July 2007

Arts & Letters

The view from the pavilions

By Juliana Engberg
The 2007 Venice Biennale

You either love or loathe Venice. Some find its crumbling patina and limpid light romantic and restorative. Others feel only pneumonia waiting to happen in its water-logged streets, blustery winds and leaking rooms. It is claustrophobic and culturally conservative. Men in corduroys sit in cafés; women in pinafores do domestic things. Prosecco is imbibed at lunch, along with soft filled-bread things. Commerce ambles along like a well-fed cat, not too fussed but with one eye alert to opportunity.

Built on precarious piles of lagoon rubble and shored-up by improbable aquatic engineering, Venice is also a relic, rescued from its own mortality by the thing that now threatens it most: tourism. Daily the Giudecca Strait bloats threateningly as liners the size of medieval hill towns shudder towards the harbour. To survive, the city must steer a course between deluge and desolation.

Miraculously it does, and never more so than during the opening period of la Biennale, which over five days attracts some 300,000 patrons, artists, critics, curators, teamsters and event organisers who, between hard beds and bellinis and lots of kisses, distribute an estimated €80 million. Where once the Biennale was more or less confined to the ‘official' 30 pavilions in the Giardini di Castello and the Aperto exhibition in the Arsenale, this year 77 countries are part of the Madonna of all art events, squeezing into every available nook, cranny and canal.

Teams of carpenters, plasterers and electricians had been renovating abandoned spaces since 2005 to make room for the ever-increasing number of off-site participants. Nice white painted rooms with terrazzo floors were presented to those of us searching for unique spaces. But dilapidated splendour is better. Everyone knows new is naff.

Because other countries pay for their participation in the Biennale, the economic knock-on effect for Venice is huge. If you own a national pavilion, as Australia does, you pay for the upkeep and other costs associated with your presentation. If you don't, you rent off-site space at premium prices. The economic ripple extends out to hotels, restaurants and caterers, landlords, architects, equipment companies, engineers, builders, freight carriers, museums, produce suppliers. The top hotels with room-with-a-view prices are filled to capacity; pensiones are priced at the upper limit of their government-set rates. Water-taxi owners prosper: the art crowd love to whiz about in motoscafi, standing at the back with windswept hair, soaking up the culture.

The Biennale was once an ‘insider' affair, mostly visited by serious critics, artists, curators and a few dealers, but in the 1990s it became a kind of cultural circus. Rock stars and actors, IT magnates, advertising gurus and ‘celebrities', who sometimes happen also to be artists, have joined the herds of art patrons who clatter over the ramparts en route to private parties and special events at places like Francois Pinault's contemporary collection in the Palazzo Grassi.

It's easy to be a little cynical or, if you're the British press, OTT and breathless, about this inflating balloon of a thing. This year the British press were especially hyperventilate about their girl Tracey Emin. Detractors worry that the Emin effect - Elton is flying in to see me in my private palazzo on the Lido, which I've flown to in my own chartered plane - spells the end of all serious engagement and ushers in the machinations of the marketplace. But amid the decadence and private dining is a profoundly moving thing: art. As if by silent agreement, the countries exhibiting, with the exception of Britain, seem to have turned their backs on the hype of previous years. The glitterati are more muted and sometimes even absent. (Probably de-camped to the Lido.) Art triumphs over the banality of celebrity culture.

Curators are quick lookers and swift opinion-sharers. The Biennale is a word-of-mouth and SMS affair, with ‘best of' lists creating heavy traffic between venues as soon as the gates are open. Pre-formed ideas and hunches tend to lead, and so the German pavilion, tipped to do well in the October prize-giving with the work of maverick bricolage artist Isa Genzken, attracted the longest queues at first. Also Sophie Calle in France, Tracey Emin in Great Britain, and the posthumous showing of Felix Gonzales-Torres in the US pavilion. But as the long first press-day gathered momentum, it was clear other venues were also becoming must-sees.

For 2007, uber art-curator Robert Storr, the first American to direct the Biennale, has greatly expanded the official selection. One hundred international artists appear in his exhibition Think with the Senses - Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present Tense. Then there are the national presentations in pavilions and co-opted venues, and independent collateral events - I counted 119 of the latter. The Biennale is more exhausting, but also richer, for this proliferation. Works from Cyprus, Wales, Latin America, Scotland, Taiwan, Central Asia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Portugal, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and many more create a more challenging texture of ideas and save the Biennale from slickness and cultural smugness.

Some curators commented that they found Storr's exhibition flat. I think they meant there is little in the way of shock and awe. However, there is a great deal of work dealing with issues of now, which inevitably means war and terrorism. Or, as one American behind me said, "War, war and more war." Um, yeah, and why would that be?

Storr's selection is quieter and more worthy than many Biennale presentations, but it also tends towards the didactic in a way that subdues the senses. That is a pity, given the exhibition's title. There is a lack of curatorial momentum between most of the works, and although he tries hard to be a good American, brave and questioning in the face of his government's disastrous invasion of Iraq, what ultimately seems lacking is a concrete sense of the humanity he so clearly feels for.

Of his two venues, the Arsenale is more susceptible to this criticism. Despite the candy-coloured neons of Jason Rhoades, or the multiple voices of Yang Zhenzhong's multi-track video work, in which various people address the camera saying "I will die," the selection never really lifts off. The photographic works are generally uninteresting, with the exception of Italian Gabriele Basilico's images of destroyed buildings in Beirut. His work is a companion of sorts to that of another Italian, Paolo Canevari, whose video piece shows a boy kicking a rubber human skull like a football in front of a ruined apartment block. Basilico's mastery with honey colours make his ruins beautiful, but Canevari's piece descends into triteness.

Storr, I suspect, is aiming for a more respectful encounter with art, a smouldering rather than the usual bonfire of vanities. And there are some lovely, quiet moments, like Oscar Muñoz's water portraits, painted on pavement and left to evaporate. Muñoz's work is a memorial to those who have ‘disappeared' in militarised Colombia. Yang Fudong's series of five black-and-white films, Seven Intellectuals in the Bamboo Forest, takes the viewer on a slow, curious journey with seven urban intellectuals as they struggle with ancient ideas and an evolving China. Although sometimes obscure, these films are an aesthetically captivating mixture of surreal and nouvelle vague styles. They are a core component of Storr's Arsenale selection, yet they also seem to be at odds with his other choices. I can't fathom what Francis Alys's multiple drawings of a shoe being caressed by a shoeshine cloth are doing in this exhibition, for instance.

Planes feature in several works. Argentinean León Ferrari mounts a crucified Christ on a fighter jet amid sculptures of nuclear mushrooms and heaped bones. American Charles Gaines has made an elaborate sideboard displaying immaculate models of some of America's finest skyscrapers. An aeroplane on a motorised rod periodically plunges into them. Created in 1997, Airplane Crash Clock is, of course, spookily prescient. It's a good work, but its finesse seems slightly out of kilter with much of Storr's aesthetic, which is more inclined towards the scruffier end of materialist.

In Storr's other venue, the Pavilion Italia, two Americans fighting loudly about patriotism in front of Jenny Holzer's paintings of declassified and censored military and CIA documents reminded me that art can provoke strenuous reactions. A nice segue from Fundong's intellectuals was Joshua Mosley's Dread, a charming black-and-white stop-animation film depicting clay figures of the philosophers Pascal and Rousseau. They walk into a forest in search of meaning, but are unable to reconcile their different ideas about nature and existence. Sophie Calle's piece showing the last minutes of her mother's life  is a crowd-stopping moment of complete truth, typical of Calle's preparedness to expose the raw emotion of her own life.

You usually get some sense of where art is heading from the main exhibition, but Storr's selection avoids such predictions, and even a lot of current practice, in favour of a somewhat private thesis that may need some time to digest. It is left to the national presentations and collateral events to add some excitement, and to stir the senses and the mind.

Several of the country presentations stand out. Russia's AES+F Group's epic animation The Last Riot fast-tracks the themes of Storr's exhibition, combining androgynous youths in histrionic tableaux and dystopian fantasies of planes crashing, oil tankers tumbling off mountains and trains falling from bridges. In the Netherlands pavilion, Aernout Mik's Citizens and Subjects blends fact with fantasy in scenes of social disturbance and detention. Lithuania presents Villa Lituania, by Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas, which uses documentary, song and architecture to explore the loss of nationhood through the disappearance of iconic buildings in the ‘new' Lithuania, as well as to lament the loss of its embassy in Rome. They also held a pigeon race.

Isa Genzken's much awaited Oil, dealing with vague themes of environmental damage, is more mannered than expected. Her hugely materialist assemblages seem rather polite within the setting of the German pavilion. Even the industrial orange netting cladding the whole building does not seem quite enough to rough up the space.

The highlight of the Giardini and the ‘official' pavilions is Sophie Calle's Take Care of Yourself, a wonderful celebration of women, resilience, love, loss, humour, tears ... you know, the works. The starting point of the work is an email she received from a lover who wrote to break off their relationship. Calle asked 102 women to read and interpret the message. She consulted criminologists, judges, editors, actresses, singers, punk DJs, a clown. The results, exhibited as photo and video portraits with written and spoken responses, are hilarious. Women in particular have a whale of a time here. The blokes? They seem a bit sheepish.

Calle is so strong you feel sorry for Tracey Emin next door in the British pavilion, whose works, also dealing with hurt and desire, seem so immature by comparison, although I quite liked the little drawings and the neon bird out the front. But she's a tough one, Tracey. She'll survive.

Off-site, representing Northern Ireland, Willie Doherty's suite of videos, Ghost Story, Passage and Closure, is a standout. Doherty spellbindingly combines fear, trepidation and lyric beauty, moving ambiguously between issues of conflict and confrontation: the ‘troubles', sexuality, love, the past and future. His work is seductively dreamlike, and his narration lulls you into a trance-like state until you feel wholly detached from the world.

Thomas Demand's Grotto and Yellowcake at the Cini Foundation are not part of the official Biennale, but nevertheless offer one of the highlights. Purists might wonder at Demand's strategy: he creates models over many months, photographs them, and exhibits only the photos. For me, his work reveals a labyrinth of simulacra, the endless pursuit of representation that art involves.

Ugo Rondinone and Urs Fischer's installation at San Stae, Joseph Kosuth's The Language of Equilibrium on the Island of San Lazzaro, Bill Viola's Ocean Without a Shore in Chiesa di San Gallo, and the large exhibition Artempo: When Time Becomes Art are all worth a hike.

And what of the Australian contingent? Well, it's not for me to say, as I was involved in the Australian presentations this year. Suffice to say that it has been a huge year. Daniel von Sturmer, Susan Norrie and Callum Morton in the Australian pavilion, and Shaun Gladwell, Rosemary Laing and Christian Capurro in Storr's exhibition, have all attracted much praise from influential curators and critics.

For me, this Biennale was about a shift away from the frenzied commercialism of last time. It is slower moving and highly personal. Conflict is on the agenda, but imagination wins out over the heavier, do-right thesis of the main presentation. There are fewer spectacles and more sustained projects. Space is given over to contemplation in the off-site events. It is a good Biennale.

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