PRINT September 1999

Steven Henry Madoff

IN THE MIDDAY HEAT, the crowds are jeering under the big tent. In the front rows, the police officials in blue, the military brass in dress whites turn toward the sound and stare. The committee members are seated on the dais. They’ve come before us, knowing what we want: the small selection of names, the winners of the awards called Golden Lions.

It is June 12, a Saturday, the last day of press previews for the 48th Venice Biennale. At first, the applause is polite as the runners-up—Georges Adéagbo, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Lee Bul—are announced. They are bowing; the cameras whir. Then the small explosions of cheers as the winning names are called: Cai Guo-Qiang, China. Shirin Neshat, Iran. Doug Aitken, the United States. It’s as if we were in Cannes: They hold their Lions in front of us and beam. Ghada Amer of Egypt is given a UNESCO prize for her canvases covered with stitched patterns: images of women’s sexuality—delicate, abstract, politically safe. The crowd is murmuring its approval. We are assured a general rightness. Like saints canonized, Louise Bourgeois and Bruce Nauman are bestowed lifetime achievement awards. The air is fragrant with earth and pine.

And then a noise rises slowly in the collective throat. The words echo above us: The Golden Lion for the best national pavilion—there are fifty-nine countries participating—goes to . . .the Italians. People are whistling, shouting jeers of execration. Everyone knows that Harald Szeemann, the Biennale ’s director, has filled the huge Italian pavilion with artists from around the world (particularly Chinese). Of course, past directors have populated these halls with international artists, but never to this extent. Szeemann has singled out just five Italians and scattered this “official pavilion” throughout the building. The irony is too rich to ignore. It is as if the panel of judges, one each from Italy, Slovenia, Nigeria, Spain, and Japan, had paid off the Italians for being good sports. Politics reigns.

And yet in a moment the cries die down. The day is still luminous. No scandal can distract us from the luxury of the buffet: the slow tour of the thirty-one national pavilions; the beautiful expansion of the section of the show previously called “Aperto” (Open), which was reserved for artists under forty, but now, as “dApertutto” (a portmanteau meaning, loosely, Aperto for all), includes more than one hundred artists of every age and fills four additional restored industrial spaces in the old military compound, the Arsenale. For Szeemann and Paolo Baratta, the president of the Biennale, who conceived and executed the expansion, it is a triumph. As it is for us.

Despite earlier threats of strikes, the pavilions have opened on time. Smoothness is all. The catalogues are ready, the press kits freshly minted. One small thing: As if by way of a nod to the usual Biennale chaos, on opening day the wall labels are still missing in the big Italian exhibition hall. As we wander through the Giardini, the main grounds of the exposition, the names are familiar: Rosemarie Trockel in the German pavilion; Ann Hamilton in the American. Gary Hume has filled the British space with Popish, “sophisticated” paintings that cause more scoffing than anything else; in the Danish building Peter Bonde has collaborated with Jason Rhoades on a paean to auto racing that is a warren of tires and batteries and videos of screaming cars, the volume throttled high. Across the way at the Russian pavilion, Komar & Melamid have turned with tired cleverness to the conceit that chimps and elephants can do as well as artists at photography and painting (nudge, nudge). Or perhaps, in this international context, the animals are meant to send up the exoticism we attach to artists from this country or that; their fleeting favor in the charnel house of art-world fashion. Yet there are few chortles in front of the monitors that show the beasts at work, their abstractions (at least to us) hanging on the walls.

The bigger joke is how little painting there is at the Biennale. Well, there is some—Hume, for example; the retrospective of Daan van Golden in the Dutch pavilion; elegant, vaguely Mardenesque canvases by Gabór Erdélyi in the Hungarian show; the achingly anodyne knockoffs of Roy Lichtenstein’s living-room paintings done by Howard Arkley (who died, sadly, just over a month after the Biennale’s opening) in the Australian quarters. But for all the high-energy painting now going on in Los Angeles, London, New York, and Berlin, painting in Venice has been reduced to the small gesture, to the nostalgic and wan. The large gesture is reserved for wall-size videos, for panoplies of objects assembled, strewn, motor-driven, and occasionally (though with surprising rarity) digitized. These are the shows most talked about, word rippling from cluster to cluster of art pilgrims—thirty thousand of us during these three days of previews—as we compare notes and gossip under the trees.

There is much talk of Trockel’s show, speculation (unfulfilled, it turns out) that she will win a prize. Inside the German pavilion, her untitled video installation confronts us with an immense, staring eye: black and white, almost pulsing, there to absorb us in the immediacy of our own gaze. To the right, a smaller gallery projects her video of a ghostly terminus, figures being ministered to in the act of dying. To the left, she gives us life: a still smaller gallery, a slow-motion video of children scooting around in toy cars, their parents happy onlookers. The work is remarkably strong, a classic Surrealist vocabulary of dream and death updated, the spareness astringent as we come in from the Venetian light.

Ann Hamilton’s display is so much Trockel’s opposite: lushly sensual, brilliantly lit, layered with allusion. The scene is this: Outside the Jeffersonian pavilion built in 1929, she has thrown up a wall—eighteen feet tall, ninety feet long—a latticework of steel and bleary glass. Inside she has stripped out the low ceilings and revealed the original skylights. The high white walls are covered with oversize Braille, quoting from Charles Reznikoff’s volume of poetry Testimony: The United States, 1885–1915: recitative, with its terrible accounts of violence. Day-Glo-pink powder drifts down from hidden tanks in the ceilings, hallucinatory and jarringly bright as it catches on the Braille and collects in heaps on the floor. Hamilton’s recorded voice whispers Lincoln ’s second Inaugural Address. She utters it letter by letter, translated into the phonetic alphabet employed by pilots—a is alpha, d is delta . . . .

The effect is complex—too much so for the noise and pace of our art tasting. Over the coughs, cell phones, and chatter, we can barely hear Hamilton’s voice, whose code would unlikely be deciphered in any case. The Braille, of course, is illegible to nearly all of us—just as the glass outside disrupts and warps our clear view of the building. But then the work, in Hamilton’s words, “is about erasure.” Even the show’s title, myein—roughly translated as an abnormal contraction of the eye’s pupil—presses the political point that more often than not we block our recognition of American violence, wipe away the historical record. Helaine Posner, the US pavilion’s co-commissioner, puts it nicely when she says that the show “is about recognizing our grace and our limits.” But Hamilton’s gambit of literally depicting erasure and buried truths is too great. It is a work that must be read as much as seen; yet the reading is so difficult, and the site can’t say enough.

And there is so much else to be seen elsewhere. The Belgian spectacle, for example, by Ann Veronica Janssens. Rooms full of mist, of ambient sounds. We disappear into the fog delighted by its tropical feel. Without literary weight, this kindred display of invisibility is part carnival and yet gently sincere: All is sweet mystery and a reminder of the beauty of sight as it is slowly, temporarily veiled. And there is the elegance of Tatsuo Miyajima’s floor-to-ceiling installation in the Japanese hall of 2,450 blue LEDs: a dark galaxy we enter into; numbers ticking off a countdown to the millennium; a sea of blinking time.

Each day is spent like this, poking in and out of the dark. The sun is pleasant. There are trips across the Grand Canal to outlying islands, to the exhibitions not within the main grounds—the Portuguese show of Jorge Molder, or the Irish exhibition, for example. There are other shows around town as well, not officially part of the Biennale, such as M.A. Vogrincic’s La Casa Vestita (a palazzo whose exterior is festooned with clothes) and a middling survey of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art curated by Achille Bonito Oliva in a space on the Piazza San Marco. The nights are filled with parties. One evening, the British throw an elaborate affair at a grand palazzo, an event that costs forty thousand dollars. Tiepolos adorn the ceilings; the English pop band Pulp plays below—friends of the artist Gary Hume. It is a convention of the art-world power elite. Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery, shakes hands and chats, moving through a crowded room. On a stairwell, critics Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker, Roberta Smith of the New York Times, her husband Jerry Saltz of the Village Voice, New York dealer Barbara Gladstone, and the Walker Art Center’s chief curator Richard Flood (formerly Gladstone’s director) sit together like birds on a wire.

The talk passes slowly from the pavilions to what everyone considers the main event: “dApertutto.” The Arsenale’s spaces, renovated at a cost of about $1.5 million to the Italian government, are superb old structures: workshops and shipyards from the sixteenth century; 10,000 square meters with soaring ceilings; new walls beneath trusses of ancient wood. Many people comment. Mark Rosenthal, who was commissioner of the US pavilion in 1988, when Jasper Johns was on view, calls this “the best Biennale I’ve ever seen; ‘dApertutto’ is fantastically well done.” Richard Armstrong, director of the Carnegie Museum of Art, bemusedly describes the show as “perky” and remarks on how well it is installed. There are negative views, of course. The Andy Warhol Museum’s director, Tom Sokolowski, who is standing with Armstrong, retorts, “You’re kidding. I think it’s flaccid. The show is very professional, but there is nothing surprising, no revelations.” Dana Friis-Hansen, senior curator of Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum, finds a middle ground, saying, “It’s not that it’s the status quo. I think Szeemann’s done an incredible job. There’s a higher denominator of quality throughout, but there are lower peaks.” And Barbara Thumm, a Berlin dealer, agrees. “Yes, it was solid,” she says. “It’s what we know, so surprises are not easy. But the Chinese work is very interesting and most of us are new to it.”

In fact, the Chinese artworks in the Italian pavilion and in the Arsenale are interesting above all for their political purview. In the art of the Europeans and Americans here, politics is barely present as a subject. How remarkable! The theater of Kosovo’s war is close enough to Venice that there are warnings of delays at Marco Polo Airport due to military deployments. Yet the only prominent work dealing with the Serbian carnage is Thomas Hirschhorn’s World Airport in “dApertutto,” with its crude models of airliners and makeshift walls of press clippings. The Chinese employ the usual tools: video, photography, drawing, sculpture, painting. But what they live is a life still bound by government constraint. From this comes a visceral exuberance, a carbolic bite to their sardonic art.

In Ying-Bo’s video Fly! Fly! (Our Chinese Friends), the gathering around a table bursts with laughter, with voices shouting. They are playing a game much like “Scissors, Rock, Paper.” Hands gesture. There is a show of love and aggression, fake slaps and blown kisses, as the game burns on. Punishment and freedom-the social microcosm is luminously clear. Another exemplary piece is Cai Guo-Qiang’s vast sculpture installation, Venice Rent Collecting Courtyard, for which he wins his Golden Lion. In a vast shed by the water, Chinese artisans brought in by Qiang are sculpting 100 terra-cotta statues of feudal peasants at work. The figures, in various states of completion, stand in small groups, scattered throughout the room. A panama hat is placed slyly on a statue’s head. To the occidental eye, so many assembled figures in the round evoke Rodin. But in fact the statues reprise a government-sponsored “lesson” from the Cultural Revolution: a reminder of times far worse. Cai Guo-Qiang stands in front of a newsman’s camera, smiling in the glare, an artisan laboring behind him. To the side, the English curator Norman Rosenthal chats with the Swiss dealer Simon de Pury and the wife of a former Russian ambassador to London. Their clothes are damp. They are taking shelter from a sudden rain. “It’s impressive, isn’t it?” Rosenthal says. “Yes,” the ambassador’s wife replies. “But like all the works for the Biennale, it will be gone so quickly, disappear like a butterfly.”

That is true, and one can’t help but think of the sixteen Chinese artists Szeemann has gathered for his show—even if a number of them, as it was cattily noted, have already left China and moved to such art centers as New York and Paris. Of course, there is always the cynical view that they will be rounded up again, a new traveling act for the marketplace. After all, the Biennale is no longer an important colloquy on cultural understanding between nations, as it was when travel and communication were harder. Now it is a stopping point on a global circuit; dealers, artists, experts evaluating the state of their industry, doing deals.

Szeemann would prefer the notion of the butterfly to the bazaar. When we sit down to talk, he says, “I wanted to make the best temporary world, to do the first ‘Aperto’ again, which I made in 1980. To break the rules, not stick with bureaucratic crap. To do a show of the Chinese alone, for example—I would be accused of exotica. But here, among so many artists, I thought there was a chance. And the Chinese have ideas, internal cultural histories, buried strategies we have no idea of. Their level of training is incredible. They have a sense of the figure we have lost. But then, I’m a spiritual guest-worker in the museum of obsessions. I wanted to make a model of ideal society, of all the polarities in art without a single heroic style. If you have no heroes, it opens things up.”

Sitting in his office upstairs in the back of the Italian pavilion, with his long beard and casual dishevelment, Szeemann calls himself a “romantic.” The word suggests a languor and openness, an insouciance. Yet his choices for his ideal society are exclusive. There are the overwhelming predilections for video and installation art on view in “dApertutto.”

Still, among the chatter of so many videos, among the clutter of so many installations, there is remarkable work. It is barely worth noting that a few years ago, the exhibition of so many videos would have been a topic of discussion. Today, it is the merest commonplace. To make the claim that Disney has become as important an influence as Duchamp is not to insult. There are spectacles here, fantasias, slick filmmaking put in the service of private messages and iconoclastic views. Doug Aitken’s Electric Earth, for which he received his Golden Lion, is a masterly reverie on the quixotic moment of absolute presence, without past or future. His cipher, a young black dancer in body-driven hyperdrive, is like a glimpse of pure energy slowed down or sped up, alternately charged and drained. The pace of jump cuts, the play of scene against scene on different screens, the pulse of the music seduce. Here is the efficiency and flair of a music-video maker (as Aitken occasionally is), spinning a syncopated narrative that is circuitous and ambiguous—VH1 meets Last Year at Marienbad.

The list continues for each of us; our moments of falling in love with particular pieces. Shirin Neshat’s prize-winning Turbulent has a brute force, with its stark black-and-white screens facing one another—man singer and woman singer across the divide of Iranian culture. And there is Pipilotti Rist’s dreamy sprawl of an installation, a diminutive town with its little lights laid out under a night whose sky is a flickering video. So very Disneyesque.

It is not unlike Venice—a particular fantasy we’ve entered for these days. There are drinks at Haig’s Bar and at Harry’s Bar, where Maxwell Anderson, director of the Whitney Museum, holds court one gorgeous evening while I.M. Pei sits across the way, surrounded by friends. There is endless talk. We are all experts pondering what is right and what is wrong. Some will continue the conversation at their next stop, Basel’s art fair. For the rest of us, we have collected our catalogues, our opinions and memories. We are going home.

Steven Henry Madoff is executive editor of Joe magazine. His book of poetry, While We’re Here, has just been published by Hard Press.