PRINT September 1990

Bojana Pejić

HAVING SEEN NINE EDITIONS of the Venice Biennale, I know that I should never look to the show for what is never there, and that’s—a center. Yet the idea of a center is everywhere present, for though the Biennale is based on the idea of an internationalism composed of many art world, where art from the Big Centers is usually made far more central than art from the Off-Off Centers. (These are generally the regions of which it is often said, “It’s a nice place to come from.”) A rapprochement of centers and margins has never happened at the Biennale, and in any case the art world shows little sign of openness to such an endeavor.1

The Biennale has tried over the last fifteen years to suggest an idea of its own center, organizing thematic exhibitions in the Central Pavilion. The exhibitions directed by Maurizio Calvesi in 1984 and 1986 centered on history as the mama of art, but the two following ones, directed by Giovanni Carandente, snatched the show from the hands of history, and of art historians, and gave it back to contemporary artists. These Biennales, including the current one, had no central theme, but did have a central thesis, expressed in the “Ambiente Italia” exhibition in 1988 and in this year’s “Ambiente Berlino” in the Central Pavilion: the explicit idea of pan-Europeanism. As Carandente writes in the Biennale catalogue, “Ambiente Berlino” “wishes to signify the reappropriation of the centrality of European art.” In a press-packet interview he also asserts, “I wanted to present a typically European exhibition, to show its ‘decolonization.’” The “dialogue” between the new United States of Europe and the “colonizer” from across the Atlantic is probably not my concern, since I live in Yugoslavia, a part of Europe far too off-off-center to be “chosen” to take active part in it. I might remark, though, that were we to judge contemporary art on the basis of this year’s Biennale, we would arrive at the self-defeating conclusion that the electronic age never existed—an image corrected only in the American, Spanish, and Cypriot pavilions, and by a few artists in the “Aperto 90” and one in “Ambiente Berlino.” Also, of all the official European pavilions, only three show art by women—Luxembourg, San Marino, and, by showing Hilla as well as Bernd Becher alongside Reinhard Mucha, West Germany. Will this new dialogue be solely an exchange of handmade objects and of men’s ideas?

Directly or indirectly, a number of sculptures in this year’s Biennale deal not so much with the division between center and margin as with the intertwining exchange between them, or between “essential” and “inessential,” “full” and “empty,” “obligatory” and “discretionary.” I find in this work an interest in what Jacques Derrida, in his “La Vérité en peinture,” 1978, describes by the Kantian word parergon—whatever is marginal, secondary, in or around the work, whatever is neither surplus nor absence, but that nevertheless is important in defining the work’s topos: the painting’s frame, for example, or the sculpture’s pedestal, the artist’s signature, the title, and, also, the museum or the market (or the Biennale). The procedure of displacing but maintaining the values of center and margin, resulting in a full margin and an empty center, appears both in the pavilions (Toshikatsu Endo, Luigi Mainolfi) and in the “Aperto” (Umberto Cavenago, Asta Gröting, Perejaume). The sculpture “retreats” to its own edges, keeping its center empty. It gives the impression that the artist is framing air.

Both Vettor Pisani and Anish Kapoor deal with the idea of center, or void, and margins more metaphorically. Sharing similar themes (death and immortality, virginity, eternal youth, feminine and masculine), they both incline to the sacred more than to the profane; both are investigating their own artistic nature and acknowledging its feminine aspect, its anima. Yet a world of differences separates them. Pisani, in the Italian Pavilion, builds a whole architectural construction (parergon) and uses three small holes to show us what is behind, while Kapoor, in the British, uses the hole to disturb us (and himself, too) by what is beyond. Pisani invites the viewer to satisfy the voyeuristic instinct by looking out through the holes into the void; for Kapoor, in his own words, “the void is a state within.” Inside Pisani’s Teatrino della vergine (The little theater of the virgin, 1990) is a blue fountain full of small red fish; above it a blurred blue photograph shows a virgin apparently at imminent risk of being doused by the stream of water that rises from the fountain. This image, a quotation of Marcel Duchamp’s Étants données. . . , 1946–66, is visible through the three small holes. Being European, Pisani is concerned with sight, suggesting, Here you see. Kapoor, a cultural “in-betweener” (born in Bombay, he works in England), has made his Void Field, 1989, a room of hollowed boulders, each with a round hole in its top, opening into a dark black interior. This artist is concerned with insight, suggesting Here is/Here is not. Pisani, a contemporary Daedalus (the name in Greek actually means “artificial craftsman”), a manneristic and intellectual artist, constructs a labyrinth—a box that contains an image and a story. His red-and-blue construction, with its golden posts, is a parergon without which we could not discover the content of the work. In Kapoor’s Void Field, the spaces between the velvety hollowed sandstones are again a crucial “marginal thing.” Without them, this ritual space would have no impact.

Here and elsewhere, Pisani has tried to avoid the determinism of historical time (and Duchampian imagery). But by adopting irony as a method of distancing, he remains within the boundaries of his own subject, within culture. His piece is deliberately over-elaborated, made in such a perfectionist mode as to look specifically artificial. Kapoor is obsessed not with historical time but with Time. And he is preoccupied not by the need to separate nature from culture but by their coupling, and by couplings within nature (heaven and earth, air and fire, feminine and masculine) and between culture and culture (for he seeks out not the differences between cultures but the common spaces of their spirituality, finding both threat and attraction in both the Indian goddess Kali and the European Mater Dei). Both artists touch on sexuality. Pisani provokes our voyeurism and tries to arouse us by narrative imagery, and the surfaces and feminine shapes of Kapoor’s sculptures indicate both touch and idea. As both barrier and connection between body and world, their skin provokes a presexual, diffuse eroticism. In interviews, both Pisani and Kapoor, for different reasons, have referred to Duchamp. So once more, a Duchamp is a Duchamp is a Duchamp. . . .

Bojana Pejić is a curator at the Student Cultural Center, Belgrade, and editor of Moment magazine.

Translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Ivan Vejvoda.



1. Since the Biennale restored the awarding of prizes in 1986, every member of the international jury has been co-opted from one of the Western art centers, with the exception of Richard Stanislawsky, of Lodz, in 1988. And the prizes have accordingly stayed in the same hemisphere, except for two special mentions this year, one to an African, the other to the Soviet Pavilion, which was an installation addressing Robert Rauschenberg, and testifying to the “happy” love affair between East and West.