PRINT September 1999

Katy Siegel

WELCOME TO THE SALON DE FIN DE SIÈCLE. Despite all the funky art (and all the bad art), the exhibition radiated glamour, an aura amplified by the beauty and sheer impracticality of Venice itself.

The national pavilions, with their “It’s a Small World” feel, form a famously rigid, dated structure, but I almost preferred them to the Gesamtkunstwerk multinationalism of the reinstated Aperto. The antithesis of the white cube, this hodgepodge of mini-manses winsomely highlighted the peculiar Disneyland nature of the Biennale. Taking the mission of national representation seriously, only Ann Hamilton and Gary Hume seemed to bear up under the Miss Universe pressure, through big thinking (Hamilton) or simply thinking (Hume). Hume spread himself thin over a lot of large paintings, and his tremendous superficiality suited the occasion perfectly; Hamilton, on the other hand, suffered from earnestness—the Braille poetry covering the walls of the pavilion-cum-mock-Monticello clarified nothing and spoiled the beauty of the pink powder sifting from the ceiling. With Venice just a stone’s throw from Kosovo, real politics further punctured this abstract reverie on democracy: Passing by the US press conference, someone shouted, “Thanks for the bombs!” But push aside the flags and banners, and inside the pavilions there was much to like: Daan van Golden of Holland, Lee Bul of Korea, Iran do Espirito Santo of Brazil, to name just three highlights.

If the Giardini’s boosterism—recalled midcentury nationalism, the emphatically international Aperto evoked its own nostalgia—it was trippy, in a suave kind of way. Blast-from-the-past “nontraditional” media—video, performance, kinetic art, site-specific installation—predominated. Szeemann, of course, originally inhaled the Spirit of ’69, and he continues to pledge his allegiance to the avant-garde. In this vein, Chris Burden, Doug Aitken, William Kentridge, Ying-Bo, Jason Rhoades, Sarah Sze, Tim Hawkinson, and Bruce Nauman all looked good, if a little predictable. What was new—well, a bit newer anyway—was the prevalence of art about or in the medium of architecture. Newer, too, was the wholesale co-optation of Chinese artists, who have apparently been granted most-favored-nation status, supplanting the Brits and the Japanese.

For every artwork that makes it into the Biennale, a hundred others languish back home. Where was photography, particularly in its Tillmans/Gursky incarnations, or as transformed by grand old men like Goldin and Sherman? Perhaps tellingly, one of the first works in the Arsenale was Max Dean’s photo-destroying machine. And where was painting? A cursory Polke, no Richter, none of the senior American abstractionists, or Color Field reduxers, or new realists. Why? Maybe it has something to do with the sense of (dated) avant-gardism mentioned above.

Or maybe Szeemann’s Funhalle curating divines the essential experience of the Biennale: wandering around between spaces and installations, soaking in the setting, staring at people. In this distracting context, contemplative formalism is out, as is Theory and Flagellation, the art of institutional critique (finally). What lies between these modes, permeating, subtly dominating, is the art of experience, of entertainment. This show is for the art professional or amateur who, when at home, likes her culture soothing and uplifting; on the road, she wants to be tickled, to be a tourist. I have taken many photos in museums, but never have I handed over my camera to a guard and asked for my picture with a Barnett Newman, as I did with Katharina Fritsch’s rats. The Marxist historical chestnut (first time tragedy, second time farce) would seem to translate here as first-time avant-garde, second time entr’acte.

This effect was exaggerated by seeing the exhibition during preview week. I went back to the Aperto after it opened to the public, to about one-twentieth the crowd. The individual artworks looked much better, freed of the demands of the preview’s collective critical scrutiny (imagine if a bomb had been set off!). As a whole, however, the exhibition felt flat. The fizz and buzz of the opening, with its palazzo parties, rock bands, and sweating, sandaled luminaries, animated the event.

Suiting both this champagne milieu and Venice’s ephemeral atmospherics (golden light, delicate fog, picturesque decay), Pipilotti Rist built a bubble machine. Every three minutes, smoke-filled orbs wafted and popped and blurred the vision, and everyone laughed. This barely-there art seemed the best and most honest approach to the situation, delighting and then disappearing. The exhibition as a whole seemed a wishful and willful weather forecast. Although the coming Carnegie and baby Biennales will no doubt bear out Szeemann’s predictions in the short term, the tide will eventually turn and his partial picture of contemporary art sink into the sea.

Katy Siegel is a frequent contributor to Artforum.