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CLAIRE BISHOP

Monika Sosnowska, Antechamber, 2011, projections, wallpaper, skirting board, stucco, doors, lamps. Installation view, Central Pavilion, Venice. From “ILLUMInations.” Photo: Kate Lacey.

WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT, eight years ago, that the biennial as an exhibition format had peaked? In hindsight, it appears that Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 in 2002 and Francesco Bonami’s “Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer” in Venice the following year may have marked the outer limits of what is possible in these sprawling endeavors. Enwezor’s and Bonami’s shows seemed to confirm that the biennial, with its global reach and its comparative freedom from institutional red tape and historical baggage, provided a unique opportunity to experiment freely with curatorial arrangements (international teams, shows within shows, artist-curated shows) and exhibition structure (geographically dispersed satellite programs; conferences, symposia, and publications), and to seek out practices that museums were too provincial or cautious to embrace. If the work in Documenta 11 and the 2003 Biennale was disproportionately lens-based, consolidating the association between biennials and the documentary turn, then this imbalance didn’t seem to matter. The idea that these biennials were constituting an alternative public sphere, one in which visual culture offered compelling propositions for a world in disarray, imbued the exhibitions with an energizing sense that the stakes were high.

No such global scope or determination informs the current Venice Biennale, whose title, “ILLUMInations,” inherits the generic vagueness of the previous two editions (Daniel Birnbaum’s “Making Worlds” two years ago and Robert Storr’s “Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind” in 2007). Consistent and well installed, Bice Curiger’s exhibition showcases a lineup of stalwarts (Sigmar Polke, James Turrell, Christopher Wool) alongside a cross section of emerging talents—sourced with curator Giovanni Carmine, the show’s artistic organizer and director of the Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen—many of whom were born in the 1970s and are based in Europe. The work of the younger artists is generally object-based, abstract, tentative, and modest in scale: Think of Nairy Baghramian’s rubber casts of absent sculptures, Gabriel Kuri’s delicately balanced bamboo pole, or Anya Titova’s provisional-looking screens of thin metal and colored Plexi. Some works, like Bruno Jakob’s steam paintings, are subtle to the point of evanescence.

The Giardini’s Central Pavilion, the first of the show’s two venues, is weighted toward a one-artist/one-room approach. This tactic tends to emphasize the prevailing mood of muted calm. Presiding in their own galleries, understated works like R. H. Quaytman’s pale and pared-down geometric canvases seem all the more reticently introverted. A much-appreciated departure from this scheme is a gallery that brings together ambiguously orthographic drawings by Guy de Cointet (1934–1983), cosmological embroideries by Jeanne Natalie Wintsch (1871–1944), and Karl Holmqvist’s poetry handwritten on the wall. Performative or participatory interruptions are rare: Nicolás Paris’s Classroom: Partial Exercises, a series of workshops and drawing labs, was yet to commence when I visited, but Amalia Pica’s Strangers, an economical performance in which two people who have never met before hold up a strip of colored bunting for variable lengths of time, reliably enlivened the quieter rooms. Only a handful of spaces stood out as particularly bad: a troubling new direction from Cindy Sherman (full-length self-portraits printed on landscaped wallpaper) and one-liner topicality from Norma Jeane (a malleable mountain of Plasticine in the colors of the Egyptian flag).

In this panorama of good-natured evenness, work that offers some friction is sorely needed. This is partially delivered in the form of Maurizio Cattelan’s taxidermied pigeons, originally shown in the 1997 Biennale. As vermin will, they have multiplied and this year are to be found throughout the pavilion, roosting on the beams and threatening to shit at any moment on the work below. This frisson is most effectively deployed in the central rotunda, where the grubby birds menace three huge Tintorettos relocated from San Giorgio Maggiore and Galleria dell’Accademia for the duration of the show. Tension is also created by the four “parapavilions”: Curiger invited Song Dong, Monika Sosnowska, Oscar Tuazon, and Franz West to create architectural structures in which the work of other artists could be shown. In time-honored fashion, Song’s dramatic labyrinth opens the Arsenale as a photogenic set piece, though the works it houses, by Yto Barrada and Ryan Gander, are among the least memorable of both artists’ oeuvres. West adorned the exterior of his pavilion with small works by his friends, relocated from his kitchen in Vienna. The interior contains Dayanita Singh’s Dream Villa Slide Show, 2010, oneiric images of contemporary India that have little in common with West’s domestically Austrian minipavilion. During the Biennale’s opening days, Tuazon’s Brutalist concrete box hosted a touching performance by the lithe musician Nils Bech, who sang plaintively of aging, love, and relationships.

View of “ILLUMInations,” 2011, Central Pavilion, Venice. From left: Gabriel Kuri, Three Arrested Clouds, 2010; Gabriel Kuri, Upside Down Horizontal Line, 2011; Gabriel Kuri, Communication Diagram, 2011; Gabriel Kuri, Dotted Line, 2011. Photo: Kate Lacey.

The most inappropriate and therefore memorable of these parapavilions is Sosnowska’s aggressive star-shaped structure in the Central Pavilion’s mezzanine gallery: Smothered in busy wallpaper, it houses a histrionic sound installation by Haroon Mirza in which a small lump of gold jumps about on a speaker in response to loud pulses of sound. Also on view here are two photo series by the venerable South African photographer David Goldblatt. “AERIALS,” 2009–, offers a pitiless helicopter’s-eye view of shantytowns, while “Ex-Offenders,” 2008–, comprises portraits of ex-convicts returning to the places where they did wrong, but photographed without drama, as everyday people. Each photo is accompanied by a text—the ex-con’s own story of what took place—that more often than not leaves the viewer teetering between blunt shock at the brutal social circumstances in which these crimes were perpetrated and unease with the subjects’ assertions of contrition. Many, it seems, are now working in rehabilitation, which seems a little too good to be true.

Downstairs, installed directly beneath these works, Omer Fast’s new video resonates with Goldblatt’s photography in unexpected ways, both visually (in its use of aerial views) and conceptually (in its focus on the aftermath of violent acts). Five Thousand Feet Is the Best, 2010, grew from Fast’s research into post-traumatic stress disorder and once again shows him to be a consummate storyteller. In preparing the work, Fast interviewed the controller of an unmanned Predator drone; the reenactment of this scene becomes the hinge of three complex and recursive stories. The interview is replayed with variations, each leading to a different fictional scenario prompted by a random encounter outside the hotel room (a device that calls to mind Roger “Verbal” Kint’s improvisations in The Usual Suspects). Each story is gripping and has the elusive, circular logic of truths uncovered by negotiating displacement, lies, and evasion, while the concept of the unmanned drone—moving lethally, without conscience—emblematizes the most toxic form of distantiation. Both Fast and Goldblatt lure us into ethical knots and invite us to creatively untangle them; in so doing we reflect not only on what defines a crime (personal or national) but on storytelling itself as an art and a mode of knowledge.

This rewarding juxtaposition is, however, a rare exception in “ILLUMInations.” In the Arsenale, the second venue for the show, there seems to be a deliberate policy of self-containment. Each artist is given ample space, but in such a way as to avoid creating dialogue between the works. Try as I might, I could not find a connection between Gerard Byrne’s photographs Case Study: Loch Ness (Some Possibilities and Problems), 2001–11, and Shahryar Nashat’s sculptures of museological furnishings (vitrines, benches, etc.), installed directly opposite each other. The goal seems to be one of least contamination possible, and I frequently overheard comparisons to an art fair, particularly to Basel’s Art Statements.

It’s tempting to connect this impulse toward containment with the exhibition’s preference for discrete objects. Certainly the return to sculpture, palpable in the Central Pavilion, was even more overt in the Arsenale, where it ranged from the cloyingly fey (Ida Ekblad’s curly wrought-iron gates and whimsical poetry) to the elegantly melancholic (Andro Wekua’s models of architecture remembered from his childhood in Georgia) to the anomalously extravagant (Urs Fischer’s towering repro of Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women as a wax candle). Film and video are more or less eclipsed, which has some advantages in terms of manageable viewing: Provided you don’t fall hostage to Christian Marclay’s seductive twenty-four-hour epic, The Clock, 2010, the Arsenale can be completed in a relatively rapid five-hour circuit. Of the few video works included, Nick Relph’s nonchalant Thre Stryppis Quhite upon ane Blak Field, 2010, stands out. Using three bulky old projectors, he superimposes documentaries about tartan, Ellsworth Kelly, and Rei Kawakubo, giving rise to enigmatic and amusing overlaps. Tucked away at the back of the Arsenale in the Giardino delle Vergini, Frances Stark’s video animation of her Internet-chat flirtations with Italian men is a fail-safe crowd-pleaser. Nearby, Sturtevant’s bombastic nine-monitor, three-act video assault Elastic Tango, 2010, and Gelitin’s hippie-camp some like it hot, 2011, make for an idiosyncratic coda to Curiger’s show—especially during the opening, when Gelitin staged a happening involving an outdoor kiln fueled by an immense pile of logs topped with a halfhearted male pole dancer.

What all of this adds up to is hard to say. Should you go looking for themes, Curiger’s press statement gestures toward light (hence Tintoretto, pitched as an experimental beacon for artists of all centuries), and of course nationhood, but also interaction, negotiation, domesticity, the outsider . . . In an interview in these pages in May, Curiger alludes to recuperating Enlightenment and European values and to our having thrown the baby out with the bathwater in abandoning these for a global purview (“What’s wrong with starting from what we actually know?”). One senses a fatigue with the global and a nostalgia for the pleasure of known entities, which are necessarily more local. This approach is not indefensible but is weakened when it’s presented not as the basis for new inquiries but as the reassertion of art as an individualized, self-referential practice (e.g., Gander’s abstract panels citing Mondrian). It is striking, for example, how few works allude to the technologized infosphere that permeates our lives; instead, a retreat from this complex monster is indicated. (The contrast with Thomas Hirschhorn’s tower of monitors in the Swiss pavilion could not be more vivid: Each of his screens shows a finger idly scrolling through disaster photos on an iPad—hesitating, zooming in, moving on.)

Franz West, Extroversion, 2000–11, mixed media and artwork. Installation view, Arsenale, Venice, 2011. From “ILLUMInations.” Photo: Kate Lacey.

Given this reluctance to face contemporary visual culture, and with the parapavilions constituting the only strong curatorial gesture, “ILLUMInations” feels like a beautifully judged roundup of recent art, but one bereft of propositions for the future. The rectitude of this selection appears to confirm the impression that the more the Venice Biennale relies on gallery support for invited artists, the more cautious it becomes, since curators have an incentive to include those who already have strong commercial backing. That this shift is indexed to the economic meltdown is obvious: Three years ago, Paolo Baratta, the Biennale’s president, began preparing for a financial slowdown by asking the artists in “Making Worlds” to help pay for their own shipping and installation. We can’t call the result conservatism—the Italian pavilion, which the Berlusconi-approved curator Vittorio Sgarbi has filled with oversize neofigurative canvases, provides a salutary reminder of what that looks like—but it seems telling that the most ambitious and experimental biennials since the early naughts have taken place on the margins of, or outside, Europe, in Istanbul, the Urals, and Taipei: places where the economic stakes are lower, but where the intellectual and political stakes have never mattered more.

In Europe, it seems that the locus of advanced exhibition making has recently switched from the biennial to its old adversary, the museum. The big questions—regarding our relationship to history, our consumption of images, the production of meaningful connections between different generations and geographies, and the envisioning of new social and political possibilities—are today being posed by institutions like the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, rather than by biennials. Indeed, initiatives such as “L’Internationale,” in which five European institutions (the Van Abbemuseum, Ljubljana’s Moderna Galerija, Antwerp’s MuKHA, Barcelona’s MACBA, and Bratislava’s Július Koller Society) have begun sharing their collections to question a centralizing master narrative of art history, seem to present a new paradigm of translocalism. If biennials at their best sought to create a regime of representation that challenged the dominant mediatic repertoire, to generate diversity, to propose a transnational public sphere, and to stimulate research, then today these roles have been taken over by the museum (ironically, the Enlightenment institution par excellence). Meanwhile, as mainstream Euro-biennials become showcases rather than proposals or investigations, the criticism that the biennial has grown closer and closer to the art fair gains credence.

If “ILLUMInations”—modest and impeccable, full of more or less familiar objects, traditionally arranged—is symptomatic of anything, then it is of a retreat not just from the global but from discursive innovation. On one level this is understandable: Just look at the Palazzo Grassi for a lesson in global marketplace homogenization, and at the Roma pavilion, where objects have been replaced with a painfully earnest program of talks and discussions, for reminders of why both routes might have run their course. “ILLUMInations” therefore presents us with a biennial impasse: If not discursive and pedagogic performativity, if not the globalized documentary turn, then what are our remaining options? To provide answers to this question, there needs to be a position, a sense of urgency about art’s relationship to the world and to the market values that loom over it, rather than a quiet paean to consensual good taste—the Enlightenment value that perhaps most animates “ILLUMInations.

Claire Bishop is an associate professor of art history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.