There is no phony bipartisanship between contemporary art and Italy. In fact, very little art of any value has been produced in Italy since the Renaissance. Then again, not many countries can claim to have single-handedly changed the course of Western Art.
I live in Italy and have daily access to such monuments of culture as l’Accadamia, the Uffizi, the Pinacoteca Brera and the Vatican Museum. Let me tell you, no matter how inspiring the art eventually you get tired of looking at crucified Christs, ascending Virgins, quivering St. Sebastians and suckling bambini. So the opening of the 49th Biennale in Venice comes as a welcome change.
But if there’s one thing worse than contemporary music it’s most contemporary art. Let’s be honest. Art today is all about money and collectors, not vision and transcendence. No crucible and cauldron of the soul stuff these days. The garret dwellers are gone. Talent is irrelevant. The price tag is everything.
This hit me with full force as I approached the Arsenale, where the exhibition of individual artists takes place. The first thing I saw was the Rasselas, a huge private ship with bearded captain and crisp white crew, docked in front of the 49th Biennale “Plateau of Humanity” sign. I guess a huge private ship with bearded captain and crisp white crew is supposed to be the Plateau of Humanity, the ne plus ultra of human achievement. Or perhaps that was just the first installation of the exhibition and I somehow missed out on the joke.
The exhibition itself is divided into two locations: individual artists are displayed in the Arsenale, while the national pavilions are located in the Giardini di Castello, at the Adriatic tip of Venice. Clever seems to be the catchword for this year’s Biennale, with much of the art focused on investigations of the marketing world’s transformation of multifaceted, mysterious Life into consumer “lifestyles.”
First, the artists
As you enter the Arsenale, a former Venetian shipyard-turned-gigantic-gallery, the first thing you see is an enormous sculpture of a squatting young boy in khaki shorts by Australian-born British artist Ron Mueck. It’s like some movie special effect come to three-dimensional life, honey the kids shrunk us. Not exactly Michelangelo’s David, but fun and fascinating nonetheless. The Arsenale space is so cavernous that encountering something of this dimension makes you feel surprisingly comfortable and a casa.
The space is divided into alternating exhibits of sculpture, photography, video and multimedia installations, with British artist Nick Waplington’s paintings acting as Ariadne’s thread leading you through the length of the labyrinth. Waplington’s paintings-as-web-pages are refreshing and wicked to look at, with their comments on current societal obsessions as found on the internet. Given the amount of sheer information on the internet, it’s impossible to verify if Waplington has made these up or if they are conventional copies of existing hypertext. Which I guess is the point.
For example, there’s “pentaloft.com” a painting which offers the experience of “downtown artists bohemian life while retaining the penthouse refinement of the uptown executive.” See, art itself has become just another lifestyle. Or “communist-vacation.com” the “website” for the latest American theme park vacation, “Stanlingrad USA.” Experience 1930’s Stalinist Soviet style living as a vacation. Packages include “the oppressed,” “the oppressor,” and “politburo deluxe (includes dacha).” Work 18 hour days on a collective farm or in a tank factory. I’m sure Disney executives are now fast at work considering the possibilities.
Photography is particularly well-represented at this year’s Biennale. Thomo Manniven’s contrasting photos of various social groups make for an interesting cultural (and lifestyle) contrast. On one wall are photos of group of people from Katmandu, on the other groups from Helsinki. “Association of Wives of Professors,” his photo of a group of bland, bored-looking, cookie-cutter faculty wives, made me remember why I left academia. Sadly, there was no reproduction available in the official exhibit bookshop.
Victor Maruscenko’s black and white photos of Chernobyl show the stark failure of the communist “lifestyle.” The life of the proletariat is shown to be drab, dull, colorless and lifeless-except for the one stark color photo of a bust of Lenin illuminated among the nuclear reactor’s power poles. The irony is not lost. And Arnold Odermatt’s photos of Swiss car and train wrecks brought back unpleasant memories of my own time living in the land of cuckoo clocks and chocolate. The photos of twisted, crushed machinery are not only comments on our overreliance on and worship of what D.H. Lawrence called “the machine gods” but on the soul-crushing force of the Swiss system of conformity and sameness. If you still think Switzerland is a quaint little Alpine paradise, think again.
There are plenty of video installations, thanks to the easy availability of digital video and DVD. Most are truly awful, slow motion, repeating images with bad music and nonsense voice-overs. However, I did like Sally Tykkä’s short film “Lasso,” about the passionate obsession hidden behind the cold white stone wall of a suburban Helsinki house. A young girl, jogging through the neighborhood, discovers a half-louvered window and watches as a teen clad only in jeans jumps through a lasso to swelling Dreamworks-style movie music. She is brought to tears by the boy’s intensity and passion, qualities killed by the suburbs, as we all know thanks to the Pet Shop Boys.
I also liked Portuguese video artist João Onofre’s film “Casting.” A seemingly endless and repeating group of Lisbon teens approach the camera and recite “che io abbia la forza, la convinzione e il corregio” (“I have the strength, the conviction and the courage,” from Rossellini’s “Stromboli)” over and over and over and over. The images are hypnotic, contrasting portraits of individual teen sexuality and mass teen conformity, despite the dialogue snippet from “Stromboli.”
More shocking is Chris Cunningham’s “Flex,” a short film portraying the transcendent violence inherent in sex. Violent, pornographic and disturbing, Cunningham’s film is a complex look at the true war between the sexes hidden behind the birds-singing, sun-shining-through-the-trees romances of Hollywood and the Stepford-like pronouncements of relationship councellors. John Gray should be forced to sit and watch this film until his eyeballs fall out of his head.
There are two mixed installations worth spending time in as well. Sarenco l’Africano’s carved statues, newspapers and license plate frames take a scorchingly funny look at the effects of the migration of European fascism to Africa (not usually a subject for comic treatment). His work is a celebration of love, poetry, music and eros among the ruins, an affirmation of life against the withering death-impulses of genocidal dictators and secret police. Matthieu Laurette’s multi-media “A Money Back Life,” or 100% free shopping, is a hilarious look at our obsession with shopping and the traditional starving artist. The statue of Laurette with full shopping cart is so lifelike you want to ask it questions–and not just “how do I get things for free?”
Overall, I found the exhibition to be a successful questioning and antidote to advertising culture’s shrinking of human life into niche marketing and demographic lifestyles. But the one question I wanted to ask Laurette (and the rest of the artists assembled here): Is it Art?
Next, the countries
A sunny walk through the Giardini brings you to the national pavilions, representing 24 countries and their current states of the arts. Unfortunately, the national pavilions are more like art tourism, or state-sponsored art (the echo of state-sponsored terrorism here is intentional). For example, Belgium’s bleached- out pavilion showcases a group of paintings which are supposed to help us “confront” Belgium’s past of colonial oppression. The whole thing reeks of the therapist’s office or a meeting of the Campus Diversity Committee. Give me “Heart of Darkness” any day.
Most of the paintings are housed in the national pavilions and they demonstrate how far the mighty art of painting has fallen. There’s no force behind these paintings, no relevance, no sense of artistic achievement, a sad caricature or last gasp from the inheritance of inspired Modernism. Many of the paintings have little messages or “themes” scribbled across their two-dimensional surfaces, such as “the failure to express is its expression,” as if admitting their inadequacy for communicating as art. We are a culture of meaningless images and as these paintings show, words become just more meaningless images among the information overload of the Dumbed-Down Age.
Still, there are some interesting pieces to be discovered among the state-selected art. Hungarian Antal Lakner’s “Power Devices” combine workout equipment with real, prolitariat work tools, such as “The Home Transporter,” a stationary wheelbarrow. These are a hilarious look at the culture-bending transformation from Communist to Capitalist lifestyles. Swiss artist Urs Lüthi’s series “Art For A Better Life,” a kind of self-help art installation, is both clever and annoying at the same time, with its easy panaceas and placebos. Poland’s Leon Tarasewicz’s “To Paint” lets you literally walk all over the artist’s work. The floor of the pavilion is the painting. No doubt quite popular with New York media art critics. And the Danish pavilion is loaded with a sense of play. Decorated like a child’s playroom, full of plastic color and children’s games, the message here is “freedom is social.” Maybe in Denmark, but try telling that to the rest of the world.
Robert Gober’s official installation for the United States confirms that the toilet plunger is now the official symbol of the world’s leading producer of cultural shit. This centerpiece sculpture also brings to mind the sodomizing of Abner Louima by the New York City police department; but in a sense we’ve all been sodomized by bad Hollywood movies, bad pop music and genetically-modified, fat-free foods in this time of unrelenting consumption. Thomas Pynchon once wrote that “shit, money and the word” are the Holy Trinity of America and the American pavilion certainly reflects this insight. But Gober’s installation is political art, meaning it isn’t art. But it’s certainly controversial. Patriotic American visitors were visibly upset by the lack of grandeur and one cordueroyed critic dismissed the entire installation with a “well!” and a wave of the hand.
It’s as if the only way to shock any more is to be so shockingly bad, so thoroughly lacking in talent that even the hoi polli recognize it. But that toilet plunger is a clever piece of terracotta.
The Canadian pavilion was my favorite overall. It consists of a miniature movie theater with only 17 seats. You put on headphones and watch a miniaturized, meaningless noir-style black and white film, while the “audience” makes comments all around you, a cellphone rings and your “date” continually worries if she left the oven on. Very funny and very clever. Is it Art?
Reification: capitalism’s power to transform any form of dissent into a marketable product, a lifestyle choice for happy consumers to choose on their way to shopping heaven. Most of the Biennale’s exhibits comment caustically on this power, but so what? Slap a large price tag on a Sarenco l’Africano statue or a Nick Waplington painting, mass produce it as a t-shirt or coffee mug, and it too becomes just another commodity to be marketed in museum souvenir shops. Then again, the art of the Renaissance celebrated the stifling bureaucracy of the Catholic Church and its system of patronage. Still, some of us still long for the romantic image of the rebel artist in splattered overalls and hobnailed boots, paintbrush and model in hand, with his “fuck you” to soul-killing systems of conformity. Then again, that’s just another marketing lifestyle choice, n’cest-ce pas?
The question remains: Is it Art? Will any of the pieces from the 49th Biennale be in museums twenty, fifty or even a hundred years from now? Given the transformation of most museums into museums shops, that question itself will no doubt become irrelevant in a far shorter space of time than twenty years.
Copyright © Bruce Gatenby 2001
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This electronic version of The Plateau of Humanity: Biennale 2001 is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author.
Bruce Gatenby is an expat American writer living in Germany. He holds a
Ph.D. in English from the University of Arizona, which he has tried to
give back on several occasions. He has written three novels, nine
screenplays and is still searching for that big break. He
can be reached at [email protected] and his home page is at http://www.geocities.com/bgatenby/