PRINT September 2001

Daniel Birnbaum

Even for a summarizing megashow, where tough notices go with the territory, Harald Szeemann's 49th Venice Biennale has been widely criticized for an unfavorable chaff-to-wheat ratio. Robert Storr's modest proposal: vote with your feet. Daniel Soutif, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Richard Flood, and Katy Siegel join him in fleeing the filler and focusing largely on the high points. Contributing editor Daniel Birnbaum surveys the plateau, setting the stage with a comprehensive report.

Most people would go along with Brazilian sculptor Ernesto Neto's optimistic words in the catalogue to this year's Venice Biennale: “I hope in this millennium art will become something more important than just a spectacle. I hope that art will get closer to the people in general, not just something for specialists.” Many would even support his statement “I hope art will become more spiritual. I hope it can fill the big emptiness of humanity today.” But it's rare to find such ambitions spelled out so frankly. No doubt Harald Szeemann, organizer for the second consecutive installment of the Venice extravaganza, would agree with Neto. The Biennale is always, of course, a spectacle par excellence, but this renewal, titled “Plateau of Humankind,” takes as its explicit point of departure the “positive, utopian spirituality of [Joseph] Beuys” and wants to continue the “work towards spiritual activity at the service of the possible visualization of a museum of obsessions” that Szeemann was pursuing long before most of us learned how to spell Beuys. So what is spirituality in the age of the spectacle?

At the center of the Italian pavilion, Szeemann arranged a “Platform of Thought,” where profound ideas appear capable of passing directly from the gilded head of a 600-year-old Buddha to Erich Bödeker's sincere-looking wooden Saint Barbara, 1970, and onward to a dancing twelfth-century Siva and the superbly inane Adam and Eve, 1975, by the late German sculptor Hans Schmitt. This collection—which comprises thirty-odd family members, including a US Navy diving helmet—is vintage Szeemann: a completely eccentric set of artifacts that oddly enough makes perfect sense because it all looks great together and seems full of bizarre life. I wish the whole Biennale had been carried out in this ruthlessly egocentric spirit. As it is, my lingering impression is instead one of an enormous amassing of vaguely interesting work from all over the world with only a few real highlights—fewer in fact than the last time around, when Szeemann filled the Arsenale with pieces by, among others, Doug Aitken, Thomas Hirschhom, Olafur Eliasson, and Shirin Neshat. Writing on Dieter Roth, Szeemann once distinguished two kinds of creative tendencies: the desire to subtract more and more until only the essential is left (e.g., Giacometti) and the will to constantly add new elements and produce an abundance (Roth). If one were to apply the same distinction to curating, there is no doubt into which category Szeemann would fall. While that impulse may have worked two years ago in Venice, this time it doesn't. To see one video installation after another adds up to little more than exhaustion and makes most of us unreceptive to the few truly interesting works. Indeed, a general sense of disappointment dominated the opening days. Where was this year's Aitken? Certainly not in Chris Cunningham's cool but ultimately tacky music videos. Where was the counterpoint to Roth's deeply touching video self-portrait that so clearly formed the artistic hub of the last Biennale? Unfortunately not in Beuys's beautiful Olivestones, 1982: It may be difficult for many to accept, but there is simply no easy path from the social sculptor's spiritual geographies to what is most interesting in today's art (with the possible exception of Gregor Schneider).

This time around the advantage in the dialectic between national pavilions and the international show falls to the pavilions, where one finds some of the most ambitious and challenging contributions. There were years when the unofficial shows beyond the purview of the Biennale proper were the places to find interesting new art. Then Szeemann redefined the Aperto, the area traditionally given over to emerging artists, to include the whole program, thus more or less negating the national exhibitions and making the unofficia1 exhibitions of young art redundant. With this year's successful national contributions, it seems that, strangely enough, we've come full circle and the old Olympic model of art is what has the most to offer.

This is admittedly an oversimplification; there were, after all, some ambitious sideshows this year, such as “Authentic/Excentric: Africa in and out of Africa” in the Palazzo Giustinian Lolin, which featured work by seven artists, including a fascinating installation by Yinka Shonibare. His Vacation, 2000, a family of astronauts (clad in space suits made from African wax-printed cotton textile) out for a leisurely extraterrestrial stroll, smartly conflates various forms of otherness in a way that leaves everybody confused. Another noteworthy side project is British artist Mike Nelson's mazelike The Deliverance and The Patience, 2001, on the Giudecca. The viewer is invited to choose between parallel tracks through the labyrinth, thus passing through one of two successions of corridors and rooms. Perhaps this space is an old hotel where everything has started to disintegrate and rot away? There are spaces for meditation, for resting or drinking—but for whom? The moment you enter you're already part of a narrative. No matter how simple the stage set, you cannot but try to make sense of the story. Nelson clarifies the logic of the architectural construction: “Two worlds run parallel to one another, sometimes alongside, sometimes leapfrogging, until they meet at the junction of the second and third sections. Here a third route is offered—a door to a staircase leading to the mezzanine, which offers an overview of the exterior of the construction thereby dismantling the original two fictions that cross, merge, and disintegrate within the physical structure.” Getting a glimpse of the whole structure from above, you realize how surprisingly small the space is—and how primitive the machinery that brings about the split fiction.

One almost got the feeling that Nelson's construction is a send-up of a major entry in the show, but Gregor Schneider's claustrophobic labyrinth in the German pavilion does not allow any glimpse from the outside. His universe is one of radical isolation. A meticulous reconstruction of large chunks taken from the artist's “Haus ur” in the small German city of Rheydt—a fifteen-plus-year work in progress—Schneider's contribution is clearly one of the most impressive in this year's Biennale. The project is titled Totes Haus ur (Dead house ur), since in Schneider's view the spaces are dead as soon as they leave the original site of creation. Even if one hears echoes of Beuys and possibly of Kurt Schwitter's Cathedral of Erotic Mystery in this gloomy cosmos, Schneider's work is uniquely strange and disturbing. Nothing I know of is comparable to its physical impact.

If the pavilions were unusually ambitious and interesting this year, it's hard to resist projecting widely shared prejudices on them. That's true of not only Schneider's Teutonic angst, but also Pierre Huyghe's elegant French contribution with its high-tech ambience à la japonaise and to a certain extent Mark Wallinger's ironic Biblical installations and witty trompe l'oeil doubling of the facade of the British pavilion and the super-reduced collective sound environment in the Nordic pavilion. What these and others had in common, at least during the opening days, were unbearably long queues where critics from the world's largest papers lined up for hours together with curators, collectors, and other art-world luminaries. Canada's line was bad; Germany's, worse. (It was here that the entire Documenta family—complete with cocurators, coordinators, spouses, and children—suddenly appeared democratically enough.)

To the list of interesting national contributions one must add Robert Gober's subtle meditation on the creative and destructive powers of water (and gin) in the US pavilion, an untitled multifaceted installation so puzzling that it will remain open to interpretation long after being dismantled and transported from this slowly sinking city; and Luc Tuymans in the Belgian pavilion, who made it abundantly clear that painting need not shy away from political themes in favor of thematizing problems of abstraction and representation or the history of its own conditions in an increasingly solipsistic spiral of self-reflection. In Tuymans's case this in no way implies a naivete in relation to his medium; on the contrary, he is unrivaled at turning the simplest of means—oil on canvas-into a lethal weapon. The light in his seemingly vague and slightly fuzzy canvases seems to delete the imagery, which has to do with Belgian colonialism and its blood-soaked aftermath. This ungenerous and violent force, pale and destructive, is the element with which Tuymans stages his political drama of nationalism, race, and political murder. His portrait of the first Congolese prime minister, Lumumba, 2000—assassinated in 1961, a year after independence—forms the center of this affair of severe national self-scrutiny: a mean-spirited merciless examination, Belgian to the core.

A mazelike structure of a kind very different from Schneider's claustrophobic nightmares awaits once you put on the headphones in Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's cinema in the Canadian pavilion. This labyrinth is not physical; it's all in your head. It would seem you're already part of the story, you're somehow an associate of the people in The Paradise Institute, 2001, a piece that brings together elements of sculpture, cinema, and Cardiff's signature sound works. Inside the movie house a twelve-minute film is screened, but the sound track is so multilayered that you have difficulty distinguishing among the levels and end up being caught in an intricate system of fictions contained one inside another like Chinese boxes. For a few minutes you're in a thriller, and when you leave you take the confusing story with you out into the sunshine. You don't feel completely safe; it could start over at any second.

The engagement with cinema that in recent years has resulted in hybrid work of the kind that Cardiff and Miller produce is clearly one theme running through the international section of the Biennale. Szeemann denies that there is such a thing as a theme to “Plateau of Humankind” and contends that one should rather think of it as a “dimension.” However, one could delineate a route through the show that takes the film-art exchange as its point of departure and that would weave such disparate works as Stan Douglas's double projection Le Détroit, 1999-2000; Chantal Akerman's seven-monitor installation Woman Sitting After Killing, 2001; Atom Egoyan and Julião Sarmento's tight corridor Close, 2000-01; and Com & Com's silly William Tell extravaganza C-files: Tell Saga, 2000, into a meaningful whole. All these works (one could add a few more) are either by artists interested in various aspects of cinema or by filmmakers invited to present their work in an art context. On the other hand, contextualization does not do justice to the interesting work, particularly Douglas's. Indeed, the technical and intellectual complexity of his project is such that its presentation in a huge biennial is much less than ideal. Referencing Shirley Jackson's 1959 horror novel The Haunting of Hill House and historian Marie Hamlin's 1884 chronicle Legends of Le Détroit, Douglas's two black-and-white film loops projected on either side of a “dual-vision” screen construct a dense argument about time, memory social history, and the distribution of urban space. I know all of this only in theory, and I'm looking forward to seeing it in a context where I'll be able to find the concentration required to probe below the attractive silvery surface of the dual projection.

In addition to the works involved in this explicit art-cinema dialogue, there was an overkill of moving imagery in the form of video projections and video installations, some by people I'd never heard of—I'm afraid to say that the “Finnish Miracle” announced by Szeemann is not likely to outlast the show, nor, for that matter, is its Estonian counterpart—and some by the best-known veterans of the genre, such as Bill Viola and Gary Hill. The latter two could be said to represent opposite tendencies, and both were a bit tacky in their own way. Viola's meditative and painterly projection The Quintet of the Unseen (2000) changes so slowly that the movement is hardly visible (to me the work is pure kitsch), while Hill's Wall Piece, 2000, treats the body with flashes of light so quick and brutal that experience falls apart into discontinuous segments of intensity: “I am supersonic and alien. I have the feeling of being a fuselage.” Some of the most memorable video work, however, was by very young artists, such as Albanian Anri Sala, whose Beckett—like loop Uomoduomo, 2000, showing an old man falling asleep on a cathedral pew, has a strangely hypnotic quality, and Salla Tykkä, whose Lasso, 2000, develops a short narrative about wonder and beauty emerging unexpectedly in the most prosaic of circumstances. A young woman out for a jog looks through the window of a house and encounters a young man doing the “great Texas Skip”—a rope dance that puts the amazed runner into a trance and momentarily transports her far beyond Finnish suburbia, where the video is set. This year's surprise invasion from Finland is easier to understand and to accept when this work is kept in mind, as well as Laura Horelli's Current Female Presidents, 2001, an effective, straightforward world map with nations headed by women marked like tiny islands in an ocean of male dominance.

To say that the show was controlled by bad video is unfair, because there was plenty of bad photography too. And some good as well, like the black-and-corridor white documentary images of auto accidents by seventy-six-year-old Swiss policeman Arnold Odermatt as far as I know a newcomer to the international scene. To me this work was one of the very few completely positive surprises.

With all the video and film it felt refreshing suddenly to encounter sculptural works, like Francis Alÿs's live peacock (The Ambassador, 2001)—an unusually beautiful ornithological readymade—and, less surprisingly Richard Serra's massive and physically impressive steel spirals at the very end of the Arsenale. It was also strange to be the recipient of Veruschka's hypnotic gaze in Francesco Vezzoli's installation featuring the legendary supermodel as a living sculpture. Seeing the entire Biennale for several days with a five-year-old in tow, I had to return again and again to the two works she liked: Serra's huge Gucci-sponsored steel sculptures and Ron Mueck's grotesque Untitled (boy), a hyperrealistic sculpture of a giant boy, over fifteen feet tall (though hunched and crouching), staring at the viewer with enormous eyes. In both cases it made me like the works more which in Mueck's case was a surprise. No one had to force me to return to Cy Twombly's new twelvepanel piece, Lepanto, 2001. Are they masterpieces, or have they lost that lightness and elegance that makes Twomblv one of the living old masters? I still haven't been able to make up my mind. At least what was served outside the video booths left me with food for thought; be it peacocks, rolled steel, or Veruschka, after the meager pickings of this TV dinner–like “Plateau of Humankind,” it felt like a full meal.