Categorized | Reviews, Special Reports

Swiss Mix: The 54th Venice Biennial

Christian Boltanski, "Chance", French Pavilion


Every two years during the past decade, I have traveled to the Venice Biennial with the intent of writing something about it, but not right away. My strategy has always been to hang back for a bit and think about the exhibition, giving the bloggers and top-ten list chatterboxes the first words on the subject. Only then do I give my grave and deeply considered pronouncements, which in the case of the current iteration of the event, boil down to this: it is a respectable, predictable and boring affair. This might have to do with the national identity of its artistic director, Bice Curiger, the well-known founding editor of Zurich’s Parkett Magazine, an eminently respected publication that has done much to promote the fortunes of major American and European artists during the past three decades, as well as engender and reflect a significant shift in the priorities of contemporary art patronage. There is a saying that signifies trouble-free operation: “smooth as a Swiss watch,” and this Swiss watch of an art exhibition is as smooth as any cache of investment-grade artificial silk. A banker’s delight, this oddly placid iteration of the Biennial reeks of the turning of the recent respectability of contemporary art into an empty fetish, as befits our moment’s conflation of art fortunes and equity positions. The Biennial also contains a much larger percentage of dead artists than any of its recent predecessors.  

Boltanski: another view of "Chance"
One of these is the 16th century Venetian painter Tintoretto, aka Jacobo Robusti nee Jacopo Comin (1518-1594), whose three large paintings are given pride of place in the main exhibition’s Giardini Pavilion. These have been spirited over from the Academia and the choir of Santa Maria Maggiore, and seem intended to locate Biennial 54 in a specifically Venetian context, or possibly to make everything else in the exhibition seem more adventurous than it actually is (one remembers that in the 2007 iteration of Documenta, reproductions of paintings by Eduard Manet were interspersed throughout the exhibition, creating imaginary linkages between past and present). In another nearby room we can see an octet of paintings from the 1980s by the late Jack Goldstein, who died young a few years ago in particularly sad circumstances. Despite their vintage, these eerie landscape paintings featuring stunning atmospheric lights look surprisingly fresh, his airbrush technique presaging the look of computer-generated virtual reality long before it became a pictorial commonplace. The late Gianni Colombo (1937-1993) is also resurrected with the same piece that earned him the Golden Lion award at the 1968 Biennial: Spazia Elastico. The work is dark room subdivided with cubic grids of multi-colored fluorescent string, creating an illusion of infinite Cartesian space that also anticipated virtual reality illusions by almost two decades. Jeanne Natalie Wintsch (1871-1944), an incarcerated schizophrenic who is now being rehabilitated as a progenitor for feminist art practice; Gandewon (1939-1995); Guy de Cointet (1934-1983); and Sigmar Polke (1941-2010) round out the list of deceased artists whose work is included in the exhibition.
Thomas Hirschhorn, "The Crystal of Resistance, Swiss Pavilion
To be fair, it must be said that a largest share of the 84 artists (and artist groups) included in the two curated portions of Biennale were born in the 1970s, but in an even greater measure of fairness most of the work presented here looks like it was made in the 1970s, and by this I do not mean to refer to any moment of uncanny return, only mere redundancy of an etiquette-bound type.  For example, look at the work of London-based sculptor Rebecca Warren, whose welded steel constructions are so very much in keeping with the school-of-Anthony Caro approach to sculpture that has been such a ubiquitous commonplace in British art for over four decades. Also look at the fluorescent light arrangements by Navid Nuur, and wonder about their relationship to the work of Dan Flavin and Bruce Nauman. The prize for minimization of artistic effort has to go to the suite of small collage works by Cyprien Gaillard, which, in Baldessarian fashion, feature two randomly selected tourist postcards and/or snapshots placed next to each other, connected by the overlay of one of many labels taken from exotic bottles of beer. And, even though Franz West was born in 1947, I still think that it is high time to ask why we keep seeing his stunningly unremarkable polychrome sculpture at this extravaganza every two years.
It is worth noting that Curiger has given her portion of the exhibition the title of ILLUMInations, with the lower case letters referring to the newly problematic status of nation states in these troubled times of stateless populations, free-flowing digital information and over-leveraged electronic fund transfer. A particularly clever example of the address of this topic was Latifa Echakhch’s gauntlet of flagless flagpoles under which all of the exhibition’s visitors had to walk before gaining entrance to the main pavilion. The piece gained a lot of resonance from the way it positioned itself in relation to the nationalist themes that are deeply inscribed in the Biennial’s 108-year history, inaugurated not long before the modern Olympics were initiated in Athens. Echakhch’s piece found some elegant companions in Maurizio Cattelan’s Touristi (original version, 1997—expanded version 2011), that being a gaggle of several thousand stuffed pigeons deployed in the rafters of several buildings, and a trio of sugary video pieces by Pipilotti Rist, which meditate on the fate of Venice sinking into the sea.
Corinne Wasmuht, "ILLUMInations", The Arsenale
Any exhibition as large as the Venice Biennial has got to have some high points, and there were some noteworthy ones here. At first glance, the paintings by Corinne Wasmuht looked a bit too much like Gerhard Richter’s well-known abstractions, but the more attentive second glance was rewarded to find sumptuous surfaces that opened in into vast, magical spatial constructs. Never has there been a greater consensus about the Golden Lion award for artistic excellence. This year, it went to Christian Marclay’s 24 hour mega-montage titled The Clock (2010), a video-film projection that incorporates thousands of short clips taken from the entire history of global cinema, each featuring scenes that include various clocks displaying exact increments of time. These are ordered into a sequence that, minute-by-minute, moves forward at the same speed as a real clock, synchronized to the actual time of day or night at the point of projection. It is a deeply absorbing piece that says much about how full or how empty any given moment of experience might be, and in fact it might be the first and thus far only real masterpiece of 21st century art.
Maurizio Cattelan, "Touristi", 2011, taxidermied pigeons
ILLUMInations featured several hybrids of architecture and sculpture that were called “Para-Pavilions,” imaginative structures inside of which one could find the work of other artists. At the entrance to the Arsenale, Song Dong created a replica of his parents’ century-old home in China, containing a tiny figure by Ryan Gander. Monika Sosnowska fills a large room with a star shaped partition structure that contained several series of black-and-white prints by the South African photographer David Goldblatt, whose affecting chronicle of social and economic change in his home country was fully in keeping with the longstanding social landscape tradition in photography.
In addition to the many artists presenting in Curiger’s two ILLUMInations venues, there were also 76 national pavilions exhibiting various deployments of contemporary art, although many of these were located away from the two main pavilion clusters in the Arsenale and the Giardini. One of these was the Haitian Pavilion, which consisted of a shipping container plopped down near to where a cluster of luxury yachts were moored, inside of which was a small collection of figurative sculptures by several artists that looked like decayed corpses set up for some kind of Voodoo ritual. Another was the stunning work by Michael Parekowhai in the New Zealand pavilion, consisting of three functional grand pianos that had been carefully carved to sport, in one case, traditional Maori decorative forms, and in two more, the addition of large wood bulls perched upon them. Some anonymous grafitti artist played the unauthorized role of gadfly amidst all of this official delivery of national aesthetic cuisines by deploying a stenciled clutch of words that read “Pavilion of Anonymous Stateless Persons” in several highly visible locations, reminding us that owning an official passport is a luxury that is not shared by everyone.
Scenes from the Italian Pavilion
In keeping with the Swiss watch sub-theme of ILLUMInations was Christian Boltanaski’s presentation in the French Pavilion, titled Chance, an elaborate contraption that ran along a strip of image fragments through a series of exchange mechanisms that allowed the viewer to compose them into the image of a face that was projected on the back wall. The inside of the space was a bit noisy, suggesting that the whole interior of the building could be taken as a giant film projector that allowed the viewer to play “director” in the game of forming a composite “character.”  This invocation of “the directorial mode” also infected other pavilions. For example, in the British Pavilion, there as an installation by Mike Nelson that came off as a kind of labyrinth of abandoned stage sets swathed in mood lighting, casting the artist as production designer in an imaginary movie where the viewer can fantasize him/herself as a protagonist. Imaginary production design also keynoted presentations by Sigalit Landau in the Israel pavilion and Adrian Villa Rojas in the Argentina pavilion. Similarly, the United States pavilion’s exhibition of three works by the team of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla titled Gloria also took the viewer to the production design for a movie that should be subtitled “a long way to go for a gag.” Outside of the pavilion, there was a piece by the duo titled Track and Field, featuring a late model British tank turned upside down, upon which was perched an off-brand treadmill on which a runner would periodically jog, thereby activating the clank-and-clatter of the tank’s diesel engine. Inside, there was a functional cash machine that was built into a tall pipe organ that would serenade each user with a tune specially composed for the transaction.  
Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, "Track and Field", U.S. Pavilion
The Swiss watch subtext of the ILLUMInations portion of the Biennial was energetically challenged by Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation in the Swiss Pavilion, that being a sprawling miasma of mannequins wrapped in layers of consumer electronics affixed in cellophane tape, all set amidst stacks of sensationalist magazines. But as excessive and hard to take as Hirschhorn’s installation was, it was dwarfed in terms of sheer bombast when compared to the controversial Italian pavilion, which was a project organized by Vittorio Sgarbi, a critic, curator and political figure well-known in Italy for his extreme anti-contemporary art positions. He has been called “the Glen Beck of the Italian art world,” and he is very good at baiting his opponents, which is one reason why I am reluctant to take the bait represented by his exhibition. Others have done so, leading to fits of shrill hyperbole; for example, Jerry Saltz proclaimed it to be “the ugliest contemporary art show that I have ever seen,” while New York Times art critic Roberta Smith called it “a national scandal.” Smith should spend more time in Italy, which, in the age of Silvio Berlusconi’s bunga-bungafication of that country’s flagging economic fortunes, would vividly reveal to her what the term national scandal really means.  After all, Sgardi’s Italy pavilion is only “art” (so to speak), and although the viewing of it was a torturous and for the most part unredeeming experience, it did make a kind of disturbing point about the state of art in general: that art is no longer art any more, because something else is. As Peter Dobey eloquently put it, "I strongly believe the art world is no longer merely a body that defines art and where it ‘lives’. It has eclipsed art entirely and now IS art."
Mike Nelson, "I, Impostor", British Pavilion

I am not going to name any of the artists in the exhibition, because there were over 100 of them, and they functioned only as makers of components that were re-purposed into a gargantuan mega-assemblage put into motion by Sgarbi in a variety of sly ways. Squarbi organized the exhibition by inviting 150 non-art professionals to submit the names of their favorite artists. This resulted in a kaleidoscopic avalanche of third-rate realist paintings heaped upon a pile of fourth-rate figurative expressionism, all of which were carelessly stacked in a seemingly haphazard way. The effect was one of an 8.5 magnitude earthquake hitting a fourth-tier art fair, flavored with at least three garish knock-offs of Mantegna’s Dead Christ.  It is almost as if the exhibition was formulated as a giant conflation of the Italian words mostra (i.e. exhibition) and mostro (i.e. monster), which may in fact have been part of the project’s guiding principle.
Hanging from the ceiling was a neon sign that spelled out the exhibition’s title, Arte no is Cosa Nostra, which literally translates as “art is not our thing.” Of course, Cosa Nostra is also the Italian name for the Sicilian mafia, so another pun comes into play, one that seems rather risky in the context of the current state of Berlusconi’s Italy, which is celebrating the 150-year anniversary of Italian unification with government-enforced austerity programs following a sharp downgrade of its credit status. Indeed, in this context, we are not only left to wonder to what extent Sgarbi is referring to the mafia, but also who, in fact, is signified by the use of the term “our.” A partial answer can be found in a dark wooden bridge that rises above part of the exhibition, where viewers are invited to enter an elevated passageway that exhibits a series of newspaper front pages, some of which date back to the turn of the 20th century. These all tell stories about mafia atrocities and failed efforts at prosecution, forming a sad and frightening chronicle that contradicts the misguided romanticism of the way that the Mafia is portrayed in the American mass media. 
Jack Goldstein @ Central Pavilion
Large exhibitions like the Venice Biennial are rather like the proverbial elephant to which blindfolded critics are asked to append partial reports, and these pachyderms always come well equipped with hitching posts that can accommodate a wide array of diverse hobbyhorses. That is part of their newsworthiness, if not their “charm,” but such shows are particularly useful for stepping back and seeing the trajectory of contemporary art in a larger context—if we can peek beyond our self-imposed blindfolds. You would be right in thinking that I was as unimpressed with Curiger’s ILLUMInations almost as much as I was with Sgarbi pseudo-populist foray into the dark side of curatorial license. That said, I do think that the esthetic friction that emerged between these competing mega-exhibitions generated some noteworthy sparks. It is almost as if the viewer was being asked to choose between the celebration of “creativity” at the expense of art — or, the celebration of art conceived at the expense of creativity. This, of course, is a bad pair of options that no sane person would weigh.  But sanity is not the issue at the Venice Biennial, or in contemporary life in general. Something else is afoot here, and I think it has to do with the changing dynamics of art patronage at a time when the presumed need for any form of “official culture” seems to be disappearing from the historical horizon. Now, in our new age of mega banks and hedge-fund economics, it’s all about equity positions operating amid perpetually fluctuating value/worth scenarios, and this explains a lot about why contemporary art looks the way that it does: overblown, smug and all-too-willing to trivialize the human subject in the name of what could be called “importance effects” built on empty ideas that only mask real issues. On the losing end of this equation is the idea that “art, as a means of knowing the world and, in a certain sense, also a prefiguration of many different possible worlds,” and here, I am quoting from Squarbi’s catalog text, suggesting the possibility that he may be up to something subversive in relation to the art world’s business-as-usual.
Latifa Echakhch: “Fantasia” , 2011, fiberglass flag poles, max. height 10 m

For his own part, Saltz blames art schools (in part) for the fact that today’s art looks mannered and super-attenuated: “Art schools,” he recently wrote in New York magazine, “are partly the villain here. (Never mind that I teach in them.) This generation of artists is the first to have been so widely credentialed, and its young members so fetishize the work beloved by their teachers that their work ceases to talk about anything else. Instead of enlarging our view of being human, it contains safe rehashing of received ideas about received ideas. This is a melancholy romance with artistic ruins, homesickness for a bygone era. This yearning may be earnest, but it stunts their work, and by turn the broader culture.”
Gianni Colombo, "Spazia Elastico"
But this piece of critical boilerplate taken from Dave Hickey’s mid-1990s playbook only scratches the surface of explaining the difficult situation that today’s art finds itself in. Sure, art schools may be cynical engines of undeserved self-esteem, but they are only reflections of something much larger than themselves, something that is diffuse and omnipresent, but very real. Allow me to try to explain. After the collapse of the era of aristocratic art patronage, people began collecting art rather than commissioning it. These collectors started as accumulators, buying whatever suited the fancy of their fetishes, in the ostentatious manner made famous by William Randolph Hearst. But at some time near the turn of the 19th century, the accumulation of art started to give way to the more disciplined collecting of it, the difference being that the latter practice was based on some systematic knowledge of what was, art historically speaking, more or less important to a real or imagined consensus that was always in a state of revision and dispute.
As the disputes became more pronounced than the consensus during the 1970s, one would assume that collectors would have more, and by some light, too many options that would lead them back in the direction of accumulation. But something else came into play at that time, namely corporate art collecting, which not only enhanced the images of corporations, but also their long term balance sheets, because they could avoid taxes by donating the works held in their collections to museums at strategic junctures, creating a self-sustaining economy for art “as a hedge against taxation” as well as jobs for museum curators.  I call this circumstance “hedge fund collecting,” and I note that it is very different from other kinds of art patronage, because the system that authorizes its valuation of works of art has little to do with what was once thought to be historically or esthetically important.  Now value is governed only by the fluctuating perceptions of a work of art’s potential to be “museum quality” – something that is more and more defined by what art money wants it to be.  Needless to say, there are more and more museums engaging in this brave new Ponzi dance, but it is worth noting that prominent individual collectors are playing this game as much as are their corporate equivalents.
Michael Parekowhai, "Chapman’s Homer", 2011, bronze, stainless steel
All of this is an example of meta-capitalism in action, the definition of which is that it translates the economic activity away from the mere exchange of goods and services and toward abstract positions of “advantage” operating amid fluctuating equity streams. My Marxist friends see this phenomenon as an example of the withering away of the state, but what it is withering into bears no resemblance to any social utopia, only a banking system that seeks to make individuals, governments and everything else a “slave to debt.” Thus, when we look at ILLUMinations or Sgarbi’s Italian pavilion, we see, on one hand, the initial public offering of a new model portfolio set up as a likely candidate for the status of future museum bullion, or on the other, a shrill and gratuitous theatrical reaction to the wicked tilt of today’s new art game. 
Oh and one other thing: The major corporate sponsor for the 54th Venice Biennial is Swatch. I think that’s pretty funny.
Venice Biennial through November 27, 2011.
About the Author
Mark Van Proyen is Chair of the Painting Department of the San Francisco Art Institute. He is a corresponding editor for Art in America, and his critical writings have appeared in many publications, including Art Criticism, Artweek and Art Issues. He is currently working on a novel titled Theda’s Island, the story of which is set in the art world.

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6 Responses to “Swiss Mix: The 54th Venice Biennial”

  1. Kimia Kline says:

    Bloody brilliant breakdown, as usual, sir Mark. Your jab at Smith made me laugh out loud.

  2. jimi Gleason says:

    So true. Well done Mark.

  3. Zach Mitlas says:

    Sounds like the mostra/o found its match at home on the Italian pavilion. Thanks for the insightful essay. Didn’t know monsters wore Swatch these days…

  4. Paul Kaczorowski says:

    Hi Mark,

    It is so cool that you’re the chair of painting at SFAI now!


  5. doug biggert says:

    art is making me tired. enjoyed the review and was happy that i did not have to go. art makes me tired, except every so often it makes me so excited. guess i can’t just give it up.

  6. DeWitt Cheng says:

    Great piece, MVP. Thanks for your due diligence in saving the rest of us the nuisance of going to Venezia. Is postmodernism/pluralism merely global capitalism with a hominid face? Se non e vero, e ben trovato,


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