PRINT September 2003


Francesco Bonami’s 50th edition of the Venice Biennale—”Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer”—delegated responsibility to nearly a dozen curators and, ultimately, to the viewers themselves, pointedly bringing an end to the monolithic “Grand Show” of yesteryear, for better or (as the consensus seemingly would have it) for worse. And the unseasonable weather didn’t help. At June’s heat wave–plagued vernissage, many openly wondered whether it was the lack of inspiration or rather the perspiration that was dampening their enthusiasm. We invited three regular contributors—art historian LINDA NOCHLIN, Artforum editor-elect TIM GRIFFIN, and scholar-critic SCOTT ROTHKOPF—to assess the exhibition, after the heat of the moment.

Scott Rothkopf

Of the nearly four hundred artists in this year’s Venice Biennale, one handily seized the spotlight at the vernissage with little help from the curators and almost no effort of his own. While his official entries hung discreetly in the Museo Correr, his work swept across the canals by vaporetto and water taxi, alighted on the breakfast tables of the Gritti Palace, and dangled from the arms of art aficionados making their way through the chaos of the Arsenale. Takashi Murakami was everywhere. For two hundred fifty euros or “your best offer,” an African street vendor would sell you a fake Louis Vuitton bag emblazoned with the artist’s splashy take on the venerable LV monogram; for several hundred euros more, you could score the real thing at the local Vuitton boutique; or for the price of admission to the exhibition, you could ogle his paintings—all within a few hundred square feet. Just as Murakami’s bags and their knockoffs cropped up everywhere from Canal Street to Oprah last spring, they spread through Venice like a virus, but against the pious backdrop of the 50th Biennale, his logomania suddenly looked seditious as never before.

If Murakami’s satchels seemed at all subversive in Venice, it was certainly not because they demonstrated the obviously critical—or, at the very least, ironic—relationship to the global culture industry that was de rigueur at the Biennale. The staggering ubiquity of his bags in the Giardini had almost nothing to do with the calculated “disturbances” of Conceptual artists who since the 1960s have bought advertising space in mass media outlets, or with the legions of photographers who have more recently churned out glossy fashion pages and glossier Cibachromes. This was clearly not a case of market infiltration, but rather penetration, which surpassed even Warhol’s guest spot on The Love Boat and was perfectly suited to an omnivorous oeuvre that engages questions of copyright and consumption with ruthless glee. Yet within the context of Francesco Bonami’s sprawling Biennale, the bags seemed like an outright provocation—not against the stranglehold of international market forces but against Bonami’s self-proclaimed curatorial premise, targeted as it was against the very “breaking wave of globalization” that Murakami’s bags seemed so effortlessly to ride.

In his introductory catalogue essay, Bonami frames this year’s Biennale as nothing less than an attempt to “conceive of a new exhibition structure” for the “Grand Show.” He defines his approach in direct opposition to that of the Biennale’s previous director, Harald Szeemann, and a lineage of “monolithic” mega-exhibitions that since the 1960s have dominated the international art scene and, increasingly, its audience. In the name of a liberating and “more intimate” viewing experience, Bonami delegated curatorial responsibility to eleven colleagues, who along with him have organized a total of eleven official shows, as well as a series of “Links” and “Interludes,” all of which vie for attention with the national pavilions. While Bonami was wise to question how the “Grand Show” has come to posit an elusive viewer with endless amounts of time—to say nothing of patience—his solution only exacerbates the problem.

Making one’s way through the seemingly endless Arsenale, it was hard to see how a welter of exhibitions was any more sensitive to art and its audience than a single focused show might have been. There one encountered a series of intentionally dissonant presentations, several of which were organized in classic World’s Fair style by continent or region. One trekked from Africa and its diaspora, on to Asia, and finally to the Arab world, each stop brimming with enough information-laden art to fuel a high school social studies curriculum. The best of the bunch, Carlos Basualdo’s “The Structure of Survival,” focuses primarily on Latin America, but within a broader geographic and generational framework, which accommodates contributions by senior figures, including Gego and Hélio Oiticica, alongside fresh efforts, such as an impressive installation by Rachel Harrison. Still, if Bonami truly hoped to eschew traditional power structures, it seems puzzling that he has parceled out so much of the Biennale according to such conventional borders—a particularly troubling arrangement in that it individually quarantines the art of non-Western cultures in the name of a broader global perspective. Bonami’s disavowal of a synthetic presentation seems to rest on the mistaken assumption that a focused curatorial argument is, as he has written, necessarily “hegemonic” or leveling of art’s true diversity. Nowhere is this abdication of curatorial responsibility more painfully clear than in his own obscure show “Clandestine,” the concept of which is as hidden as its title suggests. Here Okwui Enwezor’s recent Documenta serves as an instructive counterexample, insofar as that exhibition suggested a cogent, if somewhat overstated, curatorial viewpoint, which rather than stifling the artworks generated meaningful connections among them.

For Bonami, the Biennale’s fractured structure is not simply an answer to the problem of the “Grand Show,” but more important, it serves as a response to the shadowy threat of globalization, the “waning of individuality and uniqueness.” In his catalogue essay, he proposes a “new reality somewhere between Globality and Romanticism, where economics and information finally intersect within the complexity of an individual’s identity and emotions . . . a world where the conflicts of globalization are met by the romantic dreams of a new modernity.” He has christened this spirit “Glomanticism” (a term that’s in and of itself an affront to the culture industry, because it surely would never have survived a marketing focus group). In three of Bonami’s own shows one found the “glomantic” spirit represented in a wide assortment of works by Matthew Barney, David Hammons, Franz Ackermann, Peter Doig, and Magnus von Plessen, among many others. It would be easy to characterize “Glomanticism” as a regressive conceit, and theoretically minded critics have long condemned similar retreats into the psyche of the expressive, authorial subject (Craig Owens’s 1982 attack on the Romanticism of Documenta 7 comes to mind). But the problem with Bonami’s “Glomantic” model is not its defense of a spiritual interiority per se so much as the curator’s somewhat disingenuous characterization of this approach as a viable form of political resistance. Such questionable claims are familiar from the early days of Abstract Expressionism but become especially hard to swallow in the context of exhibition literature liberally peppered with corporate sponsorship logos. Still, there’s a kind of poignant desperation to Bonami’s stance, and it’s indicative of an art world haunted by its impotent relationship to recent geopolitics yet understandably anxious to frame art as a socially redemptive practice.

This desire was most palpable at “Utopia Station,” where cocurators Molly Nesbit, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija served up a rabbit warren of spaces crammed with work by an impressive army of artists. Visitors could take in numerous videos, catch a performance organized by Martha Rosler and a cohort of art students, or sample enough panel conversations to raise the spirit of Joseph Beuys’s “social sculpture” from the dead. In their accompanying catalogue essay, the curators explain this confusing cornucopia as an attempt to reconsider utopia and to incorporate “aesthetic material, aesthetic matters, too, into another economy which does not regard art as fatally separate.” But what could have been more “fatally separate” than a cloistered space at the end of a kilometer-long Venetian Arsenale, accessible only to the most devoted pilgrims? There art’s incorporation into “another economy” was apparently evidenced by Atelier van Lieshout’s rough-hewn (and soon inoperable) outhouse, or by the visitor’s choice between an artist-imported, eco-friendly cola and an acqua frizzante from the snack bar. Perhaps it was fitting that a kind of playacting reverie enveloped the Station; or that it appeared somehow more meaningful to its actors than its audience; or even that its stated goal was simply to promote discussion, as had already been done at far-flung preliminary symposia from Frankfurt to Poughkeepsie. Yet despite several admirable contributions and an appealing air of optimism, the overall presentation suggested a sort of troubling solipsism couched as activism, an insider’s conversation in the guise of global outreach and engagement. This feeling was hardly mitigated by an installation of such dizzying opacity that most visitors seemed less interested in the art and ideas than in the chic souvenir totes branded with the Station’s logo and that of fashion designer Agnès B.

In Venice, the legacy of the ’60s was of course present in more than just utopian visions, as curators and artists alike found fresh impetus to wrestle with that decade’s weighty inheritance. While many attempts to negotiate the past appeared embarrassingly revivalist, Felix Gmelin offered a subtle meditation on the correspondences and ruptures between activist strategies then and now. In the Italian pavilion he presented Farbtest, Die Rote Fahne II (Color test, the red flag II), 2002, a pair of videos projected side by side on a wall. The left projection shows footage of a demonstration in the form of a relay race, with a series of men passing off a large red flag as they run down a Berlin street directly toward a perpetually retreating camera. The action, involving Gmelin’s father, took place in 1968 and ended with the raising of the flag on the balcony of city hall, the site of President Kennedy’s famous 1962 address. The right projection shows the same action restaged a generation later—in Stockholm in 2002, several months after the anti-globalization rallies in Genoa and Göteborg, Sweden. Gmelin timed the second race to match the first so that we see the flags handed off on each monitor almost exactly in sync. Tinged with nostalgia, but not naively so, Farbtest questions the efficacy of appropriated political strategies. Can activism be meaningfully transposed from one place and time to another? In what ways is the “color test” alluded to in the work’s title a formal statement as much as a political one? Gmelin leaves these questions unanswered, but it is their concise and elegant formulation that made one want to ponder them more than many of the overblown statements elsewhere on display.

Though arguably more market friendly, Chris Ofili’s paintings offered an alternative model for addressing broad social concerns within a compelling personal idiom. At the British pavilion, the painter presented a suite of densely layered canvases and delicate gouaches, starring a pair of Afro-capped lovers in a hothouse effulgence of glitter and palm fronds, halfway between the Copacabana and Paradise. The smartly dressed duo call to mind Ike and Tina as readily as Adam and Eve, and it is precisely this exuberant mix of allusions that lends Ofili’s paintings their evocative romanticism and hot-wired cultural charge. Apart from a dash of gold, each of the works in the show, as well as the pavilion itself, has been meticulously executed in only red, black, and green, a primary palette descended from Marcus Garvey’s 1920 Universal African flag by way of rap posters and pot paraphernalia. Unlike much of the finger-wagging art in Venice, Ofili’s paintings betray a keen sensitivity to the power and allure of pop-cultural myths from the dance hall to the barricades. While such an attitude may not be revolutionary enough for some, it represents a generous and lively take on a complex landscape of symbols both mundane and sublime.

A more bravado political gesture could be found nearby in Santiago Sierra’s installation at the Spanish pavilion. There Sierra covered the sign ordinarily announcing “Spagna” with a black plastic tarp and masking tape. Just twenty-six inches past the pavilion’s main entrance, he built a rough cinderblock wall spanning the width of the building, so that visitors were completely barred from passing farther than this messy liminal zone, strewn with the detritus of the wall’s construction and a now unenclosed toilet. After following a dusty path to the pavilion’s back door, one encountered two armed uniformed guards who informed visitors that entrance was permitted only upon presentation of a Spanish passport or other legal identification. While this ploy may have at first appeared gimmicky, the installation came alive after one witnessed scores of disgruntled non-Spanish visitors turned away at the door (one indignant Dutch couple put up a good fight to no avail). Sierra, more than any of the participating artists, seemed to understand the implications of a national pavilion as a quasi-sovereign space. Although this politicized zone was obviously staged, its implications were made forcefully real. Would-be visitors unexpectedly confronted the conflation of political and spatial barriers, an experience made all the more jarring and timely following the softening of borders within the EU, as well as their recent tightening in other parts of the world.

Across the Giardini, it was politics, or rather “business,” as usual for United States representative Fred Wilson. As part of his didactic exploration of the history of blacks in Venice, he hired an African immigrant to stand outside the US pavilion with a passel of artfully faked designer handbags. Unfortunately, however, they weren’t actually for sale, or at least not without a call to Wilson’s gallery. According to the Financial Times, the artist remarked that his museum-ready creations “will be for sale. Just not at the usual street prices.” For all those viewers who might have bemoaned Murakami’s troubling market complicity and the evils of globalization, here was a bag with more respectable credentials than even the totes at Utopia Station. Nestled safely within the outstretched wings of the American pavilion, the handbags (and their salesman) were clearly framed as “art,” not fashion, with all the requisite critical distance such a distinction implies. Yet the gesture seemed outright tame and contrived in light of the vendors outside the Giardini hawking “real” knockoffs, seductively plastered with counterfeit reinterpretations of a reinterpreted monogram. Murakami’s bags may indeed signal art’s ominous and orgiastic embrace of global consumption, but in contrast to the Biennale’s largely tired take on geopolitics, they somehow seemed less fake than true.

Scott Rothkopf is an art historian based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Linda Nochlin

What is utopia? How does the utopian idea engage with history as well as with the present? How might utopia be reconceived and reconfigured for our troubled times? And how can utopia—a concept typically set forth in a text—find its material counterpart in works of art? These and related questions are raised by “Utopia Station,” a heterogeneous, multiform, sometimes messy but always provocative, indoor and outdoor, large-scale exhibition of objects, installations, videos, films, and performances by sixty artists and collectives, curated by Molly Nesbit, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija for the Venice Biennale.

“Utopia Station” is a literal “station”—last stop on the line of exhibitions on view at the Arsenale. But it is a station in a metaphoric sense, too: one arrested moment in an ongoing investigation that has included the Utopia Seminar (part of the graduate program in visual arts at the University of Venice), a weekend gathering in Poughkeepsie, New York, the publication of a journal, Janus, in Belgium, and an ambitious poster project including works by such well-known artists as Marina Abramovic, Fischli & Weiss, Leon Golub, Steve McQueen, Annette Messager, Elizabeth Peyton, Rosemarie Trockel, Thomas Hirschhorn, Louise Bourgeois, and Ed Ruscha. And given the near-hundred-degree heat in Venice, it was impossible, walking and rewalking the long, long trail to the show with bleeding feet and burning head, not to relate “station” to the physical suffering and mental anguish narrated in the stations of the cross. But once you got there, things changed. In the heat and agitation of the Biennale press opening, “Utopia Station” offered a kind of redemptive, if unkempt, respite. The station itself was planned as a long, low platform—part dance floor, part stage, and part quay, to paraphrase the curators. Along one side was a row of large circular benches and tables, designed by Liam Gillick, where one could read, talk, rest, powder one’s nose, or take off one’s shoes as the spirit moved. On the other side was a wall intersected by small rooms for installations, performances, and projections. Outside was a rough, weedy, but spacious garden planted with installations, events, seating space, and not quite enough shade.

Among the most memorable works on view at “Utopia Station,” indoors or out, were Agnès Varda’s video projection Patatutopia, 2003, which features close-ups of potatoes, their withered complexions creating a sense of uncanny pathos as they move and metamorphose across the screen; Yoko Ono’s contribution, which includes the “Declaration of Nutopia” signed by John Lennon and herself in 1973 and wall maps on which visitors are encouraged to stamp the words IMAGINE PEACE; an enchanting video by Shimabuku called When sky was sea, 2002, featuring fish kites floating in a sea-sky of heavenly blue; a series of album covers by Rodney Graham, done in the blackest of black inks; and Tacita Dean’s Alabaster Window Project, 2003, a stained-glass window in muted colors, suggesting, perhaps, transcendence.

Despite such highlights, I think it is fair to say that few of the works on view engage directly with the idea of utopia that inspired the show. In some cases, utopia might present itself through a sort of willed free association: For example, if you had seen Varda’s wonderful film Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000), you might connect her potatoes to the theme of gleaning and the ecological ideal of living on leftovers, a utopian notion of sorts. But on the whole, the utopian idea was implicit rather than explicit, figurative rather than literal in the work on view in Venice—with rare but welcome exceptions.

There was, for example, Martha Rosler’s Speculations and Speculative Fictions, 2003, which, to borrow the words of its creator, was “an episodic investigation of time, time travel, and visions of social transformation,” performed in the setting of a still larger project, the Oleanna Space/Ship/Station, which drew on ongoing collaborations with present and former students from around the world. Engaging science-fiction literature, especially the 1970s feminist variety, this multipartite work considered the hazards of travel from the time of Homer to the era of the space shuttle. Some of the political inspiration for the piece came from a renegade Scandinavian branch of the Situationists who were expelled from the movement for refusing to renounce the art world, a nice utopian irony in the context of the Venice Biennale!

The work on view that grapples most directly perhaps with the historical idea of utopia is Leif Elggren and Carl Michael von Hausswolff’s portentously titled The Annexation of Utopia by the Kingdoms of Elgaland-Vargaland, 2003, a book-shredding and
-recycling act for which the Swedish artists pulped multiple copies of a specially printed edition of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), formed the pulp into lovely sheets of raw paper, and hung them out to dry on open-air clotheslines in an attractive triangular installation in which meaning is erased in favor of sheer materiality. Obviously, this was meant as an ecological sermon of sorts—returning printed matter to basic substance—but More’s Utopia, the earliest and best-known of all its namesakes, is well worth reading before it goes into the shredder.

Reading the book in bed that very night, on returning from the Station, I was amazed at the boldness of a sixteenth-century humanist who could invent such a dizzy ideal society, a no-place, presumably in the New World, where jewels and gold are demoted to the rank of children’s toys and men and women are more or less equal; where hunting and gambling, major pleasures of the aristocracy, are ruled sordid pastimes and forbidden and people are content to pass their leisure time in music making and reading; a community in which justice and equality are the political ideals and kindness and generosity a way of life. It became clear, reading More’s Utopia, that, like later utopian visions—Charles Fourier’s in France or William Morris’s in England—one of Utopia’s goals is to offer a stringent critique of contemporary society while also providing more satisfying alternatives to existing social arrangements. At “Utopia Station,” this critical aspect of the utopian project was perhaps best represented by the active presence of Rosler, who, in a wide range of media from video to installation to slide shows, has been criticizing American politics and gender disparities with wit and energy ever since the Vietnam War and the women’s movement of the ’70s.

One of the major problems confronting all utopian dreamer-planners, and addressed at the exhibition in a variety of forms, is, Who is going to do the dirty work in the ideal society? Who will take out the garbage, dig the cesspools, slaughter the animals (in non-vegetarian utopias like More’s, at any rate)? For More, the answer is slaves, deemed at the time to be nonpersons (rather like the robotic helpers in later techno-ideal societies) suited to spare the citizens of utopia firsthand bloodshed and cruelty. This started me thinking about Fourier’s solution to the problem of dirty work. To put it as succinctly as possible, this nineteenth-century utopian socialist’s goal was pleasure—all the time, for everybody. “We shall see people engaged in attractive occupations, giving no thoughts to material wants, free from all pecuniary cares and anxieties,” declares Fourier in “On Social Organization” (1820). “A unity of interests and views will arise, crime and violence disappear,” he continues. “Universal happiness and gaiety will reign.” To this end, sexual pleasure is organized on a stringently egalitarian basis: Squads of young men service older women; older men initiate young girls, and the young folks get their chance only after they have done their erotic duty for their elders. And Fourier’s solution to the dirty-work problem? “To secure the execution of uncleanly and offensive labors, a body of youths . . . shall perform them all. For the young love to wade in the mire and play in dirt, are self-willed, rude, daring, and fond of gross language,” asserts Fourier.

I go into such detail partly because I am seduced by the Fourierist utopian ideal and partly because one of the most inviting structures in the scraggly field of “Utopia Station” deals precisely with this perennial problem of waste disposal in the utopian community. I am referring to the Dutch collective Atelier van Lieshout’s scatopia, 2002, an ambitious contraption designed to recycle human waste. It includes—shades of Duchamp—a urinal for women, which this reviewer, following the instructions, bravely attempted to mount (impossible!), a vacuum toilet intended only for feces and carrying elaborate directions and dire warnings, and a compost toilet, accommodating both urine and feces, which recycles waste material into useful fertilizer. All of this is accompanied by a plethora of generators, tubes, and formidable-looking (nonworking, I think) techno-gadgets, all replete with the mad logic of the true utopian enterprise: One thinks of Fourier’s plan to transform the oceans of the world into lemonade. And speaking of lemonade, among the most alluring exhibits in the heat-ravaged garden was the refreshment stand organized by Superflex, a Danish collective who’ve collaborated with a co-op of Brazilian farmers to produce a soft drink to compete with the multinational corporations that have taken over guarana-fruit production. It was icy, delicious, and much better than Coca-Cola.

Yet in a more serious vein, I was struck by the topos itself: the problem of shit at the heart of utopia, or more accurately, the dialectical relationship between shit and the utopian enterprise, which is rather like that between the ugly and the beautiful in Adorno’s aesthetics. Just as an ideal society cannot exist without the presence of waste material, so there cannot be beauty without the presence of ugliness; indeed, the presence of ugliness is what defines beauty. And at “Utopia Station,” the trivial, the ephemeral, the haphazard, the unabashedly useless, the would-be useful, the overtly unlovely—all play a role in the conceptual framework of thinking, constructively or deconstructively, about a better world. Indeed, one might say that the curators of “Utopia Station,” above all in their written statement (available on the Internet), tend to fetishize the ephemeral, the unfinished, and the antimonumental, rather than the monumental, the permanent, or the triumphantly architectonic.

And how does art work in this utopian enterprise, or in utopia more generally considered? Do we really need art in the ideal society? What is art, anyway, in the context of utopia? Some of “Utopia Station’s” participants, like Gillick, staunchly maintain that their work—in his case, the simple wooden benches and tables—is not art but basic furniture. This utilitarian stance recalls William Morris’s 1890 News from Nowhere, in which the artist and social revolutionary postulates a postapocalyptic England where art has simply ceased to exist as a separate category and the National Gallery has been reduced to a quaint ruin with odd rectangles dangling from the walls. In Morris’s utopia, every life is filled with pleasure, fulfilling work, and the making of craft objects; hence there is simply no need for ridiculous canvases hanging on privileged walls. Still other participants in “Utopia Station” created variations on the Morris position, like Anton Vidokle, whose book Here, There, Elsewhere . . . (Krabbesholm, 2003) includes a sheet of stickers that can be put up anywhere by anyone at any time.

But of course for some, art—high as well as low—is primary to the construction of the utopian ideal. This was the contention of the greatest, most prolific utopian thinker of the twentieth century, Ernst Bloch, whose essays are gathered in The Utopian Function of Art and Literature (MIT Press, 1988). Bloch, Communist, Stalinist, mystic, philosopher, often inscrutable dreamer, maintained that the bourgeois heritage of art was by no means to be disdained and dismissed, but rather reutilized in such a way that art’s utopian undercurrents could rise to the surface. A champion of modernism, expressionism, montage, and the fairy tale, Bloch nevertheless diverged to the ancient Parthenon to illustrate the staying power of latent utopian potential, declaring in a 1968 interview, “The Parthenon cannot be written off just because it was built by a slaveholding society. Its social mission at the time is no longer the important thing. What interests us now is its meaning for later generations living under a changed general situation. Only progress and the progression of time therefore bring out the full value of the past heritage.” The concept of Vor-Schein, or anticipatory illumination, a glimpse of the more perfect world of the future offered by the great work of art, was also central to Bloch’s exploration of the relation between art and utopia. Literature, music, and visual art might contain this anticipatory illumination, making the role of the artist like that of the midwife delivering the newborn classless society. In all of his work, Bloch attempted to elaborate his primary categories of human potential in relation to the category of hope, the goal of utopia. Bloch’s position, though articulated with great sophistication and imagination, is difficult to read and suffers in translation. It is perceived as quaintly “humanist” by postmodern theorists, and this is a pity, I think, because “Utopia Station” might have profited by his insights into the tense, often contradictory, but always fruitful relationship existing between art—especially high art!—and the utopian enterprise. I don’t think I am going too far when I maintain that none or very little of the work at “Utopia Station” reflects Bloch’s sense of the relationship between art and the utopian enterprise: the interweaving of the past with the present; the illumination, conscious or unconscious, offered by art to the human spirit; or his sense of hope—a better future—as a major category of utopian thought. Of course, as I write this, I see that it sounds corny, a voice from the past inappropriate to a postmodernist sensibility, what might well be called a postutopian concept of utopia.

I will end with the contribution of Carsten Höller, No Names, 2003, because it seems to summarize, with charming diffidence and admirable succinctness, the successes and failures of “Utopia Station” at the Venice Biennale. At the same time, Höller’s statement summons up the strengths and weaknesses of the utopian enterprise in general—past, present, and future. Here is Höller’s contribution, distributed in an exhibition handout, in toto: “I proposed to not have artist or curator names at ‘Utopia Station.’ You would not have seen who did what. I thought the absence of names would emphasize the notion of the common space. The reason for No Names not to be realized at ‘Utopia Station’ was that this idea occurred to me too late.”

A perfect example of what Ernst Bloch would have called “nonsynchronism.” But of course, the whole point at “Utopia Station” is that the trains can never, need never, should never run on time. Utopia is always too early or too late, never now.

Linda Nochlin is Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.

Tim Griffin

A week or so before the opening of the 2003 Venice Biennale, Time magazine ran a cover article about the malaise of American leftist politics and, more pointedly, about the puzzling disarray of the Democratic Party. How could it be that, with a controversial war in Iraq and the passage of a massive tax cut for everyone but those below the poverty line, no remotely coherent contrarian voice was being articulated in the public sphere? Groping for answers, the periodical unearthed a quote rolling back the decades to a time when the political war rooms still gulched cigar smoke, and at the center of that cloud was Tip O’Neill, lamenting the fissures among his fellows: “In any other country, the Democratic Party would be five parties.”

I couldn’t help but recall this line when, taking a water taxi to the Biennale, I spotted one of the exhibition’s signal works: a large red banner made by Piotr Uklanski and featuring the silhouettes of all eleven curators participating at director Francesco Bonami’s invitation. Draped high across a facade along the Grand Canal, the piece recalled the leftist party banners of yesteryear and heralded both the event’s repositioning of art in relation to changing contemporary politics and its creation of a loose coalition of curators to pull it all off. Of course, this case of multiple identities constitutes a kind of reversal of O’Neill’s logic. For what the politician understood as a problem, Bonami sees as a necessary condition and solution. Gone is the hour for global-scope endeavors that pretend to any totally unified view or universalizing theme, he asserts in a catalogue essay; such attempts, which carry viewers from piece to piece, bespeak a floating world, not our real one. What’s required now is something else entirely: “The ‘Grand Show’ of the 21st Century must allow multiplicity, diversity and contradiction to exist inside the structure of an exhibition. It must reflect this new complexity of contemporary reality, vision, and emotions.”

With its polycentric aims, Bonami’s Biennale, “Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer,” continues an ongoing curatorial meditation on the form that transnational exhibitions of contemporary art might take in the new millennium—a meditation that dares to propose a kind of subjectivity for the viewer who, in the face of globalization’s breakthroughs, breakdowns, and ever-expanding systems, is forced to retreat into, and then renegotiate, the terms of identity, regionalism, and personal experience. Perhaps the Biennale, in pursuing such fractures and irreconcilable differences among its own many different parts, offers a kind of reply to last year’s Documenta. Just as Okwui Enwezor’s team of curators created a cumulative exhibition of distinct elements, the totality of which was bound to remain beyond anyone’s grasp—with such words and phrases as “unformed,” “unrealized,” and “parallel structures” playing key conceptual roles—so did Bonami’s. More artists, more individual exhibitions, and more national pavilions are included in this Biennale than ever before. And time and again the curators point to themes of fragmentation, absence, and the sense of something unfinished—whether in the wistful, plywood-walled cacophony of “Utopia Station” and its title’s implicit claim to being merely a single stop in a long line of political thinking, or in Daniel Birnbaum’s assertion that many works in “Delays and Revolutions” (presented in the Italian pavilion and cocurated with Bonami) are “late arrivals or deferred effects in a world characterized by heterogeneity and temporal polyphony rather than linear progress.”

As the art world still attempts to calibrate itself to the past decade’s globalist discourses, the ideas ring true, or at least lend some gravity to any curatorial investigation. Yet implemented here such theorization was enough to make Sam Durant’s Like, man, I’m tired (of waiting), 2002—a grand light box inscribed with its title that hung above the entrance to the Italian pavilion and initially struck me as a one-liner—more poignant with every viewing. For Durant’s work speaks perfectly to this Biennale’s most pivotal and enervating quality: In seeking art’s critical potential, the show often looks to examples of radicality from the past in order to posit ones for the future, and so rarely sets its sights squarely on the present—leaving audiences with the exhausting sense of art in a liminal state, full of potential but unfulfilled. (And what, after all, is “waiting” but the feeling that the “present” is yet to arrive?) Everywhere one looked, instead of consummation, there seemed to be stories of frustration and wanting, of unreleased desire, or of melancholic attempts to recover, rethink, and even relive lost passages in history and its vanguard art. Where was the reflected “contemporary reality”?

Probably it resided in the tensions (or “fault lines,” to turn the title of one subexhibition in the Arsenale). In “Utopia Station,” for example, free knickknacks—none more effective than shopping bags bearing the show’s title—created an electric atmosphere of gleeful satiation. Yet a quick flip to the back of the bag revealed the name Agnès B.—a sponsored spin on utopia that undermined the show’s tenor of straightforward idealism and conjured merchandising’s near-ubiquitous inversions of Situationist rhetoric in recent years (articulated most precisely perhaps in the book accompanying Rem Koolhaas’s Prada store). Something similar happened in Bonami’s “Pittura/Painting: From Rauschenberg to Murakami, 1964–2003,” which hosts any number of beautiful vignettes—many revolving around the theme of the human figure, as in Marlene Dumas beside Francis Bacon, Ed Ruscha beside Gerhard Richter—but takes as its keynote Robert Rauschenberg’s Kite, 1963. Revisiting Rauschenberg’s legendary success at the 1964 Venice Biennale (which signaled America’s new dominance on the cultural map), the show capitalizes on the work’s militaristic imagery and flatbed technique, by which the artist levied subtle criticisms at his native country. But the resuscitation of that moment asks implicitly for some similar revelation now, in the absence of which one risks nostalgia or wonders whether “criticality” is at all possible today. (And if the answer is yes, then what form does it take?) Indeed, another strange tension within this Biennale was generated by the attempt to contemplate some position “outside” culture, suggesting a possibility for revolution that the very notions of globalism underpinning the exhibition would deny. One contrasting example is Takashi Murakami, the other bookend for “Pittura/Painting,” whose work is propelled by a deft transposition of Japan’s historic lack of “fine art” into contemporary Western merchandising, piggybacking on contemporary indie and couture culture. It’s an updated Pop move worthy of the waves of schizo-culture, embracing navigation rather than negation as a modus operandi. But is Murakami quite so startling in this time as Rauschenberg was in his? Or so critically startling as he himself was just a few years ago? (Or, for that matter, as disquieting as the manga culture that inspires his imagery? One might imagine a dark, Ghost in the Shell–style story line about a contemporary artist making his move to LVMH to become a kind of puppet master for the art world.)

Perhaps the Biennale doesn’t have the necessary display models for the likes of Murakami, or to make art resonate so powerfully as Rauschenberg’s once did—meaning that Bonami is quite right in suggesting that nothing less than the very complexion of the event is at stake today. Still, the Biennale event itself was deconstructed in a way that was more surface or motif than living fact, and the play with the exhibition’s form here generally did not succeed. Certainly, in the Arsenale, the sense of unfulfilled potential was aggravated in part by the exhibition’s very structure, as the building’s grand corridor gave way to compartmentalization. First, the Arsenale was divided into seven parts, to house seven shows; then, windows were covered and walls erected to produce discrete spaces for individual artists—making each installation seem at a continuous, pregnant pause, the works never quite coalescing, as though they were in the arrhythmic booths of an intellectual’s art fair. An exception was Carlos Basualdo’s “The Structure of Survival,” which created numerous visual and formal rhymes among, for example, Gego’s delicate wire sculptures and Yona Friedman’s bulky Styrofoam wall, as well as Hélio Oiticica’s small housing maquettes and Robert Smithson’s slide show Hotel Palenque, 1963.

In the Italian pavilion, the retrospective overtures were not always overtly political. For example, Andy Warhol’s silent screen test of a wry Marcel Duchamp found a corollary in Tacita Dean’s film of arte povera figure Mario Merz sitting quietly in his garden, both works seeming like melancholic homages to artists on the verge of becoming history. And Gabriel Orozco’s Shadow between rings of air (Pensilina), 2003, is a wood replica of Carlo Scarpa’s nearby 1952 concrete patio for the pavilion, mirroring its cool contours—a pristine form playing on Scarpa’s idiosyncratic, near mystical compositional style. Vanished modernist ideals in fact provided a recurring theme here and throughout the Biennale. If, to extend a thought by Jean-François Lyotard, it is the job of modernism to forget and the job of postmodernism to remember, then what does it mean now to remember how to forget? This paradoxical task, and an accompanying sense of studied uncertainty, seems to be ours today. But the political undertow was still clear in such works as Cady Noland’s The Big Slide, 1989, a metal wall railing with a folded American flag hanging alongside a smaller flag bearing the insignia of a black shark. Cold and spare, and laden with a few hooks, the sculpture evokes the razor-fish politics of the late ’80s but feels as pertinent today. The pavilion’s centerpiece inspired a similarly uncanny sensation, turning on the element of nostalgia (the ultimate “delay”) that tinged so many works in the Biennale: an entire room of selections from Richard Prince’s “Cowboys” series. The Marlboro Man imagery of the imagined West is stunningly seductive, and all the more striking given that Prince continued the series, so powerfully identified with the ’80s, over the course of two decades. One wonders if Prince isn’t America’s own kind of Wagner, a figure able to frame the nation’s unconscious fantasies—everything that you want to embrace that is, at the same time, everything you want to deny. Or, to add some simulacral spice to this country logic, he evokes the proverb You can’t lose what you never had.

That kind of memory-function conundrum found formal manifestations throughout the Biennale. If, as Walter Benjamin puts it, the revolutionary historian is one who “grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one”—recognizing the underlying problematic structures that a contemporary situation shares with previous eras (no matter the superficial differences)—then Dan Graham was that historian’s artist in the Italian pavilion, providing a time-space-image warp to map out Birnbaum and Bonami’s concept of “Delays and Revolutions” in three dimensions. His Opposing mirrors and video monitors on time delay, 1974, consists of two monitors with closed-circuit cameras affixed to their tops, facing mirrors on opposite walls. Viewers looking at either monitor end up looking five seconds into the past on the other side of the room as it was captured on camera, at the same time that they see what is happening across the room in real time and space. In effect, Graham puts the perception of the Biennale’s viewing subject in perspective—not unlike Olafur Eliasson’s project for the Danish pavilion, probably the most ambitious work in the Giardini and most in keeping with Bonami’s sense of the inward-turned contemporary viewer. In an act of deconstruction by construction, Eliasson divided and unfolded his pavilion into a many-sided metaphorical crystal that prompts individuals to become more aware of their own experience of, say, light. One room is illuminated in camphor yellow, which makes the eye see all other colors as shades of gray. Another is almost entirely dark except near a slanted window that invokes the geometry of the Farnsworth House, and which looks directly outside on eucalyptus leaves that reflect sunlight into the room. The building is topped with a rotunda, a kind of homage to Graham in which interlocking reflective glass shingles create kaleidoscopic perspectives for any viewer walking between them, always partially blocking the landscape until the viewer reaches the “sweet spot” where all vantages are blocked by mirrored surfaces, so that reflections eclipse real vision—hence Eliasson’s title, “The Blind Pavilion.”

Yet the most poignant turn in a Biennale that everywhere bore the signature of fragmentation is Jana Sterbak’s Canadian pavilion. From Here to There, 2003, a six-screen video installation, shows refracted rural views that variously speed and slow to mirror the allegros and adagios of her sound track of Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations (a touch all the more effective for the near-embarrassment its sentimentality inspires)—the camera racing frantically along a hardwood floor to focus, finally, on thick snow settling on a pine tree; or set stable in a car, tracking the skeins of snowflakes sifted by a pavement-skimming wind. These moments are dumb and sensual enough to seem elemental—purely visual, almost outside of time—and evocative enough to feel Proustian. Indeed, in an instance of Kleistian brilliance, the hypnotic imagery turns out to have been captured by a Jack Russell terrier with a video camera mounted on its back. Whatever the method here, such intoxication prompted comparison to similarly pleasurable, unprogrammatic moments elsewhere. For they were there to be had: in the broad, planar brushstrokes of Magnus von Plessen’s figurative canvases; in Jimmie Durham’s dog-gnawed sculptural homage to Robert Filliou; in Art & Language’s photographic installation and its blunt accompanying text: “This work is composed of dogmatic monochromes which are also portraits. These are its indices. They are, as it were, to be seen, and to be worked at. If the result . . . is not the convergence of these indices at a point of singularity—so that neither is recovered or both are unnaturally and self-annoyingly asymptotic—then the work fails.”

Perhaps, for me, these represent the occasional “dreams” among the rampant “conflicts” in this Biennale. Or perhaps stitching such individual pieces together is, in fact, to follow Bonami’s lead. After all, he asks viewers to navigate their own course, to create their own show, making the connections they each desire—even if that involves serious work, given that the landscape of art here seems in transition, or even, like the Democratic Party, in disarray. Once again, Tip O’Neill: “All politics is local.”

Tim Griffin is senior editor of Artforum.