BY James Rondeau in Reviews | 10 SEP 03
Featured in
Issue 77

50th Venice Biennale

Various Venues

BY James Rondeau in Reviews | 10 SEP 03

Trudging through the Giardini during the vernissage, I attempted to visit the Icelandic Pavilion but was confronted by a makeshift sign taped to its door. It read: 'This pavilion is closed due to the opening.' Issues of language and translation aside, the sign encapsulates the surreal, often formidable, experience of trying to evaluate a complex, sprawling exhibition in a few short, hot, crowded days. In too many conversations critical thinking seemed to be 'closed due to the opening'. The limitations of instant analysis were unavoidable.

That said, I found this Biennale challenging and richly rewarding. Visitors were confronted by a diverse range of curatorial methodologies and innovative presentation strategies, which produced widely varying exhibitions containing a huge number of artists working in a variety of media and hailing from broadly representative geographic points of origin. Although much will be written about the 60-plus on- and off-site national pavilions, my primary focus is the various venues of 'Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer', eight exhibitions organized by Francesco Bonami along with a distinguished team of 11 autonomous curators (including two artists). Bonami's intelligent partitioning - one might even say, generous surrender - of creative responsibilities must be seen as having broad, if symbolic, significance relative to our current understanding of large-scale international exhibitions.

To walk the length of the Arsenale was to experience a series of divergent but carefully calibrated cadences, from the quietly 'Clandestine' (and it should be noted that one translation of the Italian word clandestini is 'illegal immigrants') to the spectacularly utopian - 'Utopia Station'. 'Interludes', a seemingly overlooked programme of 13 artworks distributed throughout Biennale venues and around Venice, imbued a walk through the city with similarly thoughtful qualities. Bonami also organized an intelligent, if over-casual, exhibition of paintings at the Museo Correr. The approach was emphatically historiographic as opposed to strictly art-historical; a fittingly erratic, time-travelling overview of painters at the Biennale since Robert Rauschenberg's star turn in 1964. Overall, no-one in their right mind could complain about a lack of choices.

Bonami's curatorial approach was distilled in an essayistic presentation at the Italian Pavilion: an exhibition, co-curated with Daniel Birnbaum, entitled 'Delays and Revolutions'. (The curators solved the age-old problem of official Italian representation at the Biennale by sanctioning a modest temporary construction in the Giardini for five young Italian artists.) The show's thesis revolved around a non-linear notion of art-historical advancements 'characterized by repetition and syncopation, detours and delays'. The selection of artworks was nuanced, and beautifully installed. Inter-generational dialogue abounded: Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp, Gabriel Orozco and architect Carlo Scarpa, Dan Graham and Carsten Höller, Carol Rama and Ian Kiaer, Fischli & Weiss and Sam Durant. Especially successful in this regard was the near-perfect simplicity of Tacita Dean's subtle, mostly silent, filmic homage to Mario Merz.

Richard Prince's pictures coldly address the myth of the American power and the hollow rhetoric of the solitary cowboy hero.

These conversations across time and space were offset by first showings of long-anticipated projects by a number of artists. These included new paintings by Glenn Brown and Kerry James Marshall, the first post-Cremaster works by Matthew Barney and pieces by Charles Ray and Jennifer Pastor. A handful of lesser-known artists, such as Kevin Hanley, Felix Gmelin and Jonas Dahlberg, held forth alongside the more widely acknowledged Isa Genzken, Rudolf Stingel, Ellen Gallagher, Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst. The effect was balanced and satisfying.

The Biennale was anchored by a complex progression of objects and installations forming the central architectural and intellectual axis of the Italian Pavilion. Tobias Rehberger's installation, a masterful appropriation of the Venetian art of glassmaking, introduced the exhibition with a recognition of place, history and craftsmanship coupled with a charmingly hokey, Internet-based, multi-city conceit about light and global harmony. In the rotunda of the pavilion David Hammons' brilliant sculptural and linguistic coup de grâce involved two Buddha statues 'praying for safety'. A strong video installation by Uruguayan/Swedish artist Juan Pedro Fabra Guemberena made Hammons' abstraction more specifically geopolitical. He presented almost still footage of the non-combative Swedish army, camouflaged by landscape during training exercises. To most, the piece read as a dream of the ideal military: prepared but largely unused. Considered together, Rehberger, Hammons and Fabra Guemberena offered a canny meditation on peace, spirituality and landscape.

Moving into the large, open gallery, all hell broke loose with a seemingly disparate set of counter-positions. For viewers who craved the entertainment-based thrills of mass-produced spectacles Scottish artist Lucy McKenzie dispatched the requisite 'Mmm! Ahh, Ohh!' Her use of a faux Gaelic font, however, reminded us that entertainment venues can be easily wrapped in the cheap signifiers of national identity, packaged in exportable styles and endlessly recycled as cliché. Doing double duty as a work of art and signage, the piece acknowledged and dismissed anyone looking for an easy good time. Underneath McKenzie, Thomas Bayrle and Rivane Neuenschwander also explored notions of the individual in relation to mass culture, turning ideas of political flux into play. Stunningly, Carmit Gil held centre stage with a sculptural rendering of the chassis of a bombed Israeli bus. Finally Cady Noland, one of the most important and now nearly invisible artists of recent decades, was represented with a near-autistic, sadly poetic portrait (now indictment) of American dysfunction -The Big Slide, from 1989, an installation that includes, among other uneasy emblems, the US flag hanging next to a blind man's can and restraining cuffs.

Above the main space, visible through a newly cut opening in the interior architecture, was a selection of Richard Prince's great 'Cowboy' photos. It was, for me, a definitive moment in recent exhibition-making. Like the inclusion of Noland, this was a brave manoeuvre, almost revisionist in its ambition. Prince, no longer circumscribed by the parameters of 1980s Appropriation art, speaks with new clarity and authority. For the first time I understood the obvious: that these pictures coldly address the myth of American power, the hollow rhetoric of the solitary, cowboy hero, the transparent fiction of self-congratulatory self-representation. Encountered in tandem with neighbouring works, Prince's smoking cowboy read as a cipher for the present structure of American leadership and its problematic representations abroad.

From here the exhibition spun off into alleys and culs-de-sac, each space offering its own version of poetry or politics, dreamy fantasy or attempted revolution - a gathering of creative expressions asking to be recognized in the light of Realpolitik exigencies. This was, to be sure, a worthwhile exercise.

James Rondeau is the Curator and Frances and Thomas Dittmer Chair of the Department of Contemporary Art at The Art Institute of Chicago.