Venice the Menace

The New York Times called it “death in Venice,” Time magazine called it “a shambles.” But the rage that met the 1993 Venice Biennale reflected less on the show itself than on the concerted attack some American critics have mounted recently against a dominant mood of the contemporary. Coming as it does after the assault on the Whitney Biennial, the reception of the Venice show suggests a deeply threatened feeling. The Eurocentric fetishization of certain limited ideas of artistic and cultural quality is becoming endangered, and it was this, above all, that was significant about the ’93 Biennale.

The Venice Biennale was founded in 1895—at the height, in other words, of Europe’s expansionist colonial period. The Berlin conference at which the European powers partitioned Africa among themselves had fallen just a decade before. The Biennale offered a relatively harmless means for different nation-states to compete, sending individuals to seek glory for them; only Western nations were invited. The policy, then, was a Modernist one, emphasizing individualism and nationalism at once, and assuming that, as Hegel put it, the history of the world happens in Europe. In the post-Modern era this policy has begun to erode. Venice included Nigeria and Zimbabwe in the 1990 Biennale, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire in 1993. A recent emphasis on women artists may also be seen as a sign of cultural shifting: before 1990, the United States had never represented itself in Venice with a one-woman show; that year it was represented by Jenny Holzer, and in ’93 by Louise Bourgeois. Japan, meanwhile, was also represented in 1993 by a woman artist, Yayoi Kusama.

Achille Bonito Oliva, director of the ’93 Biennale, deliberately promoted this process of change with his choice of a theme for this year’s exhibition: cultural nomadism. Undermining the Biennale’s traditional nationalistic structure, Oliva suggested that countries could, even should, allow artists of other nationalities to represent them in their national pavilions. Several curators took him up on it. Most conspicuously, the United States was represented by French national (though American resident) Bourgeois; Germany by both Hans Haacke (who, though a German national, is also, arguably, an American artist) and Nam June Paik (likewise considered an American artist, though Korean by birth); Hungary by the American Joseph Kosuth; and Austria by the American Andrea Fraser, the German Christian Philip Mueller, and the Austrian Gerwald Rockenschaub. In this context, while the artists who won the Biennale’s prizes would still enhance their own prestige, the glorification of the national group was potentially far more ambiguous.

Still, counterforces were also seen, for example in nativist separatism. The fledgling Republic of Macedonia was directed to rename itself the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, reportedly after the Greek government complained to the Italian. And the Macedonian show, an interesting one, was installed in the open air outside the Biennale’s official area, the Giardini, emphasizing its homelessness and nomadism.

The prizes also accorded asymmetrically with nationality, and were skewed somewhat oddly, as, apparently, Oliva had wanted. The chief prize, for “best pavilion” (that is, for best national exhibition), went to Germany—and to American artists. The strengths of both Haacke’s and Paik’s entries had been widely recognized. Haacke used a temporary wall to block the visitor’s initial view into the building; hanging on this wall was a photograph of Hitler standing at the building’s entrance in 1936. Walking onward, visitors became aware of hollow impact sounds from inside; proceeding, they saw that the marble floor had been torn up, its slabs broken and then thrown down again in random heaps that resounded as people clambered about on them. The apparent point was that Germany, in this historic moment of reunification, needs to be reconceived from the ground up, or to be deconstructed and reconstructed at a foundational level. In keeping with the theme of nomadic hybridization, the floor grid, stereotypically “Germanic” in its rigidity, had been reprocessed into a kind of indiscriminate prime matter from which new configurations might arise.

Haacke’s piece was surprisingly paralleled by Ilya Kabakov’s installation in the Russian pavilion, which many Europeans thought should have won the prize: tarpaulins, half-empty paint cans, and scaffolds made the space look like a construction site, again suggesting a society in ruins and in need of rebuilding. With the skylight covered by tarpaulin, the atmosphere was gloomy and abandoned. Out back, martial music blared from a comically small, patriotically painted shed, suggesting the petty rigidity and false consciousness of the old Soviet government. But Haacke’s piece made the point more succinctly, and with more site-specificity. (Kabakov’s was like a temporary stage set within a permanent structure; Haacke’s threatened the permanent structure’s integrity.) And the Paik contribution—which, being bright, musical, and in the back of its pavilion, structurally paralleled the second part of the Kabakov work—went far beyond the parody implied by Kabakov’s shed. Paik installed a dizzying and stunning array of video works from over the years. Their supererogatory sensory richness balanced the negation and austerity of Haacke’s piece, creating an interesting sense of dialectical balance.

The sculpture prize was more unexpected, and to many less satisfying. Widely predicted to win was the French-American “nomad” Bourgeois, who exhibited a sumptuous sampling of recent work. But Bourgeois lost—according to rumor, because she dissed the Italians by not coming to Venice to be on hand for the award ceremony. Many expected the second choice to be Yayoi Kusama, whose retrospective in the Japanese pavilion recorded the first great cultural nomadism of the post–World War II era—Japan’s entry into the avant-garde of Conceptual art, performance art, and more. But Kusama was not the winner either. (No woman won a major prize this time.)

As an unexpected fallback the judges awarded the prize to the American Robert Wilson, whose nomadism evidently consisted not in a change of nationality but in the fact that he is not precisely a sculptor. In Wilson’s large space, sited in the Giudecca, across the lagoon from the Giardini, an elaborate cracked-mud floor was dotted with spare apparitions such as the torso of a naked man, apparently either rising from or sinking into the mud. Atmospheric and spooky, the installation recalled Wilson’s theater sets. Close by was a memorial exhibition to John Cage—a meticulous array of semischolarly materials reflecting Cage’s various events and interventions in Italy over the years. A neighboring exhibition curated by Christian Leigh recalled other shows of his, but seemed finally to have reached his goal of presenting a kind of metapainting by the curator, incorporating the works of others as colors on its palette.

The painting prize was shared by Briton Richard Hamilton, whose retrospective, scaled down from its earlier showing at London’s Tate Gallery, occupied the British pavilion, and Antoni Tápies, whose work in the Spanish pavilion was, oddly, mostly sculpture. Hamilton’s show was less impressive than it had been at the Tate, and Tápies’ works did not show him at his best; nevertheless, it was widely felt that these two major artists were honored appropriately. The prize for best artist under 35 went to the American Matthew Barney, who showed primarily a group of stills from the satyr video seen at this year’s Whitney Biennial. The video had been impressive, but its echo in Venice was lifeless, and to many the award seemed to reflect the recent fashion for Barney’s work more than the actual presence it exerted here.

Most of the main prizes went to Americans or American residents, and all but one went to artists who mostly speak English. Conjoined with the prevalence of Americans among the “nomadic” crossover artists showing in pavilions other than their own, this emphasis raises questions. Does the dominance of Americans in the prizes reflect the situation of a one-superpower world? Do Europeans like Oliva, when they think of multiculturalism, automatically think of the United States? Does the resentment that some European intellectuals have shown recently toward the English language imply a dread that this will be the tongue of the first stage of the emerging global culture?

The Giardini’s large central building, housing the Italian pavilion and other exhibition spaces, as usual contained many elements, setting the art of well-known figures like Joseph Beuys, Per Kirkeby, Gino de Domenicis, and Anish Kapoor (whose wall sculpture seemed to mark a new extreme in this artist’s quest for the primal darkness before birth or consciousness) beside that deriving from national groups without pavilions of their own. Aside from the work itself, it was intriguing that some of these groups were in Venice at all. The small Irish room was impressively arrayed with haunting half-human, half-animal figures by Dorothy Cross and car-wreck photographs by Willie Doherty, expressing the edginess and anxiety of the Irish situation. If the brushy monochromes of Chong-Hyun Ha do in fact relate to the late New York School, as they appear to, this Korean artist’s willingness to go up against a dominant Western art style mirrors the Little Tiger’s strong intrusion of late into the Western market economy. Two African shows were presented misleadingly, as if they were one. The South African show seemed to reinforce problematic stereotypes, white artist Sandra Kriel making embroideries critical of apartheid, black artist Jackson Hlungwane being presented as a kind of primitive. (A wall plaque informed the viewer that a snake inside Hlungwane makes him make his sculpture.) The show of sculpture and painting from Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire was better received.

The pavilions in the Giardini were supplemented by a series of collateral shows hung in various sumptuous settings around town. The Duchamp show at the Palazzo Grassi was the most complete that I remember seeing, and was a pleasure, though Venice’s long association with color and sensuality rendered this rather northern work somewhat ghostly. Northern angst seemed similarly out of place in the large Francis Bacon show at the Museo Correr, but this at least was coloristic painting.

All in all this Biennale seemed respectable in terms of its predecessors. Aside from a half dozen truly memorable works, like Haacke’s, Kabakov’s, and Kapoor’s, the truly historic element was the shift away from nationalism, which might, given time and enough rope, hang the Biennale altogether.

Thomas McEvilley is a contributing editor of Artforum and a professor of art history at Rice University, Houston. His most recent book is Art and Otherness: Crisis in Cultural Identity, published by McPherson & Co. of Kingston, NY.