PRINT September 1988


’Tis the white stag, Fame, we’re a-hunting,
Bid the world’s hounds come to horn!
—Ezra Pound

THIS YEAR, THE BIENNALE has finally abandoned its curated theme shows, making the Giardini di Castello the “Giardini della fine delle ideologie” (The gardens of the end of ideologies). The sentence that this decision has passed on exhibition-goers is readable in the first flower bed inside the gate: whoever manages to escape the lonely crowd of George Segal’s Rush Hour, 1983, ends up sharing a bench with the angular tourists of Lynn Chadwick’s Back to Venice, 1988, a stiffly bronze couple whose heads divert the cube and the pyramid from their ideal metaphysical tasks to the more prosaic one of smiling at passersby. In the flower bed, life is lived within an invisible circle, a circle defined by a total absence of conflict. Artistic innovation or development gives way to repetition, which congratulates itself upon itself, and art’s former antiinstitutionalism is replaced by an acceptance of the institution so complete as to be void of irony. The monumental abstractions inside the circle’s transparent walls are like the inoffensive paintings of a family collection. It’s teatime for the spirit. The artworks seem frozen, like violets in the vases of an overdeliberate interior-design scheme supposedly arranged to favor the free exchange of ideas but actually petrifying it.

The first flower bed may have a numbing effect on the visitor, who risks growing as rigid as Chadwick’s seated couple. When I was there, only one creature showed any life: a dog, a living treasure, a perfect specimen of the Sicilian breed called the cirneco dell’Etna. Ripping its leash from the hand of a pedestrian caught in the static circle, this little dog tore itself out of the flower bed’s inert tapestry to race off to some distant meadow. Its headlong passage reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe’s story about the Baron Metzengerstein and his terrible horse, which, once straddled, cannot be dismounted, and gallops its rider on to an infernal fate. Perhaps this whiff of brimstone came to me from the great volcano that gave the dog its name; perhaps the animal’s appearance associated it in my mind with Anubis, the jackal god of the Egyptian underworld. There must have been some such chain of thought, for the dog itself had nothing sinister about it. It was as delicate as an angel, as subtle as an arabesque, as light as a joke. If the cirneco was on familiar terms with hell, that only meant that it knew exactly what it was escaping when it bounded away from that flower bed, in hurling leaps through space.

What the cirneco had understood was that the first circle was only a stop in a Dantesque succession. Down almost every path and corridor, in almost every corner, the 43rd Biennale is true to its basic nature: this is an institutional via Crucis, a road dragging down toward Calvary, and the stations on the route are the different “luoghi degli artisti,” the “places of the artists” of the exhibition’s title. Of course, hell in Venice is relatively sedate. Liberated from the theme show and from the primacy it gives to the critic, finally alone in the vast cosmic zero, most of the artists in Venice seem to have anchored themselves in the idea of the formal parlor of the bourgeois home. This is the metaphor in which their collective unconscious has found a guide, a principle of order. The parlor seems the perfect space for nearly all the art at the Biennale; the “sidereal” point of view, as it were, is censored and suppressed, and we see instead a petite bourgeoisie of art, stumbling down the road to the museum.

As a mediating mentality, the parlor gives us a little bit of everything. We have to keep the big picture in mind. So the sculpture show outdoors in the Giardini, curated by Andrea B. Del Guercio, uses sometimes a simplistic rhetoric of the sublime—in Mario Ceroli’s Cavallo alato (Winged horse, 1987), for example—and sometimes the opposite, like the “dwarfing” technique of Marisol’s 4-foot-high Picasso, 1981. One of several more or less open fetishes in this Biennale, Marisol’s totem reduces Picasso, with his image as the focus of insatiable energies for both art and life, to an impotent old man, or a preverbal infant. Made of bronze, the sculpture seems to have been cast from hewn timbers that in places keep their original shape, so that Picasso’s head grows out of a heavy beam, and the work as a whole suggests the power of nature’s—and art’s—transformation of matter into form. But this stumpy figure has a pathetic expression on its face, and is confined to a chair—indeed, the body is so embroiled in its chair that it is as much chair as it is human. The image suits the Biennale. The artists have adapted themselves to their seats at the parlor table, showing too much respect for the places assigned them. They don’t stand up to their full height.

The parlor code allows for contrasts, but they have to be civil ones. If the various parts intermingle too freely, there’s the risk of conflict, so they are symphonically arranged for peaceful coexistence. Thus a quartet of older Italian artists — Carla Accardi, Alberto Burri, Piero Dorazio, and Giuseppe Santomaso — all exhibit in the same section of the central pavilion, for a dialogue that protects them from any argument with anyone else. The installation reduces the faith in their principles that all of them show to the status of a trademark. And these artists’ descendants can also be found grouped by temperament, all sitting up neatly in their high chairs. The “new iconologies” of the trans-avantgarde go tranquilly hand in hand, in a procession of linked rooms. Also, formalist work, whether more or less ascetic, and any kind of geometry-based art have been made unwelcome; but the curators are happy to seat them elsewhere, where they won’t cause any friction, and Sol LeWitt, Hidetoshi Nagasawa, and Louise Nevelson get their own placements at the table of “quality.” In this context, even the restoration of the Sistine Chapel, shown on video monitors in the central pavilion’s circular entrance hall, reads as a preface to the Biennale’s pro-institutional message. After one reads Giovanni Carandente’s catalogue essay, and typically for this Biennale, the video comes off as an attempt to still controversy.

The 43rd Biennale represents the closing of a door, and, unfortunately, Jannis Kounellis’ installation makes no contribution to reopening it. In recent years, Kounellis, among others, has implicitly exposed the way that so many artists working in a neo-Expressionist or quotational vein have emptied their production of any sense of real emotional weight—have emptied it of the tragic. He has done this by reference to the classical past, to the temple, to a tragic awareness of a culture that once was sustaining and now is lost. The Biennale as bourgeois home enfeebles that metaphor. Sacks of coal stapled by iron girders onto successive square metal sheets suggest a kind of crucifixion of organic life by serial industrial production; but the crime is overshadowed by the work’s formal rhythm. The agony is conveyed tastefully, so as not to disturb the viewer’s comfort.

Similarly, the experimentalism of Jasper Johns is safe by now, and in this house Cy Twombly is no rebellious guest; his room, though lovely, adds nothing to the legacy of Monet. Tony Cragg’s work is increasingly formal—he is more interested in the ideological construction of systems than in what those systems might do, such as effect the metamorphoses of the commonplace that he achieved in his earlier work. (It is symptomatic of Cragg’s current work that its balance of fine-art media and everyday objects is shifting in favor of fine art.) Markus Lüpertz shows an archaic adaptation of classical statuary, his painted-bronze Titan, 1986, with its rough surface and crude anatomy, somehow a friendlier version of its Mediterranean antecedent. A number of artists are interested in the color black, which might have cast interesting shadows on the Biennale’s golden moment. But Burri’s black “Annottarsi 2” (Night falling 2, 1987) sticks to a traditional kind of existentialism, and seeks to reinforce it with monumental dogmatism; and Felix Droese’s black cutouts, which aim for a lyrical, oppositional quality, fall back into a rhetorical emphasis on content (perhaps because they conform to the monumental imperatives of their site, the West German pavilion).

The trans-avantgarde artists in Venice have insinuated themselves deep inside the parlor. None of them wants to seem like a poor relation at the Biennale’s rich table; so none of them gripe or complain. The result is that they come off affirmative and noncritical. Mimmo Paladino demonstrates a mania for accumulation and decoration, and ends up negating any theoretical possibility that the void might have. In Oggetti the salgono (Rising objects, 1988), Sandro Chia wraps an Apollonian superman in a suggestion of spiraling pictorial ascent. Enzo Cucchi sets off a confrontation between microhistories and metals, between small drawings on resin and the great iron and brass sheets in which they float. And Francesco Clemente traps single and paired, sexualized figures within the outlines of a variety of amphorae, in a rhythm of narcissism and androgyny. In two of these installations it’s as if we were seeing a funeral, a closure of the trans-avantgarde cycle. Paladino’s environment, with its mass of stone spectators in the background, seems to be waiting respectfully for some such institutionally solemn event; and the imprisoned couplings in Clemente’s amphorae promise a sterile outcome, and nothing left to wait for. In the Biennale’s “reassuring” freedom of expression, space, as metaphor and promise, is absent.

On the TV screens in the central-pavilion rotunda, the restorers remove dirt and time’s fingerprints from Michelangelo’s Creation of Man. It’s worth asking what is similarly being removed from the working space of art in this Biennale. What is the stain to be scrubbed out, the dirt to be washed away, before the parlor can shine again, in the best of all possible worlds? One has a suspicion what the answer might be: Earth, the heavens, politics. Yet this clean-up operation does confront at least one opposing power in the Biennale. Just as Penelope wove by day only to undo her cloth by night, leaving her task always unfinished, so Maurizio Mochetti’s installation constantly respreads the stain that the institution as a whole tries to erase. In Mochetti’s spill of red oxide powder on the floor, forever shrinking and then distending with the oscillating light of a laser, light is an abstract vehicle of adventure, and a liberation from the dogmatic weight of the monument. The work has a conspiratorial presence in the bourgeois home: a houseguest has tricked an accommodating host into revealing the possibility of its own destruction. The purpose of the conspiracy is movement, and movement, of course, is the element the cirneco makes its own.

Luciana Rogozinsky is a writer who lives in Turin.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.