PRINT September 2005

Stealing the Show

THE VENICE BIENNALE BOILS DOWN TO A COMPETITION for visibility. While not exactly a shocking revelation, this rather sweeping conclusion came forcefully to mind as I lay trapped inside a Disney-like metallic pod in the Arsenale, watching a light-and-music show—purportedly generated by my own sensor-affixed cranium. As Mariko Mori’s overproduced, obviously expensive, and calculatedly entertaining Wave UFO, 1999–2002, implies, the competition this year in Venice is pretty steep. Artists don’t just “compete” with each other, or for one of the juried prizes; they have to contend with the complex topography of Venice itself: the scale and sprawl of the venues, the historical weight of the city, the broad demographic ranging from art insider to tourist, the overlay of geopolitical stakes in the national pavilions, and the Cannes-style entanglement of marketing events and social glitz.

Such competitive jockeying is surely a part of every grand show, but the curator’s craft is usually engaging, polemical, or flamboyant enough to overshadow it. Not so this year in Venice. Unlike other major exhibitions in recent memory, the 2005 Biennale has neither the discursive ambition (e.g., Catherine David’s “political” Documenta 10), the unconventional methodology (e.g., Francesco Bonami’s eleven-curator dream team of the previous Biennale), nor even the aura of a magisterial auteur (e.g., Jan Hoet or Harald Szeemann) that successfully elbows artist-versus-artist rivalry behind the scenes. Instead, cocurators Rosa Martínez (“Always a Little Further” in the Arsenale) and María de Corral (“The Fraser, Exhibition, 2002, still Experience of Art” in the Italian pavilion) erred either on the side of uninspired modesty or cautious conservatism—depending on how generous you’re feeling.

The list of artists in the Arsenale and Italian pavilion dramatically shrank from the previous Biennale (from a total of 380 to a mere ninety-one); the overall installation style is characterized by its tidy restraint; and both exhibitions’ thematic frameworks are nothing more than a string of vanilla platitudes. Martínez’s show took its inspiration from the Corto Maltese comic-book character as the personification of “the myth of the romantic traveler.” Her bland, convictionless preface is filled with hollow references to “passion and melancholy, trust and desperation, pleasure and guilt.” Similarly, Corral articulates her desire to strive for “intensity” and a show that is “rich in reflection and pleasure.” Only Martínez’s feminist pronouncements managed, for a fleeting moment, to raise eyebrows. Yet despite her laudable corrective intentions, it takes more than an increase in women artists (with a statistical breakdown courtesy of the Guerrilla Girls) and a return to “Womanhouse” aesthetics (such as Joana Vasconcelos’s tampon chandelier) to instigate a mordant debate about gender politics and sexual difference.

Subsequently, at least for me, the lack of a strong curatorial presence resulted in a vacuum, allowing the competition among the various works to dominate my experience of the show. Beyond arbitrating between good and bad art, I became a taxonomist, attempting to catalogue and evaluate the various gestures and structural devices at play. I began to see individual works as typological examples of artistic strategies, which are themselves engaged in a kind of showdown as heated as that between individual artists. What follows is a partial accounting.

Perhaps the most pragmatic visibility strategy (if also the most cynical) is one that takes into account the onset of Attention Deficit Disorder among nearly all Biennale visitors. After hours of wandering through even the most engaging of blockbuster exhibitions, anything short, easy to consume, and willfully entertaining has a chance of being considered compelling. This year, Francesco Vezzoli decisively captures the short-attention-span demographic with his star-studded Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula, 2005. Almost all of Vezzoli’s visual and narrative touches could be construed as site specific, playing to the hilt a glamour-crazed art crowd on holiday in a former imperial city: There is decadent styling (costumes by Donatella Versace and a Roman palazzo by way of Plano, Texas); calculated campiness (savvy casting, including Helen Mirren playing Tiberia, with leashed slave boys in tow); pornographic “titillation” (golden dildos and plenty of sapphic kissing!); and healthy dollops of over-the-top humor (a grotesquely botoxed Courtney Love intoning a serious monologue as Caligula). Yet it is Vezzoli’s choice of form—the five-minute theatrical trailer—that perfectly befits this unapologetically self-promoting artist’s quest for the limelight. With the notorious absence of persona-driven pranksters such as Maurizio Cattelan—whose tricycle-riding puppet, Charlie, was the top ADD-friendly entry of 2003—Vezzoli definitely “triumphed” over his coexhibitors in the Italian pavilion. While his piece may provide this year’s guiltiest pleasure, it also demonstrates that pushing the (already thin) divide between art and entertainment can be a highly seductive—and effective—biennial strategy.

On the opposite end of the darkened-gallery spectrum, the long métrage’s refusal of instant gratification can provide a platform for intellectual complexity in a sea of cheap thrills. This year, the Polish and Dutch pavilions offer the most outstanding entries in the near-feature-length-film category, and both attempt to literally capture our attention by imposing strict viewing conditions, such as posting screening times and all but locking the audiences inside for the full duration of the films. Uncannily mirroring each other in polar-opposite styles and genres, Artur Żmijewski’s austere documentary Repetition, 2005, and Jeroen de Rijke and Willem de Rooij’s overtly theatrical fiction, Mandarin Ducks, 2005, both probe humankind’s sinister potential. Creating by far the most profound and disturbing artwork at the Biennale, Żmijewski restaged Professor Philip Zimbardo’s infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment in a specially constructed, dual-purpose jail/soundstage in Warsaw. Following Zimbardo’s original scenario with near-scientific exactitude, Żmijewski recruited sixteen male volunteers (seven “inmates” and nine “guards”) and recorded the incarceration until each of the participants reached their psychological breaking point. Seven days of footage were condensed into a riveting thirty-nine-minute video that reveals the pathological effects of power. Without resorting to didacticism or sensationalism, Żmijewski’s film demonstrates that the capacity for violence, cruelty, and humiliation is not exclusive to the wardens at Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo Bay but lurks in every human being. Yet perhaps even more troubling than the film’s truism-like conclusion are the ethical questions raised by Żmijewski’s own role in the “experiment.” Was the artist exploiting the participants by playing God with the lives of paid, unemployed “volunteers” for the sake of his art? Or, does Żmijewski exploit the audience’s own expectations—pushing our buttons, whetting our appetites for violence, and ultimately delivering a rather dry and reassuring humanist ending?

With much less gravitas and a lot more visual flair, de Rijke and de Rooij offer a similarly dark portrayal of human social behavior. Their thirty-six-minute Buñuel-inspired scenario involves a series of vignettes in which a cast of haute-bourgeois characters inflict social cruelties on one another (mother and daughter exchange vicious repartee; wife and husband discuss their infidelities with unsettling sangfroid). While admirable for its ambitious execution and brave mannerism, de Rijke and de Rooij’s exploration of rancor, embitterment, lust, and jealousy ultimately falls a little flat. Nonetheless, their “theater of cruelty,” along with Żmijewski’s, states the case for work that neither relies on easily consumable forms nor resorts to “lite” subject matter.

Having become synonymous with that ever-desirable trait “criticality” (even if it’s hard to define these days), performance-related work is a reliable tactic in the biennial circuit. In recent years, a gesture such as Francis Alÿs’s parading peacock in the Giardini—The Ambassador, 2001—not only made a playful critical allusion to the problem of artistic ego, it created a sense of quiet astonishment amid a field of heavy-handed gestures. Regrettably, this year’s performative forays deliver neither surprise nor critical impact. The dancing gallery attendants in Tino Sehgal’s piece This is so contemporary, 2004–2005, fill the German pavilion with the refrain “This is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary,” but more appropriate lyrics might be, “This is so hackneyed, hackneyed, hackneyed . . . Tino Sehgal!” What is intended to be an ironic and anticommercial strategy counterpointing from a color video, 20-minute more market-friendly forms of artistic production (conveniently exemplified by the paintings of Sehgal’s coexhibitor, Thomas Scheibitz) in this case comes off as trite. While there are other performance+sculpture entries in the Arsenale (John Bock’s Zero Hero, 2005, and Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s Hope Hippo, 2005), as well as some historical performance residue (e.g., banal photographs of Leigh Bowery and a lifeless display of his once-outlandish outfits), the ineffectuality of Seghal’s “radical” gesture signals that even the most “subversive” strategies can suffer from overexposure on the international-biennial (and art-fair) circuit. In this context, a work like Sehgal’s—seemingly tailor made to both grab our attention and parry with the more static objects on view—ironically fails precisely because it is neither able to stand out from the crowd nor to challenge the status quo, which, in fact, it has become.

“Utopia Station”—the exhibition-cum-mishmash of panel discussions performances, snack bar, and reading room—represented the apotheosis of the relational aesthetics “movement” in 2003, and today, no biennial would be complete with- out some kind of “interactive” experience like it. Improbably, the prize in this cat- egory might go to Mori for her UFO, in which three lucky participants simultaneously view a six-minute long “movie of their brains” in colored lights on the interior ceiling of the ship (a microscaled experience that demonstrated how even the most politically motivated strategies such as relational aesthetics can be co-opted as just another means to dazzle the audience). But for those who yearned for a more classic take on relational aesthetics, Global Project (an international activist organization) and Laboratorio Morion (a local social/cultural center) launched the Mars Pavilion in an abandoned teahouse just beyond the gates of the Giardini. A self-styled “artistic resistance laboratory,” it sponsors daily events, political tracts, guerrilla actions (costumed “Martians” crashed the vernissage to contest the Biennale’s elitism and demand access for local working-class residents), community services, and even musical performances by leftist cult heroes such as Gilberto Gil. It would be easy to dismiss this “alternative” event as nothing more than a shabby, juvenile imitation of “Utopia Station”’s sociopolitical agenda (and, in turn, to make the case that relational aesthetics has become as academic as painting and sculpture). But the more I discovered about the activities of the Mars Pavilion and the discourse of its organizers, the more I realized its lack of aesthetic pretension—to the point that almost no “real” artworks were displayed there—and its serious commitment to local concerns (rather than those imported by an international cadre of the art elite) offered the most genuine critical statement in Venice this year).

Back in the “official” spaces of the Biennale’s curated show, other artists were struggling to offer their own critical takes on the local situation. That’s where desublimatory gestures come in handy, allowing artists to instantly signify their “engagement”—even in the most apolitical of contexts—by uncovering the often discomfiting sociological or ideological underpinnings of a given site. Although such practices no longer provoke scandals à la Hans Haacke, the site-specific institutional critique is a strategic mainstay in the artistic toolbox, and this year the Guerrilla Girls were invited by Martínez to “excavate” the facts. The now world-renown anonymous collective put an agitprop spin on its local fieldwork, addressing the lack of a female artistic presence in Venice on monumental billboards lining the grandiose entrance to the Arsenale. One proclaims, “BENVENUTI ALLA BIENNALE FEMMINISTA!” and grudgingly announces “38% WOMEN ARTISTS IN THE CURATED GROUP SHOWS!” while smaller print just below goes on to bemoan “WHO CARES THAT SO MANY NATIONAL PAVILIONS ARE ONLY SHOWING MEN!” And so on. With better-than-average statistics and two female curators, how could such a rant be justified at a grand moment of feminist triumph? More than simple defeatism, the Girls’s “it’s great, but who cares” rhetorical strategy actually betrays the contradictory dilemma that they face as Martínez’s “star artists.” Their prominent inclusion in the Arsenale could have been a celebratory occasion—acknowledging not only the merit of their twenty-year career but also their progress (however incomplete) in correcting the art world’s misogyny. Instead, the Girls’s own reliance on contestation strategies mandated that—even in a moment of glory—they were STILL OBLIGED to cry sexism. Of course, if they were to admit more than partial success, they might put themselves out of business—a Catch-22 that seems to be the predicament of most current practitioners of institutional critique.

Dismantling partition walls, exposing the structural components of a site, and sandblasting the white paint off a gallery’s interior have long been part of the strategic repertoire of institutional critique’s more reflexive branch. Ever since Harald Szeemann’s “Conceptual art” Documenta in 1972, artists have faithfully returned to this subgenre again and again. Carrying Michael Asher’s torch this year are Carsten Höller and Miriam Bäckström’s Amplified Pavilion and Daniel Knorr’s European Influenza (both 2005). Each revisited the empty-gallery gambit, adding either a poetic or political twist. Höller and Bäckström removed the two glass walls from the elegant modernist edifice of the Nordic pavilion, thus heightening the sensation of transparency that was part of architect Sverre Fehn’s original design. A series of imperceptible microphones installed in the trees surrounding the building’s perimeter transmit the chirping of birds and other ambient noises to speakers inside. A self-described maker of “invisible artworks,” Knorr simply left the Romanian pavilion empty—without tidying up the messy remnants of past installations. The exhibition’s heavy-handed title and hefty accompanying anthology of texts on European acculturation suggest a politically discursive frame for Knorr’s most minimal of gestures—one related to Santiago Sierra’s guarded, Spanish-nationals-only pavilion in 2003, which was also left empty, save for the detritus of the previous installation. While the emptied gallery no longer automatically serves as a radical act of contestation (how could it after all these years?), the gesture nevertheless retains some strategic allure as a humble means of disrupting the continuous visual spectacle of the Biennale, and, in some cases, has recently aimed its critical punch less at the politics of art institutions than at politics at large.

From emptying out to total audiovisual saturation, the transformation of the gallery into an all-encompassing spatio-visual experience can also be an effective showstopper. Employing colored lights, mirrors, and architectural modifications in the last Biennale, Olafur Eliasson’s The blind pavilion, 2003, served as a classic example of this strategy. More than simply a large-scale phenomenological dispositif in the spirit of James Turrell or Robert Irwin, such works in a biennial context are inevitably recuperated as a highbrow form of entertainment. This year Eliasson returned to Venice with an equally sublime, though slightly more minimalist, construction entitled Your black horizon, 2005, on the Isola San Lazzaro, while Pipilotti Rist used a similar strategy of spatial and perceptual saturation to transform the Baroque Chiesa San Stae into a monumental video-kaleidoscope. The entire surface of the church’s vaulted ceiling is enveloped by stream-of-consciousness video footage that shows naked, nymphlike women cavorting in a lush, tropical landscape. Filmed in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil, Rist’s sensuality-drenched video Homo Sapiens Sapiens, 2005, functions as a literal oasis, since viewers are invited to lie on cushions scattered across the church’s cold marble floor so that the sublime combination of image and environment washes over them. But going beyond its pure pleasure quotient, Rist’s work also offers a surprising art-historical payoff, gently reminding us of the unbeatable visual glory of the Biennale’s host city. The Titianesque nudes make playful reference to the erotically charged iconography of Italian art, while the axial symmetries play off those of San Stae’s vaulting and decorative program. Depending on whether one ideologically deplores or ambivalently delights in such spectacles (I belong to the latter camp), Rist delivers one of the most intense sensorial and cerebral experiences of this Biennale.

To each age its art? It would be easy to lump all of these competing strategies under the heading of “festivalism”—a term coined by Peter Schjeldahl to describe the rising tide of artistic production that combines soft-core politics, consumer-friendliness, and a high entertainment quotient. While none of the strategies described above is unique to this particular Biennale—in fact, they frequently pop up in group exhibitions as well as art fairs—this year’s “grand show” confirms a dominant reality: The quest for sustained attention is what drives a large majority of contemporary art production. And as long as the current status quo is maintained, such competition is here to stay. Unless both curators and artists engage actively and reflexively with the mechanisms of competition, it seems that the Venice Biennale will continue to evolve into just another glamorous event in which artists devise ever more elaborate strategies to steal the show.

Alison M. Gingeras is an adjunct curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and a frequent contributor to Artforum.