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There’s hardly anything wrong with the 48th Venice Biennale. No obtuse curatorial statements. No social-issue faux pas. It’s smooth, generous, professional, and filled with grandly realized works in fabulously decrepit spaces. Even the catalogue, organized chronologically according to the artists’ birth dates, seems less cumbersome than usual. Legendary megacurator Harald Szeemann, who 30 years ago in Switzerland organized a landmark show called “When Attitudes Become Form” and who in 1980 initiated the Aperto (or Open) at the Arsenale (Venice’s ancient naval yard) as a venue for the freshest art, has upped the ante again: he’s expanded the spirit of openness to fashion a Biennale that emphasizes young artists, women artists, and Chinese artists. Who’d dare complain?
The Aperto was absent from the last two Biennales, and was sorely missed. This time around, with enthusiastic cooperation from the city, the state, and the navy, Szeemann not only reinstated it but more than doubled its exhibition space to include, in addition to the 1000-foot-long Corderie (where rope was once made), several other vast 16th-century buildings spread through the old shipyard. With this simple act Szeemann shifts the balance: the Aperto is no longer a rough appendage to the decorous national pavilions. Rechristened “dAPERTutto, APERTO overALL, APERTO parTOUT, APERTO über ALL,” it’s the main event—an expansive and largely denationalized megashow. Who cares that youth, while a grand idea, is not exactly a curatorial concept? In the presence of acres of pieces by 99 artists (plus three late inclusions) and a compelling vision for renewal, concept may well be superfluous. Szeemann has single-handedly, at the brink of the millennium, rejuvenated the Biennale and saved it from obsolescence.
In the deliberate absence of any specific theme, this exhibition does very well with wonder and astonishment. Amid the Mad Max sprawl of cavernous spaces, breathtaking arcades, and weedy dockyard vistas, the show marks the debut of the humongous megainstallation, and may mark our entry into an era of Spielbergian art events: perfectly realized, terrifically spectacular, supremely manipulative. Having toned down the strident issue-oriented political correctness of the early ’90s, artists are now going all out for grandiose perceptual gesture and unadulterated sensation. As they head into the realm of spectacle, they’re playing the synaesthetic against the visual.
Ann Hamilton’s whispering braille installation in the U.S. pavilion weeps intensely pink powder. In the Belgian pavilion, Ann Veronica Janssens envelops viewers in the palpable nothingness of dense fog. The Danish pavilion provides earplugs for Snowball, an earsplitting accumulation of sprawling stock-car paraphernalia by Jason Rhoades and Peter Bonde. The Artiglierie, a former artillery workshop, reverberates with the sound of viewers (and Buddhist monks) drumming on Chen Zhen’s percussive construction of tables, beds, and chairs. And in a passageway at the shipyard, a work by Pipilotti Rist blows huge, opaque, smoke-filled bubbles. In the Slovak pavilion there’s a functioning tattoo parlor.
To Szeemann’s credit, the absence of a theme lets contemporary art reveal itself in all its extremes. This Biennale may mark the moment when the art world OD’d (however ecstatically) on overwhelming video installations, including impressive works by Rist, Doug Aitkin, Katarzyna Kozyra, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, KutluŠg Ataman, Shirin Neshat, Douglas Gordon, and William Kentridge. Did anyone besides Sudanese theorist Salah Hassan notice that, apart from a one-day installation by Georges Adéagbo of Benin, Kentridge was the only artist from all Africa? “He’s now the token African. And he’s white,” observed Hassan. Did anyone notice that artists from Latin America and Eastern Europe—while present in national pavilions—fared no better in “dAPER Tutto,” or that there wasn’t a single artist from Japan? Or that 75 percent of the artists were male?
This Biennale may mark the moment when installation art based on the repeated object did itself in. “If I see one more work that is about the repetition of an object, I’ll go bonkers,” remarked an entrepreneur from the British Isles as he faced a wall of corncob figures in the Hungarian pavilion. Richard Jackson built a room from 1000 clocks, each of which he had crafted by hand. Serge Spitzer carpeted a huge rotten shed with drinking glasses. Roman Signer dropped a grid of blue bombs in the Swiss pavilion. In the Japanese pavilion, Tatsuo Miyajima’s Mega Death features 2450 blue LED counters.
It may also mark the moment when the raging acceleration of bad-boy metaphors hit the brake. Pink is the hot color in this Biennale, from Sang-Kyoon Noh’s pale sequined Buddha and vortexes in the Korean pavilion to Louise Bourgeois’s fleshy fabric bellies and breasts to Ann Hamilton’s fuchsia pigment. In the Russian pavilion, Komar & Melamid show paintings by elephants and photos by chimps. Nedko Solakov, the official Bulgarian participant, offers nothing more than a wry postcard. The question “are we looking at something or nothing?” is a repeated refrain.
If art is the text of an international exhibition, politics is the subtext. No anti-American protesters attacked Ann Hamilton’s glass wall in front of the U.S. pavilion, but it was widely misinterpreted as a protective barricade rather than an obliteration of the official history and facade. Her vivid
pigment—seeping from the ceiling, drifting down walls to catch on braille bumps—is a poetic gesture that, under the circumstances, might be interpreted as a building weeping blood. In the Israeli pavilion, Philip Rantzer’s installation of teddy bears in the throes of rigor mortis bawls like a baby. As the pop media interviewed the art media during the preview days, recurring questions dealt with politics: Given what is going on in the world, in Kosovo, how would you interpret the exhibition? What are the political implications of the art?
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 Courtyard isn’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.