BY Martin Herbert in Reviews | 10 OCT 03
Featured in
Issue 78

Valencia Biennal 2003

Various Venues

BY Martin Herbert in Reviews | 10 OCT 03

Valencia might fairly be considered a weird venue for a hydra-headed, 150-artist expo, subtitled 'The Ideal City', which purported to examine notions of enlightened urban flexibility in the face of geo-political flux. Spain's third-largest metropolis nurses an undercurrent of bedrock conservatism that was manifested during the opening days of this Second Valencia Biennial in newspaper editorials asking why civic money was being spent on incomprehensible contemporary art, and in protesters whistling an 'anti-biennial anthem'. Yawning gaps in the streets of Valencia's old-town sector - known as solares and a result of heavy bombing during the war and a major flood in 1957 - have not been filled in, despite extensive gentrification elsewhere. Apparently the presence of myriad Roman ruins beneath the city means that developers have to finance archaeological digs before they can put up their penthouses.

The solares, however, turned out to be a gift for Biennial director Luigi Settembrini and his team of curators: outperforming most contemporary art in terms of presence/absence dialectics, they served as backdrops to installations by some 30 international artists. The former interior subdivisions of these annihilated houses, readable via the raw-brick outlines of long-gone floors and patches of tiling, brought Clay Ketter to mind (which made Ketter's own delicate highlighting of brickwork with creamy paint appear somewhat tautological). Some contributions looked faxed in: hung high on a gorgeously scuffed wall, Gilbert & George's photo-grid showing chewing gum on London streets was particularly unsympathetic. But others, such as Richard Nonas' ghostly battalion of salvaged lengths of oak beams, placed in a rubble-strewn void and criss-crossed over each other to suggest mounted cannon, synched productively with the city's history. Polly Apfelbaum, meanwhile, went for straight-ahead beautification, overlaying a graffiti-covered wall with a field of Warholian flowers in luminous paint that glowed happily in the continental night. Such works suggested that the ideal city would foreground a capacity for aesthetic surprise.

Aside from Sebastião Salgado's casually virtuoso parade of monochrome portraits of Valencians in the glossy MUVIM art space, proceedings elsewhere typically drifted into the speculative ether. Will Alsop and Bruce McLean filled the grand Convento del Carmen with The Department of Proper Behaviour (2003) - a fabulously surreal take on the department store. Designed to re-enchant the nullifying experience of shopping, and described as 'a place to furnish dreams', it flaunted such attractions as a hair salon, a cocktail bar, a 'Department of Dance' (with sprung dance-floor and music by Gavin Bryars) and - a politically incorrect bone thrown to confirmed sybarites - a darkened 'Department of Smoking and Film', dotted with low-slung leather armchairs, strafed by video projections and dispensing Chivas Regal and Cuban cigars.

More soberly, the 41-participant show 'microUTOPIAS' (in Reales Atarazanas, a cavernous 14th-century customs depot) showcased scalable models of social change and, inevitably, netted the usual art/architecture suspects: Atelier van Lieshout with a car-cum-chicken run; Lucy Orta displaying grey canvas outfits for symbiotic groups, connected to each other by umbilical lengths of material; Frank Gehry with plans for crumple-effect buildings. But there were also contextually unlikely choices such as Mike Kelley, whose maze of architects' cubicles was covered with plans for destroying a high school and iconographic references to Bob Clark's 1981 film Porky's. Expansions of the theme also incorporated the topography of the mind, particularly in Branson Coates Associates' Ecstacity (2002), a multi-screen video in which young people dazedly describe their excursions into a notional region that has so comprehensively collapsed global travel that the Taj Mahal might be situated in London's East End, itself bleeding into the Meatpacking District, which incorporates Red Square and so on.

This proposal of psychological transformation felt more achievable than many of the social housing projects planned by 13 architects' practices, to transform Valencia in the maquette-and-slideshow extravaganza 'Sociopolis: A Social Project'. Housed in a former monastery, the projects shot over budget in the interests of showiness and novelty and included such mental smoke rings as Toyo Ito's buildings with fabric façades. Given that Valencia has citizens living under newspapers in the solares, the presence of such gesture politicking was awkward (those whistling protesters had a point), as was the theme of 'The Ideal City' in the context of a biennial that is transparently part of a running battle with Madrid and Barcelona for top-Spanish-city status. Whatever Luigi Settembrini's hopes for an endlessly modular and elastic urban habitat, there's a certain irony in the fact that, without the tourist-industry imperative that the ideal 21st-century city must have bars, beaches and a biennial, his forum for such musings would not exist.

Martin Herbert is a critic based in Berlin, Germany.