‘I think that it would be a challenging development, were an artist to be invited to curate documenta’, Carsten Höller suggested in a conversation with Jens Hoffmann in Stockholm in 2002, shortly after documenta 11 opened in Kassel. His comment came from a growing anxiety, one that would become increasingly justified, that perhaps the advent of social scientists as curators had begun to prioritize content and context over form and that curators were interpreting and presenting art as no more than a graphic representation of history or, worse still, applying art as mere visual illustration for a curator’s social vision. For a brief, frightening moment it appeared that a curatorial movement was emerging, anchored in a fairly unsophisticated understanding of the creative process, which regarded the artist as a political tool rather than an active cultural agent. With that in mind, it is probably safe to say that Robert Storr’s ‘Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense’, the international exhibition of the 52nd Venice Biennale, is perhaps the closest we have come to having a major international biennial curated by an artist.
Although Storr has not exhibited as a painter for many years, he nonetheless maintains a studio practice and, if the 52nd Venice Biennale is anything to go by, obviously approaches his curatorial responsibilities with the sensibilities and sensitivity of an artist, as well as a depth of understanding that could only come from the singular experience of being a creator rather than a mere interpreter or narrator of art. Where others have overreached themselves to present art as social text, Storr reasserts the validity of beauty and the primacy of form and its mastery. His tribute in the old Italian Pavilion to contemporary masters such as Robert Ryman, Ellsworth Kelly and Gerhard Richter may be predictable, disproportionate and possibly the least successful aspect of the exhibition, but this is countered by the presence in the same space of astounding younger talents such as Odili Donald Odita, Kara Walker and Australian video artist Shaun Gladwell whose sparse and hypnotic engagements with urban extreme sports highlight the confluence of beauty, poetry and mastery that produces great art even against the backdrop of deprivation and danger. In the Arsenale, Storr did not quite escape the bane of crowding that the cavernous old depot precipitates, but he did better than most. Notable among several hundred accomplished works are: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s elaborate model city with its accompanying magical descriptions and narratives, worthy of Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino; Paolo Canevari’s unsettling yet mesmerizing video in which a young man beautifully and dextrously dribbles a (rubber) skull against the ruins of Belgrade; El Anatsui’s monumental draperies knit from thousands of crumpled liquor bottle caps; Rainer Ganahl’s discreet photo studies of liberal public intellectuals and their literally captive audiences; and Emily Prince’s portrait map of America’s casualties in the so-called ‘war on terror’. Storr’s exhibition is ably complemented by the new Chinese Pavilion in the Arsenale, where curator Hou Hanru presents a suite of serene yet playful new work from China, and by the equally new African Pavilion, which has been acclaimed for its vivacity.
In the 52nd Venice Biennale Storr re-centres art and the artist as primary, and demonstrates that for the finest contemporary artists practising today the traditional debate over form versus content that has preoccupied certain curators in the past half-decade is irredeemably redundant.