PRINT September 1999

Robert Storr

I LOVE STATE FAIRS. It’s the mixture of sincere effort and honky-tonk that gets me. And it’s the prize pies, trophy-winning bulls, and the biggest squash in the county cheek by jowl with the bright lights, creaky rides, freak shows, and voracious consumption of junk food that keep the whole thing in balance with human nature at its extremes. Above all, though, I love the crowds. America doesn’t really have boulevards, so it doesn’t have boulevardiers, but it does have midways, and there without any worldly training you can lose yourself in the crowd and savor the delirium of active looking and passive anonymity that Baudelaire turned into an art form.

In its way the Venice Biennale is a state fair with the State writ large. National pavilions beckon from all angles, and when the blue ribbons are handed out a parade of dignitaries with official buttons in their lapels troop into the Giardini big top where the winners are announced to the throngs rooting for hometown favorites.

But I’ll take state fairs over State affairs. In part, my preference is a function of the occasional hazards that await one in Venice. If you are a card-carrying member of the art world, then the chances of vanishing into the festive flux are about nil. The experience is more like going to a cocktail party with ten thousand people, five thousand of whom you know, or know of, or think know you. At virtually every turn there is the polite “Where have you been? Where are you going next?” or the complex ballet of nods and sashays occasioned by the near meeting of once or future adversaries. Like Judy Garland and Fred Astaire in Easter Parade, one strolls up and down the avant-garde avenue, but rather than tip one’s hat and go on, one is stopped every forty feet or so—which is to say after roughly every installation—and asked for a verdict on the work seen as well as the show as a whole. Call it polling up the avenue.

At the end of the day, I was suffering exponential crowd fatigue rather than Baudelarian crowd-bath euphoria. I was not alone in craving aloneness. That pervasive claustrophobia probably accounted for the popularity, according to my survey, of the pieces that suggested quiet solitude. The Belgian pavilion—filled with a miraculous white fog in which spectral art tourists appeared and disappeared like ghosts in a feel-good Hollywood afterlife—was the first to offer respite. (Ann Veronica Janssens blew the smoke.) In the Tese, a buried-alive fakir with hands raised just aboveground in prayer—all-purpose Conceptual jester Maurizio Cattelan located the subterranean breather and did the burying—was another way station for the crush weary, though it was hard to see what was left of him because of the people gathered round. Then there was Rosemarie Trockel. At the German pavilion, the giant video eye was predictably attention-getting public gaze control, but the sleep chamber video (with cots considerately provided for the narcoleptically inclined) was better, and a slow-motion, remote-sound narrative of playground comings and goings magically made good on its promise of dream peace.

Unsurprisingly, the installations that suffered most were those that strained for carnival excess. Chen Zhen (of the colossal drum set) and Thomas Hirschhorn (of the crafts-class airport and information center) opted for visual noise or cacophony but ended up with overbuilt props. John Bock succeeded in charming with a hidey-hole perforated wall that partially concealed the artists and his mess, but his interactive gambit, which included having your arm decorated with colorful doodads when you stuck it into a mural orifice, resembled a concession more than a happening. Jason Rhoades proved himself the most fastidious of chaos-machers by editorially formalizing and toning down Paul McCarthy’s superior gift for id-stirring vulgarity. The presence of two old masters of the genre lent a cautionary poignancy to the efforts of their epigones. Back in the Italian pavilion, the late, great anarchist/confectioner Dieter Roth was memorialized as an introspective aged “artiste” in a wall of videos that was beautiful, snail-paced—and the formal antithesis of his signature jumble-shop environments. And then there was the sad reprise of Claes Oldenburg’s monument-building career at the Museo Correr, made sadder by the unavoidable parallel between a wan stuffed O sculpture hanging at the entrance and the giant fabric-covered foam doughnut in the McCarthy-Rhoades extravaganza. The McCarthy-Rhoades installation wasn’t going anywhere much, but the Oldenburg was just “sitting on its ass in a museum.”

All said and done, this Biennale was livelier if more exhausting than the last, long on showmanship but short on memorable work. Like the 1997 edition it was done on a short hop, with less than a year of planning: Much credit goes to director Harald Szeemann for his infrastructural revampings and expansion. Since Szeemann has been invited to do the 2001 Biennale I will suspend further curatorial judgment until then, except to say that out of the peripatetic pack of impresarios to which he belongs, he does the most adventurous looking, so there is reason to hope. Meanwhile, to clean my palate, I’m headed for the Maine State Fair.