PRINT September 1988


The 43rd Venice Biennale will go down in the institution’s history for two revisionary gestures: the restitution to Italy of the Giardini di Castello’s central pavilion (which has for the last 20 years been the site of the Biennale’s thematic shows); and the revival of one-artist exhibition spaces in that building, both in the part redesignated as the Italian pavilion and in the separately curated rooms containing a show entitled “Ambiente Italia.” Many of the national pavilions are also devoted to one-artist monographs. In its own way, each of these gestures enforces an idea that also appears in the catalogue introductions, in curators’ interviews with the artists, and even in the comments of visitors to the Biennale: a restatement of the central role of artists and artworks (as opposed to critics and curators). Previously, the central pavilion would have held a curated theme show, which would bring together an international variety of artists around some shared idea and thus would be by definition multivocal and cross-cultural. This Biennale abandons that effort, or attempts it only loosely, choosing instead to consecrate individual artists by granting them a great deal of autonomy in the selection and installation of their own work. Apparently, the critical function of the curator is relegated to a subordinate role.

Here Biennale director Giovanni Carandente has intuited a trend not confined to the visual arts, as Venice demonstrates through the provocative statements of the theater artist Carmelo Bene, who will head the performance section of the Biennale, and who has polemically declared his goal of eliminating both public and critics from the theater, returning it to those who create it. The centrality of the artist is also implicit in other upcoming schedules—in the selection of a composer, Sylvano Bussotti, as director of the Biennale music program; of an architect, Francesco Dal Co, for the architecture section; and of a relatively unacademic critic, Guglielmo Biraghi, for September’s Venice Film Festival. Thus Venice ends the ’80s. And this small revolution (or counterrevolution) also ironically commemorates the 20th anniversary of 1968, for it was after that radical year that the Biennale abandoned its one-artist rooms for international shows defined by a critical philosophy.

It’s true that this formula had worn itself out of late, seeming increasingly disastrous with each succeeding edition. The themes became overinflated and difficult to interpret; too many artists assaulted the public with too many works, installed according to historical, esthetic, or critical criteria that were often opaque. There was no clarity—it had become increasingly difficult for the Biennale’s successive generations of organizers to bring the burgeoning eclecticism of our times under the umbrella of a single theme. The restoration of a center to these terribly fragmented exhibitions, then, was a challenging, intellectually demanding intention. Unfortunately, that intention went unfulfilled. This Biennale has everything but a center; in fact, it resembles a “Big Bang,” the different planets all flying apart. The only thing holding them together is the exhibition’s rhetorical pomposity.

Rhetoric is everywhere, beginning with the graphic logo—“XLIII,” in a typeface recalling the fascist era. The cover of the catalogue is a photograph of these Roman numerals fabricated in characters of architecturally imposing solidity, with a shadow emphasizing their outlines so that they stand out vigorously against a firmament of stars. Rhetoric comes in again when Carandente writes in his catalogue introduction of his desire to revive among the participating artists an “agonistic” spirit, a word he might have lifted from a manual of the ’30s. And the best-pavilion Leone d’oro prize bestowed on the Italians is also rhetorical, rewarding Carandente and his compatriots not for work done today but for past accomplishments. The same is true of the best-artist prize given Jasper Johns.

The pomposity of the 43rd Biennale begins at the entrance gate, from which a promenade of sculpture leads the visitor toward the central pavilion. This parade brings to mind certain old customs, rhetorical flourishes that you might have thought we’d long ago left behind: the sounds of a band, the cutting of ribbons, officials in old-fashioned dress uniforms—all those old, empty, pompous theatrical apparatuses, as swollen as Mario Ceroli’s winged wooden horse, which towers over the Giardini gate. The use of wood in the place of bronze, instead of recalling the Ceroli of better times, suggests a papier-mâché grandeur that could almost be the symbol of this Biennale. It emerges from no particular ideology or concept but the hope of invoking a triumphal kind of mise-en-scène—the only thread stitching together the exhibition’s ruling eclecticism.

The central pavilion is also pervaded by a nationalistic rhetoric. The word “Italia” on the facade has been recleaned, after 20 years of neglect; it dominates the entrance, like a banner of patriotic pride, and of territory finally reconquered. And the facade itself, which is in the style of Italian fascist architecture of the ’30s, has also been restored, along with its two murals—Nascita di Roma (Birth of Rome) and Regina del Mare (Queen of the sea), by Franco Gentilini and Giuseppe Antonio Santagata. These works—dating from 1938, and also typical of the fascist period—had been charitably covered over by Carlo Scarpa’s renovation in 1962.

The Italian pavilion itself is punctuated into sections differentiated only by pretext. What themes there are are mainly men of straw. Most of these sections are arbitrarily set at groups of four; thus Jannis Kounellis, Maurizio Mochetti, Marisa Merz, and Gianfranco Baruchello are collected together, but the parallels between the first three on the one hand and Baruchello on the other are fragile to the point of impossibility. (The curator assigned the task of unifying this group, Pier Luigi Tazzi, in fact discusses only Kounellis, Mochetti, and Merz in his catalogue essay, leaving Baruchello to Jean-François Lyotard.) Similarly, “Epicentri dell’arte” (Epicenters of art) comprises large-scale works by Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, and Mimmo Paladino, four of the five artists whom Achille Bonito Oliva once styled as the Italian trans-avantgarde. Little sense can be made of the omission of the fifth, Nicola De Maria, and Oliva simply doesn’t mention him in his catalogue essay. The subtraction surely can’t be based on stylistic concerns, for in the Biennale as never before, the trans-avantgarde seems split between the obsessive repetitions of Clemente and the weak-and-dusty work of Chia, on the one hand, and the mannerist virtuosity of Paladino and the vital growth in Cucchi, on the other.

When connections are tighter, and the relationships between themes and artists more precise, the Italian pavilion is often dull and insipid. A certain poverty of imagination goes into writing a section title like “Oltre l’apparenza: i nuovi sviluppi astratti di—” (Beyond appearance: the new abstract developments of—) and then the usual names: Carla Accardi, Alberto Burri, Piero Dorazio, and Giuseppe Santomaso. Burri in particular does not deserve to be hemmed in by simplistic definitions. (The outdoor-sculpture section in the gardens, “Scultori ai Giardini,” has a similar feeling of déjà vu: at a time when sculpture as a field is seeing a rebirth, the names here, while worthy, are substantially devoid of novelty.) Together with “Natura e mito” (Nature and myth), which contains work by Piero Guccione, Ennio Morlotti, Franco Sarnari, and Ruggero Savinio, “Oltre l’apparenza” brings back memories of a long-dead dispute between realist and abstract artists after the Biennale of 1948. It remains only to mention the “Vitalità della scultura” (Vitality of sculpture) section, which offers one of the most beautiful installations in the whole Biennale: Dinamica cosmica (Cosmic dynamism), 1986–88, by Eliseo Mattiacci. Large iron discs, magnetically suspended, or supporting spools of copper, exert a powerful environmental tension. Among the many here pumping iron, Mattiacci has real muscle. The scale of his monumental sculptures is not artificially inflated but grows out of their real internal strength.

And so, probably through overcautiousness, a good approach is compromised. What could have been fascinating—the return of the exhibition space to the artists, left free to act without the stage direction of the critic—is undermined, in part by confusion in those decisions the curators did make themselves, and in part, too, by weaknesses on the side of the artists. For the opportunity Carandente has given them is a paradoxical one. The ’80s began with a revival of painting as an expression of the artist’s subjectivity, which was exalted as the vessel of profound truths of the mind and of history. Where art in the ’60s and ’70s had imbricated itself in the world in all kinds of different ways, in the ’80s it no longer needed any social involvement; it was sufficient in itself, demanding that we approach it, hanging as painting on the gallery wall, rather than reaching out to approach us. Yet the Biennale, by minimizing the intermediary agency of the curator, implicitly reproposes that its artists confront the space, the public, the external world. Not all of them live up to that responsibility.

The space that is offered the Biennale artists arrives pure and empty, without critical strings attached—and without critical underpinning. It cannot be compared to the space of the “Arte-Ambiente” exhibition curated by Germano Celant for the Biennale of 1976, which individuated a historic passage in our modernity. All of the 1976 work confronted its environment, but in 1988 the curators make no attempt to impose any environmental concern. If the artist chooses, he or she can take the easy route of interior design, installing the work so as not to conflict with the room. Yet the artist is equally free to conceive of space as an ambiguous, equivocal terrain that must in some way be faced, and the better solutions in the Biennale are those that accept the challenge. Kounellis approaches space conceptually, redefining it through classical and architectural methodologies expressed as a strictly repeated rhythm of identical elements—a series of metal sheets supporting sacks of coal by means of geometrically perfect arrangements of girders, in an equilibrium of matter and form. Running around the edge of the space, these objects transform it into a void. Paladino, on the other hand, controls his large room by the purely physical tactic of filling it from floor to ceiling with over 150 objects, most of them sculptures, as if obsessively to announce his horror vacui. Somewhere between the two is Mochetti, who sets up a red laser beam to appear and disappear, constantly redefining the reality of what it illuminates: technology’s version of Alice’s looking glass.

Chameleonlike, both inside and outside the main pavilion, the conception of space continually changes. Sol LeWitt, in the “Ambiente Italia” section, reduces real space to illusion and silence with an exemplary gesture. His large white sculptures, straight-edged but irregular in volume, seem to baffle perspective, connoting instead the artifice of LeWitt’s murals. The improbable yet utterly logical space of Jan Dibbets’ photoworks challenges one’s perceptions, as if one were looking into a new and unfamiliar dimension. Markus Raetz, in the Swiss pavilion, splinters space into a poetic, whispered language of minimal, almost intimate phonemes. All his works relate to the issue of perception, whose vagaries they often underline. And Susana Solano creates a difficult balance between the sure and the uncertain, complementing the sculptural miniatures of her neighbor in the Spanish pavilion, Jorge Oteiza, with metal cages, light, open grids that in one case support heavy marble slabs, seeming to defy gravity.

Wherever the problem is posed of the relationship between the work and its space, a play of illusion and elusion is pursued, which never pretends to resolve the enigma. Inside the Belgian pavilion, Guillaume Bijl has built a middle-class suburban home, filling it with tacky furniture and tchatchkes—a dizzy, hyperreal environment. And Narcisse Tordoir’s installation in the same pavilion is like a giant set of Chinese boxes. The space is claustrophobic, vertical, and surreal, and a hermetic but symbolic message runs along its walls: “Personnage observant le plafond. Personnage oubliant ses illusions” (Person looking at the ceiling. Person forgetting his illusions).

The broad alignments that characterize the Biennale are mirrored, though with a different accent, in the “Aperto 88” section, which is set apart for younger artists and is located outside the Giardini in the Arsenale. The pavilions tend to grant artists a room to themselves, for example, and similarly “Aperto,” curated by Saskia Bos, Dan Cameron, Carandente, Fumio Nanjo, and Dieter Ronte (Cameron did much of the installation), gives all of its 86 participants their own spaces, most of them something over 20 by 20 feet. In some respects, however, “Aperto 88” effects an unequivocal reversal of the trends that elsewhere prevail. For one thing, it demonstrates a near abandonment of painting. Installation work has primacy here, as the Biennale jury recognized when it conferred the prize for this section, the Duemila, upon the American artist Barbara Bloom. The Americans as a group have the most compact, unitary presence in “Aperto,” but the climate of rigor, the return to a minimal- and installation-oriented language, finds followers everywhere. Certain examples seem significant. The Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima fragments both time and space, illuminating a dark room with the green and red light of a multitude of digital clocks laid on the floor, their numbers spinning in quite different tempos and rhythms for an effect of metaphysical illusion. The American Judith Barry abstractly fills a room with green light and nothing else; only when we get inside do we realize that what actually fills the low-ceilinged room is us. Iorgos Lappas, from Greece, on the other hand, crowds his space with sculptures, like Paladino in the central pavilion. But Lappas’ Mappemonde (Worldmap) is all small objects low to the floor; it suggests some ancient installation to ward off the evil of emptiness. Elsewhere, the art coexists comfortably with the space, as in the iron sculptures of the Florentine artist Carlo Guaita, who demonstrates a firm grasp on the legacy of rationalist architecture. The painters among these sculptors and installation artists seem isolated individuals, but that doesn’t make their contribution sterile—the Rome painter Piero Pizzi Cannella shows work of profundity, controlling his rich painterly gestures through reduced images.

Rhetoric also creeps into the “Aperto” section, as if to cover over the sense of emptiness that marks the late ’80s. The walls with which Alfredo Pirri frames his minimal white panels are inscribed with both intellectual and sentimental imperatives—“save yourself,” “paint,” “dominate,” “slow down,” for example—that transform the whole structure into triumphal architecture. In certain works from the East, however, rhetoric is put to conceptual use. The Russian artist Eric Bulatov translates the sacred symbols of the Soviet communist party, from the slogan “Long live the party” down to Gorbachev’s face, into a posterlike language that recalls Pop art. His compatriot Ilya Kabakov explores the rituals of Russian daily life, in an elaborate installation of images tinged with socialist realism but demythicized by childlike decorations and everyday objects. In the countries of the Eastern bloc, apparently, the demystification of rhetoric is becoming an art of engagement. In the West, on the other hand, the presence of rhetoric usually signals a general and pervasive rappel à l’ordre.

Even the conceptual- and minimalist-inspired work in “Aperto 88,” which might seem a rejection of the traditionalism implicit in the ’80s’ return to painting, often seems to imply the use of an esthetic code rather than the discussion of one. And so, among the many faces of this faceless Biennale, a question remains: is the revisitation of the ’70s in “Aperto” just the umpteenth ’80s quotation, and thus the decade’s logical conclusion and welcome end? Or does it begin to sketch out the face of the art of the ’90s?

Alessandra Mammi is a writer who lives in Rome. She contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.