Death in Veniceby Kim Levin
“A biennale without a polemic? Oh please!” began an article in Corriere della Sera on the eve of the Venice Biennale press preview. Per carita! If only the writer had read Robert Storr’s trenchant catalogue text, which lays out a reality of diverse perspectives, challenges to understanding and experience that, as Storr commented, far “exceed the power of systems, theories, and definitions to contain them.” The 2007 Biennale may not have a polemic, but Storr’s double-barreled show, “Think with the Senses/Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense” certainly has an overarching theme. “Pensa con Sensi/Senta con la Mente,” may sound better in Italian but the title is a smokescreen of sorts, obscuring Storr’s true subject: call it Death in Venice. Or call it, as he did, giving the grim reaper his comic due. So many skulls, tibia, ribcages, soldiers in uniform, mortally wounded dolls, and flocks of birds morphing into missiles or warplanes (the way skulls and bones morphed into picks and shovels during the Black Plague) haven’t been seen together in the art world since, well, the Dark Ages.
Even the phalanx of riot police, shields in hand, waiting at the Giardini gate as the press arrived, fit the theme. Was it a performance or a response to a threatened pavilion, or was it because Bush was in Rome on his way to G8? Perhaps they hoped to repel unauthorized hoards of itinerant journalists. Smack in the middle of the Giar-dini, just opposite the American Pavilion, Storr had planted the Morrinho Project, a huge mountain of cinder-brick favelas, a miniature slum produced by kids who live in the real favelas in Rio, with a terrific video. An inflatable pink pirate bunny in the Grande Canale supplied the incessant sounds of warfare—and it wasn’t even one of the 34 so-called “collateral events,” which included art from a submerged Maori continent, the Most Serene Republics by Edgar Heap of Birds, and the first Roma Pavilion.
Storr’s show may be apocalyptic, as one critic remarked, or it may, as another concluded, be boring. But it is fiercely intelligent and thoroughly compelling, with a relentless dialogue that ricochets among far-flung works. Nancy Spero’s Maypole festooned with hanging heads opened the so-called Italian Pavilion, which had long been the site of the main show and was now the more historical sequel. Sigmar Polke’s grand purplish-gold funereal paintings and Louise Bourgeois’ unassuming grid of 74 cross-hatch drawings, Untitled and Harry Truman, were among the works that brought it to a close. In between, Ryman, Richter, Kelly, and LeWitt parlayed a formal discussion on the meaning of black and white into intimations of good and evil, “haunted by pictorial ghosts.” Kara Walker’s video silhouettes added racial overtones, Odili Donald Oditi’s abstract wall-work (nodding obliquely to LeWitt) added Africanized color, Steve McQueen traced the path of the earth’s most sought after ore, coltane, from Gravesend to the Heart of Darkness in the Congo. Chéri Samba played the role of the Douanier Rousseau (who proclaimed to Picasso that his own art was more truly modern), filling his painted sky with flocks of warplanes and his ground with corpses and skeletons. Emily Jacir focused on one individual, a Palestinian intellectual who translated The Arabian Nights into Italian, and the collateral damage from and to a single life (he helped plan the attack at the 1972 Olympics and was killed by Israeli agents), as did Jenny Holzer, whose handprints and censored autopsy reports came from places like Guantánamo prison. Sophie Calle filmed her mother’s dying breaths. Inexplicably, Raymond Pettibon abandoned his graphic skills to produce a completely mystifying and apparently anti-semitic painted wallwork.
Stencilled across the building’s facade, Lawrence Weiner’s words—“Matter so shaken to its core to lead to a change in inherent form”—resonated through the show, offering a raison d’être for the shift from formalism and minimalism to more recent strategies—“to the extent of bringing about a change in the destiny of the material.” Those words went a long way toward explaining the response of early 21st century art to the bewildering world we find ourselves in. We no longer live in an art-world suffering the long, slow, collapse of euphoric modernism, on theoretical terms. Artists are now responding to a landscape of calamity, failed utopias, and collapsed ideals, a world of disintegrating nation-states, mass migrations, overheating atmospheres, species extinctions, and endless warfare—in a world shaken to its core. Besieged by collateral damage of all sorts, their senses, feelings, and other forms of tactile perception are under assault, not only from entropy, displacements, and weeds in the decaying real world and from their own personal displacements, but also from the virtual realities of flawless cyberspace. To borrow Storr’s words, “to be in these environments is to be put on full alert as a sensate being.”
At the Arsenale, traditionally the site of the newest art, Storr’s theme becomes crystal clear. Positioning Dan Perjovski’s crude wall drawings (another nod to LeWitt?) in entryways to both shows, Storr seems to suggest that he may be our new shortsighted cave painter. Luca Buvoli’s A Very Beautiful Day-After-Tomorrow, traces a spectacular trajectory across time and space, culminating with his hapless post-modern protagonist, Not-a-Superhero, spinning around a pillar while his videos, mixing primitive animation and interviews with Marinetti’s daughters, explore the 20th century embrace of destruction that began when Marinetti flung his Futurist Manifesto into Saint Mark’s Square. The under-known Argentinian artist Leon Ferrari, whose bone sculpture, bulbous mushroom cloud, crucified Jesus on a jet plane, and other works (his own son was among the disappeared) are astonishing and is paired with another under-known artist, Charles Gaines, whose 1997 Airplanecrashclock—an airplane crashing at intervals through a trapdoor in a model of Manhattan—is an uncanny premonition. Add to the mix Gabriel Basilico’s photos of Beirut ruins, Tomer Ganihar’s Hospital Party, and Paolo Canevari’s video of a kid kicking around a skull like a soccer ball in the rubble of the Serbian army headquarters. The battle maps and war coats of Viet vet Kim Jones (formerly the Mudman) have never looked better.
Emily Prince is a discovery. Sprawling across two walls, her 3556 tiny portraits (and her archive) of all the American servicemen and women who died in Iraq are relentless. Nedko Solakov outdoes himself with a wall installation tracing the history of the AK 47 from the USSR to Bulgaria, which continues to manufacture the never-patented machinegun (the US purchased 40,000 for the Iraqi army). Weaving his own anxieties and wry humour—as well as the lactobacillus bacteria and the Cyrillic alphabet—into a handwritten tale of fruitless attempts to talk with Bulgarian officials, he explores the complexities of the arms trade. Jason Rhoades’ posthumous Tijuana Chandelier (51 neon signs strung up from pulleys, with mattresses, chilis, and Mexican street market items) is a festive display of free-trade disparity. Christine Hill’s portable trunk show is a sly evocation of the wartime 1940s.
The sense of fragility and anxiety continues with Rosario Lopez’s pictures of a vast desert Abyss dotted with cubic huts (and one actual one) for fleeing migrants. Guillermo Kuitca has abandoned concert architecture for tondos with diaristic pencilled notes and sketches of bones. El Anatsui weaves a magisterial wall hanging from bottle-caps and whiskey-bottle necks. And just before we turn the corner, Algerian-born Adel Abdessemed’s perfect hoops of razor wire speak eloquently of formal matter shaken to its core. His recurring EXIL exit-signs keep reminding us of the displaced, while Yang Fudong’s multi-part film, Seven Intellectuals in the Bamboo Forest, projected in a series of cubes, provides another sporadic axis connecting the dots.
Polemic or no, Storr makes sure we don’t lose track of what he calls the “tuning forks” in an exhibition brimming with vibrating points of reference. In an interview, he explained the show as having to do with “belonging and dislocation, the fragility of society and culture in the face of conflict, the sustaining qualities of art in the face of death.” According to Storr the Kabakovs’ lost utopia is the end point, relating back to Buvoli’s failed future of bombastic modernity. For me, the Kabakov installation was a schematic anticlimax. Angelo Filomeno’s exquisite silk embroidered skeletons and Yang Zhenzhong’s hundreds of videoed individuals interpreting the words “I will die” were more powerful. So were Ignasi Aballi’s lists: he simply lists the already dead, as if the act of counting all the missing, disappeared, and dead from different causes could supply an antidote to pure horror. Phillipe Parreno does something similar with the act of writing—but his writer is an antique automaton with unseeing eyes.
This leads neatly to the African Pavilion, “Check List Luanda Pop,” and the seventh book of Bili Bijoke’s handwriting project, in which anyone can participate. When I was there, a young Japanese boy was excitedly drawing a slave ship from all four sides of the huge volume, while a girl scrawled “pour la vie” and then fled). “Luanda Pop” is a terrific show, full of life and energy, a breath of life after all the intimations of doom. Besides impressive works by less familiar African artists, it has Kendell Geers’ Postpopfuck and his ultraviolet deadly sins, a tangled thread painting by Ghada Amer, Chris Ofili’s stamp-sized wigged head, Yinka Shonibare’s dueling dandies, Andy Warhol’s sketches of Mohammed Ali and Paul Miller’s (aka DJ Spooky) wall-size visual remix, accompanied by “non-cliche” remixes of African music—including a car horn orchestra, national anthems, and the words of Idi Amin, Nelson Mandela, and Malcolm X.
A biennale wouldn’t be complete without a scandal, and the African Pavilion provided its own petite scandale: the works were all from the collection of Sindika Dokolu, a wealthy Congolese collector from Angola, whose father was involved in the collapse of the Kinshasa bank. And besides, it was curated by a committee, involving none of the famous-in-the-west African-born curators. Dirty money, cried the art-world, ignoring the way the show overturned preconceptions and condescensions with the phenomenon of a genuinely African collection (doesn’t anyone remember Solakov’s installation in Lyon a decade ago, with its tale of an African chieftain in a hut who traded coconuts for Picassos?), and the fact that all money—even Paul Getty’s—was once dirty. “We must not leave it to others to tell us who we are or, particularly, what we will never become,” wrote Dokolu. Oddly enough, there was nary a peep about another superior show in Venice, “Artempo: When Time Becomes Art,” at the Palazzo Fortuny, which mixed contemporary installations with archaeological objects, ivory polyhedra, and nearly 300 other curiosities—mainly from the eclectic collection of Axel Vervoordt, a Belgian art dealer. And there was hardly a word about the mysterious resignation of the Biennale’s managing director, amid the usual accusations, or the near-total absence of Storr from the press material.
Storr’s resonating theme extends, partly by happenstance, to the pavilions. In the Korean Pavilion, Lee Hyungkoo’s The Homo Species (inspired by the artist’s “undersized Asian male complex”) presents the fossil remains of Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry, along with an elaborate lab for a Frankensteinian carapace for himself. David Altmejd in the Canadian Pavilion conjures an amazing house of mirrors for his imploding werewolves, beset by crystals, mushrooms, and hundreds of taxidermied birds. Aernot Mik’s sprawling video installation, Citizens and Subjects, in the Dutch Pavilion, presents staged and real scenarios of police, protesters, and refugees (citizens have rights, subjects don’t). Monica Sosnowska inserts an impressively buckled full scale iron parasite of its own architecture into the Polish Pavilion. As part of the Nordic pavilion, Baghdad-born Finnish artist Adel Abidin’s grotesquely ironic tourist agency is outfitted with posters, travel pamphlets, and Welcome to Baghdad videos. Masao Okabe fills the walls of the Japanese pavilion with 1172 of his 4000 frottages of the atomic-bombed platform of the old Ujina station in Hiroshima, plus a row of A-bombed stones from the station platform.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s unlimited posters and candies in the American Pavilion unexpectedly express the ghost of the American dream of limitless resources, as well as loss to AIDS, while his single bird becomes a foil to all the warplanes. “His is the spirit that presides over this exhibition,” said Storr, whose show and others were studded with homages to the recently dead, and who awarded a lifetime Golden Lion to Malick Sidibe, for his studio portrait series, Africa Sings against AIDS. And just as we were writing off Baselitz, he produced a wonderful six-canvas homage to Emilio Vedova in the Venice Pavilion. In the Russian Pavilion, the seductive three-screen Last Riot by AES+F (the group whose 1996 series of postcards Islamified the Statue of Liberty and other worldwide tourist sites) is part computer-game warfare, part David Chapelle, part Fantasia—a choreographed permanent disaster of alpine, tropical, desertified, volcanic landscapes beset by giant lizards, shooting rockets, and crashing planes—with a recurring Grecian chorus of androgynous youths eternally, and bloodlessly, stabbing each other in looped time and mythic space to the melodramatic movie music of Wagner.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call this Biennale—a somber feast of art with 96 artists and 76 national pavilions—apocalyptic. Apocalypse, after all, requires horsemen, trumpets, and a belief in a happy day-after-tomorrow, at least for some. But Robert Storr’s Biennale is a worthy successor to Okwui Enwezor’s socio-political Documenta 11. It is about the fog of war and the inequities of poverty and migration. It is about chaos and ruins and multiple dangers of extinction. It is about global crises and planetary decay, and the narrowing chances for survival for our own species, as well as others. I loved the way works echoed and amplified—deliberately, accidentally, coincidentally, spontaneously in a complex pattern of correspondences (in which I would include Joseph Kosuth’s neon words on San Servolo and, on San Giorgio Maggiore, Thomas Demand’s recreation of the Nigerian embassy forgery that provided the smoking gun for Iraq). This Biennale is not only about the works of art but about curatorship as an art in which the whole exceeds the sum of its parts and spills into the wider world—beyond politics and geography, beyond sociology and polemics, and beyond control. Perhaps Storr just put his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. It certainly was in the air. But that too is an amazing feat.
As for the zeitgeist, it also reared its head in the unofficial project of two wayward Swedish artists, Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Leif Elggren, who in 1992 invented their own Republic of Elgaland-Vargaland, issued stamps and passports, established embassies, and annexed various no-man’s lands (the DMZ, for example). During the Biennale, they showed up in Venice to annex its isle of the dead, Isola San Michele, a fortress cemetery marked by false entrances and cypress trees, where Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and Ezra Pound, who long resided in Venice, lie. Proclaiming the dead as citizens of their republic, they quipped that if anyone had a complaint they could ask that their citizenship be revoked. Since this was the year that Pound’s reputation was recuperated from its fascist anti-semitic ignomy—Storr’s essay refers to him twice, so do a number of other works—a complaint from his cranky ghost is unlikely.