BY Dan Fox AND Jörg Heiser in Frieze | 09 SEP 01
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Issue 61

Venice in Peril

The 49th Venice Biennale

BY Dan Fox AND Jörg Heiser in Frieze | 09 SEP 01

'We're off to look at some "proper" art in the Accademia ...' I wonder how many times that nervously ironic wisecrack was uttered during the Venice Biennale by art tourists battered by the stifling heat, infernal pavilion queues and Bellini hangovers. In a town where old and new compete for cramped island space, the sheer physicality of both Venice the city and Venice the art jamboree can wear at your soul as much as at the soles of your shoes.

The beautiful time-warped jewel to which the Biennale comes to pay its respects, and in the reflected glory of whose artistic heritage it basks, is a place where waiting and walking control life's rhythms. Its prolonged descent into Davy Jones' Locker seems almost as interminable as hanging around for the stately paced vaporetti. People are always in pursuit of something here - Donald Sutherland seeking his dead daughter in Don't Look Now (1973), von Aschenbach's obsession with the beautiful Tadzio in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (1912), or Ralph Rumney stalking Beat writer Alan Ansen in the 1950s. Maybe it was just sunstroke, but it felt very much like this year's Biennale was all about chasing after or waiting for the spectre of curatorial coherence to appear.

Looking at art in Venice is much like channel-hopping - everything begins to flatten out and merge together. It's an odd way to take in art, so how do you start talking about it? Comprehensive half-sentence summaries of as many artists as you can fit into an essay, or focus on one or two 'key' works? The trouble is, the inherent patchiness of such an event almost pre-empts general critical exigencies, and in the case of this year's Biennale any broad narrative themes to be divined seemed to exist more in Grand High Wizard Harald Szeemann's mind than among the international art villagers.

Szeemann's 'Plateau of Humankind' was mystic pomposity at such high-altitude that the view from the top was somewhat cloudy. Work was huddled beneath an umbrella notion of global inclusiveness that even Benetton might think a bit woolly. Dominated by black-boxed video and 'new media' work, a stroll and then later, a weary limp through the Arsenale was something akin to visiting a lo-fi multiplex cinema, shorn of seats or popcorn. Tripping from one space to another, from Anri Sala's Uomoduomo (2000) to Chris Cunningham's Flex (2000) to Chantal Akerman's Woman Sitting after Killing (2001) to Tracey Rose's presumably unintentionally hilarious Ciao Bella (2000), most works began to coalesce into a kind of generic international style, which even great professional film-makers Abbas Kiarastami and Atom Egoyan (with Julião Sarmento) fell for. It highlighted the sheer poverty of much contemporary video practice, where the inverted white cube of the black box is always austere and bare, as if to equate with integrity - just as slow-motion action, projected large and usually with a whooshing noise soundtrack, is shorthand for 'profundity', or shaky camerawork signals 'raw' expression.

Over in the Giardini, among the national pavilions' patriotic architectural stereotypes, the long tendrils of patient queues evoked a mildly unsettling feeling of visiting an amusement park, where high-tech installation rides provided a brief arcade game buzz of sensory immersion. Gregor Schneider's Totes Haus Ur (Dead House Ur, 2001) in the German pavilion was a mightily impressive architectural undertaking, and a rather seedy subversion of the pavilion's fascist history, but that Buffalo Bill's house in The Silence of the Lambs can become an identifiable architectural style is perhaps a curiosity worth noting. Canadians Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller presented The Paradise Institute (2001), a kind of hypnagogic cinema space with one of those titles that, like The Dream Syndicate or Bureau of Surrealist Research, aimed for a Kafka-esque disjunction of cold officialdom and personal imaginative space. Pierre Huyghe's Les Grandes Ensembles (2001) and Atari Light (1999) were imaginative and funny riffs on communication technology, where visitors could play a giant game of electronic ping-pong on the pavilion ceiling, or become hypnotized by the call-and-response dialogue between lights in two model tower blocks.

Mark Wallinger presented a sustained meditation on belief and its motivations, although his statue of Christ, Ecce Homo (1999), seemed sadly neutered when divorced from its dwarfing Trafalgar Square plinth, and just how many people would connect a sliver British police call box with quantum physics and cult TV is questionable. Robert Gober's offering for the US was refreshingly minimal and enigmatic. By comparison, the glass panels and taut wires installed in the Nordic Pavilion took enigma to rather more hermetic lengths.

Off-site projects - those tucked away in gorgeous palazzos or on neighbouring islands - fared much better away from the herd. Siobhàn Hapaska's oblique tale of a wealthy couple attempting to repair a dysfunctional relationship via an odd ritual, and Marijke van Warmerdam's film loop La Retour du Chapeau (The Return of the Hat, 1998) - a simple conceit in which a Panama hat floats around a deep canyon - were both relievingly open-ended works. Over on the island of Giudecca, Mike Nelson blew away any feelings of art fatigue with The Deliverance and The Patience (2001), an installation that took the tale of a 17th-century utopian pirate colony - Libertatia - as its starting point. Though Nelson's piece - an architectural fantasy of interconnecting rooms, passages and dead ends - shared formal similarities with Schneider's Totes Haus Ur, its quietly menacing theatrics and finely judged touches were as intelligent as anything to be found throughout the Biennale. It's just a shame his title seemed such an apt analogy for the whole experience - all patience, and little deliverance. Anyone for the Accademia?

A thread of terror wormed its way through the Giardini. It wasn't visible but made its presence felt - like a guy lurking behind a tree in a park full of picnickers. The knots in the thread were the German (Gregor Schneider) and Belgian (Luc Tuymans) pavilions.

In the mid-1980s Schneider moved into an abandoned apartment on the grounds of his father's lead foundry in Rheydt, north-east Germany. He started to dissect and then reconstruct it into the labyrinthine house of horror it is today. I have avoided his work in the past - I felt uncomfortable with the way sections of the house were removed and shown like stage sets. His work seemed to reflect the Beuys/Kiefer aesthetic of the leaden and stained, but with the political charge removed and a bit of Bates Motel thrown in.

Another reason was more personal: I was born in Rheydt in 1968, Schneider a year later. Not a big deal really, a biographical coincidence (Joseph Goebbels was born there too ...). But I didn't like to think that I slept in my cradle close to a house where parental mattresses and curtains were stained with repressed fascism, which is what Schneider seems to imply. But then the German pavilion is a temple of Nazi architecture: in 1938 Goebbels himself commissioned a pompous neo-Classical façade to be attached to the front of the body of the pavilion, which was built 20 years previously. Schneider's decision to move the entire Totes Haus Ur (apart from the outer walls and roof) into this shell seemed almost too obvious. But sometimes the all-too-obvious is necessary.

Schneider transformed the entrance into a typical door from a 1950s German family house. I experienced a sense of déjà vu: the brown wood, brass handle and orange glass with diagonal striation were almost identical to the door of my own family's home. If there hadn't been a queue behind me reminding me where I was, I might have poked my head in, cautiously calling out for my parents. Instead, along with the dozen people allowed to enter at one time, I encountered all the elements of petit bourgeois cosiness - the doors, the mattresses, the kitchen tables, the radiators - but they were deprived of all colour, like ghostly outlines of objects built from repression. There were no corpses in sight, but squeezing behind walls or crawling through dead-end tunnels, it was as if you were being forced to look for the heart of darkness - not in a strange land but at home.

On reflection, Schneider's work of the last 16 years was simply a preparation for this piece. In 1993 Hans Haacke broke the travertine floor of the German pavilion into a precarious landscape of mountains and fissures. Schneider's intervention instead laid bare the building's meaning by concealing it: creating a schizophrenic relationship between the public face of fascism and the corresponding psycho-social climate of the private realm. What Schneider's work seemed to have lacked before - an awareness of this very connection - was suddenly provided by the right context. A perfect match, made in hell.

Another all-too-obvious choice, and just as necessary, was Luc Tuymans' series of paintings dealing with Belgium's colonial relationship with the Congo after the Second World War. The Belgian pavilion offered a friendly face: flooded with light, no queues, no claustrophobia, the paintings hung with almost obscene modesty.

About half of the paintings were early works, punctuating a more recent body of work drawn from film stills and photos of Belgium's colonial history. Lungs (1998), for example, is a disorientating set of stereoscopic ribbons in watery turquoise green, applied in airy strokes, encircled by stripes of terracotta and zones of chalky umber - Tuymans' familiar palette of the sun-bleached, third-hand, worn out and used. As the structures rose out of the flatness of the colour, they made you look for what's displayed around them, the network of discomforting pictures that they lock into. Two paintings in the central room were compelling: the image of a potentate in a white fantasy uniform disembarking from an aeroplane, Mwana Kitoko (2000), and a simple, passport-like picture of Lumumba (2000).

A politician who fought for independence and was killed by Congolese rivals, with the tacit approval of Belgium and the US, Lumumba is portrayed as a young intellectual with an almost mocking smile on his lips. While his left eye looks directly ahead, his right seems unfocused, dreamily inward. The contour of his black hair washes out into yellowed white. While his face is alive with subtle expression, that of the potentate is sinking back into the indifference of a brown shadow cast by his peaked cap. With his gleaming white uniform and decorations and his eyes hidden behind sunglasses, his left hand seems to cling to a long, thin sabre as if it was the sole crutch of power. The catalogue tells us that the image derives from a visit of the young King Baudouin I of Belgium to the Congo in 1955, four years before independence. Dwarfed by his uniform, the Congolese dubbed him 'Mwana Kitoko' (beautiful boy), ridiculing his claim to power. The repression of late colonial history resides in the gap between the two portraits, like a faint shadow speckled with the bleached colours of memory.

The way Schneider and Tuymans captured the climate of terror that filled the greater part of the 20th century stood in almost ironic contrast to Harald Szeemann's all-embracing 'Plateau of Humankind', a convolution of hundreds of art works hastily thrown together. Frighteningly, Szeemann has signalled that he's open to offers of curating a third Biennale - politicians have been called 'out of touch' for less. Compared with 'Plateau of Humankind', it almost seemed like the national pavilions had been meta-curated by history itself.

Dan Fox is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) and Limbo (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018). He co-directed the film Other, Like Me (2021).

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