brilliant interplay between on the one hand the mood and content of the play, opera, or concert being advertised, and on the other the need for succinct communication.

All the Polish and Czech pavilions had to offer were forced, provincial, exceedingly bleak acts of cultural self-definition (equalled, incidentally, by the Greek pavilion). Of all the socialist-bloc countries, the German Democratic Republic presented the most convincing interpretation of the Biennale program. A reassimilation of the art of the past in a socialist spirit critical of Western historicism has been under way in the GDR for some time now, and it lent the “arte allo specchio” rubric promising humanistic possibilities. The former practitioners of Socialist Realism have chosen to work with the old fable of human triumph and fall (Icarus, Nike, the Crucifixion), appending to them questions on the current state of humanity; their metaphorical transformations of the collective mythic inheritance of the West illuminated the notion of “attualità e storia” more deeply than any of the exhibits in the Central Pavilion. The 13 artists here, both painters and sculptors, shared less a style than an attitude, but Willi Sitte’s humanistic pathos and expressive realism, Bernard Heisig’s mythopoetic metaphors, and Wolfgang Mattheuer’s threatening, sarcastic objectivity all comment provocatively on progress and the return to the past in today’s art.

The Israeli artist Osvaldo Romberg’s analysis of historic artist heroes also fitted the Biennale theme, but this was no guarantee of artistic depth. Meditation on the past in the Dutch, West German, Swiss, and Austrian pavilions, on the other hand, resulted not in merely superficial brilliance but in attempts to penetrate the layers of contemporary cultural foment. This comment might also have been applied to Dubuffet in the French pavilion and Antoni Clavé in the Spanish, but unfortunately the Biennale’s tendency to present artists only after they have reached a peak of acclaim sometimes results in terrible sell-outs of formerly significant talents. Such was the case with Dubuffet, Clavé, and Hans Hartung, whose work was shown in the truly insignificant French satellite exhibition “Peinture en France” (here the recent paintings of Jean Hélion alone seemed bold and fresh). Dubuffet’s ability to transform archaic-seeming creative signs into a rich network of new ones has paled in his latest work. Clavé too is no longer radical, yet the older pieces in his retrospective illuminated the extent to which the achievement of much contemporary painting is more technical than artistic.

At least the Swiss showed courage and sent two younger artists to Venice. Miriam Cahn’s wall-sized drawings, dense and comprehensive, succeeded well in portraying a woman’s journey to identity. Equally successful were Anselm Stalder’s single painting and “styleless,” deeply humorous sculptures, which raised difficult questions concerning past, present, and the nonsense potential of the constant search for new forms. The viewer was similarly challenged, but in a somewhat more complex way, by the Dutch artist Armando and the West Germans Lothar Baumgarten and A.R. Penck. Armando has worked for many years on a ritual kind of painting which addresses light and dark, hope and guilt, nature and a deeply shaken culture; he manifests a profound perception of the circumstances of painting and the violation of its innocence over the years by history. Art’s meditation on itself reached a high point in the Biennale with the grand but cool series of work he showed here.

The dialogue between Penck and Baumgarten was not what it might have seemed, a bombastic celebration of the archetypal and exotic, but constituted a penetration of a lost world of signs in pursuit of renewal. That the German commissioner, Johannes Cladders, permitted such a dialogue off the all-too-beaten track of German neo-Expressionism is in itself remarkable. Penck’s and Baumgarten’s approaches vary, but both are fed by the idea of art as human utopia, and both provide rich matter for an understanding of the relationship of the arts today to anthropological knowledge of past civilizations. Baumgarten’s names and symbols of South American Indians set in the marble floor of the pavilion were like ancient signposts leading to an artistic interpretation of our existence, signposts that might still guide us on—not as arbitrary attempts to revive a culture, but as things one could literally stand on. The easy naturalness of Baumgarten’s work was answered by Penck’s expressive/archetypal sign language; together the two set up a contrapuntal dialogue on the rediscovery of archaic, once-dominant symbols, a dialogue that spoke for a threatened humanity.

Passing from the West German to the British pavilion one was pleasantly refreshed by Howard Hodgkin’s marvelously arranged abstract landscapes and still lifes without being challenged by all that much artistic tension. The Austrian painter Christian Ludwig Attersee should have been among the few bright lights of the Biennale; Attersee indulges in baroque revelries, plays sarcastic, salacious games with scraps of ideas and visual quotes, but here his intoxicated, topsy-turvy, lustful will for life and his merry disrespect for the high-art tradition were diluted by a stamp collection of an installation. Nevertheless, a painterly bravura was communicated in these two pavilions. In the Icelandic pavilion, on the other hand, Kristjàn Davídsson offered a paradigm of provincial, tradition-bound salon painting with his hesitant mixture of an impressionistic vision of nature and a half-hearted abstract expressionism. Here as in the other exhibits grouped under the heading “Paesi Nordici,” the galling arrogance of middle Europeans toward the cultural borderlands unfortunately found some justification. Could the air of provinciality be dispelled by the Danish painters? No; Hans Christian Rylander’s works were simultaneously tortured and saccharine, while Anders Kirkegaard opted for heavy-handed drama in a realistic style. Kain Tapper’s sculptures in the Finnish pavilion, with their tinge of the primeval, offered no relief, and the Norwegian Bendik Riis revealed an essentially indecisive temperament in his strange leaps between naive/conceptual sketches and crude realistic images.

Inherent in the principle of the Biennale is the idea that art that would otherwise earn only regional recognition is brought to international attention. The problem is that the art scene is turned into a jumbled department store. It took a lot of effort to discover what was special in Venice—Patrizia Taddei’s ironic, charming dialogue with the world of fairy tale in the San Marino pavilion, for instance, or the Belgian Jan Fabre’s drawings and videotape. Even Curt Asker’s signlike tinted sculptures floating in air in the Swedish pavilion gained something in comparison with the run-of-the-mill exhibits, and the Brazilians Eduardo Sued and Luiz Paulo Baravelli could also claim their share of respect. Confronted with quantities of mediocrity, one lost the patience necessary for analysis. But was it really only the outer countries that were responsible? Didn’t Italy itself prove a model of entrenched provincialism, with its hollow, third-rate stage decorations and its warmed-over revisions of former grandeur? And the United States presented such a confused hodgepodge of 24 disparate painters that there was no chance to encounter the individual works. “Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained: American Visions of the New Decade,” the exhibition’s title, certainly reflected a serious approach, but the intent was lost in a whirl of disordered images—horror stories, jungles, neon lights, forests, green people, trivialized versions of Arnold Böcklin. The show could be taken as symptomatic of all the national pavilions: excess bred boredom and a sense of arbitrariness. A Biennale with so few highlights can survive only because it takes place in Venice. In a lesser location one would hardly make the effort to look more closely.

The depth and magic that could have been achieved with the Biennale theme was revealed by James Lee Byars’ brilliant performance piece, which was not part of the official program. Beneath the golden globe of Fortune diagonally across the Grand Canal from the Piazzetta di San Marco, Byars stood wearing a gold suit and a black blindfold, and holding a gold ball high in the air. From there, he seemed to cast a mysterious gold influence over the whole city. The piece was a “reflection” of the age-old artistic urge to penetrate the cosmos, to conquer the universe of being and to give it form—quietly, abundantly, joyfully. Art was cast as magic and yearning, not as short-lived promise.

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.