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GROANS OF VENICE.

EVEN FOR A SUMMARIZING MEGASHOW, WHERE TOUCH NOTICES GO WITH THE TERRITORY, HARALD SZEEMANN'S 49TH VENICE BIENNALE HAS BEEN WIDELY CRITICIZED FOR AN UNFAVORABLE CHAFF-TO-WHEAT RATIO. ROBERT STORR'S MODEST PROPOSAL: VOTE WITH YOUR FEET. DANIEL SOUTIF, BENJAMIN H.D. BUCHLOH, RICHARD FLOOD, AND KATY SIEGEL JOIN HIM IN FLEEING THE FILLER AND FOCUSING LARGELY ON THE HIGHPOINTS. CONTRIBUTING EDITOR DANIEL BIRNBAUM SURVEYS THE PLATEAU, SETTING THE STAGE WITH A COMPREHENSIVE REPORT.

More Is Less

DANIEL BIRNBAUM

Most people would go along with Brazilian sculptor Ernesto Neto's optimistic words in the catalogue to this year's Venice Biennale: "I hope in this millennium art will become something more important than just a spectacle. I hope that art will get closer to the people in general, not just something for specialists." Many would even support his statement "I hope art will become more spiritual. I hope it can fill the big emptiness of humanity today." But it's rare to find such ambitions spelled out so frankly. No doubt Harald Szeemann, organizer for the second consecutive installment of the Venice extravaganza, would agree with Neto. The Biennale is always, of course, a spectacle par excellence, but this renewal, titled "Plateau of Humankind," takes as its explicit point of departure the "positive, utopian spirituality of [Joseph] Beuys" and wants to continue the "work towards spiritual activity at the service of the possible visualization of a museum of obsessions" that Szeemann was pursuing long before most o f us learned how to spell Beuvs. So what is spirituality in the age of the spectacle?

At the center of the Italian pavilion, Szeemann arranged a "Platform of Thought," where profound ideas appear capable of passing directly from the gilded head of a 600-year-old Buddha to Erich Bodeker's sincere-looking wooden Saint Barbara, 1970, and onward to a dancing twelfth-century Siva and the superbly inane Adam and Eve, 1975, by the late German sculptor Hans Schmitt. This collection--which comprises thirty-odd family members, including a US Navy diving helmet--is vintage Szeemann: a completely eccentric set of artifacts that oddly enough makes perfect sense because it all looks great together and seems full of bizarre life. I wish the whole Biennale had been carried out in this ruthlessly egocentric spirit. As it is, my lingering impression is instead one of an enormous amassing of vaguely interesting work from all over the world with only a few real highlights--fewer in fact than the last time around, when Szeemann filled the Arsenale with pieces by, among others, Doug Aitken, Thomas Hirschhorn, Olafur Eliasson, and Shirin Neshat. Writing on Dieter Roth, Szeemann once distinguished two kinds of creative tendencies: the desire to subtract more and more until only the essential is left (e.g., Giacometti) and the will to constantly add new elements and produce an abundance (Roth). If one were to apply the same distinction to curating, there is no doubt into which category Szeemann would fall. While that impulse may have worked two years ago in Venice, this time it doesn't. To see one video installation after another adds up to little more than exhaustion and makes most of us unreceptive to the few truly interesting works. Indeed, a general sense of disappointment dominated the opening days. Where was this year's Aitken? Certainly not in Chris Cunningham's cool but ultimately tacky music videos. Where was the counterpoint to Roth's deeply touching video self portrait that so clearly formed the artistic hub of the last Biennale? Unfortunately not in Beuys's beautiful Olivestones, 1982: It may be difficult for many to accept, but there is simply no easy path from the social sculptor's spiritual geographies to what is most interesting in today's art (with the possible exception of Gregor Schneider).

This time around the advantage in the dialectic between national pavilions and the international show falls to the pavilions, where one finds some of the most ambitious and challenging contributions. There were years when the unofficial shows beyond the purview of the Biennale proper were the places to find interesting new art. Then Szeemann redefined the Aperto, the area traditionally given over to emerging artists, to include the whole program, thus more or less negating the national exhibitions and making the unofficial exhibitions of young art redundant. With this year's successful national contributions, it seems that, strangely enough, we've come full circle and the old Olympic model of art is what has the most to offer.

This is admittedly an oversimplification; there were, after all, some ambitious sideshows this year, such as "Authentic/Ex-centric: Africa in and out of Africa" in the Palazzo Giustinian Lolin, which featured work by seven artists, including a fascinating installation by Yinka Shonibare. His Vacation, 2000, a family of astronauts (clad in space suits made from African wax-printed cotton textile) out for a leisurely extraterrestrial stroll, smartly conflates various forms of otherness in a way that leaves everybody confused. Another noteworthy side project is British artist Mike Nelson's mazelike The Deliverance and The Patience, 2001, on the Giudecca. The viewer is invited to choose between parallel tracks through the labyrinth, thus passing through one of two successions OT corridors and rooms. Perhaps this space is an old hotel where everything has started to disintegrate and rot away? There are spaces for meditation, for resting or drinking--but for whom? The moment you enter you're already part of a narr ative. No matter how simple the stage set, you cannot but try to make sense of the story. Nelson clarifies the logic of the architectural construction: "Two worlds run parallel to one another, sometimes alongside, sometimes leap-frogging, until they meet at the junction of the second and third sections. Here a third route is offered--a door to a staircase leading to the mezzanine, which offers an overview of the exterior of the construction thereby dismantling the original two fictions that cross, merge, and disintegrate within the physical structure." Getting a glimpse of the whole structure from above, you realize how surprisingly small the space is--and how primitive the machinery that brings about the split fiction.

One almost got the feeling that Nelson's construction is a send-up of a major entry in the show, but Gregor Schneider's claustrophobic labyrinth in the German pavilion does not allow any glimpse from the outside. His universe is one of radical isolation. A meticulous reconstruction of large chunks taken from the artist's "Haus ur" in the small German city of Rheydt--a fifteen-plus-year work in progress--Schneider's contribution is clearly one of the most impressive in this year's Biennale. The project is titled Totes Haus ur(Dead house ur), since in Schneider's view the spaces are dead as soon as they leave the original site of creation. Even if one hears echoes of Beuys and possibly of Kurt Schwitter's Cathedral of Erotic Mystery in this gloomy cosmos, Schneider's work is uniquely strange and disturbing. Nothing I know of is comparable to its physical impact.

If the pavilions were unusually ambitious and interesting this year, it's hard to resist projecting widely shared prejudices on them. That's true of not only Schneider's Teutonic angst, but also Pierre Huyghe's elegant French contribution with its high-tech ambience la japonaise, and to a certain extent Mark Wallinger's ironic Biblical installations and witty trompe l'oeil doubling of the facade of the British pavilion and the super-reduced collective sound environment in the Nordic pavilion. What these and others had in common, at least during the opening days, were unbearably long queues where critics from the world's largest papers lined up for hours together with curators, collectors, and other art-world luminaries. Canada's line was bad; Germany's, worse. (It was here that the entire Documenta family--complete with cocurators, coordinators, spouses, and children--suddenly appeared, democratically enough.)

To the list of interesting national contributions one must add Robert Gober's subtle meditation on the creative and destructive powers of water (and gin) in the US pavilion, an untitled multifaceted installation so puzzling that it will remain open to interpretation long after being dismantled and transported from this slowly sinking city; and Luc Tuymans in the Belgian pavilion, who made it abundantly clear that painting need not shy away from political themes in favor of thematizing problems of abstraction and representation or the history of its own conditions in an increasingly solip-sistic spiral of self-reflection. In Tuymans's case this in no way implies a naivete in relation to his medium; on the contrary, he is unrivaled at turning the simplest of means--oil on canvas--into a lethal weapon. The light in his seemingly vague and slightly fuzzy canvases seems to delete the imagery, which has to do with Belgian colonialism and its blood-soaked aftermath. This ungenerous and violent force, pale and destr uctive, is the element with which Tuymans stages his political drama of nationalism, race, and political murder. His portrait of the first Congolese prime minister, Lumumba, 2000--assassinated in 1961, a year after independence--forms the center of this affair of severe national self-scrutiny: a mean-spirited, merciless examination, Belgian to the core.

A mazelike structure of a kind very different from Schneider's claustrophobic nightmares awaits once you put on the headphones in Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's cinema in the Canadian pavilion. This labyrinth is not physical; it's all in your head. It would seem you're already part of the story, you're somehow an associate of the people in The Paradise Institute, 2001, a piece that brings together elements of sculpture, cinema, and Cardiff's signature sound works. Inside the movie house a twelve-minute film is screened, but the sound track is so multilayered that you have difficulty distinguishing among the levels and end up being caught in an intricate system of fictions contained one inside another like Chinese boxes. For a few minutes you're in a thriller, and when you leave you take the confusing story with you out into the sunshine. You don't feel completely safe; it could start over at any second.

The engagement with cinema that in recent years has resulted in hybrid work of the kind that Cardiff and Miller produce is clearly one theme running through the international section of the Biennale. Szeemann denies that there is such a thing as a theme to "Plateau of Humankind" and contends that one should rather think of it as a "dimension." However, one could delineate a route through the show that takes the film-art exchange as its point of departure and that would weave such disparate works as Stan Douglas's double projection Le Detroit, 1999--2000; Chantal Akerman's seven-monitor installation Woman Sitting After Killing, 2001; Atom Egoyan and Juliao Sarmento's tight corridor Close, 2000--01; and Com & Com's silly William Tell extravaganza C-files: Tell saga, 2000, into a meaningful whole. All these works (one could add a few more) are either by artists interested in various aspects of cinema or by filmmakers invited to present their work in an art context. On the other hand, contextualization does not do justice to the interesting work, particularly Douglas's. Indeed, the technical and intellectual complexity of his project is such that its presentation in a huge biennial is much less than ideal. Referencing Shirley Jackson's 1959 horror novel The Haunting of Hill House and historian Marie Hamlin's 1884 chronicle Legends of Le Detroit, Douglas's two black-and-white film loops projected on either side of a "dual-vision" screen construct a dense argument about time, memory, social history, and the distribution of urban space. I know all of this only in theory, and I'm looking forward to seeing it in a context where I'll be able to find the concentration required to probe below the attractive silvery surface of the dual projection.

In addition to the works involved in this explicit art-cinema dialogue, there was an overkill of moving imagery in the form of video projections and video installations, some by people I'd never heard of--I'm afraid to say that the "Finnish Miracle" announced by Szeemann is not likely to outlast the show, nor, for that matter, is its Estonian counterpart--and some by the best-known veterans of the genre, such as Bill Viola and Gary Hill. The latter two could be said to represent opposite tendencies, and both were a bit tacky in their own way. Viola's meditative and painterly projection The Quintet of the Unseen (2000) changes so slowly that the movement is hardly visible (to me the work is pure kitsch), while Hill's Wall Piece, 2000, treats the body with flashes of light so quick and brutal that experience falls apart into discontinuous segments of intensity: "I am supersonic and alien. I have the feeling of being a fuselage." Some of the most memorable video work, however, was by very young artists, such as Albanian Anri Sala, whose Beckett-like loop Uomoduomo, 2000, showing an old man falling asleep on a cathedral pew, has a strangely hypnotic quality, and Salla Tykka, whose Lasso, 2000, develops a short narrative about wonder and beauty emerging unexpectedly in the most prosaic of circumstances. A young woman out for a jog looks through the window of a house and encounters a young man doing the "great Texas Skip"--a rope dance that puts the amazed runner into a trance and momentarily transports her far beyond Finnish suburbia, where the video is set. This year's surprise invasion from Finland is easier to understand and to accept when this work is kept in mind, as well as Laura Horelli's Current Female Presidents, 2001, an effective, straightforward world map with nations headed by women marked like tiny islands in an ocean of male dominance.

To say that the show was controlled by bad video is unfair, because there was plenty of bad photography too. And some good as well, like the black-and-white documentary images of auto accidents by seventy-six-year-old Swiss policeman Arnold Odermatt, as far as I know a newcomer to the international scene. To me this work was one of the very few completely positive surprises.

With all the video and film it felt refreshing suddenly to encounter sculptural works, like Francis Alys's live peacock (The Ambassador, 2001)--an unusually beautiful ornithological readymade--and, less surprisingly, Richard Serra's massive and physically impressive steel spirals at the very end of the Arsenate. It was also strange to be the recipient of Veruschka's hypnotic gaze in Francesco Vezzolis installation featuringthe legendary supermodel as a living sculpture. Seeing the entire Biennale for several days with a five-year-old in tow, I had to return again and again to the two works she liked: Serra's huge Gucci-sponsored steel sculptures and Ron Mueck's grotesque Untitled (boy), a hyperrealistic sculpture of a giant boy, over fifteen feet tall (though hunched and crouching), staring at the viewer with enormous eyes. In both cases it made me like the works more, which in Mueck's case was a surprise. No one had to force me to return to Cy Twombly's new twelve-panel piece, Lepanto, 2001. Are they master pieces, or have they lost that lightness and elegance that makes Twombly one of the living old masters? I still haven't been able to make up my mind. At least what was served outside the video booths left me with food for thought; be it peacocks, rolled steel, or Veruschka, after the meager pickings of this TV dinner--like "Plateau of Humankind," it felt like a full meal.

ROBERT STORR

Harry's Last Call

WITH THE GRANDILOQUENT GHOST OF JOSEPH BEUYS AT HIS ELBOW, Harald Szeemann promised that his valedictory Venice Biennale would open our collective eyes to a "Plateau of Humankind." In actuality we got a plateau of art. Of course art abhors plateaus--and platitudes. It is all about ups and downs--and about sharp distinctions, Yet the overriding impression left by this strenuous millennial edition was one of art professional averageness ad infinitum.

Perhaps having sensed this in advance, Szeemann punctuated his part of the exhibition--the aesthetic mixed grill of the Italian pavilion and the Arsenale--with large ensembles by some of his favorite old or aging masters. Beuys thus occupies a pivotal position. and guaranteed medal winners Richard Serra and Cy Twombly are also given pride of place, though there is little in their vicinity to argue for their particular relevance to current developments. The effect of these conspicuous add-ons. then, was to suggest Szeemann's comparative lack of trust in the ability of his other selections to represent the lofty ideal of art trumpeted in his thematic statement. He looked like the master of ceremonies of a variety show in the doldrums, who, desperate to boost his ratings, had fallen back on a roster of special guest stars.

However, it wasn't as though there was nothing else good to see. There always is, and in this case the standouts are cast in greater relief because the background is so flat. In the Canadian pavilion, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's abbreviated thriller projected in a miniaturized theater where spectators listen to the sound track of ambient noises on earphones--a magical mix of Sugimoto movie-palace atmosphere and film noir voice-overs--was well worth the line-up. (Although art worlders at the opening complained bitterly of the wait, a day after they left, the much smaller tourist crowds seemed unfazed by the sideshow queues.) So too was Gregor Schneider's architectural labyrinth, which, in its at once mundane and sinister fashion, is as thoroughgoing a deconstruction of the overbearing German pavilion as Hans Haacke's semiotic reconfiguration of 1993. Together with British artist Mike Nelson's in many ways similar re-creation of the musty "No Exit" no-places where urban nomads go to ground, Schneid er's warren is evidence of the delayed but growing influence in the West of Ilya Kabakov's gritty, dystopian fantasies. Meanwhile, Luc Tuymans's suavely disquieting canvases at the Belgian pavilion emit a spectral radiance, and along with the Gerhard Richters and the Richard Turtles in the Italian pavilion, constitute proof that painting need not strive, Twombly-style, for the mannerist big gesture to hold its own with installation.

Or with video. A French wit has said that in the new-media age we have traded in the white cube for the black box. The difference between the two formats and their contents is rendered acutely apparent by the long march from pixelated cave to pixelared cave that results from this Biennale's surfeit of screen art. At times it seemed as if one were lost in a giant multiplex with a variety of mostly indifferent photos and sculptures displayed in interstitial lobbies. (Some exceptions are Ron Mueck's tiny sculpture of a malevolent infant, the incubus perhaps of the grant stripling that watched over the entrance to the Cordene; Max Dean's diverting but also jealousy-inducing robot table, which electronically tracks one viewer around the room until it unpredictably takes a shine to another; Veh Grano's portraits of obsessive collectors: and Lucinda Devlin's chilling pictures of death chambers, made agonizingly of the moment by the countdown to Timothy McVeigh's execution.) When the videos were lively the discomfor ts fell away. I saw Salla Tykka's Lasso a dozen times, but, at a crystalline three minutes in length and shot for the most part in real-time sequences, this vignette of youthful energy and desire is exceptional in relation to most of the rest of the fare not only for its psychological density but for its formal self-discipline. Richard Billingham's video-game video is a harrowingly reflexive meditation on frantic losing, and Hermo Zoberning's performance tape of himself in the nude making and remaking his bed with colored sheets is as witty and visually refreshing a video riff on painting as Bill Viola's Renaissance tableau is pretentious and excruciatingly protracted. It is not merely that Viola has brought coal to Newcastle by bringing masquerade to Venice, nor is it the bad actors he has chosen to play the parts, that make the piece insufferable; rather, he has completely misunderstood the pictorial and emotional dynamics of time in painting in a hopeless attempt to give his work the aura of another mediu m. Arrested motion is the dramatic essence of Renaissance painting; cinematic slo- mo is its antithesis, especially if you let the meter run, as Viola does.

As for the rest, there are works by Tania Bruguera, Stan Douglas, Mann Karmitz, and Joao Onofre worth watching, but the numbing effects of the many take their toll on the vitality of the few, and for proof one has only to look into the corners of the shadowy screening rooms to see stylishly dressed doppelgangers of Ann Sala's weary Uomoduomo--a short video loop of an old man helplessly asleep on a cathedral pew--nodding off. Indeed, one wonders whether this will be the show that finally drives home the point that quantity is always the potential if not actual enemy of quality, and that all great exhibitions are based on a will to choose one thing over another, a task that should be easier rather than harder when the overall pickings are as thin as they currently seem to be--unless you are hedging your bets.

That said, there is no cause for hand-wringing. We are witnessing not the decline and fall but business as usual. The vintage Biennale catalogues from the '50s, '60s, and '70s on sale at the Giardini bookshop are a serendipitous reminder that even the newsmaking versions of this extravaganza were dominated by the art-professional averageness of their eras. If history teaches any lesson, it is that there are no grounds for expecting significant changes in that balance in the future--which leaves it up to the public to vote with their feet when searching for things that merit sustained attention, but this also requires the patience to scout out an ever-expanding number of artists and venues. Forewarned is forearmed. Next time, don't forget to bring sensible shoes.

Robert Storr is senior curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. His "Gerhard Richter 40 Years or Painting" opens in February 2002.

DANIEL SOUTIF

Pick to Click

THROUGHOUT ITS HISTORY, WHICH SPANS MORE THAN a hundred years, the Venice Biennale has been saddled with many titles, from the pretentious to the banal to the simply cumbersome. Now, in its forty-ninth edition, it can lay claim to the most confusing to date: "Plateau of Humankind." From the original Italian version--Platea dell'umanita--the title was weirdly translated into both English and German with the French word "plateau" ("Plateau of Humankind," "Plateau der Menschheit"), as though there were no equivalent for it in the languages of Shakespeare and Goethe.

To listen to Harald Szeemann, the word refers to "a raised level, basis and foundation, it means a stage: a large space which people look at and from, it is subject and object at once, a place of passive action and active passion." Beyond the fact that in French "plateau" designates above all a flat tray used to carry cups and plates and metaphorically denotes a certain geographical configuration, while the Italian "plateau" (platea) signifies the orchestra seats in a theater, Szeemann's lexicological commentary misses one of the most frequent usages of this term in French today: the one contained in the expression "plateau de television"--the set where a TV show is shot.

The omission is somewhat surprising on the part of the curator of a Biennale stuffed with video images to the point of indigestion: football players in business suits (Ingeborg Luscher); a suicidal young girl who goes from reading to hanging herself (Ene-Liis Semper); an indigent reclining on a pew and struggling--unsuccessfully--against sleep (Anri Sala); an executive trying incessantly (and again unsuccessfully) to organize his desk (John Pilson); circus games involving an army of lame men trying to escape a wall of fire (Magnus Wallin); an absurd exercise in coordination--standing up in a pool while wearing inflated spheres attached to each limb--for a TV game show (Lars Siltberg); a guy playing with a lasso in his living room (Salla Tykka); a parade of young people who seem to be participating in a casting call for the next Big Brother (Joao Onofre), etc., etc. As if art no longer has any destiny other than mimicking a terrifying global television network that would do away with language and reduce image s to their lowest common denominator, video has taken on the appearance of not a humanitarian wave but a totalitarian one breaking in the lagoon. Projected on a screen in the uncomfortable black boxes that seem to have momentarily replaced the white cube, floods of pixels of every quality have made visiting the Corderie for the most part a trying procession, and even the reward at the end of the struggle, the perfectly contradictory presence of large sculptures by Richard Serra, cannot compensate for it.

More than a space, the television plateau--the reality of the Szeemannian plateau of humankind--is a time, as clearly captured in that specifically televisual phrase "prime time." Like TV, what video wants from you (at least in its standard form, unfortunately omnipresent in Venice) is, in effect, a bit of your time. But unlike television, which nails you to your seat, video must inscribe itself onto your perambulations. To do so, it loops a fragment of the length of time it hopes to take the viewer in and serves it up as if this loop were sufficient to miraculously transform frozen time into space. Instead of the freedom of the gaze and the movement of the body before the work, video entails an authoritarian program that intends to fix both in a totally passive position. The smartest users of the medium try to avoid this pitfall by attempting an impossible video-painting, either by minimizing the loop--Gary Hill smashing himself against a wall every two seconds in a sort of post-Pollock sonorous splash; Urs Luthi jogging endlessly on a treadmill--or by stretching it out, as Bill Viola attempts in a work miming the Italian mannerism of the cinquecento that is as boring as it is pretentious.

If there is a good use of video, it is to be sought from those artists who integrate the medium into a more complex way of thinking, both on the formal level and in relation to narrativity. Pierre Huyghe and Janet Cardiff (teamed with George Bures Miller), taking very different paths, certainly constitute the best examples. In Huyghe's large French pavilion installation, the video image is inscribed in a spatial and conceptual arrangement that restores the viewer's freedom of gaze and thought while simultaneously pointing out the almost unsettling presence of the computer controlling the entire setup. In Cardiff and Miller's Canadian pavilion contribution, the meticulous (almost overly so) consideration of the conditions of cinematic narrative restores a true fictional power to the screen and gives the viewer his or her share: that of the imaginary.

In the "plateau" served by Szeemann, cases like this stand out thanks to their scarcity, so much so that in the Corderie, marching from black box to black box, jumping from program to program even more impatiently than one does in front of a TV set, overcome by boredom and fatigue, one had the feeling of bearing witness to the sinister apotheosis of the remote control. Duchamp said that it is the viewers who make the paintings. What the first Biennale of the millennium may have taught us is that by refusing the abduction of their time and according but a few seconds of attention to the little pensums that would have claimed ten times more, the same viewers who make paintings unmake videos...

Daniel Soutif, a Paris-based critic and curator, is co-organizing "Continuita Arte in Toscana 1945-2000," a Tuscany-wide show of postwar and contemporary art opening in January 2002.

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.

BENJAMIN H.D. BUCHLOH

Control, by Design

THIS YEAR'S VENICE BIENNALE WAS IN MANY WAYS A SHOWDOWN between new electronic technologies (in particular that of digital-video projections) and the media of painting and sculpture, with the latter on the defensive, if not in manifest retreat, from their traditional stronghold in this most venerable of biennials. Spectators frequently found themselves standing in line to enter claustrophobic spaces, halfway between movie house, darkened living room, and Skinner box. Here, the called-for response is neither individual contemplation nor simultaneous collective reception. Exhibition value--the condition of the secularized modernist work as fully emancipated from cult value and myth--has been replaced by spectacle value, a condition in which media control in everyday life is mimetically internalized and aggressively extended into those visual practices that had previously been defined as either exempt from or oppositional to mass-cultural regimes, and that now relapse into the most intense solicitation of mythic al experience. Paradoxically, the more noisily this electronic apparatus voices its totalizing claims, the more it expectorates its retardataire humanist, if not outright mythical .or religious, themes and messages, a fusion of which the American Bill Viola remains the undisputed master (with Mark Wallinger, the representative to the British pavilion, a close second).

An exception to the rule was the work by Pierre Huyghe, the representative to the French pavilion (organized by Xavier Douroux, curator of Le Consortium/Le Coin du Miroir in Dijon). In his contribution, Huyghe fused a contemplative reflection on the legacies of reflexive modernism and institutional critique with a rumination on the inextricably intertwined condition of architectural space and electronic media.

With translucent glass walls partitioning the pavilion into three segments, the illuminated ceiling of the center space might have appeared merely a horizontal glass-and-aluminum curtain wall: a grid reciting all its historical subtexts, from quintessential episteme of modernist painting, to subsequent model of radical democratic, egalitarian spaces within utopian architecture, to final deterioration into a spatial matrix of enforced administrative order. But once spectators adjusted to the dimly lit space, they discovered two large remote controls at their disposal, forcing them to recognize that this particular variation on the modernist grid served as the audience's hypertrophic screen for a participatory performance of Pong, the first Atari video game. The grid had been recruited into the services of technological entertainment, and the game had acquired the scale of public architecture, as though both needed to clarify the extent to which public spatial experience is now fully contained within electroni c media culture. Thus the modernist promises of emancipatory inscription and ludic self-realization returned here in a nightmarish hybrid where spectatorial participation only furthers the subject's seemingly inexhaustible submission to the mechanisms of the societies of control.

The second segment served as projection space for a video of a model of two skyscrapers (a strange amalgam of Mies van der Rohe's Lake Shore Drive Apartments and typically French HLM banliene housing projects) displayed in an artificial snowstorm that imbued these extremes of architectural alienation with a romantic and ironically naturalizing ambience. Their lights seemed to switch on and off according to an incomprehensible rule, at first recalling the unified but random flicker of the bluish illumination issuing from televison sets in apartment buildings at night. Eventually the rhythm of illumination accelerated and became regularized, turning the apartment towers into the board of some unknown game.

The third segment was devoted to another looped video projection. In a maneuver reminiscent of the ruses of Marcel Duchamp, Huyghe and artist Philippe Parreno have acquired the rights to an outdated Japanese cartoon character named AnnLee. In this installation AnnLee--a fragile japoniste homunculus--hesitantly traverses a lunar landscape in machinic monotony. The rhythm of the landscape's perpetually opening crevices and craggy protrusions appeared to be digitally determined by the droning voice of Neil Armstrong, delivering a celebratory monologue from outer space on the occasion of the first moon landing. (In fact, the sound track was the synthesized voice of Armstrong reciting a text written by Huyghe, with passages from Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth.) Just as obsolete as AnnLee, the tragicomic cartoon character withdrawn after only a brief period of design deployment, Armstrong's voice articulates the obsolescence of a triumph in which the perfect fusion of power and technology have ta ken ultimate control of all forms of cosmic eschatology.

If the first elements of the installation addressed the intertwined condition of architecture and the spaces of media culture, the last (also in this third spatial segment) engaged the classic artistic discourses of design and illumination: a set of sprawling hanging lamps, expensively produced in (Venetian?) milk glass, whose slowly pulsating luminosity was--as in the architectural models--dimming or brightening according to an unknown principle. Strangely reminiscent of modernism's beguiling synthesis of the organic and the machinic (as in Duchamp's Nine Malic Moulds in The Large Glass), the set of lamps hovered like a life-support system over a white poly concave seating cluster by American Modernist designer Elsie Crawford. The context of Huyghe's work made these biomorphic and seemingly only decorative camp structures--at once "futuristic" and "fifties"--appear as the very site where the rule of design inscription takes control of perception and somatic desire becomes designer object.

The dialectics of progress (the sole objective of which, one should remember, is the maximization of profit and intensification of control) and obsolescence is certainly central to Huyghe's project. But the artist's deployment of obsolete devices inside the most developed forms of visual and spatial domination differs drastically from artistic practices that simply collapse the aesthetic into design strategies (e.g., that of Jorge Pardo), in a camp gesture eliminating differences that had once opposed radical negativity to design's mediocre seductions of everyday life. Huyghe's work, by contrast, mobilizes an allegorical counterforce, a sudden temporal and spatial break from the apparently invincible spell and hermetic closure that the languages of media technology, architecture, and design have established in the service of spectacle and commodity production.

Benjamin H.D. Buchloh's Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975, the first of two volumes, was published last spring by MIT Press.

RICHARD FLOOD Liquid Plumber

THOMAS JEFFERSON'S MONTICELLO IS AN EXTREMELY NERVOUS building. He worked on it for half a century, and in the end it bankrupted him, but what a legacy he left. When it was finished (or as finished as it was going to get), Monticello became the American apogee of auto-architecture; it was, like Hadrian's villa, the perfect measure of the man who made it. It remains a magnificent illusion of ordered geometries in service to an eccentric variety of often oppositional aims. In between what the house is and what it appears to be lies the tension that animates Monticello and mirrors its architect's eloquent, occasionally violent divisions of self.

There are by now millions of mock Monticellos, neoclassical spawn often erected to semaphore governmental order and bureaucratic piety. One such building is the United States pavilion in Venice. Designed by the architectural practice of Delano and Aldrich and completed in 1930, it is, in every way, a mediocre building that's in keeping with all the other Venetian national pavilions (save the creepy perfection of the Albert Speer-esque German pavilion). At the Biennale, a doglike nationalism always sends me to it first to see what problems it's caused and what favors it's granted. Until I know what's happening in the US pavilion, I can't really relax and amble through the global village. Robert Gober's installation acknowledges that the pavilion is Monticello's tract-house equivalent but also understands the building's desire to be something more. The artist respects the pavilion's mediocrity and privileges its ersatz symmetry by tautly infusing it with layered Jeffersonian tension.

Gober's opening gesture in the rotunda may serve to illustrate what I mean. Centered in the space is what appears to be a toilet plunger (crafted from terra-cotta and oak) mounted on a low plinth made of what appears to be Styrofoam (patinated bronze). On the wall behind hangs a framed photograph of twin highway tunnels. A few cars sit on the road facing the tunnels, and some pedestrians are visible; neither tunnels nor highway appear to be m service. The image is odd mostly because it is hanging in the foyer of the US pavilion, but it's tempting to think of it as a coded invitation to explore the twinned floor plan of the building. The framed image is captioned: "West Rock Tunnel, 1949, digitally enhanced black-and-white photograph. Archives of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, Record Group 89, Item 30, The West Rock Tunnel on the Wilbur Cross Parkway, New Haven, 1948-49, State Archives, Connecticut State Library, Hartford, Connecticut; 24 X 20 in." Clearly this is not a photograph; it's the pho tograph. And, like the plunger and plinth, it has been "enhanced."

The ensemble--plunger, plinth, and photo--comes together to create a very strange civic foyer, with the plumbing device occupying a space normally taken up by a sculpture celebrating public service (in my post office, it's a big bronze firefighter carrying a little bronze girl to safety). Yet the plunger is an instrument of heroic intervention. It is that which stands between us and the taught awfulness of our own waste. It is an odd reminder, normally hidden from view, that our environmental niceties are more provisional than is routinely acknowledged. The plunger's iconization is also, in the city of Venice, mordantly ironic--almost a cosmic memento mori. That it rests on the illusion of a floatable mattress of Styrofoam (a material that will outlast even the cockroach in our planet's final convulsions) suggests a quotidian tidal awareness that some waste cannot be flushed away. Finally, horribly, the plunger is a weapon. Enthroned on its non-biodegradable Styrofoam pouf, it is a grotesquely banal scepter representing the incomprehensible evil that humankind does to its own. A plunger was the instrument used by New York City police officers to rape a Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima in 1997 (the pavilion's catalogue makes note of the assault), and the formal presentation of the plunger as an evidential indictment (suited to a hundred cautionary narratives) is a fitting introduction to the pavilion's ominous calm.

In Venice, buildings are always settling. Tiny tremors, felt only in the inner ear, insistently inform one of possibly perilous structural readjustments. Somehow, in his utilization of the secondhand geometries of the US pavilion, Gober found a visual equivalent for those tremors. A laundry basket, a flight of stairs down to a closed cellar door, Styrofoam flotsam, gin bottles, newspaper and magazine clippings, Xeroxed job postings all contribute to the pavilion's intimation that under everything floats a dark, coagulate pudding.

Like Gober's contribution, the best of the national pavilions were environments that were intellectually immersive and psychologically challenging. The most brutal extreme was Gregor Schneider's shatteringly unwholesome, labyrinthine squat coiled like a rattlesnake inside the gorgeous fascist shell. The most tender was Pierre Huyghe's Monsieur Hulot-like interpretation of the French pavilion as a big, glamorous home-entertainment center where the entertainment was both robotic and inexplicably human. Probably the most direct expression of tenderness (as in rawness) was the very posthumous exhibition of Alighiero Boetti (1940-94) in the Italian pavilion. A small, coherent set of works reminded you, yet again, exactly how quietly seismic Boetti's contribution was. Each work is a virtual lexicon of possibilities, and installed in the pavilion's forecourt is arguably the last best artist's sculptural self-portrait of the twentieth century (I'm giving the two-dimensional award to Lucian Freud). If you've never se en it, there's really no way to adequately describe the effect it creates. It's simply a sculpture a man in a suit, tie loosened, spraying himself with water from a hose. Because the sculpture's head is heated, the water creates a mist when it hits the cranium. You know instantly what it means, and then a moment passes and you realize it means all that and infinitely more.

Richard Flood is senior curator at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, where his "Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972" travels this fall. The show debuted this summer at Tate Modem (see review, p. 187).

KATY SIEGEL Human, All Too Human

MEA CULPA. LIKE OTHERS REVIEWING THE LAST VENICE BIENNALE, I complained about the high entertainment quotient of the art, which seemed chosen (and perhaps made) to match the cavernous spaces and festival atmosphere of the event. Many also bemoaned the lack of more serious or politically engaged art at a time of European social turmoil. Well, be careful what you wish for.

This time around, curator Harald Szeemann has chosen a weightier theme than the last Biennale's "d'Apertutto," but one no less vague: "Plateau of Humankind." He begins the guide accompanying the exhibition by citing Edward Steichen's famous 1955 show "The Family of Man," while his catalogue essay appoints Joseph Beuys the guiding spirit of the Biennale. Both the MOMA exhibition and the great shamanartist have been relentlessly criticized, and their worst qualities are reanimated in one of the first rooms of the exhibition at the Italian pavilion. "The Platform of Thought" combines Rodin's Thinker with Chinese, African, and Indian sculptures. The conceit levels everything: traditions, cultures, intent, historical moments.

Szeemann includes folk art in "The Platform of Thought," as well as the main body of the exhibition (e.g., Sunday Jack Akpan); as good as some of it is, it suffers from the relative low level of the nominally "high" art. High art generally provides a sophisticated reflection on representational traditions, but the intellectual content of the high art here is less than acute, and the contrast between, say, a high assemblage of plastic animals and folk figures carved from wood is rather negligible. Imagine Rousseau at MOMA without Picasso.

Much of the other art similarly connotes "authenticity," rehashing the brash politics of Szeemann's early days: Barry McGee, Stephen Powers, and Todd James's sprawling urban storefronts, the upturned, overly expressionist little heads of Marisa Merz, and various feminist works, most of them, like Priscilla Monge's room covered in sanitary napkins, quite simplistic. Both the unschooled and the "political" or expressionist works seem here less to function in their familiar role as high-art foil than to balance out high technology, in the form of virtually omnipresent videos. Unfortunately, the video on offer was almost uniformly terrible, too often relying on representing ordinary activities at a portentously slow speed, as if that in itself were sufficient to reveal their inherent meaning. (Szeemann seems tone-deaf not only to video but also to feminist art--this is clearly not where his heart lies.) Rare exceptions include Chris Cunningham's high-speed sex and violence, and Paul Pfeiffer's concentrated, digi tally manipulated projections.

The photography felt more current, and much more central than at the last Biennale. Some of the work produces unfortunate developments in the exploitative relationship between photographer and subject: Richard Billingham's black-and-white images of his father, Tatsumi Orimoto's disturbing shots of his senile mother posing with ridiculous props like giant green shoes. (Ann Sala's video of a sleeping indigent man and Santiago Sierra's video documenting his project of bleaching the hair of undocumented Venetian workers share the problematic subject-object dynamic.) On the plus side, there were some genuinely powerful photographs: Lucinda Devlin's images of US prison execution chambers and devices, Hai Bo's before-and-after re-creations of souvenir photos from China's Cultural Revolution, and Swiss photojournalist Arnold Odermatt's shots of car crashes. Rineke Dijkstra's Israeli soldiers and Tuomo Manninen's group portraits of people in a given occupation or social arrangement--from office cleaners to faculty wi ves--set up convincing and amusing relationships connecting the individual and the shaping power of social identity.

The hot and heavy humanity of the Biennale's curated exhibition contrasted sharply with the whispery recalcitrance of the pavilions' big hits: Cardiff and Miller, Huyghe, Gober, Schneider, Tuymans, all chilly, spare, withholding, in various shades of off-white. Cardiff and Miller's piece stood out, unlike the other video here, by describing a specific experience (going to see a movie) in concrete ways that related to and accounted for the viewer's physical presence. Huyghe's film-based work is usually strong along similarly medium-specific lines, but what he presented here (a giant game of Pong, futuristic plastic furniture, a stiffly done anime cartoon) was affectless, too chic for its own good. In fact, while all the work was perfectly fine (particularly that by Cardiff/Miller and Schneider), the stance it offered was rather wan and elliptical. At its best, art by Tuymans, Gober, et al. is elegiac; at its worst, simply, well, disappointed--no wonder Szeemann and others look to folk art and technology to st iffen our flagging resolve.

Where does this leave us? Between an outdated humanism and art largely absent of human subjectivity, or in which that subjectivity is a form of absence; between Szeemann's sticky bear hug and Huyghe's chilly sigh. One alternative answer: Art doesn't best describe humanity through cliched expressiveness, or even by celebrating its image, but by being the most compelling possible version of making things. This does not mean fetishizing the well-wrought, handmade object. Complex, reflexive versions of making, whether they involve the hand (Richter), the machine (Serra), or the computer (Pfeiffer), all think through and render material how things--flat images, industrial space, digital processes--work now, revealing current conditions and capacities.

In this light, Richard Tuttle, tucked into a room at the Italian pavilion, showed some of the Biennale's best art. The not-quite-geometric paintings on plywood move color and line and shapes around a room in ways that seem both personal and anonymous, free-form and rule-bound. Specifically installed to form a spatial whole, beautiful individually, these paintings are both something you could imagine making and something you would never think of doing. In that one room, Tuttle has you believing "only human" is neither a worn-out idea, nor such a simple thing to be.

Katy Siegel is a New York-based art historian and frequent contributor to Artforum. Her essay on the photography of Andreas Guesky appeared in the January issue.

Director of the Stadelschule art academy in Frankfurt, DANIEL BIRNBAUM also heads the institution's Portikus gallery, site of a new installation by Jason Rhoades on view through the middle of this month. The author of several works on art and philosophy, including The Hospitality of Presence: Problems of Otherness in Husserl's Phenomenology (Almqvist & Wicksell, 1998), Birnbaum is a contributing editor of Art forum and has written numerous articles for these pages, among them a recent feature on the collaborative art of Carsten Holler and Rosemarie Trockel. His consideration of the work of Doug Aitken will anchor Phaidon's forthcoming monograph. In this issue, Birnbaum opens our multiwriter analysis of the 49th Venice Biennale with an overview of the exposition.
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Title Annotation:Harald Szeemann's Venice Biennale
Author:SIEGEL, KATY
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Sep 1, 2001
Words:7706
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