The Nation: A Blase-At-Best Venice Biennale Despite being entrusted to renowned Bice Curiger, this year's Venice Biennale was a disappointment - but it's not really surprising. Barry Schwabsky of The Nation reflects on a few good aspects of the overall mundane art exhibit.
NPR logo The Nation: A Blase-At-Best Venice Biennale

The Nation: A Blase-At-Best Venice Biennale

Vistors look at artwork in the Denmark pavilion of the 54th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale contemporary arts festival, in Venice, Italy, Wednesday, June 1, 2011. The festival officially opened on Saturday June 4th and runs until Nov. 27, 2011. Luigi Costantini/AP hide caption

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Luigi Costantini/AP

Vistors look at artwork in the Denmark pavilion of the 54th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale contemporary arts festival, in Venice, Italy, Wednesday, June 1, 2011. The festival officially opened on Saturday June 4th and runs until Nov. 27, 2011.

Luigi Costantini/AP

Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation.

The Venice Biennale is the United Nations of art exhibitions. It represents high ideals and noble aspirations, and reliably shows itself incapable of fulfilling them. This year's edition, the fifty-fourth, on view through November 27, is even more disappointing than usual, which is a bit of a surprise because its directorship was entrusted to Bice Curiger, the Swiss curator of Zurich Kunsthaus and editor of the au courant magazine Parkett. Her broad familiarity with contemporary art across the world should have been ideal preparation for the many difficult tasks she faced at the Biennale, above all the organization of its vast main exhibition.

As usual, this year the main exhibition is uneasily divided between the Central Pavilion in the spacious Giardini della Biennale (the former Italian Pavilion) and the old shipbuilding warrens of the Arsenale, a fifteen- or twenty-minute walk away. For a long time the trend was to keep expanding the curatorial section of the Biennale — ever more space, ever more artists. The unwieldiness spun out of control in 2003, when Francesco Bonami's sprawling exhibition, "Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer," took the form of a sort of conglomerate of exhibitions, some curated by Bonami and others farmed out to various colleagues.

Since then, the successive curators have reined in the shows' centrifugal tendencies, but only to some degree. None have thought to bypass the Arsenale or the Central Pavilion and make a unified exhibition in a single location, but the urge to encompass more and more artists seems to have been stifled. On the other hand, the compulsion to give the exhibitions grandiose titles that don't commit the curator to any particular aesthetic or intellectual program has remained irresistible. Curiger has offered "ILLUMInations," evoking light both in the literal and the intellectual sense (not to mention the inevitable references to Arthur Rimbaud and Walter Benjamin), while also insisting that within the global art world, the idea of the nation is still an important and relevant one. No kidding: as always, nationhood is everywhere at the Biennale, no more so than in the pavilions of dozens of countries ranging alphabetically from Albania to Zimbabwe and in size from the Republic of San Marino to the People's Republic of China, not to mention the "collateral exhibitions," of which several represent such peoples-without-a-nation as the Scots and the Roma. While every artist at the Biennale is somehow or other ascribed to a nation, for what that's worth, if you read their biographies in the catalog you'll learn that many of them reside outside the country of their birth. What does that suggest about Curiger's contention that "the idea of 'nations' can be taken in metaphorical relation to the community"? Art relates to a different, more dispersed and more ambivalent form of community than that of the contemporary nation-state. It somehow associates at once with the global circulation of capital (and of capitalists) that occurs somewhere in the stratosphere above the terrain of the state, and with the vast underground migrations of people, whether legally or otherwise, across borders always more permeable than the governments that police them would like to believe. But art often relates antagonistically, if at all, to the sovereign states that claim to divide up the earth's landmass among themselves. It sometimes seems that the cultural values of developed countries, at least, can be manifested only through antagonism, by artists biting the hand that feeds them.

The paradigmatic example of this antagonism is probably Hans Haacke's installation Germania, for which the artist (a longtime resident of the United States) tore up the floor of the German Pavilion in 1993, thereby winning (together with Nam June Paik) that year's Golden Lion for best national pavilion. Perhaps the organizers of this year's American Pavilion hoped for a similarly antagonistic triumph when they selected Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla to represent the nation; the work of this Puerto Rico–based collaborative duo has often highlighted the traces of the island's quasi-colonial status under the Stars and Stripes. Given the big soap box of the Biennale, they might have been expected to turn up the volume on their normally rather understated denunciations. But although they did pull off one excellent (if incredibly spendthrift) joke — an ATM that functions as a pipe organ, playing portentously dissonant chords when a PIN number is entered to make a transaction — most of their satire of American life is ham-fisted and tame, not excluding the overturned tank repurposed as an exercise machine parked in front of the pavilion. In any case, it's curious that polemics about nationalism and particular national cultures are more common in the national pavilions — one might have thought that the internal politics of the state bodies that do the commissioning would impede the acceptance of work that seems to critique the state — than in the relatively autonomous curated exhibitions, including Curiger's, with its evocation of the idea of the state in its title. Perhaps things would have been different if Curiger had included artists whose lives and work have been dramatically at odds with accepted ideas of nationhood, such as Gustav Metzger, who has been living in Britain as a stateless person since the 1940s. Curiger claims that "in an understated and sporadic way the theme of the outsider plays a not insignificant role" in the exhibition — but that role is not large enough to exert sufficient pressure on the Biennale's accent on nationality.

Another reason this year's Biennale seems strangely becalmed is the indifferent quality, and the overfamiliarity, of so much of the art, whether in the exhibition or the pavilions. Naturally there are exceptions: I was particularly taken with Gabriel Kuri's light-handed sculptural assemblages and the videos of Nathaniel Mellors, which bring something of Monty Python's anarchic humor to an otherwise pretty earnest exhibition. But these are rare. "The stuffed-shirt milieu of the early Biennale," the catalog of the latest one announces, "maintained a belated historicism as its expression of social distinction." The implication is that things have changed, but how much? Historicism is everywhere here, especially in the heavily ironic mode of Urs Fischer's giant wax candle in the form of Giambologna's Mannerist sculpture The Rape of the Sabine Women, slowly melting away in the Arsenale. As for the curator, one wishes her sense of irony had been sharper. Is it all that revelatory to drag three big Tintorettos to the Central Pavilion from the Galleria dell'Accademia and the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, as Curiger has done — as though the people who come to look at contemporary art would never have thought of spending just as much time in the museums and churches of Venice as at the Biennale? Is it controversial to say that such works "still possess the power to engage a contemporary audience," as if the only way engagement can be elicited is through theatrical juxtapositions? And when Curiger writes of the pieces she has chosen by a contemporary artist such as Christopher Wool — eerily empty silkscreens on canvas of seemingly random blotches, like blown-up lab records of bloodstains from a crime scene — that "one can instantly believe that he has been studying Tintoretto's works closely for years on end," well, at first you might think that she's making a little joke, but then that she is in desperate need of an argument. Not that she is mistaken to suggest that Wool has studied Tintoretto with interest; any serious painter would. But it is presumptuous to suggest that "one can instantly" ascertain the mark of Tintoretto on Wool's canvases, the implication being that what might take an artist years of study and practice to articulate can be seen in a flash by the knowing curator, like a wink exchanged between artist and viewer, two astute connoisseurs of signature brands.

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Like previous Venice directors, Curiger has abandoned the principal, quasi-journalistic function of a biennial: to present and make sense of new developments in art, especially for a broad public that will not have been assiduously attending its local galleries and museums, let alone jetting around the world to see what's being shown elsewhere. Curiger's weakness for revisiting works of earlier decades — not just by the likes of Tintoretto but by well-known artists of the recent past like the painters Jack Goldstein and Sigmar Polke and the photographer Luigi Ghirri — suggests, as does the choice of so many weak new pieces by well-known artists, that her show is not primarily about interpreting the art of the present. If a sense of the moment is conveyed, it is not necessarily by the art but rather by the assumption that curating is a sovereign enterprise, an end in itself, manifested not only by the choice and juxtaposition of works but also by the contriving of theatrical architectural scenarios to control the presentation of the art.

This approach has been a mainstay at Venice since at least 1999, when the director was the fabled Harald Szeemann, "for whom exhibiting was the continuation of art by curatorial means," as art historians Beat Wyss and Jörg Scheller put it in this year's catalog. What is most striking is the caution with which Curiger stakes out her curatorial dominion, especially when compared with the abundance of ideas, cultivated idiosyncrasy and showmanlike panache Szeemann evinced in his long career as a curator, though hardly most brilliantly in Venice. At least Curiger hasn't turned her exhibition into a sort of funfair, as some curators try to do these days (a strategy many artists are all too willing to play along with). She knows that good art does not give up its secrets quickly or easily. But the dominating presence of the three great Tintorettos at the heart of her Central Pavilion is a bit of a fizzle as coup de théâtre. Hardly more effective was her invitation to four of the artists in "ILLUMInations" to make works that would function as what she calls "para-pavilions," "largish structures of a sculptural, architectural nature capable of harboring works by other artists." Far from helping bring artworks "into a more intense exchange with one another," as she hoped, the arrangement encourages forced comparisons. Monika Sosnowska's vaguely star-shaped structure, for example, creates cramped, uneasy spaces that merely distract from works that have nothing in common with it or one another, namely South African photographer David Goldblatt's "Ex-Offenders at the Scene of the Crime," a documentary series about people trying to live with their criminal pasts, and British artist Haroon Mirza's tenuous, almost self-effacing installation incorporating sound, light and makeshift objects. The most successful of the para-pavilions is the one made by Franz West for the Arsenale. It is a rendition of his kitchen in Austria, including all the works by his friends that normally hang there, thereby introducing his own curatorial choices into Curiger's overarching structure, not to mention a dose of honest-to-goodness hominess to remind us that even in the Biennale's high-octane setting, it remains possible to look at artworks empathically rather than judgmentally.

To read the rest of this review visit The Nation.