PRINT September 1995


Jan Avgikos

Expectations seemed at an all-time low for the Biennale’s century mark. Commissioner Jean Clair had perfunctorily canceled “Aperto,” the section of the exposition dedicated to new art, and the plans he announced for his major exhibition, “Identity and Alterity: Figures of the Body 1895–1995,” called for a return to the values of classical painting. Buoyed along by a lot of lofty rhetoric about the human condition, his program harked back to a position he had advanced in the 1982 Biennale when he served as curator for one of its two large international shows, “Art as Art.” As a leitmotiv for the 1995 Biennale, a boring rehash of a nonissue—abstraction versus figuration—seemed more regressive than relevant.

Of course the malaise that preceded this Biennale cannot be attributed to Clair’s program alone. Diminished expectations are par for the course for this exhibition, which most agree has lost its compass. Not that the opening festivities were not, well, festive—the undertow of low spirits caused scarcely a ripple during preview week, a phenomenon equivalent to a bustling trade-convention for art professionals. The confirmation of our own vitality always satisfies, but as ready as we may be to take advantage of the art world’s biggest schmooze-fest, the Biennale proper more often than not seems a mere backdrop to our communal rites. Indeed its demise is a perennial topic of conversation. We’ve stopped believing in its ability to live up to its history and founding principles. Dispossessed of notions of universality and utopian sentiments, the Biennale is perceived as atrophied and the electrifying milieu in which it originated as defunct.

Like virtually everyone else, Clair realizes this. In fact he laments the situation in his keynote text: “The last decade,” he writes, “has seen the collapse of all the ideologies and utopias upon which the last one hundred years have fed,” and he acknowledges, despairingly, that hope for an avant-garde—the “last ideal”—is foolhardy at best. Unfortunately, Clair’s solution to the problem is to return to the quaint concept of a unified subject, manifest in ”Identity and Alterity“ through an obsessive devotion to the human body and face. Along the way, he demonizes technology, attributing to it ”the obliteration of humanity."

Surprise! Despite Clair’s program this summer’s Biennale plays host to the first stirrings of a technologically induced avant-garde, one that may be characterized as esthetically and philosophically linked to the ideals of the historical avant-garde, the spirit of which animated the inauguration of the exhibition back in 1895. Signs of renewed life are signaled in several of the Giardini’s pavilions, in particular those representing Japan, Israel, and Austria. Each respond to the potential of new, interactive telemedia as well as to the uncharted territory of virtual realities and cyberspace. All three are consistent in correlating gestures of deconstruction with the establishment of “cybersites,” each commissioning artists and/or architects who literally “deconstruct” their pavilion by means of massive escarpments of scaffolding or, in the case of the Austrians, by permanently dislocating the classical order of the original architecture with the addition of a new facade and soaring roof and the elimination of a rear exterior wall. Kengo Kuma’s design for the Japanese Pavilion consists of candy-colored plastic two-by-fours lashed together to form a shell that completely obscures the pavilion itself. For the Israeli pavilion, Joshua Neustein has created a towering scaffolding of glass and metal, embedded with books and accompanied by two hovering construction cranes that, at first view, cast doubt upon the building’s state of completion. Coop Himmelb(l)au’s transformation of the Austrian Pavilion is as much an assault on the appearance of stability invoked by Josef Hoffmann’s ’20s architecture as a manifesto of dynamic discontinuity. Architectural deconstruction, a visual metaphor for notions of transition and interactivity, mobility and displacement, effectively flags each of these pavilions as a “nonsite,” setting the stage for the experimental installations within.

Though approaching cybernetics from radically different perspectives, all three curators theorize on the precedents and protoapplications of virtual-reality technologies, and, consistently, each relates the actual or virtual collapse of spatial and temporal coordinates to the idea of the subject no longer conceived as an integrated, indivisible whole. Commissioner Junji Ito envisions the Japanese pavilion as an expression of ancient “suki” philosophy, which cultivates “cracks in the sense of value created through the crisis caused by depriving the subject of its materialistic value.” Gideon Ofrat, the Israeli curator, has removed a portion of the archives of the National Library of Jerusalem from the library’s basement to the pavilion, further bridging the “architecture of space and time” via an Internet link between the two sites. At least theoretically, the participant who plunges into the infinity of “information space” is disembodied and free to wander overlapping temporal and cultural environments. In its effacement of distinctions between past and future, presence and absence, object and idea, real and artificial, virtuality is proposed as a new, “cyber-topian” model for art.

It is the Austrian curator, Peter Weibel, together with a team of architects, artists, and computer visionaries, who has engineered the most impressive cybernetic experiment. Coop Himmelb(l)au sets the stage for the idea of virtual reality as open and fluid rather than closed and static. The various installations within, configured by means of interactive technologies, video, satellite hookups, and Internet applications, combine to produce an environment teaming with a hybrid multivernacular imagery that is neither exclusively actual nor illusionistic. As Weibel argues in his catalogue text, “generative imagery” is independent of but interactive with the viewer’s experience of reality. Having far superseded what was once termed “computer art,” the potential of interactive telemedia within the realm of cyberspace is to transform the classical concept of the picture and to realize the historical avant-garde’s desire to position the viewer inside art, rather than merely in front of it.

Whether we love technology or love to hate it, whether we cling to the past or embrace the cybernetic future, the explosion of telemedia and global communication networks, already impressive in rapidity of growth and diversity of applications, is as fledgling at the present as were Louis Lumière’s cinematograph, Wilhelm Röntgen’s X ray, and Guglielmo Marconi’s radiograph one hundred years ago, in what is coincidentally the year of the first Biennale. Those technologies changed forever how we see ourselves, and how we represent the world in which we live. No doubt allegiances will be forged and battles fought over the question of computer programs, chip designs, and integrated networks “as art,” and the ability of conventional painting and sculpture to sustain critical engagement. Indeed the horizon of debate on these and related topics is vibrantly complex. In this year’s Biennale alone, in addition to cybernetic activities generated in the Giardini pavilions, sophisticated color-imaging technologies and information-retrieval systems were discussed in the “Art and Technology” event hosted by Teatro Fondamenta Nuove, which brought together artists, philosophers, and technologists to debate the relationship between artistic creativity and technological progress. The conference featured a nonstop interactive link with the Internet. These advanced technologies even crept into the “Real and Virtual Body 1985–1995” section of Clair’s exhibition. The multimedia database “Aperçus,” created by the Association Française d’Action Artistique and the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, and installed in the Casino Venier, also marked a Biennale first.

Unquestionably, a “movement” already exists, if it has yet to achieve the definition and cohesion we associate with historical movements. Precisely because of its legendary disorganization, sprawling ambition, and rampant idealism, the Biennale has managed to catch the wave, and in this respect it suddenly seems more vital than ever as an arena for discovery and exchange: by its very nature, it mirrors the fractious dimensions and diversity of the new cybernetic movement—and this in a city that Marcel Proust once described as the “symbolic site of desire.”

Jan Avgikos is a contributing editor to Artforum and the recipient of the College Art Association’s Frank Jewett Mather award for art criticism for 1995.

When Jean Clair hacked “Aperto” out of this year’s Biennale, he unwittingly cleared the ground for a bumper crop of satellite exhibitions strewn throughout Venice’s maze of campos, courtyards, and canals. These shows animated the jeweled city mainly during press-preview week—many of them existed for only a couple of days. Club Berlin, for example, a multimedia festival of sight and sound works organized, with the Biennale’s imprimatur, by the Berlin alternative space Kunst-Werk, lasted 72 hours, day and night. Staged in the Teatro Malibran, this dance-club environment not only shook the rafters of that old opera house but broke the conventions regulating the display and reception of art. The guiding principle of Club Berlin—“The art should not appear as decoration but rather as an essential component of the space”—could have served as the satellite circuit’s manifesto.

Routes to and from these typically small exhibitions, some of them produced independently of the Biennale, were adventures in themselves, leading us through backwater neighborhoods to settings rich in the exotic taste of antiquity. Doors ordinarily closed to tourists opened, vacant sites brimmed with life, and often art blended so smoothly with its environment that viewers had to be on the alert for signs of wonder that could be recognized as art. Marc Pottier, producer of “Avant-Garde Walk A Venezia,” scouted locations for months to map a five-day art treasure-hunt that doubled as an intimate tour of Venice, meandering through magnificent private residences, hidden gardens, tiny side canals, and cloistered courtyards. The 20 artists in “Walk” make work Pottier sees as “poetic,” “beautiful,” and “expressive”; the picturesque surroundings he found for them amplified this romantic strain. The show included, among others, Jim Hodges’ delicate wind-chime screen; Ann Hamilton’s shrinelike LCD screen and video, set in a window of a private home; and, sequestered in a garden, Marina Abramovic’s amethyst-encrusted Chair of Lovers.

“On Board,” curated by Karin Schorm and Jérôme Sans, was appealingly inspired by notions of privacy, fantasy, escape, and a very captivating 20-meter mahogany sailboat anchored in the Arsenale district. II Nuovo Trionfo, the setting for this six-day event, is a trabaccolo, a style of vessel familiar in Venice for centuries. Artists were asked to “naturally insert themselves into the reality of the context, as if they had always been there.” Kristin Oppenheim’s siren’s-song sound piece, Inés Lombardi’s traveloguelike meditation on departure and arrival, Ken Lum’s languorously pillowed dinghy, and pieces by some 20 others supported the romantic narrative insinuated by the creaking ship and the murmuring of the lagoon—all suggesting space itself as decoration’s final frontier.

Campo,” a show of photo-based work by 26 young artists from 13 countries, epitomized the take-charge spirit of these independent shows. Housed hard by the old “Aperto” space, it was produced, by Francesco Bonami with the Fondazione Sandretto-Re Rebaudengo per l’Arte, inexpensively and in record time. Both “Among Others/Onder Anderen,” a Dutch/Belgian coventure, and ”General Release," sponsored by the British Council, emphasized young art stars. Dinos and Jake Chapman’s sensationalistic sculpture Great Deeds against the Dead, 1994, a Goya-esque scenario of decapitation and castration, stole the British show; silhouetted in the doorway of the sedate Scuola di San Pasquale, this sardonic icon seemed to emblematize not only Clair’s attack on new art, but the art’s refusal to die a quiet death.