PRINT September 1984

Fritto Misto

EVERY TWO YEARS A GENERAL cry is heard from the masses of artists, critics, dealers, and collectors who in early June find themselves in the Venice Giardini: “Never has there been such an awful Biennale! This time we have touched bottom!”. Unfortunately, this has never been true; a slightly lower bottom is always to come. But this year the cry had a different connotation. Exultant communiqués and press conferences offered up during two years of anticipation, and a reorganization of high-level officials, had led to the hope of something better than the critical/organizational disorder of past years. Paolo Portoghesi, the Biennale president, and Maurizio Calvesi, director of the visual-arts section, had rewarded members of the press with their proposals from the time they were nominated—well before the exhibition’s opening, then, rather than the usual few months. Calvesi had met with officials of the national pavilions to discuss the Biennale’s themes, which were to serve as guidelines for their shows.The overall concept of “Arte e Arti” was planned to contain four subsections: “Arte e Spettacolo” (Art and performance), “Arte e Architettura” (Art and architecture), “Arte e Mass media” (Art and mass media), and “Arte ed arte” (Art and art). The first three were to be the purview of well-known critics and specialists (Germano Celant, Ursula Krinzinger, Renato Barilli, Fulvio Irace, Santino Langè, Giorgio Trebbi, and Carlo Arturo Quintavalle); the fourth was to be organized by Calvesi himself.

The disappointment in Venice this summer stemmed from the failure of these projects to be fully carried out, after drastic cuts in their financial backing. This year more than ever before, it seemed possible to spark a renewal of the Biennale, which for some time now has lacked the impetus and the ability to plan truly incisive exhibitions on an international scale. The 41st Biennale may not have touched bottom in terms of thematic poverty, but it did underline the extent to which the malign power of undesirable political and financial influence reverberates in the cultural sphere as elsewhere. Further, it became clear that the significance of the Biennale has changed with today’s high-speed diffusion of information. The show seemed a little behind the beat; it focused on artists already well-known within the informational circuit of exhibitions and art magazines, a circuit that is not tolerant of long delays in attention, and even sees such intervals as symptomatic of irrelevance.

Of the two central shows that were ultimately mounted, both planned by Calvesi (to the exclusion of the experts originally proposed), “Arte allo Specchio” was concerned with art as reflected by art, while “Arte, ambiente, scena” explored the relationship between art, performance, different media, and architecture. “Arte allo Specchio” analyzed two parallel paths of development. The first began with L.H.O.O.Q., 1919; Marcel Duchamp’s mustachioed Mona Lisa was seen as the high point of the desecration of older esthetic values that developed from the early-20th-century avant-garde’s ironic, rupturing attitude to tradition. The second stemmed from Giorgio de Chirico’s willful return to the museum, to the use of iconographic elements from the past as exemplary models. Examining these two directions, which run through much of the art of our century, the exhibition described on the one hand the late development of the avant-garde—Pop art, conceptual art, body art—and on the other the recent revival of figuration. The curator’s intentions were clear and philologically precise.

However, this ideological structure brought a reductivist view to the panorama as a whole. The result of an equation in which the Dada avant-garde leads directly to that of the ’60s and ’70s while a Chirican “restoration” of imagery evolves into the figurative painting of the ’80s is inevitably the declaration of the death of the avant-garde. Calvesi has been theorizing about this for years, and he glorified it with this Biennale. Avant-garde art is dead, and can only be seen as a memory of ironies past. Certainly no more current form of irony or radicality could have been expected of the group of “anachronistic” young artists here, minor academic painters who take themselves terribly seriously and demonstrate no hint of a critical stance toward the noble models from which their “in-the-style-of”s are drawn. These young neo-Mannerists have no real imagination, unlike their more adventurous father figure Alberto Savinio, whose paintings were among the gems of the show. His La Caduta degli angeli (The fall of the angels, 1929) is extraordinary, simultaneously rooted in myth and pointing to the heights of a modernity to come. The perfect remakes of Omar Galliani or of Gérard Garouste project no future, however, in fact project nothing beyond their glossy academic surfaces. The information they impart is of pedantic attention to workmanship, of the length of time taken by the painting process, of the omnivorous glance directed only backward.

In this context, the inclusion of Peter Greenaway’s drawings for his film The Draughtsman’s Contract, 1982, was surprising. Greenaway’s interpretation of naturalistic iconography is not a slavish reproposal of reality (or of artistic models) but seeks the restoration of reality through the machine (technological reproduction, film) in the form of a dialectic—the authentic versus the copy. An illustrious ancestor of Greenaway’s can be seen in Salvador Dali, the antihero par excellence who united the signs of an obsessively objective reality with the unequivocable presence of enigma. These two figures are truly subversive and couldn’t have differed more from the academic copyists who surrounded them here.

The second international exhibition, “Arte, ambiente, scena,” began with Scultura-Teatro (Sculpture-theater, 1984), Alberto Burri’s large red-painted-steel proscenium arch outside in the Giardini. This was a very vigorous introduction to a show that threw numerous entries together in a disordered mix. Installations and video installations by disparate artists—some of them of considerable achievement, like Donna Dennis, Marina Abramović and Ulay, Terry Fox, and others—were placed side by side in explication of Calvesi’s premise of a dialogue among the arts, a dialogue that he framed not as a renewal “of the utopia of total art” but merely as the utilization of technology by artists. His catalogue essay discerns no positive sign in the mixing of media it discusses, it merely proposes a historical interpretation of the phenomenon from Wagner to the present, passing via Gustav Klimt, Wassily Kandinsky, and the Bauhaus to environmental art and finally to the performances mounted by Giulio Turcato, Jan Fabre, and the “Zattera di Babele” (Raft of Babel). This last is a group of artists, critics, and writers who have worked together for some years on performances encompassing the visual arts, theater, dance, music, and text; several of these works were to be seen during the Biennale’s opening days. Particularly noteworthy were Jannis Kounellis’ funeral lament, a performance combining tormenting melancholy with a dramatic vitality, and Lawrence Weiner’s C’era una volta oppure immagini di Partenza (Once upon a time there were also images of departure), a work whose obsessive repetition of word and gesture closed a circle around itself like a spatial/temporal collapse of logos and rhythm. These performances and those of Giulio Paolini, Per Kirkeby, and Daniel Buren gave the feeling of a composite experience conveyed by international cultural figures joined by a common interest in a “total” event. The works’ commingling of language and their radicalization of ideologies on a high moral plane offered a rare—perhaps the only—instance in these exhibitions of a sense of the vitality of the avant-garde, in direct contrast with the theorizings that would have it dead. “Zattera di Babele” demonstrated the extent to which the languages of art, mirroring and merging with each other, can still succeed in projecting visual and aural rhythms in sympathy both with classicism and with the contemporary, quite unlike the often exhausted styles of painting so favored by Calvesi.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.