PRINT May 1997

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Venice Biennale: “Future, Present, Past”

WHATEVER ELSE IS SAID about this year’s Venice Biennale, the international thematic exhibition that is traditionally its centerpiece will be remembered for having been curated with lightning speed. It was only in January that Germano Celant, the Guggenheim Museum’s peripatetic curator of contemporary art, assumed his duties as the Biennale’s general director. The reasons for the delay were numerous: according to Celant, there were originally plans to postpone the Biennale until next year in order to put the show on schedule for the millennium; there were also “complications” surrounding the Biennale’s previous curator, Jean Clair, whose contract lasted through December. The Biennale board of directors finally decided to stick to ’97, thanks to pressure from local politicians, representatives of the national pavilions, and the staff of “La Biennale” (the organization that produces the show), who had prepared for an exhibition this year. The promise of increased attendance due to this summer’s round of blockbusters—Documenta and the Münster sculpture project—most likely secured the ’97 date. And although Celant has managed to pull together a show, to prevent such institutional messes in the future, a proposal is before Italian Parliament to streamline the Biennale’s bureaucracy.

With a scant few months to assemble one of the art world’s preeminent exhibitions, “time” has certainly been at issue. And in fact it will figure prominently in Celant’s exhibition entitled “Future, Present, Past, 1967–1997.” “In a way this is not a title, it is so open; in a sense the theme is time,” admits Celant, “The idea is to do a contemporary show that will include history and the Aperto simultaneously.” If Jean Clair suffered much criticism for axing the Aperto—that “edgy” exhibition of young artists, first instituted in 1980 and often the most anticipated aspect of the Biennale—Celant set out to avoid a similar blunder. He proposes to incorporate work that would normally appear in the Aperto in the larger exhibition, which will span the art of three generations. As Celant sees it, the first generation emerged in the late ’60s and ’70s, and the show’s selections reflect the differences between European and American artistic practices during those years, as well as the effects of the cold war. The next generation comprises ’80s artists whose work, according to Celant, addresses “issues of gender.” The third includes the work of artists who have emerged in the ’90s and are concerned with “multiculturalism.” Among the sixty-some artists who are part of this intergenerational mix are Rebecca Horn, Roy Lichtenstein, Annette Messager, Jeff Koons, Ann Hamilton, Robert Longo, Pipilotti Rist, Mario Airò, and Cai Guo Qiang.

“Future, Present, Past” is not the first exhibition Celant has created for a Biennale. His 1976 “Ambient Art from Futurism to Body Art,” an exploration of environmental art and the body, included re-creations of historic exhibition-designs by Ivan Puni, El Lissitsky, and Vassily Kandinsky alongside installations by contemporary artists such as Vito Acconci, Joseph Beuys, Maria Nordman, and Mario Merz. Like Lucy Lippard and Harald Szeemann, Celant helped transform curatorial (and artistic) practices during the late ’60s and ’70s, by providing seemingly neutral interiors in which artists could install site-specific pieces, thereby contributing to the development of “installation art.” This curatorial approach remains the basis for “Future, Present, Past,” and in keeping with the vogue for ever larger museums and galleries, the show will be presented in what Celant has referred to as the “vast, cleaned out” spaces of the Corderie dell’ Arsenale, a fifteenth-century structure built when Venice flourished as a center of the shipping industry, as well as in the official Italian pavilion. Celant has offered each artist approximately one hundred square meters, which, as he points out, “gives the artists a huge amount of space. If you think about the space of the Whitney Museum, this would be similar to presenting only four to six artists on one floor.”

Over the years, Celant has made a name for himself mounting massive international shows that depend on the cooperation of numerous associates and researchers. For this Biennale, Celant collaborated with an official advisory committee and a more hands-on curatorial team composed of Nancy Spector of the Guggenheim, Vicente Todoli of the Casa Serralves, and Giorgio Verzotti of the Castello di Rivoli. As general director, Celant also advised the Biennale board regarding the several affiliated shows under its patronage, including an exhibition on Venice from 1950 to 1970 at the Museo Fortuny and a survey of Anselm Kiefer’s work at the Museo Correr.

The Venice Biennale runs from June 15–Nov. 9.

Mary Anne Staniszewski