BY Andrew Gellatly AND Jörg Heiser in Reviews | 09 SEP 99
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Issue 48

Just Add Water

The 48th Venice Biennale, various venues, Venice, Italy

BY Andrew Gellatly AND Jörg Heiser in Reviews | 09 SEP 99

Andrew Gellatly

As creator of the Aperto back in the mists of Biennale history, Harald Szeemann clearly deserves the right to tinker around with it today: that's the Frankenstein logic underwriting this year's Biennale, a logic that Szeemann backs up with the usual hard-assed cadre of shiny-shoed Biennale officialdom.

In the same week as the Wimbledon first rounds, a lot of art world hepcats were waiting to see Szeemann and his wild, expansionist Aperto get smeared like Martina Hingis - so smeared, in fact, that you would need a squeegee to get their remains off the Giardini. The popular success and generally benign reception of this messy exhibition has caused some puzzlement courtside. Both Szeemann and Hingis are all-court players with a tendency to the deep power baseline game, and both turn out to have a fondness for the loose-lipped remark, but the Swiss man fared better because some things run deeper than a seeding system in the structure of Biennales.

Szeemann has hedged that the problem of the Aperto is the tension between making an inventory of the best global art and providing any sort of useful supplement to the pavilions. His Aperto has a wilfully inclusive and implausibly ambitious feel to it - so ambitious that men with Makitas and table saws were hanging around for days after the opening. It also, of course, reprises large parts of the 1997 Lyon Biennial, but that passed without comment, almost forgiven in advance.

In fact, this year's Aperto - renamed the d'APERTutto, or 'Aperto over all' - broke into new areas of the dockyard, the existence of which many Venetians had only dimly suspected, and this territorial ambition gave agricultural grade space to monster installations such as Jason Rhoades and Paul McCarthy's donut factory, Chen Zhen's drumming room and Thomas Hirschhorn's World-Airport (1999).

The donut plant is part of a larger proposition equating investment in the art business with factory gate donut shipments; a revenge fuck by the art world that the entertainment industry passed over. The work revives Rhoades' Ferrari-as-a-Trojan-horse theme: 'We use the Trojan horse, equipped with the plastic penis to enter the media - it's a simple number - ten goes in, twenty goes out, ten dollars goes into media, ten goes into the plastic penis, ten goes through the Trojan, ten goes through the donut - twenty comes back', drawls McCarthy in an accompanying fund-raising video. He speaks the language of crazed and drooling Internet start-ups. Uma Szeemann, Harald's daughter, got her hands dirty early on mixing flour and olive oil in a cement mixer to the cell-phoned instructions of the artists. Later in the week, though, the testy guards were telling people to get the hell off the Laz-e-boy vinyl sofa while themselves enjoying the posterior comfort provided by that device. Otherwise you could have easily sat around being fed donuts by Uma Szeemann until they carried you off on a stretcher.

With this strip-mining of the entertainment mother lode going on next door to Chen Zhen's Buddhist drums, you got some idea of what was going in the big picture - an unresolved and warmed-over fascination with the East; an appalled admiration for the money-splurging West.

The Aperto had a pinballish configuration: you could zip round, say, a slew of Wang Jin's extraordinary plastic operatic costumes by sashaying through Doug Aitken's syncopated four room video, or bypass Chris Burden's Meccano bridges by swinging through Simone Aaberg Kaern's almost taxonomic chronicle of WWII aviatrices. A lot of this, of course, may have been predetermined: Christian Jankowski called up some of the Veneto's dodgy cable channel tarot card readers to ask, in dodgy Italian, if his artwork would be a success, and then used their spookily accurate responses as the work. After that you saw things a little differently.

Monica Bonvicini looked at the phenomenology of gendered architectural space in a beaten up dry wall room. John Bock pulled off a great performance in a potato-filled crawl space. Pipilotti Rist, who overwhelmed last time around with a car window smashing short that pretty much everyone rated high on their all time best video list, came back with a Blue Velvet/Texas Chainsaw Massacre hybrid of suburban angst and a silvery box in the lacustrine end of the Arsenale that blew big smoke-filled bubbles out of a doorway every four minutes or so.

At the furthest reaches, behind the Georgian exhibition area, was Shirin Neshat's thrilling two-screen video Turbulent (1998). A white-shirted Iranian-Kurdish crooner sings a 13th century poem, and while he puffs up in the applause of his white-shirted all boy audience there's a sort of serious sub-aural jet-engine-type rumbling from the other side of the room, where a woman emerges from the shadows in an empty theatre and begins her own wailing song for women - who are still prohibited from singing in public.

At the Dogana, the Guggenheim's hoped-for site of expansion in Venice, Bill Fontana pulled off an acoustical installation linked to 13 microphones around the city, a work that is genuinely adoring of Venice in a way that Katharina Fritsch's gnarrly and frankly recycled plague rats and James Lee Byars' Spinning Oracle of Delphi (1986), both in the entrance of the Italian pavilion, could only posture about. There were more benevolent ghosts in Venice though. Grandmaster Flash's concert at the Campo Santa Margarita was rained off on the night of the British party, so Grandmaster fans had to be content with his blessing on Renée Cox's and Victor Matthews' distilled and devout installation at the Oratorio San Ludovico.

For all the protests about its skewed Disneyland of national identities, the Giardini felt a lot like an agricultural fair, with different species tethered in every dusty stockade - a sort of high-end DNA parade. Some were tranquillised and fairly mellow, like Roman Signer at the Swiss pavilion, while other prize heifers hyperventilated and looked so distressed it seemed like they might inhale their own vomit, which called for calming noises from the visitors.

The national pavilions are now pretty much divided between those that care at all about challenging the space they're in and those that treat them as annexed commercial gallery space. Ann Veronica Janssens filled the Belgian pavilion with a fog that evoked the apron of a European airport runway but with acoustical recollections of childish play that, when you worked out what was going on, hit you like a mallet blow.

Jason Rhoades and Peter Bonde chucked out any pretence of national identity at the Danish pavilion and crammed the place with Winnebagos full of stuff recalling their track racing event in half-size cars at Willow Springs circuit in California. Involving rather than interactive, the monitors showing slow-mos and driver-cam views felt like pit-lane telemetry equipment jammed into snap-on tool boxes.

Ann Hamilton took charge of the Jeffersonian American pavilion and with $1.5m of Tom Ford's Gucci money tenderly sprinkled a vermilion pigment down the bright white walls into piles at the room's edges. This daily performance needs to be vacuumed away every night by serious industrial contamination removal individuals with respirators, since the slack-jawed interns on site to answer questions would not touch the work with a ten-foot stick. The walls were mounted with a Braille account of transcribed war crimes tribunal hearings, so that if you attempted to read it you got dried, but apparently well-oxygenated, blood on your hands.

Hamilton was not the only one to bite clumsily into the cherry of Kosovo comment, however. The Austrian artists' group WochenKlausur made a piece about the role of language teaching for the refugees, and Irene and Christine Hohenbüchler had what looked like a bijou refugee summerhouse in the back. If you wanted still more Kosovo comment, the end of the Corderie contained Soo-Ja Kim's Bottari truck loaded with clothing bundles facing an overwhelming, worrying mirror; for this Biennale, it was the end of the road.

Jörg Heiser

The art world's relationship to popular culture is as confused as anyone else's: wanting to participate and disengage from it at the same time; feeling on top of it, yet also overrun by it. Harald Szeeman's Aperto highlights the Biennale's capacity for embracing event culture and spectacle, both in the sheer quantity of works on show and the shiploads of material of which some pieces comprise. Maybe all of this makes it easier for video installation to look good again: it allows itself, and the spectator, a space and a pace of their own. At the same time, it opens up a sideline dealing with the realities of the mass media.

But this no longer means playing the pick'n'mix game: a section from this Hollywood flick, a sample of that piece of news-babble, and voilà: a critical comment. As with sampling in music, after generations of technical and aesthetic diversification, it is possible to atomise material - either found or created - into a sort of grain that can be recomposed on a totally different level. And, as the new pieces by Doug Aitken and Eija-Liisa Ahtila show, there's plenty of room to expand on the possibilities of cinema and TV.

With structural recompositions such as his showdown of John Wayne's numerous celluloid deaths (I'd Die for You, 1993), Aitken has already proven that he can take the pick'n'mix game to its limits. He has worked in the mines of pop-media himself, directing music videos (Fatboy Slim's 'Rockafeller Skank' for example). It might lower the thrill of filching from one's own table, but it heightens the awareness of the socio-atmospheric undercurrent of today's popular mediascape. Entering his multi-part video-installation Electric Earth (1999) in the Aperto, confronts you with an ending: the single protagonist (Ali 'Giggi' Johnson) lying on what looks like a hotel bed, the TV remote control in his hand like a cold, dead rat, his stare like that on an inmate of electronic solitary confinement. In a quiet soliloquy, he mutters: 'A lot of times I dance so fast that I become what surrounds me'. It's an end that sparks a new beginning: the groove of projections and fragments of electronic music draw you into the next section, the protagonist having left his room for a walk, mumbling 'That's the only 'now' I get' like a spell against blankness. He passes the airport as the sun comes up, navigates deserted streets, his hands moving nervously as if awakening from a numbed state. Then it's suddenly dark again, the blue hour turned backwards into the night; he walks along closed supermarket frntages with '99 cent' signs, a shop selling sports trophies, encircled by close-ups of surveillence cameras. He lets himself fall to the ground as though hiding, but comes up again into an uneasy electric boogie, miming to himself. His movements tune in, as he promised, to his surroundings. He seems to be able to enliven dead things, make them move by telekinesis - car washes, car windows, a shopping trolley left alone on an empty parking lot against an LA night sky. He makes a choice between a Pepsi and a Coke; he decides on Coke, but his buck makes spastic back-and-forth-movements in the slot, fooling the machine into believing it gets hundreds of dollar notes. Fixed to the camera axis Spike-Lee style, he begins to breathe heavily; the music turns to abstract drum'n'bass, the city lights moving like horizontal lightning.

Johnson is a dystopian alien counterpart to Will Smith in Men In Black (1997), taking alertness and bodily control to a hyperactive electrostasis. Missy Elliot's movements in Hype Williams' videos have a similar scent of constant frenzy between freewheeling and electric entrapment. She may give a coquettish blink of an eye or an interested smile, but don't dare to think it signals submissive seduction. Ultimately, what is projected is an ideal persona of a black woman in charge in every realm: technology, sex, work, money, power, pleasure. The picture of Aitken's protagonist is more torn: the charge has gone awry. Digitised capitalism's promises to sublimate discrimination into upward mobility and to saturate your desires by keeping you alone, remain unfulfilled. The embodiment of this in Johnson and his surroundings of 99-cent commodities, and his will to merge with the processes of automation around him, is inevitably splintered into a multitude of projections that make you feel like you are inside a Van der Graaf generator giving you 100,000 volt goose bumps.

For the spectator, the camera view and edits on a single screen signal two things, often simultaneously: the mastery of the gaze - being able to chop reality into the order you want - and the helpless feeling of having to follow. If multipart video installation fails, it dissolves this order into indifference: as if a director were too hesitant to do the job properly and wanted you to believe his indecision was intellectually or emotionally complex. If it succeeds (as with Aitken), it provides a syncopated rhythm of views that you moonwalk rather than sit through, highlighting the spatial dimension that art has and TV and cinema don't.

Experiencing Eija-Liisa Ahtila's Consolation Service (1999) is less moonwalking than squinting. Its split screen structure is a symbolic representation of the story told: the break up of a young couple who have just had a baby. Yet it doesn't just stand for the theatrical oppositions between good and evil, man and woman, or for simple schizophrenia. Instead, there is a Siamese twin perspective on the central scenario and its peripheral embodiment in glances, chairs and standard lamps - a constant asymmetric rumble mirrored in the relationship between Finnish speech and English subtitles (and literally mirrored in the walls of the smoked glass chamber built into the Nordic Pavilion). 

It's as if a slightly sleepy, pedagogic TV programme on how to split up in a sympathetic way had been hijacked by Godard, who pushed appeasement policy into precipice of a dying love that it can't analyse away. This is present in the deadpan intro during which the narrator, while watching her neighbour walking the dog, explains how the story will be structured into a first section about how to split up, a second in which it happens, and a third about consolation. The couple visits a psychotherapist to help with their divorce, who advises them to express their feelings towards each other without words. Both - in a tragicomic move - regress to barking at each other (humans-as-dogs) is a recurent theme with Ahtila). The ritual is meant to initiate acceptance but brings out contained aggression, which soon collapses into a void.

The same night, it's the husband's birthday party; 'My favourite joke is being told, but my mouth is already a small basin of water', the woman thinks, as the group of people fall through the ice of the frozen river they are attempting to cross. The dialogue - 'can we change the subject' - suggests that this is happening imaginatively, as the party small talk turns to what happens when you fall into freezing water. Yet it is real in the sense that 'each turning way is like a shot of icy sea water down your throat'. Finally, her partner is gone, but returns as a fading apparition of what he meant to her: 'A feeling of pleasure hovers behind me like an enormous black eel, it has my friend's head and it speaks electricity'; his figure in her doorway grows smaller as she approaches him, he splinters into pixels and fades, appearing again to perform the final ritual of a 'consolation service' with her.

This take on early computer animation (found in music videos such as Michael Jackson's 'The Way You Make Me Feel', 1987, for example) seems strangely tacky and misplaced at first, but then becomes kind of touching. You realise the animation had to be tacky to be touching: it's not about elegantly mastering the social gravity of a mass-mediated world, but being forced into preposterous, stereotypical gestures by it. This is something Aitken and Ahtila have in common: rather than just imagining themselves as masters of media-reality, like Napoleon watching the battle from the top of a rubbish-heap, they scuffle with the popular moving image because the people they depict live both according to and against its conventions.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.