Panic Attack

Navigating the Venice Biennale’s Sprawling Interzone

The demographics of the biennale, however, are as myopic as ever, perpetuating stereotypes on all sides. Latin American artists are a long boat ride away, replicating their geographical distance. The few works from Africa are folksy or folkloric. "Authentic Ex-centric," one of the best satellite exhibitions, provides an antidote with installations by nine artists of African ancestry, including Berni Searle, Yinka Shonibare, Godfried Donkor, and Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons. And the most conspicuous contribution from urban America is a funky ghetto storefront installation by Barry McGee, Stephen Powers, and James Todd, with postgraffiti wallworks and overturned vans.

Among the vast array of video projections are some fabulous pieces. The ice-cold eroticism of Chris Cunningham's All Is Full of Love, in which a white robot Björk makes love to a robot replica of herself, and the brutal strobe tactics of Gary Hill's Wall Piece are high on the list, as is Ene-Liis Semper's suicide project, and Magnus Wallin's perverse feat of computer animation. Even so, this is the biennale where everyone OD'd on video.

It is also the one in which we nearly OD'd on electronic noise, but Szeemann's not to blame. With deep sound emanating from one pavilion after another (Granular=Synthesis's audiovisual aggression in the Austrian pavilion came accompanied by health warnings), it took a while one afternoon to realize that nature, not art, was responsible when it began to thunder. The ubiquitous synthesizer had competition from operatic arias and choral crescendos. In the British pavilion, ecclesiastical music permeates Mark Wallinger's elevator ascension and airport epiphany. And diverse religious incantations issue from Sergei Shutov's robed throng of mechanical worshipers in the Russian pavilion. Finnish pavilion artist Finnbogi Pétursson has it both ways: His sonic organ tunnel booms out the church-censored Diabolus tone. In spite of the letdown of this supershow predicated on humanistic platitudes, there's an odd realization: Artists are rethinking purgatory and salvation.

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