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SINK OR SWIM.

DURING THE EXHIBITION'S TWENTY-ONE-WEEK RUN, THE 48TH VENICE BIENNALE WILL BE VIEWED BY TENS OF THOUSANDS OF VISITORS. IN THE FOLLOWING PAGES, FIVE OF THEM - ROBERT STORR, KATY SIEGEL, DAVID ELLIOTT, RACHEL WITHERS, AND DANIEL BIRNBAUM - OFFER FOCUSED SNAPSHOTS. STEVEN HENRY MADOFF SERVES AS TOUR GUIDE.

All's Fair

In the midday heat, the crowds are jeering under the big tent. In the front rows, the police officials in blue, the military brass in dress whites turn toward the sound and stare. The committee members are seated on the dais. They've come before us, knowing what we want: the small selection of names, the winners of the awards called Golden Lions.

It is June 12, a Saturday, the last day of press previews for the 48th Venice Biennale. At first, the applause is polite as the runners-up - Georges Adeagbo, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Lee Bul - are announced. They are bowing; the cameras whir. Then the small explosions of cheers as the winning names are called: Cai Guo-Qiang, China. Shirin Neshat, Iran. Doug Aitken, the United States. it's as if we were in Cannes: They hold their Lions in front of us and beam. Ghada Amer of Egypt is given a UNESCO prize for her canvases covered with stitched patterns: images of women's sexuality - delicate, abstract, politically safe. The crowd is murmuring its approval. We are assured a general rightness. Like saints canonized, Louise Bourgeois and Bruce Nauman are bestowed lifetime achievement awards. The air is fragrant with earth and pine.

And then a noise rises slowly in the collective throat. The words echo above us: The Golden Lion for the best national pavilion - there are fifty-nine countries participating - goes to . . . the Italians. People are whistling, shouting jeers of execration. Everyone knows that Harald Szeemann, the Biennale's director, has filled the huge Italian pavilion with artists from around the world (particularly Chinese). Of course, past directors have populated these halls with international artists, but never to this extent. Szeemann has singled out just five Italians and scattered this "official pavilion" throughout the building. The irony is too rich to ignore. It is as if the panel of judges, one each from Italy, Slovenia, Nigeria, Spain, and Japan, had paid off the Italians for being good sports. Politics reigns.

And yet in a moment the cries die down. The day is still luminous. No scandal can distract us from the luxury of the buffet: the slow tour of the thirty-one national pavilions; the beautiful expansion of the section of the show previously called "Aperto" (Open), which was reserved for artists under forty, but now, as "dApertutto" (a portmanteau meaning, loosely, Aperto for all), includes more than one hundred artists of every age and fills four additional restored industrial spaces in the old military compound, the Arsenale. For Szeemann and Paolo Baratta, the president of the Biennale, who conceived and executed the expansion, it is a triumph. As it is for us.

Despite earlier threats of strikes, the pavilions have opened on time. Smoothness is all. The catalogues are ready, the press kits freshly minted. One small thing: As if by way of a nod to the usual Biennale chaos, on opening day the wall labels are still missing in the big Italian exhibition hall. As we wander through the Giardini, the main grounds of the exposition, the names are familiar: Rosemarie Trockel in the German pavilion; Ann Hamilton in the American. Gary Hume has filled the British space with Popish, "sophisticated" paintings that cause more scoffing than anything else; in the Danish building Peter Bonde has collaborated with Jason Rhoades on a paean to auto racing that is a warren of tires and batteries and videos of screaming cars, the volume throttled high. Across the way at the Russian pavilion, Komar & Melamid have turned with tired cleverness to the conceit that chimps and elephants can do as well as artists at photography and painting (nudge, nudge). Or perhaps, in this international context, the animals are meant to send up the exoticism we attach to artists from this country or that; their fleeting favor in the charnel house of art-world fashion. Yet there are few chortles in front of the monitors that show the beasts at work, their abstractions (at least to us) hanging on the walls.

The bigger joke is how little painting there is at the Biennale. Well, there is some - Hume, for example; the retrospective of Daan van Golden in the Dutch pavilion; elegant, vaguely Mardenesque canvases by Gabor Erdelyi in the Hungarian show; the achingly anodyne knockoffs of Roy Lichtenstein's living-room paintings done by Howard Arkley (who died, sadly, just over a month after the Biennale's opening) in the Australian quarters. But for all the high-energy painting now going on in Los Angeles, London, New York, and Berlin, painting in Venice has been reduced to the small gesture, to the nostalgic and wan. The large gesture is reserved for wall-size videos, for panoplies of objects assembled, strewn, motor-driven, and occasionally (though with surprising rarity) digitized. These are the shows most talked about, word rippling from cluster to cluster of art pilgrims - thirty thousand of us during these three days of previews - as we compare notes and gossip under the trees.

There is much talk of Trockel's show, speculation (unfulfilled, it turns out) that she will win a prize. Inside the German pavilion, her untitled video installation confronts us with an immense, staring eye: black and white, almost pulsing, there to absorb us in the immediacy of our own gaze. To the right, a smaller gallery projects her video of a ghostly terminus, figures being ministered to in the act of dying. To the left, she gives us life: a still smaller gallery, a slow-motion video of children scooting around in toy cars, their parents happy onlookers. The work is remarkably strong, a classic Surrealist vocabulary of dream and death updated, the spareness astringent as we come in from the Venetian light.

Ann Hamilton's display is so much Trockel's opposite: lushly sensual, brilliantly lit, layered with allusion. The scene is this: Outside the Jeffersonian pavilion built in 1929, she has thrown up a wall - eighteen feet tall, ninety feet long - a latticework of steel and bleary glass. Inside she has stripped out the low ceilings and revealed the original skylights. The high white walls are covered with oversize Braille, quoting from Charles Reznikoff's volume of poetry Testimony: The United States, 1885-1915: recitative, with its terrible accounts of violence. Day-Glo-pink powder drifts down from hidden tanks in the ceilings, hallucinatory and jarringly bright as it catches on the Braille and collects in heaps on the floor. Hamilton's recorded voice whispers Lincoln's second Inaugural Address. She utters it letter by letter, translated into the phonetic alphabet employed by pilots - a is alpha, d is delta. . . .

The effect is complex - too much so for the noise and pace of our art tasting. Over the coughs, cell phones, and chatter, we can barely hear Hamilton's voice, whose code would unlikely be deciphered in any case. The Braille, of course, is illegible to nearly all of us - just as the glass outside disrupts and warps our clear view of the building. But then the work, in Hamilton's words, is about "erasure." Even the show's title, myein - roughly translated as an abnormal contraction of the eye's pupil - presses the political point that more often than not we block our recognition of American violence, wipe away the historical record. Helaine Posner, the US pavilion's co-commissioner, puts it nicely when she says that the show "is about recognizing our grace and our limits." But Hamilton's gambit of literally depicting erasure and buried truths is too great. It is a work that must be read as much as seen; yet the reading is so difficult, and the site can't say enough.

And there is so much else to be seen elsewhere. The Belgian spectacle, for example, by Ann Veronica Janssens. Rooms full of mist, of ambient sounds. We disappear into the fog, delighted by its tropical feel. Without literary weight, this kindred display of invisibility is part carnival and yet gently sincere: All is sweet mystery and a reminder of the beauty of sight as it is slowly, temporarily veiled. And there is the elegance of Tatsuo Miyajima's floor-to-ceiling installation in the Japanese hall of 2,450 blue LEDs: a dark galaxy we enter into; numbers ticking off a countdown to the millennium; a sea of blinking time.

Each day is spent like this, poking in and out of the dark. The sun is pleasant. There are trips across the Grand Canal to outlying islands, to the exhibitions not within the main grounds - the Portuguese show of Jorge Molder, or the Irish exhibition, for example. There are other shows around town as well, not officially part of the Biennale, such as M.A. Vogrincic's La Casa Vestita (a palazzo whose exterior is festooned with clothes) and a middling survey of Jean-Michel Basquiat's art curated by Achille Bonito Oliva in a space on the Piazza San Marco. The nights are filled with parties. One evening, the British throw an elaborate affair at a grand palazzo, an event that costs forty thousand dollars. Tiepolos adorn the ceilings; the English pop band Pulp plays below - friends of the artist Gary Hume. It is a convention of the art-world power elite. Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery, shakes hands and chats, moving through a crowded room. On a stairwell, critics Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker, Roberta Smith of the New York Times, her husband Jerry Saltz of the Village Voice, New York dealer Barbara Gladstone, and the Walker Art Center's chief curator Richard Flood (formerly Gladstone's director) sit together like birds on a wire.

The talk passes slowly from the pavilions to what everyone considers the main event: "dApertutto." The Arsenale's spaces, renovated at a cost of about $1.5 million to the Italian government, are superb old structures: workshops and shipyards from the sixteenth century; 10,000 square meters with soaring ceilings; new walls beneath trusses of ancient wood. Many people comment. Mark Rosenthal, who was commissioner of the US pavilion in 1988, when Jasper Johns was on view, calls this "the best Biennale I've ever seen; 'dApertutto' is fantastically well done." Richard Armstrong, director of the Carnegie Museum of Art, bemusedly describes the show as "perky" and remarks on how well it is installed. There are negative views, of course. The Andy Warhol Museum's director, Tom Sokolowski, who is standing with Armstrong, retorts, "You're kidding. I think it's flaccid. The show is very professional, but there is nothing surprising, no revelations." Dana Friis-Hansen, senior curator of Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum, finds a middle ground, saying, "It's not that it's the status quo. I think Szeemann's done an incredible job. There's a higher denominator of quality throughout, but there are lower peaks." And Barbara Thumm, a Berlin dealer, agrees. "Yes, it was solid," she says. "It's what we know, so surprises are not easy. But the Chinese work is very interesting and most of us are new to it."

In fact, the Chinese artworks in the Italian pavilion and in the Arsenale are interesting above all for their political purview. In the art of the Europeans and Americans here, politics is barely present as a subject. How remarkable! The theater of Kosovo's war is close enough to Venice that there are warnings of delays at Marco Polo Airport due to military deployments. Yet the only prominent work dealing with the Serbian carnage is Thomas Hirschhorn's World Airport in "dApertutto," with its crude models of airliners and makeshift walls of press clippings. The Chinese employ the usual tools: video, photography, drawing, sculpture, painting. But what they live is a life still bound by government constraint. From this comes a visceral exuberance, a carbolic bite to their sardonic art.

In Ying-Bo's video Fly! Fly! (Our Chinese Friends), the gathering around a table bursts with laughter, with voices shouting. They are playing a game much like "Scissors, Rock, Paper." Hands gesture. There is a show of love and aggression, fake slaps and blown kisses, as the game burns on. Punishment and freedom - the social microcosm is luminously clear. Another exemplary piece is Cai Guo-Qiang's vast sculpture installation, Venice Rent Collecting Courtyard, for which he wins his Golden Lion. In a vast shed by the water, Chinese artisans brought in by Qiang are sculpting 100 terra-cotta statues of feudal peasants at work. The figures, in various states of completion, stand in small groups, scattered throughout the room. A panama hat is placed slyly on a statue's head. To the occidental eye, so many assembled figures in the round evoke Rodin. But in fact the statues reprise a government-sponsored "lesson" from the Cultural Revolution: a reminder of times far worse. Cai Guo-Qiang stands in front of a newsman's camera, smiling in the glare, an artisan laboring behind him. To the side, the English curator Norman Rosenthal chats with the Swiss dealer Simon de Pury and the wife of a former Russian ambassador to London. Their clothes are damp. They are taking shelter from a sudden rain. "It's impressive, isn't it?" Rosenthal says. "Yes," the ambassador's wife replies. "But like all the works for the Biennale, it will be gone so quickly, disappear like a butterfly."

That is true, and one can't help but think of the sixteen Chinese artists Szeemann has gathered for his show - even if a number of them, as it was cattily noted, have already left China and moved to such art centers as New York and Paris. Of course, there is always the cynical view that they will be rounded up again, a new traveling act for the marketplace. After all, the Biennale is no longer an important colloquy on cultural understanding between nations, as it was when travel and communication were harder. Now it is a stopping point on a global circuit; dealers, artists, experts evaluating the state of their industry, doing deals.

Szeemann would prefer the notion of the butterfly to the bazaar. When we sit down to talk, he says, "I wanted to make the best temporary world, to do the first 'Aperto' again, which I made in 1980. To break the rules, not stick with bureaucratic crap. To do a show of the Chinese alone, for example - I would be accused of exotica. But here, among so many artists, I thought there was a chance. And the Chinese have ideas, internal cultural histories, buried strategies we have no idea of. Their level of training is incredible. They have a sense of the figure we have lost. But then, I'm a spiritual guest-worker in the museum of obsessions. I wanted to make a model of ideal society, of all the polarities in art without a single heroic style. If you have no heroes, it opens things up."

Sitting in his office upstairs in the back of the Italian pavilion, with his long beard and casual dishevelment, Szeemann calls himself a "romantic." The word suggests a languor and openness, an insouciance. Yet his choices for his ideal society are exclusive. There are the overwhelming predilections for video and installation art on view in "dApertutto."

Still, among the chatter of so many videos, among the clutter of so many installations, there is remarkable work. It is barely worth noting that a few years ago, the exhibition of so many videos would have been a topic of discussion. Today, it is the merest commonplace. To make the claim that Disney has become as important an influence as Duchamp is not to insult. There are spectacles here, fantasias, slick filmmaking put in the service of private messages and iconoclastic views. Doug Aitken's Electric Earth, for which he received his Golden Lion, is a masterly reverie on the quixotic moment of absolute presence, without past or future. His cipher, a young black dancer in body-driven hyperdrive, is like a glimpse of pure energy slowed down or sped up, alternately charged and drained. The pace of jump cuts, the play of scene against scene on different screens, the pulse of the music seduce. Here is the efficiency and flair of a music-video maker (as Aitken occasionally is), spinning a syncopated narrative that is circuitous and ambiguous - VHI meets Last Year at Marienbad.

The list continues for each of us; our moments of falling in love with particular pieces. Shirin Neshat's prize-winning Turbulent has a brute force, with its stark black-and-white screens facing one another - man singer and woman singer across the divide of Iranian culture. And there is Pipilotti Rist's dreamy sprawl of an installation, a diminutive town with its little lights laid out under a night whose sky is a flickering video. So very Disneyesque.

It is not unlike Venice - a particular fantasy we've entered for these days. There are drinks at Haig's Bar and at Harry's Bar, where Maxwell Anderson, director of the Whitney Museum, holds court one gorgeous evening while I.M. Pei sits across the way, surrounded by friends. There is endless talk. We are all experts pondering what is right and what is wrong. Some will continue the conversation at their next stop, Basel's art fair. For the rest of us, we have collected our catalogues, our opinions and memories. We are going home.

Steven Henry Madoff is executive editor of Joe magazine. His book of poetry, While We're Here, has just been published by Hard Press.

Art Carnies

I love state fairs. It's the mixture of sincere effort and honky-tonk that gets me. And it's the prize pies, trophy-winning bulls, and the biggest squash in the county cheek by jowl with the bright lights, creaky rides, freak shows, and voracious consumption of junk food that keep the whole thing in balance with human nature at its extremes. Above all, though, I love the crowds. America doesn't really have boulevards, so it doesn't have boulevardiers, but it does have midways, and there without any worldly training you can lose yourself in the crowd and savor the delirium of active looking and passive anonymity that Baudelaire turned into an art form.

In its way the Venice Biennale is a state fair with the State writ large. National pavilions beckon from all angles, and when the blue ribbons are handed out a parade of dignitaries with official buttons in their lapels troop into the Giardini big top where the winners are announced to the throngs rooting for hometown favorites.

But I'll take state fairs over State affairs. In part, my preference is a function of the occasional hazards that await one in Venice. If you are a card-carrying member of the art world, then the chances of vanishing into the festive flux are about nil. The experience is more like going to a cocktail party with ten thousand people, five thousand of whom you know, or know of, or think know you. At virtually every turn there is the polite'"Where have you been? Where are you going next?" or the complex ballet of nods and sashays occasioned by the near meeting of once or future adversaries. Like Judy Garland and Fred Astaire in Easter Parade, one strolls up and down the avant-garde avenue, but rather than tip one's hat and go on, one is stopped every forty feet or so - which is to say after roughly every installation - and asked for a verdict on the work seen as well as the show as a whole. Call it polling up the avenue.

At the end of the day, I was suffering exponential crowd fatigue rather than Baudelarian crowd-bath euphoria. I was not alone in craving aloneness. That pervasive claustrophobia probably accounted for the popularity, according to my survey, of the pieces that suggested quiet solitude. The Belgian pavilion - filled with a miraculous white fog in which spectral art tourists appeared and disappeared like ghosts in a feel-good Hollywood afterlife - was the first to offer respite. (Ann Veronica Janssens blew the smoke.) In the Tese, a buried-alive fakir with hands raised just aboveground in prayer - all-purpose Conceptual jester Maurizio Cattelan located the subterranean breather and did the burying - was another way station for the crush weary, though it was hard to see what was left of him because of the people gathered round. Then there was Rosemarie Trockel. At the German pavilion, the giant video eye was predictably attention-getting public gaze control, but the sleep chamber video (with cots considerately provided for the narcoleptically inclined) was better, and a slow-motion, remote-sound narrative of playground comings and goings magically made good on its promise of dream peace.

Unsurprisingly, the installations that suffered most were those that strained for carnival excess. Chen Zhen (of the colossal drum set) and Thomas Hirschhorn (of the crafts-class airport and information center) opted for visual noise or cacophony but ended up with overbuilt props. John Bock succeeded in charming with a hidey-hole perforated wall that partially concealed the artists and his mess, but his interactive gambit, which included having your arm decorated with colorful doodads when you stuck it into a mural orifice, resembled a concession more than a happening. Jason Rhoades proved himself the most fastidious of chaos-machers by editorially formalizing and toning down Paul McCarthy's superior gift for id-stirring vulgarity. The presence of two old masters of the genre lent a cautionary poignancy to the efforts of their epigones. Back in the Italian pavilion, the late, great anarchist/confectioner Dieter Roth was memorialized as an introspective aged "artiste" in a wall of videos that was beautiful, snail-paced - and the formal antithesis of his signature jumble-shop environments. And then there was the sad reprise of Claes Oldenburg's monument-building career at the Museo Cotter, made sadder by the unavoidable parallel between a wan stuffed O sculpture hanging at the entrance and the giant fabric-covered foam doughnut in the McCarthy-Rhoades extravaganza. The McCarthy-Rhoades installation wasn't going anywhere ninth, but the Oldenburg was just "sitting on its ass in a museum."

All said and done, this Biennale was livelier if more exhausting than the last, long on showmanship but short on memorable work. Like the 1997 edition it was done on a short hop, with less than a year of planning: Much credit goes to director Harald Szeemann for his infrastructural revampings and expansion. Since Szeemann has been invited to do the 2001 Biennale I will suspend further curatorial judgment until then, except to say that out of the peripatetic pack of impresarios to which he belongs, he does the most adventurous looking, so there is reason to hope. Meanwhile, to clean my palate, I'm headed for the

Maine State Fair.

Rad Weather

Welcome to the salon de fin de siecle. Despite all the funky art (and all the bad art), the exhibition radiated glamour, an aura amplified by the beauty and sheer impracticality of Venice itself.

The national pavilions, with their "It's a Small World" feel, form a famously rigid, dated structure, but I almost preferred them to the Gesamtkunstwerk multinationalism of the reinstated Aperto. The antithesis of the white cube, this hodgepodge of mini-manses winsomely highlighted the peculiar Disneyland nature of the Biennale. Taking the mission of national representation seriously, only Ann Hamilton and Gary Hume seemed to bear up under the Miss Universe pressure, through big thinking (Hamilton) or simply thinking (Hume). Hume spread himself thin over a lot of large paintings, and his tremendous superficiality suited the occasion perfectly; Hamilton, on the other hand, suffered from earnestness - the Braille poetry covering the walls of the pavilion-cum-mock-Monticello clarified nothing and spoiled the beauty of the pink powder sifting from the ceiling. With Venice just a stone's throw from Kosovo, real politics further punctured this abstract reverie on democracy: Passing by the US press conference, someone shouted, "Thanks for the bombs!" But push aside the flags and banners, and inside the pavilions there was much to like: Daan van Golden of Holland, Lee Bul of Korea, Iran do Espirito Santo of Brazil, to name just three highlights.

If the Giardini's boosterism recalled midcentury nationalism, the empathically international Aperto evoked its own nostalgia - it was trippy, in a suave kind of way. Blast-from-the-past "nontraditional" media - video, performance, kinetic art, site-specific installation - predominated. Szeemann, of course, originally inhaled the Spirit and he continues to pledge his allegiance to the avant-garde. In this vein, Chris Burden, Doug Aitken, William Kentridge, Ying-Bo, Jason Rhoades, Sarah Sze, Tim Hawkinson, and Bruce Nauman all looked good, if a little predictable. What was new - well, a bit newer anyway - was the prevalence of art about or in the medium of architecture. Newer, too, was the wholesale co-optation of Chinese artists, who have apparently been granted most-favored-nation status, supplanting the Brits and the Japanese.

For every artwork that makes it into the Biennale, a hundred others languish back home. Where was photography, particularly in its Tillmans/Gursky incarnations, or as transformed by grand old men like Goldin and Sherman? Perhaps tellingly, one of the first works in the Arsenale was Max Dean's photo-destroying machine. And where was painting? A cursory Polke, no Richter, none of the senior American abstractionists, or Color Field reduxers, or new realists. Why? Maybe it has something to do with the sense of (dated) avant-gardism mentioned above.

Or maybe Szeemann's Funhalle curating divines the essential experience of the Biennale: wandering around between spaces and installations, soaking in the setting, staring at people. In this distracting context, contemplative formalism is out, as is Theory and Flagellation, the art of institutional critique (finally). What lies between these modes, permeating, subtly dominating, is the art of experience, of entertainment. This show is for the art professional or amateur who, when at home, likes her culture soothing and uplifting; on the road, she wants to be tickled, to be a tourist. I have taken many photos in museums, but never have I handed over my camera to a guard and asked for my picture with a Barnett Newman, as I did with Katharina Fritsch's rats. The Marxist historical chestnut (first time tragedy, second time farce) would seem to translate here as first-time avant-garde, second time entr'acte.

This effect was exaggerated by seeing the exhibition during preview week. I went back to the Aperto after it opened to the public, to about one-twentieth the crowd. The individual artworks looked much better, freed of the demands of the preview's collective critical scrutiny (imagine if a bomb had been set off!). As a whole, however, the exhibition felt flat. The fizz and buzz of the opening, with its palazzo parties, rock bands, and sweating, sandaled luminaries, animated the event.

Suiting both this champagne milieu and Venice's ephemeral atmospherics (golden light, delicate fog, picturesque decay), Pipilotti Rist built a bubble machine. Every three minutes, smoke-filled orbs wafted and popped and blurred the vision, and everyone laughed. This barely-there art seemed the best and most honest approach to the situation, delighting and then disappearing. The exhibition as a whole seemed a wishful and willful weather forecast. Although the coming Carnegie and baby Biennales will no doubt bear out Szeemann's predictions in the short term, the tide will eventually turn and his partial picture of contemporary art sink into the sea.

Katy Siegel is a frequent contributor to Artforum.

Hole Truth

This year's Venice Biennale featured no blockbuster historical show, no "futurism," "duchamp," or "Bacon." It had none of its typical theme shows, like 1995's "Identity and Alterity." I was surprised at how little I missed them. For even when there is a central theme, the Biennale always seems to lack a center, and at this millennial moment, the absence of center seems more a strength than a weakness. No single theme can reflect the different cultures and perspectives that demand to be considered. No one power - market or aesthetic - loads the dice.

In a bit of masterly wordplay, Biennale director Harald Szeemann made ubiquitousness and openness his themes. "dApertutto," loosely translated as "Aperto for all," is also, in one traditional Venetian comedy, the name of a doctor who brings about a happy ending. This is exactly what Szeemann has done - freeing up the Italian pavilion to become part of the Aperto and then, realizing this may lead to problems, creating a virtual pavilion out of the work of five young Italian artists there. Pooff! A potential national disaster becomes an international success, the virtual Italian pavilion wins a real Golden Lion as the best pavilion, and almost everybody goes home happy.

Many felt the heart of the Biennale lay in the "dApertutto" and that the pavilions were below average. Not so; for me the sense of openness extended to the whole show. Admittedly, the heavy hitters - Great Britain, Germany, France, the United States - were disappointing, but the problem lay less with the artists than with the choice and display of their work. The large opening gallery of the British pavilion, for example, demands a Grand Slam, but Gary, Hume's work filled the space without commanding it. The strong light in this pavilion is difficult, but the hang was also seriously overcrowded.

Other painters who focused on the interplay between subliminal imagery and decorative motif fared better. To some the minimal hang in the Rietveld-designed Dutch pavilion distorted the multifaceted nature of Daan van Golden's work, but at least the edit helped the show. The question of decoration and its capacity to alternate between mark and figure, in and out of the surface, is also an issue of Ghada Amer's more recent "paintings" comprising colored threads stitched onto canvas. Amer uses embroidery as a consciously gendered medium: Nothing new here, but what is interesting is the way in which repeated "arabesques" and vignettes of women's body parts become enclosed within a somehow more intimate, permissive, yet regimented system.

In the Polish pavilion, Katarzyna Kozyra's video installation Bath House for Men approached gender from a less separatist point of view. The artist not only observed her subjects (who were unaware of her camera's gaze), but also, in the guise of a naked man, planted herself within this environment. The aging, sagging body is invested with a terrible beauty, and the signifiers of gender - facial hair, breasts, penis - are under the microscope. Kozyra's work touched the extremes of alienation and despair, yet it did so with quiet sympathy and touching strength.

This year the memento mori was an unavoidable motif. Sergei Bugaev Afrika's installation in the Russian pavilion, Mir: Made in the XXth Century, evoked the necrophiliac breath of a previous age. A space station-like structure in the middle of a room covered with funereal photographic enameled plaques emitted electronic sound; on the floor a film of a patient undergoing electric shock therapy was projected. The associations ran from Soviet hospitals (where Bugaev was for a time interned) and the treatment of dissidents, to amnesia and inexplicable cures. Cai Guo-Qiang's installation Venice Rent Collecting Courtyard too confronted history, both personal and grand. The artist has remade life-size Socialist Realist tableaux from the Cultural Revolution, dramatizing the greed of the landlords and the oppression of workers and peasants. The team of "workers" constructing the piece included some who made the "originals" in the '60s, but while the sculptures were not exactly identical, neither were there strong deviations; the dislocation of place and time highlighted disparities between ideology and feeling, art and politics, past and present. The mood of reflectiveness continued in the Japanese pavilion. Tatsuo Miyajima's Revive Time was a final countdown, the walls covered by a grid of lilac LEDs approaching zero. But the installation demanded time, and in the flickering light it was impossible to concentrate on any given number because they were all constantly changing in incomprehensible cyclical sequences.

Rather more perky in tone were Roman Signer's absurd installations and ephemeral sculptures in the Swiss pavilion, Lee Bul's karaoke booths and music videos in the Korean pavilion, and the "Slovak Art for Free" project. The Slovak slogan "art is forever" led the collective to commission forty-five artists to design tattoos that could be executed on the spot, from a straight line to a facsimile of the birthmark on Gorbachev's forehead. I was particularly attracted to Ilona Nemeth's labyrinth and shall be instructing my personal tattooist accordingly.

Body Count

This year's biennale sees the elegantly crumbly "piano nobile" of the seventeenth-century Palazzo Vendramin dei Carmini adorned with a string of black pearls: Jorge Molder's monochrome photo sequence, entitled nox. Clad in sharp tuxedo, crisp cuffs, and handmade shoes, the Portuguese artist's on-camera persona - a camp yet sinister cabaret artiste who deals in dazzling, disorienting tricks of light - is as mesmeric and slippery as a David Mamet character. In one image, struck in the face by the camera's flash, he parries by turning a pocket mirror back at it, trapping a bright snatch of white light and cheating the viewer out of what, illogically enough, she expects will be a glimpse of her own reflection. Reading a sheet of transparent film, studying a blank newspaper, rubbing sleep from his eyes with a gesture that mimes looking through binoculars, Molder juggles themes of visibility and invisibility, clarity and obscurity, identity and division, with wondrous aplomb.

Since 1987, Molder has, unfashionably, called his work "self-portraiture." But nox's author, decentered, mobile, literally and metaphorically dancing in and out of focus, exists light years away from any cherished Rembrandtian ideal of sovereign subjectivity, sunk deep in the solitary contemplation of its essences. So, is this "body art"? In the '60s, the movement was practically synonymous with live performance. In the '90s, body art stretches to include artists from Gary Hill to Kiki Smith, from Shirin Neshat to John Bock (the last two, big hits of "dApertutto"). Szeemann's Biennale has been noted for its copious showing of video work. Equally, it might be seen to evidence the '90s return of the body in, and as, representation: body art, in a newer, broader sense.

To test the assertion, I tuck markers into the Biennale catalogues. Dieter Roth videos himself pottering about his house. Vesna Vesic videos herself moved to tears by Psalm 51. Ann Veronica Janssens suffuses the Belgian pavilion with delicate white mist, turning visitors' movements into the main exhibit. Again on video, Ma Liuming picks his way demurely along China's Great Wall, naked except for his well-applied maquillage. The limber Ali (Giggi) Johnson edgily grooves his way through a concrete desert in Doug Aitken's video installation Electric Earth. My final tally takes in over a third of the Biennale's lineup. Quite a revival - either that or the term "body art" has become a somewhat blunt instrument.

Body art '60s style (stripping off, pole squatting, sticking a fork into one's buttocks, and so on) sometimes aimed to get up an unsuspecting audience's nose, but it more typically involved doing things to oneself, or to profoundly consenting, and mostly credited, coworkers. The expanded field of today's body art is bestrewn with what one might call "collateral bodies": paid performers, volunteers, or unwitting contributors, whose physical contribution to the art-making process is crucial but whose status is liminal (neither accredited producers nor consumers). How, I wonder (without lapsing into old-style identity politics or liberal models of individual authorship and "Cartesian" subjectivity), might the power relations enacted within body art's production processes be properly registered as part of its meaning?

Disguising herself as a naked man and taking her video camera (and a - presumably male - escort) into a men's bathhouse, Polish artist Katarzyna Kozyra got an honorable mention from the International Jury. In their lumbering terminology, "she explores and controls the authoritarian dominion of male territory." She gets an honorable mention from me too, for sheer balls. Nevertheless, this white-knuckle enterprise clearly hinges on her equivocal relation to her unknowing subjects. Does the bathers' sex alone justify Kozyra's intrusive act, as the jury's prize suggests?

Maurizio Cattelan, the Biennale's bad boy in residence, appears to have staged a grueling physical performance by a Muslim fakir who lies smothered in a bed of sand. Working in two-hour shifts, Abdul Sattar Sheik is interred and disinterred in private; only his praying hands are ever visible. The fakir has been well paid, but he would be doing this anyway, paid, watched, credited, or not, claims his agent, who adds, "He's the most indifferent person I've ever met." Sheik's Hindu-derived discipline pursues the attainment of sama, indifference to worldly things, so this isn't the insult it seems. He must be the ultimate decentered subject; yet one suspects the symbolic relations of production this work entails would be little to the taste of those involved in today's body-art criticism. (Assuming, of course, that this isn't a classic case of Cattelan jackanapery, involving a pair of deftly crafted prosthetic arms.)

More endearing is the Slovakians' exhibition: a tattoo parlor where visitors may be videoed while having a bona fide artist's design permanently applied to their flesh, for free. During press week, twelve people got tattooed, performatively transforming the fiendish device of Kafka's penal colony into a means for individual adornment and collective gratification. To those needled subjects: Enjoy!

Rachel Withers is a London-based contributor to Artforum.

Practice in Theory

Rumor had it that at least one person would get killed by the mechanical penis on horseback that Jason Rhoades and Paul McCarthy installed in the Artiglierie. What kind of a beast was this shiny red organ rotating on a black horse-machine surrounded by huge doughnuts and lots of junk? According to the catalogue it's simply the Trojan Horse, and its P-P (plastic penis) is fucking the media - which is Jason and Paul's way of sneaking into the LA film industry. Got it? Whatever one may think of Rhoades's messy cosmologies, he remains the quintessential artist of this show. Hungry, aggressive, and enormously generous, this LA prodigy cares only for "collaboration," but he swallowed his colleagues whole.

That sort of thing, it would appear, is precisely what Biennale director Harald Szeemann likes: visually powerful and self-confident works, the bigger the better. In fact, I've never seen so many massive installations under one umbrella: Thomas Hirschhorn's thought-provoking World Airport, a meditation on airlines, warfare, and high-tech morality; Richard Jackson's less rewarding grand-scale clock installation about time and money; Chen Zhen's huge Buddhist drum kit. An interesting side effect of this sequence of colossi was the perceptual shift they caused in terms of one's appreciation of normal-size works. For instance, Chris Burden's Meccano bridges, which had seemed very large when I saw them elsewhere some months ago, now looked rather delicate.

All these works were by men, but it wouldn't be fair to call the Biennale a celebration of macho aesthetics; in fact, some of the more remarkable pieces on view were by women. No one could remain untouched by Shirin Neshat's two singers in the black-and-white video installation Turbulent, especially by the almost supernatural sounds produced by an Iranian woman seemingly giving voice to the grief and passion of an ill-starred generation. It's also fascinating to note the difference between the mess produced by the boy's club and Sarah Sze's delicate clutter. This miniature cosmos, seemingly random yet strangely ordered, was built out of the most ordinary, inert ingredients - matchsticks, pencils, kitchen utensils, clothespins - and yet it creates an odd sense of cellular growth. If Rhoades was the archetypal contemporary artist in this exhibition, the late Dieter Roth clearly emerged as the godfather of the jam-packed-room aesthetic - a lineage that begot several artists in the show, including John Bock, in whose work the horror vacui is combined with the performative aspect of Roth's production. Every time I see photographs of the aged Roth, I think of the late Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard's weird antiheroes - bizarre, elderly philosopher-bums, who fixate simultaneously, and with invariant intensity, on issues very large and very small (metaphysics and cheese). Nowhere does Roth, philosopher-poet of the everyday, emerge as enchanting in his unprotected directness as in Solo Scenes, 1997-98, displayed on 128 video monitors, piled on top of one another in the Italian pavilion and in many ways staking out the artistic center of this Biennale. These scenes, recorded during a period of sobriety following several years of heavy drinking, present the artist in a variety of ordinary situations - writing, eating, playing the piano, going to the bathroom. It's all low-key and yet strangely dramatic, like one of Bernhard's monologues.

Ultimately, Szeemann's strength lies in his ability to single out strong positions and give the artists the space and means required to fully realize their conceptions. It's the belief in the single artist's vision that forms the basis of his curatorial practice, which may appear old-fashioned, even romantic. The Venice Biennale is by tradition less intellectual than Documenta, but this year's version was quite exceptional in its lack of theoretical framework. What really are the issues that this gigantic exhibition meant to tackle? The two-volume catalogue gave nice introductions to the individual artists, but not a hint at any general themes. All you got was a poem by Szeemann. There was a time when every exhibition required a commentary by one French philosopher or another, and we all got sick of that. Now that we've reached the other extreme, I kind of miss Jacques Derrida.

At the end of the day, what one remembers months or even years after visiting a show of this size isn't the theoretical framework but the particular pieces that stood out - and there were many here. Ultimately, what lasts are brief moments of intensity or joy. What will I remember? I loved walking through Olafur Eliasson's metal structure at the very end of the Arsenale, a passage at once complicated and resistance-free. Eliasson creates lightness. Here, with his Mobius volume eternally turning inside into outside, the artist enveloped the viewer in a visionary architecture. It doesn't get any better than that.

Daniel Birnbaum is a frequent contributor to Artforum.

ROBERT STORR is senior curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, where he has organized numerous shows, including retrospectives of the work of Tony Smith and Chuck Close. Since 1990 he has also coordinated MoMA'S Projects series, an ongoing program devoted to exhibiting the work of contemporary artists. A frequent contributor to Artforum, Storr is the author of the monographs Philip Guston (Abbeville, 1986) and Chuck Close (Rizzoli, 1987). For this issue he offers one of six impressions of the 48th Venice Biennale.

DAVID ELLIOTT, director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, is currently putting the finishing touches on an exhibition entitled "After the Wall: Art and Culture in Post-Communist Europe," co-curated with Bojana Pejic and Iris Muller-Westermann. The show will open in the Swedish capital next month. A frequent essayist on contemporary art, particularly that of Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America, and Asia, he is the former director of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, where, along with monographic exhibitions devoted to the work of Aleksandr Rodchenko and Jose Clemente Orozco, he curated a number of prescient, contemporary surveys, including "Reconstruction: Avant-Garde Art in Japan 1945-1965" and "Art from South Africa." Here, he joins Storr in offering a close-up view of the Venice Biennale.
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Author:Birnbaum, Daniel
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Sep 1, 1999
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