July 2009

Arts & Letters

A matter of taste

By Sebastian Smee
The 53rd Venice Biennale

Art that indulges anarchic impulses – even if the results are a little fatuous – is almost always preferable to art that signals its conformity to good taste. And yet making art is one thing. Choosing art is another. Directing a show as big and unwieldy as the Venice Biennale calls for the exercise of good taste as much as good aesthetic judgement.

Biennale directors are given a pretty free hand. But the basic brief is to mount a show that reflects the times. How a director feels about the times we live in – and how he or she might want to present those feelings to the world – is as much a question of taste, even of tact, as a test of his or her readings in aesthetics or political economy.

When the former Museum of Modern Art curator and Yale professor Robert Storr was appointed director of the 2007 Venice Biennale, he was the first American to be given the job since the Biennale was founded, in 1895. He took on the task during the second term of George W Bush’s presidency, when American policy was distinctly on the nose. Thus, good taste demanded that he put together a strongly political exhibition. He needed to demonstrate that, as an American, he was fully aware that a global crisis existed and that the US was deeply implicated in it.

Unfortunately, the show was a flop: Storr, a man of formidable intelligence, chose some fine artists, and fine work, and by no means all of it was political. But, especially in the great halls of the Arsenale – the section of the show devoted to less established artists – there was an embarrassing preponderance of didactic, finger-pointing work: photos of detention centres, a video of a boy kicking around a fake human skull as if it were a soccer ball; passport photo-sized drawings of dead US military personnel, and so on.

It was hard to shake off the sense that Storr was advertising his own commitment to this kind of art rather than actually believing in its efficacy. One came out of it into the glare of the Venetian summer, watching collectors alight from enormous yachts, and wondered again about taste: If a crisis really existed, was it apt, appropriate, decorous – whatever word you prefer – to commit your political energies to a theatre like this? Was a show with such overt political tendencies and of such conspicuous sobriety really the way to counteract the relentless commercialisation of art, as Storr seemed to believe; or was it rather a case of ‘taste’ being exercised in the wrong arena, like turning up to a beach party in a tuxedo?

Storr had been invited to direct both the 2007 and the 2009 biennales. But well before the 2007 version opened, he was already falling out with the president of the biennale over money, logistics and – everyone felt sure – personal style. When his show was received less well in the art press than he had hoped, he seemed to lose his bearings. He went into battle with his critics (he called them “barely disguised rivals”) in a prolonged and frequently nasty (on both sides) contretemps that has already become notorious in the art world. Ironically, the particulars of the debate seemed to count for less than the style in which it was conducted; it was all somehow “in poor taste”.

At any rate, a new director needed to be found for 2009. The job went to Daniel Birnbaum, a 46-year-old Swede based in Germany. Birnbaum’s show includes as much weak and flimsy work as Storr’s. But overall, it’s a better show. It feels more various, it’s better paced and, most importantly, it’s more respectful of other people’s intelligence: it has the good taste not to try to push already agreed-upon values down the audience’s throat.

In the Arsenale, Birnbaum kicks off the show with an installation by the late Lygia Pape. In a darkened room, bunches of slanting golden threads stretch from ceiling to floor, like shafts of light in a cathedral. Pape’s installation is one of many that uses ephemeral, quotidian materials to transform, often playfully, our sense of space.

The title of Birnbaum’s show, ‘Making Worlds’, sounds as fuzzy and all-purpose as every previous title (‘Future Present Past’, in 1997; ‘Think with the Senses – Feel with the Mind’ for Storr’s 2007 show). But it was inspired by a book the US philosopher Nelson Goodman wrote called Ways of Worldmaking. “Worldmaking as we know it always starts from worlds already on hand,” wrote Nelson, “the making is a remaking.”

This, too, may sound unsatisfactorily vague, but Birnbaum has made something concrete out of it. He has chosen work that articulates the idea of worldmaking in an array of interconnected ways, and in doing so, he has drawn as much on worlds already on hand outside art, in fields such as cinema, dance and architecture as on familiar tropes of contemporary art.

There is a delicacy in the way he teases out connections. Cinema, for instance, is drawn on not just in a fascinating and fastidiously directed film by Ulla von Brandenburg set in Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, but in a film by Simon Starling which is about the making of the projector, an extraordinary kinetic sculpture, used to screen it. Cinematic worlds are also alluded to in a series of minimalist wall works made by Tony Conrad in the 1970s, called Yellow Movies: they are simply big sheets of light sensitive paper, framed like film stills, that change infinitesimally over time.

Von Brandenburg’s film contains a lot of subtle choreography, some of it reminiscent of the great German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch. And so it connects intriguingly with an installation of hanging gymnast’s rings by the American choreographer William Forsythe. Visitors are invited to hook their feet into them and swing to their heart’s content.

A silly, childish work, some might say. But in a more spontaneous and light-hearted spirit, Forsythe’s installation is doing what von Brandenburg’s film does: inviting us to rethink our bodies and our relation to gravity and to the spaces that confine us.

Cildo Meireles, meanwhile, has constructed a series of box-like rooms, each painted a different saturated colour. The doors connecting the rooms are diagonally opposed, so we swing through them with a zigzagging rhythm as if through a series of film sets, and the experience – so simple – seems to draw us into aspects of architecture, cinema and choreography all at once.

Compared to Birnbaum’s show, the national pavilions were mostly disappointing. In many cases, tasteless, too – not in the sense of discomfiting (which great art usually is) but in the way that ill-timed jokes or grand, self-regarding gestures tend to be. Everyone giggled about the Danish and Nordic pavilions, partly because outside one of them was a fully dressed male mannequin lying face down in a pool, while through the window one could see a young male model, conspicuously well-endowed, reclining in an Arne Jacobsen chair reading a book.

It was all very curious. But when one enrolled in the official tour, conducted by a guide pretending to be a real-estate agent selling a rich collector’s home, the whole thing turned out to be unbearably hammy theatre.

The French, meanwhile, had allowed their chosen representative, Claude Lévêque, to transform their pavilion into a cross-shaped cage, with shiny metallic walls and billowing black flags. It was embarrassing.

Shaun Gladwell’s show in the Australian pavilion riffed on the cinema aesthetic of Mad Max. It also had some theatre to it. It included a slow-motion video of a man balancing on top of a car as it drives down a straight road in the Outback. Another film showed a man in motorcycle gear stopping repeatedly beside kangaroo road kill, which he slowly picks up and carries in his arms, as if he were Mary carrying the dead Christ.

The latter work is not entirely successful. But I’m a fan of Gladwell, and thought the Australian pavilion one of the better ones. Some of his work can seem overly contrived; but keep looking, and the best of it comes to feel freighted with a fragile and weirdly hypnotic power.

At the 2005 Venice Biennale, the German provocateur Gregor Schneider was commissioned to construct a massive aluminium box covered in black muslin in St Mark’s Square. At the last minute, the commission was cancelled. City officials feared the box, which shared the same dimensions as the Kaaba in Mecca, would offend Muslims.

At this year’s biennale, in an off-site location between the Giardini and the Arsenale, two of Australia’s other representatives, Sean Cordeiro and Claire Healy, have erected, in a former convent in the Castello, a huge black box made from almost 200,000 neatly stacked VHS video cassettes.

The work is not intended as a reference to the Kaaba. In fact, Cordeiro and Healy’s explanation for it is dismayingly lame. The combined running time of all the works, they claim, is equal to the average person’s life span (66.1 years). According to their press material, the box is thus the “physical representation of what may flash before one’s eyes before death”.

Take it or leave it. And yet the work is quite something to see. And given Schneider’s experience in Venice, you have to admire Healy and Cordeiro’s ability to get a giant black box installed inside a former convent.

In truth, Healy and Cordeiro’s work tends to be too tasteful. They frequently achieve novel effects, and one doesn’t doubt their intelligence or humanity; but their work is usually two parts sprightly to five parts worthy. When tasteful is a synonym for safe, it’s the last thing most of us want art to be. Great art is never safe, and it is never worthy. But who can doubt that taste comes into the way we think and talk about art? It plays a role in the importance we accord it; its place in our lives, and – whether we are critics, collectors, arts bureaucrats, curators or ordinary museum-goers – the preferences we develop over time.

Birnbaum’s good taste is, in the end, but one of the virtues of his show, and not the most important one. But the fact that it is plainly in evidence is, after past biennales, a relief. I found myself instinctively trusting Birnbaum’s sense of art’s relation to life and to politics, and this in turn left me free to get on and respond to the individual artists in his show. Some were disappointing, many were slight, but there was more than enough to make me feel emboldened in my love for art – and that, in the end, is all you can ask an exhibition to do.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is the art critic for The Washington Post and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. His latest book is The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art.


Cover: July 2009

July 2009

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