PRINT September 1990

Giorgio Verzotti

THE VENICE BIENNALE ought to be an exhaustive summary of the latest and most interesting developments in international art, and it never is. One knows this. So why get angry with it, and the best way to see the show without getting angry is to ignore its subdivisions of exhibitions and pavilions, to ignore the meanings it actively proposes, and to use the relationships among the many works there for one’s own ends. In fact there are a number of unexpected thematic affinities in the 44th Biennale, even among very different artists, and there are also interesting differences in the way that the function of the work of art is conceived today. Faced with Gino De Dominicis’ installation in the Italian Pavilion, for example, I found myself thinking about symbolic discourse in contemporary art, and about the metaphoric strategies available at a time when a conceptual type of analysis seems resurgent.

De Dominicis’ room, one of the few notable things in this Biennale, is related to the large sculpture he recently exhibited at the Magasin in Grenoble, where a gigantic human skeleton, over 60 feet long, lay in a space built specifically to accommodate it. The skull has a long conical nose, as in certain of the artist’s relief paintings. In Venice the skeleton is reduced metonymically to this skull, which has been hoisted onto a large iron structure like a carnival float. Does this head suggest some mythical past populated by giants, or a monstrous genetic mutation awaiting humanity in the future? This kind of temporal short-circuit appears often in De Dominicis’ work, which uses a cultivated, richly symbolic mode of address to probe such themes as the hero in search of immortality, particularly as that idea appears in the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh. In Venice, the skull prone on its pedestal suggests some farcical parade, locating a certain ambiguity in a mask of death—or linking death with a derisive challenge to it. For carnival speaks a language of parody, sings a countermelody to order and fate. The carnival spirit wafting through De Dominicis’ piece seems to tell us that though its exorcism of death may be illusory, neither can tragedy be complete. Here the artist suggests an inextricable knot, a substantial ambiguity: that the tragic and the comic are inextricable from each other, and that parody is integral to order. And so, as Aldo Palazzeschi has said, the immortals, or the heroes, are perhaps simply those who stare death in the face and laugh at it all their lives.

The symbols that De Dominicis uses are only vaguely folkloric; his is a cultivated language, based on a coded symbology, and his parody is a subtle subterfuge of the certainties of rational thought. The Belgian artist Wim Delvoye drags symbols toward another, more socially oriented form of parody, with a work in the “Aperto 90” section that takes the viewer from the Christian heaven to the contemporary group ritual of the World Cup soccer playoffs. The net of a soccer goal has been replaced with stained glass, like the window in a Gothic cathedral. Illustrated in the glass is a scene in a medieval bakery. The work is titled Panem et Circenses—II (Bread and circuses—II, 1989–90). Thus does Delvoye confront the fragility of the entertainment system, its lack of principle and of necessity, its creation of induced needs. He mixes the ancient and the contemporary, the art form of an old faith and a symbol of a contemporary sport that has become a sort of collective global myth, with all of myth’s social dynamism (as we Italians know, having just endured willy-nilly the generalized madness of the World Cup). In short, Delvoye reminds us that entertainment and visual spectacle have always been a form of social control, from the Roman circus through the medieval church to the present day. Yet this is a humorous installation, with a play on the literalness of its metaphors: it seems to invite us to break that fragile glass with a ball.

There are also works in the “Aperto” that oppose themselves to pieces like these by dealing with the removal of all traces of expression, with the flattening of every metaphoric or symbolic depth. There are investigations of space, for example, that depart from its primary, elementary definition, bare of all connotation. Thus the French artist Michel Verjux has projected a spotlight on a wall, making a luminous circular halo within the natural light filling the interior. No other change has been made in the space, and there is no perceptual illusion in the appearance of the light, which reveals only itself, an immaterial matrix of pure, precise, precarious form. And the Italian Cesare M. Pietroiusti also examines the pure presence of space in the most neutral possible terms: having photographed the interior of the Arsenale, the site of the “Aperto,” before the installation of the show, he has simply hung these views of what lay to the right, to the left, in front of, and behind the area assigned him. The photographs show piles of garbage, tools, stairways later hidden by temporary walls—anonymous, empty spots. Pietroiusti reveals this place given over to art as a code, as though the art space and the life space were colliding doubles, the same but different. The piece is a sort of semiological analysis in negative, achieved through the subtraction rather than the accumulation of signs, through shifting the analysis from the work of art to its context.

De Dominicis and Delvoye, Verjux and Pietroiusti: there is a tension in these odd couples between an embrace of parody and metaphor on the one hand and a neo-Conceptualist analysis of the system of art on the other. On the evidence of the “Aperto,” this neo-Conceptualism is taking the upper hand right now, which one might welcome if the Biennale did not represent it so badly; with exceptions, this is a dull and dispiriting show. But I was glad that the Biennale incidentally proved that metaphorically, symbolically rich discourse has not yet exhausted its capacity for surprise.

Giorgio Verzotti is a writer who lives in Milan and contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.