PRINT September 2001

Richard Flood

THOMAS JEFFERSON'S MONTICELLO IS AN EXTREMELY NERVOUS building. He worked on it for half a century, and in the end it bankrupted him, but what a legacy he left. When it was finished (or as finished as it was going to get), Monticello became the American apogee of auto-architecture; it was, like Hadrian's villa, the perfect measure of the man who made it. It remains a magnificent illusion of ordered geometries in service to an eccentric variety of often oppositional aims. In between what the house is and what it appears to be lies the tension that animates Monticello and mirrors its architect's eloquent, occasionally violent divisions of self.

There are by now millions of mock Monticellos, neoclassical spawn often erected to semaphore governmental order and bureaucratic piety. One such building is the United States pavilion in Venice. Designed by the architectural practice of Delano and Aldrich and completed in 1930, it is, in every way, a mediocre building that's in keeping with all the other Venetian national pavilions (save the creepy perfection of the Albert Speer-esque German pavilion). At the Biennale, a doglike nationalism always sends me to it first to see what problems it's caused and what favors it's granted. Until I know what's happening in the US pavilion, I can't really relax and amble through the global village. Robert Gober's installation acknowledges that the pavilion is Monticello's tract-house equivalent but also understands the building's desire to be something more. The artist respects the pavilion's mediocrity and privileges its ersatz symmetry by tautly infusing it with layered Jeffersonian tension.

Gober's opening gesture in the rotunda may serve to illustrate what I mean. Centered in the space is what appears to be a toilet plunger (crafted from terra-cotta and oak) mounted on a low plinth made of what appears to be Styrofoam (patinated bronze). On the wall behind hangs a framed photograph of twin highway tunnels. A few cars sit on the road facing the tunnels, and some pedestrians are visible; neither tunnels nor hghway appear to be in service. The image is odd mostly because it is hanging in the foyer of the US pavilion, but it's tempting to think of it as a coded invitation to explore the twinned floor plan of the buildmg. The framed image is captioned: “West Rock Tunnel, 1949, dgitally enhanced black-and-white photograph. Archives of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, Record Group 89, Item 30, The West Rock Tunnel on the Wilbur Cross Parkway, New Haven, 1948-49, State Archives, Connecticut State Library, Hartford, Connecticut; 24 x 20 in.” Clearly this is not a photograph; it's the photograph. And, like the plunger and plinth, it has been “enhanced.”

The ensemble—plunger, plinth, and photo—comes together to create a very strange civic foyer, with the plumbing device occupying a space normally taken up by a sculpture celebrating public service (in my post office, it's a big bronze firefighter carrying a little bronze girl to safety). Yet the plunger is an instrument of heroic intervention. It is that which stands between us and the taught awfulness of our own waste. It is an odd reminder, normally hidden from view, that our environmental niceties are more provisional than is routinely acknowledged. The plunger's iconization is also, in the city of Venice, mordantly ironic—almost a cosmic memento mori. That it rests on the illusion of a floatable mattress of Styrofoam (a material that will outlast even the cockroach in our planet's final convulsions) suggests a quotidian tidal awareness that some waste cannot be flushed away. Finally, horribly, the plunger is a weapon. Enthroned on its nonbiodegradable Styrofoam pouf, it is a grotesquely banal scepter representing the incomprehensible evil that humankind does to its own. A plunger was the instrument used by New York City police officers to rape a Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima in 1997 (the pavilion's catalogue makes note of the assault), and the formal presentation of the plunger as an evidential indictment (suited to a hundred cautionary narratives) is a fitting introduction to the pavilion's ominous calm.

In Venice, buildings are always settling. Tiny tremors, felt only in the inner ear, insistently inform one of possibly perilous structural readjustments. Somehow, in his utilization of the secondhand geometries of the US pavilion, Gober found a visual equivalent for those tremors. A laundry basket, a fight of stairs down to a closed cellar door, Styrofoam flotsam, gin bottles, newspaper and magazine clippings, Xeroxed job postings all contribute to the pavilion's intimation that under everything floats a dark, coagulate pudding.

Like Gober's contribution, the best of the national pavilions were environments that were intellectually immersive and psychologically challenging. The most brutal extreme was Gregor Schneider's shatteringly unwholesome, labyrinthine squat coiled like a rattlesnake inside the gorgeous fascist shell. The most tender was Pierre Huyghe's Monsieur Hulot-like interpretation of the French pavilion as a big, glamorous home-entertainment center where the entertainment was both robotic and inexplicably human. Probably the most direct expression of tenderness (as in rawness) was the very posthumous exhibition of Alighero Boetti (1940-94) in the Italian pavilion. A small, coherent set of works reminded you, yet again, exactly how quietly seismic Boetti's contribution was. Each work is a virtual lexicon of possibilities, and installed in the pavilion's forecourt is arguably the last best artist's sculptural self-portrait of the twentieth century (I'm giving the two-dimensional award to Lucian Freud). If you've never seen it, there's really no way to adequately describe the effect it creates. It's simply a sculpture of a man in a suit, tie loosened, spraying himself with water from a hose. Because the sculpture's head is heated, the water creates a mist when it hits the cranium. You know instantly what it means, and then a moment passes and you realize it means all that and infinitely more.

Richard Flood is senior curator at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, where his “Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962–1972” travels this fall. The show debuted this summer at Tate Modern (see review .