PRINT September 1999

Daniel Birnbaum

RUMOR HAD IT THAT AT LEAST ONE PERSON WOULD GET KILLED by the mechanical penis on horseback that Jason Rhoades and Paul McCarthy installed in the Artiglierie. What kind of a beast was this shiny red organ rotating on a black horse-machine surrounded by huge doughnuts and lots of junk? According to the catalogue it’s simply the Trojan Horse, and its P-P (plastic penis) is fucking the media—which is Jason and Paul’s way of sneaking into the LA film industry. Got it? Whatever one may think of Rhoades’s messy cosmologies, he remains the quintessential artist of this show. Hungry, aggressive, and enormously generous, this LA prodigy cares only for “collaboration,” but he swallowed his colleagues whole.

That sort of thing, it would appear, is precisely what Biennale director Harald Szeemann likes: visually powerful and self-confident works, the bigger the better. In fact, I’ve never seen so many massive installations under one umbrella: Thomas Hirschhorn’s thought-provoking World Airport, a meditation on airlines, warfare, and hightech morality; Richard Jackson’s less rewarding grand-scale clock installation about time and money; Chen Zhen’s huge Buddhist drum kit. An interesting side effect of this sequence of colossi was the perceptual shift they caused in terms of one’s appreciation of normal-size works. For instance, Chris Burden’s Meccano bridges, which had seemed very large when I saw them elsewhere some months ago, now looked rather delicate.

All these works were by men, but it wouldn’t be fair to call the Biennale a celebration of macho aesthetics; in fact, some of the more remarkable pieces on view were by women. No one could remain untouched by Shirin Neshat’s two singers in the black-and-white video installation Turbulent, especially by the almost supernatural sounds produced by an Iranian woman seemingly giving voice to the grief and passion of an ill-starred generation. It’s also fascinating to note the difference between the mess produced by the boy’s club and Sarah Sze’s delicate clutter. This miniature cosmos, seemingly random yet strangely ordered, was built out of the most ordinary, inert ingredients—matchsticks, pencils, kitchen utensils, clothespins—and yet it creates an odd sense of cellular growth. If Rhoades was the archetypal contemporary artist in this exhibition, the late Dieter Roth clearly emerged as the godfather of the jam-packed-room aesthetic—a lineage that begot several artists in the show, including John Bock, in whose work the horror vacui is combined with the performative aspect of Roth’s production. Every time I see photographs of the aged Roth, I think of the late Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard’s weird antiheroes—bizarre, elderly philosopher-bums, who fixate simultaneously, and with invariant intensity, on issues very large and very small (metaphysics and cheese). Nowhere does Roth, philosopher-poet of the everyday, emerge as enchanting in his unprotected directness as in Solo Scenes, 1997–98, displayed on 128 video monitors, piled on top of one another in the Italian pavilion and in many ways staking out the artistic center of this Biennale. These scenes, recorded during a period of sobriety following several years of heavy drinking, present the artist in a variety of ordinary situations—writing, eating, playing the piano, going to the bathroom. It’s all low-key and yet strangely dramatic, like one of Bernhard’s monologues.

Ultimately, Szeemann’s strength lies in his ability to single out strong positions and give the artists the space and means required to fully realize their conceptions. It’s the belief in the single artist’s vision that forms the basis of his curatorial practice, which may appear old-fashioned, even romantic. The Venice Biennale is by tradition less intellectual than Documenta, but this year’s version was quite exceptional in its lack of theoretical framework. What really are the issues that this gigantic exhibition meant to tackle? The two-volume catalogue gave nice introductions to the individual artists, but not a hint at any general themes. All you got was a poem by Szeemann. There was a time when every exhibition required a commentary by one French philosopher or another, and we all got sick of that. Now that we’ve reached the other extreme, I kind of miss Jacques Derrida.

At the end of the day, what one remembers months or even years after visiting a show of this size isn’t the theoretical framework but the particular pieces that stood out—and there were many here. Ultimately, what lasts are brief moments of intensity or joy. What will I remember? I loved walking through Olafur Eliasson’s metal structure at the very end of the Arsenale, a passage at once complicated and resistance-free. Eliasson creates lightness. Here, with his Möbius volume eternally turning inside into outside, the artist enveloped the viewer in a visionary architecture. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Daniel Birnbaum is a frequent contributor to Artforum.