Panic Attack

Navigating the Venice Biennale’s Sprawling Interzone

Sequels rarely live up to anyone's expectations, and megacurator Harald Szeemann's second Venice Biennale in a row—the 49th incarnation of the contemporary art world's most venerable supershow (through November 4)—is no exception. Two years ago, Szeemann's pointedly themeless main exhibition offered an adrenaline rush of pure spectacularity in the stunningly decrepit vastness of the old 17th-century Venetian shipyard, the Arsenale. This time, most of the national pavilions are better than usual, but the legendary curator's sprawling central exhibition is, curatorially speaking, a drag.

It's got no centrifugal spirit, no cohesive energy, no gritty issues. And—less pointedly than before—no theme. The catchall title, "Plateau of Humankind," doesn't jell into a concept no matter how hard it's spun. This biennale has the blahs. It levels the playing field. It blurs the difference between issues and trivia. Nevertheless, with acres of art scattered all over Venice, it can't help but harbor a free-floating dialogue of chance linkages and a few peaks. Let's just say that this summer in Venice the law of diminishing returns began to set in.

Plateau of Humankind? "Not a theme but rather a dimension," claimed Szeemann, who may have meant the pompous phrase to work as a sly corrective to the overplayed identity issues of recent years. Perhaps he hoped to rewind our shiny new 21st-century sensibilities back to an elevated art of eternal verities and universal human conditions. The artists, however, have other things in mind. The best works, in the pavilions as well as in the main show, fast-forward our psyches into a bizarre new realm. Masato Nakamura's encircling arcade of golden arches, ringed by mini-arches, in the Japanese pavilion, is a dazzling omen of the new universality. As for heightened individuality, Ron Mueck's colossal Boy glances furtively over his shoulder at the Arsenale entrance, as if watching for an even bigger brother.

The connections that spring up between works have less to do with noble humanity than with the inhuman, the robotic, and the nightmarish: spatial compression, watery immersion, conflagration, and the house as a labyrinthine symbol not of home but of the delusional brain. Ernesto Neto's aromatic installation of pendulous panty-hose udders, weighted with ground cloves, annatto, and turmeric (spices that spiked Brazil's colonization), is one key to the experiential nature of this biennale. Paul Pfeiffer's oversize Psychoshower, water gushing, is another. If the 1999 biennale was a carnival of art, this one is a booby-trapped fun house.

Prizewinning works in both the Canadian and German pavilions messed with viewers' minds. Canadians Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's elaborately interactive installation, The Paradise Institute, is a hypercinematic experience that ricochets in the brain and deranges sensory perceptions. According to those who endured hours on a queue to experience it, it was also the most insidious and manipulative work in the vast megashow. Its psychic power was matched by Gregor Schneider's quixotic tenement house project, Haus ur, which also generated long lines. This ongoing, site-specific re-creation of his childhood home in Germany, relocated inside the Nazi-era pavilion in Venice, is a claustrophobic three-story maze of dingy corridors, doorways, rooms within rooms, and rickety stairs. Plunging viewers into a maze of peculiar doors, crawl spaces, and "abysses of the ego" into which the unwary might slip, it induces low-level panic along with the gradual realization that—as in a bad dream—all is psychologically as well as spatially skewed.

Less heralded but equally unsettling is British artist Mike Nelson's independently sponsored installation, The Deliverance and the Patience, in an old brewery on the island of Giudecca. Nelson's seedy two-story institutional structure—with 16 musty rooms, 33 doors, endless hallways, old model ships, bar stools, posters, and multiple clues—is like Haus ur's evil twin, with an inverse equation between the personal and the political. Depending on which doors you enter, it secretes alternate scenarios that allude to the 1609 shipwreck of the galleon Sea-Ventureoff Bermuda, the failed utopia of castaways that inspired Shakespeare's Tempest, and the two ships that took them to colonized Virginia.

From the dry underwater illusion of Leandro Erlich's Swimming Poolin the Argentinean pavilion, smack in the middle of Venice's main post office, to Richard Serra's vertiginous tilting spirals at the end of the Arsenale, this is the biennale that tuned us in to the vagaries of experiential art. An eager-to-be-quoted colleague from Estonia said, "This year there are not so many stars, but some extremely interesting environmental projects that make you feel like you are in a very special psychiatric hospital where the doctors are testing your senses." The most lovable test: a deceptively simple table by Max Dean and Raffaello D'Andrea in the Arsenale. Imbued with artificial intelligence (sophisticated software, sensors, overhead cam), the piece of mobile furniture uncannily pursues a symbiotic relationship, wordlessly interacting with viewers of its choice. The quaintest: Antal Lakner's pedal-powered Art Mobiles for loan at the Hungarian pavilion, which encourage pedalers to bypass the pavilions' nationalistic bent by commandeering an "intercultural zone."

In this context, Robert Gober's chilly allusions to the nasty underbelly of American life—including a toilet plunger, a gin bottle, a kitty basket (nestling Gober's trademark drain in a fleshy human lump), and a cellar door to hell—seem local and aloof. "One of the great poets of the United States national psyche," declared U.S. pavilion curator James Rondeau. Europeans just didn't get it, and judged the work weak. Luc Tuymans's pale, painterly meditation on King Leopold, Patrice Lumumba, and the Belgian Congo in the Belgian pavilion, in contrast, looks lucid and cool—an understated indictment of colonialism on the verge of fading from memory and sight.

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