PRINT September 2001

Robert Storr

WITH THE GRANDILOQUENT GHOST OF JOSEPH BEUYS AT HIS ELBOW, Harald Szeemann promised that his valedictory Venice Biennale would open our collective eyes to a “Plateau of Humankind.” In actuality we got a plateau of art. Of course art abhors plateaus—and platitudes. It is all about ups and downs—and about sharp distinctions. Yet the overriding impression left by this strenuous millennial edition was one of art-professional averageness ad infinitum.

Perhaps having sensed this in advance, Szeemann punctuated his part of the exhibition—the aesthetic mixed grill of the Italian pavilion and the Arsenale—with large ensembles by some of his favorite old or aging masters. Beuys thus occupies a pivotal position, and guaranteed medal winners Richard Serra and Cy Twombly are also given pride of place, though there is little in their vicinity to argue for their particular relevance to current developments. The effect of these conspicuous add-ons, then, was to suggest Szeemann's comparative lack of trust in the ability of his other selections to represent the lofty ideal of art trumpeted in his thematic statement. He looked like the master of ceremonies of a variety show in the doldrums, who, desperate to boost his ratings, had fallen back on a roster of special guest stars.

However, it wasn't as though there was nothing else good to see. There always is, and in this case the standouts are cast in greater relief because the background is so flat. In the Canadian pavilion, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's abbreviated thriller projected in a miniaturized theater where spectators listen to the sound track of ambient noises on earphones—a magical mix of Sugimoto movie-palace atmosphere and film noir voice-overs—was well worth the line-up. (Although art worlders at the opening complained bitterly of the wait, a day after they left, the much smaller tourist crowds seemed unfazed by the sideshow queues.) So too was Gregor Schneider's architectural labyrinth, which, in its at once mundane and sinister fashion, is as thoroughgoing a deconstruction of the overbearing German pavilion as Hans Haacke's semiotic reconfiguration of 1993. Together with British artist Mike Nelson's in many ways similar re-creation of the musty “No Exit” no-places where urban nomads go to ground, Schneider's warren is evidence of the delayed but growing influence in the West of Ilya Kabakov's gritty, dystopian fantasies. Meanwhile, Luc Tuymans's suavely disquieting canvases at the Belgian pavilion emit a spectral radiance, and along with the Gerhard Richters and the Richard Tuttles in the Italian pavilion, constitute proof that painting need not strive, Twombly-style, for the mannerist big gesture to hold its own with installation.

Or with video. A French wit has said that in the new-media age we have traded in the white cube for the black box. The difference between the two formats and their contents is rendered acutely apparent by the long march from pixelated cave to pixelated cave that results from this Biennale's surfeit of screen art. At times it seemed as if one were lost in a giant multiplex with a variety of mostly indifferent photos and sculptures displayed in interstitial lobbies. (Some exceptions are Ron Mueck's tiny sculpture of a malevolent infant, the incubus perhaps of the giant stripling that watched over the entrance to the Corderie; Max Dean's diverting but also jealousy-inducing robot table, which electronically tracks one viewer around the room until it unpredictably takes a shine to another; Veli Grano's portraits of obsessive collectors; and Lucinda Devlin's chilling pictures of death chambers, made agonizingly of the moment by the countdown to Timothy McVeigh's execution.) When the videos were lively the discomforts fell away. I saw Salla Tykkä's Lasso a dozen times, but, at a crystalline three minutes in length and shot for the most part in real-time sequences, this vignette of youthful energy and desire is exceptional in relation to most of the rest of the fare not only for its psychological density but for its formal self-discipline. Richard Billingham's video-game video is a harrowingly reflexive meditation on frantic losing, and Heimo Zobernig's performance tape of himself in the nude making and remaking his bed with colored sheets is as witty and visually refreshing a video riff on painting as Bill Viola's Renaissance tableau is pretentious and excruciatingly protracted. It is not merely that Viola has brought coal to Newcastle by bringing masquerade to Venice, nor is it the bad actors he has chosen to play the parts, that make the piece insufferable; rather, he has completely misunderstood the pictorial and emotional dynamics of time in painting in a hopeless attempt to give his work the aura of another medium. Arrested motion is the dramatic essence of Renaissance painting; cinematic slo-mo is its antithesis, especially if you let the meter run, as Viola does.

As for the rest, there are works by Tania Bruguera, Stan Douglas, Marin Karmitz, and Joio Onofre worth watching, but the numbing effects of the many take their toll on the vitality of the few, and for proof one has only to look into the comers of the shadowy screening rooms to see stylishly dressed doppelgangers of Anri Sala's weary Uomoduomo—a short video loop of an old man helplessly asleep on a cathedral pew-nodding off. Indeed, one wonders whether this will be the show that finally drives home the point that quantity is always the potential if not actual enemy of quality, and that all great exhibitions are based on a will to choose one thing over another, a task that should be easier rather than harder when the overall pickings are as thin as they currently seem to be-unless you are hedging your bets

That said, there is no cause for hand-wringing. We are witnessing not the decline and fall but business as usual. The vintage Biennale catalogues from the '50s, '60s, and '70s on sale at the Giardini bookshop are a serendipitous reminder that even the newsmaking versions of this extravaganza were dominated by the art-professional averageness of their eras. If history teaches any lesson, it is that there are no grounds for expecting significant changes in that balance in the future—which leaves it up to the public to vote with their feet when searching for things that merit sustained attention, but this also requires the patience to scout out an ever-expanding number of artists and venues. Forewarned is forearmed. Next time, don't forget to bring sensible shoes.

Robert Storr is senior curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modem Art, New York His “Gerhard Richter: 40 Years of Painting” opens in February 2002.