The great thing about the Venice Biennale, especially after the rigorous demands made on the art tourist by documenta (intellectual) and Munster (physical), is that it actually doesn't mean anything. But its lack of significance is accompanied by a kind of carnivalesque attitude, providing the illusion that it does mean something after all by throwing up readily identifiable 'important art' characteristics at every opportunity. These two themes - not-meaning-anything and being in character - seemed to have become self-consciously central to this year's Biennale. National stereotyping degenerated into caricature with Joan Brossa's Spanish pavilion composed of Buñelian sub-Surrealist objects, such as a pair of shoes laced with wool and a glass with a nail driven through it; Rei Naito's Japanese pavilion, so delicate and retiring that it could only bear to be looked at by one person at a time for a maximum of three minutes; and the dullest Swiss pavilion (it's on the tip of my tongue) ever seen in a decade of Biennales. They should have just exhibited the gold.
Rather more forward-looking were the pavilions that worried about what it all meant and, rather than just going through the motions, attempted to repudiate their national identities and present miniature group shows by international artists. The most interesting of these, including Henrik Hakaanson, Mark Dion, Marianna Uutininen, Mariko Mori and Sven Påhlsson, was held at the Nordic pavilion, the identity of which is already defined geographically and culturally rather than politically. There was a lot of film and video work at Venice - Rodney Graham's film about a coconut at the Canadian pavilion, Fabrice Hybert's live TV extravaganza in the French pavilion, Jaki Irvine's multi-part video installation in the Irish pavilion, and Douglas Gordon, Sam Taylor-Wood and Pipilotti Rist in the Aperto that wasn't called Aperto - and both Pahlstrom and Mori exhibited video projections in purpose-built spaces within the Nordic pavilion. Both also worked with particular areas of what was once called 'popular culture', but there the similarities end.
You always knew that Mori was a princess, but in Nirvana (1997), she finally asserted herself and became a goddess. You had to queue (is queuing a Japanese thing this year?) and then don 3D glasses to see Mori atop a lotus blossom in her enhanced volumetric glory; it was almost worth it. Surrounded by computer-generated acolytes in a pastelised, cosmic, desert-of-Tatooine kind of a landscape, she hummed and whispered an amalgamation of what sounded like children's rhymes and old Japanese pop songs through a fuzzy echo chamber. The acolytes spun, little coloured balls rotated, clouds of colour floated by, and then, as Mori drifted away into another dimension, a fan came on and blew cool, scented air into the audience's faces. I had a revelation: the work might be intended to mean something. This presented an insurmountable problem, because everything suggested otherwise. Being completely non-functional is one of the prerogatives of art and allows artists to take on things like the aesthetics and formal languages of advertising or television, or even furniture, and do interesting things with them. But if you adopt them on their own terms, you end up being a very poor TV director or furniture designer. Had the piece been about the look of the kind of Japanese abstract 'theme' advertising, pop-idol videos, or religious cult recruitment animations which seemed to have inspired it so heavily, then it might have succeeded in at least making that language visible. But instead it relapsed into the awkward state of being too unpolished and self-consciously art-like for a full-on escapist fantasy and too enamoured of the subject matter to be taken seriously as anything other than wish-fulfilment - an admission that the artist is jealous of the worlds from which she borrows.
Påhlsson's work, Antebellum America (1996) offered a far less indoctrinatory and narcissistic experience. Within the main room was a miniature, white classical temple, inside which was a bench facing the far wall where the video was projected continuously. This arrangement gave the space a feeling of accessibility and the atmosphere was such that you felt you could come and go as you pleased but still experience something out of the ordinary. Like Mori, Påhlsson also manipulated references to a language and aesthetic familiar from the media. In this case the computer-generated animation adopted a look very close to early Disney cartoons: those of a period when there were a great many highly-skilled matte-painters prepared to lavish time and attention on the static backgrounds of the animations. As a result of the visual richness and stylistic familiarity of the work, Antebellum America succeeded where so many other computer-generated animations have failed through screaming out their parentage too loud. No medium can become invisible, but in this work it felt as if the technology involved in its production was entirely irrelevant and that the imagination of the artist was not subservient to that of the software programming team.
The piece was composed of a series of sections that repeated themselves structurally, though with slightly different viewpoints and details, as the camera performed a series of night-time drive-bys and fly-bys through the disorientating blackness of the bayou and past the great plantation houses of America's pre-Civil War South. The passage along each of the many houses was prefaced by a silent movie-like text panel with the name of the plantation. These were archetypally French or English - Longwood, Mississippi, for example - strongly evoking the South's European colonial origins, as did the buildings' warped classical architecture, mutated through the gradual adaptation both to a new location and from stone to wood.
The transition from each of these sequences of movement - plantation house to bayou - was cut with static camera shots reminiscent of early cinematic experiments. One depicted the course of a single day, compressed into about 30 seconds, during which we saw the sun rise and set over a small wooden cabin in the midst of a forest. The other focused on the passage of a freight train whose sinister closed wooden wagons flashed past endlessly. The feeling of closeness in the video, the sense of time - of whole days - slipping past with nothing changing, and the all-pervading darkness that stifles everything like a fog, created an extreme feeling of claustrophobic oppression. The landscape and climate beat you down: the bad air, the sticky, stultifying heat that you feel more strongly at night than in the day; the distance, the history you can't forget and which ties you for generations to another continent - all these sensations came out from under the skin of the names, the landscape, the houses and the encapsulated cartoon-like surfaces. The sense of captivity - plantation slaves bound to their environment by others, plantation owners bound to theirs through greed, being slowly eaten away (like their houses) by their surroundings - was overpowering without the depiction of a single human figure.
Playing visual references to the darker side of American history (the Disneyesque look) off against the colonial classical European tradition embodied in the names and architecture of the houses, the work succeeded because it never attempted to be directly narrative or in any sense literal. And in that there is a lesson to be learned.
What is most impressive about Gerhard Merz' installation in the German pavilion is the extremity of its dryness. His large white cube may be reminiscent of Yves Klein's Le vide (1958), but it lacks all sense of mystery, instead giving expression to nothing but cold, industrial matter-of-factness. The two rows of neon tubes (700 Lumilux 11's), positioned close to the ceiling, radiate a bright, indifferent light. The space is entirely without shadows.
The aesthetic effect produced is, according to Merz' own calculations, that of disappointment. To say that this artwork is boring may be true, but that misses the point. This room is vacuous but also strangely self-sufficient, so that any addition would seem disturbing. In fact, one's very presence in the space appears superfluous. This is not a welcoming room, but is none the less attractive in its strict economy. After leaving it, you get a keen eye for the complete redundancy of most traces of artistic expression, for instance Katharina Sieverding's large photographs in the same pavilion. I just wish they would go away.
Given the complete lack of intellectual ambition in the organisation of this luxurious but vapid Bienniale, one can approach the pieces only one by one. There are no serious attempts to create dialogue or confrontation between artworks, and perhaps this is the ideal situation for the single piece. Douglas Gordon's 30 Second Text (1996), for instance, is by no means dependent upon the context of a large group show. In fact, the piece works only if it manages to convey a sense of radical isolation.
You enter a pitch dark space, and suddenly the light goes on and a text appears on the wall. You read along: 'In 1905 an experiment was performed in France where a doctor tried to communicate with a condemned man's severed head immediately after the guillotine execution.' After a few more lines the light goes out, as suddenly as it was turned on, and you're again in absolute blackness. Is this what it's like to get your head cut off?
The turn-of-the-century French doctor believed that life would continue in the severed head for about 30 seconds. According to the last line of the text, this is also the approximate time required for reading it, and the work thus invites the viewer to enter the ambivalent zone between life and death. Edgar Allan Poe vividly described this space in 'The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,' where the protagonist, as the result of a medical experiment, is made to utter the following words: 'For God's sake! - quick! - quick! - put me to sleep - or, quick! - waken me! - quick! - I say to you that I am dead!'
Gordon's installation is smart and effective: a little existentialist machine forcing the masses to anticipate the moment of death. But the fact that this modest piece was generally accepted to be one of the best works in the entire Biennale shows how little real competition there was. Of course, in an exhibition of this size there are always things one does not understand. Sometimes works are incomprehensible in an interesting way, like Aernout Mik's installations in the Dutch pavilion. Lick (1996), with its surreal architecture and weird video showing people moving up and down in a pneumatic system while fluids in different colour squirt out of tubes and cover their bodies, will, most likely, never be 'understood', but it certainly stuck in my mind.
Eventually, if you take Gerhard Merz' piece as your standard, very few things will pass. It all appears redundant. That, presumably, is the problem with his work. When I tell German friends that I am a fan, they usually look at me as if I had just uttered some political outrage. Now I understand the dilemma: it creates zero tolerance for anything else.
In 1997, no world war ended. No definable haute cuisine had the bourgeoisie collectively adding new phrases and tastes to their vocabulary. No new movement in art, music or literature was easily discerned. For the thrill seekers who get their kicks riding the crests of never-ending trends the still waters may seem disappointing, but perhaps the currents of taste and style are in dire need of a rest. Without a collective political scenario driving the agenda it can be difficult to sustain a trend; instead, personality rushes in to fill the vacuum.
With that in mind, I am still delighting in the olfactory malfeasance of the Italian Pavilion, one part of Germano Celant's large scale group show, 'Past, Present. Future'. It didn't strike me upon first entering but as it emanated from the centre of the building, it drew its audience like the proverbial flies to shit. Once there one discovered a pile of bones rotting in a dark room where three video projections by Marina Abramovic told of how to produce a rat which would kill other rats in a mad rage. Disturbing as it might seem, the presence of Abramovic performing in a white gown amidst the pile of bones, caterwauling while scrubbing each bone clean before tossing it aside, added an immediacy that only the privileged visitors to the preview openings were able to consume. Later visitors would have to scurry about in the dark, nibbling on the morsels of the feast that the preview guests had already devoured.
Over at the Japanese pavilion, Rei Naito's installation basked in an atmosphere of preciousness which kept many away. The artist presented gender segregation both as an oppressive reality and an indulgent fantasy. Only one person was allowed into the pavilion at a time, which resulted in queues of up to two hours for the infinitely patient artfolk. (Needless to say one of the Biennale's most popular drink-in-hand questions was: 'Do you know anyone who got into the Japanese Pavilion?') Upon entering, visitors were required to remove their shoes and, after another 15 minute wait, there were two options. Males were allowed to stand at the edge of a beige canvas tent and strain to view the miniaturised city Naito had conceived while females were allowed, at least theoretically, to enter. When I viewed apparently someone had knocked something over and no one was being let in. Oh well. I left, wondering what would happen if a hermaphrodite or slyly transgendered individual had appeared. Hmm.
At the Fondazione Bevilacqua-La Masa, five curators were asked to choose one artist each for a show, humbly titled 'Europe'. The work ranged from the serene to the cerebral to Oleg Kulik. Kulik, you may remember, is the first artist since, say, Orlan who has achieved non-art world attention for being the living embodiment of every bad cliché held by the general public about artists. His performance stints around the world as a caged dog in a gallery have brought him due notoriety, and here we are treated to a entire installation built around bestiality. In his room are three video monitors embedded in mock-ups of cows arses. One is supposed to don the headphones and stick one's face into the cow's rear to view a (rather beautifully shot) montage of rolling leas and Kulik getting bestial. There's Kulik fucking a horse! There's Kulik fucking a cow! There's Kulik getting fucked by a dog! All the while we hear the whinnies of a horse in what I assume to be either pain or ecstasy. Pinned on a wall is a sign warning that children are not allowed to enter this room, yet we find ourselves lingering here the longest.
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection has mounted a staid exhibition of Stuart Davis, but while attempting to smoke in the garden I notice a shimmery glass sculpture hanging from a tree. Looking around I noticed these luminous objects placed throughout the garden. Upon closer examination they all turned out to be varied forms of (mostly male) genitalia. Jean-Michel Othoniel, a veteran of the last documenta, has managed to couple the kitschy Venetian tradition of glass-blowing with the tried and true French tradition of erotica. Here amidst a venerated legacy of wealth and opulence, Othoniel's lowbrow is a pleasant if insouciant breather.
'Past, Present, Future' continued at the Corderie, its bombast in fact hiding a gem of a show. Although sure clunkers by big names began and ended the exhibition, the spurious juxtapositions in between actually meant one saw work from familiar artists in a new light. One notable example was Glen Ligon. While he has recently expanded the vocabulary of his work far beyond his early text paintings, here, almost a decade after their introduction, were two new ones. These were larger and bathed in an iridescent blackness that made the literal reading of the text a Sisyphian task that became a meditative exercise. Behind the text is a silk-screen of black hands raised in an Amen salute. If this is the artist patting himself on the back, it is well deserved.
The most amusing comment I heard during the Biennale was, 'I came all the way to Venice to see a video?' But the video was Pipilotti Rist and if you have to go to Venice to see it, so be it. The 35 year-old Swiss luminary projected her master stroke across the corner of a room. On one half of a split screen, a long-stemmed flower in a field swayed back and forth. The phallic nature of the flower was emphasised by the demeanour of the young woman who, on the other side of the screen, carried it playfully, beaming as she skipped down a typical city street to an ethereal nonsense ditty sung with a breathy, devil-may-care attitude. The films initial appearance was that of a fabric softener commercial, but a minute or so in, the woman swung the flower and shattered the window of every car she passed. The male passers-by looked askance and tried to keep out of her way. The female passers-by smiled wistfully, a lady police officer even beaming approvingly. The nonsensical atmosphere of the work denies a straightforward feminist reading. What is more the point here is the role of privacy, the flouting of manners and our difficult relationship with the city. If Rist can explain all of this in a short video, mega-shows such as Venice seem worth the effort.