PRINT September 1988


BIENNALES AND DOCUMENTAS THESE DAYS always seem to appear right on schedule, one after the other, like symptoms in a disease. One no longer goes to look at the work but to see how the patient is doing. Given art’s quasi-cancerous rate of proliferation, a lot of space is necessary for any attempt at an overview, and only huge international exhibitions command the appropriate means. In Venice, this general pathology is superimposed on a city itself ever more infested or infected by tourists, ever less capable of renewal, as if stricken by a general paralysis or aphasia. No one quite knows why they continue to go to Venice every two years. Is it to see a new Biennale, or to see the city one more time? Floating in that vaporetti-furrowed lagoon—the boats, incessantly pumping, as wheezy as they are overloaded—the two great invalids stare each other down like china dogs, each waiting only for the death of the other to take over the whole place.

The 43rd Biennale seemed unpromising from the first. Just six months before its opening, it still lacked a director. He arrived, nevertheless, in the person of Giovanni Carandente, who, pressed for time, abandoned the custom of giving the Biennale a central theme show. The ’88 edition would simply be what the new director called “Il Luogo degli Artisti,” the place of the artists. And the Biennale would return, according to Carandente’s catalogue preface, to what should always have been its essence: “a meeting place of contemporary artists.” “Partly out of necessity, partly from choice,” it would reassume “the old character of a contest between artists of different generations and tendencies; artists who, in spite of their various artistic languages, can be compared with each other in the marvelous international setting of the Giardini di Castello, in the only exhibition in the world that has the disarming character of a universal workshop of the arts.” I beg your pardon?

So I went to Venice, of course to see Venice again, and, yes, for this “place of artists” too. Habitually disappointed with the theme shows of the preceding few Biennales, I have to say that I was not disappointed here. Carandente had announced that we would see the “place of artists”; we saw it quite well. We could even say that we saw practically nothing else.

All or nearly all of the artists seemed busily employed in making that “place of artists” visible. This they did by an educational use of disappointment—by constantly moving out of whatever places one expected to find them in, not so as to develop a new position, but to take over someone else’s. The exercise evoked the children’s game called in France le jeu des quatre coins (the four-corner game). Five players occupy a square; each has to trade places with the others as often as possible without being left in the middle when the four corners are all full. (The game has a cousin in musical chairs.) As one passed through the Biennale, le jeu des quatre coins came often to mind: so many artists seemed to be trying to take someone else’s place rather than their own, though they sometimes tried to get hold of both. Standing before one kind of work where one expected quite another, it was easy to lose one’s bearings. If only retrospectively, the following guide may help the reader to thread through the developments reflected in Venice. Subsequent changes of place are not to be ruled out, of course, as one or another of the next great international encounters will doubtless show.

This little chart of Venice’s jeu des quatre coins2 is obviously incomplete, but it may serve as a rough guide. It is permissible, in any case, to draw at least one general conclusion: that contemporary art—as it appears in exhibitions like the Biennale, at any rate—is characterized by a rather strict circularity. After the avant-garde struggles of the ’60s, and after the negation of those struggles in the present decade’s expiatory pseudocelebration of Technicolor pigments (to the background music of the cash register), art now seems bent, in a questionable parody of Hegelian dialectical synthesis, on a general recuperation. It’s as if it had regressed far enough into the contraband quotations of post-Modernism to come full circle. Artists who have achieved international success in the last ten years now find themselves returning to their point of departure, being forced to repeat the premises on which their success was built. At best, the results tend toward mannerism; at worst, they become that low artistic activity called academicism.

A logician with a sense of humor once observed that vicious circles get less vicious as they get bigger. Hence, perhaps, artists’ interest in enlarging the circle in which they have allowed themselves to be caught, and hence the increasing referentiality of their work, and the frantic acceleration in the rate at which they trade places. Still, a circle is a circle, and circles, whether more vicious or less so, are closed.

Daniel Soutif is a writer who lives in Paris. He contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the French by Hanna Hannah.



1. One notes that artists are not alone in the jeu des quatre coins. Critics can play too, as Demosthenes Davvetas shows in his essay on Tony Cragg’s exhibit. Entitled “A Dictionary of Dematerialisation,” this brief text attempts to take the corner formerly occupied by Lucy Lippard.

The term “dematerialization,” incidentally, sets off a striking contrast when applied to Cragg’s work, which has developed over the last few years from the use of discarded plastic bits and pieces to more traditional, substantial sculptural materials—wood, iron, plaster, even bronze. Nevertheless, it would perhaps be imprudent to conclude that the term “dematerialization” henceforth designated the passage from plastic to bronze.

2. The Biennale excluded the simulationist or “neo-geo” artists from the jeu des quatre coins; according to Carandente, this was because their reputations are already so well established that they might have refused to come. However, the real reason may have been that the long practice at the game revealed in their work would have given them an unfair advantage over the other, clearly less skilled players.