PRINT September 2001

Katy Siegel

MEA CULPA. LIKE OTHERS REVIEWING THE LAST VENICE BIENNALE, I complained about the high entertainment quotient of the art, which seemed chosen (and perhaps made) to match the cavernous spaces and festival atmosphere of the event. Many also bemoaned the lack of more serious or politically engaged art at a time of European social turmoil. Well, be careful what you wish for.

This time around, curator Harald Szeemann has chosen a weightier theme than the last Biennale's “d'Apertutto” but one no less vague: “Plateau of Humankind.” He begins the guide accompanying the exhibition by citing Edward Steichen's famous 1955 show “The Family of Man,” while his catalogue essay appoints Joseph Beuys the guiding spirit of the Biennale. Both the MoMA exhibition and the great shaman-artist have been relentlessly criticized, and their worst qualities a reanimated in one of the first rooms of the exhibition at the Italian pavilion. “The Platform of Thought” combines Rodin's Thinker with Chinese, African, and Indian sculptures. The conceit levels everything: traditions, cultures, intent, historical moments.

Szeemann includes folk art in “The Platform of Thought,” as well as the main body of the exhibition (e.g., Sunday Jack Akpan); as good as some of it is, it suffers from the relative low level of the nominally “high” art. High art generally provides a sophisticated reflection on representational traditions, but the intellectual content of the high art here is less than acute, and the contrast between, say, a high assemblage of plastic animals and folk figures carved from wood is rather negligible. Imagine Rousseau at MoMA without Picasso.

Much of the other art similarly connotes “authenticity,” rehashing the brash politics of Szeemann's early days: Barry McGee, Stephen Powers, and Todd James's sprawling urban storefronts, the upturned, overly expressionist little heads of Marisa Merz, and various feminist works, most of them, like Priscilla Monge's room covered in sanitary napkins, quite simplistic. Both the unschooled and the “political” or expressionist works seem here less to function in their familiar role as high-art foil than to balance out high technology, in the form of virtually omnipresent videos. Unfortunately, the video on offer was almost uniformly terrible, too often relying on representing ordinary activities at a portentously slow speed, as if that in itself were sufficient to reveal their inherent meaning. (Szeemann seems tone-deaf not only to video but also to feminist art—this is clearly not where his heart lies.) Rare exceptions include Chris Cunningham's high speed sex and violence, and Paul Pfeiffer's concentrated, digitally manipulated projections.

The photography felt more current, and much more central than at the last opments in the exploitative relationship between photographer and subject: Richard Billingham's black-and-white images of his father, Tatsumi Orimoto's disturbing shots of his senile mother posing with ridiculous props like giant green shoes. (Anri Sala's video of a sleeping indigent man and Santiago Sierra's video documenting his project of bleaching the hair of undocumented Venetian workers share the problematic subject-object dynamic.) On the plus side, there were some genuinely powerful photographs: Lucinda Devlin's images of US prison execution chambers and devices, Hai Bo's before-and-after re-creations of souvenir photos from China's Cultural Revolution, and Swiss photojournalist Arnold Odermatt's shots of car crashes. Rineke Dijkstra's Israeli solders and Tuomo Manninen's group portraits of people in a given occupation or social
arrangement—from office cleaners to faculty wives—set up convincing and amusing relationships connecting the individual and the shaping power of social identity.

The hot and heavy humanity of the Biennale's curated exhibition contrasted sharply with the whispery recalcitrance of the pavilions' big hits: Cardiff and Miller, Huyghe, Gober, Schneider, Tuymans, all chilly hits: Cardiff and Miller, Huyghe, Gober, Schneider, Tuymans, all chilly, spare, withholding, in various shades of off-white. Cardiff and Miller's piece stood out, unlike the other video here, by describing a specific experience (going to see a movie) in concrete ways that related to and accounted for the viewer's physical presence. Huyghe's film-based work is usually strong along similarly medium-specific hes, but what he presented here (a giant game of Pong, futuristic plastic furniture, a stiffly done anime cartoon) was affectless, too chic for its own good. In fact, while all the work was perfectly fine (particularly that by Cardiff/Miller and Schneider), the stance it offered was rather wan and elliptical. At its best, art by Tuymans, Gober, et al. is elegiac; at its worst, simply, well, disappointed—no wonder Szeemann and others look to folk art and technology to stiffen our flagging resolve.

Where does this leave us? Between an outdated humanism and art largely absent of human subjectivity, or in which that subjectivity is a form of absence; between Szeemann's sticky bear hug and Huyghe's chilly sigh. One alternative answer: Art doesn't best describe humanity through clichéd expressiveness, or even by celebrating its image, but by being the most compelling possible version of making things. This does not mean fetishizing the well-wrought, handmade object. Complex, reflexive versions of making, whether they involve the hand (Richter), the machine (Serra), or the computer (Pfeiffer), all think through and render material how things—flat images, industrial space, digital processes-work now, revealing current conditions and capacities.

In this light, Richard Tuttle, tucked into a room at the Italian pavilion, showed some of the Biennale's best art. The not-quite-media geometric paintings on plywood move color and line and shapes around a room in ways that seem both personal and anonymous, free-form and rule-bound. Specifically installed to form a spatial whole, beautiful individually, these paintings are both something you could imagine making and something you would never think of doing. In that one room, Tuttle has you believing “only human” is neither a worn-out idea, nor such a simple thing to be.

Katy Siegel is a New York-based art historian and frequent contributor to Artforum. Her essay on the photography of Andreas Gursky appeared in the January issue.