June 2009

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dispatches: Report from Venice
The 53rd Venice Biennale 
by Bill Berkson

Installation shot of an exhibition copy of Bruce Nauman, Vices and Virtues, 1983–88 as installed on the frieze of the U.S. Pavilion. Neon and clear glass tubing mounted on aluminum support grid. Stuart Collection at the University of California , San Diego © 2009 Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo credit: Michele Lamanna, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In the Teatro la Fenice or the Chiostro Verde of San Giorgio one likes everything a little bit more than one might elsewhere. – Igor Stravinsky, in Stravinsky & Craft, Conversations with Stravinsky

From the dais on the grass outside the U.S. Pavilion, at the June 4th press conference for Bruce Nauman’s exhibition, the State Department’s Maura Pally assures the crowd “Secretary Clinton and President Obama are true supporters of the arts,” and when pressed by a reporter on the question of government support for future biennales, “Secretary Clinton believes in this idea of Smart Power.” In place of support, let’s mount a campaign to put Nauman’s neon Vices and Virtues signs around the Capitol dome or Senate chamber much as Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection once held sway before the deliberations of his hometown councils. As it is, V&V ’s appearance along the pediments of the oddly cramped pavilion here puts Smart Power to the test. It is 75 years since the day in June, 1934, when Benito Mussolini, on first meeting Adolf Hitler, walked the Führer through the refurbished Giardini. (My parents, both on Biennale-related business slightly earlier that year, met each other for the first time in the Giardini, too – but that’s another story.)

In a small side room upstairs at Università Ca’ Foscari, two Nauman plaster “Smoke Rings” disks fairly glow in local daylight. Had the plaster surfaces – one greenish, the other dirty white – been repainted? The green one has a verdigris cast that either picks up or matches the intonaco of the far wall. In an exterior court on the ground floor sits a white marble Niobe. I’m told Nauman has visited Venice a few times before; for pleasure, for fun – he likes it. Things go better in Venice. The care and lightness of Nauman’s touch, always evident to those attuned to his insistent candor, finds broader definition here.  Contemplation of a bafflingly hurtful world does no harm itself but stands in brave relief, a beacon in fact -- miss it at your peril. Another aspect of the same thing is how Nauman keeps to such a clear, tidy scale, implicating images and arrangements that almost always feel, even when they are not literally so, precisely life size. And the plain existential horrors they depict are life size, too. “Days/Giorni,” two enfilades of seven wafer-thin, white, square Panphonics speaker panels at the two separate Nauman show places away from the Giardini – names for days, in Italian at Ca’ Foscari, in English at the Università luav  di Venezia at Tolentini – make an efficacy splurge, a lesson in prosody imparted by male and female voices syncopated as to character from automaton to intimate. Pleasure follows from this, at once intense and subtle – the recondite pleasure of authenticity. Nauman will put himself inside a structure or situation as built or imagined as if to ask what might follow from living there full-time. For those who don’t get his veracity, Nauman must ever be a pain. Among my souvenirs, a subhead for Hilton Kramer’s notice of the 1995 MoMA-Walker Art Center retrospective: “Idiotic Curators Present a Contemptible Nauman Show.”

Installation shot of Bruce Nauman, Fifteen Pairs of Hands, 1996. Fifteen white bronze sculptures on painted steel bases. Courtesy the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York © 2009 Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo credit: Michele Lamanna, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.

By Day Three (June 5) Nauman has won the Golden Lion for Best National Pavilion. No contest; surely no runner-up came close, although the Pole Krzysztof Wodiczko, the Spainard Miquel Barceló (sole national entry of large-scale, ambitious painting), the Dutch entry Fiona Tan, and (even if hors de concours at the Quirini Stampalia Foundation) Mona Hatoum all are showing important work.  Spectacles are given in the Russian and Danish/Nordic pavilions, and by the Moscow Poetry Club, if they ever show up. But the best exhibits overall were Nauman’s and the late Robert Rauschenberg’s. Both are sculpture shows, and in Venice, as elsewhere, signs are flickering that sculpture as such counts anew in unexpected ways. (A retroactive exemplar in that much-confused, always confusing category is the – literal – glory of Lygia Pape’s ceiling-to-floor, multi-directional strung-wire piece in the anteroom of the Arsenale; other beauties-in-the-round are by David Hammons, Rachel Khedoori, and Anna Parkina.) Both the Nauman and Rauschenberg shows deliver plenty of verbal eventfulness, as well. Occupying fully half the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Rauschenberg’s “Gluts” (begun in the mid-1980s, with a few completed as late as 1992) are accompanied by titles  – Gooey Duck Summer Glut, Filter Fish Glut, Primary Mobiloid Glut are some – projective of his glee, evident in any case, in making them. First shown as a series in progress, the “Gluts” resurface here after twenty-plus years of ill-considered critical confinement. “They were pooh-poohed then,” the Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong recalls. “Yes, but not by me.”  “You’re lucky,” he says, “not to have been of the generation that had to put Rauschenberg aside.” A sad determination, at best. True, Rauschenberg’s impeccable four-square layout method on occasion spelled entrapment for him (especially in the overextended “Combines” of the 1960s), but not here. Here is what Gregory Corso liked to call “The Beauty Shot,” the goods delivered with refreshment, brio, intently brilliant hands. (A type of vitality notably inherited, among younger artists in Venice, by Rachel Harrison and Michael Day Jackson in particular.)          

installation shot, Tony Conrad's work in the exhibition, Making Worlds, in the Italian Pavillion at the Giardini, and Mona Hatoum, Hot spot III , 2009. Stainless steel, neon tube, 234 x 223 x 223 cm. Photo A. Osio, Courtesy Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venezia


I need another world./ This one’s nearly gone.
– Antony and the Johnsons, “Another World”

Intentionally or not, the big shows in the main official sites assume an art world in its ever timely fashion, now functioning – somewhat contritely, as it were -- as a synecdoche of widespread ruin. The prospects look bleak. So much money has gone missing, and the new/old pieties taught in the schools aren’t working. Noticeably missing in Venice are  big photographs occupying spaces once reserved for big paintings, as well as, by and large, big serious painting itself. Gone, too, or in abeyance are the political-tourism videos and other documentary devices reliably seeing into and into every variety of far-flung human mess. By way of painting, aside from Barceló’s white abstract swathes and hulking gorilla glyphs, notable discoveries include Tony Conrad’s Yellow Movies (an aging-process piece of cheap paint on thin paper) in the Espositioni followed by Martial Raysse’s astonishing allegories, after Balthus and proto-Neo Rauch, and a particularly elegant Mark Bradford, both at the Palazzo Grassi.

There are things the grandiloquence of the pavilions can’t gloss over; in one telling instance, apt décor for a dilapidated palazzo: Teresa Margollese’s canvas draperies soaked in the blood of those who died violent deaths in Mexico. Beyond that, it’s a strange inventory, the overstock of big ideas that don’t mean anything, beginning with Biennale Director Daniel Birnbaum’s Making Worlds, which by default seems to have been jinxed by a lot of architectural models, light fixtures and globes –one  of those made of construction paper and hoola hoops – and  other things redolent of Fifth Grade classroom projects (“This week, children, we are exploring Ecuador”). The only genuine architectural achievement is Tadao Ando’s conversion of the interior of the Punta della Dogana into a contemplative jewel-box setting for much of Francois Pinault’s collection, more of which resides more raucously at the Grassi.

Along the peripheries are theme shows with titles peeled from vintage drugstore paperbacks: The Seductiveness of the Interval, The Fear Society, Unconditional Love, and Russia’s own Victory over the Future. Generally, the pavilions succumbed to a mildness that at first seems to be breathing a sigh after many years of resentful harangues, rage, outrage, and institutionalized “institutional critique” -- or is it all merely symptomatic of fatigue? Mild, but scarcely playful. Captivated, it seems, by the marketplace of ideas, even the gentlest of curators get caught out thinking too hard and looking too little; they judge their selections by ideas without bothering to see if the ideas they find attractive have taken any shapes worth looking at. A lot of festival art leaves just the impression of conspicuous effort, some person or persons having labored long hours to small, if any, effect. Two rooms side by side in the Espositioni showed how things could be otherwise: one, an anthology of monochromes by Pape, Blinky Palermo, Sherrie Levine, and Wolfgang Tillmans, with Philippe Parreno’s film accompaniment to a recording of Edgard Varèse’s one-minute composition Desert at the far end; the other, an exhilarating reprise of the sort of work that made the Gutai group of the 1950s and ’60s so enviable in their taking charge -- not of style, but attitude and possibility, and then again of possibilities that are only urgent.

installation shot, Palazzo Fortuny, First Floor, showing Giulio Paolini, In-fine, 2009 and Thomas Ruff , Sterne, 1989

The animals enjoy structure; we only understand it.
Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought

In its own quiet way, Making Worlds indicates, perhaps with deadly accuracy, an ethos waffling between demolition and total – nay, ultimate – build out. There is nothing quieter, after all, than an array of architectural models in a room. Contemporary existence is seen, at one stage or other, as one enormous, flailing Potsdamer Platz. Coursing through the Arsenale, the Dogana, the Palazzo Fortuny are motifs of architecture “makeshift and imaginary,” city planning, interior design. With such tags in place there trundles along the keyword “infrastructure”made manifest in sufficient lengths of pulled-out rebar, excavated subflooring, not to mention obligatory fuzzy videos of airport and ground traffic systems, to awaken those presumed oblivious to what they’ll never guess is around or under them. There are many corridors. Nauman doesn’t “own” corridors, but it’s hard not to think “nauman.corridor” when you go down one in an art show; even the best shot in Fiona Tan’s Silk Road movie, a rhino squeezing into an alley, brings to mind his customary realization of space as absolutely germane to psyche. Art, we know, can be understood, partially at least, as a species of interior design, décor for city people, what is in the room that is neither the room nor those people.

Margollese’s bloody tarps could fit just as readily in San Giorgio Maggiore’s refectory, the site for which Veronese’s Wedding at Cana was commissioned in 1563, on three walls of which the master showman Peter Greenaway daily projects his film, animating Veronese’s figures, interpolating voiceovers in scruffy Venetian dialect. It was courtly Venice after all that turned faster and more definitively than most of the imperium from plainsong devotion to aggressions of the Marvelous, jamming space with aerial acrobatics and traffic control. Halfway through Greenaway’s film, the clouds break and a grisaille rendition of the picture,  with the giornati by which the artist and his team worked blocked out in white, gets drenched, much like our embankment the night before (or when the full moon brought high water up all across the campos). Nauman’s sign in a window has it almost right. Try it the other way around: The world helps the artist by revealing mystic truths.


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