PRINT September 1986

That can hatch from an infinity of eggs.

THE CENTRAL EXHIBITOIN OF the 42nd Venice Biennale, “Arte e Scienza” (Art and science), provoked questions even before the traditional “varnishing” —the preview—of this multinational event. At various times in our century the arts and the sciences have drawn close to each other in a mutual exchange, but in the '80s, as scientific thought has grown increasingly inaccessible and incomprehensible, a mood of pessimistic alienation has developed between the two. The question even arises as to whether the theme of art and science is a good point of departure fora show today—is it the light at the end of the tunnel, or another groggy sleeping pill?

“Arte e Scienza” consists of seven sections located not only in the Giardini di Castello, the Biennale's principal exhibition grounds, but elsewhere in Venice as well. In the Giardini, one finds “Spazio” (Space), “Arte e Alchimia” (Art and alchemy), “Wunderkammer” (Room of wonders), and “Arte e biologia” (Art and biology). The “Colore” (Color) section is divided between the Palasport and the Arsenal, “Tecnologia e Informatica” (Technology and “informatics”) is in the Arsenal, and “La Scienza per l'Arte” (Science for art) is in the Accademia museum. Few of these sections demand much attention. The large sculpture by Igor Mitoraj, at the entrance to the main pavilion in the Giardini, is an apt preface: the clouds of steam it emits are perhaps meant to cleanse the mind before the experience of the show, but at a time when we are already groping in the dark, their effect may not be the one intended. In the end, this piece seems as helpless as Ernest Pignon-Ernest's installation of humanoid sculptures, with biochemical stuffings, that crawl through the trees around the small pavilion housing the bizarrely superficial “Arte e Biologia” section.

All in all, the encounter mounted here between art and science leans toward a facade of technology—a kind of high-tech version of artsy-craftsiness. The show's push-button mentality may fascinate for a while, but soon one realizes that it cannot compensate for a thinness of curatorial accomplishment. We leave the exhibition with no better grasp on the new science and technology than when we enter. Unfortunately, this also turns out to be the case with many of the artists' contributions, which use technology as material. Granted that Richard Kriesche's A World Model, 1986, in “Tecnologia e Informatica”—twin working robots which push buttons to turn each other on and off—provokes a smile, but ultimately it does no more than prove a point: that the products of human ingenuity are not infallible. The technology aspect of the show is basically entertainment, and is more likely to leave us with a sense of helplessness than to stir wonder at the fabulous creative possibilities of it all. And the two-part “Colore” section is also peripheral. While the curators have selected interesting works, and show an understanding of the significance of color on the tangent between the arts and the sciences and as a sign for spiritual transcendence, their presumptuous intention of covering the entire vast territory of their subject finally causes more eye-strain than stimulation. “La Scienza per l'Arte” is simply a didactic show on techniques of art restoration.

In light of these kinds of problems with the other subsections of the main theme, the “Arte e Alchimia” and the “Wunderkammer” shows prove of the most interest. With the “Spazio” section, they constitute the pivot around which the whole event revolves. If inadequately “Spazio” aims to describe the still-evolving attempt in Western thought to go beyond the construct of central perspective that we have inherited as our principal way of imagining space. Developments in both art and science have made it increasingly hard to accept this ego-centered construct; we feel an increasing friction between our desire for rational comprehension and our sense that the situation demands a much wider grasp. The historical path from Renaissance perspective to a multidimensional sense of space is a movement from the fixed view to pervasive instability In many senses the movement represents a dilemma, but order can be dangerously rigid, and the chaotic can represent the space of the impossible, even the magical, as well as the frightening space of the irrational.

Which brings us to “Arte e Alchimia” The practice of alchemy is ancient, and its traces are manifold in the histories of art and science. Conceptually, moreover, to the extent that it focuses on creation, the historical alchemists' quest for the philosophers' stone and for the alkahest, the universal solvent, is related to art. Essentially, the alchemists were in competition with God, which is what makes the subject so loaded. The philosophers' stone, which they thought would turn base metals into gold, and the alkahest were seen as the key to the godly principle, the control of creation. Today, as creation has more and more been conquered through science, alchemy has moved toward the status of superstition. However, as science has regimented itself, divided, grown abstract. cold, and remote, the spirit of alchemy has been reactivated in a metaphorical sense, keeping its concern with creation.

“Arte e Alchimia” holds great fascination and promise as a topic, then, but its actualization in the Biennale seems arbitrary. In bits and pieces spiced with a pinch of art, the section overquotes historical sources, and the result is a failed attempt to demonstrate a phenomenon that could in itself have been a central experience. The spirit that could have connected the spheres of alchemy science, and art, locating them all in the multidimensional space of our time—a spirit brilliantly demonstrated by Sigmar Polke's paintings in the German Pavilion and by Daniel Buren's superbly executed installation in the French Pavilion, a sort of tightrope walk between the three domains—was lost in a hotchpotch of works.

The “Wunderkammer” section, located in the main pavilion along with “Arte e Alchimia” and “Spazio,” is as remarkable an installation as “Arte e Alchimia” is poor. In 16th- and 17th-century Europe, a tradition developed among the aristocracy and in the scholastic community of collecting natural and artificial curiosities of different sorts and displaying them in a room set aside for the purpose, the Wunderkammer. The Biennale has applied the idea to art. Between the “Arte e Alchimia” and the “Wunderkammer” sections, rarely can one have seen such quantities of eggs, cosmic circles, pendulums, ships, snakes, dragons, fires, shrines, metamorphic animals, timepieces, globes, and, of course, alchemic signs. Despite elements of imitative surrealism, “Wunderkammer” does indicate the importance to contemporary art of its own kind of quest for the philosophers' stone.

Rebecca Horn's Pendulum, 1986, suspends an aluminum pendulum above an egg. Driven by a motor, the pendulum swings as one expects, then stops, starts again, and so on. This is not the only egg here. Piero Manzoni, a master of making present the space between the void and the all, is represented by an untitled work from 1960, an egg in a box, a quiet sign of invisible possibilities, of life before growth. In a circular movement, this piece complements more recent work such as Horn's, Luciano Fabro's Uovo con sigillo (Egg with seal, 1979), and Jiří Kolář's metal-and-collage egg from ca. 1969. On the floor by Manzoni's egg sits Claudio Parmiggiani's Zoo Geometrico (Geometric zoo, 1969), a collection of fur-and-feather-covered geometric solids in their own wooden ark. This materialization of a journey imaginable only in art—a journey between the diametrically separate realms of nature and rational science—contributes to a leitmotif in the show the idea of the voyage. A few rooms further down, another ship, Gilberto Zorio's Canoa-squalo (Canoe-shark, 1985-86), hangs from the ceiling; its hull cut through by its rudder, the vessel has been rendered useless by its own means of steering a course. Nearby, a Parmiggiani globe from 1968 displays the world that Christopher Columbus once sailed, opening it to the European adventure of discovery and conquest. Parmiggiani's globe is sealed in the hide of an animal.

Back in “Arte e Alchimia,” René Magritte's Landscape in Flames (the 4 Elements) and The Secret Life, both 1928, hang near André Masson's Goethe or the Metamorphosis of Plants, from 1940. For Magritte, over half a century ago, fire and geometry could still serve together as images of the alchemic energy of art. This conception of art as the imaginative catalyst to unify the disparate, to provide and reflect the center, has appeared throughout Western history, but now it is like a memory of a lost world view, a relic in the Wunderkammer, which brings us back again to Horn's Pendulum stopping, restarting,swinging evenly back and forth, then coming to rest again, aimed directly at the egg. Is it pointing to the center, the fermenting elixir of memory? Does the pendulum gain energy from the egg, or does it threaten it? Is it a compass directed to life or a Damoclean sword? As well as being a remedy for all ailments, the elixir is the substance sought by alchemists to change metals into gold. It is the philosophers' stone. Whether in art or in science, after all the discoveries of our age, after the traumatic realization that the center cannot hold, there is still the egg, as this Biennale shows. Although no single center remains, the world has many eggs. And metaphorically, not only is the egg a center, it holds the kernel of life. Its round form approximates the circle, a sign of totality unity, harmony, the universe. Without fertilization, though, it is nothing, which is to say without transformation it is nothing. The entrance to “Arte e Alchimia” holds a gilded column by James Lee Byars, the imperturbable poet of the present dilemma. It stands single, focused, but its top is removable, exchangeable. Without a basis of change, the alchemy of art is meaningless. Art's current journey—to imagine a world that coheres around many centers—is a ritual of magic and hope.

Annelie Pohlen is the director of the Bonn Kunstverein.

Translated from the German by Susann Moeller.

The Venice Biennale will close on September 28. Reviews of the national pavilions will appear in the October issue.