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The Buck Stops Here

IF THE VENICE BIENNALE is still a treasure trove of trends for early adapters, look for cutting-edge art and fashion this year to feature ... Harry Truman. Two artists as different as Francis Alys and Louise Bourgeois--Alys in a video that samples a Truman speech, Bourgeois in a series of blue marker drawings called Untitled (Harry Truman), 2005--refer to the little haberdasher, hardly the kind of figure usually called upon to electrify an artistic experience. Why Harry Truman? Why now?

In 1945, Truman's presidency inaugurated the two decades that make up the short American century, a golden age when the US was economically flush and culturally thriving, and when, in the eyes of many, the country held the moral high ground, in contrast to a disgraced Europe. Of course, the shining promise always masked a darker reality: the atomic bombs Truman dropped on Japan, and the Marshall Plan's vision of democracy based on the exportation--forcible, if necessary--of Yankee-style capitalism to the rest of the world. Truman's militarism and just-plain-folks image prefigured that of the current president, who stands on the shoulders of neoconservatives advocating a "new" American century, with the US more CEO than benevolent dad and with moral stewardship, this time around, providing an even thinner veil for economic, social, and physical violence. George W. Bush identifies with Truman as the first cold warrior, someone to emulate as he prosecutes his own considerably hotter war.

But Bush's invocation of Truman only underlines how far the US has fallen since its years as Number One. The instability of an era in which the weakening--moral as well as political--of the "single remaining superpower" might be a synecdoche for a general decline in the geopolitical climate is, it turns out, the intermittent but dominant theme of this year's Biennale. While Robert Storr, the director, is of course from the US, and unabashedly works from a gloomy American perspective, many of the national pavilions also bespeak the wreckage of the postwar world. Masao Okabe, in the Japanese pavilion, spent nine years making thousands of rubbings at the train station in Hiroshima. At the Korean pavilion, the visitor finds Lee Hyungkoo's skeletons of Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, and other midcentury American cartoon figures, looking like prehistoric displays now that anime creations rule the earth. Francesco Vezzoli's video Democrazy, 2007, in a special section of the Arsenale devoted to Italian artists, cleverly connects disintegrating European and US electoral politics by casting Sharon Stone and intellectual pinup Bernard Henri-Levy--equally matched in hair quality and gravitas--as presidential candidates. Many of the Eastern European artists, too, grapple with the free-for-all of their post-cold-war reality, the shift from state capitalism to gangster capitalism, and the slipperiness of identities and boundaries. Perhaps the most compelling political work from this part of the world is in the Romanian pavilion's group show "Low-Budget Monuments," where Cristi Pogacean's The Abduction from the Seraglio, 2006, features an "Oriental rug" reproducing a widely televised image of kidnapped Romanians and their Islamist captors.

The Nordic pavilion's artists bid farewell to the welfare state in such a cheery, "fun" way--good graphics, interactive dartboards--that you hardly feel the pain engendered by Europe's drift along the path, forged by the US, of privatization and privation. Aernout Mik's Citizens and Subjects, 2007, in the Dutch pavilion, combines real and staged scenes of police exercises that train officers to apprehend and control illegal immigrants. Despite moments of playfulness, as when a group of teenagers pile on top of one another, the work is chilling, offering a convincing glimpse of a still more extreme society of control lurking on the horizon. Isa Genzken, who wrapped the German pavilion in scaffolding, also promised a tough look at conditions of global exchange, but her installation, Oil, 2007, delivers a nihilistic formalism that seems merely chic. Despite her reputation as a sculptor, she fares better in the two-dimensional passages of her installation--mixing mirrors, tape, and pop-culture imagery in stark, strange collages--than in the larger amalgams of found objects, where rolling suitcases and masks (Venice!) make heavy-handed attempts at site-specificity.







In some of the pavilions, however, the political is rather conspicuously honored in the breach. The Israeli pavilion, where Yehudit Sasportas has created a cool, clean installation replete with nature imagery, does not so much as hint at the struggle with Palestine or even at any sense of national unease. The Egyptian pavilion, meanwhile, wistfully celebrates its ancient past rather than responds to its present state as an impoverished dictatorship. England assiduously sidesteps the issue of its latest Middle Eastern military adventures by choosing as its representative the reliably narcissistic Tracey Emin, who, in the aptly titled exhibition "Borrowed Light," channels Martin Puryear, Cy Twombly, Bruce Nauman, and Egon Schiele, to little effect. In a year where feminism has been a strong political presence in the art world, many of the women artists in Venice seem strikingly self-involved. Whether fictional or real, Sophie Calle's dissection of a breakup e-mail, in the French pavilion, manages to suggest that the most pressing concern we face today is one man's reluctance to keep fucking Sophie Calle. And the politics around the new African pavilion--both Storr's wish that it be central to the Biennale, and the ensuing controversy around the financing of the private collection it features--eclipse those inside it.



But the relative weakness of the national pavilions is an old story, and the main attractions are, as always, the (old) Italian pavilion and the Arsenale, where directors have relative autonomy, and which Storr ties together this year in a single exhibition, "Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense." Storr is as independent of the international circuits of curator-critic-dealer logrolling as a very successful art-world figure can be. As such, his Biennale was bound to irritate some big dealers and collectors, along with other art-world professionals. The backbone of his show, and the subject of most of the discussion around it, is a roster of artists that Storr has worked with for years, such as Bourgeois, Elizabeth Murray, Bruce Nauman, Raymond Pettibon, Gerhard Richter, Susan Rothenberg, and Robert Ryman. The work is often expressive and the artists are mostly American, and tend also to be strong individuals who have spent decades developing personal practices with little regard for fashion. (One imagines that this may well be the way Storr sees himself.) He picked others who fit the profile but perhaps haven't appeared in his shows before, such as the witty Congolese artist Cheri Samba, as well as solid American artists who have not been singled out by the market, like Charles Gaines and Kim Jones.


The surprise of the show is Storr's inclusion of a fair number of Minimalists and Conceptualists--both eminences grises like Sol LeWitt, Ellsworth Kelly, and Lawrence Weiner and younger and more recently fashionable figures such as Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe. This sector of art production isn't usually Storr's beat, and his choice of these artists can probably best be understood through the prism of his titular theme. On the face of it, he is updating and resolving the mind/body problem, dreaming the modernist dream of unified sensation that bridges feeling and thought. But this grand historical project also has a more immediate and local impetus. Much of his catalogue essay implicates, although without naming names, the theoretically oriented academics that Storr has long decried--the thinkers--whose ranks include Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Hal Foster, and Rosalind Krauss. (Some members of this group show up, amusingly, in Rainer Ganahl's photographs, on view in the Arsenale, of well-known intellectuals teaching and lecturing.) Storr, of course, is not alone in criticizing these theorists' intellectual positions, elitism, or hegemony in the American academy, but unlike critics such as Dave Hickey or Peter Schjeldahl--the feelers--he is unwilling to back into the default position of a defense of beauty or formalism. Rather, he wants to master the whole argument, and even to obviate it, by folding Conceptual art along with more expressive or popular practices into the same scheme, breaking down artificial distinctions and unifying the entire field of contemporary art.


I am sympathetic to this approach. The two-party system (Stones vs. Beatles, Schnabel vs. Broodthaers) is a ridiculous, limiting way to understand art. Visually, however, Storr weakens his thesis somewhat; his at times awkward installation suggests that his heart really does not lie with Minimalist and Conceptual art. But more than that, the argument itself--that is, the idea that the central issue in art today is the division between head and heart--feels tangential to the terribly dark global political situation that much of the work in his show addresses.

And in fact, that political situation is the real subject of Storr's installation in the Arsenale, which is unusually coherent in comparison with the last couple of Biennale exhibitions in this venue. The work produces a cumulative effect that, in its unrelenting negativity, approximates the Adornian vision of the decline of culture and civilization championed by Buchloh and others. Storr combines this vision with the expansive, populist humanism that he shares with the late Harald Szeemann, but while Szeemann's 2001 Biennale promised the "positive, utopian spirituality of Beuys," for the most part the art Storr has chosen for the Arsenale intends to accuse, not to heal.



The first work greeting the viewer is Luca Buvoli's multimedia A Very Beautiful Day after Tomorrow (Un Bellissimo Dopodomani), 2007, a smart, energetic look back at futurism, and a high point for the artist. Video images of bombers and propaganda posters embody the violent underpinnings of Italy's most powerful modernism, particularly the fascination with machinery and death realized all too clearly in World War I. Italy's African invasion--alluded to in archival footage and in the militaristic 1930s pop tune that makes up part of the sound track--evokes, and even becomes an allegory for, the American invasion of Iraq. Buvoli's installation leads into Leon Ferrari's (hideous) 1965 sculpture of Christ crucified on a bomber, a choice that seems particularly pointed, as this is one of the show's few historical works. Nearby is Gaines's amusing yet frighteningly prescient 1997 mechanical sculpture Airplanecrashclock, in which a plane slowly arcs above a city and then crashes into it.

These works summarize the exhibition's two chief historical conceits. The first is the failure of modernist prophecies of a glorious future, as in Buvoli's work and in the Constructivist paintings with Marxist slogans in Dmitry Gutov and David Riff's collaborative installation The Declination of Atoms from the Straight Line, 2007. The second is the relentless, leveling repetition of violence and malfeasance under capitalism, as in Jones's obsessive drawings of military conflicts, Neil Hamon's sharp staged historical portraits of soldiers in various wars, and Ignasi Aballi's bluntly direct Lists (The Dead 1), 1997-2003. The latter is one of a powerful series of works in which the artist assembled headlines from hundreds of newspapers into lists variously enumerating death tolls, hours worked, units of time passed--statistics shorn of their contexts, names turned into numbers. Emily Prince's small portraits of every American soldier killed in the Iraq war and in Afghanistan feel more personal, almost penitential; I can't help wishing they were better drawn, but here drawing matters as a process more than as a product. The opposite activity, erasure, appears throughout the exhibition, most powerfully in Oscar Munoz's video Proyecto para un Memorial (Project for a Memorial), 2003-2005, in which watery renderings of Colombia's "disappeared" slowly evaporate before our eyes.


All of this is quite affecting, set off by Storr's elegant and sober installation. As one walks through the Arsenale, however, the death toll mounts, and one begins to sense a change in the texture of the exhibition, as if a large camera were pulling back to reveal the big picture. By the time you reach the indifferent photographs of a cemetery in Queens or watch people on Yang Zhenzhong's giant video screens intoning, "I will die," the relentless hammering on specific deaths in violent conflicts has devolved into a meditation on the inevitability of death, culminating in the gothic glitter of Angelo Filomeno's embroidered paintings of dancing, flying, shitting skeletons, divorced from history, haunting us all.


Some of the art in the Italian pavilion is explicitly political, including Emily Jacir's fascinating (if not overly artistic) research into the 1972 murder of Palestinian Wael Zuaiter in Rome; Steve McQueen's intensely formal film about the Congo; and Jenny Holzer's perhaps well-intended but weak paintings of blown-up redacted documents detailing the treatment of "enemy combatants" by the US government. But in general, here the theme of death moves even further toward an image of the human condition, tout court. The specter of human mortality is raised not only by the videotaped spectacle of Calle's mother on her deathbed but by Storr's entire pantheon of great men and women of a certain age. While I have complained about the speculative fascination with young artists as much as, or more than, anyone, the dearth of younger artists here gave the pavilion an elegiac feeling. As well, many of the lions don't seem to be operating at full strength, perhaps a result less of age than of a hot art market that spreads artists thin. An exception is the achievement of Sigmar Polke, whose enormous, gold-and-violet alchemical canvases look beyond the present tense, modernism, and even art history to suggest a kind of natural history of slow change and unpredictable magic.



It's as if Storr is saying that with this generation, things are drawing to an end: the end of the great postwar moment and the end of expansive, individual artistic ambition. This effect was strengthened by the inclusion of so many artists who are no longer among the living. He closes a slim compendium of writings by participating artists with an odd twist on the death-of-the-author chestnut--an epigraph mourning the fact that every time an old man dies, a library dies with him. This would seem a defiant insistence both on the individual and on loss, regardless of social context or history. The tragedy of the inevitable dimming of the light is equated with that of life cut short by violence. And yet this position is, I believe, the product of a particular historical circumstance, that of the thinking (and feeling) resident of a country that appears to be reaching some spectacular nadir.

The dimming, disappointment, and darkness of Storr's show is echoed by Nancy Spector's installation of Felix Gonzalez-Torres's work in the American pavilion, particularly by Untitled (Public Opinion), 1991, a sculpture composed of several hundred pounds of black licorice candies. The work has most often been shown as a minimalist corner piece, but Spector installs it here as a rectangle on the floor, and the effect is that of an open grave. It's one of the artist's darkest works, made in the midst of the AIDS crisis (his own lover died of the disease that year), a recession, and the first Bush regime, and it seems to offset his usual emphasis on individual participation with a critique of public opinion as susceptible to manipulation. I join Storr and Spector in sharing the artist's feelings about the US government, as well as about the overall state of things, but in this form, in this context, and at this moment, Gonzalez-Torres's work felt distorted into a general assertion of death and misery--too final, and almost too easy.

The thing that's missing from the Biennale isn't some romantic but ungrounded hope (or "positive, utopian spirituality"). What's missing is agency and life, in the larger sense--an acknowledgment that history continues. A nuanced exception, Francis Alys's Politics of Rehearsal, 2007, brilliantly articulates both history's dismal track record and its remaining possibilities. An intimate black-and-white video, low on production values, Politics of Rehearsal rhymes a Mahler piano piece with a stripper practicing her moves and a talk delivered by critic Cuauhtemoc Medina that takes on rehearsal as a metaphor for development in Latin America, with its litany of missed economic and political chances. In an interpolated clip, a speechifying Truman promises that the US will lead the world to freedom and economic prosperity. None of this come-on was ever consummated--as in a striptease. But this is, after all, a rehearsal, which implies that the real production, the main event, may yet take place someday, despite (or even because of) the repeated failures of repeating modernisms. History isn't over.


The inevitable comparison of Venice with Documenta this year yields something beyond the usual professional scorekeeping. The curators of both shows share a certain irritation with the art establishment and its professional pieties, and a wish to speak to more fundamental concerns. But the two exhibitions have sharply different political resonances, expressing the different historical vantages from which they choose to regard contemporary art. Rather than the dimming of the postwar world (or the curators' own irritatingly airy philosophical propositions), it is the energy of the '60s that sets the tone for Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack's curatorial choices in Kassel. The vitality of the historical work by Charlotte Posenenske, Atsuko Tanaka, Lee Lozano, and others powers much of the more recent art as well. Even as many of Documenta's artists testify to the fact that the world is a terrible place, and despite the uneven installation, a sense of life animates the exhibition as a whole. While the reality of violence and death can't and shouldn't be denied, the truth is that not everyone experiences his or her struggles as a sad chapter in an already-written narrative of exhaustion and ending. "The world is on fire": Documenta reverberates with Graciela Carnevale's statement, from a text addressed to fellow artists. It's a reminder that the embers of the American century are just one part of an ongoing and worldwide conflagration.




Categorical imperatives

ROBERT STORR'S lackluster performance as director of the 52nd Venice Biennale does unequivocally achieve one thing: It makes clear how stimulating and sharp Francesco Bonami's 2003 version really was. Criticized by some at the time for its surfeit of artists, curators, and ideas, Bonami's "Dreams and Conflicts" insightfully took on the pluralistic state of contemporary art, illuminating the coexistence of discrete but related dialogues in a series of exhibitions that took advantage of the many and divided spaces of the Biennale itself. "Dreams and Conflicts" not only introduced the work of countless artists who have continued to be relevant over the last few years, it also made evident--through the widely varying, globally representative voices of Carlos Basualdo, Catherine David, Massimiliano Gioni, Hou Hanru, Gilane Tawadros, Igor Zabel, and others--the important developments in curatorial practice since the late '80s. It was not just the heat that made the Arsenale seem like an endless avenue in 2003. To walk its length was to follow a demanding course through the deliberate chaos of Hou's "Z.O.U. (Zone of Urgency)," Basualdo's politically astute "Structure of Survival," David's precisely conceived "Contemporary Arab Representations," and, finally, Molly Nesbit, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija's memorably anarchic "Utopia Station."

Apparently seeking to please all by bridging what he perceives to be a division between the conceptual and the sensual (a premise that seems a throwback to conservative late-'80s debates about political art, of little relevance today), Storr, in an interview with Tim Griffin published in this magazine last May, claimed to want to show art for which you "use all your capacities at once." But his exhibition, which bears the cringe-inducing title "Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense," actually places surprisingly few demands on viewers' faculties. It was hard to believe, at this year's preview, that the span of the Arsenale had not been physically reduced. Despite the epic length of Yang Fudong's five-part film cycle Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, 2003-2007, most viewers made the journey in record time, and the sum total of the exhibition seemed to amount to less than any of 2003's singular curatorial endeavors. The immaculate Arsenale's tepid, whitewashed neutrality presumably evinces Storr's desire to turn the venue into a "serious," museum-like space, but in fact the cleanup seems to have the opposite effect. The endless profusion of (it must be said, deservedly) lesser-known artists' documentary impressions of war and disaster to me appeared uncomfortably inflated by the effort that had gone into the display. There were the odd moments of relief: Francis Alys's exploration of labor and time in an archive of drawings and in an animated DVD; the late Jason Rhoades's exuberant installation Tijuanatanjierchandelier, 2006; Lyle Ashton Harris's nuanced photographic examination of the individual subject and spectatorship. But these simply made the overall experience feel that much more enervating.

Different, though not much better, the Italian pavilion is largely given over to the collection-style hang (one artist, one room) of Storr's longtime favorites. Though the installation encompasses some very compelling work (Kara Walker's caustic new films, Mario Garcia Torres's conceptually referential slide projections, and Steve McQueen's filmic revisitation of Joseph Conrad's Congo), the pavilion is also the site of one of Storr's most egregious missteps. The "mortuary room," as it was aptly nicknamed by some visitors, contains work by some of the exhibition's best artists, in the worst possible conditions. Essentially an attic, the space is dimly lit and, in a reversal of the one-room-one-artist pattern, has a jumble-sale ambience. The pieces on view--by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Martin Kippenberger, Leonilson, Fred Sandback, and Chen Zhen, among others--are generally not the best exemplars of the respective artists' oeuvres and seem to have been placed with no regard to scale or to the demands of a group installation. Moreover, the aforementioned practitioners seem almost wholly unrelated to one another, except for one common trait: They're all dead. Perhaps the space, despite its shortcomings, was chosen for its relative proximity to the heavens. (Waiting outside near the stairs is Sol LeWitt, his status apparently uncertain at the time of installation.) Storr would probably have done better to have devoted the space to the two Gonzalez-Torres works--a curtain of golden beads and the subtly allusive Untitled (Orpheus, Twice), 1991, a pair of mirrors positioned side by side--especially given his statement, in his catalogue essay, that "in many respects, [Gonzalez-Torres's] is the spirit that presides over this exhibition."

That the exhibition would be less than revelatory could perhaps have been predicted at the time of the announcement of Storr's appointment as director. His work as a curator has never been identified with groundbreaking group exhibitions, nor has he ever been the type of curator who is known for discovering or introducing artists. (Even those with whom he is most closely associated were well into their careers by the time he got involved in curating their work.) And, despite some forays to Latin America and Africa, he is not associated with anything like a global perspective. As such, it is hard to see why he would be considered appropriate for an exhibition that sets out to present a comprehensive understanding of the state of contemporary art. While Documenta's wild-card appointment of Roger M. Buergel was certainly a statement (albeit a misguided one), the selection of Storr expressed a comfortable, institutionally sanctioned opting out.

An artist-turned-critic-turned-curator, Storr arrived at the Museum of Modern Art in 1990 and was senior curator of painting and sculpture from 1999 to 2002, when he left to take a professorship at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. (He is now dean of the Yale School of Art.) His exhibitions at MOMA, where his mandate was to bring the institution into the uncertain waters of contemporary art, initially comprised a couple of thematic group shows featuring artists that had emerged largely in the US during the '80s and early '90s, "Dislocations" (1991), focused on installation-based work and included appropriately sizable contributions by Louise Bourgeois, Chris Burden, Sophie Calle, David Hammons, llya Kabakov, Bruce Nauman, and Adrian Piper. The questions of scale and of the appropriateness of a museum's involvement with work of a certain size were still up for discussion at that time (as extraordinary as that seems in this age of amplification), and the debate about identity politics still raged in America. The exhibition clearly sought to address all of these issues in one elegant sweep, and it duly roused the ire of conservative critics. But despite the controversy, "Dislocations" was ultimately an impressively installed but fairly safe exhibition--Hammons perhaps being the risky exception--of a group of established and topical artists who all made large-scale works. It was followed by the far less interesting "Mapping" (1994), a thematic show with a then-topical title that included almost thirty artists, from Jasper Johns and Ellsworth Kelly to Guillermo Kuitca and Adriana Varejao, whose selected works had little in common (aside from, obviously, their maplike qualities). After "Mapping," Storr concentrated on a long line of retrospectives by such stalwarts as Robert Ryman (1993), Nauman (1995), Tony Smith (1998), Chuck Close (1998), and Gerhard Richter (2002). In addition to his work at MOMA, the Venice selection committee may also have considered Storr's 2004 SITE Santa Fe Biennial, "Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque," an essayistic thematic show that departed from the typical biennial's attempt to address the artistic moment. It consisted largely of work from the '90s, with the exception of contributions from Storr perennials Bourgeois, Rothenberg, Nauman, and Sigmar Polke.

Given their appearances in his other exhibitions, it is hardly surprising that in Venice Storr has once again enlisted the help of artists such as Bourgeois, Calle, Kabakov, Kelly, Kuitca, Nauman, Polke, Rothenberg, and Ryman. To some extent, one wishes that he had taken this idea further and simply reviewed the territory familiar to him. After all, there is nothing wrong with working repeatedly with the same artists, learning from their practices, and applying this knowledge curatorially.

What seems most noticeably lacking in Storr's curatorial thinking, and what is evidenced in Venice so clearly, is the lack of any kind of legible criteria for the selection of artists. It's as if he has never fully established exactly what it is he is interested in within contemporary artistic practice, a fact that has perhaps been partially hidden by the prevalence of solo exhibitions on his CV. Even within the group of artists he has returned to repeatedly, it is hard to discern any ideas or concerns that suggest a consistent reading of the present or of the recent past. In Venice, his favorites seem to have been plucked from their context in history and made to stand, much as they did in MOMA'S aggrandizing solo shows, as independent islands of "significance."

Storr, of course, never set out to produce a thematic or theoretical structure akin to the one Buergel and his cocurator Ruth Noack created for Documenta 12 around their three leitmotifs. His catalogue essay makes this clear. In it, he states, "The simple proposition upon which the 52nd Venice Biennale is based ... is: No matter how successful philosophers and idealogues have been at persuading people that these categories"--the categories that divide human faculties into dichotomies or hierarchies, e.g., mind/body--"are not just useful working hypotheses but are inherently or historically true, the manifold challenges to understanding that reality poses, as well as the actual flux of experience, far exceed the power of systems, theories and definitions to contain them. The imagination is the catch basin into which this overflow spills, and art cuts the channels that reconnect formerly segregated parts of consciousness ...." It's a proposition that, in its subtly oppositional stance toward "systems, theories and definitions," seems to speak to Storr's entire curatorial sensibility. Certainly, to scrutinize his writings and statements over the years is to get the sense that he sees himself as a maverick, staunchly opposed to the excesses of theory and to theory's perceived tendency to threaten the primacy of the artwork and the singularity of a given oeuvre. From this perspective, the lack of a coherent program might even be a point of honor--emblematizing a refusal to be seduced by buzzwords or to deploy predetermined conceptual frameworks. Such independence may be commendable, as is his defense, in the passage quoted above, of imagination and of the unique and ultimately unclassifiable nature of an individual artist's practice. But the consequent lack of any structural grounding for the exhibition in Venice clearly undermines the exhibition.

Indeed, searching for a strategy or thesis that might serve as a through line in Storr's thinking over the years, I can find only the repetition of the notion of "correspondences and coincidences"--mentioned first in an Artforum interview with Bruce Ferguson in 1994, in relation to the curatorial premise of "Mapping," and echoed thirteen years later in his May 2007 interview, where he declared that "correspondences are what interest me." A vague poeticism seems to underline this phraseology (in the first instance Storr invoked Jorge Luis Borges, and in the second, Baudelaire, to explain his understanding of the term), one that fits well with the middle-of-the-road position that he has established in Venice and that makes for such an anodyne exhibition. The terminology seems doubly odd given that a significant portion of the show consists of a series of solo installations, with very little attempt to establish correspondence between them. The synthesis implied by the title--its promise of a Gesamtkunstwerk of sensations--is precisely impossible to achieve in such a context. I will say that, while I was perhaps not thinking with my senses or feeling with my mind, the preview's relentless brunches, lunches, and dinners (which seemed almost deliberately planned to compensate for the lack of artistic frisson) did get at least one sensory organ going. But I would happily give that up in two years' time for a show with some memorable curatorial stimulation.



Isolated Incident

IF YOU ARE ORIGINALLY FROM TURKEY but become a German citizen, you will never really be German in the eyes of German-born people. Similarly, if you are from Albania but become an Italian citizen, you will never be Italian for those born in Italy. When you become a citizen of the United States, however--and this is a simple but important difference between the US and every other country in the world--you become an "American." The rest belongs to the past, becoming a picturesque memory, and when it comes to your new home, you take the good with the bad. You pay taxes; you avoid the long queue at the immigration counter at JFK; you tend to be singled out by terrorists when abroad. And when you do the Venice Biennale as an American, you are praised or criticized on that basis.

In 2003, having been naturalized two years before, I became the first American citizen to direct the Venice Biennale. I know that my saying so might seem petty and pedantic, given announcements to the contrary on the occasion of Robert Storr's Biennale. But never mind. I mention my nationality only because it affords me a unique perspective on this year's exhibition in Venice: If Storr is not the first to curate an American Venice Biennale, he is nevertheless the first to organize an Amish one. Like the members of the Amish community in Pennsylvania, Storr has behaved in Venice as if living in his own special time, oblivious of the reality surrounding him. He arrived on Venetian soil and sought to enforce his personal vision of what constitutes a grounded exhibition--a mission entirely at odds with the rotten, floating island that is home to this hundred-year-old institution run by people who have worked there since the '70s, through political stagnation, student protests, and petty cash scandals. One cannot help but think of how the United States tests its wars at home, where it always wins, and then fails whenever applying its methods abroad. Similarly, Storr studied and tested his Venice exhibition at home for three long years--or who knows, perhaps for his entire life--and the result was like one of those wood poles stuck into the mud of the laguna for boats to hold onto. Storr's staid, self-contained idea of a Biennale suggests that there is such a thing in contemporary art as too much time passing between a show's conception and its final presentation, since a truly contemporary show must be about challenges, discovery, failure--the moment.

In the absence of such timeliness in risk-taking, mega-events like the Venice Biennale and Documenta become mere matters of professional hubris and career strategy, making the balance of art history overly subject to the personal goals of one curator, or two, or three, or seven. Consider the way in which both Documenta and Venice this year have resulted in near-total polarization within the art world, as each show seems to have been curated with a confrontational approach rather than an experimental one. (Whereas the directors of Documenta 12, Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack, could be said to have pushed the envelope, or even to have tossed it away, Storr simply scribbled on the envelope and mailed it to the usual addresses--the American institutional world and a few longtime friends, who appreciated the gesture.) If you read any manual on how to become a good manager in the business world, you will learn that the golden rule is to talk only 10 percent of the time and listen the other 90 percent. Clearly, neither Buergel nor Storr believes this rule applies in art. While Buergel likely did 90 percent of the talking with his wife, Storr clearly listened only to his own thoughts, transforming them into a claustrophobic Bruce Nauman sound piece with the title You are locked in my mind, you are locked in this room.


Of course, any museum-trained curator seeking to curate the Venice Biennale is like a person wanting to own a pet tiger. Eventually, and no matter what you do, you will get mauled. Even so, it's never safe to believe too much in one's own act when approaching the task. You must follow your vision but then stop before it turns into a tragic delusion--never mistaking the exhibition platform for a pulpit or a place for personal vendettas, curatorial tantrums, or outbursts of repressed frustration. Shows like the Venice Biennale and Documenta, in other words, are specific spaces with specific contexts. They are hubs of conviviality, grounds for discussion, and (why not) opportunities for validation. They exist outside the museum institution's context, meaning that curatorial practice here must bear in mind both the limited duration of any idea as well as the significance and reality of others' experience. The exhibition here never arrives at a final result; it cannot be the culmination of a process or even a stepping-stone to building a legacy, as might be the case within a museum. (It's also never about any race to be the first; such overstimulation is bad for both art and sex alike.) What is significant, on the other hand, is the ability to underscore and understand differences--between Texas and Iraq, say, or New York and Kassel. As a curator for an American institution, I have learned to be cautious; but I have also learned as a director of the Venice Biennale that taking chances there is not just the only option but also an obligation to an extremely diverse and often unknown constituency. To stir the healthy but bland porridge of Storr's Biennale just a bit: Listen to others. Mind the context. Art should be a present.



Out of the Past

SOMEWHAT PUT OFF by the cheesy ad adorning vaporetto stops, the queue outside, and the general air of disappointment infusing the art crowd in Venice, I entered "Artempo" not expecting much, but discovered the most riveting exhibition of the summer. The show was housed in the Palazzo Fortuny, once home to nineteenth-century collector, scholar, artist, and designer Mariano Fortuny. Some of Fortuny's own collections and artworks remained on display, but most of the installation showcased the property of Axel Vervoordt, one of Europe's most catholic collectors and dealers of antiques and art. With the curatorial assistance of Mattijs Visser and Jean-Hubert Martin, Vervoordt had supplemented his own and Fortuny's collections with museum loans, resulting in more than three hundred objects in all, some dating as far back as the third millennium BC, others from the past few years. Not all the objects were artworks: There were scientific and religious artifacts as well as crystals and corals. And not all the artworks were objects: The curators included videos and performance pieces too. The exhibition purported to explore how "time becomes art," but with no descriptive wall text or overt explanatory material, it was, thankfully, left to the viewer to determine from the installation the many ideas this phrase might suggest.

On the cavernous first floor, a number of objects displayed the human body in various states of distortion and disarray. A lemon yellow Francis Bacon grabbed attention, but most immediately arresting were the two figures displayed on a plinth. Made of crumbling wood, stitched leather, and large metal spheres, they were unidentifiable in date and function: too gruesome and detailed to be children's dolls, too anatomically inaccurate to be medical models, too small to be tailors' mannequins. Next to them, a dramatically lit wax figure by Berlinde de Bruyckere appeared to shed its skin like some contemporary Marsyas. There was also a Hans Bellmer photograph and a fragment of a seventh-century Buddha's torso. The only false note was a bombastic Anish Kapoor: a serpentine, reflective form that spectacularly warped the viewer's own passing body. More compelling in this context was the inclusion of Kimsooja's Laundry Woman--Yamuna River, India, 2000. Projected to fill a wall, the video showed a woman, seen from behind, against an expanse of slow-moving water. Unlike the other works in the room, this one presented the body as stationary and intact. Nonetheless, a sense of gradual dereliction and endless time emerged--just as it did from the room as a whole--conveyed by the detritus drifting along in the river's constant current.

One flight up in a smaller, lighter room, the focus shifted to faces. Here were photographs, sculptures, videos, but no conventional portraits; faces were cast, abstracted, veiled, and ruined. Antonio Corradini's allegorical figure Veiled Dame (Purity), 1720-25, lay behind a shroud of marble rendered with incredible naturalism; Medardo Rosso's Ecce Puer, 1906, by contrast, was a face almost obliterated by the sculptor's finger marks. The strangest work was a video by Yael Davids, Face, 2000-2001. Projected straight onto a brick wall, it showed a woman who appeared to be turning her head toward the viewer; but actually, it became clear, her head remained stationary while a wig, fixed to a revolving device, slowly rotated, the parting in its fringe allowing only the briefest glimpse of its wearer's eyes. The woman's protracted refusal to return the viewer's gaze was deeply troubling, and, through this work, one began to sense that the connections between time and figuration explored throughout the exhibition were not just the traditional ones having to do with the transience of human life. Instead, through its bringing together of bodies and machines, the show explored an old Surrealist trope: the uncanny proximity of mechanical and bodily temporalities.


Nothing about the first two floors quite anticipated the third floor. This was a huge space in which Vervoordt's trophies filled cabinets, hung suspended from the ceiling, and perched atop plinths, with Fortuny's couches and tapestries serving not just as resting points and backdrops but as additional visual fodder. There was a Picasso sculpture, human eyes painted with disarming simplicity onto a found hunk of rough wood; an Inuit anorak fashioned from intestines; a warrior shield of rhinoceros horn; and a work by William Kentridge comprising a ring-shaped sheet of anamorphic drawings whose distortions were righted by a cylindrical mirror. For all the carved skulls, ecorches, and even monkey hands, the atmosphere was never ghoulish. Devotional objects, magical objects, and sculptures sat near scientific devices like pantographs, their appearance as mysterious as their names. In a cabinet of curiosities along one wall, a shrunken head, African sculptures, antique glassware, and a metal armadillo abutted a Man Ray photograph of a stretched-out neck, but the whole room was a Wunderkammer in which you could find one of Marisa Merz's smoothed-out heads near a bumpy lump of brain coral, a sliced Lucio Fontana near a cleft Seychelles coconut. It was in this room that the curatorial premise of "Artempo" seemed least important. Yes, there were astrolabes used centuries ago to measure planetary time, and contemporary artworks made with the more recent apparatus of chronometry (Piero Manzoni's collage of calendar pages, Tatsuo Miyajima's sculpture of hanging digital numbers). Yes, there was a clump of malachite formed over millennia and a Warhol piss painting made in a matter of seconds--both a riot of crystalline forms. But the most important sense of time here was probably something the curators could not have envisaged. Elsewhere at the Biennale you felt the constant urge to move on; here you could linger for hours, forgetting all about the show's title and indulging in the installation instead.

The fourth floor, finally, was brighter, more sparsely arranged, but no less captivating. Once frescoed and decorated, the walls here were now faded and chipped, covered for the duration of this show with knife-punctured Fontanas and nail-pierced Guenther Ueckers, works so in tune with the setting that it was hard to tell where the ruined architecture stopped and the scarred paintings started. Alighiero Boetti's homunculus Io che prendo il sole a Torino il 19 gennaio 1969 (Me Sunbathing in Turin on 19 January 1969) lay spread-eagle on the floor; a bank of black-and-white monitors showed videos of Richard Serra's hands scraping steel filings and Gordon Matta-Clark's Conical Intersect, 1975; and a torn-paper relic of a 1955 Gutai performance by Saburo Murakami served as a backdrop for a live performance by Davids, again, who arranged for a small boy to be stuck inside a beach ball, so his legs and head poked out as the sphere rolled around the floor. The room suggested new temporal registers--the moment in which, for instance, Shozo Shimamoto's Cannon Picture, 1956, was splattered with paint; the centuries of the palazzo's slow decline; the repetitive processes of Uecker's hammering and Boetti's concrete molding; the constant differentiation and incessant drama of Fischli & Weiss's The Way Things Go, 1987.

The risks of the kind of curatorial enterprise at work in "Artempo" are well known. Curators invite the criticism of pseudomorphism when they place together things from radically diverse cultures that just happen to look similar; there's the charge of relinquishing the responsibility to articulate the historical and cultural specificity of the displayed objects; there's even the accusation that curators promote a transhistorical and universalizing humanism. Such criticisms no doubt will greet Roger M. Buergel's problematic attempts at Documenta to place Tajikistani bridal veils next to John McCracken mandala paintings, or an Iranian garden carpet beside Cosima von Bonin sculptures, since these contiguities tease out neither the contemporary artists' interests nor the older objects' formal complexities. However, none of these charges seemed relevant to the show at Palazzo Fortuny. Far from being contrived, the juxtapositions here seemed effortless, as playful as they were incisive. One was reminded of Georges Bataille, not just because of the emphasis on disfigurement, and of the proximity of violence to the sacred, but also because the exhibition worked to undo the categories that would usually divide its contents. Every juxtaposition worked, so much so that I felt that, had they been alive, the twentieth-century artists would have been thrilled to see their work in this context. On one wall, for example, two black Alberto Burris hung beside a third canvas that at first could be mistaken for another 1950s antipainting. But here the ghostly trace of a figure was just visible, and it turned out that this was in fact a charred sixteenth-century portrait by a student of Tintoretto's. The choice to show these works as a trio was meant primarily to contrast intentionally and accidentally burned paintings, but it spoke as well to Burri's historical predicament, to the ways in which painters in the '50s faced the total immolation of European culture.

For all I was grateful for the free Bellinis, it was possible to have some reservations about the omnipresence of collectors at Venice; wandering through the Scottish pavilion, I overheard one talking to a dealer on his cell phone, eager to buy up the room of drawings he had just left. But seeing Vervoordt guide guests around the palazzo was a different matter. He was as excited to show off his myriad possessions as one imagines he was on the day he bought them. And one felt grateful for his vision, particularly since it is hard to imagine a curator alone putting on an exhibition like this: Few now have the range of expertise to know about Gutai painting and two-thousand-year-old Meso-American silexes. Vervoordt's was a collection built through an idiosyncratic sensibility and a refusal to follow fashion or the lure of "investment" opportunities. Indeed, it was as if the greatest contrast provided by "Artempo" was an implicit one between types of collecting--the type that seems on the ascendancy in the art world today, and an older type, exemplified by Vervoordt and associated with such outmoded and contested qualities as connoisseurship and taste. But could these qualities be redeemed? For sure, the kind of superextensive knowledge evinced in the show is the preserve of great privilege and wealth, but when so sensitively put to use, this knowledge offers object lessons for us all.









Allegory of the Cave

THE TWO COMPONENTS of Thomas Demand's exhibition at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini--part of the Venice Biennale's ever-widening slipstream--constituted something of a study in contrasts. One presented a new photographic series, and the other combined a single photograph with documentation and, for the first time, one of the artist's sculptural models.


The series, "Yellowcake," 2007, is business as usual for Demand, whose methods are by now well known: Working from found images, the artist creates cardboard replicas of real-world settings, which he then photographs; he exhibits the photos but typically destroys the labor-intensive still lifes they depict. Demand's work is often legitimated by the claim that his photographs halt the automatic consumption of images via subtle abstraction and distantiation. But at least in the case of the new series, the results are much too formulaic to uphold such claims. While the settings Demand depicts typically look generic, many of them have deep political connections--his Bathroom, 1997, for instance, shows the tub in which German politician Uwe Barschel was found dead in 1987. Similarly, "Yellowcake," which comprises images of Demand's reconstructions of Niger's embassy in Rome, derives gravitas from recent events. In 2001, the embassy was the site of a highly suspicious burglary. Forged documents on embassy letterhead were later used by the Bush regime to "prove" that Saddam had purchased yellowcake uranium for a nascent nuclear program and thus to legitimate the invasion of Iraq. In other words, the whole Iraq disaster is supposedly implicit in these nondescript interiors--and the Fondazione Prada, which presented the show, was not shy about reminding us of that, its press release dwelling at length on the ins and outs of "Nigergate." One could characterize this as iconographic blackmail: The subject is important, so the work must be, too.

Perhaps the most fruitful approach to Demand's work was proposed by Michael Fried in these pages in 2005. Fried notes that Demand's peculiar working methods raise questions about the role of intentionality in his own oeuvre and in contemporary art generally. In his photographs, we see scenes that diverge from recognizable reality chiefly in their lack of detail. Demand, Fried says, "aims above all to replace the original scene of evidentiary traces and marks of human use ... with images of sheer authorial intention." However, the artist's process and the images that result have become so familiar that addressing any sort of question at all to his work seems increasingly pointless.

Demand himself is perhaps coming to recognize this, since the show's second component, "Processo grottesco," seemed to go to great lengths to reassert the questioning--and, literally, questionable--nature of his project. "Processo grottesco" showcased the photo Grotte (Grotto), 2006, which debuted at the Serpentine in London last year, along with its model, which was dramatically installed at the end of an empty, darkened room, and a roomful of documentation pertaining to the work and to grottoes in general. Based on a found postcard of a cave in Majorca, Grotte is visually rich and complex. Demand and his crew reconstructed the cave from hundreds of thousands of precisely cut layers of cardboard, laid flat and stacked on top of one another like a 3-D contour map. The resulting photograph is at first suggestive of a pixelated, low-resolution JPEG.

Unlike "Yellowcake," the image of the grotto is not immediately reducible to some heavily mediated political episode. And the presentation at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini--the sheer physical evidence of the "grotesque process"--problematized the relation between means and ends in Demand's work in a way that "Yellowcake" does not begin to. In contemporary culture, the production process itself is fetishized and commodified, at times becoming more beguiling than the result. We are quite used to television specials that claim to take us "behind the scenes" for "an insider's look" at the "making of" Hollywood blockbusters. Demand seemed to follow suit by showing us his grotto construction, yet his installation did away with any suggestion that viewers were really getting glimpses of a work in progress. What they saw, rather than direct documentation, were the ruins of the process: its physical remains, a frozen tableau.

Meanwhile, the accompanying room of images of, and literature on, grottoes--from the Renaissance to Hugh Hefner via Novalis and Ludwig II--addressed the process of reception, as well as that of production. While these artifacts may have been sources for Demand, they also supplied a wealth of ready-made references for art critics, thus potentially turning the writing of texts on Grotte into the critical equivalent of painting by numbers. Should this be seen as cynical manipulation or as an intelligent foregrounding of generally disavowed mechanisms in the production and reception of both mass culture and art? Even as "Processo grottesco" gave rise to such questions, the context turned the grotesque into farce. When you're gazing at the flotilla of yachts in the Laguna or being offered the two-volume Demand catalogue for the "special press price" of eighty euros, it is all too apparent that this art also, and perhaps primarily, needs to be questioned on another level.


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Title Annotation:Venice Biennale
Author:Siegel, Katy; Morgan, Jessica; Bonami, Francesco; Godfrey, Mark; Lutticken, Sven
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Sep 1, 2007
Previous Article:The Grand Tour.
Next Article:Kassel.

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