PRINT September 2007

Jessica Morgan

ROBERT STORR’S lackluster performance as director of the 52nd Venice Biennale does unequivocally achieve one thing: It makes clear how stimulating and sharp Francesco Bonami’s 2003 version really was. Criticized by some at the time for its surfeit of artists, curators, and ideas, Bonami’s “Dreams and Conflicts” insightfully took on the pluralistic state of contemporary art, illuminating the coexistence of discrete but related dialogues in a series of exhibitions that took advantage of the many and divided spaces of the Biennale itself. “Dreams and Conflicts” not only introduced the work of countless artists who have continued to be relevant over the last few years, it also made evident—through the widely varying, globally representative voices of Carlos Basualdo, Catherine David, Massimiliano Gioni, Hou Hanru, Gilane Tawadros, Igor Zabel, and others—the important developments in curatorial practice since the late ’80s. It was not just the heat that made the Arsenale seem like an endless avenue in 2003. To walk its length was to follow a demanding course through the deliberate chaos of Hou’s “Z.O.U. (Zone of Urgency),” Basualdo’s politi- cally astute “Structure of Survival,” David’s precisely conceived “Contemporary Arab Representations,” and, finally, Molly Nesbit, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s memorably anarchic “Utopia Station.”

Apparently seeking to please all by bridging what he perceives to be a division between the conceptual and the sensual (a premise that seems a throwback to conservative late-’80s debates about political art, of little relevance today), Storr, in an interview with Tim Griffin published in this magazine last May, claimed to want to show art for which you “use all your capacities at once.” But his exhibition, which bears the cringe-inducing title “Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense,” actually places surprisingly few demands on viewers’ faculties. It was hard to believe, at this year’s preview, that the span of the Arsenale had not been physically reduced. Despite the epic length of Yang Fudong’s five-part film cycle Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, 2003–2007, most viewers made the journey in record time, and the sum total of the exhibition seemed to amount to less than any of 2003’s singular curatorial endeavors. The immaculate Arsenale’s tepid, whitewashed neutrality presumably evinces Storr’s desire to turn the venue into a “serious,” museum-like space, but in fact the cleanup seems to have the opposite effect. The endless profusion of (it must be said, deservedly) lesser-known artists’ documentary impressions of war and disaster to me appeared uncomfortably inflated by the effort that had gone into the display. There were the odd moments of relief: Francis Alÿs’s exploration of labor and time in an archive of drawings and in an animated DVD; the late Jason Rhoades’s exuberant installation Tijuanatanjierchandelier, 2006; Lyle Ashton Harris’s nuanced photographic examination of the individual subject and spectatorship. But these simply made the overall experience feel that much more enervating.

Different, though not much better, the Italian pavilion is largely given over to the collection-style hang (one artist, one room) of Storr’s longtime favorites. Though the installation encompasses some very compelling work (Kara Walker’s caustic new films, Mario Garcia Torres’s conceptually referential slide projections, and Steve McQueen’s filmic revisitation of Joseph Conrad’s Congo), the pavilion is also the site of one of Storr’s most egregious missteps. The “mortuary room,” as it was aptly nicknamed by some visitors, contains work by some of the exhibition’s best artists, in the worst possible conditions. Essentially an attic, the space is dimly lit and, in a reversal of the one-room-one-artist pattern, has a jumble-sale ambience. The pieces on view—by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Martin Kippenberger, Leonilson, Fred Sandback, and Chen Zhen, among others—are generally not the best exemplars of the respective artists’ oeuvres and seem to have been placed with no regard to scale or to the demands of a group installation. Moreover, the aforementioned practitioners seem almost wholly unrelated to one another, except for one common trait: They’re all dead. Perhaps the space, despite its shortcomings, was chosen for its relative proximity to the heavens. (Waiting outside near the stairs is Sol LeWitt, his status apparently uncertain at the time of installation.) Storr would probably have done better to have devoted the space to the two Gonzalez-Torres works—a curtain of golden beads and the subtly allusive Untitled (Orpheus, Twice), 1991, a pair of mirrors positioned side by side—especially given his statement, in his catalogue essay, that “in many respects, [Gonzalez-Torres’s] is the spirit that presides over this exhibition.”

That the exhibition would be less than revelatory could perhaps have been predicted at the time of the announcement of Storr’s appointment as director. His work as a curator has never been identified with groundbreaking group exhibitions, nor has he ever been the type of curator who is known for discovering or introducing artists. (Even those with whom he is most closely associated were well into their careers by the time he got involved in curating their work.) And, despite some forays to Latin America and Africa, he is not associated with anything like a global perspective. As such, it is hard to see why he would be considered appropriate for an exhibition that sets out to present a comprehensive understanding of the state of contemporary art. While Documenta’s wild-card appointment of Roger M. Buergel was certainly a statement (albeit a misguided one), the selection of Storr expressed a comfortable, institutionally sanctioned opting out.

An artist-turned-critic-turned-curator, Storr arrived at the Museum of Modern Art in 1990 and was senior curator of painting and sculpture from 1999 to 2002, when he left to take a professorship at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. (He is now dean of the Yale School of Art.) His exhibitions at MoMA, where his mandate was to bring the institution into the uncertain waters of contemporary art, initially comprised a couple of thematic group shows featuring artists that had emerged largely in the US during the ’80s and early ’90s. “Dislocations” (1991), focused on installation-based work and included appropriately sizable contributions by Louise Bourgeois, Chris Burden, Sophie Calle, David Hammons, Ilya Kabakov, Bruce Nauman, and Adrian Piper. The questions of scale and of the appropriateness of a museum’s involvement with work of a certain size were still up for discussion at that time (as extraordinary as that seems in this age of amplification), and the debate about identity politics still raged in America. The exhibition clearly sought to address all of these issues in one elegant sweep, and it duly roused the ire of conservative critics. But despite the controversy, “Dislocations” was ultimately an impressively installed but fairly safe exhibition—Hammons perhaps being the risky exception—of a group of established and topical artists who all made large-scale works. It was followed by the far less interesting “Mapping” (1994), a thematic show with a then-topical title that included almost thirty artists, from Jasper Johns and Ellsworth Kelly to Guillermo Kuitca and Adriana Varejão, whose selected works had little in common (aside from, obviously, their maplike qualities). After “Mapping,” Storr concentrated on a long line of retrospectives by such stalwarts as Robert Ryman (1993), Nauman (1995), Tony Smith (1998), Chuck Close (1998), and Gerhard Richter (2002). In addition to his work at MoMA, the Venice selection committee may also have considered Storr’s 2004 SITE Santa Fe Biennial, “Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque,” an essayistic thematic show that departed from the typical biennial’s attempt to address the artistic moment. It consisted largely of work from the ’90s, with the exception of contributions from Storr perennials Bourgeois, Rothenberg, Nauman, and Sigmar Polke.

Given their appearances in his other exhibitions, it is hardly surprising that in Venice Storr has once again enlisted the help of artists such as Bourgeois, Calle, Kabakov, Kelly, Kuitca, Nauman, Polke, Rothenberg, and Ryman. To some extent, one wishes that he had taken this idea further and simply reviewed the territory familiar to him. After all, there is nothing wrong with working repeatedly with the same artists, learning from their practices, and applying this knowledge curatorially.

What seems most noticeably lacking in Storr’s curatorial thinking, and what is evidenced in Venice so clearly, is the lack of any kind of legible criteria for the selection of artists. It’s as if he has never fully established exactly what it is he is interested in within contemporary artistic practice, a fact that has perhaps been partially hidden by the prevalence of solo exhibitions on his CV. Even within the group of artists he has returned to repeatedly, it is hard to discern any ideas or concerns that suggest a consistent reading of the present or of the recent past. In Venice, his favorites seem to have been plucked from their context in history and made to stand, much as they did in MoMA’s aggrandizing solo shows, as independent islands of “significance.”

Storr, of course, never set out to produce a thematic or theoretical structure akin to the one Buergel and his cocurator Ruth Noack created for Documenta 12 around their three leitmotifs. His catalogue essay makes this clear. In it, he states, “The simple proposition upon which the 52nd Venice Biennale is based . . . is: No matter how successful philosophers and idealogues have been at persuading people that these categories”—the categories that divide human faculties into dichotomies or hierarchies, e.g., mind/body —“are not just useful working hypotheses but are inherently or historically true, the manifold challenges to understanding that reality poses, as well as the actual flux of experience, far exceed the power of systems, theories and definitions to contain them. The imagination is the catch basin into which this overflow spills, and art cuts the channels that reconnect formerly segregated parts of consciousness. . . .” It’s a proposition that, in its subtly oppositional stance toward “systems, theories and definitions,” seems to speak to Storr’s entire curatorial sensibility. Certainly, to scrutinize his writings and statements over the years is to get the sense that he sees himself as a maverick, staunchly opposed to the excesses of theory and to theory’s perceived tendency to threaten the primacy of the artwork and the singularity of a given oeuvre. From this perspective, the lack of a coherent program might even be a point of honor—emblematizing a refusal to be seduced by buzzwords or to deploy predetermined conceptual frameworks. Such independence may be commendable, as is his defense, in the passage quoted above, of imagination and of the unique and ultimately unclassifiable nature of an individual artist’s practice. But the consequent lack of any structural grounding for the exhibition in Venice clearly undermines the exhibition.

Indeed, searching for a strategy or thesis that might serve as a through line in Storr’s thinking over the years, I can find only the repetition of the notion of “correspondences and coincidences”—mentioned first in an Artforum interview with Bruce Ferguson in 1994, in relation to the curatorial premise of “Mapping,” and echoed thirteen years later in his May 2007 interview, where he declared that “correspondences are what interest me.” A vague poeticism seems to underline this phraseology (in the first instance Storr invoked Jorge Luis Borges, and in the second, Baudelaire, to explain his understanding of the term), one that fits well with the middle-of-the-road position that he has established in Venice and that makes for such an anodyne exhibition. The terminology seems doubly odd given that a significant portion of the show consists of a series of solo installations, with very little attempt to establish correspondence between them. The synthesis implied by the title—its promise of a Gesamtkunstwerk of sensations—is precisely impossible to achieve in such a context. I will say that, while I was perhaps not thinking with my senses or feeling with my mind, the preview’s relentless brunches, lunches, and dinners (which seemed almost deliberately planned to compensate for the lack of artistic frisson) did get at least one sensory organ going. But I would happily give that up in two years’ time for a show with some memorable curatorial stimulation.

Jessica Morgan is curator of contemporary art, Tate Modern, London.