the 47th Venice Biennale

Various Venues

As historians like to remind us, Venice is sinking. And if the Biennale is any indication, it’s disappearing faster than anyone suspected. Sure, the city and its treasures probably have a few good centuries left in them, but its greatest accomplishment in this one is increasingly held hostage to local politics and curatorial grandstanding. If in past years crowds have been shrinking, state money has been drying up, and the press has been screaming for blood, this June even art-world revelers fled, lured by the promise of greener pastures in Kassel.

The night before my first peek at the 47th Venice Biennale, some ten days after the opening, I ran into its curator, Germano Celant, at Harry’s Bar. When I mentioned that I was looking forward to seeing his work, he shrugged and remarked that, after all, it wasn’t really his work I’d be seeing. On a literal level his response was innocuous enough—artists are the true authors after all—but it resonated in a disturbing way. It was as if after all these years of waiting to organize his own Biennale, Celant, feeling the pressure of his tight schedule and a prickly constituency, had decided to disavow the results of his first effort. Was his shrug a way of putting his best face on a mounting PR disaster or was it an attempt to hint that the real resurrection of the decidedly moribund Biennale will come with his not-yet-confirmed 1999 sequel? (With the exception of the two previous Biennales, the artistic director has been hired for two successive editions.)

After wandering through the product of Celant’s labors, I could better understand his demurral. The most striking feature of “Future, Present, Past,” the centerpiece of this Biennale, is the lack of curatorial vision. Filling both the Italian pavilion and the Corderie dell’Arsenale, the show begins in the Giardini with an ultimately pointless collaboration, arranged by Celant, between three Italian artists of distinct generations: neo-Minimalist Ettore Spalletti, transavanguardia painter Enzo Cucchi, and bad-boy du jour Maurizio Cattelan. The last lives up to his reputation by hanging a splashy Venetian chandelier directly in front of a Cucchi and arranging fake pigeons into naturalistic tableaux in the rafters. The series of interlocking rooms that follows offers no relief: though each artist is given his or her room, the works assembled look so inert and disconnected, it’s like walking through an art fair. Visitors trudged dutifully through largely anemic installations by Mario Merz, Claes Oldenburg/Coosje van Bruggen, Michael Heizer, Agnes Martin, Emilio Vedova, Annette Messager, Rebecca Horn, Maria Nordmann, Richard Artschwager, Jim Dine, Richard Tuttle, Gerhard Richter, and Anselm Kiefer (who was also accorded a miniretrospective at the Museo Correr), their patience rewarded by a handful of exceptional rooms by Edward Ruscha, Tony Cragg, Gilberto Zorio, Roy Lichtenstein, Marina Abramovic, Reiner Ruthenbeck, Luciano Fabro, and Jan Dibbets.

If there is tedium to spare in the Giardini portion of Celant’s show, sheer frustration reigns at the Arsenale, where the curatorial flourish of opening with Jeff Koons, closing with Julian Schnabel, and giving center court to Robert Longo pinpoints all too precisely the moment Celant stopped paying attention to contemporary art. Celant’s view of art’s present and future comfortably encapsulates the work of thirty-eight artists. In keeping with the Corderie’s history as the site of the now-defunct “Aperto,” the selection of young or lesser-known artists seems impressive at first glance. In reality their contributions are frequently diminished by either the choice of works or their position in relation to disappointing contributions by several much-hyped figures (including Francesco Clemente, Jan Fabre, Andreas Slominski, Bertrand Lavier, Vanessa Beecroft, Jason Rhoades, and Jake & Dinos Chapman). As for Italian artists, the youngest and most radical (Mario Airò, Giuseppe Gabellone) have shown more convincing work in other settings.

Despite the overall mundanity of Celant’s contribution, there are several outstanding works to enjoy in the Arsenale. One wanders through the redesigned facility nursing the hope that its status as a venue for contemporary art at the Biennale might no longer be in question. The collaborative team of Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell (who have long represented the quieter side of London’s teeming art scene) offered one of the show’s highlights: immaculately executed glass-and-painted-wood reliefs of air-traffic routes and prison plans. Swiss video artist Pipilotti Rist makes the most successful foray into extreme extroversion with her two-screen paean to summer in which a prettily dressed woman strides in slow motion down a city street, pausing en route to gleefully smash the windows of a few parked cars with a metal “wand” disguised as a frond of goldenrod, then proceeds on her merry way. Contrasting sharply with their cavernous surroundings, Charles LeDray’s minute, intricately detailed sculptures made from cloth, shells, and human bone can be read as a cheeky reference to the history of the building (and the city) in which they are housed, while Juan Muñoz’s installation includes a cluster of identical Chinese men, who face the wall as if utterly absorbed by a collective destiny far beyond the viewer’s reach. Sam Taylor-Wood’s three-screen video dissection of an affair imploding during the busy shift at a chic London eaterie is a tour-de-force of down-and-dirty realism, while the clarity and scale of Mariko Mori’s multipanel photographic fairy tale of a sci-fi mermaid swept up on an artificial beach somehow convinces the viewer that the picture’s setting (including the very flesh-and-blood bystanders) couldn’t possibly be real. In a telling change of pace, Haim Steinbach’s industrial metal shelving extends diagonally into the corridor. This functionalist scaffold, a seemingly chaotic assembly—wooden schoolroom chairs, sand, a single helium balloon, cinder blocks, and a monitor tucked into the corner playing Shelly Silver’s videotape of interviews with Asian women—seems to house all-too-human histories.

Beyond Celant’s show, the few outstanding national entries do little to erase the overall impression that the ’97 Biennale leaves much to be desired. Russia and Yugoslavia all but disgraced themselves by first inviting Komar & Melamid and Marina Abramovic to represent their respective countries, then rescinding their offers in favor of bland neo-folksy painters whose works merits no more than a cursory glance. (The jury thumbed its nose back by handing Abramovic best-artist prize for her hair-raising video/performance installation, Balkan Baroque, 1997, which is part of Celant’s show.) Austria offers a free eight-pound book on its capital’s little-known group of linguistic adventurers, Die Wiener Gruppe, by Peter Weibel. Most of the big guns, pavilion-wise, went for safe, staid choices: Belgium (Thierry de Cordier); Brazil (Waltercio Caldas, Jac Leirner); Germany (Gerhard Merz, Katharina Sieverding); Switzerland (Helmut Federle); and Great Britain (Rachel Whiteread). Merz’s frieze of fluorescent tubes in the German pavilion’s entry hall, a backhanded nod to both Albert Speer and Dan Flavin, provoked the most heated discussions, while Whiteread’s sculptures occasioned the most audible sighs of sheer pleasure. The presentations of many countries —including Australia, Uruguay, Israel, Hungary, Greece, Venezuela, and the Czech Republic/Slovakia—were so dispirited one couldn’t help wondering if these efforts weren’t the biggest casualties of this year’s truncated deadlines.

Even some of the better pavilions are flawed in notable respects. Joan Brossa’s “object-poems,” produced over his fifty-year career, are virtually unknown outside Spain and would have made an extraordinary impression had they been allowed to fill his country’s pavilion; regrettably, half the space is occupied by Carmen Calvo’s highly derivative sculptures. The Netherlands offers two refreshing talents, Aernout Mik and Willem Oorebeek (the former’s offbeat video installation transforms mundane social scenes using low-grade surreal effects), but the space allows for neither to stretch out nor for the two to interact meaningfully. Much of Robert Colescott’s fifty-year career, which more than qualified him for the US pavilion, is necessarily absent from a show that spans only the last ten years, doing little to explain why his paintings have exerted such a strong pull on the American psyche. France’s award-winning project by Fabrice Hybert—featuring a ring of monitors broadcasting events in and around the Biennale with adjoining “production studios” crammed full of notes, sketches, and video equipment visible through ornamental gates—seems to have won honors for covering as many thematic and material bases as possible.

Among the exceptions is the Canadian pavilion, with an infuriatingly hilarious film cycle by Rodney Graham, Vexation Island, 1997, in which the artist, decked out as a pirate, spends virtually the entire film snoozing on an empty tropical beach, watched over by his parrot as the camera occasionally zooms in on his gashed forehead. Upon awakening, he rises and shakes the coconut tree whose fruit knocked him out in the first place, and the sequence starts all over again. The Polish pavilion boasts the most disquieting entry: a devastating twenty-eight-foot black and white photowork by Zofia Kulik that sums up its indictment of war and nationalism under the title “All the Missiles are One.” Korea’s pavilion features a remarkably labor-intensive piece, Throw Everything Together and Add, 1994, by Ik-Joong Kang, which comprises thousands of tiny, identically sized paintings, each containing a single object or a phrase in relief. “Naturally Artificial,” a lively group show dealing with the mutual impact of nature and technology, filled the Nordic pavilion with work by five artists (both Scandinavian and non), including a dazzling new 3-D video by Mariko Mori, who assumes the role of spiritual guru. Eschewing the populist bent of the Biennale in favor of an installation meant for one visitor at a time, Japanese artist Rei Naito’s atmospheric One Place on the Earth, 1991—a quietly ironic tribute to Duchamp’s Étant Donnés—contains a suggestive rendering of the female anatomy in natural and found materials.

It is not unusual for Venice to show off its splendors far from the Giardini’s gates, and this year is an exception only insofar as there are fewer satellite exhibitions than usual; the results, as always, are decidedly mixed. Two of the more compelling national representations are located along one or another vaporetto line: in the progressive Galleria Nuova Icona, Ireland’s Jaki Irvine shows videotapes of urban encounters while Alistair MacLennan’s installation focuses with grim clarity on violence in the north; at the Palazzo Vendramin ai Carmini, Portugal’s Julião Sarmento makes commanding use of both the space and the medium of painting. Other official and quasi—official group exhibitions, such as “Taiwan Taiwan: Facing Faces” (featuring Tien-Chang Wu’s campy high-tech love story set on the wrong side of Taipei’s tracks) and an irreverent survey of young Swedish artists, “Deposition” (in which Elin Wikström spends every public hour systematically moving identical blue metal boxes in and out of the Cinema Arsenale), prove that the energy level of the Biennale, as always, depends on taking real risks. Smaller exhibitions, such as “Modernities and Memories: Recent Works from the Islamic World,” generally tend toward the didactic or amateurish, although at least one, “EUROPArte,” is notable for showcasing the cutting-edge work of Russian “dog” artist Oleg Kulik and French artist Pierre Huyghe, whose side-by-side presentation of three predubbed versions of the same 1928 film supports the claim that much of the best art being made today deals with the history of other media.

Although some of the greatest hopes in Venice were for shows organized beyond the Biennale’s jurisdiction, the biggest unofficial production this year is also the biggest dud: Rudi Fuchs and Jan Hoet’s “Art of the 20th-Century: Flemish and Dutch Painting.” This show, at the Palazzo Grassi, would be far more compelling if it jumped directly from Surrealism to Marcel Broodthaers to the ’80s and sidestepped the more dubious achievements of those countries in the intervening decades. Isla Marghera, the future site of the contemporary art museum, hosts a sprawling Dennis Oppenheim show that tests the patience of all but die-hard fans, as well as a more cohesive and satisfying survey of fifteen Italian photographers documenting the transformation of Venice’s maritime underbelly. The runner-up for outstanding satellite show is surely “Artists for Sarajevo,” which showcases nine international artists’ projects to be donated to the collection of the future Sarajevo museum, including a remarkable new film by Rosemarie Trockel that captures the heartbreak of war and displacement through children who adopt adult roles. Perhaps in part due to the curator’s long-standing rivalry with Celant, the most accomplished extra muros exhibition is unquestionably Achille Bonito Oliva’s “Minimalia,” which traces certain loosely defined reductivist tendencies in Italian art from Balla to the present, and is chock-full of outstanding works by household names (Piero Manzoni, Clemente) as well as the virtually unknown (Jannis Kounellis’ predecessor Uncini).

As the Venice Biennale enters its second century (it celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1995), the trouble brewing in paradise shows signs of imminent eruption. The Biennale’s last two heads (Bonito Oliva and “Aperto”-slayer Jean Clair) were cut loose after organizing only one edition each, and at least some of this year’s problems can be attributed to having named the organizing curator, Celant, only six months before the opening date. But while city officials dither, Venice’s organizers seem blissfully unaware that the São Paulo Bienale, at half Venice’s age, has become larger, infinitely better organized, and much more likely to showcase exciting work. If Venice wishes to play a more than ceremonial role in the future, it’s going to have to wake up to two facts: first, that Europe is no longer the undisputed center of the art world; second, that curators like Celant have placed a virtual stranglehold on Italy’s younger curatorial talent, which today either reaps its harvest far from home, or else hovers all too obediently in the wings.

Dan Cameron is senior curator at New York’s New Museum and a longtime contributor to Artforum.