Power Vacuum

'Unmitigated Disaster' at the 50th Venice Biennale

Overweening and underwhelming, inconsequential and superfluous, this Biennale is afflicted by visual deprivation and sensory overload, by sloppy installation and lack of central control. Artists who have looked terrific elsewhere—Zarina Bhimji, Pawel Althamer, Koo Jeong-a, Marjetica Potrc, Tatiana Trouvé, and IRWIN among them—vanish into a poorly installed miasma of self-canceling metaphors. The grandly decrepit Arsenale spaces are negated or ignored. Dare we note that this Biennale presents an unlikely parallel to the current situation in Iraq? As in the real world, the dismantling of an old system and the lack of a new one results in what could be called either just a little untidiness or pure anarchy. High points—Gabriel Orozco's replica of the courtyard roof canopy, Maurizio Cattelan's remote-controlled robot spectator pedaling through the galleries, Simon Starling's multinational Fiat, and an occasional chance resonance between works involving flags, Buddhas, or oil among them—are few and far between.

And then there are the 63 national pavilions in the Giardini and scattered through the city. One transcendent moment is provided in the Swiss Pavilion's annex, the baroque Church of San Stae, which has been transformed by Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger into a wondrous Falling Garden. The Swiss duo spent seven weeks hanging tens of thousands of diverse real and fake blossoms, seeds, leaves, twigs, stalks, roots, pods, feathers, and pink crystals, and even a plastic pickle and a pot scubber, creating a miraculous rain of vegetation. "It's our collection since years," they explain modestly.

Another is Olafur Eliasson's transformation of the Danish Pavilion into "The Blind Pavilion," a perceptual maze with kalaidoscope tunnels, starburst mirrors, a camera obscura, and a yellow-glowing, color-obliterating room, which contrasted with Chris Ofili's equally optical but highly ornamental red, green, and black British Pavilion. Fred Wilson's work in the U.S. Pavilion, exploring the history of Moors in Venice, doesn't really add up to a whole, despite the jarring inclusion of a live African street vendor selling handbags. The smartest works: Milica Tomic's "National Pavilion," a grid of blinding flashbulbs that obliterates the facade of the anachronistic Yugoslavian Pavilion, and the time-warping international Armory Show inside, by a refugee artist from Belgrade who has long insisted on anonymity.

Deconstruction in Venice: Damian Ortega's Cosmic Thing
photo: Kim Levin
Deconstruction in Venice: Damian Ortega's Cosmic Thing

But in terms of the Dictatorship of the Artist, nothing competes with the brilliant perversity of Santiago Sierra's project for the Spanish Pavilion. Sierra, whose work is always about exploitation and exclusion, hid the word España on the façade with plastic and tape, blocked entry into the pavilion with a cinderblock wall, and mounted a plaque instructing people of Spanish nationality to use the back door. There, two thoroughly convincing Spanish border officials stand guard, politely but firmly demanding to see your passport. "Only people of Spanish nationality are allowed in, madam." It's as simple as that. "He's a bloody fascist," fumed an excluded Nordic artist, "exploiting people again and again." But that's the point.

Even Sierra, however, can't compete with the real-life story of the Venezuelan Pavilion, which was locked shut by that country's officials. Javier Tellez was originally selected to represent Venezuela, but his project, deemed too political, was cancelled. Pedro Morales was selected to replace him, but sections of Morales's interactive digital allegory, City Rooms, also proved unacceptable to government officials. Says Morales, "In Venezuela, nobody tolerates anything now. If you don't agree, you are treated as an enemy. I said no, I am not going to negotiate even a pixel." So the locked-out artist put his piece onto the Internet instead, where nobody can censor it. Then he wrapped the locked Venezuelan Pavilion in a rio de banderas, a river of Venezuelan flags sewn together by a group of women art activists and given to him as a gesture of support. "A beautiful act from the people of Venezuela," he remarks. Speaking of dictatorship, it's hard to top the real thing.

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