PRINT September 2007

Francesco Bonami

IF YOU ARE ORIGINALLY FROM TURKEY but become a German citizen, you will never really be German in the eyes of German-born people. Similarly, if you are from Albania but become an Italian citizen, you will never be Italian for those born in Italy. When you become a citizen of the United States, however—and this is a simple but important difference between the US and every other country in the world—you become an “American.” The rest belongs to the past, becoming a picturesque memory, and when it comes to your new home, you take the good with the bad. You pay taxes; you avoid the long queue at the immigration counter at JFK; you tend to be singled out by terrorists when abroad. And when you do the Venice Biennale as an American, you are praised or criticized on that basis.

In 2003, having been naturalized two years before, I became the first American citizen to direct the Venice Biennale. I know that my saying so might seem petty and pedantic, given announcements to the contrary on the occasion of Robert Storr’s Biennale. But never mind. I mention my nationality only because it affords me a unique perspective on this year’s exhibition in Venice: If Storr is not the first to curate an American Venice Biennale, he is nevertheless the first to organize an Amish one. Like the members of the Amish community in Pennsylvania, Storr has behaved in Venice as if living in his own special time, oblivious of the reality surrounding him. He arrived on Venetian soil and sought to enforce his personal vision of what constitutes a grounded exhibition—a mission entirely at odds with the rotten, floating island that is home to this hundred-year-old institution run by people who have worked there since the ’70s, through political stagnation, student protests, and petty cash scandals. One cannot help but think of how the United States tests its wars at home, where it always wins, and then fails whenever applying its methods abroad. Similarly, Storr studied and tested his Venice exhibition at home for three long years—or who knows, perhaps for his entire life—and the result was like one of those wood poles stuck into the mud of the laguna for boats to hold onto. Storr’s staid, self-contained idea of a Biennale suggests that there is such a thing in contemporary art as too much time passing between a show’s conception and its final presentation, since a truly contemporary show must be about challenges, discovery, failure—the moment.

In the absence of such timeliness in risk-taking, mega-events like the Venice Biennale and Documenta become mere matters of professional hubris and career strategy, making the balance of art history overly subject to the personal goals of one curator, or two, or three, or seven. Consider the way in which both Documenta and Venice this year have resulted in near-total polarization within the art world, as each show seems to have been curated with a confrontational approach rather than an experimental one. (Whereas the directors of Documenta 12, Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack, could be said to have pushed the envelope, or even to have tossed it away, Storr simply scribbled on the envelope and mailed it to the usual addresses—the American institutional world and a few longtime friends, who appreciated the gesture.) If you read any manual on how to become a good manager in the business world, you will learn that the golden rule is to talk only 10 percent of the time and listen the other 90 percent. Clearly, neither Buergel nor Storr believes this rule applies in art. While Buergel likely did 90 percent of the talking with his wife, Storr clearly listened only to his own thoughts, transforming them into a claustrophobic Bruce Nauman sound piece with the title You are locked in my mind, you are locked in this room.

Of course, any museum-trained curator seeking to curate the Venice Biennale is like a person wanting to own a pet tiger. Eventually, and no matter what you do, you will get mauled. Even so, it’s never safe to believe too much in one’s own act when approaching the task. You must follow your vision but then stop before it turns into a tragic delusion—never mistaking the exhibition platform for a pulpit or a place for personal vendettas, curatorial tantrums, or outbursts of repressed frustration. Shows like the Venice Biennale and Documenta, in other words, are specific spaces with specific contexts. They are hubs of conviviality, grounds for discussion, and (why not) opportunities for validation. They exist outside the museum institution’s context, meaning that curatorial practice here must bear in mind both the limited duration of any idea as well as the significance and reality of others’ experience. The exhibition here never arrives at a final result; it cannot be the culmination of a process or even a stepping-stone to building a legacy, as might be the case within a museum. (It’s also never about any race to be the first; such overstimulation is bad for both art and sex alike.) What is significant, on the other hand, is the ability to underscore and understand differences—between Texas and Iraq, say, or New York and Kassel. As a curator for an American institution, I have learned to be cautious; but I have also learned as a director of the Venice Biennale that taking chances there is not just the only option but also an obligation to an extremely diverse and often unknown constituency. To stir the healthy but bland porridge of Storr’s Biennale just a bit: Listen to others. Mind the context. Art should be a present.

Francesco Bonami is the Manilow Senior Curator at Large at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.