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Worldly concerns.

For the Fifty-third Venice Biennale, curator Daniel Birnbaum, seeking a kind of "new beginning" for contemporary art in our ever-changing cultural context, turned to the most elementary yet supple aspects of its production and reception--as is clear even in his exhibition's infinitely variable title, "Fare Mondi//Making Worlds//Bantin Duniyan//[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]//Weltenmachen//Construire des Mondes//Fazer Mundos ... To tease out the stakes attending this reflective moment, Artforum invited THOMAS CROW, LYNNE COOKE, and DIEDRICH DIEDERICHSEN to survey the grand exhibition, while CLAIRE BISHOP and TOM HOLERT examine individual projects at the United Arab Emirates pavilion and the Teatro Goldoni, and SARAH K. RICH and LINDA NORDEN consider parallel shows in Venice sponsored by the Pinault ("Mapping the Studio") and Prada foundations ("John Wesley"). Crow leads off the discussion, taking particular note of an increasingly performative dimension in art and its critical dialogues.




Acting the Path


"VENICE IS THE OSCARS," says Tirdad Zolghadr, curator of the United Arab Emirates pavilion in this year's Venice Biennale, in one video component of his installation. Or, rather, he said it some months ago at a press conference announcing the pavilion, the transcript of which was recorded by British and American actors and then lip-synched by two others portraying Zolghadr and the UAE-pavilion commissioner, Lamees Hamdan. Visitors to the opening experienced this in real time as part of a performance by Freiburg, Germany's Jackson Pollock Bar, a troupe that specialize in ventriloquized restagings of art-world panels and symposia--down to scripted, loudly recorded pouring and drinking of water by the participants.


The table and chairs used by the performers will remain in place over the course of the Biennale, with a video of the event playing on a chunky monitor resting between two microphones. That arrangement lends concreteness to the term "theory installation," as the Jackson Pollock Bar refer to their brand of performance. Live or in its video surrogate, spent dialogue of the past here rings with new clarity and drama, vivified by the slight displacements between visual and auditory cues. In the course of the troupe's events, the safe seat of judgment descends to the status of raw material for studied re-performance. The UAE (at the Biennale for the first time) is of course no stranger to judgments by the Euro-American intelligentsia with respect to its oil wealth, autocracy, and labor relations, so much so that Zolghadr felt free to dismiss these intellectuals' usual formulas as "conversational trinkets." But then those trinkets were duly performed as earnest interventions by another actor in the voice of a questioner from the floor, which typifies the play of misdirection and unapologetic artifice that runs through the entire entry.

"A reasonable measure of self-reflexivity," reads a placard at the UAE pavilion's entrance, and that motto might begin a description of Daniel Birnbaum's curatorship of the Biennale as a whole. (1) Like all the national pavilions, the UAE's did not come under the direct supervision of the Biennale's organizing curator, but it enjoys a strategic piece of real estate within the Arsenale, positioned as a kind of culmination to a long sequence of Birnbaum-curated pieces. Zolghadr has seized the opportunity in order to provide a metacommentary on the whole, stating explicitly what the core of the Biennale asserts by implication: that the art world has so absorbed the lessons of autocritique that they can be taken as read--but not as set aside or discarded. The measured dose of selfreflection provided by the Jackson Pollock Bar does double duty in highlighting the degree to which such gestures, dyed as they are into the fabric of advanced contemporary art, persist by necessity but, having exhausted most of their power of revelation, return with renewed vividness as performance.

This style of performance has only a little to do with what is commonly understood as performance art, which from the beginning has been defined by stipulated tasks and conditions, with the actual unfolding of events left to unpredictable interactions with the setting and the audience. In his introduction to the catalogue, Birnbaum rather movingly evokes experimental exhibitions mounted by the Gutai group and Pontus Hulten during the 1960s which "emphasized collaboration among artists and curators, interactivity, interdisciplinarity, spontaneity, and, often, the liberal commingling of art and other kinds of objects." While he immediately concedes that "turning the museum into a playground" would today be a naive pretense, these examples nonetheless still offer a potential counterweight to the "increasingly fetishistic visual industry," as "little is more relevant than insisting that the experience of art cannot be fully grasped in terms of possession." (2)

His rubric for this endeavor, "Making Worlds,:," turns away from the physical and sensory expansiveness of the '60s and toward a cognitive landscape of information-processing networks and distributed intelligence. Birnbaum calls this terrain "the multiplicity of imaginative worlds we hold within" but brackets the question of how these worlds can be grasped with the compression that art requires. (3) The Jackson Pollock Bar posit a solution in their rendering of art-world behavior as a series of scripts, through which the frequent tedium of its discourse returns as uncannily compelling entertainment. In Birnbaum's actual performance as curator, his theme has conferred a freedom to exploit something close to the full potential of the Biennale to beguile and seduce on a cinematic scale.

He sets the tone by placing an unabashedly spectacular 2002 installation by the late Lygia Pape, Tteia I, C, as the Arsenale's opening act. Diagonal columns of golden threads in squared cross section connect floor and ceiling of the cavernous space, spotlights picking out their glinting surfaces from the surrounding darkness. Designed both to dazzle and calm the visitor in equal measure, the piece traffics in effects--emotional chiaroscuro and transcendental yearning--that are generally discounted in the protocols of critical seriousness. It is easy to construe Pape's fragile columns as shafts of light descending from high windows, but their implied direction could just as easily run the other way so as to evoke the searchlights that rake the sky over every Hollywood premiere.


Directly following that quiet fanfare at the start of the lengthy Arsenale journey, Birnbaum keeps the cinematic gilt thread running with another large installation, one in which Pape's nocturnal epiphany gives way to bright and gaudy melodrama provided by Michelangelo Pistoletto. A suite of twenty-two grandiose mirrors in golden ornamental frames line a large enclosed gallery. All but two of them shattered by the artist himself in another opening-week performance, their shards cling to the black backing or lie scattered on the floor, while visitors hew to a narrow safe passage down the center, the effect more Fellini (appropriately enough) than DeMille or Spielberg. For the occasion, this Arte Povera stalwart does without the disused backdrops associated with the movement, creating instead the look of an impressive but flimsy interior set hammered together inside the cavernous soundstage that is suggested by the Arsenale's dark, seemingly endless medieval Corderie.

The manufacture of the nautical lines essential to Venice's bygone naval prowess explains the dramatic linear extension of the passage that beckons after these initial demonstrations of what Birnbaum calls "the alchemy of light." (4) Virtually windowless, rugged brick walls of the Corderie loom overhead. Not far along that path lies a sprawling installation much more in the spirit of Arte Povera's exploitation of similarly distressed surroundings: Human Being @ Work, 2007-, by Pascale Marthine Tayou, an artist of Cameroonian origin based in Ghent. Belgium. His African shanty-scape offers more intriguing incidents than one could count or convey here, its mimicry of ethnographic display continually upended by the object of neocolonialist regard looking back with knowing superiority. More than one Arte Povera artist cultivated a counterculturalist fantasy, verging on the mystical, of low-technology nomadism; the catalogue copy cites as decisive Tayou's own nomadic passages through the coils of the contemporary art world, from his birthplace in Cameroon to his San Gimignano, Italy, and New York galleries to his Belgian residence to his starturn in Venice. (5) In place of the animistic spirits dear to 1960s primitivists, a dozen or more videos, with subjects including but not restricted to Cameroonian everyday life, play over the multiple surfaces and odd corners of the installation.

Tayou's adroit application of video exemplifies a general trait of the medium's appearance across this Biennale: It is present where needed, where movement is required, but generally kept in some active relationship both to a sculptural armature and to the surrounding space. Paul Chan's wide-screen projection piece, Sade for Sade's Sake, 2009, conscripts the craggy brick interior into the fundamental texture of his animated imagery. Life-size silhouetted figures, inspired by scenes from Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, evoke traditional Asian shadow puppetry put to the service of a European Enlightenment exercise in the entwined endlessness of discourse and desire. Despite the prodigious variety of scenes, the animation of the actors observes strict limits, apparently frenzied movements oscillating around fixed positions, a kind of confinement in motion that is as appropriate to the prisonlike aspect of the Corderie's high walls as it is to the imprisoned condition of Sade the writer. When, at intervals, the sterile couplings and harangues give way to balanced compositions of blank and colored geometric shapes, the twitching agitation of Chan's actors takes on a disciplinary connotation more internal to art history. The descent of these forms from the utopian abstraction of Suprematism, de Stijl, and the Bauhaus to the painting pedagogy of Josef Albers and Hans Hofmann lends wild new meaning to the latter's famous pictorial principle of push and pull.

A few steps from the Chan, Cildo Meireles presents a funfair labyrinth that likewise combines video with the geometry of color, in particular color relationships of the kind that preoccupied Albers and forebears going back to the Neo-Impressionists. Pling Pling, 2009, offers a linked series of small cubic rooms, each solidly painted in one of the six primary and secondary hues with an ordinary flat-panel monitor mounted across a corner. The screen image unpredictably shifts from replicating the color of its own room to displaying a corresponding corner of the room painted in its complementary hue--while the offset openings conjure virtual panels of the adjacent hues on the color wheel. Over at the Giardini's Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Birnbaum's inclusion of John Baldessari's Six Colorful Inside Jobs from 1977--in which an elevated camera records a single figure painting and repainting a closed room in a succession of uniform colors--seems arbitrary unless linked to the revived geometric abstraction of Chan and Meireles, not to mention yet more monochrome panels in paint by Sherrie Levine (Meltdown /After Yves Klein/, 1991) and in light-struck photographic papers by Wolfgang Tillmans (Silver Installation VI, 2009) mounted together in a gallery on the other side of the palazzo.


The common ground between the latter two lies in visionary aesthetics. Levine effected her appropriation of Klein's metaphysically motivated monochromes by sumitting their reproductions to computer scanning and computational averaging, then covering her mahogany panels with the composite hues that resulted from the passage of the originals through the hyperabstraction of the digital realm (none of these, notably, channel International Klein Blue). Birnbaum believes that Tillmans's recent use of photosensitive chemistry approaches "pure or abstract forms of visibility" that can reclaim and revivify the visionary charge carried by such aspirations in the early to mid-twentieth century: The artist's lensless photography, he argues, possesses the paradoxical capacity to evoke "bodily orifices, human skin, hair, and muscle fibers," which in turn ties a radiant nonobjectivity ("the alchemy of light") to the better-known "pictures of people and social situations that consistently seem to emphasize the possibilities of life styles that dodge repressive and reductive stereotypes and instead suggest an alternative, perhaps even a 'utopian, social order." (6)



In the same zone of the palazzo, Simon Starling brings this preoccupation with the social commitments of historical modernism squarely into the orbit of film--though the work's revival of the machine aesthetic seems less friendly to flesh-and-blood human beings. The title of his monumentally scaled sculpture, Wilhelm Noack oHG, 2006, refers to the old Berlin firm of metal fabricators associated with the Bauhaus, which more recently has devoted its legacy skill set to servicing the needs of artists. For Starling, Noack engineered an elegant and slightly sinister spiral that functions fully as a film projector. Its extended arms end in bobbins around which film threads in a continuous loop to and from the lamp and lens. The continuously moving 35-mm stock is as fully a part of the work's formal order as are its precision-machined parts, while the imagery projected on an adjacent wall (in Neue Sachlichkeit black and white) documents the process by which the sculpture itself was manufactured. Film theorists, following the lead of Michel Foucault, used to invoke the "cinematic apparatus" as a disciplinary machine: Starling provides an object lesson in what such a theoretical abstraction might actually look like.

The open-ended, helical shape of the piece, however, evokes the potential for unfolding and change within its mechanically closed system. Something similar can be said, in even stronger terms, of the piece that Birnbaum has placed at the physical and symbolic center of the palazzo (and of the Biennale as a whole), Tomas Saraceno's Galaxies forming along filaments, like droplets along the strands of a spider's web, 2009. Perhaps poorly served by the nature-romanticism of its title, Saraceno's myriad stretched filaments hold in suspension bubblelike, three-dimensional volumes marked in equal measure by filigreed delicacy and robust tensile strength. As such, the work embodies the concept of networked connectivity on a more abstract level, much as Birnbaum's catalogue commentary emphasizes apperception as the continuous construction of pattern from disparate threads of affinity--the process that seems to lie at the heart of what he means by "making worlds."

SARACENO'S DENSE WEB makes passage across the central gallery exceedingly difficult, its subtle propulsion pushing outward with encouragement to make thematic and conceptual links across as wide an expanse of the Biennale as possible. But the actual connections to be made tend to gather themselves around the themes sketched out above. It is difficult, as one circulates through both the Arsenale and Giardini venues, to avoid reminders of either the movies or the formal modernisms of the century past. Startling for the unprepared, for instance, is the apparition of a lifelike mannequin floating facedown in a shallow domestic swimming pool. That sight--so reminiscent of the indelible opening sequence of Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder's elegy for classic cinema--lies at the entrance of one of the two pavilions housing the combined Nordic-Danish entry. In this much-discussed work, titled The Collectors, 2009, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, out of all the national-pavilion organizers, have responded most fully to the world-making brief. Combining the roles of curator and contributor, they found space in their twin installations for a long list of artists, most of whom were not otherwise represented in the Biennale. Both setups aim for the pitch of high Hollywood theatrics: a riven, divorcing family in the more domestic Danish pavilion paired with the suicidal (or murdered?) occupant of its neighboring International Style counterpart. every accessory chiming in to advance and complicate the implied narratives.


Making worlds here descends from the plane of cerebral abstraction to the concrete demands met by Hollywood art directors, whose choices of props and design constitute a level of inanimate performance that can convey and enrich a plot fully as much as the work of the actors in front of the scenery. Elmgreen & Dragset have provided a single living actor in the spare, gay-themed Nordic space, if only to point up the absence of the rest of the cast. In their place, fascinated visitors are left to work out the complementary stories from the possessions left behind. In the partly demolished rooms that partition the Danish pavilion, the artists underline the fleeting aspirations of the vanished occupants with abandoned modernist trophies ranging from Weimar porcelain to Sturtevant's remade Frank Stellas. The wide-open expanse of the Nordic pavilion, by contrast, features a generally more current selection of art (Henrik Olesen's Cubes [After Sol Le Witt], 1998-2008, for example, newly constructed from bits of Styrofoam and masking tape, along with works by Tillmans, Terence Koh, and Simon Fujiwara), set amid self-consciously advanced decor that nonetheless feels behind the times (conversation pit, anybody?). In both instances, taste and collecting self-evidently have brought disappointment, while the audience takes its pleasure, in the mode of movie melodramas over the decades, from contemplating the costs of ambition.

Theatrical exaggeration of family conflicts also underlies one of the most compelling of the off-site national pavilions, as sparsely visited as the Nordic-Danish entry is thronged. On the upper floor of a modest palazzo on the Grand Canal, Singapore's Ming Wong has made a world from the ghosts of films shot there during the 1950s and early '60s, products of a once vibrant local industry that transformed borrowed Hollywood genres in ways that accommodated the multiethnic makeup--Malay, Indian, and Chinese--of that still-colonial outpost. Surrounding his video pastiches with retro-designed theater interiors and authentically lurid posters (painted by Neo Chon Teck, said to be the last surviving practitioner of the craft), Wong makes particularly compelling use of a reimag-ined scene from Douglas Sirk's 1959 Imitation of Life, where the African-American ingenue passing for white (played by the Oscar-nominated Susan Kohner in the prototype) casts her doting mother out of her life lest her ruse be discovered. In his version, rendered in saturated Sirkian hues, each of the two roles is played in turn by an actor from one of the three Singaporean ethnic blocs.

It somehow seems inevitable, in the context of this particular Biennale, that the most effective entry addressing cultural difference comes couched in terms borrowed from the familial traumas of screen melodramas. Birnbaum, in explicating his notion of world making, asserts that it is essential to "insist on the complexity of individuals, not to mention the communities that they form." (7) But somewhere between the individual and the community lies the fraught, intermediate structure of the family. And through that door comes the legacy of theatrical film, from the preposterous story lines of a Sirk to the elevated pathos of an Ingmar Bergman. Elmgreen & Dragset include in their own family tableau a dining table split down the middle, severing a china place setting, which they named after Bergman in homage to his brooding family tragedies.


Cinematic family dramas, as in Imitation of Life, more often than not revolve around some issue of inheritance, the past weighing on the present. For artists and the art world, on the evidence of this Biennale, the record of twentieth-century modernism constitutes that birthright, at once cherished and forbidding. The question is how to position such a legacy on the plane of performance alongside postmodern self-reflexivity. Perhaps no contribution gathers these strands to greater effect than Ulla von Brandenburg's 2009 Singspiel (Musical Comedy). In her Arsenale installation, poised between those of Chan and Meireles, the visitor proceeds through mazelike chambers composed of hanging fabric panels in muted monochrome hues derived from psychoanalyst Max Luscher's midcentury scheme for diagnosing character traits. That path ends in a larger chamber where stools of a utilitarian modernist design are arranged just so. Against the loose canvas of the far wall plays a fifteen-minute, black-and-white film that surveys the members of a family-like gathering via a single tracking shot through the rooms and passageways of Le Corbusier's 1929 Villa Savoye.


Singspiel draws into itself most of the themes that give this Biennale its unusual coherence. Not only a series of penetrating individual and group portraits flowing from one to the other, the film lends the house itself an organic identity as an omnipresent actor in this wintry intergenerational gathering (which channels Bergman without irony). The actors in the end gather in the villa's garden, seat themselves on an identical collection of stools, and watch curtains like those of the installation part to reveal three of their number acting out the sort of sickbed tableau vivant common in von Brandenburg's other films and performances. There is no dialogue as such, only the pregnant watchfulness of the moving camera. But at intervals the sound track issues a melancholic song, performed in a gently keening childlike voice, to which the characters in turn mime the lyrics.

The voice is that of the artist herself, who also wrote the enigmatic verses, to music by Laurent Montaron. As Singspiel condenses the emergent the matics of Birnbaum's Biennale, it also expands via the medium of sound so as to foster the connectivity that Saracano's web so powerfully suggests. Drifting well beyond the confines of von Brandenburg's mesmerizing scenography, her song's contagious tone and melody reinforce the curatorial orchestration of perhaps the most rewarding sequence of works in the two venues. If the lyricism of von Brandenburg's lip-synched musical dialogue seems a world away from the sharp diction of the Jackson Pollock Bar, both exercises can be said to recognize that every practice in the art world has become subject to recoding as performance.



(1.) The entire placard reads:

The challenges are simple.

I. A tremendous Arsenale hallway, at the tail end of a Biennial marathon.

II. The eccentricity of national showcasing in an arts context.

III. An artworld nagging about exhibition routine and ideological exhaustion, but faced with a Venice audience of 900,000.

IV. Qualms about the UAE.

The answers are just as simple, or almost.

I. Resisting the temptations of space.

II. Highlighting the World Fair subtext of the Venice Biennial.

III. A reasonable measure of self-reflexivity.

IV. No apologetics.

(2.) See Daniel Birnbaum, "We Are Many," in Birnbaum and Jochen Volz, eds., Making Worlds: 53rd International Art Exhibition, La Biennale dt Venczta (Venice: Marsilio, 2009), vol. 1, 185, 187.

(3.) Ibid., 191.

(4.) Ibid., 188.

(5.) See Kim West, "Pascale Marthine Tayou," in ibid., 152.

(6.) Bimbaum, "Wolfgang Tillmans," in ibid., 154; Birnbaum, "We Are Many." in ibid., 191.

(7.) Ibid., 191.


Opening Gambit

THE VENICE BIENNALE is a dinosaur of cultural politics. After the biennial boom of the 1990s, the mother of all international art shows seems more akin to nineteenth-century extravaganzas than to the experimental exhibition formats promoted by new generations of curators in Havana, Istanbul, and Gwangju, or via the roving Manifesta. The Giardini's antiquated structure of freestanding national pavilions clings to a geopolitical power map largely static since the 1930s, reinforcing a model of representation that even Sao Paulo's grandstanding classic finally abandoned in 2006. And yet, perhaps depressingly, national representation in Venice remains a target of aspiration for newly independent countries (Croatia, Lithuania), global latecomers (China, Singapore), and even dissidents (Wales and Scotland, whose participation is grouped under "Collateral Events"). Among the influx of new contenders this year are several from the Middle East, not all of them nation-states: Palestine, Iran, Abu Dhabi, and the United Arab Emirates. The last pavilion, curated by Tirdad Zolghadr and titled "It's Not You, It's Me," is notable for being the only venue in this year's Biennale to reflect openly on its raison d'etre.


Located near the end of the Arsenale, the UAE pavilion immediately announces its self-reflexivity in four panels of wall text whose size, font, and snappy tone cut through the genetic labels that dutifully line the Corderie to that point. A first section of text sums up four challenges facing the curator of this particular pavilion (the size of the space, the eccentricity of national showcasing, the art world's exhibition fatigue, and qualms about the UAE--presumably with regard to the federation's culture), while a second section puts forward four solutions (dividing up the room while showing as few artists as possible, highlighting the world's-fair subtext, being self-reflexive, and offering no apologetics). Against the backdrop of this punchy introduction, assistants in designer-logo abayas invite audiences to take an audio guide. Scripted by London-based architectural writer Shumon Basar but read by Lamees Hamdan (the pavilion's commissioner), its monologue begins with soothing words: "After all the art you've seen so far at the Biennale, maybe you'd appreciate something lighter on the eye and on the ear. Guess what? That's OK!" Hamdan then elaborates the proposed analogy of Biennale and world's fair before succinctly introducing the first of the pavilion's five components--thirty-one large, square-format photographs by Lamya Gargash of the UAE's one-star hotels. Rather than describing these images as works as art--they are fairly generic Dusseldorf-style efforts--the audio guide frames them ethnographically, as the unseen counterpart to Dubai's main claim to fame, the Burj Al Arab, that fin-shaped seven-star hotel.


With a simple change of channel, the same audio headset accesses sound tracks for five video projections in a work by the Berlin-based dramaturge and curator Hannah Hurtzig, each one featuring a conversation between two people in positions of power or expertise regarding the development of visual art in the UAE: a minister of culture, a Sharjah-based businessman and collector, the CEO of Saadiyat Island (the cultural district currently being developed in Abu Dhabi), an editor of the journal Bidoun. Normally this kind of "talking heads" video leaves me cold, but deployed here--under the title Nation Builders, 2009--it provides essential context, introducing key-figures while discreetly leaving more challenging questions to the viewer. The conversations remain politely deferential to the predominantly male display of power we are witnessing--more akin to cultural agency-sponsored research than to the (hopefully) counterhegemonic work of an artist. This is reinforced by a plasma screen showing the "making of" these videos in an evidently upmarket hotel (perhaps the Burj Al Arab?).

Installed nearby are high-end maquettes of museum infrastructures existing or under construction in the UAE, including Jean Nouvel's Louvre franchise, Frank Gehry's Guggenheim (so obscenely vast it verges on parody), and the Culture Village Dubai. These "national expo" components are placed next to more conventional works of art from a variety of periods, including Hassan Sharif's conceptual and body-art documentation (think standard-issue black-and-white photos with typewritten texts) produced between 1979 and 1984. In the context of so much cultural engineering, Sharif's work seemed to offer a glimpse of old-school artistic integrity, until someone suggested to me that he was--in keeping with the pavilion's overall tone of distanced irony--probably invented by the curator. Even if this were true, I'm not sure it would matter: Authenticity is hardly a pressing concern in the UAE (Abu Dhabi is, after all, building a simulacrum of the Giardini for its own future biennials).

This attitude was underscored in the pavilion's final component, a complex performance during the Biennale's opening week by the Freiburg, Germany-based group Jackson Pollock Bar. Titled Opening, the twenty-eight-minute event was based on an edited transcript of a UAE-pavilion press conference given by Zolghadr and his commissioner at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2008. This version was then recorded by actors and, at the pavilion in Venice, lip-synched by two other actors (upgraded look-alikes of Zolghadr and Hamdan). The highlight was a journalist ("John Smith") asking pointed questions from the audience, also entirely lipsynched for the live event. The effect was riveting, not just for the actors' ability to lip-synch an entire discussion--as well as feign the bored restlessness that epitomizes all press conferences--but also for the content of Smith's questions: Isn't culture in the UAE a top-down initiative? Isn't it true that only the rich can survive as artists there? Shouldn't the country be dealing with its appalling immigrant-labor conditions before buying up Western art history? (Actually, this last question is mine, but there was no opportunity to join in.)

Through this performance, and in the pavilion as a whole, Zolghadr has managed to ventriloquize his own ambivalence about the UAE, but only while promoting and complicating the Western perception of this country. He acknowledges international unease about the UAE's voracious cultural development, but only by displaying this alongside artists usually absent from the promotional literature. And in this regard, perhaps Zolghadr ventriloquizes the ambivalences that should beset the curator of any state's pavilion: the use of art as a display of national prowess, whether (or not) to show the domestic context for cultural production, and the question of how to be critical in the hype-rich, time-poor world of the Biennale. The UAE pavilion includes very little art but an awful lot of curatorial authorship that stays just on the right side of knowing glibness. Zolghadr has pulled off the not inconsiderable feat of setting himself at a distance from the goals of his funders while managing to serve them anyway (as evidenced by this article). This is doublespeak at its double-edged finest.



Play Grounds

A SIMPLE WHITE PORTICO flanked by a pair of tall palms frames a picture-perfect view of the ocean. With its pristine, stripped-down classicism, more deco than totalitarian, the facade of what was once the Padiglione Italia (newly dubbed the Palazzo delle Esposizioni), as beguilingly made over by John Baldessari, instantly conjures Venice--Venice Beach, that is. Since notions of displacement, projection, figuration, and absorption take priority in Daniel Birnbaum's exhibition over modernism's once-dominant paradigms--critical participation, presentness, literalness, and self-reflection--the veteran Angeleno's work (Ocean and Sky [with Two Palm Trees], 2009) serves as the show's ideal point of entry.


In a characteristically clear and forthcoming statement outlining his curatorial approach, Birnbaum disavows any desire to implement a master plan for his contribution to the Fifty-third Venice Biennale. Welcoming the fact that the phrase "Making Worlds" (to use the English bit of his, seemingly infinite, polyglot title), inevitably implies something slightly different each time it is translated, he discerns in such myriad inflections evidence of the notion that every artist fashions a singular vision through his or her practice. No additional thematic or ideological premises are articulated in his pluralistic platform, though he obviously has drawn a clear distinction between a biennial and a museum exhibition. (Moreover, in foregrounding process- and project-based exploratory work over finished product, his choice of the former had the collateral benefit of allowing him to sidestep market pressures.) The presumptive result, as suggested by the title to his catalogue essay, "We Are Many," would be closer to an assembly of Leibnizian monads--a heterogeneous array of singular individuals--than a collective ensemble of the kind that underpins any group show with an agenda (and most biennials today). Elsewhere in the catalogue, Birnbaum questions cultural theorist Sarat Maharaj about Paul Feyerabend's philosophy of science, which he suggests has some relevance for contemporary artistic practice. For Feyerabend, the logic of scientific discovery is less a matter of the rigorous application of a rational, universal method than a "haphazard, open-ended, hit-or-miss, patchwork" way of proceeding, ideally propelled forward by "unscripted" explorations of "conjectural models." The implication is that Feyerabend's anarchic methodology provides the perfect tool for visitors wishing to explore Birnbaum's show.


Perhaps fortuitously, such an approach is facilitated by the Palazzo delle Esposizioni's labyrinth of galleries--or, better, rooms--which range from large to small, rectangular to eccentrically shaped. A confusing array of spaces disposed over several levels, the venue is notoriously resistant to any rigorously choreographed itinerary. (Were it a museum, it would long ago have been radically redesigned to accommodate the axial layouts offering clear trajectories that have become the institutional norm.) Its very idiosyncrasies work to Birnbaum's advantage. Antithetical to any project based on a deterministic thesis, the floor plan prompts the kind of serendipitous interrelations, unexpected conjunctions, and way ward juxtapositions prioritized in Feyerabend's unscripted exploratory mode: Visitors constantly find themselves retracing their steps, wandering back and forth, disoriented by dark spaces used for film and video, retreating when caught in a cul de sac. A related curatorial approach informs the installation of some of the larger rooms; seen, for example, in the conjunction of Philippe Parreno's intermittently projected film El Sueno de una cosa (The Dream of a Thing), 2001-2002, with works by Blinky Palermo, Andre Cadere, and Wolfgang Tillmans and a suite of monochrome paintings by Sherrie Levine (Meltdown [After Yues Klein], 1991). In its refusal of formulaic relationships, this kind of curatorial strategy can seem either arbitrary and willful or, conversely and more positively, provocatively intriguing. Caught constantly off guard, alternately revisiting and discovering works anew, Birnbaum's visitors find their assumptions and expectations in tatters. How distinctive are the patterns and textures they discern amid the unruly web of possible relations depends in large part on their willingness to play, to hypothesize and conjecture. In substituting for the exercise of professional competence an engagement based on notions of play, Birnbaum couples pleasure with insight.


At the apex of this building, somewhere close to its center, is a generously proportioned, light-filled gallery. In its previous incarnation, this mezzanine was a necropolis, dedicated to the work of artists no longer with us; this time, it is given over to the work of a single living figure. Wolfgang Tillmans's presentation comprises photographs that run the gamut of his wide-ranging practice, from monochromes to intimate views of casual domestic scenes, as well as several display tables. One set of these, Kepler/Venice Tables, 2009, includes an article on astronomy, from the March 3 edition of the New York Times, with the resonant heading in a lonely cosmos, a HUNT FOR WORLDS LIKE OURS. The world envisioned in his own practice is complex and multilayered, shifting easily and topically from the microscopic and local to the abstract and vast, from the specific mechanics of photographic techniques to disarmingly informal and seemingly spontaneous ways of picturing, and displaying, whatever is at hand. Enormously influential over the past fifteen years for younger artists and audiences alike, Tillmans is, for Birnbaum, exemplary on several counts: his engagement with "his immediate social surroundings"; his "insistence on inventive, radical personal life styles and a new sexual politics [suggestive of] a different social order" if not of a "utopian ideal of togetherness"; and his use of the eye as a "subversive tool" to question social expectations, which, Birnbaum contends, is the "only notion of 'politics' that really matters in art." However grave the import of the Times article, the tone of its headline--more jaunty than existentially strained, more wry than fatalistic--is key. A marked avoidance of crisis-laden rhetoric is likewise apparent in the works presented by most other exhibitors in Birnbaum's show.

Perhaps not altogether comfortable with the unscripted, visitors to the "Palazzo" can often be observed huddled over maps as they try to figure out where they are or what they have missed. Once at the Arsenale's Corderie, however, they find themselves force-marched along an undeviating route in this vast shed originally designed for the making of rope. Since the sequence of encounters its footprint sets up is tightly scripted, this part of the exhibition proves far less conducive to Birnbaum's exploratory methodology. Opening dramatically with Lygia Pape's Tteia I, C, 2002, an installation of golden shafts punctuating a dark space, the Arsenate's cavernous expanses are filled with environmental, scenographic, and quasi-architectural works. Countering Baldessari's idyllic vision with a range of more disturbing and disorienting perspectives, each nonetheless seems to revolve in its own orbit, as may be gauged by a comparison of the contributions from Moshekwa Langa, Ulla von Brandenburg, Paul Chan, Carsten Holler, and Haegue Yang (a graduate of Frankfurt's Stadelschule whose work is also featured in the South Korean pavilion). The high level of professionalism in the overall installation of the Arsenale--no mean achievement in this financially strapped climate--is unprecedented, as is the evenness of the playing field: Nowhere does an artist who could not call on high-powered galleries for supplementary funding seem to have been disadvantaged. Through such ecumenical open-handedness, Birnbaum ensured that questions of representation (whether relating to ethnicity, gender, or nationality) would not inadvertently derail the agenda he proposed. Thus there has been little of the crude tallying of numbers prevalent in previous years, and nothing of the problematic dependence on private collections also evident in times past.



The selection of artists from an older generation is fundamental to the tenor of the overall presentation in the Arsenale as well as at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni: Works by Cadere, Tony Conrad, Oyvind Fahlstrom, Yona Friedman, Joan Jonas, Gordon Matta-Clark, Palermo, and Pape speak to one another across distances. For what their very different practices have in common is tantamount to an ethical dimension within their aesthetics--an economy and modesty of means deployed in resourceful, pragmatic ways that often, quite deliberately, placed their works at the margins rather than the center of the art market and institutional recognition. Usually first acknowledged by their peers rather than via mainstream channels, many of these figures have become lodestars for younger generations, especially among those who work across performance, installation, and other hybrid, conceptually diverse modes. Though a playful spirit of improvisation, close to Birnbaum's heart, fuels many of their practices, the cumulative impact of their presence is to imbue the show with gravitas and a pertinence particularly striking in light of the practices and values foregrounded in the more prominent collateral shows on view elsewhere on the lagoon. Not surprisingly, works like Jonas's Reading Dante 11, 2009, and Conrad's riveting solo performance in the Arsenate's Teatro Piccolo (Snapping the Drone, 2009) provided some of the show's most memorable moments.

Despite the timely contributions of such eminences grises, the promotional literature for this year's Biennale stresses youth, emphasizing in particular that Birnbaum is its youngest director to date. More significant, however, would seem to be the fact that, as rector of the Stadelschule, he oversees one of Europe's liveliest art schools, an institution heralded for its research-based creative experimentation. And yet he offers relatively little indication of where the forthcoming generation may be headed. Alongside a broad swath of Birnbaum's own generation--ranging from Rachel Harrison to Rachel Khedoori, from Simon Starling to Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster--is a smattering of artists of various ages and backgrounds, including some with high-profile trajectories of recent vintage. Notable in this respect are Guyton/Walker, Tomas Saraceno, and Nathalie Djurberg, who occupy prominent positions in a trio of galleries at the forefront of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni. Despite their current visibility elsewhere, their impact is strangely muted. Whereas both Djurberg and Saraceno fall prey to grandiose gestures of the kind that such a context encourages in the inexperienced and untried, Guyton\Walker prove to be unsettling interlopers. In so directly referencing the mass marketing of the commercial, everyday world that lies in wait not far beyond Baldessari's threshold, their contribution throws into relief just how hermetic are the worlds charted by many of their near neighbors.


Making worlds (unto themselves) is almost always the fate of artists in the national pavilions--whether these sites are located physically within or without the Giardini. The terms by which each country selects its representatives depend on its own set of protocols; consequently, past efforts to incorporate these autonomous entries under a broader collective endeavor have usually failed, impotent in the face of the sovereign control that each nation exerts on its minute piece of turf and, more important, in the face of the cultural politics that informs each country's curatorial agenda. Since the concerns of cultural administrators are sometimes more determined by reference to local than to global matters, presentations can end up seeming provincial; others ignore the potential offered by the Biennale's high-profile platform to engage current discourse and thereby generate a shared context and productive dialogue. If, for example, this year's French and Australian selections (Claude Leveque and Shaun Gladwell, respectively) seem completely off base, the Germans, Danes, and Nordic countries, by contrast, engage in an unprecedented detente: The Germans invited Liam Gillick, a British-born US resident, into their midst, while, in an impressive display of collegiality, the Scandinavian duo Elmgreen & Dragset created a "transnational neighborhood" around the Nordic and Danish pavilions, involving an international roster of artists (The Collectors, 2009).


Unexpectedly, it is from the national pavilions that a shared thematic begins to emerge, an engagement with location--that is, with the Giardini off-hours and off-season. This subject variously provides a springboard for works by Steve McQueen (British pavilion), Dorit Margreiter (Austrian), Roman Ondak (Czech/Slovak), Yang, and Elmgreen & Dragset (as well as Gonzalez-Foerster in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni and on the grounds of the Arsenale). Moreover, by addressing the conditions that prevail in the dormant months between Biennales, these works ground their projects in a set of specificities relating to site, albeit at moments lost or otherwise distant. They thus counter displacement with immediacy, infusing a welcome degree of literalness into the conjectural and hypothetical, as well as undercutting absorption with a self-reflective criticality. Margreiter's black-and-white film Pavilion, 2009, an homage to Josef Hoffmann's elegant building, accrues affect by depicting the architectural masterpiece isolated in its wintry domain. Yet however deferential its studied relation to Hoffmann's purist modernist spaces, Margreiter's work, as she makes clear, will inevitably prove supplementary, a graceful commentary at best, a parasitic coda at worst. An elegiac meditation created through a slow rhythm of tightly focused shots and lingering sounds, McQueen's film Giardini, 2009, initially probes the desolate park's rampant vegetation, wreathed in a mournful penumbra. Toward the end, the film lapses into a more conventional narrative involving two protagonists who briefly emerge from the gloom to embrace in a cryptic gesture that shifts the whole tenor of the piece. As the natural world veers between the roles of protagonist and backdrop, a strangely unre-solvable tension ensues that becomes the work's true subject. Also fascinated by the Giardini's sprawling vegetation, Ondak literally invited it into the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic pavilion (Loop, 2009). So seamless was the local flora's integration that the pavilion, in an uncanny reversal, took on the role of the interloper, a recent arrival momentarily set down in the bucolic landscape. Disrupting the normative relations binding nature and culture, Ondak deftly foregrounds the function of display, its historical origins, and the overlay of leisure, learning, and consumption inherent in cultural tourism.


Echoing Ondak's historical concerns, American-pavilion curator Carlos Basualdo offers a fascinating overview of some of the key moments in the evolution of the Giardini in his essay published in the catalogue for "Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens" (the tripartite show that was the United States' official entry). According to Basualdo, however, from their inception (1850-14) the Giardini proved an insignificant adjunct to the city; only with the inauguration of the Biennale in 1895 did they find their raison d'etre: display. Even now, he argues, for most of their existence--that is, during the long intervals between these art shows--they remain in a state of glum suspension, their wild and uninviting appearance rebuffing all but the most lost and solitary of tourists. This aura of alienated displacement has proved fertile for younger artists struggling to make a meaningful contribution to an event that seems curiously irrelevant to the bulk of the tourists who fuel Venice's economy and sociality. And nowhere is this better evoked than in Gonzalez-Foerster's video projection De Novo, 2009, a poignant account of her attempts to respond on five different occasions over some twenty years to invitations to this show. Alternately rueful and haunting, her saga ends in a remote, abandoned garden, a site previously unclaimed by Biennale artists (Untitled [Il Giardino del Finzi Contini], 2009). Inaccessible and off-limits, the arrestingly beautiful location--in which the artist appears to have made no physical intervention--seems to belong to a world and time apart, far from most other sites frequented by hordes of visitors.


In the highly trafficked Giardini, so physically congested are the grounds by the plethora of historic pavilions that there are few opportunities to construct additional ones: Newcomers must look off-site for temporary quarters. (1) Among these, the Mexican pavilion is presenting Teresa Margolles's raw and affecting installation "*De que otra cosa podriamos hablar?" (What Else Could We Talk About?) in the decaying sixteenth-century Palazzo Rota Ivancich. Central to her project are a number of large sheets of cloth soaked with blood and other bodily fluids from victims of drug-related murders, plus a flag, Bandera, 2009, similarly soaked with blood, which hangs from the facade. Margolles's work takes as its point of departure the rapidly escalating violence in Mexico. The exhibition's address is clearly twofold: to the artist's compatriots, traumatized by a situation in which the forces of law and order have increasingly lost control and legitimacy; and, more broadly, to the Biennale, its organizers, participants, and audiences. For a government to support a project foregrounding issues that call into question its own authority and credibility and tarnish its image abroad, impacting its markets, cultural exchanges, and tourism, is remarkable. Although certain aspects of the installation verge on the too-literal, Margolles's work at its best is inextricably woven into the very fabric of the site, so that it not only literally contaminates the context but punctures the indifference of the most seasoned and the most casual onlooker alike. Typical of many of the buildings rented as temporary national headquarters whose status as part of Italy's cultural patrimony protects them against violation, this venue could not be physically altered. Nonetheless, Margolles's work will leave material residues that cannot be fully expunged: In a daily action titled Cleaning, 2009, the palazzo's floors are mopped with water tainted by victims' blood that will seep into the floors; following a storm, the rainsoaked flag will leach blood into the street and canal below. Equally indelible will be the mnemonic traces, for her confrontational rhetoric inexorably implicates in its problematic discourse each and every visitor to this once grand, now decrepit venue, hung with ghastly relics.


While Margolles's project depends overtly on its actual site, it trades implicitly on that site's geographic and psychological distance from the Giardini: Posed from outside the Biennale's physical if not cultural precincts, her question plays with the protocols of official discourse. A quite different set of concerns prompted the organizers of "Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens" to extend its reach from the United States pavilion, located within the grounds of the Giardini, to two additional sites closer to the historic center of the city: the Universita Iuav di Venezia at Tolentini and the Universita Ca' Foscari. Orchestrated around a trio of distinct thematic threads--heads and hands, sound and space, fountains and neons--this retrospective exhibition encompasses the full four-decade span of Nauman's career. Since each venue houses work from every period of the New Mexico-based artist's production and represents all three organizing strands, the exhibition gives the impression of being a museum show shoehorned into a set of physically limited spaces. At the Ca' Foscari, sound spills disruptively from one room into neighboring sites, interrupting and adulterating the sculptures within. At the Iuav, the three-channel video projection End of the World, 1996, an unusually lyrical piece featuring three musicians playing steel guitars, has little relation to the adjacent works, which eloquently play off the academic precincts. Linked by the Pink and Yellow Light Corridor (Variable Lights), 1972, set functionally into one side of the cloister, audio pieces from the late '60s and early '70s variously instruct "Get out of my mind, get out of this room" or reveal sounds of someone unseen, restlessly pacing, jumping, rolling around, somewhere nearby but off-limits. At the US pavilion, the placement of the gorgeously remade Vices and Virtues, 1983-88/2009, around its perimeter is brilliant; also inspired is the siting in the back window of Nauman's signature early piece--the iconic The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign), 1967. Yet the selection elsewhere in the building is incoherent and overhung. Nauman is one of the most revered and influential artists working today; his being chosen as the American representative, while well overdue, aroused enormous anticipation. His new work Days, 2009, and its Italian counterpart, Giorni, 2009, would in themselves have made a memorable contribution to the event at large.

The notion of unscripted and unstructured play (which, as children, we first experience in the form of games) that Birnbaum evokes in formulating his approach is fundamentally at odds with the type of games that depend on formalized rules and protocols. While not bound by the strictures that pertain to participation in games like the Olympics, participation in the Biennale, and like events, at the national level is premised on a shared set of guidelines as well as on adherence to unspoken conventions, pacts, and customs. Nauman's ability to play superbly by the rules of any kind of game is beyond question. (2) Why then did the American commissioners feel the need to skew the playing field in Venice by greatly extending the reach of the US contribution?


According to the catalogue contributors, it was only by expanding beyond the confines of the American pavilion that Nauman's work could fully engage with the public and private spaces of Venice. Moreover, only by "allowing the audience to use its experience of the city to relate to Nauman's work," Basualdo writes, could the exhibition "question the ideological foundations of the national pavilions [sic] that frame it." The wish to deploy Nauman's art in an ideologically driven curatorial gambit designed to critique the political foundations that structure the Biennale is ironic--at the very least. For elsewhere in his text, Basualdo remarks that on two previous occasions the US contribution extended beyond the borders of its pavilion. On each occasion, he notes, an American artist took the major prize: Robert Rauschenberg in 1964 and Jenny Holzer in 1990. As if responding on cue to what could be seen as a further manifestation of American cultural might, this year's jury again awarded the Golden Lion to the US pavilion. On both international and national levels, cultural politics are as pivotal to Margolles's project as her explicit subject matter. Albeit in totally different terms, something similar seems to have fueled the American agenda.

Obviously, power plays endemic to cultural politics are never far below the surface of this, and many other, biennials; not at issue, however, is the pertinence of Nauman's work to current practice. The remarkably broad span of his oeuvre straddles the two poles around which contemporary art revolves: an often solipsistic, introverted making of conjectural models or propositions--worlds (emblematic of which is The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths); and a more overtly engaged stance, charged with menace, both physical and psychological, as found in South America Triangle, 1981 (not shown in Venice). (3) Cleaving to one of these directions, Birnbaum's genial Biennale meanders around positions whose coordinates lie somewhere between the melancholy fog of Venice off-season and the photogenic glow of Venice Beach's shoreline. What the Fifty-third International Art Exhibition doesn't venture to chart is the place of those whose modes of making are more activist and engaged and whose worlds are collectivist in structure as well as spirit.



(1.) Those present in the Giardini today haven't always occupied their current sites, For example, in what resembles a game of musical chairs, in the interwar years the United States ceded control of the high ground to Britain (whose Edwardian-style pavilion still sits astride the hill) in favor of a location at the very heart of the public gardens. Even more charged was the decision in the 1930s to build the current German pavilion on a site that had once housed the Polish pavilion.

(2.) See, for example, Raw Materials, 2004, Nauman's remarkable contribution to the Unilever Series in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London. A great piece in itself, this sound work, by adding nothing physical and hence visible to the site, served also to throw into relief the overblown theatricality that had marked most previous interventions in this venue.

(3.) These are the poles around which not only Birnbaum's peers but the emerging generation seem still to distribute themselves (as evidenced in the New Museum's recent "Younger than Jesus" survey show in New York).


Double Negative

IN 1826, VENICE'S TEATRO GOLDONI, a venerable establishment near the Rialto Bridge, obtained the first gas chandelier in Italy. With this bit of history in mind, the theater seemed just the right place to host No Night No Day, 2009, an "abstract opera" created by artist and filmmaker Cerith Wyn Evans and sound artist Florian Hecker. Chandeliers, particularly those made of Murano glass on the Venetian island of the same name, have been components of Wyn Evans's work for the past few years: Since 2002, the Welsh artist has deployed light that is reflected in pendants shaped by Murano masters and programmed to flash mysterious Morse-code messages. It's an anchoring motif in a repertoire of light-manipulating strategies--involving mirrors, disco balls, fluorescent columns--by which he transforms exhibition spaces into sites of luminescent, poetic hermeticism.

In this case, the site--a typically baroque and filigreed teatro all'italiana--lent itself more readily than most to poetic flights. For the opera, which was staged on three consecutive evenings during the opening of this year's Biennale, a film by Wyn Evans was projected onto a screen over the stage while a twenty-four-channel, computer-controlled "spatialization system" provided the all-embracing aural infrastructure for Hecker's electroacoustic score. These two primary elements of the work, which had no live performers, were produced independently: Neither artist knew what the other would bring to the collaboration. This mutual nonknowledge became a constitutive factor of the project; its methodology hinged on anticipation and speculation, on empathizing with the partner's decisions. When approached about the commission by Franceses von Habsburg's Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary foundation, Wyn Evans initially asked for complete freedom, demanding to "do absolutely what I want to do without any interference from your side whatsoever," as von Habsburg recalls in a conversation with the artist printed in a brochure handed out at No Night No Day's premiere. Wyn Evans used this autonomy to continue and deepen his recent investigations, rather than veer from them. In No Night No Day, the subject of light--its varying intensities and absences, its immateriality and its mythology--featured prominently. The film is an exercise in the compositional use of light values, of extending and receding, intersecting and superimposing, shapes and areas that gain and lose scale and brightness in a sort of perpetual, confluent mottling. It invokes the modernist histories of experimental and structuralist film from Hans Richter to, say, Samantha Rebello and may even allude to Four Stories of White and Black, a 1 926 cycle of abstractions by Frantisek Kupka. And yet it constitutes a definite departure from the elegant interiors and dandyish complexities commonly associated with an artist who constantly searches for ways to integrate the conceptual and the decorative, convinced of the possibility of their fundamental mutuality. No Night No Day is neither elegant nor especially decorative. Instead, it is a perplexing piece of audiovisual innuendo as well as, and not necessarily paradoxically, a somewhat aggressive, or regressive, refusal of meaning. This refusal takes the form of a touchingly gentle dance of amoebic radiances and darknesses, pulsating blotches a la Jean Arp that remain within the gray scale for most of the opera's forty minutes, with only a passing moment, toward the end, when the screen is tinted blue.

Sustaining this near-Dadaist subversion of sense, Hecker deviated from his trademark piercing frequencies and cortex-grinding experiments in wave geometry, familiar to his fans and common to many artists on the genre-defining record label Mego. The speakers, dispersed among the Teatro's balconies, generated a multiplicity of digital sound bits that often bore a certain and at times almost cutesy resemblance to "natural" sounds: rustles, hums, drones, sizzles, smacks, whirs, clatters. Though utterly technical in its production, the interaction of sounds and imagery thereby ineluctably invited projection.


Despite the ovations from the audience at the premiere, No Night No Day left many viewers--even Wyn Evans's devotees, of which there were many present--puzzled, if not baffled. It is a work of subliminal provocation: It does not operate on the level of decipherable histrionics but nevertheless is rooted in desperation about the impossibility of abstraction. In this sense, the title holds a key reference. Wyn Evans borrowed it from his former mentor Peter Gidal's 1997 16-mm film, and Gidal has always uncompromisingly viewed abstraction in terms of pure negation, conceiving its task as a relentlessly critical rebuttal of metaphor, illusion, and representation. "The dialectic of the film," he writes in his 1976 essay "Theory and Definition of Materialist/Structuralist Film," "is established in that space of tension between materialist flatness, grain, light, movement, and the supposed reality that is represented. Consequently a continual attempt to destroy the illusion is necessary." The double no of the title of Wyn Evans and Hecker's and Gidal's works follows this line of argument and abnegates any illusionary or indexical link to any natural "night" or "day." The only thing the "abstract opera" (a denomination the artists seem to be only half-comfortable with) affirms may be its own "difficult" (to use one of Gidal's most cherished terms) nature, or ontology. A masterpiece? A joke? Wyn Evans and Hecker both have changed gears in this collaboration, turning away from Broodthaersian wit and Mego's aural austerity to a realm of unprecedented gestures. Playful and slightly silly, utterly void but undeniably moving, alienating and begging for empathy, No Night No Day offers an affective politics that is hard to pin down. But it certainly resonates in the memories of many who experienced it during one of those promiscuous Biennale opening weeks in which, as in Tennyson's "Lotos-Eaters," it never seemed to be day or night but rather always afternoon.



When Worlds Elide

IN THE BEGINNING, God created heaven and earth. While the vaporetto chuffs and struggles its way through the lagoon, I pull out a copy of the New Yorker and soon find myself considering an excerpt from Robert Crumb's new work, a comic-book version of the Bible. Here, at least, someone is concerned with the topic of world making. OK then: Eve looks like the woman Robert Crumb is always thinking about. Adam looks like an Argentinean soccer player from the '70s. God the Father is the usual mixture of Moondog and Walt Whitman. But the creation of heaven and earth is an abstract, though artistic, act: God has to make a decision. It's as George Spencer-Brown declared in Laws of Form, describing the beginning of any thought operation, any project: Draw a distinction. God and Crumb distinguish between white and black, light and darkness, and thus between day and night. Everything else happens of its own accord. The world is made; the material of its construction is a single difference--at least until the devil or some other no-goodnik invents narrative.


This might be what artistic director Daniel Birnhaum means by presenting this Biennale under the aegis of "making worlds," a phrase articulated in numerous languages in the exhibition's title. His aim, perhaps, is to show how a few formal materials can give rise to great complexity. You could then call this complexity a "world," although it isn't entirely clear why you would want to do that. In any case, such a formulation would offer another way to conceive of artistic production, apart from either the traditional idea of making an object or the (post)Conceptualist notion of an intellectual-discursive project. To be more precise (or as precise as the fleeting fantasies of my vaporettocruise will allow), in the model of the world lies a concept of the artwork's genesis as a process that is shaped not only by intentions, plans, and parameters derived from artistic subjectivity but also by reception, and that is open to special access by contingency. Thus it could be that Birnbaum is hinting at a desire to curate a Biennale that would show how, from a single or a few decisions about materials and rules, an entity emerges that could not have been predicted.

But instead of a de-dramatization of the individual artist's input ("Just draw a distinction ...") and a concomitant emphasis on outcomes ("... and behold, abounding processes without end"), the formula for "Making Worlds" often seems to lend support to the opposite idea: It enlarges artistic subjectivity from the comparatively harmless Old European notion of expression to that of creation in the Old Testament sense, whereby, after the generative act, the Divine Father does not leave the world to itself but maintains a keen interest in propagation and lines of succession. This can be seen in the many positions in "Making Worlds" that are explicitly or implicitly credited with being the source of an influence that is only now coming to fruition. Here, the artist has not created a world with its own ontology, like a normal artist; he or she has created other artists, creatures in his or her own image, like a god--or like a professor at an art academy. This inversion of the anxiety of influence is a dominant strain in current stagings of art. Harold Bloom's trusty trope has given way to a desire for influence, which, in the absence of other discourses of legitimation, provides contemporary artists with pedigrees, with a family romance, with manners shaped by great fathers.

In recent years, fewer and fewer major exhibitions have been supported by conceptual abstractions or, for that matter, by curatorial arguments. Instead they have been supported by names--frequently names of forgotten or vanished persons who are being rediscovered and to whom curators can ascribe the version of current art that they want to ratify and advance. Numerous very different artists, including many considered radical, are available for this purpose. In "Making Worlds," in contrast to analogous discoveries at the last Documenta, they are by no means as unknown as, let's say, Charlotte Posenenske was when presented extensively in Kassel two years ago. Rather, they are exemplars of coveted, legitimate practices. Blinky Palermo, Lygia Pape, Gordon Matta-Clark, Tony Conrad, Oyvind Fahlstrom, and the Gutai' group are representatives of a historical legacy, standard-bearers of that still fundamental epoch, the 1960s and early '70s. But as it is increasingly presented today, this legacy is not about assertions and positions; it's about individual practices whose inviolability is put forward with great discursive intensity. These people are providing contemporary practice with a link to the rare substance of a radicality that is viewed above all as heroic, as idiosyncratic and personal. This was of course not their intention, but it is their current function in contemporary shows. To point this out is not to speak against their works: The author of these lines is also a wholehearted admirer of the above-named artists. But his admiration has to do with the material and the tools these artists contributed to conceptual work on artistic programs, as well as to the conceiving and understanding of drastic and severe aesthetic experience, either nolens volens or entirely intentionally. It has less to do with their flamboyant individuality.

In the context of a Biennale exhibition that, apart from its ambiguous motto, presents itself as conceptless and argument-free, such artists compensate with their names and with their "radicality" for the absence of curatorial theses--and of contemporary radicality. "Radicality" relates to the decisions of today's exhibition makers the way an influence-hero from the '60s might relate to a young contemporary artist's practice: It inspires, stimulates, and above all ennobles the endeavors that take place under its rubric, thus segregating its adherents from less attractive, less heroic constellations. It is no longer possible to conceive of "radicality" as having any real relationship to the radicality of the '60s; the former is at best merely a fetishization of the latter. This lazy, personalized idea of radicality has led to the illusion--however productive--of a natural link between good looks and a righteous cause. By propagating the related illusion that the old rules (and thus the old ways of breaking them) still apply, it also holds at bay the question of whether a new relationship between decisions about form and about content, about references to the world and to the self, needs to be laboriously developed--or whether such an ambition, which anyhow is awfully taxing, should simply be dismissed.


Instead of admitting this crisis, people act as if the main model for cultural-political events like the Venice Biennale--hegemonic events by any measure--were in fact "radicality," or the uncompromising attitude that one associates with good radical names from forty years ago. The means by which this idea is supposed to work is the image of the seed that has come to fruition, the motif of the longue duree. As Birnbaum suggests in a June 2 interview in the Berlin Tageszeitung, the seed of the radicality of old--for example of Gordon Matta-CIark, whose early, surprisingly verdant drawings are on view in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni--comes to fruition in the relational participation art of Rirkrit Tiravanija, whose functioning bookstore is also in the palazzo. Indeed, Tiravanija's reception of Matta-CIark, says Birnbaum, even transforms Matta-Clark's own work.

If this all seems somewhat vague, another interview, with the magazine Monopoly finds Birnbaum similarly circling around the idea of the political artist: Wolfgang Tillmans is a good one because he is interested in alternative forms of living together and simultaneously is interested in the formal. He thus fulfills the criterion of the political artist who is "not superficial," who knows that the monochrome painted surface can also be considered in relation to industrially prefabricated coloration. You could surely just leave it at that, even if the single most critical question remains open: Namely, how are these two interests of Tillmans'smutually mediated? Does the "nonsuperficialness" consist in the nonmediation of formal and political interests? Such an approach would be directly opposed to that of the radical role models this show puts forward. Birnbaum draws a more general connection between "not superficial" contemporary artists and their radical precursors, Fahlstrom, too, is important, because he was an eminent political artist but never just illustrated arguments in a "propagandistic" way.


But he did. That is precisely what is fascinating about Fahlstrom. He in fact illustrated arguments--the quite plain basic truisms of anti-imperialism--with the utmost directness. Maybe for him the differentiation between ruling and oppressed was as productive, and yielded as much visual complexity, as the difterentiation of primordial form, of day and night, was for God the Father and other demiurges. Their darkness/light is his imperialist/anti-imperialist. His visual diversity corresponds to the world's ethically and morally mixed throng; his methodology is not dissimilar to those of creators who draw strictly formal distinctions. His works, including the ones exhibited here in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, are so fascinating precisely because they attempt something totally impossible: They show the content of political propositions. Each artistic decision has recognizably not been made on traditional artistic grounds, or out of obligation to media, formats, audience. Partly unintentionally, Fahlstrom demonstrates how visual content from simple communicative contexts, like maps and street signs, and propositions from pragmatically different situations, including argument, rhetoric, discussion, and normativity, cannot be translated into decontextualized gallery objects--without denouncing either the gallery object per se or the necessity of propaganda and of simple, situation-specific communication. In this radicality, he arrives at a sublime clarity of distinction. He does a service to the political and the artistic by allowing them to become discernible; not as opposites but as distinct pragmata, like langue and parole, that cannot simply be translated into each other.

However, the beauty or his work really consists in the total working through of a fundamental problem: in his case, the relationship of art and politics. He shares this thoroughness with Conrad, Matta-Clark, the Gutai artists, and Palermo, all of whom were preoccupied by fundamental problems of the arts. It could be said that the unity of each of these artists' projects gives them a quality of closure, which is evidently another meaning of "world" in the discourse of the exhibition. But it is critical to understand that ultimately, in their cases (as opposed to those of today's happy relationalists), there is no peace in this unity: Media and objects are challenged to their fullest extent, are applied to one another with the greatest intensity, in order, finally, to become neither equivalent nor harmonious. The effect of the impossibility of exchange--cornerstone of all aesthetic resistance to the logic of capitalism--can be realized only when there has been no a priori rejection of the mediation between content and for-mal interests, no premature celebration of one's own cognitive dissonances. In the best room of the palazzo, where Tony Conrad's "Yellow Movies," 1972-73, are hung, the works' misreading as minimalist painting is successfully prevented: They are films; they will never be concluded; they will not form a complete world that one can enter into, leaving all other worlds behind. But the experience of the works as movies, not worlds, is possible only if one aligns oneself with the program, if one accepts that these jaundiced color fields bordered in black are films, as the artist intends them to be understood, and if one does not instead see them as occasions for postmodern irony or for the enjoyment of color or formal austerity.

Understanding "world" above all as a synonym for closure, for the self-contained cosmos of an individual fantasy in which the viewer is invited to take part, is of course the most obvious implication of the Biennale's title. In many cases in Birnbaum's exhibition, the intended "world" is identical with a space, from Tobias Rehberger's award-winning palazzo cafeteria prettification to Tomas Saraceno's giant web of elastic rope. In these cases, "world" means "this space is completely determined by this artistic work; beyond this space, there will be no trace of this work." The magic of the secret hideout behind the door is once again on offer. This strategy could be called immersion, in the expanded sense of the word, since it is not merely a question of immanence'. Though it uses internal references to unfold an abundance of sensation and information, it is based neither on site nor on medium, but on the equating of the site's architecture and its boundaries with the boundaries of the work.

This is not insignificant, since immersion is one of the dominant strategies that the contemporary culture industry shares with the visual arts. What in contemporary art can be designated in terms of the immersion aesthetic is most often the reactionary vestige of an old aesthetic of the sublime: It stages the astonishment that results from radical exposure to an extreme experience, or at least to its simulacrum--at this Biennale, mostly through the totality of an installation. Tate Modern's Turbine Hall and its many accomplishments exemplify this symptom. A room such as, in the palazzo, Nathalie Djurberg's fairytale dungeon stuffed with flower sculptures and screens showing kinky stop-motion animations combines this appeal to childlike astonishment--slightly ironized for good measure--with the fulfillment of the reactionary critic's desire for a "sensual" art, which one read about so often in the past decade. Harmlessly tasteless adventures with drastic color and form merge with the preferred method of eliciting smirking assent: the trivializingly taboo-breaking erotic narrative.


Another dominant strategy that art shares with the culture industry is that of pseudoparticipation. This encompasses the so-called prosumer, or professional consumer, and partakes of the permanent animation of audiences on the Internet and in other consumer-culture contexts under the neoliberal regime of unfocused attention. With its remaindered Situationist vocabulary, pseudoparticipation often even considers itself the present-day continuation of radicality. What artists who make this kind of work completely fail to notice is that the apparently permanent collapse of the validity of forms is possibly the most important challenge facing contemporary art--the trick is knowing what doesn't work anymore because it doesn't mean the same thing or have the same effect it once did. In "Making Worlds," the palest vestige of the pseudoparticipatory model is surely Miranda July's outdoor installation Eleven Heavy Things, 2009--nightmare of smirking cuteness; purgatory of putative lightness; apotheosis of harmlessness--which invites the audience to pose and to be photographed on top of pedestals with funny inscriptions. As someone near me astutely said: "Erwin Wurm for the even poorer." But this same work was extolled in the press, evidently because it successfully liquidates any difference between an artistic demand and the general program of entertainment.

On the other end of the spectrum, a highly reflexive and stimulating discussion is initiated by Falke Pisano in the Arsenale: Her installation Silent Element (Figures of Speech) II, 2009, made from formalized and seemingly prefabricated sculptural elements and written statements placed outside and inside the constructions, opens up many avenues for reflection on how contact between a sculpture's field of validity and a subject's embodied aesthetic experiences brings about a mutually constitutive relation. This diagnostic enabling of the reception process is the opposite of the concealment of reception as a physical and intellectual activity--its replacement being the participating, playing, childlike post-subject or the stupid spectacularism of "astonishment." Ideally, an exhibition would not be silent about the blatant antagonism of positions as opposed as July's and Pisano's. The notion that all works are worlds not only strengthens the idea of their closure; it also insinuates that one could no more compare them than one could bring Jupiter and Betelgeuse--or different cultures, in the mind of the cultural essentialist--into argumentative relation.


However, the model of the participatory avoidance of a position through adherence to the regime of fun-culture is clearly on the wane at this Biennale, and, despite the (palpably subdued) participation of several of its delegates (e.g., Carsten Holler), is not as strongly represented in "Making Worlds" as at most recent international roundups. That said, one does often encounter a variant: Mr. Spock art. According to its principle, the artist presents the audience first with an amazing riddle and then with a calculated solution, notable for its lack of ambiguity, which will make everyone say, "F-A-A-A-Scinating!" Chu Yun's Constellation No. 3, 2009, in the Arsenale is a case in point. You enter a dark room (a world!) where scattered lights are twinkling (stars! a universe!), which your eyes, growing accustomed to the darkness, quickly perceive as household appliances and their various indicators. F-A-A-A-Scinating! The funnier side of this same principle is shown in Tim Noble and Sue Webster's 2006 work Metal Fucking Rats at the collateral event "Distortion": Here, an amorphous heap of scrap metal is lit from behind in such a way as to cast on the wall the shadow of, indeed, two fucking rats. Hans-Peter Feldmann and Paul Chan, in the somewhat more demure context of "Making Worlds," also deliver sexual shadow play with more or less Spockish aha effects. While Feldmann, in what is, for him, an incredibly saccharine manner, simply wants to recall obsolete forms of entertainment and "enchant" the viewer with selections from his toy collection, Chan, in Sade for Sade's Sake, 2009, achieves a persuasively complex and thoroughly elaborated meditation on sexuality and classification, organic and mechanical systems, productive exertions and empty ones.


In one of my favorite works, and one of the high points of "Making Worlds," Simon Starling reprises the good old Conceptualist joke about the box that contains the sounds, or more generally the history, of its own making. (Similar projects can be found all over Venice, with perhaps the most elegant being Dorit Margreiter's architectural portrait of the Austrian pavilion, screened where it was filmed.) Starling's 2006 film installation Wilhelm Noack oHG involves an old Berlin metal-processing company. A metal sculpture, like a spiral staircase made of rods, supports the film, which is physically wrapped around the sculpture as if around the spools of a projector and which documents its making and the history of the company. Here, though one again responds with a "F-A-A-A-Scinating," albeit a more slowly enunciated one, there is not simply a single point but rather an organizing principle that orders an abundance of internal references. That the company is located in Berlin is surely no coincidence: Every other artist's biography in this Biennale, not only in "Making Worlds" but throughout the national pavilions, reads "lives in x and Berlin." Despite the city's agglomeration of artists' positions--which resembles the agglomeration of artists' positions at a biennial--in Berlin, too, nothing is produced that meaningfully deals with the city, as was the case in earlier epochs in New York or Paris. How Berlin stole the idea of postmodern art. In Berlin, too, people live in pavilions that are designated "worlds" and don't know much about one another, unless they occasionally stop by "The Building," the "3," or the "Montagspraxis" at b_books. Berlin, as the international city of the art industry, is as much the backdrop of production as Venice is the backdrop of presentation. There is hardly any work from Berlin that takes this situation into account.

Elmgreen & Dragset, who are also closely connected with Berlin, are certainly no exception to this rule. The duo did up the Danish and Nordic pavilions with a gigantic, densely jocular double installation, a narrative sequence frozen into a tableau vivant, sans vivant. Narrative is the third dominant strategy (after immersion and participation) that guides artistic precision into an ironically sanctioned stream of the culture industry, and to which there seems to be no alternative. This installation, which presents a luxuriously queer hedonistic-collector lifestyle so as to portray it, in an allegorically funny way, as a not particularly disturbing memento mori, is the other great attraction in the Giardini (along with Roman Ondak's horticultural intervention in the Czech and Slovak pavilion, which Mr. Spock would have enjoyed). Surely one could glean a reference to the present here. To the present crisis? Well, maybe, but for me what leaped to the fore was rather a story about how you can't sell good art to collectors these days. As long as the bourgeoisie are under pressure from leftist- or Protestant-imposed guilt, they buy reflexive art. But after becoming as hedonistic as the artists themselves, they only want art to be a swimming pool or pornography. Then they drown in the former.

Another narrative, but a recursive one, was actually my favorite work: Keren Cytter's untitled 2009 film on view at the Arsenale. In her rhythmic dialogue, reminiscent of Minimalist music, Cytter relates a backstage drama inspired by John Cassavetes's Opening Night, casting actors (such as Bernhard Schutz and Caroline Peters) who in fact represent a specific Berlin aesthetic and its achievements. These achievements have nothing to do with global gallery art, but rather with the advanced theater of the city, and particularly with the director Rene Pollesch and the Volksbuhne at Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz. Cytter approaches the symptoms of Pollesch's postdramatic art and its performers as an outsider and without reference to their history, but she is one of the few who grasp the specific cultural historical moment of the Berlin bohemia bubble and its advanced discussion of the performative, which she compresses into a loop of considerable conceptual density. This is less the making of worlds than the correct reading of them.


Another strength of Cytter's piece is this sound track of fast staccato dialogue, which makes the work's paradoxical temporality--it's a drama that is also drama's contradiction, a loop--aesthetically comprehensible. In recent years, one of the most productive as well as the most comical stumbling blocks for the long-routinized process of exhibition programming has been the task of installing sound, which has effectively undermined that lame dichotomy: "correspondences" in white boxes and isolation in black ones. This time, at the central sites of the Biennale, there is very little sound--it is limited to ambient jingling from the Djurberg installation at the palazzo and a despicable soprano saxophone that wafts from the "Berlusconi pavilion," the unutterably reactionary abomination of an attempt at an Italian pavilion in the Arsenale compound. In turn, there is plenty to hear at almost all the collateral shows and pavilions scattered throughout the city. And finally, in a small upholstered booth at the Palestinian pavilion, there is a stunning dub-ish sound collage, Ramallah Syndrome, 2009, by Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti. Of all the closed-off worlds, this is the one I wanted to linger in the longest.


But I had to get back into the high summer heat of the Giudecca anyway. And after I had spent some time in the cooling atmosphere of the Welsh pavilion, of all places (where John Gale scours the ruins of his childhood on five screens before veering into a ludicrous but touching denunciation of American torture practices), naturally my critique of the "Making Worlds" slogan and its curatorial results got relativized. By analogy to publications, the Venice Biennale is probably more like Vogue than an experimental journal. Can you blame the one for not being the other? Just as Vogue, in a supreme tautology, puts out something it calls the Fashion Issue, so "Making Worlds" has simply adopted the structure of the other, individual presentations in the events and pavilions, thereby declaring as its principle the banal jointure of nation-states and artworks. One ought to be able to ask of artworks that they be organized differently than nation-states and stop functioning as their branding campaigns, and above all that they enable other experiences besides confirming the functioning of the sense organs.


Translated from German by Elizabeth Tucker.

Port Authority


THE PUNTA DELLA DOGANA is a protrusion of land that juts out at the southern entrance of Venice's Grand Canal. Its name, which means "Customs Point," refers to an earlier function of the spot: Serving as Venice's chief maritime portal, it was the location of the city's sea customs for four centuries. As a site historically given over to the task of deciding what may or may not enter, the Punta would provide any collector a powerful venue for putting his aesthetic criteria on display. The customs building is especially appropriate for Francois Pinault, the French billionaire whose private collection will be housed from now on in the newly renovated structure. Pinault arrived at his riches, after all, by controlling majority shares in luxury-brand companies like Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, and Chateau Latour--whose fortunes depend in part on the dutiful enforcement of anti-knockoff laws at border checks everywhere.


It is therefore fitting that the Punta's inaugural exhibition, "Mapping the Studio," explores the problem of entry: entry into an artist's work, and entry of work into a collection. A generous sampling of Pinault's holdings (more than sixty artists were shown), "Mapping the Studio" was expertly organized by Francesco Bonami and Pinault Collection curator Alison M. Gingeras, who installed the works so as to capitalize on Tadao Ando's celebrated renovation of the Punta building. Appropriately, the exhibition's title is borrowed from a piece that contemplates the porosity of art's architectural boundaries--Bruce Nauman's 2000 video installation that documents the nocturnal traffic of mice as they scurry into and out of his studio, undeterred by walls or screen doors.

Some works in the exhibition activate tropes of boundary marking on a number of levels simultaneously. Anyone approaching the Punta by boat from the south, for example, will be hailed by Charles Ray's Boy with Frog, 2009--an oversize nude child who raises a visibly uncomfortable frog with his right hand. Ray's piece operates as a perverse allegorical sculpture reminiscent of the Punta's famous Fortuna statue and even of the Statue of Liberty--both works that stand sentry at sites where all who approach are evaluated and judged.

The word at the Biennale was that the frog might represent the Frenchman Pinault himself, suggesting that Ray was playfully turning the tables on anyone who might sponsor his endeavors and then display them as trophies. Then again, for those not acquainted with the inside story, the boy--a dispassionate figure who evaluates the contours of his catch and appreciates the beauty of its suffering--might represent Pinault. Indeed, like Ray's languorous sadist, Pinault the collector seems to revel in what Thomas Mann called the "voluptuousness of doom," a certain admixture of Eros and Thanatos to which Venice is famously hospitable. A large number of works in the exhibition reveal an appetite for cunning depictions of death--the ultimate boundary and final judgment. Fucking Hell, 2008, by Jake and Dinos Chapman is exemplary in this respect. The brothers' large, glass-enclosed dioramas house a miniature Inferno through which mobs of toy-soldier-size figures throng and seethe from punishment to punishment. Viewers press their noses to these (sub)terraria to marvel at tiny heads on pikes, dainty pink pigs snuffing through offal, and itsy-bitsy Nazis biting into the flesh of exquisitely rendered victims. Maurizio Cattelan's suite of body bags sculpted in white marble is Apollonian by comparison. Matthew Day Jackson's Skull Spectrum, 2009--serially arranged geometricized skulls in a prism of bright colors--seems cheerful too.

Portions of the exhibition installed at the Palazzo Grassi--the collector's other contemporary art museum, a few vaporetto stops north--also trade in a sinister glamour. The atrium of the palazzo is dominated by the flashing lights and throbbing rhythms of Piotr Uklanski's Untitled (Dancing Nazis), 2008, which places a disco floor beside head shots of Hollywood actors playing Nazis. A vague critical commentary lurks in the piece--people drawn to the jewel-toned panels of the floor are challenged to identify, or even identify with, evil and its portrayal. Meanwhile, the relentless hip-hop beats of the sound track occasionally mimic the fascistic rhythm of goose steps, as if to mock the racism associated with Third Reich ideology. The blaring music, though funky, colonizes the rest of the museum: Even works that do not provoke associations with the Totentanz (especially older pieces like Daniel Buren stripe paintings from 1966, as well as a terrific early film by Cindy Sherman) are invaded by the smirking sounds of Holocaust humor.

Works like these partake in the Venetian tradition of carnival but also lend the exhibition, generous as it is, a tinge of arrogance, as if this magnate were able to regard death as a mere plaything. Indeed, in many respects the collector's power is the exhibition's implicit focus. Both venues are packed with works that first appeared in other recent biennials, only to be scooped up and placed in Pinault's designer handbag: The Utopian bell jars of Mike Kelley's Kandors Full Set, 2005-2009, and Kai Althoff's dark and dreamlike Untitled of 2007 were showstoppers at the recent Carnegie International. And one of the centerpieces at the Punta della Dogana is Sigmar Polke's "Axial Age" painting series, 2005-2007, majestically installed in a room of basilical proportions that is filled with the light necessary for the canvases to change continuously before the eyes, as they are intended to. These would be familiar to anyone at the last Biennale, where they served as a keystone, arguably, for Robert Storr's exhibition; here, their front-and-center placement speaks loudly of Pinault's ambition. Such is the character of this collector's taste: as sharp and penetrating as the tip of the Punta itself.




Comic Twist

JOHN WESLEY MUST MEASURE well over six feet. Yet at the opening of the monumental retrospective orchestrated by Germano Celant for the Fondazione Prada, in the vast Venetian halls of the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Wesley's imposing silhouette was obscured by hundreds of well-wishers. This was not a typical event for an artist long treated as an outsider, an exception to all the art world's rules.

Indeed, ever since 1963, when Donald Judd threw up his hands in happy despair and proclaimed Wesley's art "interesting" but essentially uncaregorizable--"what some bumpkin made of appearances for some unartistic reason"--critics have worked to fill in the blanks, taking stabs at descriptive language that might account for the unspeakable contents of Wesley's paintings. His art, as others have expressed in one way or another, is hilarious and heartbreaking, looks like nothing else out there, stings like sex, and lingers like a lovable mutt. There's a catch-22, though, to such earnest critical efforts, which Wesley alludes to in a typewritten statement reproduced in the show's catalogue: The need to be "taken seriously" might be hazardous to artists and critics alike. After all, he writes, "I think much of my intent is humor." ("Things are serious enough," he has said elsewhere.) Wesley, of course, has managed to elude that dilemma--based on the evidence of his art, he is still very, very funny.


There's another dilemma that has tugged at Wesley's critical reception: The artist's legion of fans are a proprietary lot, for whom Wesley is a secret they want to protect. This may account for his "eternal recurrence," a career of ever-larger swells, but also a crescendo that's never quite climaxed. Celant, I'm guessing, has a very different mission in mind, based on the scale and scope of his exhibition. Determined to make as much of Wesley's art as widely available as possible, and not at all concerned about the dangers of explaining it away, Celant's retrospective is pitched to a brave new public and conceived in the interest of posterity. His efforts--along with those of Wesley's longtime gallerists Jessica Fredericks and Andrew Freiser, assisted by Monica Ramos, as well as Wesley's enthusiastic cooperation--are hugely impressive: The team has located and secured more than 150 works, some of which not even Wesley had seen for years.


"John Wesley" is also curated with great care. The dense salon hanging made necessary by the quantity of work is broken up into intelligent and often subtly responsive sub-groupings and labels. The Cini comprises two huge buildings with separate entrances; Celant's installation uses these spaces to stake out roughly three bodies of work, whose distinct aesthetic modes and moods correlate with shifts in subject matter.

The iconic paintings of the early 1960s open the first gallery. Their expressive poses, symmetrical decorative motifs, and Minimalist-inspired repetition of figures then give way to the preposterous juxtapositions that are Wesley's unique contribution to the Surrealist legacy: animals nipping and sniffing and humping and hugging inappropriately at the contours of naked or semidressed women, who appear oblivious to our gaze or the animals' actions or both; benignly banal youngsters and oldsters, bears, and stiffly posed Olympians, rendered hilarious by dint of their canvases' silly ornate frames or their own inexplicably bemused or ecstatic or dumbfounded expressions. Every painting is subject to one of Wesley's left-field titles--Batter Up; Kiss My Helmet; Debbie Milstein Swallowed a Thumbtack; Rabbit Girl--which are all the funnier for accurately describing something, but never everything, that's pictured. To borrow a passage from John Updike's The Witches of Eastwick (1984), cited in the catalogue, "[Wesley] does what look like illustrations to children's animal books until you realize what they are showing. Squirrels fucking and stuff like that."

The works of the '60s are racy, but the hieratic quality of the drawing (Celant characterizes it as Art Nouveau), the generally balanced compositions, and the painted frames (which link Wesley's work to that of his wife at the time, Jo Baer) contain the content and make it feel less out-there. Somewhere between the end of that decade and the early '70s, Wesley's line and composition opened up a bit; by the time you reach the second building, the palette and color contrasts have intensified and the line has evolved from nouveau to mannerist, with sharp, jagged edges jacking up the expressive quotient. The sexual content, too, becomes more overt, current, and autobiographical--even as it reflects shifts in the advertising and tabloid source material from which Wesley was working. In the last gallery, the cartoon character Dagwood Bumstead appears; taken from the popular comic strip Blondie, the figure instantly offered Wesley, circa 1973, new access to the spaces and players of his childhood. "My father was like Bumstead," Wesley has said. "Those lamps, that curtain, that chair. They were in my house then." A certain pathos, now inextricable from Wesley's art, seems to have begun at that point. More recently, Wesley has introduced another unsettling and psychosexual alter ego, courtesy of Utamaro.

THE EXHIBITION'S STRENGTH is precisely its thoroughgoing comprehensiveness. If one pays any attention at all to individual works, it quickly becomes apparent that for all the constants in Wesley's art--its repeated subjects, insistent flatness, creamy pastel palette, sexual charge, distinctive anthropomorphism--the variety is inexhaustible and astonishing.

The catalogue, nearly ten pounds, is equally overwhelming. Aside from its cumbersome bulk, however, it is possibly the best print account of an artist's endeavor I've encountered. The writing lacks the flair of much before it, but coupled with the volume's meticulous biographical and documentary material, it ironically acts as an antidote to appraisals of Wesley's work that rely on pithy characterizations rather than sustained, detailed analysis. (Wesley's own writing is included, to wonderful effect: It is succinct, poised, and even more surreally deadpan than his painting.) A good third of the catalogue builds on a chronology compiled in 1982 by Hannah Green, the late fiction writer to whom Wesley was married for twenty-five years and whose writing on the artist remains the most trenchant to this day. Wesley's friend and studio-mate Bill Barrette adds a moving account of Wesley and Green's annual sojourns in the medieval French town of Conques between the years of 1975 and 1995. The memoir focuses on a pilgrimage undertaken by the three of them and the resulting, unexpected religious strand in Wesley's personal history. While not claiming any direct religious iconography or implication in Wesley's art, Barrette allows that the emotional impact we so regularly find in Wesley's imagery might connect to a larger curiosity about things spiritual.


After studying Celant's exhibition and catalogue, I'm inclined to further rethink the marked affect in Wesley's discerning citations and meticulously constructed tableaux. Wesley's sources are nothing if not particular. It's the implausible uses to which he puts these sources--the repetitions, the shifts in position or scale or cropping, the spaces he removes or builds, and the disarming juxtapositions--that work the magic. As Green wrote in 1974, "During what would seem ... to be a mechanical process, strange and irrational and funny things go on. Accidents are let to happen, the original image is slowly transformed." And while much of '80s appropriation (recently revisited in "The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York [see page 250]) was fixed on a critique of the commercial media it borrowed and not on the subjects it pictured, Wesley's mode of copying and recontextualization is different, more invasive and idiosyncratic. As a result, his methods appear newly germane: They suddenly seem to have comprehended both digital and drag avant la lettre. Wesley does not borrow the idea of an image or image type; he reinforces his own read of the world by homing in on selected expressive details. Unlike Cindy Sherman, for example, Wesley has studied not only mass media's individual types and postures but a myriad of psychosexual-social exchanges--or lack thereof--between men and women, women and women, and men and men; between the individuals and the alter egos, the animals and the animated objects, that populate his painting and our world.

By reprinting many of Wesley's source images, the catalogue reveals how carefully selected these images are, how nuanced is the artist's reading of their body language (especially the poses of advertising). Wesley's work gains from this research and from the intelligent and useful design of the show, both of which shift focus from the common denominators in his painting to the specificity of the images he culls and, more important, to his expressive adaptations of those sources through drawing. Celant thus forestalls the generalizations that we're too ready to proclaim for the artist. What we can do with Wesley now is to look longer and more closely. It only gets better.

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