Rebirth in Venice

Cai Guo Qiang's enormous installation of gray clay laborers, coolies, bosses, crones, and stick-figure armatures enacting melodramatic scenes of exploitation may be the most over-the-top and misinterpreted work of all. Contrary to appearances, Venice's Rent Collection Courtyardisn't a bizarre reversion to Socialist Realism by an artist better known for staging explosive events. It's a conceptual work, a deliberately unfinished process-oriented replication of the 100 figures in an infamous work of Maoist propaganda art made in Sichuan during the Cultural Revolution.

Under the not-so-distant cloud of Serbian atrocities, NATO bombs, and Kosovar refugees, this Biennale without a theme absorbed the coloration of current events. Thomas Hirschhorn's World Airport, a vast aircraft-carrier runway filled with model airplanes and tangled plastic circuitry, wasn't the only piece to comment on globalization and territorial aggression. Simone Aaberg Kërn's Sisters in the Sky (an ode to female fighter pilots), Paola Pivi's Boeing bomber, and Soo-Ja Kim's truck piled with bundled rags took on new meanings. Even Wim Delvoye's filigreed wooden cement truck appeared, at first glance, to be a bullet-riddled tank.

The art world should be grateful to Szeemann. He has made it possible for the Biennale—a lumbering beast based on an outmoded 19th-century model of nation-states—to slouch easily into the next millennium. He has freed it to absorb significance from the world at large, shedding hints about the state of art and the condition of the world. Perhaps next time he'll give it a compelling raison d'être. And invite a more equitable bunch of the world's best artists.

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