in Features | 19 SEP 07
Featured in
Issue 109

Venice: The Edge of the World

Robert Storr’s Biennale was characterized by conscientiousness and fairness rather than provocation

in Features | 19 SEP 07

A questionnaire from an eminent art historian doing the rounds at the moment asks why there has been a marked shortage of critical responses from the art world to the catastrophe of the war in Iraq, in contrast to the ways artists mobilized themselves against Vietnam some 40 years ago. He has a point, but his timing is poor; after three years of relative silence critical engagement with Iraq by artists abounds. Two of this year’s major biennials have made the Iraq War the centrepiece of examinations of present-day conflicts in different parts of the world: first, Okwui Enwezor’s Seville Biennial and now, less emphatically, Robert Storr’s Venice. As I write this, the ICA in London has ‘Memorial to the Iraq War’ on view, Mark Wallinger has filled the Duveen Galleries of Tate Britain with State Britain, a life-size replica of Brian Haw’s recently illegalized anti-war protest in Parliament Square, while back in Venice, coinciding with the Biennale, Thomas Demand is showing ‘Yellowcake’, a body of work referencing the US and UK governments’ false assertions that Saddam Hussein was importing uranium from Niger to develop nuclear weapons.

Beginning with the space of the Arsenale, once past Dan Perjovschi’s typically sharp satirical graffiti on the ethical contradictions of art’s global vanity fair (I’m struggling to recall a recent biennial he wasn’t in) and a rather baggy, post-Utopian revisit of Futurism by Luca Buvoli (a curatorial compliment to the host nation), visitors to Storr’s exhibition ‘Think with the Senses – Feel with the Mind; Art in the Present Tense’ find themselves in the linear expanse of the Corderie proper, whence a parade of works concerned with recent wars and state terror unfolds: Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, the Balkans, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Nicaragua. Bullet-etched shells of buildings, fighter jets and AK-47s, memorials to the disappeared, detention camps, portraits of dead American combatants and a skull kicked about like a football line the walls with depressing familiarity. Although 9/11 and Iraq are alluded to by only two artists at this stage of the exhibition, they are inevitably evoked by the representations of other conflicts around them.

Storr’s knowledge of, and engagement with, current affairs and political history are confirmed in his lengthy essay and many entries on artists in the exhibition catalogue (around 40 of the 96 artists’ entries in the catalogue, a task normally farmed out to assistants). All the same, this section of the Biennale had an over-illustrative feel, even though only some of the works were in a documentary idiom: as though conflicts, not art practices, were being collected. With just one, sometimes two artists, dealing with any one situation, the specific causes and consequences of each were subsumed within what became a generalist picture of war whose treatment rarely felt more than thematic. This contrasted with the sure sense one had that a series of arguments was being assembled through the sequence of works in Enwezor’s biennial, whose theoretical horizons were ambitiously developed in the ten interrogative catalogue essays, each by a different writer (there are no essays in Storr’s catalogue apart from his own). In Venice there was little to argue with: the overall effect was not dissimilar to reading the international section of a quality left-of-centre newspaper from beginning to end, and for all the tragedy and brutality on display there was little with which to disagree for anyone with a left-of-centre world-view. It was left to Isa Genzken, whose German Pavilion was simply entitled Oil, to invoke the causal link between rapacious (American) capitalism and the ongoing horror in Iraq.

Storr’s Biennale was characterized by conscientiousness and fairness rather than provocation. Throughout the endeavour there was the sense that Storr had taken his responsibilities seriously, particularly the unspoken rule that biennials today must be globally representative, in the sense of both artists and issues. In case we missed this, each artist’s section in the publication features a small line drawing of the world with a continent picked out in red denoting where that artist was born. As one would expect, there are more red North Americas and Europes than other continents, but South America, Asia and Africa are not far behind. This pursuit of geo-cultural parity was accompanied by the reasonable but over-rehearsed argument that there has long been a plurality of parallel but diverging Modernisms on different continents rather than a single supposedly universal one issuing from Europe and America. It feels strange to be reading this kind of thing at least 15 years on from the institutionalization of post-colonial theory, but this may be relatively new ground for a curator whose reputation to date centres on important monographic exhibitions of canonized figures in American and European art since the 1950s (his only other biennial, Site Santa Fe, in 2004, was dominated by Americans and Europeans). Here the principle that a biennial should be global in scope is argued as though it is a liberalizing innovation; to underscore the point, an unremarkable relief by Yto Barrada of a map of the world acts as the Biennale’s emblem.

Storr seemed more at home in the Italian Pavilion, in which celebrated artists to whom he has long been committed (Bruce Nauman, Elizabeth Murray, Nancy Spero, Gerhard Richter, Robert Ryman, Ellsworth Kelly) were interwoven with less familiar figures to good effect. Spero, Odili Donald Odita and Sigmar Polke made for a dramatic opening sequence of contrasting installations that led one directly to the centre of the pavilion: a maypole of leering death’s heads, a room of wall-to-wall hard-edge abstract murals in hot, earthy colours and hallucinations as thick and dark as oil slicks respectively. The contributions of Steve McQueen, Emily Jacir and Mario Garcia Torres offered varied, experimental takes on narrative, applied to exploitative, post-colonial labour (McQueen’s Gravesend, 2007), political assassination in the Middle East (Jacir’s Material for a Film, 2005–ongoing) and memories of immaterial Conceptual art practices (Garcia Torres’ What Happens in Halifax Stays in Halifax (In 36 Slides), 2004–6); these critical manoeuvres contrasted with the more familiar pleasures to be had from senior painters and 1960s’ stalwarts.

In this, there was a sense of déjà vu in the Italian Pavilion: Maria de Corral’s ‘The Experience of Art’ in 2005 involved an equivalent mix of major museum artists (again, many of them painters) and younger artists often addressing socio-political subjects more explicitly. Add to that Francesco Bonami and Daniel Birnbaum’s section on painting in 2003 and a pattern begins to emerge whereby the Italian Pavilion, presumably because it is a maze of white cubes, acts as a kind of ‘museum of our wishes’ (the title of a 2001 Kaspar König exhibition at the Ludwig Museum), while the theatrical Corderie, considered the rightful venue for art of the present moment, is more global in orientation and tends to have a geopolitical rather than art-historical focus. Considered in isolation, the Corderie of recent biennales resembles younger, medium-sized biennials, such as Seville or Istanbul, while the Italian Pavilion appears more closely related to the Biennale’s own slow evolution, which as Storr reminds us, derives from the Salons of Paris and World Fairs of the 19th century.

Nonetheless, the Corderie looked unusually museum-like this year. The installation was classic modern: there was an even density of work throughout the exhibition, and many more white walls than usual. Storr devoted a black box to each of the five chapters of Yang Fudong’s Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest (2003–7) along the whole length of the first and longer prong of the Corderie’s L-shaped layout (did anyone watch it all, one wonders?). Situated in the middle of each large segment of this stretch of space, the boxes blocked views forward and backwards, effectively turning intervals into rooms. Besides Yang, each space was limited to about four artists, which meant each was given generous room. Symmetry ruled. All this made for an orderly, clear and some would say ‘respectful’ hang, but one that lacked dynamism; the pace rarely changed, and there were few works that shared the same space as us. In this context, Jason Rhoades’ and Franz West’s intrusive, libidinal accumulations provided necessary relief from the presiding impression of flatness.

The exhibition felt flat in other ways. Where there was politics, it took the form of representations; few of the works were doing much politically. Participatory, collaborative, networked and activist approaches were notable for their absence, as were outdoor pieces whose function was specific to their location. This not only made the Biennale somewhat unrepresentative of where certain important developments in art are at, but also meant that the position of the viewer was rarely activated beyond being a subject shown and told things. Although crisis was the subject of many of the works in the Biennale (its subtitle is ‘Art in the Present Tense’), particularly in the first few spaces of the Corderie, conflict and urgency were not embodied in the physical and discursive structure of the exhibition itself.

Storr’s erudition and eloquence occasionally veiled some rather tired notions. The alliterative Baudelaire, Benjamin and Baudrillard are cited with almost metronomic predictability in his accompanying texts. Supposed antinomies – Modernist and non-Western art, thinking and feeling, aura and simulacra, ideas and aesthetics, and so on – are deconstructed again as though for the first time. The Biennale’s title, ‘Think with the Senses – Feel with the Mind’, another dismantling of a supposed binary opposition, was vague and could be applied to any number of group exhibitions. It underscored the sense that the Biennale was about surveying and assessing rather than assuming positions.

The 52nd Venice Biennale was not at all bad; the sum of the parts was really quite good. But taken as a whole, it didn’t move the debate on. Really memorable biennials take risks: they tackle contentious issues, advance provocative ideas, occupy cities in unexpected ways, act as 100-day universities, connect art in new ways to different disciplines and social fields, disperse themselves across several continents; in other words, they experiment with how an exhibition on this scale can inhabit the world. In the process they often overreach, but failure is a necessary component of their ambition. The institution that is Venice, unlike the smaller, younger, more agile biennials, and unlike documenta, with its far larger budget and the autonomy given its directors, seems ill-equipped to experiment with these possibilities.