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Letter from Venice: Of Art and Its Publics

Venice Biennale Jun 4 to Nov 27 2011
Maurizio Cattelan  <em>Others</em> 2011 Installation view Courtesy la Biennale di Venizia / photo Francesco Galli Maurizio Cattelan Others 2011 Installation view Courtesy la Biennale di Venizia / photo Francesco Galli

Maurizio Cattelan <em>Others</em> 2011 Installation view Courtesy la Biennale di Venizia / photo Francesco Galli

Art cannot change the world. Much to the everlasting consternation of avant-gardists, it cannot even change the mind, once made up, of a single individual. But as the current Venice Biennale amply illustrates, art can and does nourish many styles of engagement with the world, its history, culture and becoming. These styles (or strategies) can inspire actions that may indeed affect the ways the world works.

So, like the other international festivals of which it is the oldest and largest, the Venice Biennale is perhaps best read as a vast buffet of nourishment for almost every appetite and style of consciousness possessed by the publics who throng such events.

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about, gathered from strolling among the little national showcases that dot the fragrant Giardini—the jasmine is in full bloom this time of year—winding through the high-ceilinged rooms of the Giardini’s large central pavilion, and walking the long streets and enormous factory-floors of the nearby Arsenale, where Venice’s famous naval fleet was built long ago.

The Biennale visitor occasionally finds art that, with the undiminished vanguard zeal fathered by Dada and Parisian Surrealism (and Rimbaud and William S. Burroughs), advocates countering the contemporary world’s smooth, rational-seeming absurdity by creating critical anti-worlds more absurd than the real one. (This impulse has produced some of the most tonic, funny and startling art of the last 100 years.)

This year, for instance, the Germans have inserted into their stern little pavilion a 2008 stage installation by the late filmmaker, theatre director and artist Christoph Schlingensief entitled A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within. Projected on a large screen in the sanctuary of this Gothic anti-church is a film and video record of a cheerfully blasphemous performance, a pageant in which all traditional bourgeois pieties and decencies are turned upside down.

Who is the public of such art? I doubt if the Biennale-going crowd could be shocked by anything here. Few other people, except for some tourists who happen to wander in by accident, will likely ever see it. The intended target audience seems to be some ethically starchy, church-going Europeans of middle years and middling instincts, and, of course, the merry-makers who share Schlingensief’s sensibility and determination to shock somebody. There must be some people in both categories around still, though I haven’t seen many of them in art shows in a long time.

My own interest in the installation springs from guilty nostalgia for the avant-garde (guilty, because I really don’t believe in it any longer, but cherish happy memories from the time I did so). What white, middle-class male, having come of age in the dolorously dull 1950s and settled down in the disillusioned 1970s doesn’t feel a twinge of good feeling for the decade of the 1960s, mad as it was? Jarry and Artaud and Brecht, after all, were ancestors of the new artists’ didactic theatre of outrage, and Joseph Beuys was one of its grand psychopomps. (Schlingensief’s set was originally crafted for a piece called Fluxus Oratorio.) I was pleasantly surprised to find a contemporary artist who still believed (until his death last year) in the old fireworks and screw-you aesthetics of yesteryear, however dated all that stuff surely seems. The Biennale jury, in any case, was impressed: they handed the Germans the 2011 Golden Lion for best national participation.

Schlingensief left me wondering about this question: on a planet where nothing can any longer out-absurd the social spectacle of “normality,” how seriously can we take a modernist art of anti-worlds at all? Over at the Arsenale, Hong Kong performance artist and mayhem-maker Kwok Mang-ho (better known as Frog King) has transformed his city’s pavilion into an outlier of an imaginary country of unbridled sensuous exuberance he calls Frogtopia. It’s all innocent pranksterism, I suppose, with a venerable pedigree in modern art and modernist antics. Anyway, going crazy and acting up are perhaps the most sensible things for an artist to do in an oppressive society like China, if one doesn’t have the stomach for the more explicit political confrontations that have landed Ai Weiwei in police custody.

But Frog King is hardly the only artist featured in this 54th Venice International Art Exhibition who is reluctant to contest established political or cultural power. (Not that every artist can or should do so, of course.) As Bice Curiger, curator of the headlining group show of the Biennale, proclaims in her 600-page catalogue, the “pathos of anti-art” is behind us. And, indeed, much of the art in her exhibition, and in the national pavilions, proposes some form of accommodation to the prevailing regime of knowledge (academic art history, the neoliberal social concensus, the self-satisfied ideology of fashion and consumerism) under which it was made—accommodation that ranges very widely across the available strategies from self-absorption and inner immigration to harmless irreverence and genteel doubt (art-world staples since the birth of modernism) to enthusiastic surrender.

In the first-named category—inner immigration—the stand-out artwork in this Biennale is surely James Turrell’s The Ganzfeld Piece, which was commissioned especially for this festival. Like everything else Turrell does, this effort is fashioned of coloured light projected into an empty sanctuary. The intention, I understand, is to generate a space free of the hectic clutter of mass visual culture, a place in which the overloaded eyes of modern viewers can find rest and spiritual cleansing. The result, at least for this spectator, was an exquisite but forlorn emptiness, rather like what one finds when taking temporary refuge from the busy streets in some old temple where gods were worshipped whom nobody believes in any longer. The effect of such escape into sheer beauty can be pleasing, but it leaves unsatsified our moral hunger, which is the most human thing about us.

Instead of escaping media-driven mass society and its conflicts, US artist Christian Marclay eagerly embraces them. His 24-hour, single channel video The Clock is one of the most talked-about pieces in this year’s Biennale; the work also won Marclay a 2011 Golden Lion for best artist in Curiger’s centrepiece exhibition.

Exhaustively, exhaustingly brilliant, this video is an immense collage of short outtakes from films of every time and place, and the record of a rare obsession with the visual culture that cinema has spawned, reinforced and instilled in every modern heart. (Marclay seems to have seen every movie ever made, been bewitched by everything, and forgotten nothing.) Every few seconds, a clip from one movie or another features a clock that happens to display the time of day at which the viewer is actually watching the video. As an instance of disjunct narratives combined to powerful formal effect, The Clock cannot be beat. But its domination by the relentlessly rational, unbendable timekeeping by which everything in our culture is governed and disciplined ultimately makes the experience of watching the video harrowing and, after a while, unbearable.

The large curated show in which Marclay’s work appears is called, in Italian, “ILLUMInazione,” a word translated by the exhibition’s alternative (English) title, “ILLUMInations.” The typographical play is intended to draw attention to Bice Curiger’s dual interest in the works by 83 artists she has chosen to display.

She has concerned herself, first of all, with the huge panoply of optimistic literal and metaphorical meanings given in modern Western languages and artistic practices to the word “light.” There is the lighting in paintings and photographs and films, of course, but also the new light shed into the gloom by movie and digital projectors and by the screens of our laptops and phones; the moral and intellectual light that shines into darkness, banishing the shadows of ignorance and superstition; the dawn light of so much that was newly emergent—democracy, industrialization, human rights, rapid medical advances, civil society—in the age of Enlightenment.

Her fascination with light prompted Curiger to make a move unprecedented, as far as I can tell, in the history of the Biennale: the inclusion in the main show of canvases by a non-contemporary artist, Tintoretto in this case. Curiger fends off the criticism that she is arguing for Tintoretto’s timeless contemporaneity, or for some old-master genealogy of the other, mostly young artists she is showing, by pointing out the 16th-century painter’s “ecstatic” lighting and his “experimental” twisting of traditional Renaissance composition.

Curiger’s rationale strikes me as facile. It reduces Tintoretto’s painting to so many formal tactics—something she would never dream of doing to an artist who is our contemporary—while overlooking his art`s engaging indications of the piously authoritarian tastes in the powerful Venetian art market of his day. (I especially liked the way Tintoretto lent high mannerist drama, dignity and even patriotic defiance of divine indignation to Venice’s venal theft of the body of St. Mark from Alexandria in one of the three canvases on display here.) But never mind. It was good to see the Tintorettos outside their usual Venetian haunts, and they hold up well in the midst of a show devoted, at least in part, to light in its infinite variety.

Curiger’s second curatorial interest is indicated by the lower-case section of her title: nazione, or nations. It is a fixture in Biennale mythology that the national presentations have become obsolete in a globalizing age, and that the central exhibition is usually best conceived as a universalist counterweight to the particular approaches of nations. I can’t tell you whether this interpretation of Biennale history is true, since I have not attended all festivals in the last 20 years. What’s clear, however, is that Curiger believes this history to be true and problematic, and so she has set her mind to restoring respect for the nations in her curatorial exercise. The fabric of her central show, much more than usual, is of a piece with the national expositions.

Thus, the attractive prominence of works in “ILLUMInations” grounded in local circumstances and histories, in micro-narratives about what it means to be in a certain place at a certain time in the global present. To return to and expand on my opening gambit: If art cannot change the world, it can nevertheless register and nurture a spirit of curiosity about what’s unfolding at one’s feet—the very real and concrete things, in other words, that the fantasies and distractions of globalized mass culture can distract us from noticing.

Over the last six decades, the photography of South African artist David Goldblatt, for example, has recorded the impact of apartheid and other forms of degradation on the lives and dwellings of his countrymen. He favours a high, panoramic viewpoint on shantytowns and other mass housing developments in some work displayed here, the better to reveal the sweeping social ruin in which many South Africans perform their lives. But Goldblatt is probably at his best in the Ex-Offenders series of photos, which document convicted criminals, not in jails, but in the ordinary places where their crimes were committed. There is no sentimentality here—only a group of penetrating portraits of men and women who have been caught up in cycles of violence and want stemming for centuries of oppression.

The Algerian-born artist Mohamed Bourouissa, who now lives in Paris, uses his video camera, similarly, to probe the lives of Arab youths immersed in immigrant subcultures on the fringes of French society. His interviews and surveillance-style images are among the really unforgettable visual moments in this Biennale.

Documentary photography is not, however, the only instrument for getting at the tragic follies and calamities of total ideology. In one of the few straight-up sculptural contributions to the show, which is composed largely of photographic imagery (moving and still), the Swedish-born poet and performer Karl Holmqvist presents a 1:36 scale model of Rome’s most celebrated fascist-rationalist building, the marble Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana. The high-rise monument’s grandiose inscribed description of the Italian people as a “nation of poets, of artists, of heroes, of saints, of thinkers,” seems humorous when read in the context of the much less exalted current state of Italian politics (and of the 2011 Biennale’s desperately bad Italian pavilion). But as the catalogue reminds us, the piece “highlights the gap between the promises of politics and the actuality of people’s lives”—and it does so with economy and punch.

Though the lineup in “ILLUMInations” is tilted in favour of younger and emerging artists, Bice Curiger has asked a fair number of more well-known long-distance runners to participate. Peter Fischli and David Weiss are here, along with Katharina Fritsch, Jack Goldstein, Pipilotti Rist, Cindy Sherman, Rosemarie Trockel, Franz West and Christopher Wool. Sigmar Polke, who died last year, is represented by some energetic, involving late pieces.

But of these much-travelled artists, veterans of many large group shows like Curiger’s, the one who moved me most deeply was the Italian sculptor Maurizio Cattelan. His gift to this Biennale is a reconstruction and expansion of a work he originally executed for the 1997 edition. It consists of hundreds of sculpted pigeons perched on the high rafters of the central pavilion in the Giardini.

Naturally riveted by the works on the floors and walls of the building, the visitor doesn’t tend to notice the birds at first. When you finally see them, a reasonable response is that they must be real pigeons that have somehow flown into the pavilion and roosted overhead. But they don’t move; and it quickly dawns on you that they are artworks.

These sculptures of pigeons depict the street people of the bird world, outsiders and commoners, birds notable merely because of their remarkable talent for surviving and thriving in any urban environment, anywhere in the world. Though they are all around us—constantly in the campos of Venice, for example—we don’t notice them, because they are not beautiful and do not have lovely voices, so have nothing to commend them to our aesthetic sense.

But if artworks like Cattelan’s pigeons cannot save the world, they still perform a valuable task by reminding us of the ordinary people who have nothing to do with art, but who very occasionally fall under the gaze of artists and turn up as the subjects of art in shows like the Venice Biennale. The records of their struggles, sufferings and triumphs over the remorseless aggression of mass culture pump vigour and brightness into art shows, giving them a reason to exist, and go on existing until the end of time.

This article was first published online on June 9, 2011.

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