Venice

Aperto 93

Venice Biennale

Having read in Italian newspapers that the Whitney Biennial was an overwhelming experience, a collection of aggressive and unpleasant artworks violently engaged against the evils of racism, sexism, etc. (“horror art,” one reviewer call it), I came to New York expecting to see works that were perhaps formally unresolved but very strong ideologically. Instead, I saw technically perfect photographs, Minimalist-influenced installations of everyday objects, images, and words elegantly painted on the walls—in short, the kinds of installations we usually see in museums. But what was really worrying was that, far from finding the content shocking, I found it hovering at a level dangerously close to banality (with certain exceptions). Perhaps Italian journalists were startled by their belated discovery of Cindy Sherman and Kiki Smith. Or perhaps we European critics, who know Sade very well, but know nothing about the contradictions of life in the United States, cannot understand what constitutes subversion in this context.

I anticipated a similar reaction to “Aperto 93,” the section of the Venice Biennale devoted to new tendencies in art, and indeed to the Biennale itself, which Achille Bonito Oliva, perhaps out of a desire to celebrate the centenary of the Venetian institution, had turned into a sort of large festival, inviting an impressive number of both artists and curators. The theme of this year’s Biennale was the opening up to multiculturalism; the focus of the “Aperto” section was on emerging artists. In both cases there was an emphasis on the necessity of connecting art to the drama and complexity of the present moment. For once, rather than devoting itself to pretentious esthetic themes, the Biennale addressed a real problem, one that nourishes international cultural debate. It did so, however, with distinct limitations—among them, exhibitions installed in inadequate spaces, and historical surveys that failed to allow the viewer to fully grasp their intended connection with the present.

By comparison, “Aperto” was more successful. In an ample space in the corderie, or rope yards, of the Arsenal, 13 young critics, including Helena Kontova, the show’s organizer, exhibited their selections of paintings, sculptures, installations, and video pieces. In contrast to the pieces in the Whitney Biennial, these works sometimes appeared formally weak or disturbing, but they were never banal (with certain exceptions).

Where there were lapses, it was obviously due to the usual craving for file limelight. Damien Hirst’s costly installation of animal corpses cut in half and preserved in formaldehyde earned him the condemnation of animal-rights activists, and rightly so, given the enormous foolishness of this sort of apotheosis of violence. Analogous protests, equally justified, involved Yuki-nori Yanagi’s installation, which consisted of replicas, made of colored sand sandwiched between glass plates, of the flags of the former republics of the Soviet Union. Yanagi amused herself by introducing ants into her “flag” ant farms, with the idea that their burrowing would eventually disintegrate the images. What caused the protest was that the ants, having no means of escape, eventually died.

As for the critics, the Italian, Rosma Scuteri, attempted to be clever by inviting Oliviero Toscani, who was represented with his usual rejected advertising image (this time a sequence of sexual organs—what a genius!), ensuring numerous notices in the press. By showing Toscani’s work alongside that of a craftsman from Ghana and some film posters from India, Scuteri reproposed a small-scale version of the grandiose show of 1989, but mistakenly conceived “Magiciens de la Terre”—that is, by mystifying multiculturalism she again lost the opportunity of taking a good look at ourselves by analyzing the differences between other cultures and our own.

The problem is that if multiculturalism is to be interpreted without mystification, it must be examined as a dialectic of dominant and dominated cultures in which each necessarily affects the other. At the same time, an analysis of this dramatic interpenetration should avoid postulating any reassuring harmony between cultures of the center and of the margin. Instead, it must inevitably recognize conflicts and reveal contradictions, analysis of these conflicts being the only way out of the frightening regressive symptoms our world is displaying.

One sees this clearly in the work of Renée Green, Daniel J. Martinez, Doris Salcedo, Botala Tala, Rigoberto Torres, and Laura Aguilar. In work like theirs, the adoption of the expressive modes of white Western culture transcends merely negative goals, such as the revealing of false consciousness, and achieves an affirmative one, to the extent that it becomes a tool for the recomposition of an alienated and marginalized collective identity.

In this way, mass-media stereotypes and the most traditional art conventions can also be directed toward a truly redeeming function, if they end up demonstrating the repressive face of the by-now-generalized global village. The photographs of Andres Serrano are technically perfect, and they adhere to utterly conventional formal criteria. Yet his images of cadavers in the New York morgue are unbearable, as are his elegant portraits of the homeless (despite the fact that, as a Parisian art dealer said to me, they seemed like a Benetton ad, or perhaps precisely because of this).

In one of the most interesting essays published in the catalogue (indeed, what catalogue? A misunderstanding between the Biennale administration and the publishing house Giancarlo Politi Editore resulted in a “special issue” of Flash Art intended as a surrogate “Aperto” catalogue, which was immediately confiscated by the official publisher of the general catalogue), Nicolas Bourriaud states that art today no longer lays claim to autonomy, but renounces it in order to affect reality by competing within the sphere of communications.

In short, the criteria for attribution of artistic value, Modernist in origin or post-Modern in elaboration, are debated from a certain radical viewpoint. With a bearing worthy of Tristan Tzara, various artists lay claim to the possibility of the “ugly,” pushed perhaps to extremes (but who can say?) in the work of Sue Williams. The difference is that today, putting an end to the formalist ideology of the avant-garde leads to the question of the subject: a subject who insists on its own historicity in a period when one has forgotten to think -historically,“ given that history itself has been reduced to nostalgic pastiche, as Marcelo Es-pósito put it so well in his video project and catalogue statement. This thinking of ourselves as historians of ourselves gives rise to the category of the political, and, banally stated, to the supremacy of content over form, which, in turn, neutralizes inhibitions concerning expressive choices between the artistic and the ”nonartistic."

These developments have, in practice, sparked the creation of a new kind of “esthetic dimension,” behind which one reads a social dynamic, and behind which the mythologies and neuroses of a heterodirected imaginary are precisely defined. This could be seen in all the work by women—among them Angela Bulloch, Janine Antoni, Sylvie Fleury, and Smith, as well as in the surprising video by Cheryl Donegan—but it was also revealed in the pathological narcissism of Sean Landers and in the provocative sarcasm of Carsten Höller, both of whom are men.

First of all, these artists make a theme out of their own existential condition, which they face and analyze with political tools. Then they end up theorizing, prefiguring, or experimenting with a social role. On the one hand, new receivers are sought who, in an act of socialization and transformation of cognitive tools, subject the language of art to their own needs. This was the case with the installation by Luca Quartana, who worked with a community of convicts serving life terms, and it has been true for some time of the work of Peter Fend and the Premiata Ditta group. In another line of inquiry, the “system of painting”—its hypothesis of linguistic autonomy—was betrayed in the work of Rudolf Stingel, who “reduced” the Modernist monochrome to a gigantic piece of carpeting applied to the wall, which the public could touch and cover with gestural signs. The art system’s close ties to macrosystems of power, its ideological and self-legitimizing postulates, were investigated by Cercle Ramo Nash and by the Formento-Sossella team; likewise, the system’s economic presuppositions were probed by Maurizio Cattelan, who, hoping to make a profit, rented his stand to a perfume company, which installed a large billboard. Perhaps the most emblematic work in this show, within the creative climate that the new tendencies are establishing, was the group of large boxes by Regina Moeller, an artist who works in an office to support herself. On large overturned boxes one could read statements about the alienating character of the living and working spaces that architecture has doled out to us (in reality and in fiction). Spilling from the boxes were piles of paper airplanes, which Moeller hoped visitors would fly. Here was both an alternative use of work time and an indication that the artistic avant-garde cannot help but be concerned with the political reality of the present.

Giorgio Verzotti is a writer who lives in Milan.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.