PRINT September 2011


Gianni Colombo, Spazio elastico (Elastic Space), 1967, fluorescent elastic bands, electric engines, Wood’s lamp. Installation view, Central Pavilion, Venice. From “ILLUMInations.”

AMONG THE MORE PUZZLING PREOCCUPATIONS of dialogues around art during the past five years has been “the contemporary,” a seemingly self-evident description that, to date, has operated largely in reverse—that has been put forward, in other words, as a meaningful denomination and subject of inquiry in advance of any actual, deductive relationship to the surrounding world. The hope, it would seem, is that the term employed by itself, and evocatively, will help tease out some general understanding of the conditions for artmaking and its reception today. Yet, unlikely as this might be, the impulse is easy enough to fathom: Artists, art historians, curators, and critics alike wish to find historical trajectories in art today where none immediately announce themselves; a disorienting air of atemporality prevails instead. Indeed, the imperative for historical precedent or distinction becomes only more urgent in light of speculative obsessions with the “new” in a radically expanded art system whose borders have become so porous as to erode the very ideation of art. Hence, large-scale international exhibitions often tend these days toward long durées of low-grade curatorial anxiety, continually setting up historical counterpoints for recent artwork on the one hand—is modernism our antiquity?—and almost daring artists to cross the lines between artistic and larger social contexts on the other. If there is a substantive sense of “the contemporary” to be employed here, it is likely the “out-of-jointness” that philosopher Giorgio Agamben ascribed to the term: Something is contemporary when it occupies time disjunctively, seeming always at once “too soon” and “too late,” or, more accurately in terms of art now, seeming to contain the seeds of its own anachronism.

Such might be said of curator Bice Curiger’s “ILLUMInations,” the Biennale’s main curated show (divided between the Giardini’s Central Pavilion and the Arsenale), which takes as its centerpiece three paintings by Tintoretto—and the same might be said of the artist himself. Just as Tintoretto came of age outside the traditional schools of his day, having been largely self-taught, so numerous artworks today are intended to skirt the conventional parameters of art institutions—bespeaking, in fact, a sense of the latter’s inadequacy and impending exhaustion. And just as the old master’s canvases eschew one-point perspective to accommodate diverging sight lines and focal points and even contradictory depths—while simultaneously featuring multiple light sources, permitting variant ontologies to reside together on the picture plane (thus leaving the classical pieties of the Renaissance behind, we might say in retrospect, and looking ahead to the Baroque)—so the art scene today hosts a proliferation of styles and techniques among practicing artists.

Significantly, in the exhibition catalogue, Curiger refers to that scene as a “plurality” of approaches placed on view. Such wording has, of course, been employed previously in the context of the Biennale, most recently by Francesco Bonami regarding his massive 2003 “Dictatorship of the Viewer.” The immense scale of that enterprise—which entailed handing over the reins to other curators, who arranged installations under the umbrella of his larger project—was, Bonami has said, intended to make his biennial “no longer an exhibition but a plurality of visions.” In this way, he argued at the time, the impact of globalization on art—manifested in contradictory impulses, and even by a seeming lack of discursive ties, among today’s artists—would be truly reflected. Something of the same premise and logic is to be found in Curiger’s show, whose idiosyncratic upper- and lowercase titling also means to underscore the erosion of nations as arbiters of identity in an era of globalization. Indeed, her essay nods to the “precarious” conditions of postindustrial society, and if she gives Gianni Colombo’s Spazio elastico (Elastic Space) 1967, some pride of place near Tintoretto—since, like the Venetian master’s Last Supper, 1592–94, the piece’s “‘coordinates’ have started to teeter”—the desire to underscore a vague indeterminacy and tenuousness to culture and art’s place within it could be noted of her whole show. (Though one hastens to add that pluralism is a distinct point of view, too, and one potentially not so far removed from “plurality,” which conjures a sameness-in-difference residing in the marketplace.) But whereas Bonami’s show gave a sense of postwar curatorial practice reaching its outer limits—of no longer being able to contain its subject so much as to instantiate it, in the wake of rampant curatorial experimentation prompted in part by the shifting geopolitical landscape of the 1990s—“ILLUMInations” in its quietness too often seems merely elusive, with relatively few resonances or tensions among its different works (more than three hundred by eighty-three artists). Piece after piece, series after series, stands alone. The volatile symptoms of Bonami’s exhibition have by now settled into general conditions. Like so much art today, each individual work presented here might reflect the cultural moment, but one asks whether reflection is enough, or whether there is some other job left to do.

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

That said, Curiger nevertheless also turns over the reins on occasion—inviting artists such as Oscar Tuazon and Franz West to construct “parapavilions” containing works of their own choosing—so that the basic infrastructure of the galleries is shown to be malleable and not organized according to the curator’s vision alone. In fact, one of the stronger installations of this Biennale is such a space, situated in the Central Pavilion: a star-shaped, wallpapered chamber designed by Monika Sosnowska, housing pieces by the emerging British artist Haroon Mirza and the celebrated South African photographer David Goldblatt. Here, in the Polish artist’s signature neo-Suprematism, architectural sight lines are radically skewed to destabilize conventional perspective—distortions that seem perfectly appropriate for the oscillating pitches of Mirza’s sculpture. (The crude piece, Sick, 2011, a jumble of wires and speakers and jerry-built shelving, emanates an electronic, Florian Hecker–like composition; notably, a related piece by the artist in the Arsenale is aptly titled, given themes of culture’s loosening coordinates, The National Apavilion of Then and Now, 2011.) As resonant are Goldblatt’s aerial shots of massive, technocratic architectures in Johannesburg, as well as of the city’s sprawling slums; and, in a series titled “Ex-Offenders,” 2008–, his images of the individuals who populate this urban landscape and, more pointedly, have entered and exited its administrative systems. Featuring portraits of former criminals at the scenes of their crimes—one stands in a gully where he hid from police officers; another occupies a street corner where he pulled off a heist—along with texts detailing their lives before and “rehabilitation” after their arrests, the works subtly implicate the more abstract organization and dynamics of society in shaping the course of individual lives.

Far and away the most compelling work in the exhibition, when it comes to engaging life as it is inflected by such technocratic settings, is Omer Fast’s Five Thousand Feet Is the Best, 2010, in which the artist strikes his typical interviewer’s pose to prompt stories from an American drone “pilot” (played by Denis O’Hare). Here, stories readily familiar from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are transposed into the living landscape of the United States, as, for example, a family leaves their suburban home in a station wagon, passing through a tense checkpoint while apparently seeking out a location far from the occupied area—only to come upon a group of insurgents and, finally, fall victim to a strike from above. Each story here begins with the same dialogue and line of questioning from Fast, so that the video’s loops create a sense of déjà vu even while presenting vastly different vignettes. Such vertigo is amplified as the drone pilot describes radical shifts in the terms for vision today, given that satellites using infrared cameras can see where a person was sitting moments before (the heat traces, he says, look like a “blossom”); and the piece’s proximity in the galleries to the Tintorettos is all the more resonant as the pilot reveals that soldiers call the “beautiful” laser beams cast for a split second by drones onto their targets the “light of God.” The experience of space and time here seems irrevocably altered. Indeed, when Fast asks what the difference is between the drone pilot and someone who actually sits in a cockpit and fires, his subject responds, “There’s no difference.”

And what model, after the avant-garde, which perpetually moved forward and in sequence, might be offered by the drone—with its condition of being in two places at once, ubiquitous and yet never wholly present (and whose movements are choreographed by no mind of its own)? A few works here seem made at such a provocative remove from (even while being utterly locked onto the target of) artmaking now that they appear nearly archaeological in their marked distance from the present. Cyprien Gaillard’s small collages (from the series “Floods of the Old and New World,” 2011), for instance, pair ancient scenes with labels for products whose names seem abstract stand-ins for disappearing natural and cultural phenomena—POLAR ICE reads one, against the imagery of a midcentury skyscraper and an antique picture postcard of a Jamaican Royal Epaulet palm—while Trisha Donnelly offers an inscrutable ruin of a pillar in a shed behind the Giardino delle Vergini, and Peter Fischli and David Weiss manage wryly to wed the aesthetics of Minimalism and Stonehenge in their Space Number 13, 2011. In the Arsenale, Nick Relph offers a tour de force with his Thre Stryppis Quhite upon ane Blak Field, 2010, a triple CRT projection in which the artist superimposes footage from documentaries about Ellsworth Kelly, the history of tartan, and Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo. Curatorial language that marvels in a voice-over at, say, the significance of a single move from vertical to horizontal in Kelly’s work seems a relic verging on the conditions of decor—beautiful yet useless—strapped as it is in Relph’s gemlike video to other modes of relentless cultural production. Another highlight, Rosemarie Trockel’s Replace Me, 2011, obtains the same air, consisting of a long modern couch covered in black, tarplike material and a throw blanket, while black-and-white posters for yesterday’s art parties and cultural tipping points (specifically, Warhol’s Flesh and, intriguingly, a manuscript page from an interview with Jean Genet regarding his political evolution) adorn the wall beside it.

Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010, stills from a color video, 24 hours. From “ILLUMInations.”

In this context, it seems curious that Thomas Hirschhorn—by now ordinarily associated with political work in the social sphere rather than with references to fiction—should install an immersive work in the Swiss pavilion invoking (and even including a copy of) J. G. Ballard’s The Crystal World. That 1966 novel describes the earth being slowly transformed into bright jewels and other geologic forms—while, as the author writes near the book’s conclusion, even the church has “outlived its function” in this place where “everything is transfigured and illuminated, joined together in the last marriage of space and time.” Titled Crystal of Resistance, 2011, Hirschhorn’s work—populated by flocks of mannequins and thousands of gruesome war photographs juxtaposed with pictures from popular magazines, as well as by outcroppings of cell phones taped to plastic chairs positioned around a cavelike warren covered in silver foil wallpaper and punctuated throughout by little displays of real crystal—similarly freezes the world to render it visible. Information here no longer flows seamlessly from point to point and, indeed, conveys nothing more than the fact of its existence (though the composition by Hirschhorn also suggests a cultural logic of crystal-like growth and self-duplication). Nothing here possesses any longer the transparency, or normalcy, given to objects and images through use. Indeed, the artist goes so far as to hang a banner demanding the right to “opacity”—a key term for postcolonial theorist and poet Édouard Glissant (who is the author of two other books found in Hirschhorn’s refractive environment), suggesting the possibility that difference may be preserved even as individuals are necessarily embedded in their larger context. One may still, in other words, stand apart.

Yet the place for art in this scenario seems ambiguous at best. And in fact, if Glissant’s terminology asks for a different conception of subjectivity (but here in a setting whose fictional underpinnings suggest the end of time), an intriguing complement for Hirschhorn’s installation can be found off-site, in Bjarne Melgaard’s work “Beyond Death: Viral Discontents and Contemporary Notions About aids.” Consisting partly of a class given by the artist at the Università IUAV di Venezia and partly of the exhibition “Baton Sinister” that Melgaard and his students have mounted at the Palazzo Contarini Corfù, the piece—Norway’s official offering at the Biennale—declares in a manifesto-like statement that art cannot change anything and, moreover, doesn’t need to. Even amid such stasis, however, “Baton Sinister” features a video interview with gay theorist Leo Bersani regarding formations of identity in culture today. Here Hirschhorn’s desire for opacity finds a reply in the academician’s decrying of legitimacy. “I think it’s a complete waste of identity for a homosexual to think that the goal in life should be to be a good husband . . . , a good priest, and a good soldier,” Bersani says, noting that one instead should be seeking “new relational modes.”

One cannot overlook the fact that both Hirschhorn and Melgaard are, in embracing kinds of negativity, looking beyond the parameters of art per se and seeking out a different kind of viewing subject—a process out of which, perhaps, another presentational mode might unfold in art. In the meantime, back within its borders, and on this occasion, we would do well to take a closer look at Christian Marclay’s The Clock, 2010, which was awarded one of this year’s Golden Lions. An absolute tour de force of research and editing, the piece plots every minute of a day by incorporating scenes from myriad films ranging widely in origin and genre, with each scenario being passed seamlessly to the next. Someone knocks on the door in one frame, and another person from a different film—an utterly changed time and place—answers. Or an alarm goes off in a mid-1950s bedroom, and someone from the 1970s awakes. Yet one must still, I think, consider the position of the audience member viewing this film (moreover, this film about cinematic habits and behaviors oriented around time): One never quite lives in the moment being watched, but rather waits, always looking for whatever might be coming next. Or, to cite philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “What we perceive as present is the vivid fringe of memory tinged with anticipation.” Ironically, anachronism is our foundation. A more apt representation of art’s position today can hardly be found.

Tim Griffin is Executive Director and Chief Curator of The Kitchen in New York, and a Contributing Editor of Artforum.