PRINT May 2003

World Report

the Venice Biennale

THOSE WHO RECALL THE WAR between Vittorio Sgarbi, former undersecretary of the Italian culture ministry, and Francesco Bonami, director of visual arts for the 50th Venice Biennale [see Artforum, May 2002], may wonder what became of the clangor over Bonami’s appointment: It ended with a whimper when Sgarbi was summarily booted from office last summer. Even at its most heated, this was nothing more than a local skirmish compared with the real war and terrorism under the pall of which this Biennale, opening next month, has been planned and largely realized.

It is hard to believe that only two years have passed between Harald Szeemann’s immensely hopeful “Plateau of Humankind,” the central exhibition of the last Biennale, and Bonami’s “Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer.” The world, splintered by September 11 and the calamity in Iraq, is changed, and the Biennale—at 108 years, the world’s oldest international art exposition, unfolding in the peaceful precincts of the Giardini and its environs—faces the pressures of a thunderous geopolitical climate. Which, it turns out, will be much its point.

Bonami’s structure for the exhibition reflects these straitened, fractured times: He chose to cede unity and dominance to fragments and chance, in effect revoking his single voice of curatorial authority and replacing it with many independent voices, come what may.

“One person with one vision isn’t a logical way to do this kind of exhibition any longer,” Bonami explains. “That’s too monotonous for a show that’s so big, and with so little time to prepare. And especially with bombs dropping, the world is telling us every day that there is no unifying subject. So I wanted to present a fragmentary set of identities in art—even if people say there is not enough of a connection and I get fried for it.”

But of course he will not be fried, or celebrated, alone. Bonami invited a dozen prominent and professionally intertwined curators—Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Catherine David, Daniel Birnbaum, Carlos Basualdo, and Gilane Tawadros among them—to organize exhibitions beside him. There will be eleven shows, which Bonami likens, in a passing moment of geekiness, to the nonlinear narrative of hypertext. From the works of some 265 artists in about 79,000 square feet of exhibition space, viewers will be invited to construct a “Dreams and Conflicts” all their own, “out of the relationships they discover for themselves,” as the director puts it.

This is where the second part of the title, “The Dictatorship of the Viewer,” comes in. Bonami, whose day job is Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, remarks that “the viewer has become the dictator in museums today, demanding explanations of what they see. And museums are terrified to lose even one customer. So the level of culture is lowered with blockbusters. On the other side, viewers are abused by work—videos especially—that demand the kind of time only a retired person has. The viewer, in this sense, is dictated to. So I want to address these things by making a more challenging experience for viewers but also by limiting works that will not allow them to make their way through the art in a reasonable time.”

For the twenty-first century, Bonami proposes that the behemoth Biennale and its many elephantine clones be broken down to make the art—and the world that the art represents—easier to approach and its exhibition more nimble. Bonami speaks of his shows as “live cells interacting in unpredictable ways.” The monolith, he suggests, must be taken apart, made modular, and that is what he’ll do. (Not that this hasn’t been tried before in Venice, if on a smaller scale. Ten years ago, Achille Bonito Oliva handed out sections of the “Aperto” exhibition to different curators, including, tellingly enough, Bonami.)

Yet despite the talk of autonomous shows, the aggregate may still amount to a monolith. Call it zeitgeist, curatorial preoccupation, or fashion—the thrust of these exhibitions is art mapped onto social and political frameworks. Just consider the shows’ titles: Catherine David’s “Contemporary Arab Representations”; Hou Hanru’s “Z.O.U. (Zone of Urgency)”; Basualdo’s “The Structure of Survival”; “Utopia Station,” curated by Obrist, Molly Nesbit, and Rirkrit Tiravanija; “Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes” by Tawadros; and “The Zone” by Massimiliano Gioni, who writes of his show with regard to migratory movements and of his exhibition space as a metaphor for Italy’s role in European history. The terms and subjects that crop up repeatedly in the shows’ summaries telegraph this Biennale’s concerns: postcolonialism; disenfranchisement; “art itself as a social institution”; local versus global; “theater of resistance”; social transformation; social crises; nationalist struggles; race and power.

A year ago, Bonami said pugnaciously that he wasn’t “interested in art that’s like an essay on anthropology or sociology.” When reminded of this recently, he laughed and said, “But for the shows I’m doing, this is not the case. For the rest, there is freedom to do what they want. And the range is broader than you think, from David’s show, which is supersociological, to ‘Utopia Station,’ which includes every aspect of the creative mind, including science.”

True to his word, Bonami has curated “Clandestine,” which gathers lesser-known artists not linked by any dominant theme or medium but that simply interest him, and “Pittura/Painting: From Rauschenberg to Murakami, 1964–2003,” a forty-year survey of the medium at the Biennale, both of which are devoted to art without any frontal social agenda. Yet “Delays and Revolutions,” which Bonami cocurated with Birnbaum, is pulled inevitably toward the main sociopolitical track, despite its Harold Bloom–ish theme of artistic influence and misreading. This is evident from the start: Off the front entryway of the Italian pavilion, where their show is mounted, there will be an installation by David Hammons, whose art is rooted in the marginalization of African-American culture, and a video by the Uruguayan Juan Pedro Fabra, which focuses its lens—albeit to painterly effect—on training exercises of the Swedish army.

Bonami, in fact, may be the only one among his colleagues who argues that the show(s) are thematically discontinuous—which seems, from a viewer’s perspective, like a perverse, though interesting, ambition. After all, as Tiravanija says simply, “Francesco put people together who have a certain sensibility.” Nesbit adds, “We’ve talked a lot with the other curators, and we all know each other anyway. Obviously, these are different projects, but it’s a community of exchange, a big conversation, and what you’ll see at the Biennale is a focus on that conversation.”

For Basualdo, the conversation’s goal is to “reflect on what kind of role a social art practice may have today. Hopefully, there will be works in my section that argue for art not of consolation, not as refuge, not as a solution for what to do, but that show a moral value and that art can have its own agency in the world.” Obrist echoes that same bittersweet mix of hope and pragmatism when he describes the intellectual destination of “Utopia Station” by paraphrasing Immanuel Wallerstein, who writes in his book Utopistics of “an alternative, credibly better, and historically possible (but far from certain) future.”

No setting could better frame art as both zone of urgency and idyll than the grounds of the Biennale. While “Dreams and Conflicts” will present a sense of up-to-the-minute global uncertainty, the thirty-two national pavilions, with their stately, embassy-like permanent quarters (and as many other countries with presentations installed throughout the city) represent a more conventional model of political turf; and they’re typically funded by the host governments. Well-known artists will be here, too: Jean-Marc Bustamante in the French pavilion; Fred Wilson in the American; Chris Ofili in the British; Michal Rovner in the Israeli; Candida Höfer and Martin Kippenberger in the German; and so on. But the politicized atmosphere brought on by wartime tensions and raised security will heighten the sense of a traditional order in turmoil.

It is tantalizing to think that two models, new and old, will square off in Venice: one decentralized and politically decentering, the other reinforcing the authoritarian sanctities of centralized rule. Yet it’s possible that the boundaries won’t be so clear. The art in the national pavilions may question politics and authority as much as anything in “Dreams and Conflicts” does (obviously the case with Wilson and Ofili, for example), or it may not speak to political concerns at all. Of course, the curatorial efforts of Bonami’s group may not be so much decentering as marshaled to corroborate a common ideological stance. Though the curatorial platforms are professed to be about openness, there is no suggestion that art supporting anything but liberal social and political views are part of this rainbow coalition. I’m not rallying for conservatism, but questioning the definition—in a Clintonesque way—of what “open” actually is. Viewers will soon find out. And lest we forget, there is another goal here, as Birnbaum reminds us: “In the end, we’re trying to install a lot of great art pieces.”

With a budget cut to about $6.2 million from Szeemann’s $6.6 million and with more than twice the number of artists in their shows (Szeemann had 130), Bonami and his colleagues have had their hands full bringing the sheer amount of art—let alone great art—to Venice. More problematic still, Bonami worries that war and fear of terrorism may be a mighty deterrent, resulting in far fewer visitors than the estimated four hundred thousand who came two years ago. Yet he argues that the Biennale “is a counter to destructive acts,” while Basualdo says that war could make audiences “look to this art more for answers than for entertainment.” One thing is clear: Whether the art is collectively prescriptive or personally therapeutic, an international exhibition so full of hard questions about why humans can’t get along and how they might couldn’t be more perfectly, if sadly, timed.

Steven Henry Madoff is a frequent contributor to Artforum.


Francesco Bonami & Daniel Birnbaum

Franz Ackermann
Kai Althoff
Thomas Beyerle
Matthew Barney
Glenn Brown
Maurizio Cattelan
Johnas Dahlberg
Tacita Dean
Berlinde de Bruyckere
Sam Durant
Juan Pedro Fabra
Fischli & Weiss
Ceal Floyer
Giuseppe Gabellone
Ellen Gallagher
Isa Genzken
Carmit Gil
Felix Gmelin
Robert Gober
Amit Goren
Dan Graham
Massimo Grimaldi
Kevin Hanley
David Hammons
Damien Hirst
Carsten Höller
Piotr Janas
Ian Kiar
Din Q. Le
Sarah Lucas
Lucy McKenzie
Kerry James Marshall
Helen Mirra
Rivane Neuenschwander
Gabriel Orozco
Jennifer Pastor
Richard Prince
Carol Rama
Charles Ray
Tobias Rehberger
Shirana Shahbazi
Efrat Shvily
Rudolf Stingel
Jaan Toomik
Andy Warhol


Darren Almond
Pawel Althamer
Pedro Cabrita Reis
Thomas Demand
Urs Fischer
Jeppe Hein
Sandi Hilal & Alessandro Petti
Gabriel Kuri
Mareaperto Onlus & Luca Gugliettat
Alexandre Perigot
Paola Piv
Piotr Uklanski

Francesco Bonami

Etti Abergel
Avner Ben Gal
Colin Darke
Enrico David
Flavio Favelli
Dryden Goodwin
Hannah Greely
Hakan Gursoytrak
Michal Helfman
Eva Koch
Paulina Olowska
Magnus von Plessens
Jorge Queiroz
Aïda Ruilova
Bojan Sarcevic
Dana Schutz
Doron Solomons
Monika Sonowska
Cheyney Thompson
Tatian Trouvé
Nobuko Tsuchiya
Amelie von Wulffen
Shizuka Yokomizo
Liu Zheng

Catherine David

Tony Chakar
Michel Lasserre & Paola Yacoub
Rabih Mrouè
Walid Raad
Walid Sadek

Gabriel Orozco

Abraham Cruzvillegas
Jimmie Durham
Daniel Guzmán
Damián Ortega
Fernando Ortega
Jean-Luc Moulene

Gilane Tawadros, with the Forum for African Arts

Laylah Ali
Kader Attia
Samta Benyahia
Zarina Bhimji
Frank Bowling
Clifford Charles
Pitso Chinzima & Veliswa Gwintsa
Rotimi Fani-Kayode
Hassan Fathy
Moshekwa Langa
Salem Mekuria
Sabah Naim
Moataz Nasr
Wael Shawky

Molly Nesbit, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, & Rirkrit Tiravanija

Stefano Boeri
Amicale de Temoins
Ecke Bonk
Iñaki Bonillas
Angela Bulloch
Yung Ho Chang
Santiago Cirugeda
Tacita Dean
Jeremy Deller
Nico Dockx
Trisha Donnelly
Ingar Dragset & Michael Elmgreen
Leif Elggren & Carl Michael von Hausswolff
Olafur Eliasson & Einer Thorsteinn
Hans-Peter Feldmann
Fischli & Weiss
Alicia Framis
Yona Friedman
Yang Fudong
Gilbert & George
Liam Gillick
Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster
Rodney Graham
Joseph Grigely
Henrik Håkansson
Carsten Höller
Karl Holmquist
Marine Hugonnier
Pierre Huyghe
Arata Isozaki
Janus Magazine
Ilya Kabakov
Július Koller
Kamin Lertchaiprasert
Joep van Lieshout
Armin Linke
Steve McQueen
Jonas Mekas
Deimantas Narkevi<caron>cius
Nils Norman
Roman Ondák
Yoko Ono
Gabriel Orozco
Philippe Parreno
Oliver Payne & Nick Relph
Manfred Pernice
Michelangelo Pistoletto
Edi Rama & Anri Sala
Martha Rosler
Christoph Schlingensief
Tino Sehgal
Patti Smith
Agnes Varda
Lawrence Weiner
Cerith Wyn Evans
Zerynthia (Association for Contemporary Art)
Andrea Zittel

Francesco Bonami

Robert Rauschenberg
Lucio Fontana
Bridget Riley
Alberto Burri
Andy Warhol
Domenico Gnoli
Richard Hamilton
Philip Guston
Roy Lichtenstein
Enrico Castellani
Jan Håfström
Maria Lassnig
Gerhard Richter
Jörg Immendorff
Frank Auerbach
Franz Gertsch
Martin Kippenberger
Anselm Kiefer
Georg Baselitz
Jean-Michel Basquiat
Francesco Clemente
Marlene Dumas
Francis Bacon
Sigmar Polke
Carroll Dunham
Erik Bulatov
Damien Hirst
Lari Pittman
Gino De Dominicis
John Currin
Peter Doig
Jenny Saville
Elizabeth Peyton
Gary Hume
Luc Tuymans
Margherita Manzelli
Chuck Close
Thomas Scheibitz
Glenn Brown
Takashi Murakami

Massimiliano Gioni

Gruppo A12
Alessandra Ariatti
Micol Assaël
Anna De Manincor-ZimmerFrei
Diego Perrone
Patrick Tuttofuoco

Hou Hanru

Adel Abdessemed
Alfredo Juan Aquilizan & Maria Isabel Aquilizan
Atelier Bow-Wow & Momoya Kaijima
Campement Urbain
Canton Express
Jota Castro
Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries
Yung Ho Chang & Atelier FCJZ
Shulea Cheang
Heri Dono
Gu Dexin
Huang Yong Ping
Joo Jae-Hwan
Sora Kim & Hong-suk Gim
Surasi Kusolwong
Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba
Tsuyoshi Ozawa
Tadaso Takamine
Tsang Tsou-choi
Wong Hoycheong
Yan Lei & Fu Jie
Yan Pei-Ming
Yang Zhengzhou
Zhang Peili
Zhu Jia

Igor Zabel

Viktor Alimpiev & Marian Zhunin
Pawel Althamer
Art & Language
Josef Dabernig
Luisa Lambri
Yuri Leiderman
Andrei Monastyrsky
Pavel Mrkus
Roman Opalka
Marko Peljhan
Florian Pumhösl
Simon Starling
Mladen Stilinovi´c
Nahum Tevet