PRINT September 2009

Thomas Crow

Set for the Jackson Pollock Bar’s performance Opening, 2009, for the UAE pavilion, Venice, June 4, 2009.

“VENICE IS THE OSCARS,” says Tirdad Zolghadr, curator of the United Arab Emirates pavilion in this year’s Venice Biennale, in one video component of his installation. Or, rather, he said it some months ago at a press conference announcing the pavilion, the transcript of which was recorded by British and American actors and then lip-synched by two others portraying Zolghadr and the UAE-pavilion commissioner, Lamees Hamdan. Visitors to the opening experienced this in real time as part of a performance by Freiburg, Germany’s Jackson Pollock Bar, a troupe that specialize in ventriloquized restagings of art-world panels and symposia—down to scripted, loudly recorded pouring and drinking of water by the participants.

The table and chairs used by the performers will remain in place over the course of the Biennale, with a video of the event playing on a chunky monitor resting between two microphones. That arrangement lends concreteness to the term “theory installation,” as the Jackson Pollock Bar refer to their brand of performance. Live or in its video surrogate, spent dialogue of the past here rings with new clarity and drama, vivified by the slight displacements between visual and auditory cues. In the course of the troupe’s events, the safe seat of judgment descends to the status of raw material for studied re-performance. The UAE (at the Biennale for the first time) is of course no stranger to judgments by the Euro-American intelligentsia with respect to its oil wealth, autocracy, and labor relations, so much so that Zolghadr felt free to dismiss these intellectuals’ usual formulas as “conversational trinkets.” But then those trinkets were duly performed as earnest interventions by another actor in the voice of a questioner from the floor, which typifies the play of misdirection and unapologetic artifice that runs through the entire entry.

“A reasonable measure of self-reflexivity,” reads a placard at the UAE pavilion’s entrance, and that motto might begin a description of Daniel Birnbaum’s curatorship of the Biennale as a whole.¹ Like all the national pavilions, the UAE’s did not come under the direct supervision of the Biennale’s organizing curator, but it enjoys a strategic piece of real estate within the Arsenale, positioned as a kind of culmination to a long sequence of Birnbaum-curated pieces. Zolghadr has seized the opportunity in order to provide a metacommentary on the whole, stating explicitly what the core of the Biennale asserts by implication: that the art world has so absorbed the lessons of autocritique that they can be taken as read—but not as set aside or discarded. The measured dose of self-reflection provided by the Jackson Pollock Bar does double duty in highlighting the degree to which such gestures, dyed as they are into the fabric of advanced contemporary art, persist by necessity but, having exhausted most of their power of revelation, return with renewed vividness as performance.

This style of performance has only a little to do with what is commonly understood as performance art, which from the beginning has been defined by stipulated tasks and conditions, with the actual unfolding of events left to unpredictable interactions with the setting and the audience. In his introduction to the catalogue, Birnbaum rather movingly evokes experimental exhibitions mounted by the Gutaï group and Pontus Hultén during the 1960s, which “emphasized collaboration among artists and curators, interactivity, interdisciplinarity, spontaneity, and, often, the liberal commingling of art and other kinds of objects.” While he immediately concedes that “turning the museum into a playground” would today be a naive pretense, these examples nonetheless still offer a potential counterweight to the “increasingly fetishistic visual industry,” as “little is more relevant than insisting that the experience of art cannot be fully grasped in terms of possession.”²

His rubric for this endeavor, “Making Worlds,” turns away from the physical and sensory expansiveness of the ’60s and toward a cognitive landscape of information-processing networks and distributed intelligence. Birnbaum calls this terrain “the multiplicity of imaginative worlds we hold within” but brackets the question of how these worlds can be grasped with the compression that art requires.³ The Jackson Pollock Bar posit a solution in their rendering of art-world behavior as a series of scripts, through which the frequent tedium of its discourse returns as uncannily compelling entertainment. In Birnbaum’s actual performance as curator, his theme has conferred a freedom to exploit something close to the full potential of the Biennale to beguile and seduce on a cinematic scale.

He sets the tone by placing an unabashedly spectacular 2002 installation by the late Lygia Pape, Ttéia I, C, as the Arsenale’s opening act. Diagonal columns of golden threads in squared cross section connect floor and ceiling of the cavernous space, spotlights picking out their glinting surfaces from the surrounding darkness. Designed both to dazzle and calm the visitor in equal measure, the piece traffics in effects—emotional chiaroscuro and transcendental yearning—that are generally discounted in the protocols of critical seriousness. It is easy to construe Pape’s fragile columns as shafts of light descending from high windows, but their implied direction could just as easily run the other way so as to evoke the searchlights that rake the sky over every Hollywood premiere.

Michelangelo Pistoletto, Twenty-two Less Two, 2009, twenty-two parts, mirrors, wood. Installation view, Arsenale, Venice. Photo: Kate Lacey.

Directly following that quiet fanfare at the start of the lengthy Arsenale journey, Birnbaum keeps the cinematic gilt thread running with another large installation, one in which Pape’s nocturnal epiphany gives way to bright and gaudy melodrama provided by Michelangelo Pistoletto. A suite of twenty-two grandiose mirrors in golden ornamental frames line a large enclosed gallery. All but two of them shattered by the artist himself in another opening-week performance, their shards cling to the black backing or lie scattered on the floor, while visitors hew to a narrow safe passage down the center, the effect more Fellini (appropriately enough) than DeMille or Spielberg. For the occasion, this Arte Povera stalwart does without the disused backdrops associated with the movement, creating instead the look of an impressive but flimsy interior set hammered together inside the cavernous soundstage that is suggested by the Arsenale’s dark, seemingly endless medieval Corderie.

The manufacture of the nautical lines essential to Venice’s bygone naval prowess explains the dramatic linear extension of the passage that beckons after these initial demonstrations of what Birnbaum calls “the alchemy of light.”⁴ Virtually windowless, rugged brick walls of the Corderie loom overhead. Not far along that path lies a sprawling installation much more in the spirit of Arte Povera’s exploitation of similarly distressed surroundings: Human Being @ Work, 2007–, by Pascale Marthine Tayou, an artist of Cameroonian origin based in Ghent, Belgium. His African shanty-scape offers more intriguing incidents than one could count or convey here, its mimicry of ethnographic display continually upended by the object of neocolonialist regard looking back with knowing superiority. More than one Arte Povera artist cultivated a counterculturalist fantasy, verging on the mystical, of low-technology nomadism; the catalogue copy cites as decisive Tayou’s own nomadic passages through the coils of the contemporary art world, from his birthplace in Cameroon to his San Gimignano, Italy, and New York galleries to his Belgian residence to his star turn in Venice.⁵ In place of the animistic spirits dear to 1960s primitivists, a dozen or more videos, with subjects including but not restricted to Cameroonian everyday life, play over the multiple surfaces and odd corners of the installation.

Tayou’s adroit application of video exemplifies a general trait of the medium’s appearance across this Biennale: It is present where needed, where movement is required, but generally kept in some active relationship both to a sculptural armature and to the surrounding space. Paul Chan’s wide-screen projection piece, Sade for Sade’s Sake, 2009, conscripts the craggy brick interior into the fundamental texture of his animated imagery. Life-size silhouetted figures, inspired by scenes from Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, evoke traditional Asian shadow puppetry put to the service of a European Enlightenment exercise in the entwined endlessness of discourse and desire. Despite the prodigious variety of scenes, the animation of the actors observes strict limits, apparently frenzied movements oscillating around fixed positions, a kind of confinement in motion that is as appropriate to the prisonlike aspect of the Corderie’s high walls as it is to the imprisoned condition of Sade the writer. When, at intervals, the sterile couplings and harangues give way to balanced compositions of blank and colored geometric shapes, the twitching agitation of Chan’s actors takes on a disciplinary connotation more internal to art history. The descent of these forms from the utopian abstraction of Suprematism, de Stijl, and the Bauhaus to the painting pedagogy of Josef Albers and Hans Hofmann lends wild new meaning to the latter’s famous pictorial principle of push and pull.

A few steps from the Chan, Cildo Meireles presents a funfair labyrinth that likewise combines video with the geometry of color, in particular color relationships of the kind that preoccupied Albers and forebears going back to the Neo-Impressionists. Pling Pling, 2009, offers a linked series of small cubic rooms, each solidly painted in one of the six primary and secondary hues with an ordinary flat-panel monitor mounted across a corner. The screen image unpredictably shifts from replicating the color of its own room to displaying a corresponding corner of the room painted in its complementary hue—while the offset openings conjure virtual panels of the adjacent hues on the color wheel. Over at the Giardini’s Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Birnbaum’s inclusion of John Baldessari’s Six Colorful Inside Jobs from 1977—in which an elevated camera records a single figure painting and repainting a closed room in a succession of uniform colors—seems arbitrary unless linked to the revived geometric abstraction of Chan and Meireles, not to mention yet more monochrome panels in paint by Sherrie Levine (Meltdown [After Yves Klein], 1991) and in light-struck photographic papers by Wolfgang Tillmans (Silver Installation VI, 2009) mounted together in a gallery on the other side of the palazzo.

Sherrie Levine, Meltdown (After Yves Klein), 1991, eight parts, oil on mahogany, each 28 1/8 x 20 7/8". Installation view, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Giardini, Venice, 2009. Photo: Kate Lacey.

The common ground between the latter two lies in visionary aesthetics. Levine effected her appropriation of Klein’s metaphysically motivated monochromes by sumitting their reproductions to computer scanning and computational averaging, then covering her mahogany panels with the composite hues that resulted from the passage of the originals through the hyperabstraction of the digital realm (none of these, notably, channel International Klein Blue). Birnbaum believes that Tillmans’s recent use of photosensitive chemistry approaches “pure or abstract forms of visibility” that can reclaim and revivify the visionary charge carried by such aspirations in the early to mid-twentieth century: The artist’s lensless photography, he argues, possesses the paradoxical capacity to evoke “bodily orifices, human skin, hair, and muscle fibers,” which in turn ties a radiant nonobjectivity (“the alchemy of light”) to the better-known “pictures of people and social situations that consistently seem to emphasize the possibilities of life styles that dodge repressive and reductive stereotypes and instead suggest an alternative, perhaps even a ‘utopian,’ social order.”⁶

In the same zone of the palazzo, Simon Starling brings this preoccupation with the social commitments of historical modernism squarely into the orbit of film—though the work’s revival of the machine aesthetic seems less friendly to flesh-and-blood human beings. The title of his monumentally scaled sculpture, Wilhelm Noack oHG, 2006, refers to the old Berlin firm of metal fabricators associated with the Bauhaus, which more recently has devoted its legacy skill set to servicing the needs of artists. For Starling, Noack engineered an elegant and slightly sinister spiral that functions fully as a film projector. Its extended arms end in bobbins around which film threads in a continuous loop to and from the lamp and lens. The continuously moving 35-mm stock is as fully a part of the work’s formal order as are its precision-machined parts, while the imagery projected on an adjacent wall (in Neue Sachlichkeit black and white) documents the process by which the sculpture itself was manufactured. Film theorists, following the lead of Michel Foucault, used to invoke the “cinematic apparatus” as a disciplinary machine: Starling provides an object lesson in what such a theoretical abstraction might actually look like.

The open-ended, helical shape of the piece, however, evokes the potential for unfolding and change with-in its mechanically closed system. Something similar can be said, in even stronger terms, of the piece that Birnbaum has placed at the physical and symbolic center of the palazzo (and of the Biennale as a whole), Tomás Saraceno’s Galaxies forming along filaments, like droplets along the strands of a spider’s web, 2009. Perhaps poorly served by the nature-romanticism of its title, Saraceno’s myriad stretched filaments hold in suspension bubblelike, three-dimensional volumes marked in equal measure by filigreed delicacy and robust tensile strength. As such, the work embodies the concept of networked connectivity on a more abstract level, much as Birnbaum’s catalogue commentary emphasizes apperception as the continuous construction of pattern from disparate threads of affinity—the process that seems to lie at the heart of what he means by “making worlds.”

SARACENO’S DENSE WEB makes passage across the central gallery exceedingly difficult, its subtle propulsion pushing outward with encouragement to make thematic and conceptual links across as wide an expanse of the Biennale as possible. But the actual connections to be made tend to gather themselves around the themes sketched out above. It is difficult, as one circulates through both the Arsenale and Giardini venues, to avoid reminders of either the movies or the formal modernisms of the century past. Startling for the unprepared, for instance, is the apparition of a lifelike mannequin floating facedown in a shallow domestic swimming pool. That sight—so reminiscent of the indelible opening sequence of Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder’s elegy for classic cinema—lies at the entrance of one of the two pavilions housing the combined Nordic-Danish entry. In this much-discussed work, titled The Collectors, 2009, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, out of all the national-pavilion organizers, have responded most fully to the world-making brief. Combining the roles of curator and contributor, they found space in their twin installations for a long list of artists, most of whom were not otherwise represented in the Biennale. Both setups aim for the pitch of high Hollywood theatrics: a riven, divorcing family in the more domestic Danish pavilion paired with the suicidal (or murdered?) occupant of its neighboring International Style counterpart, every accessory chiming in to advance and complicate the implied narratives.

Ulla von Brandenburg, Singspiel (Musical Comedy) (detail), 2009, 16-mm film transferred to video, cotton, stools, dimensions variable. Arsenale, Venice.

Making worlds here descends from the plane of cerebral abstraction to the concrete demands met by Hollywood art directors, whose choices of props and design constitute a level of inanimate performance that can convey and enrich a plot fully as much as the work of the actors in front of the scenery. Elmgreen & Dragset have provided a single living actor in the spare, gay-themed Nordic space, if only to point up the absence of the rest of the cast. In their place, fascinated visitors are left to work out the complementary stories from the possessions left behind. In the partly demolished rooms that partition the Danish pavilion, the artists underline the fleeting aspirations of the vanished occupants with abandoned modernist trophies ranging from Weimar porcelain to Sturtevant’s remade Frank Stellas. The wide-open expanse of the Nordic pavilion, by contrast, features a generally more current selection of art (Henrik Olesen’s Cubes [After Sol LeWitt], 1998–2008, for example, newly constructed from bits of Styrofoam and masking tape, along with works by Tillmans, Terence Koh, and Simon Fujiwara), set amid self-consciously advanced decor that nonetheless feels behind the times (conversation pit, anybody?). In both instances, taste and collecting self-evidently have brought disappointment, while the audience takes its pleasure, in the mode of movie melodramas over the decades, from contemplating the costs of ambition.

Theatrical exaggeration of family conflicts also underlies one of the most compelling of the off-site national pavilions, as sparsely visited as the Nordic-Danish entry is thronged. On the upper floor of a modest palazzo on the Grand Canal, Singapore’s Ming Wong has made a world from the ghosts of films shot there during the 1950s and early ’60s, products of a once vibrant local industry that transformed borrowed Hollywood genres in ways that accommodated the multiethnic makeup—Malay, Indian, and Chinese—of that still-colonial outpost. Surrounding his video pastiches with retro-designed theater interiors and authentically lurid posters (painted by Neo Chon Teck, said to be the last surviving practitioner of the craft), Wong makes particularly compelling use of a reimagined scene from Douglas Sirk’s 1959 Imitation of Life, where the African-American ingenue passing for white (played by the Oscar-nominated Susan Kohner in the prototype) casts her doting mother out of her life lest her ruse be discovered. In his version, rendered in saturated Sirkian hues, each of the two roles is played in turn by an actor from one of the three Singaporean ethnic blocs.

It somehow seems inevitable, in the context of this particular Biennale, that the most effective entry addressing cultural difference comes couched in terms borrowed from the familial traumas of screen melodramas. Birnbaum, in explicating his notion of world making, asserts that it is essential to “insist on the complexity of individuals, not to mention the communities that they form.”⁷ But somewhere between the individual and the community lies the fraught, intermediate structure of the family. And through that door comes the legacy of theatrical film, from the preposterous story lines of a Sirk to the elevated pathos of an Ingmar Bergman. Elmgreen & Dragset include in their own family tableau a dining table split down the middle, severing a china place setting, which they named after Bergman in homage to his brooding family tragedies.

Cinematic family dramas, as in Imitation of Life, more often than not revolve around some issue of inheritance, the past weighing on the present. For artists and the art world, on the evidence of this Biennale, the record of twentieth-century modernism constitutes that birthright, at once cherished and forbidding. The question is how to position such a legacy on the plane of performance alongside postmodern self-reflexivity. Perhaps no contribution gathers these strands to greater effect than Ulla von Brandenburg’s 2009 Singspiel (Musical Comedy). In her Arsenale installation, poised between those of Chan and Meireles, the visitor proceeds through mazelike chambers composed of hanging fabric panels in muted monochrome hues derived from psychoanalyst Max Lüscher’s midcentury scheme for diagnosing character traits. That path ends in a larger chamber where stools of a utilitarian modernist design are arranged just so. Against the loose canvas of the far wall plays a fifteen-minute, black-and-white film that surveys the members of a family-like gathering via a single tracking shot through the rooms and passageways of Le Corbusier’s 1929 Villa Savoye.

Singspiel draws into itself most of the themes that give this Biennale its unusual coherence. Not only a series of penetrating individual and group portraits flowing from one to the other, the film lends the house itself an organic identity as an omnipresent actor in this wintry intergenerational gathering (which channels Bergman without irony). The actors in the end gather in the villa’s garden, seat themselves on an identical collection of stools, and watch curtains like those of the installation part to reveal three of their number acting out the sort of sickbed tableau vivant common in von Brandenburg’s other films and performances. There is no dialogue as such, only the pregnant watchfulness of the moving camera. But at intervals the sound track issues a melancholic song, performed in a gently keening childlike voice, to which the characters in turn mime the lyrics.

The voice is that of the artist herself, who also wrote the enigmatic verses, to music by Laurent Montaron. As Singspiel condenses the emergent thematics of Birnbaum’s Biennale, it also expands via the medium of sound so as to foster the connectivity that Saracano’s web so powerfully suggests. Drifting well beyond the confines of von Brandenburg’s mesmerizing scenography, her song’s contagious tone and melody reinforce the curatorial orchestration of perhaps the most rewarding sequence of works in the two venues. If the lyricism of von Brandenburg’s lip-synched musical dialogue seems a world away from the sharp diction of the Jackson Pollock Bar, both exercises can be said to recognize that every practice in the art world has become subject to recoding as performance.

Thomas Crow is Rosalie Solow Professor of Modern Art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.


1. The entire placard reads:

The challenges are simple.
I. A tremendous Arsenale hallway, at the tail end of a Biennial marathon.
II. The eccentricity of national showcasing in an arts context.
III. An artworld nagging about exhibition routine and ideological exhaustion, but faced with a Venice audience of 900,000.
IV. Qualms about the UAE.

The answers are just as simple, or almost.
I. Resisting the temptations of space.
II. Highlighting the World Fair subtext of the Venice Biennial.
III. A reasonable measure of self-reflexivity.
IV. No apologetics.

2. See Daniel Birnbaum, “We Are Many,” in Birnbaum and Jochen Volz, eds., Making Worlds: 53rd International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia (Venice: Marsilio, 2009), vol. 1, 185, 187.

3. Ibid., 191.

4. Ibid., 188.

5. See Kim West, “Pascale Marthine Tayou,” in ibid., 152.

6. Birnbaum, “Wolfgang Tillmans,” in ibid., 154; Birnbaum, “We Are Many,” in ibid., 191.

7. Ibid., 191.