PRINT May 1997

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Venice Biennale: The national pavilions

IT’S EASY TO FORGET that the Venice Biennale is, in fact, a kind of art Olympics, where the nations of the world compete for Golden Lions instead of medals. Of course, only a few admit to paying attention to these prizes, but the Biennale keeps handing them out, and sometimes—when, for instance, R. B. Kitaj won the gold for painting two years ago—controversy erupts. One moment no one cares, the next everyone’s in a tizzy.

Just as certain soccer teams dispense with shoes, some new players at the art Olympics will have to manage without a pavilion (Armenia), and others (Finland, Norway, and Sweden) are forced to share both playing field and coach. Many indeed have a pavilion all to themselves, but when it’s a space assigned to a now-defunct nation (read: Yugoslavia) or when it brings under one roof countries who have thought it best to part company (read: the Czech Republic and Slovakia), such a privilege may be a mixed blessing.

As usual, Germany will make its presence strongly felt, with a show dedicated to new works by photographer Katharina Sieverding and sculptor Gerhard Merz. In choosing polar opposites from the same generation, curator Gudrun Inboden hoped to present “some aspects of the spectrum of German contemporary art”—presumably it’s up to us to imagine what’s in between.

The British pavilion will offer several works by Rachel Whiteread, a couple of which have been commissioned especially for the occasion. The tension between different generations of British artists, which two years ago assumed literal form as a gaping divide between a show of Leon Kossoff’s rather traditional paintings (in the pavilion) and a British Council-sponsored exhibition of yBas (“General Release”), seems to have been happily resolved with the choice of an artist both young and established.

The satirical paintings of Robert Colescott, the first African-American ever to represent the US in Venice, have been described as “a cartoonish rogue’s gallery of mammies, prostitutes, pickaninnies, saints, sinners, white businessmen and blackface caricatures.” Selected by Mimi Roberts, an independent curator appointed by a panel of her peers, nineteen works from the last decade will be exhibited. Other one-person shows this year include those devoted to the work of Rodney Graham (Canada), Fabrice Hybert (France), Kirsten Ortwed (Denmark), and Rei Naitô (Japan).

The Nordic pavilion breaks with the nationalistic trend, showing not only artists from Scandinavia—Marianna Uutinen, Sven Pahlsson, and Henrik Håkansson—but also Mark Dion from the US and Mariko Mori from Japan. Peter Weibel, responsible for the Austrian pavilion, also chose to go against the prevailing current: our constant craving for the new. Instead of showing contemporary Austrian art, he has chosen to organize “Ein Moment der Moderne 1958–59,” an exhibition of works by five members of the Wiener Gruppe, active in the late ’50s and identified primarily with concrete poetry, who, according to Weibel, represent Austria’s most important cultural contribution since World War II.

Let the games begin.

Daniel Birnbaum