PRINT September 1999

David Elliott

THIS YEAR’S VENICE BIENNALE featured no blockbuster historical show, no “futurism”, “Duchamp” or “Bacon.” It had none of its typical theme shows, like 1995’s “Identity and Alterity.” I was surprised at how little I missed them. For even when there is a central theme, the Biennale always seems to lack a center, and at this millennial moment, the absence of center seems more a strength than a weakness. No single theme can reflect the different cultures and perspectives that demand to be considered. No one power—market or aesthetic—loads the dice.

In a bit of masterly wordplay, Biennale director Harald Szeemann made ubiquitousness and openness his themes. “dApertutto,” loosely translated as “Aperto for all,” is also, in one traditional Venetian comedy, the name of a doctor who brings about a happy ending. This is exactly what Szeemann has done—freeing up the Italian pavilion to become part of the Aperto and then, realizing this may lead to problems, creating a virtual pavilion out of the work of five young Italian artists there. Pooff! A potential national disaster becomes an international success, the virtual Italian pavilion wins a real Golden Lion as the best pavilion, and almost everybody goes home happy.

Many felt the heart of the Biennale lay in the “dApertutto” and that the pavilions were below average. Not so; for me the sense of openness extended to the whole show. Admittedly, the heavy hitters—Great Britain, Germany, France, the United States—were disappointing, but the problem lay less with the artists than with the choice and display of their work. The large opening gallery of the British pavilion, for example, demands a Grand Slam, but Gary Hume’s work filled the space without commanding it. The strong light in this pavilion is difficult, but the hang was also seriously overcrowded.

Other painters who focused on the interplay between subliminal imagery and decorative motif fared better. To some the minimal hang in the Rietveld-designed Dutch pavilion distorted the multifaceted nature of Daan van Golden’s work, but at least the edit helped the show. The question of decoration and its capacity to alternate between mark and figure, in and out of the surface, is also an issue of Ghada Amer’s more recent “paintings” comprising colored threads stitched onto canvas. Amer uses embroidery as a consciously gendered medium: Nothing new here, but what is interesting is the way in which repeated “arabesques” and vignettes of women’s body parts become enclosed within a somehow more intimate, permissive, yet regimented system.

In the Polish pavilion, Katarzyna Kozyra’s video installation Bath House for Men approached gender from a less separatist point of view. The artist not only observed her subjects (who were unaware of her camera’s gaze), but also, in the guise of a naked man, planted herself within this environment. The aging, sagging body is invested with a terrible beauty, and the signifiers of gender—facial hair, breasts, penis—are under the microscope. Kozyra’s work touched the extremes of alienation and despair, yet it did so with quiet sympathy and touching strength.

This year the memento mori was an unavoidable motif. Sergei Bugaev Afrika’s installation in the Russian pavilion, Mir: Made in the XXth Century, evoked the necrophiliac breath of a previous age. A space station-like structure in the middle of a room covered with funereal photographic enameled plaques emitted electronic sound; on the floor a film of a patient undergoing electric shock therapy was projected. The associations ran from Soviet hospitals (where Bugaev was for a time interned) and the treatment of dissidents, to amnesia and inexplicable cures. Cai Guo-Qiang’s installation Venice Rent Collecting Courtyard too confronted history, both personal and grand. The artist has remade life-size Socialist Realist tableaux from the Cultural Revolution, dramatizing the greed of the landlords and the oppression of workers and peasants. The team of “workers” constructing the piece included some who made the “originals” in the ’60s, but while the sculptures were not exactly identical, neither were there strong deviations; the dislocation of place and time highlighted disparities between ideology and feeling, art and politics, past and present. The mood of reflectiveness continued in the Japanese pavilion. Tatsuo Miyajima’s Revive Time was a final countdown, the walls covered by a grid of lilac LEDs approaching zero. But the installation demanded time, and in the flickering light it was impossible to concentrate on any given number because they were all constantly changing in incomprehensible cyclical sequences.

Rather more perky in tone were Roman Signer’s absurd installations and ephemeral sculptures in the Swiss pavilion, Lee Bul’s karaoke booths and music videos in the Korean pavilion, and the “Slovak Art for Free” project. The Slovak slogan “art is forever” led the collective to commission forty-five artists to design tattoos that could be executed on the spot, from a straight line to a facsimile of the birthmark on Gorbachev’s forehead. I was particularly attracted to Ilona Németh’s labyrinth and shall be instructing my personal tattooist accordingly.