Power Vacuum

'Unmitigated Disaster' at the 50th Venice Biennale

As you have surely heard elsewhere, it was hotter than hell in Venice during the press preview for this summer's Biennale. The worst heat wave since 1908 provided a great alibi for not talking about the show. During the first preview days, everyone sidestepped the question of what they really thought. "I need to reflect. It feels like there's this tremendous void at the center," said one famously diplomatic curator. "I haven't made sense of it yet," waffled a fellow critic. We all wanted to give Chicago-based Francesco Bonami, director of this Biennale, the benefit of the doubt. But by the third day it was clear. For perhaps the first time ever, there was complete critical agreement: The 50th Venice Biennale is an unmitigated disaster, an incoherent mess.

It's a pity. In the introduction of the eight-pound killer catalogue, Bonami proclaims that the era of the grand maestro curators of the 20th century is over. He questions the validity of the huge thematic mega-show, shaped by one individual with one vision, at a time when art speaks in a multiplicity of languages. Stressing diversity, individuality, and contradiction, he explains that he hoped to give back to each viewer control of his or her own gaze. He wanted to free art from its emphasis on social and political issues: "I feel very strongly about advocating creative irrelevance to attack the absurdity of war, violence, and discrimination. I am for producing dreams to contain the madness of conflicts."

So far so good. It's hard to quibble with such a benevolent and well-intentioned desire to free the exhibition from curatorial bias, to free the artists from obligatory issues, to free the spectators from the pressures of interpretation. Read between the lines and you realize he's not just consigning mega-curator Harald Szeemann (who opened the era of the orchestrating curator back in the '60s and directed the 49th Venice Biennale two years ago) to obsolescence. He's also challenging Okwei Enwezor, whose Documenta 11 last summer was tightly focused on art's relevance, both social and political.

Bonami's solution: to hand over the reins to 11 other curators, two of whom are artists. He didn't create a team of co-curators working together but gave all of them complete autonomy to do their own thing. He bestowed an idealistic title on this exhibition of exhibitions: "Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer." And somehow, despite the best intentions in the world, he fell, metaphorically, flat on his face with the biggest, sloppiest, most amorphous biennial ever. As we ought to know by now, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Am I the only one who hits a snag at the notion of the, uh, dictatorship of the viewer? Isn't that what happens at art fairs? Isn't that what Hitler proposed when he outlawed art criticism? Quite apart from that little conflict between the dream of individual freedom and the idea of dictatorship, the Abdication of the Director would have been far more precise.

Instead of one grand thematic exhibition, we are subjected to 11 half-assed micro-shows with different themes, different titles, different geographical emphases, and acutely diminished ambitions. Bonami curated two and co-curated a third, together with Daniel Birnbaum. Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Molly Nesbit, and Rirkrit Tiravanija teamed up. Not only was it difficult to make sense of the truncated exhibitions, but, in the endless processional exhibition spaces of the Arsenale, it was hard to tell where one show left off and the next began. The curators, paying lip service to individuality, trotted out their favorite issues, mostly social and political, in lackluster sequels. Bonami's "Clandestine" (with no dominant theme except for the universality of the human condition) merges into Gilane Tawadros's "Fault Lines" (about African migration, rupture, and postcolonialism), Igor Zabel's "Individual Systems" (involving art from eastern Europe and invented personal systems), and Carlos Basualdo's "The Structure of Survival" (where South American artists predominate, along with "subjective positions").

Catherine David's "Contemporary Arab Representations," the third incarnation of her own ongoing exhibition project, stands apart with its unrelenting documentary intent and large-screen projections. At least Hou Hanru's "Zone of Urgency," a claustrophobic sequence of ramps, warrens, cubicles, and capsule-hotel nests overflowing with cacophonic work by Asian artists and groups, has energy. But it's so frenetic that one's immediate instinct is to flee. With only six artists, Gabriel Orozco's "The Everyday Altered" fares best, partly because of the rules Orozco imposed ("no walls, no pedestals, no vitrines, no video, no photographs") and partly thanks to the spacey presence of Damian Ortega's Cosmic Thing, a deconstructed VW Beetle suspended in space.

At the far end of the Arsenale is the triple-curated "Utopia Station," a collaborative fun house of sorts with work stations, platforms, reading tables, videos, projection rooms, trunks, and a slew of small participatory projects by perfectly good artists—all swallowed up in the plywood Home Depot installation by Liam Gillick. You can paint ceramic fragments, stamp Yoko Ono's Imagine Peace on a map, climb into various sheds in the back garden, or wonder if this feel-good participatory mode heralds an anarchic neo-medieval festivalism in which the itinerant artists are anonymous and the art supremely irrelevant.

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.

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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