PRINT September 2007

Katy Siegel

Francis Alÿs, Politics of Rehearsal, 2007, stills from a black-and-white video, 30 minutes. From “Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense,” Arsenale.

IF THE VENICE BIENNALE is still a treasure trove of trends for early adapters, look for cutting-edge art and fashion this year to feature . . . Harry Truman. Two artists as different as Francis Alÿs and Louise Bourgeois—Alÿs in a video that samples a Truman speech, Bourgeois in a series of blue marker drawings called Untitled (Harry Truman), 2005—refer to the little haberdasher, hardly the kind of figure usually called upon to electrify an artistic experience. Why Harry Truman? Why now?

In 1945, Truman’s presidency inaugurated the two decades that make up the short American century, a golden age when the US was economically flush and culturally thriving, and when, in the eyes of many, the country held the moral high ground, in contrast to a disgraced Europe. Of course, the shining promise always masked a darker reality: the atomic bombs Truman dropped on Japan, and the Marshall Plan’s vision of democracy based on the exportation—forcible, if necessary—of Yankee-style capitalism to the rest of the world. Truman’s militarism and just-plain-folks image prefigured that of the current president, who stands on the shoulders of neoconservatives advocating a “new” American century, with the US more CEO than benevolent dad and with moral stewardship, this time around, providing an even thinner veil for economic, social, and physical violence. George W. Bush identifies with Truman as the first cold warrior, someone to emulate as he prosecutes his own considerably hotter war.

But Bush’s invocation of Truman only underlines how far the US has fallen since its years as Number One. The instability of an era in which the weakening—moral as well as political—of the “single remaining superpower” might be a synecdoche for a general decline in the geopolitical climate is, it turns out, the intermittent but dominant theme of this year’s Biennale. While Robert Storr, the director, is of course from the US, and unabashedly works from a gloomy American perspective, many of the national pavilions also bespeak the wreckage of the postwar world. Masao Okabe, in the Japanese pavilion, spent nine years making thousands of rubbings at the train station in Hiroshima. At the Korean pavilion, the visitor finds Lee Hyungkoo’s skeletons of Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, and other midcentury American cartoon figures, looking like prehistoric displays now that anime creations rule the earth. Francesco Vezzoli’s video Democrazy, 2007, in a special section of the Arsenale devoted to Italian artists, cleverly connects disintegrating European and US electoral politics by casting Sharon Stone and intellectual pinup Bernard Henri-Lévy—equally matched in hair quality and gravitas—as presidential candidates. Many of the Eastern European artists, too, grapple with the free-for-all of their post-cold-war reality, the shift from state capitalism to gangster capitalism, and the slipperiness of identities and boundaries. Perhaps the most compelling political work from this part of the world is in the Romanian pavilion’s group show “Low-Budget Monuments,” where Cristi Pogacean’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, 2006, features an “Oriental rug” reproducing a widely televised image of kidnapped Romanians and their Islamist captors.

The Nordic pavilion’s artists bid farewell to the welfare state in such a cheery, “fun” way—good graphics, interactive dartboards—that you hardly feel the pain engendered by Europe’s drift along the path, forged by the US, of privatization and privation. Aernout Mik’s Citizens and Subjects, 2007, in the Dutch pavilion, combines real and staged scenes of police exercises that train officers to apprehend and control illegal immigrants. Despite moments of playfulness, as when a group of teenagers pile on top of one another, the work is chilling, offering a convincing glimpse of a still more extreme society of control lurking on the horizon. Isa Genzken, who wrapped the German pavilion in scaffolding, also promised a tough look at conditions of global exchange, but her installation, Oil, 2007, delivers a nihilistic formalism that seems merely chic. Despite her reputation as a sculptor, she fares better in the two-dimensional passages of her installation—mixing mirrors, tape, and pop-culture imagery in stark, strange collages—than in the larger amalgams of found objects, where rolling suitcases and masks (Venice!) make heavy-handed attempts at site-specificity.

In some of the pavilions, however, the political is rather conspicuously honored in the breach. The Israeli pavilion, where Yehudit Sasportas has created a cool, clean installation replete with nature imagery, does not so much as hint at the struggle with Palestine or even at any sense of national unease. The Egyptian pavilion, meanwhile, wistfully celebrates its ancient past rather than responds to its present state as an impoverished dictatorship. England assiduously sidesteps the issue of its latest Middle Eastern military adventures by choosing as its representative the reliably narcissistic Tracey Emin, who, in the aptly titled exhibition “Borrowed Light,” channels Martin Puryear, Cy Twombly, Bruce Nauman, and Egon Schiele, to little effect. In a year where feminism has been a strong political presence in the art world, many of the women artists in Venice seem strikingly self-involved. Whether fictional or real, Sophie Calle’s dissection of a breakup e-mail, in the French pavilion, manages to suggest that the most pressing concern we face today is one man’s reluctance to keep fucking Sophie Calle. And the politics around the new African pavilion—both Storr’s wish that it be central to the Biennale, and the ensuing controversy around the financing of the private collection it features—eclipse those inside it.

But the relative weakness of the national pavilions is an old story, and the main attractions are, as always, the (old) Italian pavilion and the Arsenale, where directors have relative autonomy, and which Storr ties together this year in a single exhibition, “Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense.” Storr is as independent of the international circuits of curator-critic-dealer logrolling as a very successful art-world figure can be. As such, his Biennale was bound to irritate some big dealers and collectors, along with other art-world professionals. The backbone of his show, and the subject of most of the discussion around it, is a roster of artists that Storr has worked with for years, such as Bourgeois, Elizabeth Murray, Bruce Nauman, Raymond Pettibon, Gerhard Richter, Susan Rothenberg, and Robert Ryman. The work is often expressive and the artists are mostly American, and tend also to be strong individuals who have spent decades developing personal practices with little regard for fashion. (One imagines that this may well be the way Storr sees himself.) He picked others who fit the profile but perhaps haven’t appeared in his shows before, such as the witty Congolese artist Chéri Samba, as well as solid American artists who have not been singled out by the market, like Charles Gaines and Kim Jones.

The surprise of the show is Storr’s inclusion of a fair number of Minimalists and Conceptualists—both éminences grises like Sol LeWitt, Ellsworth Kelly, and Lawrence Weiner and younger and more recently fashionable figures such as Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe. This sector of art production isn’t usually Storr’s beat, and his choice of these artists can probably best be understood through the prism of his titular theme. On the face of it, he is updating and resolving the mind/body problem, dreaming the modernist dream of unified sensation that bridges feeling and thought. But this grand historical project also has a more immediate and local impetus. Much of his catalogue essay implicates, although without naming names, the theoretically oriented academics that Storr has long decried—the thinkers—whose ranks include Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Hal Foster, and Rosalind Krauss. (Some members of this group show up, amusingly, in Rainer Ganahl’s photographs, on view in the Arsenale, of well-known intellectuals teaching and lecturing.) Storr, of course, is not alone in criticizing these theorists’ intellectual positions, elitism, or hegemony in the American academy, but unlike critics such as Dave Hickey or Peter Schjeldahl—the feelers—he is unwilling to back into the default position of a defense of beauty or formalism. Rather, he wants to master the whole argument, and even to obviate it, by folding Conceptual art along with more expressive or popular practices into the same scheme, breaking down artificial distinctions and unifying the entire field of contemporary art.

I am sympathetic to this approach. The two-party system (Stones vs. Beatles, Schnabel vs. Broodthaers) is a ridiculous, limiting way to understand art. Visually, however, Storr weakens his thesis somewhat; his at times awkward installation suggests that his heart really does not lie with Minimalist and Conceptual art. But more than that, the argument itself—that is, the idea that the central issue in art today is the division between head and heart—feels tangential to the terribly dark global political situation that much of the work in his show addresses.

Lee Hyungkoo, Lepus Animatus, 2005–2006, resin, aluminum, stainless-steel wire, springs, oil paint, 43 5⁄8 x 23 5⁄8 x 27 1⁄2". From the Korean pavilion.

And in fact, that political situation is the real subject of Storr’s installation in the Arsenale, which is unusually coherent in comparison with the last couple of Biennale exhibitions in this venue. The work produces a cumulative effect that, in its unrelenting negativity, approximates the Adornian vision of the decline of culture and civilization championed by Buchloh and others. Storr combines this vision with the expansive, populist humanism that he shares with the late Harald Szeemann, but while Szeemann’s 2001 Biennale promised the “positive, utopian spirituality of Beuys,” for the most part the art Storr has chosen for the Arsenale intends to accuse, not to heal.

The first work greeting the viewer is Luca Buvoli’s multimedia A Very Beautiful Day After Tomorrow (Un Bellissimo Dopodomani), 2007, a smart, energetic look back at futurism, and a high point for the artist. Video images of bombers and propaganda posters embody the violent underpinnings of Italy’s most powerful modernism, particularly the fascination with machinery and death realized all too clearly in World War I. Italy’s African invasion—alluded to in archival footage and in the militaristic 1930s pop tune that makes up part of the sound track—evokes, and even becomes an allegory for, the American invasion of Iraq. Buvoli’s installation leads into León Ferrari’s (hideous) 1965 sculpture of Christ crucified on a bomber, a choice that seems particularly pointed, as this is one of the show’s few historical works. Nearby is Gaines’s amusing yet frighteningly prescient 1997 mechanical sculpture Airplanecrashclock, in which a plane slowly arcs above a city and then crashes into it.

These works summarize the exhibition’s two chief historical conceits. The first is the failure of modernist prophecies of a glorious future, as in Buvoli’s work and in the Constructivist paintings with Marxist slogans in Dmitry Gutov and David Riff’s collaborative installation The Declination of Atoms from the Straight Line, 2007. The second is the relentless, leveling repetition of violence and malfeasance under capitalism, as in Jones’s obsessive drawings of military conflicts, Neil Hamon’s sharp staged historical portraits of soldiers in various wars, and Ignasi Aballí’s bluntly direct Lists (The Dead 1), 1997–2003. The latter is one of a powerful series of works in which the artist assembled headlines from hundreds of newspapers into lists variously enumerating death tolls, hours worked, units of time passed—statistics shorn of their contexts, names turned into numbers. Emily Prince’s small portraits of every American soldier killed in the Iraq war and in Afghanistan feel more personal, almost penitential; I can’t help wishing they were better drawn, but here drawing matters as a process more than as a product. The opposite activity, erasure, appears throughout the exhibition, most powerfully in Oscar Muñoz’s video Proyecto para un Memorial (Project for a Memorial), 2003–2005, in which watery renderings of Colombia’s “disappeared” slowly evaporate before our eyes.

All of this is quite affecting, set off by Storr’s elegant and sober installation. As one walks through the Arsenale, however, the death toll mounts, and one begins to sense a change in the texture of the exhibition, as if a large camera were pulling back to reveal the big picture. By the time you reach the indifferent photographs of a cemetery in Queens or watch people on Yang Zhenzhong’s giant video screens intoning, “I will die,” the relentless hammering on specific deaths in violent conflicts has devolved into a meditation on the inevitability of death, culminating in the gothic glitter of Angelo Filomeno’s embroidered paintings of dancing, flying, shitting skeletons, divorced from history, haunting us all.

Some of the art in the Italian pavilion is explicitly political, including Emily Jacir’s fascinating (if not overly artistic) research into the 1972 murder of Palestinian Wael Zuaiter in Rome; Steve McQueen’s intensely formal film about the Congo; and Jenny Holzer’s perhaps well-intended but weak paintings of blown-up redacted documents detailing the treatment of “enemy combatants” by the US government. But in general, here the theme of death moves even further toward an image of the human condition, tout court. The specter of human mortality is raised not only by the videotaped spectacle of Calle’s mother on her deathbed but by Storr’s entire pantheon of great men and women of a certain age. While I have complained about the speculative fascination with young artists as much as, or more than, anyone, the dearth of younger artists here gave the pavilion an elegiac feeling. As well, many of the lions don’t seem to be operating at full strength, perhaps a result less of age than of a hot art market that spreads artists thin. An exception is the achievement of Sigmar Polke, whose enormous, gold-and-violet alchemical canvases look beyond the present tense, modernism, and even art history to suggest a kind of natural history of slow change and unpredictable magic.

It’s as if Storr is saying that with this generation, things are drawing to an end: the end of the great postwar moment and the end of expansive, individual artistic ambition. This effect was strengthened by the inclusion of so many artists who are no longer among the living. He closes a slim compendium of writings by participating artists with an odd twist on the death-of-the-author chestnut—an epigraph mourning the fact that every time an old man dies, a library dies with him. This would seem a defiant insistence both on the individual and on loss, regardless of social context or history. The tragedy of the inevitable dimming of the light is equated with that of life cut short by violence. And yet this position is, I believe, the product of a particular historical circumstance, that of the thinking (and feeling) resident of a country that appears to be reaching some spectacular nadir.

The dimming, disappointment, and darkness of Storr’s show is echoed by Nancy Spector’s installation of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work in the American pavilion, particularly by Untitled (Public Opinion), 1991, a sculpture composed of several hundred pounds of black licorice candies. The work has most often been shown as a minimalist corner piece, but Spector installs it here as a rectangle on the floor, and the effect is that of an open grave. It’s one of the artist’s darkest works, made in the midst of the AIDS crisis (his own lover died of the disease that year), a recession, and the first Bush regime, and it seems to offset his usual emphasis on individual participation with a critique of public opinion as susceptible to manipulation. I join Storr and Spector in sharing the artist’s feelings about the US government, as well as about the overall state of things, but in this form, in this context, and at this moment, Gonzalez-Torres’s work felt distorted into a general assertion of death and misery—too final, and almost too easy.

The thing that’s missing from the Biennale isn’t some romantic but ungrounded hope (or “positive, utopian spirituality”). What’s missing is agency and life, in the larger sense—an acknowledgment that history continues. A nuanced exception, Francis Alÿs’s Politics of Rehearsal, 2007, brilliantly articulates both history’s dismal track record and its remaining possibilities. An intimate black-and-white video, low on production values, Politics of Rehearsal rhymes a Mahler piano piece with a stripper practicing her moves and a talk delivered by critic Cuauhtémoc Medina that takes on rehearsal as a metaphor for development in Latin America, with its litany of missed economic and political chances. In an interpolated clip, a speechifying Truman promises that the US will lead the world to freedom and economic prosperity. None of this come-on was ever consummated—as in a striptease. But this is, after all, a rehearsal, which implies that the real production, the main event, may yet take place someday, despite (or even because of) the repeated failures of repeating modernisms. History isn’t over.

The inevitable comparison of Venice with Documenta this year yields something beyond the usual professional scorekeeping. The curators of both shows share a certain irritation with the art establishment and its professional pieties, and a wish to speak to more fundamental concerns. But the two exhibitions have sharply different political resonances, expressing the different historical vantages from which they choose to regard contemporary art. Rather than the dimming of the postwar world (or the curators’ own irritatingly airy philosophical propositions), it is the energy of the ’60s that sets the tone for Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack’s curatorial choices in Kassel. The vitality of the historical work by Charlotte Posenenske, Atsuko Tanaka, Lee Lozano, and others powers much of the more recent art as well. Even as many of Documenta’s artists testify to the fact that the world is a terrible place, and despite the uneven installation, a sense of life animates the exhibition as a whole. While the reality of violence and death can’t and shouldn’t be denied, the truth is that not everyone experiences his or her struggles as a sad chapter in an already-written narrative of exhaustion and ending. “The world is on fire”: Documenta reverberates with Graciela Carnevale’s statement, from a text addressed to fellow artists. It’s a reminder that the embers of the American century are just one part of an ongoing and worldwide conflagration.

Katy Siegel, a contributing editor of Artforum, is an associate professor of art history at Hunter College, New York City.